Friday, March 30, 2007

Circle pictures


Hilary Irons, Yarn Tondo, 2007, Oil, acrylic, yarn and glue on canvas, 12 inches diameter

A careful chalkboard drawing of a different sort of spherical unitary dual can be found at What is a representation?.

Last week's Economist tells of a recent breakthrough in the science of surface and symmetry, the mapping of the mathematical object known as E8, a mathematical object that is symmetrical on 248 axes. It is crudely pictured below in two dimensions.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Different trains

Everyone who has seen the Martín Ramírez retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum has something to say about the trains. We’ll look at some trains, and then consider a few remarks critics have made. The critics share a commitment to viewing Ramírez as an artist, full stop, rather than as an “outsider artist”—“self-taught artist” is this season’s preferred clumsy euphemism—and their progressive spirit leads them to neglect the interpretive relevance of Ramírez’s schizophrenia. I think that magical thinking, metaphysical hypotheses, and non-typical beliefs about the nature and cause of mental events might matter in understanding his work. But the best way to honor Ramírez as an artist is to look at his drawings; the psychological themes I’m interested in are, I think, right there. To the trains!




man at desk

Víctor M. Espinosa and Kristin E. Espinosa suggest a biographical reading:
Trains, of course, had an important place in Ramírez’s life as an immigrant. He was born in 1895, just eight years after Los Altos de Jalisco was connected to California by railway. As many Mexican immigrants did at that time, he traveled north to the border by train, crossed into the United States at El Paso, Texas, and then traveled to contracting centers in San Antonio. There, like thousands before and after him, he could board other trains headed for California, Kansas, and Illinois. In northern California, Ramírez worked at mines and in the railroad industry; the railroad tracks were never far away.
Victor Zamudio-Taylor proposes a cultural-historical reading:
[…]the “fire horse”—as trains were called by Native Americans and peasants in Mexico—broke down premodern economic, social, and cultural constructs, leaving people with premodern backgrounds and traditions at odds with a changing universe, if not in a cultural limbo or Nepantla—the cultural in-between state of a person trapped in a new world that is both incomprehensible and frightening but also at least partly desirable. This may explain Martín Ramírez’s obsession with trains and tunnels, which he represents in closed, hermetic, dense, and engulfing settings.
There’s Sanford Schwartz’s sociological reading:
There are roadways, tunnels, and cars of every vintage, yet the roadways are so many detoured paths or dead ends, and Ramírez’s subject might be urban confusion in itself.
And Daniel Baumann’s formalist reading:
Where does this train go to? To Drawing City.
Let’s consider a couple remarks in greater depth:

Roberta Smith:
Rhythmic surfaces, plunging spaces and various modes of transportation (boats also shunt out of the tunnels, turning the roadways into canals) make visual the themes of distance and separation, isolation and longing.
transportation: The trains in these drawings don’t seem to be transporting anything—they are opaque and unpeopled, and there’s no indication that they might stop for us or Ramírez or anyone. They are not depicted as instrumental or tool-like or technological. They are not in the service of agents—they are agents. They run themselves in a world that is built for them, not us.

distance and separation: Whatever the geography (or geology) of the trains’ world might be, it is unknown to us. It may be true that Ramírez took a train from Mexico to California and never went back, but the trains in his drawings are shown without visible endpoints. The relevant termini are not home/away or past/present. The fundamental disjunct is between the world we see and whatever is on the other side.

isolation and longing: Ramirez’s work strikes me as affectless and objective; we do not long to be where the train is going. Our alienation from its world is constitutional, metaphysically necessary, and not really the sort of thing you can feel nostalgia or loss about. Horror and awe, maybe. Curiosity.

Brooke Davis Anderson:
Only the well-known photographer O. Winston Link obsessed as much as Ramírez over steam-engine trains; both artists seem to have been enthralled by the industrial genius and prowess trains embody.
the industrial genius and prowess trains embody: I agree, if what Anderson means is that the train itself is a sort of genius. It knows the interior of spaces we can see only occasional outer contours of. Moreover, it knows more than art does—it trundles off into the other side of abstract drawing space, into wherever art comes from. Or maybe the genius and prowess of the train is in this, that it constructs the world it drives around in, that the mental space that seems to be our own—the surface world of the drawnings—is neither private nor individual, but the product of a sublime agency whose workings are mostly well concealed and rarely glimpsed by neurotypical minds.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Campo Formio

Camp Studio, another vision-scaffold built vision-first, is now on line here. Judging from its two posts, it is a music-idea blog whose waves wave way out before echoing back to tell you the depth of the place.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Look out

Imagine you are building the perfect lookout tower, a structure that will allow the best views of objects both up close and far away. All your effort goes into perfecting the view from inside the tower—it is as though you were building it from the inside. How the tower might appear to anyone not looking out of it has no influence on your work; the external structure follows entirely from the view outward.

This thought experiment occurred to me while I was looking for a way to make aesthetic sense of a sculpture at the Yale Art Gallery, an earthenware replica of a three-story temple whose manifest sensible form’s insistence on squares I found horrifying and inhuman. Perhaps it is uncharitable for interpretation of an artwork to begin by rejecting what it looks like (though such a strategy might be less crude than starting from the assumption that the work must have looked good to whoever made it). But imagine my hypothesis were true—if the form of the temple were nothing but the outer shape supporting an act of vision, and only accidentally a visible thing itself, what, then, would it mean for some second artist to exalt that form by making an earthenware sculpture of it? Locating the power of the thing in its inessential features can be gross idolatry, or it can be indirect, hermetic praise of a vision-moment that the artist recognizes cannot be made visible—if there can be no adequate representation of the thing, perhaps there is no better tribute than to name it falsely.

Monday, March 19, 2007

We are minerals


Like the Blue Marble photograph, Chris Burden’s Medusa’s Head offers us a view on our planetary home. It is tempting to regard the view as a scary one: if you could see the total effect of the industrial activity that sustains our present form of life, this is how it would look—ugly, Dickensian, not so green. True, maybe, but banal if you make a sculpture to say it. But we can insist on the ecological character of Burden’s vision while charitably rejecting the reading on which it is a facile work of cynicism. The clue is in the original Medusa myth: if you look directly at Medusa’s head, you will be turned to stone. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, writing about the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadksy, can help us articulate our alternate ecological reading of Burden's sculpture:
Vernadsky portrayed living matter as a geological force—indeed, the greatest of all geological forces. Life moves and transforms matter across oceans and continents. Life, as flying phosphorous-rich gulls, racing schools of mackerel, and sediment-churning polychaete worms, moves and chemically transforms the planet’s surface. […] the material of Earth’s crust has been packaged into myriad moving beings whose reproduction and growth break down matter on a global scale. People, for example, redistribute and concentrate oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, phosphorous, and other elements of Earth’s crust into two-legged, upright forms that have an amazing propensity to wander across, dig into, and in countless other ways alter Earth’s surface. We are walking, talking minerals. (What is Life? page 49)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Squirrel life

You can imagine reincarnation in different ways. On one picture, your stint as whatever new creature begins at the beginning of its life cycle—you wink in, gestate, get born, etc. On another picture, you might turn up in some creature’s body already in the middle of things, suddenly aware of the scene around you, your claws gripping the branch as you look down at the ground, with a vivid perception of danger but no memory of any previous moment. It is easy to imagine that squirrels experience themselves this way. Each moment is a startling discontinuity, every change in the environment the destruction of wherever one just was, a fresh horror that reinvents one’s body as an anxious object in the wrong place.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Moonlight over Mars

Sitting in the movie theater before it got dark, I believed I heard the words moonlight over Mars floating from the speakers, a short-lived but magical mistake. Jazz standards deserve unusual celestial visions, complacency-destroying earthrises of perspective where you appear to yourself from someplace you are not, negations that give you back the world. I mean, you can’t really improve on “Moonlight in Vermont,” but it is worthwhile to project a little mental movie of Martian night while the melody resolves.

How perfect, then, that my friends’ new band should be called Suicide on Mars. You might think it’s easy to think of band names, but it’s hard, and this is a good one. It follows more or less logically from the idea life on Mars. It would be perfect for a tee-shirt you’d see at Hot Topic: it is a disaster/location name like “Panic at the Disco” or “The Arcade Fire,” and the Martian scene lends itself to illustration in red, white, and black, the nihilistic tricolor beloved by anarchism, fascism, and contemporary rock music. It names the weird space between mismatched power chords in Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. It refers to the most realistic suggestion for putting an astronaut on Mars: a one-way mission.

Carl Sagan worked on several Mars exploration projects, and he is said to have said, “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you.” I hope to be there Friday night when the band plays at the Bookmill in Montague, MA.

P.S. Cancelled due to SNOW!

viking model