Category Archives: Art


A couple events dominate the Portland arts and music scene in September.  This year the TBA Festival is getting a Labor Day Start, and has various events and gallery shows scheduled for Sept 3-13.  TBA = Time Based Art, which seems to mean art that is not static, like a painting or sculpture, but instead performances, videos, dance, etc.  I hope to make it to a few things this time around (there’s a little book they publish with all the events, it’s a little overwhelming!).

Then from Sept 16-20 is the Music Fest North West (MFNW), with rock shows at many venues around town.  Last year I caught a bunch of fun shows, and I need to look over the schedule this year.

PDX Zinefest, 25-July-2009

On Saturday I paid a visit to the PDX Zinefest that was held over the weekend over at PSU.  The Smith Ballroom was filled with tables of zinesters with their offerings – an overwhelming array of publications!  Zines these days cover just about anything – some are like mini-comics, some offer short stories and prose, some have practical information, some have artsy graphics, and some combine all of the above.  The Multnomah County Library has quite a big collection of zines, so they were there as well, and they took the Polaroid above of me with the big library card.

At the festival, I also had a chance to meet Kate Bingaman-Burt, whose work I’ve followed for a few years now.  She does work that deals with consumerism at a personal level.  She started by making drawings of her credit card bills (when she found herself getting deep into debt), and then shifted to doing a series of daily drawings called ‘What did you buy today?’.  Kate now lives in Portland, and teaches at PSU, while increasingly showing her work in galleries.

Earlier in the day I stopped in at Reading Frenzy, where they are offering lots of Kate’s work, including most of the daily purchase drawings.  I bought one of the very first ones, from February 7, 2006, a drawing of a box of banana cream pudding, shown above.  She was nice enough to give me a copy of the zine that contains that drawing, shown below.

Spaced Out – Alistair Gordon (2008)

I recommend taking a peek at the book Spaced Out” by Alastair Gordon (fun site, although as with many things ‘sixties’ not exactly ‘safe for work’), which is a look at the “crash pads, hippie communes, infinity machines, and other radical environments of the psychedelic sixties”.  It’s an expensive ‘art’ book, gorgeously illustrated with hundreds of period photos.  I find it kind of inspiring to see all the wild creations that were essentially built by ‘amateurs’ – there is minimal text, and what’s there just kind of touches the highlights.  Gordon traces a sort of rise and fall of interest in building geodesic domes that happened over the course of a few years in the late sixties, then a move into more free-form structures.

Here’s what Adam Begley had to say about the book and its author in the New York Observer:  “Mr. Gordon is a wonderful writer, graceful, energetic, knowledgeable, and he brings to his exploration of Aquarian living a sympathetic heart and a coolly appraising head. He began his book, he writes, “in response to the culture of control that arose after September 11, 2001. It seemed like the right time to invoke a period of free-spirited, all-out independence.”

What is Seeing All About?

I’ve recently finished two books written by Lawrence Weschler, both consisting of reports on his conversations with a particular artist over multiple decades, and I thought both were excellent.  The first is an ‘expanded edition’ of “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” on Robert Irwin from California (first edition in 1982), and the second is “True to Life” on David Hockney (a Brit, but long associated with southern California).  Above is Hockney’s “A Bigger Grand Canyon” painting.  Both artists became obsessed in different ways with the act of perception, and in particular vision.

Irwin was raised in Los Angeles, and started off as a painter in the late fifties.  His work tended in more and more minimal directions, such that by the late sixties he had pretty much stopped painting altogether.  He moved in the direction of art installations, typically not making any decision about what he would do at a site until he got there and studied the location.  Here’s what he said about the viewpoint he was rejecting: “The art world is highly invested in the idea that you can take an object and set it in a room, and the internal relationships will be so strong and so meaningful that all the kinds of change that take place on the object as a result of its being in a new environment will not critically affect our perception of the object.” (p. 151)  Instead, Irwin was interested in highlighting the most subtle variations in light and space perceptions.  The piece above is from 1969, and uses plastic discs and lights to create visual patterns.

The piece above, while much more recent, illustrates something of what Irwin is up to.  While in some sense nothing could be simpler than the three panels, one blue, one yellow and one red, with one set on the floor and one set hanging from the ceiling.  But is that what we’re truly seeing?  Look at the red panel on the floor – after the initial edge, most of it is not really red.  Nor is the ceiling panel above it.

Irwin spent much time pondering philosophy and perception, and at some points he resisted having any photographic documentation of his work (because he felt it turned the work into an object, and lost most of the qualities of the particular installation in space and time).  Here’s another quote from Irwin, on his distinction between reason and logic:

Scientists tend to operate through a logical process in the material world.  In science it seems necessary that your facts be concrete, repeatable, and predictable, which means there has to be an existing reliable form of reality.  And the only reliable forms of measure, as far as science is concerned, are pure abstractions, that is, abstract systems which can be overlaid onto the world of experience….   Reasoning appears to be more confused, more haphazard, partly because of the scale of what it tries to deal with.  The logical, in a sense, seems more successful because it cuts the scale down.  In fact, that’s what makes it logical: it takes a very concise cut in the world and simply defines or refines by deduction the properties of that cut, but it never deals with the overall complexities of the situation.  It only applies with the confines within which it operates, so it seems much clearer.  The artist, however, as a reasoning being, deals with the overall complexity of which all the logical subsystems are merely segments, and he deals with them through the intuitive side of his human potential – and here inconsistencies are as meaningful as consistencies.

Weschler got involved with Hockney after the first appearance of his Irwin book, as Hockney read it and felt that he disagreed with Irwin’s view of the world, yet couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It was around that time that Hockney began making photographic collages, first with Polaroids in square grids, then with photos that did not follow a grid pattern.  Below is an example, taken during a Scrabble game.

Here he was examining the act of seeing that takes place over time, with different views and viewpoints.  Hockney sees the cubist movement of the early 20th century as a very important visual revolution that in some ways was a reaction against photography.  He says “Juan Gris said that cubism wasn’t a style, it’s a way of life, and I subscribe to that.” Here’s Hockney on perspective:

… the major problem with traditional perspective, as it was developed in fifteenth century European painting and persists to this day in the approach of most standard photography, is that it stops time.  For perspective to be fixed, time has stopped and hence space has become frozen, petrified. Perspective takes away the body of  the viewer.  You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there, really.  This is the problem.  Photography hankers after the condition of the neutral observer.  But there can be no such thing as a neutral observer.  For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody, and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of that looking.  In that sense it must deeply involve an observer whose body somehow has to be brought back in.

In the nineties, Hockney got very involved with research on European painting, and in particular proposed that many painters of the fifteenth-century and for years afterwards were using mirrors and lenses to help capture images by reflecting them onto a 2-D surface, and tracing the details.  Because most lenses had a small area of focus, they would need to be moved around to capture other areas of interest, leading to minor inconsistencies in perspective.  This notion was initially not well received by the art world, but seems to have become more accepted in recent years.

When photography emerged in the mid-1800s, this caused a series of revolutions in painting, and the idea of attempting to capture fully realistic details in painting became less interesting.

Hockney in recent years has gotten back into painting, mostly landscapes back in England, and he typically uses multiple painted panels.  This allows each panel its own viewpoint, but the whole creates a more lived experience of seeing through painting.

Weschler does a fantastic job of balancing the simultaneous goals of describing artworks, letting the artist express his intentions, and pulling the strands together.  Highly recommended if you’re interested.

Comic Art on Mexico

Another followup to the Stumptown Comics Fest.  This post notes two works that both involve Mexico; one in the present day, the other back in the Aztec times.  Above is the cover of Carrie McNinch’s small comic on her trip to Oaxaca to visit friends, called You Don’t Get There From Here goes to Oaxaca.  It’s about 4 inches tall by 3 inches wide, and about 40 pages long, and the inner pages look like this:

As you can see, it’s a line drawing style, and she simply relates the events of her trip, including lots of food and drink along with some visits to historic sites.  I enjoyed this quick visit to Mexico.

The other comic is in color, with an interesting accordian format.  It’s called Lords of Death and Life by Jonathon Dalton out of Vancouver BC, and sample pages are shown below.  If you click on the title link you can see the whole thing online.  I have to admit I haven’t read it yet, but I thought it looked great and am looking forward to the read.

Art by Theo Ellsworth

Thought Cloud Shrines by Theo Ellsworth

One of the artists whose work made an impression on me yesterday at the Comics Fest was Theo Ellsworth, whose site is worth a visit, along with his blog Thought Cloud Factory News.  I picked up his drawing book Thought Cloud Shrines along with a print, Portrait of a Garden Gnome.  He’s also got a book of drawings and comics called Capacity, shown below.

I like his dense ink style, and the visionary imagination.  He’s located here in Portland, and “He does invisible performance art that no one will ever see.”  I like work that in some way tries to visualize the thought structures in our minds, that we’re constantly building and re-building.

What Would Neil Do?

A fun follow-up to the last post…  found the photo above in the new issue of Modern Painter, a magazine I’ve been enjoying lately for its eclectic arts coverage.   “What Would Neil Young Do?” by Martin Herbert looks at Neil as an inspiration for artists, for his uncompromising approach to his art.  The photo shown above is by Melanie Schiff, entitled Neil Young, Neil Young (2004); here’s more on the image:

In it, a figure’s head is obscured by the cover of Young’s debut solo album, with its life-size carbon-dated psychedelic portrait of the musician. “It’s about fandom, genius, and awe,” says the young Chicago photographer. “He was 23 when he recorded it, and I just found — and find, now that I’m older than that — it incredible that someone of that age can make something so amazing. It was a way of making it my face, because it’s me in the photograph, like a cover song or a tribute or a wish.” The line between admiration and analysis is consciously hazed; Schiff, like the other artists I talked to, can happily spiel till sundown about Young, which points to a degree of investment that exceeds callow referentiality and shades into something greater and more deeply seated. “I don’t think of him as a musician, I think of him as an artist,” says Lee. “His work has a conceptual quality to it, and he’s not afraid to experiment and lose fans in the process,” says Deller. He has, for Durant, “incredible integrity and authenticity.”

Re-make/Re-model – Michael Bracewell (2007)

I first noticed this book over in the Netherlands, decided to wait until I was home to pick it up.  Re-make/Re-model by Michael Bracewell is the story of the origins of the English band Roxy Music, titled after the first song on their first record, the self-titled album of 1972.  It’s not a history of the band, it’s an examination of the art and fashion trends that the band members grew up studying, and ultimately Bracewell makes the case for Roxy as the first truly ‘pop art’ band, interested in mixing all sorts of influences, from fifties rock and roll to futurism.

Bracewell uses a raft of new interviews with the whole circle of people who were in some way part of the Roxy Music circle, many of whom are credited in some way on that first record.  The main subjects, obviously, are Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, both out of art schools in northern England (Newcastle and Ipswich respectively).  Ferry studied with early pop artist Richard Hamilton, and Eno was in a quite radical art approach at Ipswich led by Roy Ascott.

This so-so review of the Guardian, “The Art of Noise” by Michael Faber, gives a pretty good feel for what the book is like:

To be fair, Re-make/Re-Model is not really a rock biography; it is a dissertation on fashions and concepts in art and popular culture, as we might expect from the author of The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth and England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie. And the lecturer comparison is no idle snipe: much of this book examines the ideologies that were taught at the tertiary institutions where Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and a host of their friends and mentors studied in the late 60s.

The book is longer than it really needed to be, but does have some good material on some of the more radical art school concepts active in the sixties.

Man on Wire

I saw the documentary “Man on Wire” (2008) about the exploits of Philippe Petit back in the early 1970s, in particular his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974, as captured above. The film uses a combination of new footage (interviews with Petit and many of his helpers, along with a reconstruction of some of the preparation actions in getting the equipment set up on the towers overnight) and some great contemporary footage of the planning phases and some of his earlier walks.

We had moved to New Jersey not long before this event, and I remember the coverage when it happened. I also remember going up to the observation deck in one of the towers at some point afterwards. While I’m normally not too spooked by heights, I was this time, and it seemed to me that it was because of the presence of the other tower so close by, yet separated by the nearly unimaginable gulf. Petit seemed to find that gulf the exact thing that made him obsess over doing this walk. He claims that he first began to dream of doing it after seeing a graphic back in the late sixties showing the outline of the towers, before they were even built.

His dream and obsession with the idea of crossing a high gulf is made clear by footage of two earlier walks he had done, one between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, and then another done on the towers of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. The amount of preparation for the Twin Towers walk was pretty incredible – months of study of the buildings, the comings and goings of people, the mechanics of setting up the rigging. One can’t help but also think of other plotters, who have twisted dreams of destruction and death, but this story is a great reminder of dreams that amaze and inspire.

Celebration in Berlin

Jeff Koons - Celebration in Berlin
A few weeks back I was in Berlin for a quick weekend visit, and one of the things I saw there was the Jeff Koons Celebration show at the Neue Nationalgalerie (a famous modern building in its own right, architect Mies van der Rohe). The show consists of 11 large pieces, spread out around the ground floor. No photos were allowed inside, but I took a few from the windows.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the one I liked best, which can be seen above in the background – the tulips. (I do kind of like the way I got the two walking feet below the heart above – just a coincidence!).

In this show I was reminded of Warhol’s comment about being all on the surface… these pieces are all surface as well. Most of them are big and shiny and hollow, nothing inside. But who doesn’t like big shiny things? How often do we find that the anticipation of the wrapped present is sweeter than the gift inside?

After the show I saw this ‘waving cat’ in the window of a souvenir shop, and it seemed to fit the same aesthetic – I wish Koons would make a big one of these!