Sunday, March 13, 2016

Current Work

Finished article on longitude. Back to doing some profiles of antiques shops.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How to Turn Cake Icing into Fine Art

A Decadent World

Studio of Mara Trachtenberg

New Visions

Hera Gallery
Wakefield, R.I.
Sept. 6 through Oct. 11

Untitled 3
from A Decadent World Topiary Garden
24x30", dye sublimation print on aluminum
edition of 10, 2014
I have a strong attraction to the whimsical and subversive. Artist Mara Trachtenberg shows both qualities in her series of work entitled, A Decadent World: Topiary Garden, now on exhibit at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, R.I. The gallery show, New Visions, also contains the work of five other members of the non-profit, artist-run arts organization.

The Politics of Cake Icing

Let's start with the subversive. Trachtenberg's end products are photographs, but they begin as tableaux made from "rice cereal treats," doll parts, and sugar in the forms of royal icing and fondant. The last two are commonly used for decorating cakes with flowers, leaves, and whatever else the baker decides to create. The subversion occurs as a result of cake decorating usually being thought of as a female activity, at least in the home, and thus a "low" art, at best. Trachtenberg turns that notion on its head and creates "high" art out of this medium; "high" and "low," of course, being terms describing the dominant culture's view of art.

Play and (R)evolution

Trachtenberg's tableaux are also reminiscent of dioramas, somewhat like the ones Captain Kangaroo had us make inside shoe boxes. So, there is a certain quality of playfulness in her work. But, also something that is slightly demonic. In the example here, the baby dolls with gold beaks appear to be either an alien life form or a mythical deity from the other side of consciousness. The same can be said about the bird-woman atop the cake/topiary. Kind of creepy and compelling at the same time.

Homo Ludens (Playing Man) vs. Homo Sapiens (Thinking Man)

In 1938, Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga, published Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. His central thesis is that play and culture have existed side-by-side in a "twin union." One might say that they have co-evolved, although Huizinga asserts that play comes before culture. His opening sentence ties in quite neatly with Mara Trachtenberg's study of what she calls the "barrier between humankind and the unknowable."

Huizinga writes:
Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man.
So, back when we were more "animal" than "human," and without culture, we played. "Play is primary," adds Huizinga. Playfulness is primary to Trachtenberg's in-between world, as well.

Free to Turn Things Upside-down

Huizinga also cites five characteristics of play, and the first is that "play is free, is in fact freedom." This brings us back to Trachtenberg making topsy-turvy what we consider the "correct" media for the plastic arts. Curiously, Huizinga did not see painting, sculpting, etc., as playful as poetry, music and dancing. He saw the "creative impulse" of the plastic arts as "always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand." What he did not consider back then, as the Wikipedia entry points out, was artists overturning the idea of what is a painting, a sculpture, or any work of art. Trachtenberg is one of those new "players" of art.

Footnote to Huizinga

Huizinga did, however, have first-hand knowledge of a brutal repressiveness, hostile to any art, or idea, not of that domineering culture. In the early 1930s, Huizinga wrote strongly against Fascism. Even in 1942, when Holland, his homeland, was overrun by Nazis, he wrote against his country's occupiers. For his efforts, he was detained by the Nazis and died in 1945, only weeks before Holland was liberated.

Play is very serious.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion

Currier Museum of Art
Manchester, N.H.
Sept. 20, 2014 through Jan. 5, 2015

M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953, lithograph

© 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

All rights reserved. 

Escher and the White Rabbit

The Currier Museum's press release has it right. Prints of M.C. Escher's works adorned the walls of many a dorm room in the 1960s and 1970s. I had a calendar and a book of his prints. His popularity was concurrent with the interest in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and its hints of drug use and general "trippiness." Even a line from Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit seems written for Escher as well:

"...when logic and proportion fall down lazy dead..."

Well, maybe "lazy dead" is a bit much, but logic and proportion falling apart and revealing new dimensions and observations certainly fits. William Blake wrote that, in ancient times, we had more than five senses and perhaps that's what we saw, and see, in Escher's work.

Escher and Kafka

But, his work represented more than mind expansion to me. I saw his work as social commentary, particularly the architectural structures that led nowhere. It was the world of Kafka's The Trial; "K" constantly seeking the door, the minister, who would explain his arrest.

Escher, Bruegel the Elder and Dürer

The featureless figures in Escher's Relativity even bear a resemblance to some figures of hell in Bruegel's fantastical paintings. I seem to remember a woman with a head shawl that is open to reveal her face -- the sawed-off end of a log. Escher's figures are as remote from humanity, like automatons in a world that seems in order, but is empty of any compass. One last association, and I'll shut up. Escher's craftsmanship is impeccable, as precise as the lines of Dürer in his woodcuts.

 Exclusive New England Showing

 As for the exhibit, M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion, it consists of more than 180 original prints and drawings from throughout his career. Show highlights include Metamorphosis (1939-40), Waterfall (1961) and Relativity (1953). There are a number of other events and workshops accompanying the exhibition -- an ARTalk on the "Psychology of Perception" by Foad Afshar, Psy.D, a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art.

Your turn now: How do you perceive the works of Escher?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Mallory Lake print edition on sale

Signed, limited print edition
Evening Departure
Mallory Lake
This post may be too late. An edition of 50 signed prints of a pastel by Mallory Lake entitled "Evening Departure" went on sale late in August. The print comes from a recent exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) of new works based on film noir scenes. (See my earlier post.)

Although the pastel painting has as its focus a train enveloped by billowing clouds of steam, I see the train car to the right in the composition as the true artistic focus. By that, I consider the train car as the height of technical excellence in this particular pastel. Lake's depiction of the reflectivity of the metal surfaces -- the wavering light of the engine's head lamp in the dimples of the metal siding, the car's reflection of the murky ambient light of evening in a train yard -- are spot on. All the more so, because this complex interplay of light and surfaces takes place in a tight, foreshortened space. It's a quiet drama of light and dark, and the attendant metaphors we associate with these qualities.

Here's hoping that Lake keeps exploring this "noirish" subject land. I'm hoping she will stumble across a Raymond Chandler detective novel and show us some of the precarious situations in which Chandler's anti-hero detective, Philip Marlowe, finds himself.
Prints are $245 each, and BMAC members receive a $30 discount. All proceeds support BMAC in its mission "to present art and ideas in ways that inspire, educate, and engage people of all ages." To order, call 802-257-0124, ext. 101 or visit

Monday, August 5, 2013

Rembrandt the Etcher

Rembrandt the Etcher
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Frances Vrachos Gallery (Gallery 144)
Aug. 10, 2013 - Feb. 17, 2014

Rembrandt etchings on exhibit

Detail from
Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves (“The Three Crosses”)
Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, 1653. Drypoint.
Credit: Museum of Fine Arts

Rembrandt became my main man after I stopped hanging around with the Impressionists. They started literally fading on me after I saw an exhibit at the MFA, in the early 1970s, of Monet's numerous paintings of water lillies. Although astoundingly beautiful, many of the paintings were actually more like tonal color fields. The lack of representation didn't bother me, but I had some sense that this was the culmination of a movement. What could come after these airy confections?

Maybe I was being too hard on the Impressionists. Actually, my favorite of the bunch was Van Gogh,who wasn't actually an Impressionist at all, although he usually got lumped with them. He was, however, a Dutchman, just like Rembrandt. It was definitely the humanity, the everyday-ness of both painters that attract me. Before seeing the Monet exhibit, I had already started to venture into Northern Europe. Albrecht Durer was of particular interest to me. Not Dutch, but actually of Hungarian descent, he did paintings and engravings of Biblical scenes like Rembrandt, as well as a number of self-portraits. And then there was El Greco, whose paintings I saw at the Met In New York. Actually, the planes of almost solid color that he often used were similar to Van Gogh's method, without, of course, the slabs of paint that he used.

What does all this have to do with Rembrandt? Nothing more than what comes to my mind and the fact that Rembrandt rose above all of them in my estimation. So much has been written of Rembrandt, that I really can think of no more to say. One Christmas, a girlfriend bought me a coffee table book called, I think, Life of Christ. It consisted of paintings, drawings, and etchings by Rembrandt depicting various scenes from Christ's life. This cemented the bond for me. The drama, the subtlety, the pain, the joy, all this and more were more present for me than in the works of any other painter. Or etcher.

The upcoming exhibit, Rembrandt the Etcher, consists of 45 works, most of which come from the MFA’s collection. The show promises to "explore the unprecedented range of subject matter" that Rembrandt treated in the over 300 etchings he made during his life. Speaking of his life, Rembrandt recently celebrated his 407th birthday on July 15. On July 26, Mick Jagger celebrated his 70th birthday. Do you think that 337 years from now, in 2350, the world will remember Mick or the Rolling Stones? Will Rembrandt's 744th birthday be remembered?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Between Dark and Night: New Pastels by Mallory Lake

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center
Brattleboro, Vt.
June 29 - October 20, 2013


Mallory Lake
Detail from The Night Train
That colored dust caught in the fibrous terrain of a sheet of paper can evoke power is a testament to the artistic mastery shown by Mallory Lake in her new exhibit at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Her source material, according to chief curator Mara Williams, are stills from film noir movies. Many of the scenes depict classic moments of trains leaving yards and stations at night. In my post on ballpoint pen art, I comment on Jan Fabre's moody scenes as having the feeling that something lurks in the corner. Curator Williams makes the same observation about Lake's new pastels, but I think Lake's new work shows something more internal, and deeper. Something that is, in fact, Freudian -- the unconscious and its movements, all of which are either beyond comprehension, or on the twilight edge of consciousness. The trains and the dramatic lighting and the bursts of steam are all representative of deep psychological drives. One piece (above), entitled The Night Train, even has a blue-eyed eminence prowling, it seems, the border between what we know consciously and what we only sense deep within our selves, like some Cerberus guarding the entry to the Underworld.

Clearly, Lake's pastels are not the kitschy vase of flowers with the errant blossom on the table. Pastels have a long history of portraying landscapes, human figures and portraits, but not much, if anything, that explores a more symbolist world. Perhaps the best know pastel artists are the Impressionist Edgar Degas and American Mary Cassatt, who studied in France with Degas. There were a number of well-known pastel portrait painters in the 18th century as well as the present, including Francesco Clemente, a favorite of mine. I did not realize that Clemente worked in pastels until I started doing research for this post. And, of course, my earlier statement about the scarcity of symbolist pastel artists now needs to be somewhat amended. There is, however, a difference between Lake's and Clemente's versions of symbolism. Lake is much more representational, while Clemente employs a more primitivist style.

Whatever the style, the medium of pastels has a high saturation of color which lends the power to a painting that I spoke of earlier. Pastels are made from the same pigments as oil paints, but the high saturation is the result of decreased refraction which darkens a color. To be a little more technical without going beyond my high school physics, more of the wave lengths are concentrated within a smaller band of the color of the pigment, instead of being spread out over a larger section of the color spectrum. A look at the blue lights on The Night Train is an excellent example of this phenomenon. And, indeed, the intense saturation adds to the psychological effects as well.

To see more of Lake's pastels in this exhibit, click here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Caleb Charland: From the Basement to the Backyard

Center for Maine Contemporary Art
Rockport, Me.
July 27 - Sept. 22, 2013

Potato Power
The blurb on Caleb Charland's new exhibit at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art declares that his photography "springs from a place of wonder," and that's certainly as I will show later. But first, I think we need to look at the satirical componenet of his work, the part that portrays an image that alternates between the ludicrous and the possible.

Artistotle, I think, said that tragedy shows us the human possibility for noble actions whereas comedy points out our foibles, our many foibles. A photograph at Charland's web site (I'm not sure whether this photo is the show, although similar ones are) called Potato Power is a good starting point for this interplay between the ludicrous and wonderful possibility.

The photo depicts a floor lamp in a potato field with a number of leads going from the lamp's socket to the ground. The leads are actually attached to nails stuck in potatoes that have been uncovered from the surrounding rows. Well, of course, you can get electricity from potatoes by sticking a copper nail and a zinc nail into a potato. The chemical composition of the potato sets up a flow of ions from one nail to the other. In other words, a current. An electrical current.

So, you begin to wonder. Is it possible to power our country on potatoes? But, then you realize that would take a lot of potatoes, and a lot of power expended to grow those potatoes. The net effect would be probably be a loss in power production. And yet, what if we could mechanize and automate potato growing? But, now, we're back to same type of system we live with now, and you just have to laugh at how stupid and smart we are.

And yet, the photo reveals something else. There may be an answer in nature in which energy production is not as ruinous to the environment. Obviously, a time-lapse photo, Potato Power shows in the background sky, arcs of light made by stars. Stars are powered by fusion, which releases energy (and no radiation) while fusing hydrogen into helium. There, in the natural world, is an energy answer, but, to date, our technology has not been able to harness it. Perhaps we can; or perhaps, we will find some other source beneath our feet or above our heads.

Caleb Charland
Wooden Box with Horseshoe Magnet
Courtesy Center for Maine Contemporary Art

One last word on a photo of an object in Charland's show called Wooden Box with Horseshoe Magnet (left). At first look, you think there must be a trick to the nails lined up in midair, but, of course, it's magnetism. The nails are connected to some type of string. I wonder what would happen if the nails were connected by a thin copper wire. Would the opposite poles of the magnet cancel out, making the nails fall to the ground?