Life: I used to draw!

A sketch from one of my early 1990s sketchbooks

Once upon a time, I would sit down and DRAW. Lots of us love to draw when we are kids, and I kept at it, and could draw for enjoyment into adulthood. This came in handy when I chose to study architecture (though you could get by with drafting for anything that required straight lines; note that I went to school before CADD was a thing, so I mean drafting by hand.)

I enjoyed sketching, not impress other people (as it feels is common in this new, social media age), but to REALLY LOOK AT THINGS CLOSELY and learn about them through that deep study and transforming them into two dimensions on paper. Few of my drawings are good (in the showing-off meaning), but I learned something from the process of creating each of them.

I don’t have any photos of my city’s old deYoung Museum, but I do have sketches of it! And of other things.

Some early 1990s sketches of the old deYoung in Golden Gate Park (in pencil and fine pen), Alcatraz, and a general northerly view over the San Francisco Bay (in soft pencil), all by me.

Some of the color drawings, despite the fact that I don’t much like the texture of colored pencils, showed I WAS learning how to use them!

Selections of colored pencil sketches in the same notebook as the other images in this entry; the lower right one is pastel.

I love that I took the time to MAKE these. I love that I gave myself that opportunity, even while taking a risk that nothing would really come of it, that I could enjoy both looking and drawing. It’s a rich experience, having that kind of focused attention and doing something with it. I had never really LOOKED at a cantaloupe closely, but one day I cut one open and knew I had to draw it and its lovely seeds.

I drew from life (from a place I really was, like the marina where I drew that boat, or the geometric shapes that were based on an origami project I had made with friends), and photos (the garden in the lower center was surely from a magazine), or that I invented (the house on the hill with Japanese-castle-like details and modern windows, if I remember correctly).

It’s fun for me to look back through this old sketchbook (which I came across while cleaning out a box in the garage), and think about how good it was that I took the time to study and enjoy the time I spent drawing these things. My life was challenging during that time period (tuition was becoming a serious hardship, etc.) , but this was something I did for myself, and I’m glad I did.

I have lots of interests, and my career has limited the time I can spend on my own projects, so I’ve given up drawing and painting to make room for work, sleep, and loved ones.

I felt I could only choose one creative pursuit, and I chose photography (and writing for my own websites, if you haven’t noticed). I have no regrets about that choice, but would love to “have it all” – including more time to study, draw, and paint.

Art: US Postal Service Stamps Honor Ruth Asawa

10 gorgeous images of Ruth Asawa’s sculptures

I am completely delighted that the US Postal Service is issuing stamps featuring sculptures by California artist Ruth Asawa.

We claim Asawa here: she created numerous sculptures we have, including the famous mermaid sculpture at Ghiradelli Square, the charming children’s clay figure sculpture near Union Square (now adjacent to the Apple Store), and a remarkable collection of woven wire structures that are included in the collection of our deYoung Museum; we’ve named a school after her!

It’s wonderful to see her work shared with others nationally in this highly democratic way.

Book: Mira Schendel

Cover of the Tate catalog for Mira Schendel

Mira Schendel
edited by Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares
published by Tate Publishing, London
2013

In 2014, I was struggling with my abstract drawing practice, and needed to see how other artists managed some of the geometric ideas/problems/experiments I kept sketching out. By some amazing stroke of luck, I wound up in London on business, and was able to drop by the fantastic Tate Modern to see the Mira Schendel show.

Mira Schendel was a remarkable, Swiss-born Brazilian artist whom I’d never heard of, but whose work was STUNNING and completely on point as a contrast to my own work (and sometimes, it is easier to clarify your own thoughts in contrast to others’!). She worked with text! Translucency! Layers! Perforations! Her work is a revelation, and impressed me with its depth, experimentation, breadth (she has a remarkably diverse practice), and the great presentation of some very delicate work at the Tate.

This book is the sold-out catalog from that show, which I was able to buy YEARS later through a used book shop online. (Every time I’ve tried to stop taking photos as notes, and relied upon a show catalog, I couldn’t get one…) The reproductions, including those of oil crayon on translucent paper – which I was CERTAIN would be too difficult a challenge – are beautifully reproduced.

The essays in this catalog are a bit dense: Schendel was a fan of philosophy, and so folks who aren’t fans of Wittgenstein and others of his era might skim these for key clues about Schendel’s interest in language as an organizing concept for the world, and focus on the one about Immanence before jumping into the reproductions. The reprints of interviews with Schendel at the end are a great way to end.

A reproduction from the book of a Schendel piece incorporating typography, translucency, geometry, and general brilliance.

As with other artists I find “revelatory,” Schendel may have been omitted from the resources available to me while researching art because (a) she wasn’t based in Europe, (b) her work is not in the collections of major US museums, so (c) the major institutional museums don’t promote her as part of the official modern/contemporary art “canon” (which is based on what they have collected, conveniently), and (d) she wasn’t part of a group movement, which is a conveniently self-organizing set of practices or themes that make it easier to file work within a particular era’s “canon.” (It’s all so tedious, though I understand the desire for organizing principles.)

This is a well-produced catalog of a truly impressive show, and the Tate and its partners in Brazil and Portugal should be proud of it.

Books: Olafur Eliasson In Real Life edited by Mark Godfrey

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life
edited by Mark Godfrey
published by Tate Enterprises, Ltd.
2019

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life isn’t a conventional art show catalog, if you can’t already tell that from my other two or three notes about this book here. Yes, it does include photographs from the remarkable exhibition of the same name at the Tate Modern, which had adults saying “WOAH!” out loud while walking blindly through bright rooms, staring at mirrors and lenses and wave machines, and playing in colored lights like happy children. A conventional catalog would describe what we would have seen and experienced if we’d visited the exhibit in person, with some essays to understand the work better in retrospect. This book is instead is a supplement (and according to the artist, part of the exhibit itself) that pulls together interviews with scientists, artists, chefs, musicians, designers, and others to discuss a broad range of approaches to human engagement with the world.

Yes, the pictures are PRETTY, but that’s just to lure you in to thinking about the world more broadly. 🙂

Studio Olafur Eliasson isn’t just one person or particular pieces of art: it’s a large team of people with a range of specialties who are exploring all sorts of ways to engage with the world, from eating (yes, the studio has a vegetarian restaurant to feed the team; they’ve published a cookbook AND ran a cafe at the Tate Modern during the exhibit), to coloring rivers to raise your awareness of them (and what they should look like when they aren’t harmlessly-but-vividly-colored), to being aware of light (those yellow rooms are really more interesting in altering perception than you would guess), to producing solar products, to displaying remarkable rooms of geometric models that form the various presentations of the Model Room (which remind me of something one would make at SF’s own interactive science museum The Exploratorium), and include many great works by the late Einar Thorsteinn

This book packs in a lot of concepts, extensive discussions about the role of culture, the false split between culture and nature, some disturbing descriptions from a chef about duck brains (Scandinavian food has never sounded more alarming), that amazing Fab 5 Freddy interview that delighted and amused me (and inspired me to watch some of F5F’s film, Wild Style, on YouTube), ideas that sent me off to order books and read up on random topics…

This book is an engaging work/collection in its own right even when separated from the exhibit, and supplements the gorgeous visuals and experiences of the show with lots of in-depth research. I feel my mind has been enriched by having spent time with it.

Book: Anni Albers edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck

Anni Albers
edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck
published by Yale University Press
2018

Anni Albers, a gorgeously printed exhibition catalog and book of essays, shows off the work of phenomenal modernist Anni Albers, and her work in design, weaving, painting, and printmaking.

Those of us who have been fans of the pre-war Bauhaus school in Germany may know her work from compilations of the school’s many famous graduates and teachers; we may also know that women were sent off into the weaving department regardless of their design interests to an extent that raises questions about the motivations of the male staff. Albers really took to it, produced some fantastic, ultra-modernist work, and raised the profile of textile design at a time when it was profoundly under-appreciated.

The hair on the back of your neck may rise up a bit when you read about the punch cards that were used to set the patterns for jacquard looms… The Bauhaus operated in a time where mass production seemed like an opportunity to democratize access to basic goods, like shoes and housewares, and that good design could directly improve day-to-day life. (Yes, of course the Nazis shut them down.)

The details of Alber’s work are beautifully reproduced in remarkably color plates, often showing both the entire work (ranging widely in scale) plus details that allow you to appreciate the craft.

And there is more to her work! As an aspiring pattern designer, I love seeing how she worked out some of her designs on grid paper. As a textile lover, the reproductions thrill me. And as a print-maker – HEY, she does those really well, too!

Details of the remarkably high quality reproductions of Alber’s sketches, textiles, typewriter art, and the lovely binding, which does my book-binder’s heart glad.

She even has some typewriter art, which makes me think of Mira Schendel (different continent, later time), and of how my fellow geeks should really appreciate where the roots of ASCII art came from. (Geek joy!)

So much of her work is understated in that she uses muted colors, or relatively few colors – it never shouts. Which means it might have a hard time getting attention in our current, loud, shiny, sequined art world – but the design is BOLD. And the quality! The detail! The attention to everything! The essays follow her career from Germany to the US; from teaching at colleges and universities; from the loom to the press. It shows evidence of her processes (which were key to the experience for her, as an artist and as a teacher), of the interests in Central/South American textiles and collecting, and of her design approaches. (There is a white-on-white printed plate that I just ADORE…) This woman had RANGE.

This is one of those, HOW COULD SHE NOT BE BETTER KNOWN, TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS, AND SHOUTED ABOUT IN CAFÉS kind of revelatory books. Albers herself was a bit frustrated that she could earn so many paid commissions, design textiles for Knoll (ooooooh!), and yet people would only get excited when she worked on paper – when she created art that could not possibly have any utilitarian application. Fabric had been seen as TOO USEFUL, even though it is a brilliant technology – its association with women goes back to ancient times (see another favorite book of mine: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Barber), and that seems to have held textile art back. Wrongly. SO WRONGLY.

The book – essays, production, binding, range of work included – is of the highest quality. The exhibition must have been phenomenal!

Film: Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint by Halina Dyrschka

I love ART. I especially love ABSTRACT art. Enough to make it in several media! Creating abstract drawings and paintings is liberating sometimes, and a refreshing change from representational drawing or photography, but a lot of it is mental work intended to… solve a conceptual problem. It’s not easy to explain: it is representing something, just not something material.

I’ve loved going to museums, and seeing a grid of pastel colors, and thinking, “YES! This artist was working on the same issue I was working on last month, and s/he solved it a different way! That is fantastic!”

The film Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint from Zeitgeist films is like a delightful visit to a museum, with lots of pleasant, knowledgeable, passionate friends along for the ride.

It’s well paced! The art is amazing! The representational early work by the artist is gorgeous, too! But the abstracts are just fantastic – the colors! The scale! The patterns! It’s the best field trip I’ve been on in ages.

Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint – Roxie Cinema

Hilma af Klint was an abstract artist before the term existed, a visionary, trailblazing figure who, inspired by spiritualism, modern science, and the riches of the natural world around her, began in 1906 to reel out a series of huge, colorful, sensual, strange works without precedent in painting.

While my dear Roxie Theater is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, The Kino Now link above allows me to watch the films they would be screening at home, and have part of the ticket price go to them. (Other indie theaters are available to support, too!) Go visit!

Mood: Graffiti edition of a My Little Pony

I’m still reading Olafur Eliasson In Real Life, which is fantastic through and through, and got to his interview with Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite).

F5F reveals how it was German TV (!!) that gave him the start up money for his street culture film, Wild Style (1982); OE reveals that he was a breakdancer with a crew in the Netherlands, who took the crew to see the film in Copenhagen, and the crowd went wild; F5F is talking about how moving it is to see kids around the world still influenced by this movement in art and culture… They are each giddy to be discussing these topics, and the giddiness is contagious.

Oh, F5F is/was a painter!

OE refers to 80s era early rap as “electric boogie,” and I burst out laughing each time.

(Aside: Wild Style features rappers wearing v-neck sweaters. Because: the 80s. )

On how I read

It is a foggy day, and I am filled with French press coffee, vegan sandwiches, birdsong (without automobile traffic, you can hear the birds!), and things I want to research that I’m either reading about, or that came up while reading about something else.

Reading is a rabbit hole with many tunnels.

I’m writing out reviews about books I enjoy(ed) here, because writing about them is part of my ‘processing.’ Conveying feelings and thoughts in language requires a lot of translation, and that translation teaches me things. If I really enjoy something, I should be able to describe it concisely and well in words, and choosing the right words thoughtfully can take some time. (For example, it wouldn’t be enough to say that the protagonists of William Gibson’s recent fiction are “cool,” because that doesn’t convey what I mean: I mean that they are capable, curious, observant, cool-headed, and have some special niche expertise that they enjoy. I admire people like that, and want to be like that. “Cool” wouldn’t cover it. )

While I am writing reviews of recently read books in a linear fashion, I’m also various stages of reading other books. In my youth, I would force myself to finish each book (whether or not I was enjoying it) before I could go onto the next; but now I drop any I’m not in the mood for (I have so little time – why spend it on a book that isn’t working for me?), and to jump in and out of longer books, based on where they are taking me. Truly stimulating books send me on research projects or reveries that take me a while to return from!

I am in various stages of reading:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (fiction, about women being able to generate electricity and defend themselves – fun and a real page-turner!),
  • Appreciate Your Life: The Essence of Zen Practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi (deep, but likely to inspire reverie about the meaning of life, which distracts from reading),
  • My Seditious Heart: Collected Nonfiction by Arundhati Roy (1000 pages including the extensive footnotes! I had to stop to recover from the pain of reading about injustices done to various minority groups in India by more politically dominant groups, especially “development” programs that make minorities landless while enriching the majority),
  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (I’d read the earlier translation, but this one is much better – the only catch is that I keep using up all my book flags, pad after pad of them, because there are SO MANY CONCEPTS I want to revisit…),
  • You Look Like a Thing And I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane (I started this last night, and was laughing so hard I was nearly in tears from examples of her neural net transitioning from generating death metal band names to naming ice cream flavors – I may finish this today), and
  • Olafur Eliasson In Real Life, (which I started this morning), which appeared at first to be a typical catalog of the brilliant show I saw at the Tate Modern last fall, but which is sending me in many directions because it also includes interviews with scientists, artists, chefs, and others, and is becoming more like the best current-topics magazine I’ve ever read.

My reading of the Eliasson book today has made me pause to:

  • write for myself about what it means to be a California artist, a San Francisco native, and a product of the optimistic and green international cultural sensibilities of California in my 1970s childhood (Eliasson is a similar age, but clearly Icelandic-Danish in his influences);
  • look up artists like Fujiko Nakaya (fog installations!);
  • wonder if artists I like have any new work to marvel at (maybe not – Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s Lou Bontecou Selected Works page doesn’t suggest so, but she could be saving up for a new show),
  • admire the design of the catalog (it is beautifully composed and printed; I’ll save the rest of my gushing for the write up);
  • remember that I recently read other books I haven’t posted reviews of (oops); and
  • try to decide if I should use my photos of Harpa to play with in MirrorLab…

It is FUN to let my mind wander so freely, and to have such stimulating material to read.

Working long hours prevents me from spending more time thinking like this – while I am working, I am VERY dedicated to solving work problems, and sometimes dream about possible solutions, or wake up dwelling on work issues to solve – but a weekend like this is like a brain vacation / day spa / slice of free-thinking heaven.

Book: Mail / Art / Book curated by Jennie Hinchcliff and John Held, Jr.

Cover of Mail / Art / Book

Mail / Art / Book
curated by Jennie Hinchcliff and John Held, Jr.
published by San Francisco Center for the Book
2014

This is another stellar catalog from the SFCB’s shows, and from longstanding teacher and author Jennie Hinchcliff (co-author of the fun book, Good Mail Day).

Mail art – art that is specifically intended to be sent through the mail, and enjoyed by other mail artists – is small and can be difficult to display, but this book does a solid job of arranging and photographing this exhibit in a way that preserves the many 3-D items, as well as the relationships between envelope and contents (when there is a distinction).

The submissions were fun and varied widely, and it was great to see all the complex, thoughtful, colorful, creating works that made it through the mail!