Saturday, August 30, 2008

Soaking Wet in a Fiery Furnace, Drawing

I am wrapping things up in the desert for now, but I'll be back before terribly long. This hot dry interlude was punctuated today by a ranger-led hike in the Fiery Furnace area of Arches, which is famously disorienting without knowledge of the area. They don't let you hike it without a ranger unless you can demonstrate you know what you're doing. [I went with an agenda: I'll be back in the neighborhood with the family later on. I wanted to learn the trail so we'd be able to get in when tours are not available.]

Our party was compelled to listen to the yammering of a perfectly self-absorbed group of ten or so people, who persisted even when the ranger pointed out that the rest of us were trying to have, you know, an actual nature experience, so please shut up. The remonstration did not work. But presently events conspired to keep us all a little more focused on our footfalls. The low rumbling thunder that had seemingly indifferently dogged our hike suddenly changed tone. It got "real ambient," in the words of the ranger--a twenty-something woman with pluck and wit--and then the drops began to plock down on the sandstone. Big drops, soon whole puddles worth at a time. It poured. Poured. Biblical thunder and lightning with pelting rain, hard as it gets, while clambering over cracks and gulleys on slick rock or shimmying between split fins. It was fabulous. You could practically hear the plants gulping the water in. The greens got hysterical. The "washes" really got washed, with mud-red water trickling, then pouring along the channels leading to lower ground. It reminded me of those old Disney nature films I watched a kid. They'd show you how fantastically hot the desert is, then the narrator would intone something menacing about how quickly things change. In the next shot there's a gigantic purple-gray cloud slippping in to dominate the frame. Cue thunder audio, then WHAM it's raining like crazy and the potholes fill up with rainwater and everybody gets six months' worth of drink.

Despite that colorful story, I wanted to post for other purposes. This time has been most productive, but I can't quite articulate just yet how. I have been thinking a great deal about humans over the long haul, and the cross-cultural compulsion to mark surfaces, to fashion symbolic forms. I have been reading Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, which due to the fact that it's dense with facts and argument can be tough going, but very worth the effort. It's comprehensive history of prehistory, animated by an attempt to explain widely differing cultural outcomes in different parts of the world. He argues that it boils down to what plants and animals you have handy early in the game, and the resulting variances of population densities between socities that engage in food production versus hunter-gatherers. There is much more to it than that, of course. I am categorically distrustful of most determinisms, and this gets pretty close, but I'm learning so much that I don't care for now.

I have been tramping around looking at mostly Fremont culture (all of Utah and bits of surrounding states, 600-1300 C.E.) petroglyphs and pictographs [see above].

I spent a few days in Vegas with an old friend, having never been there, as well as the town of Boulder City, Nevada, which supplied housing for the laborers who built Hoover Dam, a few miles away. I pondered Venturi and Brown while looking at the Nevada signage, thinking about some of the ideas in their landmark book Learning from Las Vegas, now published 40 years ago or thereabouts.

A key idea in that book addresses the distinction between denotative and connotative forms of communication, or what the authors call ducks and decorated sheds. Venturi praised Vegas as the land of decorated sheds, but it seemed to me to have been filled up with ducks in the intervening decades. The old strip is now a theme park of itself, a pedestrian mall with a canopy. The new strip is a horrendous mash of fake crap, a connotative carcrash.

Too much to articulate now. But I've been zeroing in on drawing and imaging as a cultural act that works fundamentally like a tool, that is inextricably bound up in knowledge (both acquisition and transmission), which exists as pure instrumentality. Up until the point my little pad was completely wet and therefore useless as a drawing ground, I produced a miniature storyboard of our hike through the Fiery Furnace. Between the drawings and the quick indicative notes, I'm pretty sure I can get my gang through the formation without getting lost. 2.5 miles in a confusing environment. After it dries out, maybe I'll post a few "slides."

I will try to elaborate more in coming weeks as I process some of my writing and sketchbook work. These thoughts are important ones for academic and critical purposes, but personally they may have struck a deeper chord in my studio work. More to come. In the meantime, I have posted a few instrumental images for diversion's sake, if nothing else.

: Detail, Map of Arches National Park, United States National Park Service; D.B. Dowd, Circulation Woman, top portion; pencil and gouache study for wall graphic panel in "Your Heart," a permanent cardiac education exhibit developed for Missouri Baptist Hospital, St. Louis Missouri; project executed by the Visual Communications Research Studio, 2005; Fremont Culture petroglyphs [negative line on the midvalue field] partially superimposed on rust-colored, ghostly-looking pictographs from Archaic Barrier Canyon period [circa 2000 B.C.E. to 1 C.E.], Sego Canyon, Utah, 2008; New York, New York Casino ensemble, Las Vegas, Nevada [developed by MGM Mirage; designed and built, 1994-97]; Eadweard Muybridge, Buck and Kick photographic sequence [circa 1880]; Surface to Submarine Warfare graphic, British War Department brochure, 1942, published for American audiences in the United States.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama & Rockwell Together Again

Obama gave a whale of a speech tonight. I have written about his campaign in a visual culture context before. Specifically, I’ve discussed his campaign in the context of the supposedly reactionary career of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s politics were substantially left of what others imagined. He was a Dickensian, but his work included no Uriah Heeps or Ebeneezer Scrooges. Rockwell’s missing bad guys took the edge off his apparent politics. All who remained were the good folks whose loneliness on the moral stage seemed to endorse the mendacity of the missing bad guys.

Obama’s citations of regular Janes and Joes reminded me of nothing if not Rockwell’s noble everyman, the Freedom of Speech man.

Talk about synchronicity! On MSNBC [my political junkie network of choice for such events] Jesse Jackson just referred to Barack and Michelle Obama as “the best of the Saturday Evening Post family.”

Chris Matthews is now saluting Jesse Jackson as a fabulously generous person despite the latter’s [imagined] off-air comment that he’d like to cut the Democratic nominee’s “nuts off.” That is truly embarrassing. Where is the question about the castration now, in the triumphalist moment? No doubt negotiated beforehand.

Rockwell was prevented from including blacks in different roles in his illustration by Post editor George Lorimer and his successors. So we got images of the type above.

By the way, purely on art-production terms, it is interesting to note that the tablecloth on the Porter image has been rendered in graphite. There is no paint on the canvas in that rather large passage. The guy knew production methods.

Let us rejoice as a country tonight that such a person—such an accomplishment!—as Barack Obama, presidential nominee, is now possible. Assuming He’s not playing canasta on the celestial plane or otherwise occupied, may God Bless America!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Beautiful Thompson Springs

I have been drawing and musing up a storm--I have about ten posts in my head, but haven't had the time to write any of them. In the meantime, yesterday I went looking for a petroglyph site in Sego Canyon, Utah, and drove through a ghost town of sorts, with several derelict businesses, but also with people living a short ways off in dilapidated wood frame houses and trailers. I did find the petroglyphs, which deserve their own reflection, but for the time being here are a few views of the town. The town's name is Thompson or Thompson Springs, but I saw no place-identifying signage aside the from the name of the motel. The cafe sign says simply CAFE and BAR. What's left of the paint job says that, anyway.

A reminder that deserts really are inhospitable places. The scenery is very striking, but most of it boils down to baked rocks. Good luck squeezing a living out of this unless you're selling crystals to Californians. Or to the French and the Germans. They're everywhere. It's kind of funny watching them work their way through the grocery. You can just hear them saying, "These people actually eat this Rice-A-Roni crap??" But they seem happy and engaged by the geology. Meanwhile, Moab meets the Euro, which seems to be going a long way these days.

If natural history is the calling card here, this cultural history seems just as complicated, as these regretful settlements suggest. Polygamists, tourists, Utes, hangers-on, Navajos, people like me who've come for the heat and the severity. Like the teeny lizards warming themselves on the trails. (But of course I have air conditioning.)

The motel is an indoor-outdoor event. All the doors are open--not unlocked, open. Most of the windows are broken. Quite a place, right along Route 128 and the railroad line. A skeletal affair, but with ponderous graffiti. "Spooky."

The motel has been vandalized repeatedly, a little self-regardingly. Sort of like helter-skelter with Tourette's, or actually pretending to have Tourette's. Or something. It's creepy but stagey.

Lovely office suite.

The cafe sign had fallen onto the roof. I wished I was there with the light in the opposite position--morning would be best for this. What a crazy sight.

I pushed the lens up against the glass to get a shot of the interior, including that maudlin little green mixer, jet age appliance, embarrassed by the stammering ill-placed globe and worse, the collapsing ceiling. Like bad relatives stumbling drunkenly downstairs moments before the company shows up. Like some guy with simile problems.

Back to facts.

The derelict cafe, facing north to the train tracks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hypnotico Vamooso Skiddeeski Twentolio

Until somewhat recently, Winsor McCay had been an obscure figure beyond the cartoonists' buffalo lodge. He's gotten better play in the last few years, especially with the publication of the complete Nemo anthology at scale, but it will be a while yet before he's properly recognized as one of the most accomplished and significant American visual professionals. I'd say "artist," but for reasons I'll articulate in a coming post [on the subject of object taxonomies in the art industry] let's go with "cartoonist," for now anyway.

At the top of this post, a sequence of panels that anticipates McCay's work in animation, with a hilarious incantation by the scarlet magician fellow.

McCay is the creator of the most visually sophisticated comic strip to ever appear in mass circulation, "Little Nemo in Slumberland," whose glory years were with the New York Herald between 1906 and 1911, after which he moved to Heart's New York World and resumed the strip as "The Land of Wonderful Dreams." He went back to the Herald in 1914.

Above, a detail from a Nemo "strip" (odd to call it a strip, really, because it covered a broadsheet page and romped all over it, quite variably--McCay was a formal scientist as much as an entertainer with panache.) Below, the full feature in question. Not by the way a good example of the formal innovation to which I just referred.

McCay was also a pioneer of animation. Last September 11 in a somber mood I quoted his Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a very affecting piece of propaganda, though dissimilar from his other animated works, which tend toward the vaudevillian, especially Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and my favorite, How a Mosquito Operates.

At any rate, McCay passes the desert island test by a mile. I didn't bring any with me to this desert, but I surely would have if I were looking at a long term engagement. McCay pays dividends, as a draftsman and as a creator of adventurous fictions and oddball alienated fantasies.

: Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, New York Herald, detail, November 11, 1906; McCay, detail and full feature, date currently unavailable (away from my library); McCay, animation still, How a Mosquito Operates (1912).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Congrats to Phelps, but Lezak is my Hero!

Super-kudos to Michael Phelps on his astounding accomplishment of eight golds in Beijing. The athletic range he demonstrated between a race like the 400 individual medley, which for non-competitive swimmers may need some explanation, as a hideous gut-buster--as Rowdy Gaines appropriately called it, the decathlon of swimming but all at the same time, that is consecutively, with zero rest--and the 100 fly, a dead sprint--defies description.

A few years back, I had a little cardiac blip (okay, more than a blip) after a rec league basketball game. In my ensuing recovery and reclamation of my identity as an athlete, I returned to my roots in competitive swimming. Once upon a time, I was a freestyle sprinter. Despite some misgivings expressed by my cardiologist (but not by my internist-slash-g.p., a compulsive runner) I have returned to competition as a Masters swimmer. I train alone, and I am quite healthy, even robust. I am so happy to be back in the water! I was never an elite swimmer, and never will be. But I don't suck. And unlike most people, I look forward to turning 50, because I will "age up" as a swimmer.

As amazing as Phelps' accomplishment is--and it is truly amazing, equal to the hype, and more, given the range of events he swims--I find myself identifying with Jason Lezak [far right, above} the freestyle sprinter who swam the anchor leg on the 4x100 freestyle relay, and turned in the most jaw-dropping adrenaline-soaked performance in history to catch and defeat the reigning world record-holder Alain Bernard, the trash-talking Frenchman who went on to win the gold in the 100 meters. Like me, Lezak trains alone. Long the reigning American sprinter, he had labored under the reputation of an under-performing Olympian. This week in addition to his mind-exploding anchor leg on the 4x100 and his successful final leg on the 4x100 medley relay, he finally won an individual medal, a bronze, in the 100 meter freestyle. Bernard, the guy he caught and overcame in the 4 x 100, took the gold.

Tonight, as the world toasts Michael Phelps, I offer a toast to ancient old Jason Lezak (32), who will live forever as the man who chased down Bernard with a 46 flat. (And a secondary toast to Brendan Hansen, the maligned breastroker who surrendered his world record to the Japanese triumphalist Katijima yet delivered the goods in today's medley final [far left]). May God bless all four of them==Piersol, Hansen, Phelps, Lezak--with happy days ahead. Congratulations, from the bottom of my heart.

Well done!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Desert Island Item

The mid-century Swedish graphic designer-illustrator Olle Eksell. Reductivist but oh so charming. A book came out on his work in Japan during the past year or two. I love this landscape.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Canyon Drawing

Halfway up Negro Bill Canyon. Immediately off Utah 128, which runs along the Colorado River and ends north of Moab. Yes, "Negro Bill Canyon" is the actual geographic name of the place, which apparently was once worse. Named after a William Granstaff, who settled in this canyon in 1877. Smart man: despite the desert conditions, it has a babbling brook running right through it, but also generous amounts of poison ivy, which I managed to avoid. At the end of the canyon you can climb up to find Morning Glory Bridge, a huge rock span of 240+ feet. I did not get that far, only because I decided to stop and make a quick drawing before the light ran out for the hike back. Rough pencil onsite, color applied in gouache later. Kind of nutty to sink this much work into a sketchbook drawing, but somehow I like that. The book is becoming crinkly and difficult to close.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Delicate Arch Panorama + Dialogue

Here is the assembled panorama of the Delicate Arch drawings described below. There is some horizontal compression, especially between the second and third panels. Add maybe another single page of distance moving to the right.

Best overheard dialogue as I worked, which I was able to attribute to a pair of very attractive people who hiked in together after me looking rather fabulous and not especially outdoor-oriented.

Him: Lemme take a picture of you.
Her: No. (Pause.) I'm not very happy. You'll be able to tell.
Him: Come on.

Silence for a little while.

Her: Let's get a picture of the two of us. That way somebody will actually be able to tell that we had a vacation together.
Him: Okay, let's do that.

They find someone willing. The picture is made within feet of me. They array themselves: he the Daddy-sponsor, sitting upright but leaning on an arm. She arranges herself in front of him like some sort of prize minx, legs along the ground, up on an arm, head cocked. Big smile from her. Pleased ownership from him. The shot is taken. They look at the result.

Her: Ooh, that looks good! Thank you!
Him: Yeah, that's a good one.

Delicate Arch Drawings

Nobody can appreciate the cliché of Delicate Arch like a St. Louisan. Saarinen’s Arch sits on the banks of the Mississippi like a giant billboard for the concept of The West—the high modern Manifest Destiny.

The utter miracle of its construction, by which I do not mean the engineering feat (though surely it was that) but its brazen modernity in a place in love with 1904 (a subject for another day) has spawned a fantastic range of St. Louis metro logotypes. Arch this, arch that. Although after living near the thing for more than fifteen years now, I will say that that the object/building transcends the cliche of its image. It really is something to behold, especially in variable weather conditions.

The same is true of Delicate Arch, which as a factual matter is decidedly premodern. The geology of the Colorado Plateau is an interesting subject, to which I may return at some point. But from a cultural perspective, Delicate Arch is plastered all over everything.

Two days ago I made the hike to Delicate Arch, which was not especially challenging though there is a net gain of 480 feet from the trail head to the arch. It’s gorgeous, of course, not least because the arch is part of a huge sandstone fin that sticks out into the sky against a backdrop of older sandstone below it across the canyon, another ridge beyond that, and then the La Sal mountains in the far distance.

But what I found most interesting as a subject was the transformation of the geological formation into a backdrop for photographs. People took turns walking up to stand beneath the arch as their friends waited to snap the I was here! shot. The light was going, so I had to work quickly to get the information down. From the beginning I wanted to try to get a panoramic view of the scene. I worked left to right in successive spreads. The first is at the top of the post, showing the arch and some of the people. There were more—a clump of them to the left that I didn’t have time to describe.

The middle section includes a group of people below me working on getting their shots of a middle distance view of the scene. The cast rotated. The rock features here are really abbreviated. I would have liked more time to work the space out, because it was quite dramatic. There is a sort of basin cut into the rock, producing a deep divide between the ledge the photographers are standing on and the rock beyond. Sort of like a third of a bathtub.

The last section is the most abbreviated, because I was running short on time if I hoped make the hike back to the trailhead in anything other than total darkness. (Very close, as it turned out. Only a quarter moon provided illumination for the last half-mile.) The ribbony passage in the upper left is the road in, the end of which marks the trailhead. There’s an indication of a bus in the lot. The crowd at the hike terminus came in part from a group of young people from New York and New Jersey who had been traveling the country all summer in that bus. This, I gathered, was their final stop. They were all over the place, and left ten minutes ahead of me to hike back. Lots of drama, including debates and rebukes about where they could and could not climb aroung. There was a ranger attached to the group who seemed a little exasperated.

Of course all of the backstory information I got about the crowd I gathered through listening as I worked, somewhat frantically, to get the drawing in.

In the next post I’ll put together the panorama of the three spreads.

Highway 191 Looking South

Yesterday I went for a drive over to the Islands of the Sky district of Canyonlands, to pick up our annual National Park Pass. Didn't stay long, but will go back to hike soon. The drive from Moab up 191 to where you pick up the road to Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point runs along the Moab fault, and is quite dramatic. I stopped on my way back south from my errand to make this drawing. The road drops beyond this point, plunging down toward Arches. A quickie.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Travel Drawings: Moab, Utah

My shopping mall drawings from last May got me back to drawing onsite. And M. Zettwoch's recent vacation drawings set a standard.

I don't have much to say about these things, other than that are fun to make. Nothing quite like confronting the visible world and trying to make a thing that represents an experience of it. And this landscape doesn't hurt! I made these each of the last three days. My sketchbook is getting bowed and happy. Graphite, prismacolor, marker, and gouache.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Desert Island Test Part 1

Beginning a concentrated period of work. Since June I have been collecting samples and touchstones to paper my world, so to speak, as I jump in. It's a kind of visual desert island test--if you had to winnow your library to a total of six or seven artists' works, whose would they be? I have been pondering this for my purposes. The landscape above is a Fairfield Porter from 1970 or so, composed from a high-rise building on the Amherst College campus, where Porter taught sometimes. I don't know that Porter, whose work I like and admire greatly, would make the cut. The book I have on him is borrowed from a friend, so I guess it wouldn't be right to take it along. But I am always struck by the tension between description and abstraction in Porter's work. It's a productive contest. Indeed, it's embedded in the very act of representing something.

Tonight I drew a modest little pine and engaged that tension myself. The best part of drawing the world.