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.

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