Sunday, July 21, 2013

invention, decay, reinvention

I recently finished reading Out of the Fiery Furnace: the Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind, by Robert Raymond. The book was published in 1984 as a kind of companion to a documentary television series of the same name, which was also written and produced by Raymond, I believe for an Australian public television network.

The book is about as big as a textbook or a coffee-table book, and it’s 260 pages long. It pretty much succeeds at its ambitious plan of giving a brief history of metallurgy and its impact on human civilization, from the Chalcolithic Age, which started around 6000 BC, up to the time of the book’s publishing. While being – at least for a na├»ve person such as myself, a rather comprehensive book, the book is very accessible.

The writing style is very much like the narration style for a documentary TV series. But the structure of the book is also like that of a TV show. There is a definite through line, at least within each chapter, which does read like a TV episode. But the through line might often hop from subject to subject, time period to time period, or location to location, all with the blithe easiness of the short-attention-span format of a TV show.

The main plan of the book follows the movement of civilization out of the Stone Age and into the Chalcolithic, or Copper-Stone Age, into the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The book then follows civilization into the Dark Ages, then traces its beginning movements out of the Dark Ages, into the Renaissance and into the Industrial Revolution. The book finishes with some discussion regarding man’s apparent movement into the Nuclear Age, which is treated, it seems to me, with a little bit of suspicion.

The first theme that interested and surprised me was the length of time during which Asia and Europe, or at least Asia and the Mediterranean, have been in contact with each other. It seems to me like nowadays, with all our talk of emerging markets, especially our talk of countries like China being emerging markets, we as Americans have an almost romantic perception of our contact with Asia, South America, and Africa as being something new. But the different civilizations of the world have been in touch with each other for a long time.

If anything, what’s interesting is the notion that this might not have been very well known, at least by European and American nations, until the archaeologists began, in the 1960s and 1970s, finding clues of old trade routes with Asian civilizations and Mediterranean societies. From what I understand, Raymond even seems to argue that the birth of the Bronze Age occurred in the Mediterranean (then spreading into Western Europe) because of the contact the Mediterranean civilizations had with the Mediterranean civilizations through the trade routes which came by boat from Asia to Persia and then spread westward on land from Persia.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. But Raymond argues that in the Mediterranean there wasn’t an abundant enough supply of tin for the civilizations to create bronze on the scale in which it has been found in Bronze Age archaeological sites. Raymond believes that the abundant tin also had to be easily recoverable, i.e. to come from alluvial, or river, deposits. But Raymond does not believe there is any evidence for alluvial bronze in the Mediterranean areas which were the seat of the Bronze Age.

Raymond instead argues, based on archaeological discoveries that were new at the time of his writing (and which may, for all I know, now be either old hat or completely disproven – or still new in a sense!), that there was plenty of tin in China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Raymond proposes that the archaeological evidence indicates that as early as 3000 BC, the alloy of bronze was being made from copper and tin in Northern Thailand. It also indicates that in China, an area known as Ban Chiang became a rather developed center of a Bronze Age civilization in 2000 BC. It is argued that the Asian techniques of creating bronze were passed along, through trade routes, to Cyprus, which was, in the West, the seat of Bronze Age civilization.

A theme of Out of the Fiery Furnace that seems similar to this one points out the fact that the Asian civilizations not only were in contact with at least the Mediterranean civilizations, but that they also were leading innovators and technicians in their own right. When it came to the making of metals, the Asian civilizations were, Raymond argues, in possession of incredible alloying technologies. Not only did they, seemingly, invent the alloy of bronze, but they also routinely performed alloying of various metals, including metals the alloying of which was not common practice in the Western world until relatively recent times.

The Asian civilizations also introduced certain innovations in the processes of smelting metals, or heating the metals in order to separate them in their purity from the ores. These innovations included the invention of the horizontal bellows and the double-acting box bellows.

The bellows are what blow air over fire, to increase the amount of air which is fueling the fire, thus increasing the heat of the fire. Bellows were often impeded in the past by gravity. People working the bellows would have to push the bellows up and down to work them. But the Chinese metal-makers came up with the idea of horizontal bellows, hung from a rod, so that the bellows were works by a back-and-forth motion, free of gravity, rather than an up-and-down motion.

To this innovation was added the concept of the double-acting box bellows, which, instead of providing air to the fire on one of the directions of pushing and pulling the bellows, provided air on both the push and the pull. This continuous provision of air to the fire made it much easier to raise the fire to a certain temperature and keep it there.

Raymond also notes the Chinese for their skill in casting iron. In particular, the bronze works from Xi’an during the Shang dynasty are noted. Some of these works weigh almost a ton, but they were cast in one piece. Raymond notes that the technology for this kind of casting required an almost industrial-scale technology. And, indeed, Raymond points out, traces of this industrial technology were found in recent times by archaeologists.

In addition to casting, however, the Asian civilizations developed a skill in assembly of cast parts, often creating interlocking iron pieces for weapons, such as arrows. The casting and interlocking of parts was different from the techniques of the Near East civilizations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, which often conducted their metal-smithing through hammering, like the ancient flint-knappers of the Stone Age.

The first part of this book also seems to be largely concerned with the decay, decline, and disappearance of civilizations. As a person who used to work in the Park Service, I know that the mystery of a disappearance of a civilization is one of the biggest and most popular mysteries of history. And Raymond speculates over the decline and disappearance of many civilizations in the first part of his book. It’s not really a wonder. The book is 260 pages long. In the first 100 pages, Raymond covers roughly 7,500 years of history. In the last 160 pages, he covers roughly 500 years. There is obviously going to be a decent amount of discussion of decaying civilization packed into a 100-page discussion of 7,500 years of society.

Some of the stories are pretty straightforward. The discussion of the vanished society of Catal Huyuk, which seemed to usher in the Chalcolithic Age in about 6000 BC, is a standard mystery story like the other mystery stories of the vanished societies of time. I don’t remember much discussion of the Anatolian civilization, that of the Timna Valley in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Cypriot, Hittite, and Western European Civilizations were said to have been invaded by what the archaeologists of Raymond’s time called the “sea peoples,” which were assumed to have been peoples from the Balkan regions, in about 1200 BC. This invasion disrupted the supply of tin from Asia and, from what I can tell, dispersed the Hittite civilization, destroyed the Cypriot civilization, and set the newly sprouting Bronze Age of Western Europe back into the Stone Age. But it also ushered in the Iron Age.

The Greek civilization, the first paragon of the Iron Age, was at least partly said to have declined as a result of the tapping out of its mines. The Greeks had many mines in Attica, most famously the Laurion mine. But the mines eventually became unproductive, and as they did, the Greek civilization decayed.

Raymond also connects the story of the Roman empire to mining, most notably the Tartessian or Rio Tinto mine in Spain. Though the fate of Rome wasn’t tied to the fate of this mine, Raymond notes how, as Roman society decayed, the Romans were forced to abandone the mine.

Raymond traces the decline of Roman civilization to an “implosion of mediocrity” in what was really the first technological empire of the world. As Roman civilization decayed, the empire saw increased inflation and decreased economic fortune. As a result, Roman currency declined and Roman society became fragmented. Due to this fragmentation, other forces, such as the Visigoths, were able to invade the Roman empire and take power over its territories. The Visigoths took over Spain, thus cutting Rome off from its valuable Rio Tinto mine. But, as Roman civilization declined, the invading forces did not take up mining on the scale of the Romans. Mines such as the Rio Tinto were abandoned for centuries.

The “decline” of China, if there was one, seems to have been concurrent with the decline of Roman civilization – during the Han dynasty, around 200 AD. Raymond again cites complacency as a cause for the decline of China’s civilization. But, instead of showing China to be a fragmented civilization, he seems to show it as an overly centralized and isolated civilization that saw itself as its own little universe, sort of complete and perfect as it was, with no room for growth or change. Raymond seems to argue that this complacency led to a stagnation of and decline of civilization.

Another interesting theme of the book is how the discovery of metal-making techniques came about. I see four different factors for discovery: accident, non-productive curiosity, distribution of information, and necessity. The birth of the Copper Age seems to have come as a result of both accident and non-productive curiosity.

The recovery of metals, or their separation from ores into a more pure and workable form, is usually achieved through smelting. Smelting is a process which requires three things: the ore, a sufficient amount of heat to melt and separate the metal from the rest of the ore, and a “reductive” atmosphere, which allows the metal to form back into a body separate from the rest of the ore. Copper, in fact, requires a heat of 1084 degrees Celsius. The reductive atmosphere would be an atmosphere of combined oxygen and carbon.

Copper may previously have been worked in its “native,” or found, state, i.e. when there were open deposits of copper big enough to have been worked, for purposes of adornment, such as jewelry. However, there was no way to get enough copper to make it more practical to use for everyday purposes, such as tools, than stone already was. Yet, because of its beauty as an adornment, Raymond argues, copper became highly value to pre-Copper Age civilizations.

Raymond says that toward the end of the Chalcolithic Age, when pottery had developed into a process using kilns, there was finally a vessel and process capable of creating enough heat – as well as a reductive atmosphere (of air and wood-smoke, or carbon) – to allow for the smelting of copper. Copper ores were used as pigments on Chalcolithic pottery, and so they would occasionally, instead of sticking to the vase, turn into splotches, the copper of which would separate and drip onto the floor of the kiln.

The Chalcolithic potters, Raymond says, became curious as to this effect and eventually learned how to duplicate it. They eventually produced copper in enough supply, Raymond seems to argue, that copper became preferred over stone for the making of some daily objects. And thus the Copper Age was born.

The birth of the Bronze Age seems to have been largely a result of the distribution of information, at least in the Western World. As far as I can tell, the birth of the Bronze Age in the East wasn’t discussed to deeply by Raymond.

The birth of the Iron Age was also partly due to the distribution of information – from the Hittites, who held their power over the civilizations they invaded as a result of their iron-making techniques, and who would not share their iron-making techniques until the “sea peoples” invaded them and everybody else in the Near East, causing both their civilization and their technical knowledge to be distributed throughout the Mediterranean.

But the Iron Age also came about as a result of necessity. When the “sea peoples” invaded the Near East in 1200 BC, they cut off trade routes with Persia (I think) and thus with Asia. The tin supply which was necessary for the creation of Bronze was cut off. Bronze was cheaper to make, stronger, and more flexible than iron, or at least iron made by non-Hittite techniques. But Bronze was no longer in supply. So iron had to be used.

So the Mediterranean civlizations began to improve their iron-making processes. The original process of making iron consisted of heating the ore to 1573 degrees Celsius. This created a sort of slag known as bloom iron. Bloom iron was then hammered, or “wrought,” into a shape.

Iron-making technique developed when people began to hammer the iron at a certain temperature. The iron was first heated to 1200 degrees Celsius. It was then hammered, while never being allowed to drop below 800 degrees Celsius, and while also keeping the iron in contact with white-hot charcoal. The charcoal added carbon to the iron, which “steeled” the iron. This high-temperature hammering created iron that was twice as strong as cold-wrought bronze.

The iron was then subjected to a third technique, called “tempering.” In this phase, the iron was quenched in cold water, which added strength, but caused the iron to lose some of its flexibility. The iron was then, however, reheated to 700 degrees Celsius. This made some of the carbon, which caused the loss of flexibility, to evaporate from the surface of the iron. The pure iron of the surface created a kind of jacket of flexibility around the iron. This created a form of iron that was superior to bronze in both strength and flexibility, and allowed the growth of the Iron Age.

As far as I can tell, no further developments seemed necessary in the production of iron until about 1550 AD, when parts of Europe, in particular Britain, underwent what can be thought of as an energy crisis. As populations grew, agriculture increased, and the industries of iron production, ship-making, and glass-making burgeoned, Europe’s forests were decimated. In 1588,  Britain imposed a duty against anybody who would use timber as fuel for the production of iron. Not only was fuel becoming scarce, it was also being taxed, making the production of iron more and more expensive all the time.

The fuel for the production of iron was charcoal, or charred wood. The wood was charred until most of the carbon had left it. This made a fuel that could burn efficiently, creating a very hot flame, as well as not tainting iron too much with carbon and sulfur. But now charcoal had to be abandoned, for cost reasons, by iron-makers. Iron-makers began substituting coal for charcoal. But coal had a high carbon content and was therefore impractical to use, even though it was much cheaper than charcoal.

However, a man named Abraham Darby, who had chiefly been involved in the brass business, took a cue from the beer brewing business. The beer brewers, who had learned long ago that the impurities of coal, both carbon and sulfur, destroyed the taste of their beer, but could not use wood for their malting process, began to burn the impurities out of coal, the same way they had been burnt out of wood. This charred coal created by the brewers was called coke. In 1709, Darby began to use coke to make his iron, and he created such good iron so cheaply that iron mining was greatly increased.

In 1856, Henry Bessemer improved one type of iron-making process to make it the foremost of all iron-making processes. This process was called “puddling,” and it created a very pure form of iron known as steel. Since ancient time, steel had been used, first in India, and then in other parts of the world, to create a kind of steel known as “wootz steel,” which made fearsomely sharp swords. However, the puddling process was extremely time- and energy-intensive, and it created only a modest amount of steel.

Bessemer’s innovation was to use the improved bellows technologies of his day to add massive amounts of air to the puddling process. By doing so, Bessemer was able greatly to increase the temperature of the puddles. This made the purification of the iron into steel much quicker and easier than it ever had been. The steel-making puddles were scaled up to previously unheard-of sizes, and steel became a very cheap material. Its strength and flexibility surpassed that of iron. And the use of steel enabled the creation of modern machinery and buildings, such as those we see today.

Another metal was discovered through two different processes. Aluminum had been known of for a long time – some argue since the days of the Romans. But it had such a strong affinity with oxygen that no amount of carbon could cause it to be reduced from its ores. Eventually, in 1809, Humphry Davy posited that the reduction could be achieved through electrolysis, or the usage of electricity. But the use of electricity was only in its infancy, and electrolysis was an impractical way of smelting aluminum.

In 1845, Friederich Wollen created a chemical process for recovering aluminum. He used aluminum chlorate and phosphorous to create a chemical reaction that separated aluminum from its ores. This process was then improved upon by Henri Etienne Saint-Clair Deville in 1854. In 1858 a large supply of ore was noted in the Le Baux area of France. This mass supply of aluminum ore allowed for the commercial production, and perfected chemical techniques, for the production of aluminum.

However, in the 1870s, electrical technologies had developed to the point where the process of electrolysis, first proposed by Sir Humphry Davy in 1809, now became more practical for the recovery of aluminum than the chemical process. The electrical process was perfected by Charles Hall of the United States and Paul Heroult of France.

As well as the production of metals, there were plenty of technologies developed around mining for metals and their ores. Raymond lists three different kinds of difficulties posed for mining: holding up the roofs of mines, keeping the mines lit, and keeping water out of the mines. Despite what I’d assume would be Raymond’s obvious knowledge of the modern travesties of both mine collapses as well as landslides due to strip-mining, Raymond lists the most important historical issue of mines to be water seepage.

The Romans, with their Rio Tinto mine, came up with the first innovation for keeping water out of mines. This was the “noria,” or water-wheel. The norias were actually a kind of relay system of water wheels. These wheels were hand-cranked. A ditched would be formed in one level of the mine. Buckets on the end of the wheel would scoop up water out of the ditch. These buckets would be cranked up the wheel, to a ditch on a higher level of the mine. Another bucket on another wheel would scoop up the water and carry it up higher, until the water was finally dumped outside of the mine.

As the Western world headed into the Dark Ages, mining was neglected, and so the Roman noria technology was not improved upon. But, in the year 800 AD, Charlemagne was crowned the emperor of the Western world by Pope Leo III. Charlemagne, in order to improve the material condition of his empire, re-opened mines.

One major mine was the Rammelsburg mine in the Herz mountaints. This mine was opened in 938. The mine continued production and went deeper and deeper, until the year 1250, when there was so much difficulty with water seepage that the mine had to be shut. The mine reopened, however, in 1370, when the hand-cranked water wheel was improved upon. A treadmill was added to the water-wheel. The wheel was no longer hand-cranked, but powered by the continued walking and pushing motion of men. This allowed for more, and more continuous power.

In 1486, the water-wheel technology was again improved upon when dams, tunnels and waterways were used to create a source of power more powerful and continuous than that of living muscle to power the waterwheels. As a result of this, mines went deeper and deeper.

However, as a result of increased demand for coal after Abraham Darby’s innovation of coking iron in 1709, mines were now being driven so deep that even the water-powered water-wheels were no longer effective enough.

This inspired Thomas Newcome in 1712 to create his pumping engine. The engine was based on the idea that steam, when condensed, creates a partial vacuum, which allows the much heavier air outside this vacuum, to exert a considerable pushing force on the vacuum. Newcome translated these ideas to a piston-and-pump system, which allowed for the pumping of water out of mines to occur with even greater force.

James Watt noted the inefficiencies in Thomas Newcome’s system and created a more efficient engine based on the idea of steam and the partial vacuum. This idea developed into the steam engine. In 1797 Richard Trevithick developed the steam engine which he would then use on his steam-carriage, the predecessor to the locomotive, in 1801.

Raymond discusses other mining technologies, including technologies from Australia, which, after the American gold rush of 1849, had a gold rush of its own, and soon became the developer of the greatest mining technologies in the world. Raymond also discusses some of the modern technologies for mining, which include the usage of immense machinery.

The last theme which really strikes me is the usage of metals. For much of man’s history in the Ages of Metals, it seems to me, man has seen the metals as being of use in four ways: adornment, currency, implements, and containers. Raymond points out that the development of man into a metal-worker would possibly not have occurred, or would not have occurred as quickly as it had, had it not been for the beauty of metals as adornments. Even to this day, the precious metals are sought after by man for jewelry.

The history of man also illustrates how man has used metals – mostly, it seems to me, from my understanding of Raymond, silver – as currency. The ancient Greek mines were largely silver mines. The Romans mined for silver in the Rio Tinto mines, until Roman currency was so debased that the Romans could no longer purchase copper from other places and also had to begin exploiting the Rio Tinto mine for copper as well as silver. The Rio Tinto mine was re-opened by Spain in the 16th century by Phillip the II in order to harvest more silver, to fund the nation’s expansion. And the gold rush was what it was, in both the United States and Australia, because gold was currency. Gold then funded the growth of America into the industrial giant it is today.

The use of metals in a practical sense is, I think, divisible into two types: implements (tools, utensils, etc.) and containers. I think the same could be said of stone and pottery. While weaving could also be thought of as of use for implements and containers, I think it also has the character of being an insulator.

Contrasted, however, with insulation, metal can also be seen as a conductor. But – I think – it was not until the discovery of electricity that metal was seen as being a conductor. When metal began to be seen as a conductor, man obviously entered a new age. Metal has likely always been seen as a conductor of heat, but probably mostly by accident, and its character as a conductor in cooking was likely only seen as an accident or something ancillary to its character as a container for objects being cooked.

However, with the advent of electricity, metal took on a different character. As an implement or container, metal was an object which acted only as man provided the motive force for its action. But now, as a conductor, metal itself carried, and then provided that motive force. To be sure, that motive force was at first provided by another object – namely a power generator. But the metal itself, not man as a carrier, moved that motive force to its end point, which may have been another agent of motive force, or which may have been an expender of that force, such as a light bulb.

The final development of the metals, I would assume, has come from the Nuclear Age. The metals have abstracted their character as implement into what it really is – namely an agent of motive force, activated. But the metals have gone, as implement, into being motive force itself. And, once this happened, I believe, it became much easier for man to see that motive force, even conduction, was not required to have something we would generally think of as “material” to carry it. Thus we have developed the usage of radio waves and so forth.

As I said before, Out of the Fiery Furnace seems to hover at this end point, the Nuclear Age, with a certain amount of caution. Partly, no doubt, that is because of the massive destruction of which nuclear power is capable. But partly, it may also be because the Nuclear Age has managed to usher in an age in which man is dependent, for the development of his civilization, on something that is not a metal – something which may not even be considered to be very material at all.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

passing through walls

Today I went down to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver for the exhibitions there that are part of the Biennial of the Americas. The Biennial displays the works of artists from countries all across North and South America. The art, which includes works in galleries as well as site-specific installations, is on display all over Denver through September 2nd. There are a number of festivals and events concurrent with the Biennial, including some big parties in Civic Center Park on Thursday and Friday night. I won't be going to the parties. I'm kind of allergic to parties -- i.e. I'm a wimp.

But today the MCA Denver had a special afternoon of tours put on by the artists whose work was on exhibition. There are actually four exhibits put on for the Biennial, but three of the artists were present to give talks: Tatiana Blass, John McEnroe, and Gaspar Libedinsky.

The talks were all co-hosted by Nora Abrams, the Associate Curator for MCA Denver. Abrams is kind of worth mentioning up front. She's a really insightful person, able to explain and clarify the artists' processes and ideas as she saw them while she was working to help get the exhibitions underway. She also has a very warm, friendly style of presentation.

The first talk was by Tatiana Blass, whose exhibit is called Electrical Room. Apparently Blass had been chosen last year to do an installation for this exhibit. She visited the MCA and the room where her installation was going to be. She was amused, however, by a sign on a door that said "Electrical Room." I'm kind of kicking myself right now for not having sought out the door and the sign.

Blass' imagination worked with the fantasy of what was behind the door of the "Electrical Room." When she came back to Denver, she and the people at the MCA Denver went to an electronics recycling place near the museum. There they found all kinds of old televisions, computers, and other electronic devices. Blass built all these electronic devices up into a mound in the promenade-hallway outside the large exhibit space which would be the main room of the installation.

Blass then strung electric cord back from this mound and into the wall. The cord then gave the appearance of running through the wall and into the large exhibiton room. The large exhibition room is filled with the masses of cord -- 14,000 feet of electric cord, in fact. The cord slumps down from the wall and down toward the floor, only to slope and swoop back upward toward the walls and ceiling. The cord connects into electrical outlets -- 500 of them -- along the floor, walls, and ceiling. So this entire large exhibition space is filled with lines, loops, nets, and coils of elerectric cord.

Blass also created a 10-track video of people whose faces would appear on some of the screens in the piles of electronics. The people all speak in Portugese except for one woman who acts as a translator and speaks in English. All the characters have their own personalities. It was actually very charming to watch Blass describe some of these personae: the pragmatic man, the philosopher, and so forth.

Blass' idea seemed to be that our culture has kind of come to inhabit the electronic devices through which we communicate. But there also seems to be an element of miscommunication and confusion in her work. The issue of miscommunication, it seems, is age-old. And it doesn't go away, even when we as people interactiing with other people characterize ourselves through electronic devices.

But the work also gave me a couple other feelings. First, I saw the pile of TVs not only as being inspired, obviously, by Nam June Paik, but also by David Cronenberg's Brian O'Blivion character from Videodrome -- the character you mostly see only in a head-shot on a television screen.

What also struck me was that the room full of cords implied what comes from the back of the electronic device: the cord. This could also be the cable-TV or Internet cord. But I, for some region, also imagined a whole other set of cords expanding from the front of the screen: the TV waves, which would be invisible, impalpable, to a degree, but still there.

The cords in the cord room also reminded me -- surprise, surprise -- of sperm. But the strange thing about these sperm would be that they came out of a womb, the mound of electronics. Instead of many sperm going toward a womb but only one sperm getting in, we have a lot of sperm going out from a womb, each sperm finding its own personal fulfillment in an electrical outlet.

The next person to speak was John McEnroe, whose exhibit was called Beauty Does. McEnroe seemed to be a little unconfident in the title of his exhibit. At one point he said he thought he should have named the exhibit after a compliment a friend had once given him: John McEnroe Thinks with His Hands. At another point he said that he didn't really believe in beauty, that the closest he got to believing in beauty was believing that occasionally human beings can be lucky enough to catch very honest moments in their lives.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge, mobile-like sculpture made out of two different kinds of plastics and some various found materials. One kind of plastic is a plastic that is molded through melting: polyvinyl acetate. The other is a kind of resin called, I think, heat-set resin.

The melted plastic had found objects, like rope, plastic construction netting, steel mesh, steel wire, shovel heads, flashlights, and other items, dipped into it. These objects were then hung from the four-story-high ceilings of the atrium, allowing the plastic to drip, usually in long strips or strings, down to the floor. The objects are mostly orange, and the plastic is also orange. The heat-set resin is a neon-yellow, and it was dripped down along polyester strings in such a way that beads of the resin gathered along the strings, giving an appearance of bead-curtain strings. Occasionally there are also some Super Balls, which I imagine having been caught by the melting plastic in mid-bounce.

Another set of works involving resin and rope were two works called White Tie and Black Tie. These works are basically long lengths of rope tangled up and frozen inside of massy rectangles of semi-opaque, milky-yellowish resin. The rectangles of resin provide the sense of a portrait or painting, a conventional work of art. But the tangled up rope spills out from the resin, flopping down and spilling all over the floor.

McEnroe said he kind of had a fixation on the idea of freezing rope. It seemed, he said, like rope is such a symbol of mutability. A rope fulfils a purpose when its linearity is distorted by a knot. The knot makes the rope into something different. But after the rope's task was finished, the rope was straightened back out. It just became linear, just line. I thought this was kind of interesting -- a rope is when it is knot.

It's kind of interesting to note that McEnroe said that his idea of melting plastic also came from this idea of freezing rope. He had dipped some rope in the polyvinyl acetate in order to freeze it. He then hung it up in his studio overnight. He came back to his studio the next day with a friend of his. The friend saw the dripping plastic object and thought it was fantastic. This inspired McEnroe to make more melted plastic sculptures.

What's also interesting to me is that McEnroe had stories about the rope in Black Tie and White Tie. The Black Tie rope came from the backstage area of the old stage at the old Elitch's amusement park. This was fascinating to me. The old Elitch's has so many childhood memories for me. And it symbloizes the old Denver for me. I prefer the new, and changing, Denver. But I'll always love the old Denver.

The final artist to speak was Gaspar Libedinsky, whose exhibit was called Productos Caseros, or Household Products. The exhibit is of two videos, both based on the Caseros prison in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The prison was originally intended to be an interim prison, for prisoners caught for minor offences or awaiting trial. Prisoners weren't meant to stay there for more than a few months. And it was built only a couple kilometers from the center of town, so the prisoners could be close to their families and the courthouse.

But, for some reason, the prison started holding prisoners for more serious offences and for longer periods of time. The prison reached a critical mass of prisoners. These prisoners all decided to riot. They took the fire extinguishers and began to pound away at the thin, brittle walls of the prisons, busting holes in the prison walls. They would use these holes to travel between floors, even to escape the prison -- though they would always return to the prison -- often after having committed fresh crimes. This was all happening close to the center of the city. But, strangely, the people in the city weren't talking about it.

Eventually a crime ended in the deaths of two "escaped" prisoners, and the government decided to shut down the Caseros prison. In 2006, about 20 years after the prison was closed, it was demolished. But before the prison was demolished, Libedinsky went to the prison and filmed a sort of reenactment of the making of a hole in the wall. He then used footage of the hole in the wall as part of short video vignettes.

One of the videos in the exhibit is the video of the hole in the wall being created. The video is in split screen, showing the view from inside the building and the view from outside the building. The video is projected low to the floor. This emphasizes the fact that the holes in the prison walls were made close to the floors. It gives the sense of this view being a part of our own reality.

The strange thing, though, is that the split screen also shows the outside view, which is, if I remember Libedinsky correctly, from six stories up in the air. Compound that with the fact that this video is being projected in the basement of the MCA Denver, below ground, and it creates a strange sense of vertigo.

The other video is one of the vignettes. It's called Cuckoo. It is projected onto a foot-tall, wooden structure in the shape of a birdhouse or cuckoo clock. The story begins with the hole in the wall being created. Then a woman, a wife in a family, dumps some "garbage" (really, Styrofoam peanuts) out the window. The husband of the family then steps up and jumps out the window, like he is planning to jump to his death. But he hangs onto the window ledge for a moment, then pulls himself back up in through the window. The wife comes back out, beats the dust off a carpet, then pulls the blinds on the window.

The fourth exhibit was also really terrific -- Diarios, by Guillermo Kuitca. But I am all out of steam tonight. I'm definitely planning to head back to see the exhibit again sometime. So after I do, perhaps I'll spend some time discussing it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

moody maps of textural disruption

Today I went to the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, one of the biggest art festivals in Colorado, with artists from all over the United States showing their work. Cherry Creek is a nice, fashionable neighborhood just outside of Downtown Denver, and the festival is something of a yearly tradition for families, as well as buyers. The show is a few blocks long, and there are hundreds of artists at the show, so it's not really possible to see everything. I take the approach of walking along the middle of the street, browsing through the booths from a distance, then heading into a booth that I think is interesting.

The first booth I stopped into displayed the works of Brianna Martray, a sculptor who works in Colorado. Her works are made of cast bronze and resin clay. All of her works have an undersea feeling; in fact, what caught my eye was a lovely set of resin clay, mobile-like sculptures of jellyfish. The cast bronze sculptures are generally spindly, with a patina of blue caked all over them. They do have an undersea appearance, but they also look a bit like the dry stalks of dormant vegetation in the fall.

The resin clay works are totally different. They're much thicker, and often the clay is folded or looped, then stacked in piles. These piles can often be quite dense. The centerpiece of the works was a huge stalk, from which emerged a thick, pointy flower. Other than some dangly threads reminiscent of the jellyfish stingers, the flower was unique among the works. It was solid, figurative, rather than being like dangly stalks or stacks of loops and folds.

I then took a look at the work of Marie Gruber. The work was mostly black and white photographs set against metallic plates. Some of the plates were brushed a bit, to give swashes of black shadow against the silvery sheen. This often evoked a sense of the framing of the plates continuing the atmosphere of the subjects photographed. If the scene was of trees, the black brushings seemed like tree bark. If the scene was of desert rock, the black brushings felt like rock striations. If the scene was of a bridge in the fog, the brushings were like shadows in the fog.

Near Marie Gruber's works were the works of another interesting artist. I didn't get his name, unfortunately. But he had works with luminous sikver backgrounds, against which were painted, in some works, orange and blue koi, and in other works, herds of deer. Some of the works were done on circular canvases, others on more standard rectangular canvases. The glittering paintings of the koi were all very beautiful. But for some reason, I really loved the paintings of the deer.

Another kind of interesting body of work was done by a man named Michael Schwegman. Most of Schwegman's works were works of ceramic made to look like metallic machinery, tools, chains, and so forth. It looks just as heavy and sturdy as the real thing. But it's obviously delicate: there were caution signs all over the place.

But what I liked a bit more than these works were the works that had a little something more involved artistically. For instance, one piece looked like a piece of machinery with three tubes sticking out of the top. But toward the base, the glaze becomes thick and red. Then, from within the red glaze, the image of a tan silhouette of a tree emerges. That's very nice.

I spent a bit of time at the booth of Barbara Bouman Jay, a painter who works in California. Her works are kind of minimalist, with one color often dominating an entire field of canvas, spread over with wisps of another color. My favorite work of hers was called "Celebration." It was twelve separate canvases, three rows of four. Some of the canvases were pink; others were black. Across the canvases ran black squiggles of paint. Then, at the edges of the canvas, there were tan blocks that looked like book pages with scientific diagrams on them. These diagrams seemed to be the nexus points for the squiggles running across the canvases.

Another set of works by Bouman Jay that were interesting were called the "Road Map Series." These were generally fields of color painted over maps, with printed letters stuck or painted over the fields of color. Two very big paintings in the series were very interesting. The fields of color were a thick tan, almost like old vellum pages. But they had deep, diagonal slashes running across them.

Bouman Jay said she liked using the maps because the letters and lines on the maps added something very interesting texturally. But she had to be careful not to let the letters and lines guide her literally or figuratively in her painting.

I told Bouman Jay I thought that was interesting, as her "Celebration" painting had those nexus points that almost looked like coordinate fields straight out of a page of a science book. Bouman Jay said that that kind of made sense. She said that her last set of works was called "Throwing Stars," and was based on some images of black holes she'd seen in a science book of her son's. She said, "My son had lost the book, then we paid for it, then we found it again, but we couldn't give it back. So I figured I'd at least make some use out of it. So I took it to my studio with me. I don't know anything about science or stars. But the images really inspired me."

I told Bouman Jay that that side of her work really reminded me of the work of Dorothy Dehner I'd recently seen at the Denver Art Museum. Bouman Jay told me she'd really wanted to go see that exhibit while she was in town, but that she'd missed it to do something else. She then told me about the Rothko chapel in Houston, which sounds like a really incredible place. She also told me about the Cy Twombly Museum, which is either in Fort Worth or Houston. A Cy Twombly museum seems like an awesome concept.

I then took a look at the works of a couple named Signe and Genna Grushovenko. These works have an interesting style I don't think I've ever seen before. The canvas first seems to be painted with swirls, stripes, or splotches of bright color. Then, in front of the color, there are figures painted. But the figures aren't painted whole. Sections of their bodies, often where one might expect to see areas of contrast, maybe shadow, maybe light, there are holes, nothing, negative space, where the bright swirls of color pour through.

This seems to be a variation on the idea of distorted imagery, kind of along the reverse lines of Eduardo Sarabia, whose recent paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver were of clean, sharp, photo-style paintings disrupted by clean, sharp, photo-style images of Liechtenstein-thick daubs and blobs of paint. In Sarabia, the figurative image is disrupted. In the Grushovenkos' work, the figurative image seems to be disrupted. Or maybe the figurative and non-figurative are cooperatively disrupting each other.

Mental masturbation!

The images themselves are lovely: many in a 1950s style, of pretty girls showing off their bikini bottoms, or of guys standing with girls before nice cars. There are also neat images of carnival rides, and one grid of faces, like a page of yearbook photos -- except that the faces are hardly there! It's mostly just the swirls of color.

I listened to Genna tell a prospective buyer that she and Signe kind of tag team their paintings. Signe paints the swirls of color. Then Genna draws a pastel outline of a scene onto the background. She then paints in the various fragments of the scene with oil paints.

Just down the way from the Grushovenkos was a booth of paintings by Michel Delgado, a Senegalese painter who now lives in Key West, Florida. His paintings mix thick layers of paint, often very dark, with scratchy, scrawly figures and nets of spilled or spattered paint. The paintings often have main subjects in the foreground: hyenas or wolves, clown-like devils, human men and women, and skeletons. But the backgrounds show phantoms of scrawly people, demons, buildings, and mathematical figures. A lot of times the scenes are also interrupted by pink and white polka dots, or orange, yellow, and black tongues of flame, like a rain of fire. There are also occasionally patches of other things affixed to the paintings, such as trays of papier-mâché skeletons, or old bottlecaps.

I stopped in the booth of pottery by Michigan artist Brian Beam. Beam's pottery is really interesting. It has a tan-yellow-green and deep green color scheme glazing red clay. But the yellow-green and green run over each other in a really lovely and organic, mottled fashion. And there are little stipples of red running up the sides of some of the vases and pots. There are also some vases that are done in a really unique style, bent in toward their centers and curled around toward their edges, so that, even while their color scheme resembles a plant's stalk, their shape resembles something like a calla lily. There are also some neat plates with bases coated in a cracked, white glaze that looks vaguely like spirals formed by the cracks in mud on a dry river bed.

Brian Beam wasn't there, but a friend of his who had come from Fulton, Michigan, with him was. I asked her hkw Beam had managed to get the red stippling effect in the yellow and green pottery. The woman told me that Beam uses a specific kind of wood ash as a glaze. The wood ash has a tendency to separate away from the clay during firing, like oil separates from water. That creates openings in the glaze, where the clay becomes visible. Hence the effect of the red stippling.

I told the woman that I'd never heard of that before. The woman said that not a lot of people were familiar with that effect. I asked the woman if people were still learning about the effects of certain glazes. She said, "Oh, yeah. A lot of people don't use wood ash glazes, anyway, just because of the fact that they're unpredictable. They're kind of finicky."

I walked a little farther and saw an image on the side of a booth I really liked. It was a pink stove. The pink obviously seemed to be painted onto the image of the stove. But the overall image was under glass, it seemed, like a photograph. The image was done by Dana Shavin, a woman from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Shavin's images seem to combine photos, painting, squares of acetate color, text, and other elements, often in a superimposed and collage-like style. The superimposed style reminds me of some of the works I saw by Sabin Aell at the McNichols Civic Center Building a few months ago.

Some of the works use very artificial settings, like the painted stoves, some pink, some yellow and blue; or old-fashioned, plastic dolls; or old typewriters. But some of the other scenes are more rustic, like scenes of dogs on a lawn or white horses, or houses in a rural area, or an old, decaying swimming pool. I particularly liked the image if the plastic doll, over which are superimposed images of a knife, fork, and spoon. Shavin leeringly told me this image was called "Solid Food." Double entendre, tongue in cheek, you are what you eat.

I told Shavin that her work made me want to go to Tennessee. It seems like there is such an interesting art and music scene. Shavin agreed, and said that Chattanooga was doing a lot to promote the arts, as one way of keeping the young people in town, as well as drawing more young people into the town. Shavin said that, as well as her, three other artist from Chattanooga were present at the festival, including her husband, who, by some strange twist of fate, was set on the opposite side of the festival from Dana!

I pointed out one work I really liked, of a photo of a house splotched over with deep red paint and with deep blue paint in the background. The house is surrounded by tangled canopies of dead trees, making the deep blue of the sky look even deeper. Shavin said this painting was a favorite of hers because she really loved the house. It was in some quiet, rural part of Georgia. Shavin said she wanted to live in the house when she saw it. But the house was way too run-down for anybody to live in.

I kind of tried to express to Shavin what I thought of her style. But I stuttered and fell silent. Shavin told me she saw her style as being moody. She said that if she had one kind of mood in her overall style it was probably pensive. But, she said, some of her work, like the work with the typewriters, was more cerebral.

There was a booth of interesting quilts by Taos artist Terrie Hancock Mangat. A lot of the quilts are done in a strip-like fashion that kind of reminded me, I think, of the work of Lucas Samaras. Some of the quilts then employ flower or tree imagery in their foreground, sometimes with an emphasis on the roots of the vegetation, other times with an emphasis on the flowering of the vegetation, and other times with an emphasis on the rain that falls on the vegetation -- this rain often signified by tiny, shiny, cylindrical beads.

One interesting thing to me was that entangled in the roots of the vegetation are often little, circular patches of imagery. Sometimes the imagery is abstract, sometimes mundane, and sometimes religious. It seemed to me like these patches were like the destiny of the world, lying dormant in the soil, tangled in the roots of the vegetation, which, it seems, carry the destiny of the vegetation.

The religious imagery struck me because there are some other quilts devoted to Buddha and the Virgin Mary. There are also some small quilts with stacks of these little circular patches called "Cairns," named after the stone trail markers one often finds in the woods.

I asked Mangat about the circular patches. She said she thought of them as stones. She said that she had found a lot of her previous work had used sticks and twigs as imagery. She soon realized that this was because, as a Taoseño, she did a lot of hiking and saw a lot of twigs on the trails. Now she was noticing stones, and even cairns, and now those things are becoming a part of her work. Mangat said that the cairn quilts were made especially for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, since she knew Denverites were avid hikers like she was.

I told Mangat it struck me that the stones in the roots seemed to have a mystical meaning, or an indication of destiny. I said that the cairns, using that imagery, and compounding it with the quilts of the Buddha, seemed to be like a map of the chakras. Mangat liked that idea a lot. She said that, after all, cairns themselves did seem to be mystical things. She asked me if I couldn't feel that as I saw them while out hiking. I agreed that I could.

Another booth I liked was by Virginian artist Benjamin Frey. He also paints over pages of text, what he calles "found pages," I believe. He paints backgrounds of blue and tan, usually to denote land or sea and sky. Then, I think, in charcoal, he sketches out little vignettes. The vignettes are often carnivalesque. Locomotives, elephants, jugglers, acrobats, unicyclists, carousels, and twirling swing rides. The texts are often about geometry or physics or engineering, and they kind of match the motion or the overall subject of the vignette in the foreground.

Another artist that uses pages of texts is Denver artist Stacey Schultz. She uses the maps motif, like Barbara Bouman Jay. But her maps are almost gelled over with this sweet-sour-looking glass in vivid blues, oranges, and yellows. The glass has concentric circle designs spotting it. Usually in the centers of these concentric designs are clear circles giving a plain view of the maps beneath.

I was interested to listen to a conversation Schultz was having with an engineer about the similarities between art and engineering. The more I learn about engineering, the more I think of it as a very creative pursuit. I think it's kind of sad, though. People hear about engineering in school, and they just think it's something really boring. But you can be really creative as an engineer. I think if more American kids got a better picture of what being an engineer was all about, they'd want to be engineers. And America is going to need a lot of engineers if we are going to bring industry back to America and forward into a twenty-first century of environmental ethics.

There were a few other interesting booths I visited. And I still wanted to talk about all the great outfits I saw all the people wearing! But, like I always seem to do, I've gobbled up all my time already.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

traditions of consistent heresy

Yesterday I went to the Intendence Film Festival, a little film festival that helps support emerging Colorado filmmakers and international filmmakers. Some of the films were made by professional filmmakers. Others, apparently, were made by amateur filmmakers, while others were made by college, or even high school, students. I'm not sure whether this was the festival's first year. I couldn't even tell from looking at the website. But I'm assuming it was the first year.

The festival took place in a few different locations in a part of the Denver suburb of Arvada known as Olde Town. Olde Town is one of those lovely little districts that's kind of like a small-town Main Street nestled within a modern city or suburbia. It has some lovely cafes and bars and shops and a nice, new library. The sidewalks are often paved with red bricks. The store fronts all have an olde feel. And there are even some old buildings, like an old flour mill, scattered throughout the district.

I only attended the first couple screening sessions on Saturday, the final showing day of the festival. The shows were in a big community room in the library. But throughout the length ofnthe festival, there were also screenings in the Arvada Tavern, which had been transformed into a nice, big, screening room, and the Festival Playhouse, which I didn't see.

In the library, at least, the screening quality was problematic. The films (videos, actually) played on a small screen in front of a much larger screen. There were problems with getting the films to start one after the other, and there were sound problems. The attendance was about in line with what you'd expect it to be after, apparently, only having been advertised in the windows of one shopping district in town. But this was all, as one of the audience members put it, a part of the excitement of a new (was it new?) film festival. I don't think I would have changed any of it.

The only thing I seriously would change, I think, is the name of the festival. If it's staying in Olde Town, then I'd call it the Olde Town Film Festival. It's much clearer, and people are familiar with the concept of Olde Town as a place where events are held.

The first screening I attended was all short films. The second was one short film and one feature-length film. The films in the first screening mainly seemed to involve themes of loss and regaining. The first film was a neat, little story called "Beyond Primary." It was made by a Colorado high school student named Stephan Chaikovsky. I thought it was pretty clever. It's about an old man, maybe a homeless man, who seems to be obsessed with figuring out a Rubik's Cube puzzle. The man figures out the puzzle, but then loses it in an accident. Then, in a state of desperation, he thinks he finds it again.

This film was followed up by another short film called "Color Fade," which was made by Matthew Krekeler and his classmates at the film school at -- I think -- the Santa Fe School of Art and Design. The film is about a young man in some oppressive school/society in an apparently monochrome world. The kid has has troubles with his printer one day while he is trying to print out a homework assignment. The kid hits the printer, and the printer starts printing out red sheets of paper. The kid is inspired by the color of the paper and tapes the paper all over the walls of his dormitory building. But the police, who enforce conformity, beat the kid and take all the red papers away.

The next film was called "Confessions of a Child Talent Agent." It was about three women running a children's talent agency in Denver. The main story kind of involved the first round of auditions for a cereal commercials, the agonizing wait for callbacks, and then all the frantic back and forth activity surrounding the logistics of actually getting the kids to callbacks. The film had a kind of reality show style. And there were some funny moments, like when of the agents, stressing out over the callbacks, stuffs her face more than full of York Peppermint Patties.

After that was a very short, one-gag (though the line after the gag was funnier than the gag itself) cartoon called "Killer App."

Then came an interesting film called "Edge of Destruction," by a Hong Kong artist named Fei Xiang. The film is about a young man who works as a tour guide and security guard, of sorts, at a traditional temple called the Small Goose Pagoda. The Small Goose Pagoda is legendary for twice having been wrecked and then having somehow healed itself.

One day the young man finds two people inside the Pagoda after hours. When he pursues them, they shoot at him with futuristic guns. A pretty girl protects the young man with a futuristic gun of her own. The young man and woman run out into the town to escape the thieves, but they end up cornered. Right when they are about to be killed, the young man mysteriously teleports himself and the young woman to a different part of town.

The young woman then reveals that she and the people in pursuit are actually from an alternate dimension. The Small Goose Pagoda is like a portal between the dimensions. It basically breaks and heals whenever there are collisions -- I think -- between the two dimensions. But the next time there is a collision, it could destroy this dimension.

The young man, it turns out, is an Alpha, a being who can travel freely between the dimensions... or something like that. The people pursuing the young man want to kill him because he also has the ability to stop some process involved in the collision of the dimensions. So the young man and woman have to evade and fight and evade the pursuants until the young man can perform his magic ritual to stop the collision of the dimensions.

The story was pretty straightforward. And I liked the special effects. I thought the style was kind of like the style of some of the semi-satirical Japanese action shows, like the live versions of Cutey Honey.

This film was followed by a film called "Worth," by an Australian filmmaker named Nic Barker. The story is about a man and woman who kidnao the daughter of a bitter, wealthy man. The man and woman demand a ransom of $50,000 from the father. They then hole themselves up in a hotel and wait until the man is scheduled to meet the father and exchange the ransom money for the daughter. In the meantime, the man does a number of things to reveal what an abusive jerk he is.

The man goes to meet the father, but he never comes back. It turns out that before the daughter was kidnapped, she was actually lovers with the woman. The father got angry at the daughter for being a lesbian, and the daughter ran away. But now the woman and the daughter are on their own, lovers again, and on the run.

The next film was "Isabella's," by a New York filmmaker named Daniel Vallancourt. The film is about the last day of business in the hair salon owned by a woman named Isabella. The woman has some final encounters with customers who have come to be like family to her. Then, just as she is about to close up for the night, a young man comes in and asks for a haircut. The two talk for a while about the history of the shop.

The final film in the screening was "Hecate," by Colorado filmmaker Kascha Fauscett. It was kind of a horror story about a group of girls at a slumber party who find a book of spells the magical agent of which is the ancient Greek goddess Hecate. One of the spells draws one of the girls into a parallel dimension, where horror awaits her.

The opening film of the second screening was called "Mosyö," and was made by a Turkish director named Kagan Olgunturk. The film is a documentary about a man in who has an antique and curiosity shop in the Turkish shopping district of Hergele. The man took up the profession of antique dealer after having retired. Now he collects more than he sells -- on purpose: he can't bear to part with any of his goods!

The man is called "Mosyö," a kind of Turkish corruption of the French "Monsieur," because he's known as being a bit of an intellectual, and because he dresses in what his friends think of as a French style: kind of long hair, a tweed jacket and maroon sweater, and round-brimmed hat. He's also a bit of a renegade in his community: unabashedly atheist and unafraid to speak his mind.

The film has two parts. The first part is in the antique shop, where the man repairs and plays with his antiques and curiosities. The second part takes place in a bar, where Mosyö eats and drinks with his old friends. I like the second part of the film a lot.

The second film of the screening was a feature-length documentary called The Keymaker, by a Colorado-based filmmaker named Jem Moore. The documentary is about Patrick Olwell, the legendary maker of Irish flutes. Olwell's flutes are played by Seamus Egan, Michael Molloy, and other famous Irish flautists throughout the world. Some of the best Irish flautists argue that Olwell's flutes are the best flutes in the world.

The film has three interweaving stories: how Olwell's career as a flute maker developed; how Olwell actually makes his flutes; and the opinions of the people who play Olwell's flutes.

Olwell began making flutes in the 1960s when he saw another young man at his university selling bamboo flutes at the student union. Olwell saw that that seemed to be a pretty easy way to make money. So he had the young man teach him how to make bamboo flutes. He then began selling bamboo flutes in the student union as well.

After college, Olwell moved down to a small town in Virginia and took out out an ad as a maker of bamboo flutes. The demand for bamboo flutes was great. But somehow Olwell also got involved in making Irish flutes. He became intensely involved in all the intricacies of making a good flute. He learned the good points and bad points of flutes. He replicated the construction of flutes. He mastered old techniques for makinf certain kinds of flutes. And he eventually learned to use all of these lessons to make flutes with all of the good points of the old flutes, but none of what he perceived were the bad points.

There are a lot of really interesting themes in the film. One of the biggest seems to be the difference between an artist and a craftsman. Olwell says at one point that the difference between an artist and a craftsman is that a craftsman is an artist with children. In other words, a craftsman is an artist who uses his skills to make a living. But the real question underlying this joke is, what should be considered a work of art? Flute-playing is art. But is a flute a work of art? And is flute-making artistry? Or is it crafstmanship? One person seems to compromise when he calls Olwell an artisan.

Another interesting statement made in the film is that Olwell is a genius -- has to be a genius -- because he creates such consistent, and consistently good, instruments. I don't think I've ever heard consistency listed as a criterion of genius.

When flautists speak of why they love Olwell and his flutes, they generally give threefold reasons: first, the responsiveness of the flutes, which is better than that of any other Irish flute; second, the range of the flutes, which is apparently incredible; and, third, the fact that Olwell strives to give his clients flutes that match them individually, so that their flutes really are, in a sense, extensions of their bodies.

There is also an element of dumb luck in Olwell's story. Not once, but twice, did Olwell make commercial inroads with world-famous flautists by giving the flautists his own flute after their flutes had been stolen. And I think that in both cases, the flutes were stolen from cars. Both times Olwell gave the flautists his personal flutes, the flautists fell in love the flutes and never wanted to play in anything else ever again.

Olwell has a lot of interesting catch phrases. But his most interesting one is "actually plays." When applied to flutes, it means a flute of high quality. A flute that "actually plays" isn't a flute that makes noise and pretty much is in tune. It's a world-class flute. And the term applies equally well to performers. A musician who "actually plays" isn't competent: he's of an elite level of talent.

Olwell also sees himself as capable of having been good at other professions. He likens his profession to engineering and waxes on aboutnhow he might have been good as an engineer or an R&D guy. He talks about the precision required for drilling holes in flutes, and he winders whether he might have been a good dentist. One of his good, old friends wonders the same thing, which is a little strange.

But Olwell, despite being seen as the Stradivari of flute makers by some, is also seen as a bit of an outsider and a renegade. He even calls himself a heretic. He doesn't make classical, baroque flutes: he only makes Irish flutes. And he doesn't charge high prices for his flutes. He doesn't advertise himself, doesn't (or didn't?) have a website. And he lives far from Ireland, down in a small town in Virginia. But he's an endearing person, loved by his family, friends, and clients.

Today I headed down to the McNichol's Civic Center Building to see the Zhang Xi exhibit DNA of the 21st Century. The McNichol's Civic Center Building is run by Denver Arts and Venues. It is basically a free museum, with three floors of changing exhibits. I've been to McNichols one time before, and I loved it then, too. The space is really wide and open. The buiding is massive! And the artwork is new, edgy, and captivating.

Zhang Xi is a Chinese artist who now lives in Denver. He was born in 1984, so he's pretty young. But his art is terrific. The art in this exhibit has three main styles. One style is kind of saturated in images and iconography of technology, with a foreground of humanoid characters whose flesh seems to be melting off, often in searing oranges, yellows, and reds, as if they are burning in the fires of passion. Another style is like traditional Asian ink and paint drawings, like scroll drawings and paintings. A lot of these are done on gold leaf. And the final major style is a faded, washy style of oil painting depicting ritual and community scenes of various kinds.

There are a few other styles employed. The painting right by the title and exhibit notes is a relatively realistic painting of a woman's head and shoulders -- except that superimposed over the right side (the woman's right) of her face is a skull with an eye in the hole corresponding to the woman's right eye.

On the wall near the wall with this painting are two interesting paintings of pairs of women. The women are painted before backgrounds of color. In one painting, two women wearing black head coverings stand shoulder to shoulder. They stand before a background of yellow which blends into a vivid green toward the center. In the other painting, two women are holding hands and running. It's like the two women are lovers on the run. But in both of these paintings, the women's forms sort of have holes torn in them, like Swiss cheese. Through these holes can be seen the backgriund of blended colors.

The technology-themed paintings use and expand upon this idea of mottled, disintegrating bodies. One painting shows a woman surrounded by three men. The woman definitely seems to be fighting with the man directly in front of her, as if she and he are lovers. It's hard to tell if the other two men are the first man's friends, ganging up on the woman or goading the man on, or if they are something like phantoms and demons, lending to the violence of the man against the woman.

But the woman and the men all have faces dissolving into bright yellow and orange flickers, like flames. The men and women are surrounded in something like blue curls of smoke or electricity. And the bodies are coated in blue and red scales, like lizard scales.

Behind the woman and the men is some dark cityscape, partly like a modern city and partly like a traditional city of pagodas. But the city is actually made up of what appears to be electronic messages. There are images that look like statistical information off of dating websites. And in the very foreground are video game images, such as energy indicators and a sign at the bottom prompting a "player" to press "OK" to start the next game.

A painting next to this painting uses the same video game start-screen theme, only this one is prompting the "player" of a lonely man walking in the street to begin the next hour of his life. Bleak! The lonely man, a completely mottled body, appears to be a veteran soldier. A floating image from a news show implies that war has ended. But a computer-like menu of options at the bottom of the screen gives the man the option of returning to war.

Next to this painting is a painting with a deep black background, against which is splattered layers of red, orange, and yellow paint which eventually separates itself into three or four different heads. The heads all seem to be in pain, as if each head has been shot, and all the other heads have been formed from the splattered blood and brains of the shot head.

Another painting against a dark backrground is of a beautiful woman, her face and hair a fiery swirl of bright colors. Behind the woman, etched into the deep black background, is a cityscape in dim, but vividly colored outline.

Beside this painting is a painting called "The Unborn Tears." The background is, again, deep black. In the foreground is a mass of people who look like a mix between soldiers, rioters, babies, and zombies. The figures are outlines, with mottled faces and bodies filled with paint like out of a Jackson Pollock painting. The painting is extremely sad and frightening.

The exhibit is bookended, in a sense, by a four-panel painting called "No One's Wonderland/Form Is Emptiness." The first two panels are on one side of the exhibit, and the second two are on the other side. I'm not sure why they were separated. They would have looked better together.

But the first two panels by themselves are probably the best part of the show. On the far left side is some kind of street scene, or else a depiction of the walls of an Egyptian pyramid. Three Egyptian figures are walking across the wall. But the clothing of the figures is made to look sk ehow electronic. And the bases of the walls are made out of stone patterns from the videogame Super Mario Brothers. In addition, there is a drawing of a Super Mario Koopa turtle on the wall, as well as a realistic-looking image of Super Mario himself.

This imagery is suddenly disrupted by a room of walls which seem to have color schemes similar to that of the mazes in the arcade game of Pac-Man. But the maze on the left wall seems to be more like an Islamic geometric design, while the maze on the floor seems to be a map of city streets.

At the very bottom is a soldier character from the videogame Contra. He's shooting a spray of red bullets out of his gun.The bullets turn into drops of blood, hearts, and little babies. The babies all float up into what apparently is a ghostly, orange sea superimposed over the map of city streets. And there they swim around with Hindu-like women, or, perhaps, various emanations of Radha herself.

After this painting, the paintings change into the scroll-like paintings. Most of these paintings depict women, singly, or in groups, taking pictures of themselves on their cellphones. The way the pictures are done, you feel like you are watching from behind a mirror in a bathroom. But the backgrounds are often decorated like the interiors if traditional Asian dwellings. The backgrounds are also often taken up by traditional Asian, watercolor-esque paintings. But the wildlife in those paintings often look like the birds from the videogame Angry Birds.

The women in these paintings are often making sexual poses. Some of the women are average, maybe a little dumpy. Other women are quite fat, posing with quite lascivious looks in their faces. And some of the women are sexy women, posing in bikinis, in sexy poses, with their bottoms sticking back and their breasts sticking forward, and flashing peace signs for the camera. One woman is tattooed with corporate logos. Another is tattooed with the symbols of superheroes.

The oil paintings of the rituals aren't as ostensibly complex, but they're fiery with emotion and very lovely. One shows a rain dance, a group of blur-bodied dancers in brightly colored clothes dancing in a dark landscape of grass, apparently at the edge of a body of water. Next to this painting is a group of people preparing for something like a trapeze act or a ballet. Some people seem to be stretching. Others seem to be dancing. But some are hanging from strings from the ceiling.

Another lovely painting in this style shows a rock band playing and singing. The faces of the rock band are so washed out that they look lime masks. It reminds me a little of Pussy Riot. The guitars are also washed out, creating a really lovely, fuzzy look.

Next to this painting is a painting of a protest. There is also a painting in this style of rebels soldiers marching down a narrow street or alley, which is quite striking and frightening. There is also a painting of what appears to be young boys jumping onto a train as the train is departing. But the action of this painting is a little confusing. The young boys look modern. But the people in the trains look like they're from the 1800s.

There are also two paintings which take on the theme if Millet's Peasants. In a washy-style painting, the peasants standin something lime a covered boardwalk. The concrete railing of the boardwalk is sprayed over with graffiti. Some boys stand on the railing. They're looking past the railing, to a beach, apparently, on which some girls are running.

The other Millet-style painting is done in a blockier, Asian-scroll-like style. But in the background are some Mondrian-like paint squares, as well as comic-like frames, one showing a couple holding hands and walking through an Eden-esque garden, and another showing a couple embracing each other in a brightly colored, mystical sea. Behind the couple is an adertisement for an internet dating site, boasting how most of the one in five people who find dates online find them from this website.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

regressing toward enlightenment

Yesterday I went down to the Denver Art Museum to see Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s. As the title implies, the exhibit traces Rothko's work from his figurative work of the 1940s through the non-objective color fields, the rectangles of plain color for which Rothko is famous.

Yesterday was a sneak preview day for museum members. As part of the sneak preview, the show's curator, Gwen Chiznit, was there to walk around and answer questions. She was there from 11 AM to 1 PM. But we all got timed tickets, and my ticket didn't let me in until 12:30 PM. As I walked in, Chiznit was standing in the middle of a huge crowd of people, giving a lecture about Rothko. I later heard Chiznit say that she hadn't really known what to do when she started walking around at 11 AM, so she'd decided to give a little tour and then occasionally talk to the new groups of people who would walk in.

I caught Chiznit as she spoke about the "automatist" style of painting. From what I understand of what Chiznit was saying, there were a few different styles of modern art. One style, the most famous, maybe, was Cubism, which was very measured. Another was Surrealism, which also aimed to make a very precise statement, but about the unconscious rather than the sense of vision. But automatism was based more in letting the unconscious speak for itself by letting the hand paint freely, allowing the hand to bring forth whatever forms it would from the unconscious.

However, Rothko was very much influenced by archetypal imagery, especially Judeo-Christian imagery and Greco-Roman mythology. This imagery often showed up in Rothko's figurative work. And where it didn't show up explicitly, it provided a very conscious ground for the work.

Chiznit said that Rothko's work in the 1940s was also very influenced by his work with the otber great artists around him. These artists, Chiznit, argues, all worked together toward something like the same artistic ideal during the 1940s. So, during the 1940s, the styles of some of the artists might be indistinguishable from the styles of other artists. Or the style of one artist might be completely different from the style for which that artist is now well known. For instance, a Pollock painting might be much neater and more figurative than one would imagine, while a Mark Tobey might be in a style much like that for which Pollock is now famous.

But in the 1950s, the artists all kind of went their separate ways, so to speak, and developed their own distinctive styles. Rothko's distinctive style was the color fields.

After Chiznit finished her lecture and the crowd dispersed, I read a little bit about a couple paintings that intrigued me. One of the paintings depicted two eagles and a hare, symbolic of the prophetic vision of Troy's defeat. The caption also mentioned something about Rothko's efforts to use mythology to try and get at a sense of truth in his artwork. If the ancient Greeks, for instance, used their mythology to express their understanding of the universe, could Rothko adapt the deeper meanings of those mythologies to express modern man's understanding of the universe?

The problem, however, seems to have come as a result of World War II. It seems that that war made Rothko question whether there was a real truth at all.

Suddenly, I thought of the Jungian development of personality. In the archetypal sense, the journey towards personal integration starts -- I think -- with a massa confusa, a kind of indiscriminate, jumbled mess. That separates itself into problems which are stated in kind of personal archetypes, like mythological figures. When the problems are resolved, sometimes in the mystical wedding or mysterium coniunctionis, the archetypal figures are replaced by a mandala figure, something more like a geometric diagram, which is a whole statement of the psyche.

But it seemed to me that the color fields of Rothko, rather than being mandalas, were more like the massa confusa. I wondered if Rothko had become, perhaps, too perplexed over the question of truth for modern man, in a modern world which seemed to be plunged into chaos. Did Rothko regress into the chaotic massa confusa? Or are his color fields actually a kind of mandala?

I wanted to ask Chiznit this question. But Chiznit was busy answering a question which must have been very like my own. Chiznit was talking about the difference between abstract art and Rothko's color fields. Chiznit said that abstract art is based on the external, on breaking down the components of the external world into their purest elements. But Rothko's non-objective color fields were about finding an inner world, an inner truth. Rothko distilled and distilled his style until he found, in pure color, a pure statement of his inner self.

With this in mind, I walked through the show. The show begins with a painting in something like a Gaugin style with Pisarro colors. It then moves tk a series of figurative paintings based very much on Greek mythology. These paintings all depict human figures. But the figures are all broken up, and they all have multiple heads and torsos and way more than two arms and legs. The warms are all piled up, like shelves full of spare arms in a store. And the legs seem to be stepping all over each other. If I were to guess by the heads, which are delineated in a mock-Greek style, I'd say the biggest influence on these paintings would be Picasso. But the style isn't Cubist. It isn't deconstructivist, either. It's dismembered, fragmented, and multiplied.

The pinnacle of this style is a kind of crucifixion scene. But the crucified body is dismembered, its limbs packed into compartments set into a brown block, like drawers in a chest.

After this dismemberment of the body, the paintings take on a much less human, slightly less figurative, appearance. One painting shows two (or one?) birds before a triple-layered background of grey, blue, and purple. In the top layer, which looks like a purple sky, are floating a figure like an eye and a couple of blue butterfly or hourglass shapes.

The next shape is based on the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. Before a layered background of maroon and pink-red is a peach-orange shape like a lamp or an urn. On the left side of the lamp is a figure that kind of looks like shears or a sacrifical knife. On the right is some hanging shape that looks, to me, like a brain with a spine hanging down from it.

Near this painting is another painting that looks like a brain and spine, with a curtain of nerves, or maybe gore, hanging down from it. The figure is a cloudy, almost inky, black mass of paint. But its floatiing before a hazy background of pink and green. The pinks and greens alternate in a blur, almost like some checkerboard that has been run through a time warp.

This painting is surrounded by some interesting ink works, which also have traces of Picasso, as well as, perhaps, Kandinsky, about them. One scene, including some green paint, is like swallows floating and flitting up and down in a mystical sky. Another is a scene of boats and ship-sized angels. Another scene, with a lovely, all-pink background, seems to be of a jazz club.

But the paintings seem to take on a more and more gruesome appearance. The dismembered body parts of the human-figure paintings seem to be further fragmented, until the paintings themselves seem to be of chunks of flesh and bone, floating before color-layered backgrounds which give the vanishing perspective sense of an ocean or a Dali-desert landscape.

The figurative paintings finish with a Kandinsky-esque ink-and-paint picture of a universe full of worlds split in half and black, sputtering vortices.

In between the figurative paintings and the non-figurative paintings is a room of paintings by some of Rothko's contemporaries. If I were to guess the theme of this room, I wouldn't guess that it was that all these artists were working toward the same goal: I would say that they were working under, and working to break free of, the influence of the same person: Picasso.

The next room begins with a beautiful painting which takes the background style of the figurative paintings, but adds nothing to the foreground. It is a wonderful blending of grey, white, and purple patches, sprayed here and there with highlights of yellow-green.

Next to this painting is a pinting with a color scheme like the clouds or sky in a Velasquez or Zurburan painting of the Assumption of Mary. But there is no Mary. There really aren't any clouds or sky, either: just the color schemes of those things.

Then there is a painting of a lovely red background of orange-red with rectangles of color scattered about, almost like people -- or phantoms -- or, really, like the broad-shouldered, triangular men of the ancient petroglyphs. These characters seem to be more whole than the actual "men" of the first paintings; but they have sunk into, almost dissolved into, the background.

Another painting seems to be plainly figurative, with characters almost like limbless stick figures, with obvious black heads and black bodies, floating, it seems, in sockets of color, although a couple are also outlined with a red-orange of a brightness worthy of Crayola.

Next to this painting is a painting which seems to me very plainly to be a portrait, almost like Pollock's self-portrait during his black-and-white phase. This painting has a green background, and then a figure very much in the center and foreground, of a head and shoulders -- all together, in one piece, not fragmented, not multiplied! But the figure is all square, all black scribble, with no discernible features at all, and with a drab yellow shining through from behind the scribbles.

Across from this painting is my favorite painting of the exhibit. The center of the painting is a square of bright orange squiggles, all surrounded by a pale sky blue. All around the blue run rectangles and swatches of purples, pinks, and peaches. Some of the purples develop into blotches of a deep pink-purple the color of orchids, or of passionfruit sorbet. I just wanted to lick it!

Finally is a room of beautiful color fields. The painting that is the cover-painting for the exhibitis probably my least favorite. It is a yellow and white rectangle atop a big, red square. It like the red square: something about it seems industrial to me. But I hate the yellow and white rectangle: it reminds me of a sunnyside-up egg.

But there are some really nice ones. There is one with an orange-red rectangle and a pink rectangle surrounded by a hazy, orange field of color. There's a beautiful one of, I think, a big, orange square, a bright, pink band, and a cobalt blue rectangle. It's so vivid. I love it. And there's one of a yellow background with stacks of color built up before it: black, purple, and a green wit glimmers of orange shining up from beneath it.

Then today I went to the Sakura festival in downtown Denver. The traditional Japanese festival is held at Sakura Square, which is a Japanese shopping and community center that also includes the Denver Buddhist Temple. I had gone to the festival last year. But there weren't very many people. This year there were a lot more people. There also seemed to be a lot more booths than there were last year. And the booths seemed to be more interesting than the ones from last year. For all I know, they were actually the same exact booths. But something about this year seemed a lot livelier.

One booth I really liked was a booth called Pomegranate Designs, which showcased the washi paper art kf Michele Yamaguma. Imagine scroll-format works of art that mix together origami, collage, nature pressings, and painting, to depict fantastic landscapes or traditional Japanese figures like koi or cranes.

Another booth I liked showcased the paintings of an artist named Joe Molina. His paintings are very colorful and vivid, showing branches of cherry blossoms before almost rainbow-like skies -- blue skies, but rainbow-like, somehow. He also has sime cherry branches before deep red skies, which are very dramatic. And he has some gigantic close-up blossom paintings, which are great: a pink blossom before a white background, and a white blossom before a pink background.

I went inside for a while and listened to one of the temple priests talk for a while about the Denver Temple. The Temple is part of a sanga, or community, which has been in Denver since 1909. The Denver Temple observes a Mahayana denomination of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu, which means something like "The One Pure Land." This denomination was founded by a monk who believed that not all men can take the purely meditative path of the stricter forms of Buddhism.

Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism empathizes with normal human beings and posits the existence of the tear-eyed intercessors for man, which also, apparently happen to be 84,000 aspects or avatars of the Buddha himself. These spirits, or sambogha-kaya -- I think -- are also creators of the "Pure Land," which doesn't quite seem to be a heaven, but something more like a spiritual realm of forgiveness or tolerance, created to offset the waywardness or foolishness of man and his actions.

The priest gave a story of the Buddha which is a little different from the (likely distorted) one I have in my head. The priest said that Buddha had been born as Prince Siddhartha. A priest told Siddhartha's father the king that Siddhartha would grow up either to become a great king or a great spiritual leader. So the king, hoping to influence Siddhartha to become a great king, kept Siddhartha sheltered in the castle allowing him to see only good things, so he would want to stay in the castle forever and become king.

But when Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old, he got bored and had a charioteer ride him out of the castle. On his way out of the castle, Siddhartha saw a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a monk. Siddhartha had never seen any of these things. He asked the charioteer what they meant. The charioteer said that the sick, old, and dead men showed the inevitable suffering of all men. The monk, said the charioteer, was a person making an attempt to transcend that suffering.

Siddhartha decided to take the monk as a teacher. And Siddhartha went on to live a very ascetic life. But -- I'm not sure how -- Siddhartha decided that the ascetic path was wayward, just as the indulgent path of royalty was. The best path, Siddartha concluded, was the middle path.

So, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha was near enlightenment. To get closer to enlightenment, he sat down and meditated beneath the boddhi tree. After a while of meditation he attained the highest enlightenment the Buddha can attain in a human body, and he began to be called Buddha.

Buddha realized all suffering is inevitable; that all suffering is based on the fact that existence is impermanent and that there is an endless chain of causes creating the world, while men insist that there must be some permanence and ultimate being somewhere; that man can transcend suffering and attain nirvana; and that this can be done through right moral action, right livelihood, mindfulness, and meditation.

As I remember the story of Buddha, the Buddha went off to find enlightenment. But no teacher he worked with could ever give him enlightenment. So, in frustration and despair, he sat down beneath the boddhi tree and resolved to sit there and, basically, go on a hunger strike against the universe. But, right as he was about to die, he attained enlightenment.

I thought the contrast between the story from my memory and the priest's (correct) story had an interesting parallel with my conception of Rothko's artistic development and Gwen Chiznit's description of Rothko's artistic development. It's interesting how I invest both the story of the Buddha and the story of Rothko with a sense of universal frustration and nihilism. It obviously says more about me than it does about the Buddha or Rothko.

The priest herself is a very interesting person. She is a blonde, white, young woman with short hair and black-rimmed eyeglasses. She told me that she grew up coming to this temple. She said it's very strange nowadays to have the same women who shooed her out of the kitchen in the mischievous moments of her childhood now calling her sensei, or teacher. She said she just finished with seminary a year ago and was assigned to the Denver Temple. She said it was strange that she'd been assigned to her home temple. People are usually not assigned to their home temple for their first assignment. But she was happy she was assigned here, since the people here were so dear to her.

I had been really interested to hear that the community had been in Denver since 1909. I asked the priest if there were any good books about the Japanese community in Denver. The priest to, d me that the Temple bookstore was selling some books just outside, and that there should be a couple good books on the history of the Japanese people in Denver. I went outside and found and bought a good-looking book called Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present, by Bill Hosokawa.

I then sat down for a little while at the performance area at the far end of all the booths and listened to a band called The Arlene Hattori Project. The band consisted of Arlene and two men. Arlene sang and played guitar and keyboards on some songs. One of the guys sang backup and played guitar and keyboards. The second guy played drums. Almost all the songs were originals. The music was good, polished, relaxed, kind of soulful. Arlene's voice was kind of like Stevie Nicks. I really liked the band.

I wanted to spend some time talking about all the people I saw while I was at the festival, too. But I'm going to have to cut myself off for the night.