Monday, August 18, 2008

Crate, continued

Update: my crate made it home. I removed the plastic I had wrapped it with to protect it from further rain, and now the poor mildewy crate is baking in the sun in the back of my truck. My socket set is on its way home in a separate box (travelling by UPS,) so I can't open the crate until that shows up!
New update: got the crate open and emptied out. The fence parts did fine (I guess if it survived a year in snow and other weather, this was no big deal.) The crate is a mildewy nightmare, and has gained so much water weight that even empty we can't get it out of my truck yet. Now I see why the shipping cost went up $150 beyond what was originally projected.
At least the fence saga is over.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

East Coast Trip Part 2

So, when we were driving back to Connecticut after our highly technical tour of the bike factory, I noticed a few place names that sounded familiar. One of these was New Lebanon, NY. I knew there had been a Shaker settlement there in the 1800s. There was no time for us to stop and look for it, but it turned out we had an extra day at the end of the trip, so we could afford to go back up there after all. A bit of research showed that an even bigger Shaker village was nearby in Hancock, Massachusetts. I knew this place well from my many books on Shaker furniture and architecture. In fact, I show slides every semester and drone at at length on in my Woodworking class and my 3D Design Concepts classes, about this very place. Needless to say, I was very excited to have happened upon all this, completely unplanned. I knew my Spring 08 Woodworking class would approve of my going there.

When we got to Hancock, Massachusetts, the rain let up for a few hours, so we got to explore most of the buildings. A demonstration had just started of the water-powered wood shop, right when we arrived! This was more than I could have asked for. I frequently tell my students that a Shaker woman invented the table saw-- now I know it was the table saw blade that she invented. The rest, I don't know. I always thought the Shakers had worked in some crazy reckless freehand manner on their table saws, but in fact they had a pretty logical parallel fence system, and a precursor of the sliding feed tables popular today. The docents did a lathe demo and a bandsaw demo, with all the machines powered by overhead leather belts running from a water turbine under the floor. I had a brief conversation with one of the woodworker docents after the demo, and he said, "Here, come on in!" and let me into the wood shop. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do in there, so I just kept taking pictures of stuff.

Lathe demo and belt-powered shop.

A jointer very similar to the one in SJSU's wood shop.

Luckily, SJSU's table saw is not too much like this one.

Taking more pictures from inside the shop...

I got to look down into the water-powered turbine zone.

Next we moved on to the other buildings, including the round barn shown below, and the Shaker Dwelling House-- a place I've been in awe of for years based on my books of photographs of it.

Inside the round barn.

The shop where bentwood boxes are made. We missed the demo, but we got a verbal explanation. They make these a little differently than I thought. I will pass the information on to my students.

The Dwelling House has the most spectacular built-in cabinets and iconic, minimal furniture. It was amazing to finally see all of this firsthand, but I also had a nagging feeling of disillusionment. In art school one is incessantly lectured to about the importance of experiencing authentic works of art directly, as opposed to viewing them in photographic reproductions. The original, physical object apparently has an "aura" that will spill onto us if we come within a few feet of the thing itself. I have always preferred the pictures in books, and that is why I spend a lot of my money on art books. The "real thing" is often a bit shabby, beat up, and plastered with educational plaques and explanations. In the case of the Shaker Dwelling House, the real thing required us to wear fluffy blue shoe protectors-- quite reasonable, but a rather unromantic distraction from the elegant building. One became more conscious of oneself as tourist/ intruder, and of all the other tourists/ intruders.

There was a second source of disillusionment as well. Although I knew better, I had developed an image of the Shakers as a posse of precocious minimalist designers and efficiency experts. I had lost sight of the fact that, like their celibacy, their ostracism of ornament was part of a relentless quest for a limited number of available spots in the afterlife. Well, whatever the motivation, their aesthetic
helped pave the way for a lot of Modernist furniture. And I now have my own images, free of copyright issues, of their beautiful furniture and Spartan interiors. Good enough.

Built-in cabinets.

Communal dining room.

"Adult cradles". The Shakers took in homeless and sick people, some of whom eventually became Shaker converts.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

East Coast Trip, Part One

Hmmm, where to begin? We're back from our eight-day trip out east, and I feel that the trip has provided a hefty amount of art-blog material. I'll be lucky if I finish this blog entry tonight.

We started out in Connecticut, visiting Bruce's parents, then drove up to Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, en route to Vermont. We last went to Mass MOCA about a year and a half ago. I notice the same phenomenon here as at the Headlands Art Center in Marin: the amazing historical buildings outshine and overwhelm the art. In my opinion, the only work that really held its own against the space, and in fact claimed the space as a logical extension of itself, was Anselm Kiefer's. I made one of my first "art pilgrimages" to Philadelphia in 1988 to see an Anselm Kiefer retrospective. I was surprised to see that although my interests have changed since then, Kiefer's work still had a visceral effect on me. His buckled concrete path appeared to have been dropped from the sky or violently expelled from the earth. For me, the piece's elegance arose from the "obviousness" of its materials-- concrete and rebar--and their ability to function as a "memory" of immense physical force.

Anselm Kiefer, Étroits Sont les Vaisseaux.

Anselm Kiefer, Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem.

Jenny Holzer's piece in the museum's biggest space involved projected lines of text rolling slowly from each end of the room to the other, spanning the ceiling, walls, floor, and some geographic-looking mega-beanbag blob things on the floor. (See video excerpt of this piece.) It was a fairly riveting spectacle, but I couldn't get past the thought that many of the projects designed for this room seem like art school assignments: "What would you do with a space the size of a football field, and a limited materials budget?" I wondered what my friend/ former professor/revered art hero Elizabeth King would do if offered such a space. She once described her work as being intended for an audience of one, for close scrutiny at an unhurried pace. She would surely figure out a brilliant and subtle way to direct our passage, and our attention, through the massive space.

Another show at MassMOCA was called Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China. The gist of all the work, by my reckoning, was this: China is big. It has a lot of people, and they make big dams, big ships, big toxic dumps, and big traffic jams.

Art and Water Don't Always Mix Well
Our next stop was West Rutland, Vermont, the site at which my piece, Feral Fence, was installed for the past year. My mission was to get the piece, which had been dismantled and put back in its crate, on its way back to San Jose. The crate was a beautiful one I had acquired on Craigslist from an art shipper-- it was worth $500. Unfortunately, no longer. One week spent outdoors during the recent downpours in Vermont had waterlogged and warped the crate so that we could barely get the lid bolted on. We had to drill big holes in the bottom and pick up the crate (550 pounds of art and water) with the forklift and let it relieve itself for about 15 minutes. It's on its way home now, and I'm anxious about the rust that's consuming the fence parts in the wet crate.

Returning to the quarry site where my fence was installed for the past year. These rusty steel rods were all that supported the 13 foot-tall fence. The monstrous difficulty of the installation last September came flooding back to me.

My crate as it looked last September...

Carbon Fibre Tubing

Next on the agenda: the Serotta bike factory tour in Saratoga Springs, NY. Now I know that Serotta has smaller tolerances than any other bike company: 1/10 mm! I think Bruce enjoyed seeing how his bike was made.
Bruce thinks I didn't do the Serotta tour justice here. I suggested that he start a blog that will do it justice.

NYC Museums
Next: a day in NYC. First we went to the Buckminster Fuller show at the Whitney. As I looked at all the models, drawings, documents and films, I thought of a phrase from my favourite Borges story: "with less clarity than zeal". The review I had read a couple of months ago in the New Yorker gave a refreshing view of Buckminster Fuller as a bit of an earnest, enthusiastic kook-- a generalist rather than a specialist-- with more failed projects than successful ones. Many of the objects were cool, and there was a "model room" that seemed to be a precursor for Olafur Eliasson's model room in his big touring show.

Downstairs from Buckminster was an odd show of installations by Paul McCarthy. Odd, because the work seemed to have nothing in common with the work I think of him as being "famous" for. But I soon saw that this work was the same in spirit. Bang Bang Room kept me laughing as long as it was turned on. A freestanding room in the middle of the gallery had walls that were hinged onto corner posts. Each wall had ugly wallpaper on the inside face, and a door centered in it. When the room was unexpectedly "turned on" by a guard, first the walls themselves slammed into place to form a room, then the doors within the walls started gratuitously slamming, until it was time for the walls to slam open again. I was reminded of pieces like Bruce Nauman's video of his own head spinning and saying, excessively, "thank you!" I was happy to see that Paul McCarthy is another "genre-less" artist who makes brilliant pieces in whatever genre is appropriate for a given idea. (What is it about all these great, uncategorizable artists who teach at UCLA?) The house piece made me remember that I abandoned "kinetic sculpture" years ago because I didn't want to be put in shows with artists who identified as kinetic artists. Paul McCarthy chose to make one or two kinetic pieces and they are amazing because they came from his brain; they are not amazing because he is a "skilled kinetic artist." I have no interest in whether he understands motors and gears or is a good welder. He can hire "skilled kinetic artists" to do that part!

Paul McCarthy, Bang Bang Room, 1992

Elevated Water
Next we took a nauseating taxi ride down to the South St Seaport to check out Olafur Eliasson's waterfalls. We could see all four from where we were. Pretty cool.

One of Olafur Eliasson's four "NYC Waterfalls".

New Museum

We walked to the New Museum, which had a show called "After Nature" that had been reviewed by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. I was immediately depressed when I saw Zoe Leonard's bolted-together dead tree, whose existence is an affront to my piece called "Salvage (Adjustable Orthotic Structure) and some variations on the theme that I was still intending to make, but probably won't now that I've seen this piece. Peter Schjeldahl had described a piece involving dancers writhing on the floor; I thought he was describing a film, and was surprised to encounter an actual writhing woman at the bottom of one staircase. Embarrassed for both of us, I quickly skirted around her and moved along to the recreated Unabomber shack. I witnessed more than my share of tortured, writhing performance artists back in graduate school at SAIC, and my instinct is to remove myself immediately from their presence.
A couple of times during this visit, I passed a person whom I recognized as Michael Ashkin, from my last blog post. A funny coincidence.

A detail of Zoe Leonard's piece, Tree, 1997.

The best piece in this show was the one you can rent on Netflix: portions of Werner Herzog's amazing film, "Lessons of Darkness," (1992) were being projected. This is a starkly beautiful film depicting the aftermath of the Gulf War in Kuwait. Long camera shots from a low-flying helicopter show the devastated landscape, and later, the oil-field fires and the American firefighters working to extinguish them.

Still from Werner Herzog's film, Lessons of Darkness, 1992.

Still to come: East Coast Trip Part 2.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Model Trains, Model Ships, Etc.

So, I've realized that one of the purposes of this blog is to contextualize for myself information that I would otherwise lose track of. I have 4,694 bookmarked websites in Safari, and fewer than that in Firefox. I was debating whether or not to go ahead and start a new blog for my installation art class, but I decided that perhaps this information relates also to my own art-making.

One of my assignments in the class involves a certain amount of simulation/ representation of objects at a small scale. For a long time I've been considering how I might incorporate the "model-train scene" into a project like this. Back when I was in grad school, an artist named Michael Ashkin, who had finished at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago right before I got there, started to get noticed for some pieces he was making that used the visual language and materials of model-train dioramas, although he was doing it ironically, "subversively". I liked these pieces.

Michael Ashkin, No. 92, 1998

Michael Ashkin, Untitled #29, 1996

A couple of years after seeing them, though, I made a trip to Milwaukee and went to a really heavy-duty model-train/ hobby shop. It had its own museum of railroad models. It was obvious that these "hardcore" train guys were extremely quirky, and just as nihilistic Michael Ashkin.

I see that Michael Ashkin is now teaching sculpture at Cornell and showing at Andrea Rosen gallery. And the dioramas-in-art thing has been in and out of fashion enough times that it's fairly standard-issue as an art genre.

A personal digression from the subject: when I finished grad school I really wanted to learn how to make serious dioramas, and applied for a job at Chicago's Museum of Natural History. I took their woodshop test, which involved building a box with a sliding lid in an unfamiliar shop while a supervisor watched and took notes. The test involved an error in the blueprint that you had to catch and acknowledge in order to pass the test. I passed the test, and was due to come back for a "respirator test"-- but the funding fell through, so the job was cancelled. Probably a good thing for my brain cells, considering the amount of polyester resin I would have worked with daily.

Anyway, the scale model/ diorama thing is a pretty good candidate for a sculpture assignment because technically it can involve some rudimentary woodworking (the small scale obviates the need for actual joinery or an understanding of expansion and contraction of wood), moldmaking, and resin casting in small enough amounts to not be too toxic. And the fun part is, there's a model train expo coming to San Jose in September! Nerdy, indeed, but one can imagine how hard it is to find any local class field-trip opportunities in San Jose.

Another personal digression here: all of this web searching about modelmaking brought me to model ships, and I was reminded of the fact that at age 8 or 9 I saw an impressive collection of model ships when we went to London, and I said to myself then, "That's what I will do when I grow up." The word "anal" had not come into its own yet then, but what I was thinking was that I could make model ships even more anal, more elaborate, more exquisite than the ones in front of me, if I set my mind to it. I have veered a little bit off this track, but not that far really. What I do now is close enough to making model ships. A bit of searching showed me that it must have been the Science Museum in London that housed this collection.

T.S. Mauretania, 1906, in the collection of London's Science Museum.

Friday, August 1, 2008


At dinner tonight, my friend Sheau said: "Well, the thing about having a blog is, you have to have something to say."
This is terrible news, and spells certain doom for this particular blog. I've been blundering along in ignorance of this piece of information since January.

The blog started out innocently enough-- in fact it was going to be a tool to explain the motivation and inspirations behind a certain project I wanted to do (and still plan on doing.) But then, I was seduced by the daily opportunity to talk about myself--to an unspecified audience, of all things. It's not so long ago that I used to make fun of my friend Jonathan for having a blog. When he would ask, "Have you read my blog lately?" I would scoff, and say "Why would I do that?!" Now he's kind enough to forgive me and even read mine, and leave comments. The whole thing seems perversely egotistical. But if I veer the blog back to being mostly about cool things I've found that other people have done, I might just redeem myself.

Finished something

I finished the drawing that took me over a month to do (nothing compared to my kidney wallpaper) and passed it on to an industrial designer friend, who has agreed to do something else to it. Then it goes to two other people before the project is done. Am I being mysterious enough?
What I like about this project is that it seems to elegantly merge many of my sometimes conflicting interests: "fine art" with design, art history with contemporary manufacturing, "global" imagery with local imagery, and two dimensionality with three-dimensionality.
Time to start on the next drawing.
Correction: these interests don't conflict. Only in academia do they conflict, not in the real world. This is just a blog, I don't have to convince anybody here that it's okay to merge art and design!