January 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Artist Andrew Carnie’s pursuits have come full circle — he started out as a student of science, and now he continues his interest through his creative work.
Carnie’s installation “Magic Forest” will be featured in “Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain” at the Williams College Museum of Art, starting Saturday, Jan. 30, and running through May 2.
“Magic Forest” features 162 slides projected onto screens and dissolving into each other to create the illusion of a 20-minute animation. The screens are made out of net curtain, so that the light falls on the first screen but penetrates to the other ones, adding a 3-D feel to the work. Carnie’s slides contain images of neurons growing in the brain, resembling trees that transform the projected space into forests.
“I hand-drew all of the neurons and all of the images over a period of three or four months, working two or three days a week. It was about all I could stand,” Carnie said during an interview this week.
He based his images on Quicktime films from neurologist Richard Wingate. Wingate was growing brain cells in vitro from chickens and filming his efforts with a confocal microscope over a 24-hour period.
“You could see neurons growing,” said Carnie. “What he was doing was quite complex science. The movies he makes were just evidence of what was happening — basically he was switching on and off the proteins that control where these neurons go in the brain and their positioning.” « Read the rest of this entry »
January 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As Neil Gaiman’s other — and I would say better — half, artist Dave McKean has mastered many visual forms, including film. He directed 2005’s “MirrorMask” and has a well-established career as an illustrator and photographer.
In the collection of his short narrative work “Pictures That Tick” — published by Dark Horse Books — McKean shows himself to be the master of many forms, including storytelling. The book gathers numerous stories of various length that unfold with both a poetic obscurity and a personable humor.
McKean opens not with a story — at least not a fictional one — but with a professional testament that doubles as poetry.
The words examine his creative life beyond comics and then ruminate on what seems to be the primal urge in all of us to create some form of them.
McKean speaks of snapshots arranged in a photo album in sequence for the purpose of telling a story. That , he explains, is a personal form of comics.
From there, he segues into the beautifully wrought allegorical fairy tale “Ash,” which likens one dark strain in a child’s life as a root that will grow into a mighty tree of depression and dysfunction. What McKean addresses is not just the idea of seizing control over your life, but also taking control of your own story. The story urges readers to image how each plot thread will wind through the years and seize the moment when editing — or, in context of the story, pruning — is in order.
It’s a beautiful beginning and, when coupled with his opening statements, a chance for a storyteller to lay out the collusion between art and life in personal circumstances. What follows are a string of intensely mysterious pieces that walk the line between poetry and parable — indeed many of them do have the quality of a tale that a wise man on top of the mountain might tell.
But McKean hinted at all this in the book’s preface, where he presents a version of the Book of Genesis as if it were written by Spike Milligan — or maybe Russell Hoban doing a “Riddley Walker” shtick.
It’s an exercise to disarm the sacred and replace it with something not only cockeyed, but also mysterious. This is largely thanks to the accompanying photo-collage work that shows the space between heaven and earth as more of a cluttered, antiquated type of Hell than anything else.
It’s this beautiful and skillful illustration work that binds the book together. McKean leaps from medium to medium in the visual work with the same precision of the movement of ideas that inhabit his tales. He doesn’t stick to one style and seems eager to do exactly what any individual story demands — from spare pen and ink to dense paints and beyond — often incorporating photographs.
“Some Like Dawn” uses atmospheric but straightforward photography, while the haunting “Your Clothes Are Dead” utilize the photos for abstract collage imagery. Collage is a major part of McKean’s work, functioning as a form of art-school jazz for his visual expression and even manifesting in painted works such as the darkly absurd “Yol’s Story.”
That is the beauty of McKean’s narrative work: Simplicity and clutter march hand in hand to create a chaotic order in the fiction, borne of the abstract poetry that flows out of him.
As such, McKean is the purest collaboration embodied by one guy. Words and pictures, in his case, are entwined, and this combination tells stories in the unknown language that exists between the two.
January 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
In “Along A Long Line” — published by Hudson Hills Press — Hoosick, N.Y.-based painter and Williams college professor of art Mike Glier waits until the middle of the book to directly state his landscape manifesto:
“The world is competitive chaos, and artworks that represent the world as a series of discreet and understandable moments are lies,” Glier writes, “and artists are nothing more than agents of denial and perpetrators of delusion.”
That’s not just a description of his paintings — it also expresses the contents of his book as a whole, as well as his world view. It’s not about the parts of the world but how they all add up, and the clutter creates an existence that would probably be wholly different with even one part of it missing. Complexity creates texture, and all the objects of the world — including humans and their creations — are part of that world texture.
“It is deceitful to separate the mist from the leaf, or the leaf from the butterfly, or the butterfly from the light, or the light from the water, or the water from the root, or the root from the tree, or the tree from the owl, or the owl from its prey,” Glier says.
Or, I might add, the artist from the world around him. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 16, 2010 § 2 Comments
Starting as a Harry Potter satire but transforming into something much more, Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ “The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” (published by Vertigo) is the first volume of a new series of graphic novels that offers mystery gravitating around a literary conspiracy and the promise of real magic.
Tom Taylor is the son of Wilson Taylor, author of the legendary Tommy Taylor book series and supposed role model for the magic title character. He makes a living doing the exact opposite of his reclusive father — making media and convention appearances — until one day he’s confronted in public about his real identity. Having made a killing on the promotional circuit, Taylor begrudgingly presented himself as the real-life inspiration for fictional wizard Tommy Taylor of his father’s books. Taylor’s world falls apart at the public accusation, splitting the Tommy Taylor fandom into warring factions. One side is out for his blood; the other side is convinced he is the word come to life.
Taylor isn’t content to let it unfold and goes on a hunt for the truth — back to his childhood home, where not only the Tommy Taylor books were conceived, but also “Frankenstein” and “Paradise Lost.” At the point of his arrival, it’s also the scene of a professional horror writer’s seminar that sees Carey skewer the bickering sub-genres as to each’s purity and mastery of the form.
Carey wraps Taylor’s flight into passages from the Tommy Taylor books, causing fiction and reality to fold into each other. If the book threatens to descend into an action conspiracy tale, Carey pulls back marvelously in the last chapter, where he investigates some historical background from the point of view of Rudyard Kipling and involving Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. There is no sign of the previous cast here, but there is plenty of hinting as to the scope of Carey’s story.
At root here is the power of fiction and the mystical way in which stories guide our psychology — and eventually our physical landscapes. One of the recurring motifs in the story is Taylor’s memory of his father grilling him on literary locations — where works were written and what locations inspired them. In context of Tom Taylor’s dilemma, these places operate as zones between fact and fiction, where they most obviously collide and make a stain on the real world.
It’s the same method in which Carey uses the parts of the Tommy Taylor books to mirror his real life counterpart’s situations — and it’s a sly rumination on the importance of stories in culture and psychology and how they shape our histories, both personal and natural.
“The Unwritten” speaks best for the medium in which it appears — the graphic novel. As the closest printed counterpart to film, Carey gets to show off its strengths, providing literary depth and background to the story, while still allowing for thrills and chills. It’s an adventure that’s packed with text and information, and its complications unfold at the pace of the reader — the final collaborator in the storytelling process.
January 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
When the subprime meltdown became critical in January 2008, husband and wife filmmakers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn jumped into action to capture the unraveling — and try to make some sense of it.
The result was the film “American Casino.”
What the Cockburns found was a situation so labyrinthine, so confusing to the general public, that much of their job entailed explaining it in a clear fashion for viewers. After all, how could the problem be solved if no one could conceive of what the problem was in the first place? It’s a question they ask themselves after each screening reveals the depth of confusion.
“Coming out of Q and A sessions after screenings, a lot of people have said to us, ‘Now we get it.’ That’s one of the best rewards we could have,” said co-producer Andrew Cockburn in an interview this week. “I guess this is a good thing, though slightly alarming — at a screening not too long ago on Capitol Hill for quite a lot of congressmen, they came out saying, ‘Now we get it.’ Oh, really? Taken you this long? At any rate, better late than never I should say.”
Andrew Cockburn is a well-known political writer — his article “21st Century Slaves” for National Geographic last year got a lot of attention. His wife, Leslie Cockburn, who directed the film, is a political reporter and filmmaker who has produced segments for “60 Minutes” and other shows.
Even the well-prepared Cockburns came to the subprime topic seeking guidance. They relied on late Bloomburg journalist Mark Pittman and many Wall Street contacts to steer them through the reasons everything fell apart, and the first order of business was investigating the attitude that the problem was caused by greedy home purchasers.
“Even today you can still find people saying, ‘It’s all the fault of greedy poor people who got themselves loans they couldn’t afford and bought houses they couldn’t afford and therefore didn’t deserve,’” Cockburn said. “They were getting above their station, and that’s what brought down the global system — a bunch of single African-American mothers in Baltimore.”
The Cockburns’ assertion is simple — Wall Street is run like a gambling casino, and in the mortgage crisis, what amounts to a swindle was enacted by the mortgage lenders in order to make their money back fast and easy, and this circumstance was made possible through the legislative efforts of Phil Gramm and philosophical efforts of Alan Greenspan.
The process went like this: Banks found there was money to be made by lumping mortgages together into bonds. The idea was that 1,000 mortgages in the form of a bond would generate long-term interest income for the investors who bought those bonds — and the key to rigging that sale was making sure the bonds were highly rated through a flawed system. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
With the Sundance-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary “Trouble The Water” directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal owe a creative debt of gratitude to Kimberly Roberts. Without her bravery in keeping her camera running, they might still have had a film, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same.
Roberts and her husband, Scott, are residents of New Orleans and survivors of the worst natural disaster of the Bush administration — Hurricane Katrina. They are also brave souls whose story of getting through the storm and aftermath — and helping many others survive and escape — is enough to fill a movie. But armed with a video camera, Kimberly creates an extra element that draws the viewer into the catastrophe and offers an upsetting story of redemption that could never hit the same notes in a fictionalized version.
Kimberly’s footage begins with a pre-storm journey around her neighborhood that reveals a community already marginalized. Furiously encroaching, inch by inch, Katrina only confirms that social distance by overtaking the street and then their home. As the family huddles in the leaky attic with their neighbors, Kimberly’s camera captures the hurricane in full force and emotions at their extreme. She manages to follow her band of survivors through several watery escapes and their eventual flight from the Super Dome.
It’s an apocalyptic story on par with any science fiction nightmare. With dead bodies littering the ravaged streets and military pulling out firearms on survivors, who needs “I Am Legend?”
It’s up to Lessin and Deal to extend the scope, taking their cameras to other vantage points, following Kimberly and Scott as they visit the grim remains of their life and try to move onto other parts of the country. In addition to the Roberts’ personal story, the wider reality is wrapped in, with the circumstances putting the overwhelming horror into a general context. Images of abandoned dead bodies in hospitals are terrible to witness, but emergency phone calls in which the trapped victims of the storm are informed that no rescue is coming — they can only respond with the horrific acknowledgment that they are going to die, the operator’s response relegated to a grim silence — truly bring home what the city faced in the storm’s aftermath.
The film minces no anger at the real focus of disaster — the lives of minorities and the poor before and after the storm. The truth is in plain sight — the black culture that the city capitalizes on for tourist dollars lies devastated beyond the areas the travel brochures focus on. It was a broken city before nature ever tried to wash away its undesirables, and now it’s a shame one can’t shove those same people under the rug so easily anymore than America as a country can do the same with its racism and loathing toward the underprivileged.
January 8, 2010 § Leave a Comment
If a natural history museum can be thought of as an epic poem, then John M. Carrera’s “Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities” — published by Chronicle Books — is best described as a collection of visual haiku.
Complete with demonstrative images pulled from their original purpose — giving form to what words describe in a dictionary — and recontextualized for the purpose of standing alone and together, “Pictorial Webster’s” is an example of reference book as portable art installation.
We sometimes think of pictures as more direct than words — after all, they can just plainly show you what words sometimes struggle to get across. It seems a simpler intellectual transaction, and that’s probably why it’s easier to get someone to watch a TV show rather than read a book. However, pictures do have their limits — and when taken away from words, they can spur on greater mysteries than originally intended.
You might be able to look at an elegant engraving of a voltameter, and you might be able to speculate on its possible purpose, but it’s nearly impossible to do more without the words that spell out its history and its uses, as well as any intricacies that might be of interest when speaking of voltameters. The same goes for volutas, visites and voltaic piles. Without explanation, they are curiosities.
The work of Massachusetts fine press bookmaker Carrera, “Pictorial Webster’s” is a collection of engravings that were originally used in 19th-century editions of Webster’s Dictionary — you know, those little drawings that are scattered throughout the texts. This particular work was inspired by Carrera’s encounter with the 1898 edition of the dictionary, which he found while puttering around his grandmother’s stone farmhouse in 1995.
Carrera’s effort serves as a springboard for the history of dictionaries, as well as dictionary illustration — and also a detailed study on the history of engravers who work for dictionaries and their technical methods.
It is also a celebration of the unknown and the knowledge we all grasp for that is always just inches away but never quite touching our fingertips.
If nothing else, the work will introduce readers to items they probably never thought they would encounter, such as the Insignia of the Order of the Garter or a Bohemian Chatterer or a Whirling Table. (That last one sounds like a lot of fun!)
In one of his accompanying essays, Carrera describes “Pictorial Webster’s” in terms of wunderkammers — curiosity cabinets of specimens that gave rise to full-on natural history museums — and that is a very apt way to describe it. The book’s subtitle is apt in that respect, but Carrera also addresses the book’s very pure exercise of recontextualizing scores of objects, many lost to time.
Almost every contemporary artist uses the word “recontextualization” at some point in his career to describe the simple action of taking an item out of its place of use — and therefore, bereft of its actual purpose — and putting it in another place from which meaning or irony will spring forth.
This other place is usually a work of art in a gallery.
This is certainly how wunderkammers work, but the further context in the objects within them is knowledge. In “Pictorial Webster’s,” there really is no new context that the object is placed inside, and that vacuum of existence is part of the new context. The other part is the item next to it on the page that has also been subject to recontextualization — and then the entire page of items functioning as parts in a whole other body. In this way, “Pictorial Webster’s” is an exercise in levels upon levels upon levels.
But what does it all mean?
It means what you want it to — or nothing at all.
There’s a beauty to Page 147, which, under the heading “Friendship” puts five different examples of French horns alongside several items that involve friction — friction wheels, frictional gearing, friction clutch, friction tube and friction cones. What it leaves for the reader to do is notice that all these items bear a physical resemblance. Frigate is obviously on the same page because “frig” is like a verbal pun to align with “frict,” but why exactly is “fretted” on the same page? And being an adjective — I don’t think the illustration is depicting a verb — what does it mean on its own?
Something to ponder.
And that’s what “Pictorial Webster’s” works best as — an impetus to ponder. It’s an abstract mind game with no answer — a crossword puzzle for people who like philosophy and psychology, or for just incredibly curious children.
January 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As part of their series of “two-pack” releases, Facets Video offers a “Dazzling Directors” collection that features two films that draw from international masters of the form.
Enfant terrible of the Danish film industry Lars Von Trier might well exhibit this adaptation of “Medea” as a defense of his talents. In this 1987 television production Von Trier uses many of the same natural techniques he would later push in his Dogma movement, but holds back on the outrageous shock quotient, creating a solemn and beautiful work that hearkens back to Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” in its raw evocation of ancient times.
Adapted from an unproduced screenplay by the great Carl Theodore Dreyer, who in turn based his work on the play by Euripides, tells the story of Medea (Kirsten Olesen), who exacts a disturbing and blood-soaked revenge on her husband Jason (Udo Kier) — he of the Argonauts fame — after he betrays her to marry a princess.
Von Trier isn’t adverse to a few technical tricks, though — when emotions run high, he puts his actors in front of color-washed video screens that pull the drama outside of reality and into a realm of emotional terror that is fitting and disconcerting. It’s an altogether grim production and largely silent, allowing the visuals to usher in a decrepit poetry that services the story far better than any banter could.
“Medea” goes a long way to lend Von Trier some intellectual and artistic credibility — you can see the dark roads he walks in his shocking modern tales of distress, and forgive him for at least attempting to match the older ones in levels of intensity. If more people saw this production, he might find himself championed for his artistic mastery of the form, rather than his brash assault on our sensibilities — or maybe he just needs to focus and draw from better material, as he did here.
As companion for the double billing, 2005’s “Tickets” offers a trio of interlinked stories taking place on a train to Rome. Three directors — Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi — offer incidents that hint to larger personal stories that are momentarily woven together in time and space.
In the first story, an aging professor struggles with a momentary flirtation that his imagination won’t let him shrug off — a captive to his seat on the train and his computer that begs him to work, he focuses on all the angles that the conversation brought out, while acknowledging the sadness of such an exercise.
In the second, an abusive older woman contends with a personal assistant who is diverted by a couple specters from his past.
In the third segment, three goofy and rowdy Scottish football fans face a moral dilemma involving an Algerian immigrant family.
In each story, it’s not so much what is stated as what is left untold that is important. Each character is a a lost soul incapable of seizing any moment during an awkward situation — a witness to something in life that they obvious don’t totally comprehend. The drama is forged from the looks on their faces, the movements of their bodies and the suspicions in the mind of the viewer who has become yet another person on the train. It’s a game that everyone plays when they have to wait in airports and doctor’s offices, when they travel on subways or buses, stand in elevators — the game of figuring out the other people’s stories through the small slices of their lives you receive in your brief time with them.
As complimentary features, these two films — each lovely in opposite ways —work well together. “Medea” is about as dark as a movie can get, while “Tickets” will leave you with some hope.