Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy Halloween.

Jack-o-lantern party. I made the big one in the middle; husband made the one on the right with the pentagram eye. My inspiration was Leland Palmer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kelsey Elisabeth Nelson on Zadie Smith's critical showdown

This is a great essay. Kelsey Elisabeth Nelson discusses Zadie Smith's writing in which she compares two approaches to art (and writing) criticism: the poststructuralist method favored by Barthes and the more old-fashioned method favored by Nabokov. She takes two complicated theoretical schools and applies them, but the essay itself is quite simple and easy to read (I promise!). I guess this is what post-postmodernism is: postmodernism is now just another completed tool in our toolbox.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Artistic Process and Scotch Tape: An Epic


Though my guilt-fear, rendered humdrum through bad habits,
dictates this day I'll purge from My Big Binge,
I am on strike for a barrier that prohibits
time from slipping through my stumpy digits.
The moral stand-off lapsed in early hours
per a dentist and hygienist with a syringe,
who, as scheduled, drilled and filled my chompers
and in doing freed my overburdened arbiters.

Still rolling on catharsis-high, though illusory
yet lucid too and fighting nagging voices
and numbed so thick my jaw denied its misery
I floated down the road for retail therapy
at a thrift store where I like to search
pragmatically among the picked-through pieces.
I tongued my fillings, my jaw began to pinch
so I headed home for lunch.

The soreness and sick feeling of responsibility
both came flooding back at the same time.
I packed a beer and am headed over shortly
to my studio where if I'm good I'll possibly
do some shit and maybe even cross from my list
the real shit from my clients who I treated like slime
who have waited much too long and now are pissed;
in my churning mental mill, they are the grist.


It's night now and I've left and come back
from my friend's house where I rent his spare bedroom
to fill with a big easel, empty frames, canvases, a storage rack
and chopped up women's magazines in a slippery stack,
a china vase sprouting rolled-up art-school projects
still unfinished, manilla folders in the corner of the room
packed with collage material: a ziplock baggie that protects
several thousand one-inch cut-out squares of pictures of skin; each connects
via a wrinkle, they're scotch taped into abstract collage components
that I someday plan to link together and meld to vinyl backing.
But that'll take a while so they're mostly still in quadrants
on top of four other folders filled with remnants
of my research, accomplished esoteric acumen
from another project sitting halfway in the making
labeled, "Black women," "black men," "white women, and "white men,"
for a painting series about media tropes that are usually hidden.

Tonight I re-shot some photos of a tiny cut-out lady
standing duck-faced over a nest of bridal tulle
from which a strand of pearls spilled, held steady
with hidden cardboard anchored with a penny.
She stands on the keyboard of my Macbook, which I've transformed
with a picture of a hardwood floor from Elle
in front of the screen, which shows Holbein's Henry VIII, adorned 
with a "curtain," a scarf that's brightly zigzag patterned.
Henry cuts a commanding figure: at his feet a pile of gold
made from candy-bar wrappers; at his groin, through illusion,
the woman's head. The photo is less pedantic, less ribald
that what I've described; the starkness is anulled
by the sensual chiaroscuro effect of the warm side lighting,
the cutesy diorama offset by academic allusion
and a slickness that allows for different materials mixing
without a "crafty" look-- at least that's what I'm hoping.

These folks belong to an ever-growing series
of photos that explore the messages sent
in media and ads about gender: cool clothes, hot bodies,
why they're desirable, the interwoven histories
of sexual domination, capitalism, colonialism,
and how those power struggles inform our present
how the old recognizable symbols of misogyny, racism
have shifted shape, surviving to postmodernism.

I wasn't sure at first what I could possibly say
about a society in which one's benefits obscure struggle
of others, concerns which my blinders keep at bay,
something I'll never fully un-learn, but may
through empathy comprehend as I am able
based on my own experiences of trying to label
what I'm not supposed to, with no words to assemble
because others claim the rights to language. So I settle
on removing what They say from any context that justifies
degradation, objectification, toxic role play drivel
such as beauty mags, pop videos, what-to-buy's,
that cut insidious paths into our personal lives.


I'm hoping the juxtaposition of Henry and Tiny Lady
and the various materials will create new contexts for each other:
the king with gold, the woman with the reproductive situation, maybe
horrified or chickenheaded, the curtain hinting at a British colony
all together in an uneasy coexistence. The secondary associations,
of Henry's wives, slavery, wealth, sexual shame, controlling one another,
are meant to be stirred up and left to stew. But in previous iterations
I used gray pearls, so I'm re-shooting with white for clearer implications.

But the freshwater necklace isn't large enough to cover the cardboard
that holds her upright, so I made the impromptu pink nest
which I rather like. But she keeps tipping forward
which turns her face into a reflection on Henry's scabbard.
I like the light in front so the gold glitters,
but that casts a coldish glare on all the rest
and when I move it to the side the shadow renders
the foil dull but it's her face that matters.

More Scotch tape. Low light f-stop, trouble focusing, she's indiscernible;
Henry'll have to be blurred; we all know what he looks like.
The curtain slips, I add binder clips, fluff it; now my Macbook is visible
I move the light-- perfect!-- the gold wrappers topple.
I'm squatting on the floor so I lay on my stomach,
Because the composition begins to look trite.
I prop up on my boobs so my arms have free movement,
and shoot different angles, keeping the head-crotch alignment.

I take a break and crack open the beer. Something's wrong,
it's too busy, too flat, I'm not taking advantage
of the Henry the VIII in lit pixel effect, the curtain is hung
at a really weird angle, so I have to crop out where the pearls are too long.
I watch some TV, Dr. Phil is just ending.
A woman is listening to experts on stage.
I'm tired and ready to go, but I'm buzzed
so I cannot drive anywhere for the time being.

I go back to the camera and it falls into place:
A strong composition if I scoot her upstage
It's the contrast by shining less light on her face
with the glowing groin, echoed in white in the necklace.
Re-arrange the pearls into a nice pleasing "J,"
snap some pictures, then I note with outrage
that my battery power is fading away.
It expires, and I am done for the day.

A detail from the photo with gray pearls that didn't make the cut. [Image: to the right a young white woman in a high fashion floral jumpsuit and Bridget Bardot hair and makeup leans over a strand of pearls. Brightly colored chevron fabric hangs on the left in partial shadow. A screen showing Henry VIII is visible in the background, but only his leg, hands and torso. The woman leans over childishly and grasps her cheeks in possible surprise, worry or horror.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Act of Being Visible

"Being seen": passive. "Appearing": active.

Dove Promises chocolate wrapper reading, "You're gorgeous. Love, Dove."

Dove Promises chocolate wrapper reading, "Don't think about it so much."

What does it mean to do something? Does it involve action? Choice? Behavior? Some passage of time? Responsibility? Culpability? Achievement?

What does it mean to be something? Does it imply inaction? Gestalt? For better or worse? A timeless state? Identity? Does defining one's state of being imply impartial pragmatism?

In terms of our bodies and appearances, we are what we are. We didn't do anything to be what we are. Sure, we performed actions that resulted in the current arrangement of our bodies, whether we ran three miles each morning, passed out and woke up with our faces splotchy and still covered in glitter, wore a bow-tie, whatever. But our appearance, existing in a state of being visible? That is not an action.

Why am I writing this? Because I've noticed lately the way that appearance, particularly women's appearance, is characterized as an action, or as active. Notice the phrasing in these examples of common headlines and advertising language:

"Khloe Kardashian Flaunts Slim Hourglass Figure in Sexy Strapless Dress" -US Magazine headline above a picture of Kardashian walking calmly down the street.

Also from US Magazine: "Hot! Kelly Osbourne Shows Off Slim Bikini Bod in Hawaii Before Brother Jack's Wedding" -headline above a paparazzi shot of Osbourne caught unawares getting into a swimming pool.

"Get the look!" -Pretty much every magazine.

"How To Achieve The 'Natural Look'" -headline, Beautylish.com

"Back to black: Rihanna reinvents herself with dark locks... just in time to promote Battleship in Tokyo" -headline in Daily Mail (UK). From the article: "[...] she is now flaunting tresses with one section of her bonnet getting the chop.
The 24-year-old is showing off a closely trimmed area around her left temple, a trend which has been seen on many celebrities before, including the singer herself." 

In particular the use of "achieve" and "flaunt" set off alarm bells because they are so incredibly loaded with consumer culture and slut-shaming messages. 

We are meant to believe that people (particularly women), unlike animals, are responsible for how they look. It is portrayed alluringly as being in control of one's appearance. But in a culture in which even the most beautiful fall short of the standard of perfection at the same time that attractiveness is punishable, it really means we are culpable.

It's not a new idea. In the Middle Ages in Europe many believed that disfigurement and ugliness was a punishment from God and a reflection of an ugly soul. In Victorian times some doctors actually believed that when a woman attained an education too advanced it caused her womb to shrivel-- resulting in unattractiveness, among other horrors. Looks were often invoked in 19th century racism and slavery; while dark skin and African features supposedly explained why enslaved African Americans were inferior, the narrative always implied culpability, that African Americans should be punished for their looks with oppression. Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird sums up this attitude perfectly when she says, "that's what they get for bein' the Children of Ham."

With these ideas already kicking around I read this piece by eeshap at Crunk Feminist Collective (feminism from the POV of women of color) about Lady Gaga calling for
a “body revolution” in which we flaunt and expose our “perceived flaws” and  “make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous” in order reclaim our sense of self from the media machine is a good thing.  But there’s something else going on here.
In this charged context, what does it mean to be beautiful? And what does it mean to be ugly? And another question, to complicate the binary between beauty and ugliness, because binaries never serve us well: what does it mean to be invisible entirely? Or hyper-visible?


In these contexts, what is the upside of ugly? Or as Lady Gaga beseeches us to, how do we “redefine heinous?” When “ugliness” carries the threat of violence and disenfranchisement, what does it mean to embrace “ugly?” [*] For a person whose body is dehumanized and positioned as the very definition of undesirable, is it possible to “redefine heinous?” Perhaps, but its not neat. To do so we have a lot to dismantle. To do so we have to dwell in the intersections. Beauty and ugliness are not two sides of a coin, they are the same side of the same coin.
To dismantle them involves thinking through what the other side of that coin is. What does is mean for us to see each other as fully human? And as singularly and collectively valuable?
This project is different than the project of asserting that we are all beautiful in our own way (like those Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” campaigns implore of us). It is different than embracing the character building elements of being seen as “ugly.” It involves conversation about what makes us human and valuable. And it must also include a re-definition of both “beauty” and “ugliness” alike.

I generally like to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. I'm generally pretty careless with my appearance too. I fundamentally think of myself as someone who sees rather than who is seen-- who is invisible rather than hyper-visible. But the constant social reminders of culpability and the tantalizing promises of "reinventing" and "expressing" oneself do make defining myself through my appearance into an increasingly seductive illusion. The more interested I am in my appearance the less interested I am in making art. Unlike other creative endeavors, which tend to spark exponentially more creative endeavors, expressing myself through my appearance funnels my mind into thinking about being seen rather than seeing. They are really different modes of thought.

For example, when I show people their finished portraits they often remark about how unusual it is to see themselves the way someone else sees them. And when I stop and think about all the minutes of all our days that we spend arranging ourselves to be seen by others, it seems incredible how little direct or comprehensive feedback we actually get from the people in our lives on our successes and failures, particularly once we reach adulthood. If this is the case, we aren't actually preparing to be seen by others, we're preparing ourselves to be seen how we imagine others should see us. The invitation to take control of our appearances is really an invitation to physically build an imaginary world on your face. The only way to ensure that everyone else is on the same page as you about the messages you send is to stick to a common social script. And if you are culpable for the unpredictable ways in which you might be seen, that is some pretty heavy pressure to speak the same visual language everyone else does. Even if you want to send the message, "I'm different!" you still need to learn how to say that in the common parlance of visual language. The commonly shared social language of appearance is vital, though, because the entire endeavor of being visible as an intentional act rather than a state of being is imaginary.

Paradoxically, in order to achieve any depth of understanding how the common visual language works and why it works that way, one must observe society and the messages it sends about appearance. And in order to do that one must take oneself out of the self-referential frame of mind of being seen and begin to look outward. For example the writers at Crunk Feminist Collective have been writing for years about the racism inherent in Western beauty standards and how that relates to economics, society and history. And it is that practice and those understandings which led to the quote above, questioning what "embracing ugliness" means for women of color. Tellingly eeshap ultimately explores looking outward rather than the inward practice of being seen: "What does is mean for us to see each other as fully human? [...] It involves conversation about what makes us human and valuable. And it must also include a re-definition of both “beauty” and “ugliness” alike."

*This question immediately caused me to counter, "when 'ugliness' carries the threat of violence and disenfranchisement, what does it mean to embrace 'pretty'?"

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two self portraits by Albrecht Durer

*Durer's name has an umlaut over the U but I can't be troubled to type it in.

Durer, self-portrait at 26.

Durer, self-portrait at 28.
Durer was notoriously vain. Guess which spun-gold flowing feature he was proudest of? In the first portrait we'd probably call those "Taylor Swift barrel-curls," while I think the second may be classified as, "beachy waves" or a "tousled boho" 'do. His mod black and white outfit with taupe capelet and provocative decolletage is quite sharp but only Janis Joplin could pull off the Davy Crockett-meets-Shakespeare costume below.

Durer's work is always off-putting because it reminds me of math class, but still absorbing because he belonged to that very early generation of representative artists in whose work you can see them struggling to see the world. In other words, his work reveals the act of him visually learning, which is what I enjoy most about da Vinci, Giotto, Michelangelo and van Eyck as well. European painting lost that a bit once stylistic conventions solidified in the late 1600s.