Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The economy's slow, but Actors' Gang says show will go on

Last June, Actors' Gang artistic director Tim Robbins, above, and his colleagues at the Culver City theater company received some paradoxical advice. The world economy was still shaky. Donations to the theater were down. The best short-term strategy for the theater troupe, the Gang was told, would be to save money by not putting on plays.

A theater company that doesn't make theater? Robbins' none-too-subtle response gave birth to the festival title.

The Actors' Gang's "WTF?! Festival," starts Oct. 13 (a Tuesday) and will run Tuesdays through Saturdays through Dec. 19. It's an ambitious lineup of rotating activities that will encompass live music, poetry, theater and dance performances, readings and film and documentary screenings. Some events will be free.

To longtime Gang watchers, this aggressive approach to battling the recessionary blues seems in character for the Ivy Substation-based company, which is known for its boldly experimental new works and intrepid interpretations of the classics. Conventional wisdom holds that lean economic times require artists and arts groups to rein in their ambitions. The Gang maintains that the opposite is true.

"This is exactly the time, when things are falling apart, when the economy is bad, it's the time to drop ticket prices, it's the time to create free nights, it's the time to figure out how to produce even though the economics say 'don't produce,' " Robbins says.

The new festival, he believes, will allow the company to maintain its artistic goals, preserve its extensive community outreach programs and bring new audiences to the theater while riding out what he calls this "crap economy."

The Oscar-winning actor is curating festival programming, which will bring artists such as Jackson Browne, Tenacious D, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie to perform at the Gang's 99-seat space.

All festival proceeds will be directed toward the Gang's numerous outreach programs, which include pay-what-you-can nights for main-stage Actors' Gang productions, a free summer-in-the-park family theater series, a theater residence in local public schools and a rehabilitation-focused theater in prisons program.

On Tuesdays in November, the Gang and Pen Center USA will host conversations with such authors as Gore Vidal and L.A. Times book editor David Ulin. Pen American will present work produced by its Prison Writing Program, read by members of "The Shawshank Redemption" cast.

The theater and dance series will open with performances of the previously announced solo shows "The Need to Know: A Veteran's Journey from Fear to Freedom," written and performed by April Fitzsimmons, and "Death and Giggles" from Cirque du Soleil performer Daisuke Tsuji.
The festival will wrap up with the choral group Vox Femina.

For details, ticket prices and a complete schedule, call the Actors' Gang box office at (310) 838-4264 or go to


Monday, September 28, 2009

A Brain on Fire, Spreading to Phones

A character in a new video game inspired by the art and music of Daniel Johnston.

The Texas singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston has always poured at least as much of his wild energy into his artwork — brightly colored drawings of a kind of Manichean war in his mind — as he has into his songs. But aside from the stray album cover or concert T-shirt emblazoned with his creations, his art and music rarely come together.

That they have now done so in a video game, released last week for the iPhone, seems somehow fitting in the topsy-turvy career of Mr. Johnston, who has never owned any kind of cellphone, let alone an iPhone, and has no telephone at all in his house in a small town northwest of Houston. (To reach him you have to call his father, next door, who summons Mr. Johnston via intercom.)

The game — called “Hi, How Are You,” one of Mr. Johnson’s catchphrases — was created by two designers in Austin, Tex., who said they had always been enamored of Mr. Johnston’s music and wanted to find an entertaining way to use it while bringing to life the characters that people his artwork. They have names like Jeremiah the Innocent (who takes the form of, among others, a frog with eyes on stalks) and Joe Boxer (a pugilist missing the top of his head).

The result is a kind of psycho-religious version of Frogger, the classic arcade game. In Frogger the objective is to make it, unsquashed and undrowned, across a busy highway and a rushing river. In “Hi, How Are You” it is to navigate Jeremiah and other embodiments of the protagonist through a morally fraught three-dimensional world of glowing red demon babies and other malign forces seeking to keep him from the girl of his dreams, a recurring motif for Mr. Johnston, who suffers from severe bipolar disorder.

“We wrapped the game around his whole story of a man going through life trying to find his true love but constantly having to contend with evil and with Satan, which are probably the demons within himself,” said Peter Franco, who designed the game over the last year and a half with Steve Broumley.

They spent many of those months simply trying to grasp Mr. Johnston’s cosmology through his songs and drawings, which mix his own creations with several stock comic-book characters — not in the game because of licensing costs — like Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost. “There are so many more characters in Daniel’s world,” Mr. Franco said. “I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface.”

The game, which costs 99 cents and uses the iPhone’s tilt sensor and other features, plays out with Mr. Johnston’s high, heartfelt voice providing much of the music in the background, in songs like “Funeral Girl,” “Some Time Spent in Heaven” and “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

Mr. Johnston, 48, began his career in the 1980s handing out cassette tapes of his self-recorded songs on the streets of Austin and exclaiming, “Hi, my name is Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous!”

Over the last several years, even as he has struggled with his health and been hospitalized, his work and life have been at the center of a flurry of attention. He was the subject of a well-received 2005 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Kiki and Herb have covered his songs. His drawings, which he once gave away or traded for comic books, have been commanding thousands of dollars each in the art world; several were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

For many years he lived with his elderly parents near Waller, Tex. But enough money has been generated recently from the sales of his drawings and music — and from licensing agreements like the kind his family made with the video-game makers — to allow him to move into the small ranch-style house that his father built for him next door.

His brother, Dick, who is his business manager, said Mr. Johnston had quickly transformed the house into a museum for his prodigious collection of pop-culture kitsch, which has overflowed most of the rooms and taken up residence in the kitchen, where all the doors have been removed from the cabinets to create display shelves.

“He’s really settled down well there and he’s happy,” Dick Johnston said. The artist now has a cat, Spunky, and even a computer, though he has refused to learn how to do much with it, his brother said, adding that Mr. Johnston briefly played the iPhone game while it was being developed and seemed to like it.

Reached at his father’s house recently after he had returned from a concert tour in the Midwest, Mr. Johnston did not seem to remember much about the game or having played it. Asked what he thought of his work serving as the basis for a video game, he sighed and said, “Just another milestone in Daniel Johnston history, I guess.”

But he added that he had come of age when a video game was played with a joystick, on a television screen, usually one encased in a large wooden box with slots for quarters. “If they make it into a real video game, it might work out, I guess,” he said. “I don’t even know what an iPhone is.”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Design database: What’s in a name?

“Interior design had borrowed language from architecture and visual arts, but when you came down to it, we didn’t have a typology for contemporary design practices that have been occurring across history, style, and culture,” says Jan Jennings, developer of the first searchable online database for names of contemporary design.
CORNELL—Jan Jennings, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, has produced the first searchable online database for names of contemporary design with images of existing buildings, which, she says, have for the most part gone unnamed and undocumented for decades, and in some cases, centuries.
“We had to invent a naming practice, a vocabulary, for students to use in talking about design,” Jennings explains. “Interior design had borrowed language from architecture and visual arts, but when you came down to it, we didn’t have a typology for contemporary design practices that have been occurring across history, style, and culture.”

Thirteen years in the making, the project, called Intypes for the Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, has so far named nearly 70 interior archetypes.

“Some of our alumni are using these words in the field,” Jennings says. “When they do that, they hear the word being used later by their colleagues. If the word is used without translation or definition, then it really has become a word that contributes to a design language.”

For the database, master’s students research a spatial category or element, studying history, cultural implications, and use of that type of space, and then suggest names for particular designs. The suggestions then go to the Intypes Research Group for consideration.

“Some of the things we’re naming seem so obvious,” Jennings says. “The students do all of this research and come up with a name, and people go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what it is.’ We don’t name anything that the entire research group doesn’t agree on. And sometimes we start with one name and then change it to another that works better in practice.”

Jennings says creating the database opens up a whole new field of study. Now that there are names for specific interior designs, researchers can study issues related to them individually, such as their sustainability.

For example, “the white box is a large, volumetric white room with hot lights. It began being used by museums to showcase artwork. But it creates heating and cooling issues, and it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it looking pristine,” Jennings explains.

Jennings hopes the project inspires designers to think about such issues and opens the door to more formal research in interior design.

“Interior design is its own field and profession,” she says. “We’re hoping the project provides a new way to talk about the field and lends it the credibility it deserves.”


Something for Nothing

Sitting in their office in Charlestown, Massachusetts, 32-year-old David Wax and 30-year-old Ben Uyeda have big plans: The cofounders of FreeGreen want to change the face of residential home design and construction. As their company’s name implies, the duo want to make environmentally responsible home design plans freely available to anyone who’s interested.

Wax, a business-minded entrepreneur and Uyeda, a sustainability-minded architect, first joined forces as members of Cornell University’s 2005 team for the Solar Decathlon, an international competition in which teams of college students design and build a solar, energy-efficient home that’s judged in 10 categories (Cornell took second place overall that year). From there, they launched Zero Energy Design (ZED), a firm focused on net-zero energy and ultra-energy-efficient homes. ZED did good work, but wasn’t having the kind of far-reaching impact either man wanted.

“We were doing custom design, working on really cool projects,” explains Uyeda, FreeGreen’s chief architectural officer, or CAO. “And we had a collection of talent with the potential for mainstream impact. But when you’re working on projects one at a time, it’s great for design, but not for getting mass impact.” Most architects, Uyeda noted, take a trickle-down approach to change—do a few noteworthy projects, and hope that you inspire others to borrow your ideas. “We weren’t a fan of waiting for that to happen,” he says. Since every house needs a plan, Wax, FreeGreen’s CEO, says the pair began by asking themselves “where those plans come from.” As it turns out, more than half of the new homes built in the U.S. every year are built by production home builders such as Pulte Homes and Toll Brothers, who have their own in-house architects. Just 5% come from custom design firms such as ZED. The remainder comprise the market for house plans, or pre-made construction documents, which are now bought and sold online.

That market is no small piece of change. Last year the U.S. saw more than 600,000 new single-family homes on the market, and more than 1.6 million in 2006, before the economy went bust, according to the National Association of Home Builders. That leaves a lot of room for positive environmental impact. The challenge then became how to reach the most people for the lowest price.

“If we charged the consumer—the people we want to use the plans—it’s self-defeating,” says Uyeda, “because the lower end of the market can’t afford architectural design fees.” The solution was simple: Make the plans free, and pay for them with strategic product placements.

Companies got their products “featured” in plans, those plans were provided free to customers who, in turn, could use the products…or not. Even so, Wax and Uyeda were wary of losing their credibility.

“We wanted to be very careful with the products we chose or accepted,” says Wax. “Also, because we can do energy analysis, we can show from an objective science and engineering standpoint what a given product means in terms of performance.” More recently, FreeGreen has been working to launch a second line of home plans with no featured products, available for a small subscription fee.

The plans come in a variety of styles— modern loft, Craftsman, mountain cabin, Cape Cod—with sizes ranging from 700-3,000 square feet. And each plan includes an estimate of material and construction costs, customized to one of four regions of the country, so you know exactly what it’ll cost you to build your home. All of the plans feature comprehensive green design elements.

It’s an approach that has proved very appealing to people like Robert Glazer. “I was interested in green issues, and moving toward building a home,” he says. Then he found FreeGreen. “What they’re doing is an information revolution in home building. It’s not just a green issue,” Glazer continues. “It’s hard for people to get good information about products and building. It’s all buried in bids and fixed construction costs. FreeGreen is peeling back that onion.”

As of mid-June, more than 28,000 of FreeGreen’s house plans had been downloaded, and the pace appeared to be quickening. As far as Wax and Uyeda are concerned, that’s a good thing for their venture, and the environment. “We want to give good green design concepts to as many people as possible,” they say.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hidden In Plain Sight?

Among the reasons that people continue to be fascinated by Jackson Pollock’s paintings is their Rorschach quality. Viewers have perceived many things in them, from scenes out of classical mythology to Jungian symbols. In Tom and Jack, an upcoming book about the relationship between Pollock and his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, art historian Henry Adams finds a very surprising image hidden in Pollock’s 1943–44 Mural: the artist’s own signature.

That Pollock would insert his signature into the painting makes sense in terms of Mural’s meaning for Pollock, argues Adams, a professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The whole point of Mural was to declare that Jackson Pollock was a great painter,” he writes in Tom and Jack, which is being published in December by Bloomsbury Press. “The painting is essentially a big billboard for Jackson Pollock.”

Several scholars praise aspects of Adams’s book, but they express skepticism about the idea that Mural contains a hidden signature. Pollock biographer Steven Naifeh, who read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews, notes in an e-mail: “A hundred people might find 50 different words—and hundreds of different images—in this or any of Pollock’s later work.”

Adams says it was actually his wife who first noticed the letters spelling out “Jackson Pollock” among the dark lines in Mural.

“I was just looking at it with my wife—I think it was over breakfast on a Saturday morning,” he recalls. “I was convinced that there was some kind of imagery in the painting, and no one had written about that very clearly. And then at some point she started to see letters in it. Oddly, she was looking at it upside down” at the time, he adds.

Mural, almost 13 feet long and 8 feet high, was painted for the entry hall of Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment. It is generally considered to have been a turning point in Pollock’s career. The critic Clement Greenberg would later claim that he took one look at it and knew that Pollock was “the greatest painter this country had produced.” In 1951 Guggenheim donated the painting to the University of Iowa, where it was at the center of a minor firestorm last year, when a member of the Iowa Board of Regents proposed selling the painting to pay for flood-damage repairs at the university. The painting’s value at the time was estimated to be $140 million.

Adams concedes that the buried signature doesn’t have much importance to the larger argument of his book, which disputes the long-held assumption that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings before making his major works. But Adams says he thought the idea was “provocative,” and he was surprised no one had suggested it before.

“I seem to have a gift for coming up with things that are controversial,” he says, referring to his 2005 book on Thomas Eakins, Eakins Revealed, which explores rumors that the painter molested his niece.

“I’ve been sort of blacklisted in some quarters of the American field” because of that book, Adams says.

The idea that Pollock rejected all of Benton’s teachings came from the Abstract Expressionist himself. In 1951, in his narration for Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg’s documentary, Pollock described Benton, with whom he studied at the Art Students League of New York in the late ’20s, as “a strong personality to react against.”

But Adams, who has also written a biography of Benton, says that, in fact, Pollock remained in close touch with his former teacher until the end of his life, and that he was strongly influenced by Benton’s ideas about composition.

Adams partly relies on the work of Stephen Polcari, who noticed 30 years ago that the compositions of Pollock’s major drip paintings correspond with the recommendations Benton laid out in a series of articles in Arts magazine in 1927. But Adams adds a new angle, stressing Benton’s modernist bona fides: he was influenced, Adams writes, by a group of American modernists called the Synchromists, who combined the formal language of Cubism with the vivid colors of Matisse, arranged according to an arcane theory of color harmonization.

“Benton has always been sort of the bogeyman, the person who was the evil reactionary figure,” Adams says, but in fact “much of his art and his strategies of self-promotion were based on European modernists.” Benton’s influence on Pollock was multilayered, having to do “not only with how you make art but with how you promote yourself as an artist: this willingness to stand out as different and to sort of say outrageous things—basically this whole modernist strategy.”

Mural has long been a subject of great interest to art historians. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, maintained that he painted it in one night, around January 1, 1944, after several months of procrastination. The Pollock scholar Francis O’Connor, however, has adduced photographs and correspondence to dispute that claim, and Adams adopts his view.

Pepe Karmel, a professor of art history at New York University who, with the late Kirk Varnedoe, curated the Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, also read the chapter on Mural at the request of ARTnews. In an e-mail, he calls Adams “a delightful writer,” but adds that he is “way off-base” in his analysis of Mural.

“It’s a Rorschach-blob situation,” Karmel writes. “There are a lot of loops, curves, and lines in Mural. Evidently, by picking and choosing among them, you can spell out the words ‘Jackson Pollock,’ but that doesn’t mean the words are there.”

Karmel adds that Adams’s reading of Mural “seems as if it were inspired by” a 2001 painting by the artist Sean Landers, in which Landers inscribed his signature in a field of wavy colored lines.

“Landers’ painting equates the interlacing lines of all-over painting with wavering lines of script, which is funny because it connects the heroic self-expression of Pollock with the shameless self-promotion of Andy Warhol,” Karmel observes. “To imagine Pollock himself doing this in 1943 makes him into an American equivalent of Francis Picabia, with his Dada assaults on the pompous self-righteousness of the avant-garde.

“That would be an interesting interpretation,” he continues, “but not very convincing.”

Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in the Hamptons, says that Adams “has done a remarkable job of making connections that nobody had really bothered to trace before.” But, as to the purported letters in Mural, she says, “I never saw them until they were pointed out to me.”

Adams notes that he considers the signature a “unique discovery, in that I don’t think you can go around to Jackson Pollock paintings and try to find writing in all of them. I think this is the one time he did that.”


Friday, September 25, 2009

Music review: Midori and Pacific Symphony at Segerstrom Concert Hall

Brahms is never far from the heart of conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony. In February, they played the composer’s genial Third Symphony, and on Thursday they chose the larger, more darkly beautiful First for the latter half of their season-opening gala concert celebrating St.Clair’s 20th anniversary with the orchestra.

They were in wonderful form all night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, starting with Frank Ticheli’s “Shooting Stars,” a short piece -- Copland seen through a Stravinskian kaleidoscope -- long on orchestral color and rhythmic variety. It was a rousing curtain-raiser fitting the occasion for another reason. (The program repeats tonight and Saturday.) Ticheli, who teaches composition at USC, wrote it for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary in 2003 while he was composer-in-residence.

Next, Midori performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with resourceful classical restraint. A prodigy who made her public debut at age 7, Midori proved that precocity need not impede maturity. She turns 38 next month – Tchaikovsky’s age when he composed this concerto. Some star soloists use the work for superficial display, but Midori adhered to what the composer once said he delighted in most about a violinist: “great expressivity, thoughtful finesse and poetry.”

The diminutive Midori used her entire body, producing an unsentimental, sweet tone. Her riveting dynamic control in shaping the first movement made for a slower-than-usual tempo, which paid exciting dividends during orchestral climaxes and transitions. Similarly, the Canzonetta, or “little song,” built gradually, allowing the work’s radiant core to emerge. In the breakneck Finale, Midori at times approximated the speedy passages, losing fullness of tone and clarity of articulation. “Do it with dash,” Heifetz once said, “then if you miss it, you miss it with dash.” She did it with dash.

St.Clair was an inspired collaborator, creating a near-ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. For once, Segerstrom Hall sounded properly tuned, with details like the Finale dialogue between oboe, clarinet and bassoon vividly present.

After intermission, St.Clair and the orchestra offered a richly imagined account of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. He conjured an autumnal glow from the strings, and captured the intense drama and breathtaking repose of this great score.



Some have described Jandek as the sort of musician who was destined to be a cult phenomenon, though it's quite remarkable that he's managed to attract any following at all. Jandek isn't an artist who has covered his tracks so much as he's struggled to avoid leaving any -- he releases his own albums, he only sells them by mail order, he doesn't talk to the press, he doesn't sit for photographs, and the rare few who've communicated with him can't even get him to admit he is Jandek (he prefers to identity himself as "a representative of Corwood Industries," the name of his self-run record label). This tends to fit the nature of his body of work, which is curious at best, frequently off-putting, and obsessively personal -- Jandek's recordings are dominated by spare, atonal guitar figures, mumbled vocals sometimes punctuated by fevered howls, self-abasing lyrics, minimal chord structures, and chaotic accompaniment (when there is any). However, while Jandek isn't interested in developing a warm relationship with his audience, his commitment to his muse is impressive -- Jandek released more than 45 albums between 1978 and 2006, with no signs that he intends to stop any time in the immediate future. Jandek is believed to be the alias of one Sterling Smith, a resident of Houston, TX, though even this much has never been confirmed by the man from Corwood himself. Jandek's recording career began in 1978 with the release of an album called Ready for the House credited to the Units, though when it was learned there was already an active group called the Units, the billing was changed to Jandek. The front cover featured an enigmatic photo of a sparsely decorated living room and the back featured only basic information (artist, title, songs, Corwood's P.O. box in Houston) in black type on a white background. In 1981, a second Jandek album appeared, Six and Six, and the cover followed the same format as the first album except that the front cover featured a grainy snapshot of a blank-faced young man. From this point on, Jandek would release at least one album a year (if not more), each following a similar visual template (with the blank young man often appearing in a variety of guises, leading many to believe it was Jandek himself) and offering more difficult, introspective sounds. While Corwood made no headway into record store distribution, the label would sometimes mail boxes of LPs free of charge to interested parties, and college radio stations and independent music zines were regularly serviced with Jandek's latest releases, leading to a mild but persistent buzz about the nearly invisible Texan. Over the years, interest in Jandek grew to the point that some listeners wanted to know just who this man really was, through the artist wasn't giving any clues; in 1999, Texas Monthly reporter Katy Vine spoke with a man from Houston she believed to be Jandek, though he refused to identify himself as such and didn't wish to discuss Jandek's music, though he was clearly familiar with it. In 2003, filmmaker Chad Freidrichs released a documentary about the musician, Jandek on Corwood, but while a "representative of Corwood Industries" cooperated with the production, there were no interviews with Jandek or onscreen signs of his active participation. On October 17, 2004, at Glasgow, Scotland's Instal Festival (an annual event celebrating experimental music), a tall, slender man in a dark grey shirt, black slacks, and a fedora walked onto the stage and began performing with bassist Richard Youngs and drummer Alex Neilson. While the artist was not announced and he was not identified in the program, word quickly spread that Jandek had made his first documented live appearance at the event, which was later confirmed by fellow Instal participants. Corwood later released a live recording of the show, entitled Glasgow Sunday, and since then Jandek has made a handful of live appearances (most of which were announced in advance) in the United States and Europe, suggesting the most enigmatic figure in American music is has developed a new willingness to ever-so-slightly reveal himself to his audience.

~ Mark Deming, All Music Guide

Dream Big with Little Dream

Little Dream is a one-night only exhibition coming to WeSC in Los Angeles where Vanessa Prager and Lizzy Waronker will convert the outside of the WeSC space into an indoor terrarium, built from a huge jointly created paper mache installation.

Their individual pieces will be hung and featured in this environment and the inside of the store will host drinks and music from Chris Holms. This show is open to the public, with RSVP.

The show will be one night only, October 1st, 2009 from 7-11pm
WeSC Concept Store
144 S. Robertson
LA, CA. 90048


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Maya Lin’s Museum of Chinese in America opens in New York

The Museum of Chinese in America's central courtyard, featuring the ongoing exhibition "With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America"
New york. US artist and architect Maya Lin, best known for creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, has designed the new Museum of Chinese in America, which opens in New York today. Located in a former machine shop on Centre Street, the building echoes traditional Chinese architecture with an exposed brick, sky-lit courtyard that opens onto exhibition galleries, a research centre, auditorium and space for public programmes. The inaugural shows include a historical look at Chinese immigrant culture in the US as well as the museum’s first exhibition of contemporary work by artists of Chinese descent living in New York, “Here & Now: Chinese Artists in New York”. This has been organised into three parts, the first (running until 2 November) featuring artists Xu Bing, Yun-Fei Ji, Lin Yan and Cui Fei, with the other two parts opening on 19 November and 10 January.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wouldn't it be significant if all the attention that commercialism receives were to be focused on those who have nothing and need our help?

Michael McClure and Elizabeth Marie Young

Michael McClure is a Bay Area countercultural icon whose numerous works include Dark Brown, Ghost Tantras (which he famously read to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo), the play The Beard, albums with Ray Manzarek, one-time pianist with the Doors, and with Terry Riley, a republication of The Boobus and the Bunnyduck, a 1957 childrens book made with the artist JessRain Mirror.

This summer, Elizabeth Marie Youngs full-length book, Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, won the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books (it will come out in 2009), and Omahrahu Press published a chapbook of her Sonnets. She is finishing her PhD in Comparative Literature at Berkeley, and will join the Classical Studies Department at Wellesley College in January.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview with Majora Carter, Founder, Sustainable South Bronx, and Majora Carter Group

The focus of your organization, the Majora Carter Group is "an asset-based development model," which has been defined as "a green-collar look at the assets comprised in a given municipality or region to identify where needs are not being met." Please describe your asset-based development approach, and what this means for urban environments.

Planners, infrastructure engineers, politicians, and even social service agencies often look at areas or groups of people -- I think they like to call them "populations" -- as problems that can be solved with this or that action. It usually involves taking money from somewhere and putting it where an expert says it's needed. It is undoubtedly never enough, and it engenders a sense of competition from whomever feels it's being taken away from the "problem" that they want to solve.

If you let folks put the pieces together properly, some of the problems become assets. For example, storm water run-off is a big "problem" that engineers like to pour loads of concrete and build ever expanding treatment plants for. It has also been identified that people who live in areas where unemployment is prevalent often suffer from a lack of greenery in their lives. Studies show that it affects their sense of community pride, air quality, and self-esteem, school performance, and property values.

It turns out that trees, open green spaces, and green roofing do wonders for storm water management and take the burden off of a typical combined sewage system. These things also address the lack of greenery problems listed above, and it takes people to do the work. There are many examples like this, and they usually boil down to choosing the more labor intensive options out there because they help solve our poverty problem. When you start putting people first, many of the "problems" that others are trying to solve start to evaporate.

The organization you founded – Sustainable South Bronx, was critical to bringing green roofs to the South Bronx. Most recently, Sustainable South Bronx played a key role in efforts to create green roof tax abatement of $4.50 / per square foot. What impact do you think this legislation will have on the development of urban green roofs in NYC? Are these types of incentives enough? What else needs to be done from a policy and regulatory point of view so that there are green roofs across NYC?

That was a great victory for the S.W.I.M. coalition that SSBx's Policy Director Rob Craudereuff convened. The same group also passed NYC Local Law 5, which simply requires that all future storm water management plans include a cost-benefit analysis of green vs. traditional solutions. The tax abatement is good for the money it provides, but it also serves as a communications tool for green roofing. Having it sanctioned by the government in that way is a real seal of approval that helps get people over the fear factor that comes with the unfamiliar.

I think the City will save money if they pay in full for green roofs in certain water shed areas, and if you take a look at the Urban Heat Island Mitigation study that I co-wrote with Rob and Joyce Rosenthal at Columbia University Earth Institute, air quality goes up and energy consumption goes down when green roofing is deployed on a massive scale. It's up to advocates of all stripes to use things like Local Law 5 to make the cost-benefit argument effective now. I have great confidence that more and more voices will enter the debate. I think if we mandate anything, it's likely to get mis-directed or shot down. The newer urbanists coming up through the ranks are always so impressive to me with their easy perspective on how it all fits together. The ball is in motion and it's just a matter of time before migratory birds light on the roofs of NYC as they make their journeys.

What do you see as the main value of green roof demonstration projects?

At this point, green roof demonstration projects have about as much value as another study to see if intensive diesel and powerplant exhaust give kids asthma -- none. We know fossil fuel emissions are bad and we know green roofs work. By continually calling for repetitive studies and "demonstrations", we imply that there is uncertainty. Kind of like what the oil companies did with global warming. The very word "demonstration" implies untested; the "study" implies a surprise around the corner. We need change on a massive scale. We might not get it perfectly right immediately, but we certainly know that we have not been doing a good job with regard to our social or environmental future so far. If you know something works, do it -- and do it big, bold, and beautifully and make an impact!

What is the status of the South Bronx Green way project?

There is $20 million appropriated and the Hunts Point Riverside Park is built (and very well too!); and more and more bike lanes keep getting painted along the routes, but it is taking sooooo long. It's amazing how fast an ugly building can go up, and how long it takes to make parks.

What do you think of the High Line being developed in Chelsea, Manhattan? Are there any similarities with the Sheridan Expressway project you are working on, in that both projects seek to turn abandoned transportation infrastructure into parks, or green infrastructure?

Similarities? The City wanted to tear down the High Line, but we have to work really hard to get the Sheridan Expressway decommissioned.

The High Line is just a couple blocks from the Hudson River Greenway - one of the coolest parks in the City in one of its wealthiest areas; but in the South Bronx, we have 1/5 the amount of green space per person as the citywide average.

My husband lived next to the High Line in the 90's and would climb on it with friends for picnics; he said it was already like a park up there and doesn't understand why they have to spend USD $20 million on less than a mile when all it needs is a few stairways for access. I am sure it's going to be quite a feat of landscape architecture, but it seems odd to me that there are still parts of our city that are starved for parks and that that level of city funding is going to one that is two blocks away from a magnificent park already.

I think the contrast of my work on the South Bronx Greenway/Sheridan Expressway Decomission and the High Line are a classic illustration of environmental justice -- who gets the good stuff and who doesn't...

What role can landscape architects play in your vision for green urban renewal?

They are in a great position to advocate for the social assets that their work embodies, and can reach out to the social justice advocates and storm water management and public health professionals for support. Our landscapes shape how we live and their beauty (or lack of) reflects back upon us deeply. They have so many allies out there just waiting to be summoned, and I am looking forward to encouraging them everywhere we work going forward.

In your mind, which landscape architects are doing the most exciting urban work? What kind of innovative landscape architecture would you like to see come to the city?

Signe Nielsen, FASLA, of Mathews + Nielsen worked closely with us to create the South Bronx Greenway Master Plan, and she has become a really good friend in the process. She did a great job of designing what I would like to see more of in all cities: putting recreational and industrial uses in close proximity to one another. Kathleen Bakewell, now with Howe & Howerton, designed the greenroof on SSBx's headquarters, and understood why it was so important to us to see that kind of sustainable development happening in the 'hood.

We wanted to show that if you do it well, mixed-use landscapes work. Everyone wins because when people are present, industrial design and practices clean up, and that improves everyone's environment. Making these areas accessible is a great way landscape architects can improve working conditions for people, make our cities cooler and cleaner, and eventually change the world.


The New Acropolis Museum, a Minimalist Showcase for Ancient Greek Art

As one of the most esteemed monuments of Western civilization, the Parthenon has both inspired and cast its shadow over many an architect. Visiting the Athenian Acropolis for 12 days straight in 1911, Le Corbusier was by turns exhilarated and oppressed by the glory of its buildings. He pronounced himself “stupefied by this gigantic apparition” which provoked “heartrending doubt” in his own abilities. “It crushes you until you’re ground to dust,” he lamented.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel was less intimidated. After Bavarian Prince Otto became king of Greece in 1834, the Prussian architect boldly drew up a royal palace that would have partly surrounded the Parthenon’s ruins, but it was never built. More recently, Walter Gropius attempted a modernist reimagining of the temple to Athena when he designed a white marble U.S. Embassy in the Greek capital in 1956.

There are a number of 20th century high-rises in Athens—Vincent Scully denounced the 14-story Hilton designed by a trio of Greek architects as “vandalism” when it opened in 1963—but the primacy of the Acropolis on the skyline has been largely preserved. Still, building anywhere in its proximity can be a vexed task.

With his long-awaited New Acropolis Museum, which opened in June at the base of the once-sacred plateau, Bernard Tschumi becomes the latest to wrestle with the Parthenon’s daunting precedent. The former dean of Columbia University’s architecture school has had mixed success in creating a showcase worthy of the sculptures of the Acropolis and what remains in Greece of the Parthenon frieze, after half was removed with saws and crowbars at the behest of Britain’s Lord Elgin two centuries ago.

Swiss-born Tschumi had no interest in overtly miming the Parthenon’s form. Instead, the museum pays subtle homage to the Doric landmark and landscape through a monolithic minimalism. From the outside, the building’s façade of black fritted glass inserts a massive, inky rectangular box into the cityscape, which provoked intense controversy among many Athenians for being overscaled. This was, for sure, a supersized commission with a double-pronged task—diplomatic as well as archaeological. It aims not only to preserve the remnants of Acropolis sculpture that can no longer be left out in the open air due to pollution, but also to convince the British government to return the Athenian artworks to their place of origin.

Demands for Britain to give back the sculptures emerged almost as soon as the so-called Elgin Marbles were first removed in the early 1800s. The dispute over what Greece prefers to call the Parthenon sculptures has been waged by scores of politicians and in poetry and prose by Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, Constantine Cavafy, and John Keats. But the calls for their return gained renewed fervor in the 1970s after the sculptures became increasingly identified with Greek democracy after the fall of military rule in Athens.

When fiery actress Melina Mercouri gave up her film career to become culture minister in 1981, she brought renewed attention to the issue. High on her agenda was dispelling Britain’s doubt that the Greeks could be trusted as custodians of their own heritage by creating a purpose-built museum to spotlight and safeguard the sculptures—something to outshine the British Museum’s imposing Neo-Classical Parthenon gallery, designed by American architect John Russell Pope and completed in 1938.

Tschumi’s design, realized with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, won the fourth in a succession of competitions held to come up with a concept for the new museum. Arguments over excavations repeatedly delayed construction of the museum, originally due to open in time for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. “Polemic is a Greek word,” noted Tschumi as he walked around the finished building, adding that 104 lawsuits sought to halt the $180 million project.

At 46,000 square feet and containing some 4,000 artifacts, the museum is nearly 10 times as big as the cramped, 19th century Acropolis Museum just behind the Parthenon. From the outside, Tschumi’s tri-level composition is clearly visible, but the façade mutates from side to side, with individual segments consisting variously of precast concrete panels, corrugated steel, and long expanses of dark glass. By placing the top segment off-kilter from the rest, Tschumi attempted to give a sense of movement to the behemoth that he has wedged in among low-rise modern apartment blocks and 19th century Neo-Classical buildings.

The structure hovers over the now nearly completed excavations, held aloft by 43 concrete columns placed in consultation with archaeologists as well as engineers. Glass pavers give views of the archaeological finds below, revealing multiple layers of Athenian history, including homes, bathhouses, and workshops dating from periods after the creation of the Parthenon in the fifth century B.C.

The interior of the building is far better than its bulky exterior, and circulation through it is intended to recall the experience of mounting the Acropolis itself. After entering beneath a grand cantilevered concrete overhang, visitors amble up a glass ramp toward the displayed fragments of an ancient temple, ransacked by the Persians in 480 B.C. on what became the site of the Parthenon.

Turning to the right, visitors enter a vast, triangular gallery filled with an astounding collection of archaic sculpture arranged as if in an agora. Natural light has been deployed here to maximum effect, pouring through south-facing windows into the white marble-floored room with its forest of sandblasted concrete pillars. Because sunlight from the east and west is so intense, at these ends of the building Tschumi has created louvered walls of corrugated stainless steel panels.

From here there is another ascent, to the uppermost gallery, a huge glass rectangle containing the remains of the Parthenon frieze, metope reliefs, and pediment sculptures. This dazzling gallery has been shifted from the lower portion of the museum to bring it in parallel alignment with the Parthenon outside. The room has roughly the same footprint as the Athenian temple, which can be seen 300 yards away by visitors as they review the Parthenon frieze and the metopes.

Rather than leave voids where the pieces taken by Lord Elgin once stood, the museum inserted white plaster casts among the original honey colored segments. The casts were given to the Greeks by the British Museum in 1845 and are being exhibited here for the first time. Each one is clearly labeled, and the entire exhibit can’t help but suggest an accusatory finger, particularly when one sees fragments like a figure of Poseidon, whose torso is in Athens, but whose shoulders are in London. An added bonus comes at night, when the entire sculptural assemblage can be seen from outside the illuminated building and the unwieldy bulk of the exterior fades into the darkness.

At both ends of the top floor stand the remaining sculptures from the pediments, held aloft on prongs of titanium and stainless steel. The overall display is effective; but the metopes are inelegantly encased between pieces of gray cement board that are attached to brushed stainless steel columns. Tschumi’s office oversaw the museum installation in conjunction with curators, without help from an outside exhibition design team, and in other areas as well, the architecture falls short of an optimal backdrop to the apogee of classical art.

After viewing the Parthenon gallery, visitors descend by way of a mezzanine showcasing the Porch of the Caryatids, once part of the temple of the Erechtheion, near the Parthenon. There were originally six of these tunic-clad stone maidens, but Elgin took one. The remaining five were moved from the Erechtheion to the old Acropolis Museum in 1977 and replaced with plaster replicas to halt erosion due to acid rain.

The caryatids no longer loom against the blue sky but stand sentry in the new museum’s atrium core, its concrete walls perforated to dampen sound in a hard-surfaced space. Skylights don’t prevent the precast gray slabs from resembling colossal dominoes, and the concrete grid overhead makes the atrium feel like a birthing chamber for a 21st century Frankenstein’s monster instead of an exalted setting for some of the most beautiful statuary ever made.

Yet the bulk of the minimalist museum cedes the foreground to the treasures of the Periclean Golden Age and meets numerous structural and technical challenges. The entire structure stands atop sliding bearings of Teflon steel to enable it to withstand severe earthquakes, and according to Tschumi, it has already endured two minor ones. Special gaskets in the glass window panels also allow movement in the event of seismic activity, while marble stands for the sculptures are crafted to prevent the masterpieces themselves from crashing to the floor. Working with glass consultant Hugh Dutton, Tschumi also devised a means of keeping the top floor temperate in the often scorching sun. Warm air is evacuated through the ceiling, and a cooling system combined with double-layered glass recycles the air through the gallery.

Building in the immediate shadow of the temple that made Le Corbusier and countless others tremble, Tschumi has deftly harnessed Attic light and supplied an architectural argument that, at least in the opinion of his Greek clients, has the power to loosen Britain’s grip on its hoard of the Parthenon statues.


Storage Barn

Until recently, the McGarry property outside Washington, Conn., was cluttered with stockpiles of materials and wooden pallets. Typical for the hub of a landscape maintenance business, yes, but not exactly the picture that state and local environmental staff had in mind for the site’s other classification as a sensitive watershed. Their instructions for protecting the nearby stream were direct: tidy up the site and reduce the footprint of the whole operation.

The task was right up the alley of New Haven, Conn.–based Gray Organschi Architecture, which designed a compact workshop/storage barn that reduced industrial sprawl on the old gravel quarry site and produced a green building that runs entirely on solar and geothermal energy. “It seems to be what we do a lot of in our work,” says principal Alan Organschi, whose firm was recognized this year as an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York. “We get these rural brownfield sites—beat up, dug out, with demolished old buildings—and we go back and try to do a really minimal installation.”

Essentially, the building is a utilitarian storage rack wrapped around an 800-square-foot workshop and storage barn for riding mowers, power washers, compressors, and the like. Tightly packed and palletized stone and wood are stored on flexible external shelves that allow easy access to each pallet without having to disturb the others around it. Sheltering the entire structure is a lightweight, translucent, 72-by-28-foot roof canopy that provides an evenly daylit interior workspace and weather-protected storage for stockpiles of loose sand and loam.

Organschi and partner Elizabeth Gray based the plan of the building on a 4-foot-wide module that accommodates several key demands: the standard dimension of a pallet of stone and the wheelbase, turning radius, and reach of the articulated loader that moves and manages the material. The loader is parked inside the building when not in use, so overhead clearances were important as well.

Tubular steel columns form the basic structure, which is supported by diagonal bracing and a continuous steel frame located at the bay door. Cantilevered from the columns on the building’s exterior are a series of beefy shelf standards (akin to the lumber racking systems found in commercial lumberyards) holding galvanized steel grates that support the pallets of materials.

Seen from the outside, the barn is a rough and intriguing mosaic of wood and stone, which contrasts with the bright, smooth polycarbonate panel walls. A perforated-steel stair leads down to a basement-level storage/mechanical room.

The client was willing to pay more up front to include sustainable systems that will recoup the principal investment over time. The entire building is heated and cooled by a ground-source geothermal system consisting of three wells, each between 350 and 400 feet deep. The geothermal system is combined with a rooftop photovoltaic array that powers the heat pump system, work lights, and power tools.

The solar panels are translucent and integrated into skylights in the roof—admitting daylight into the workspace below. The building produces more electrical energy than it consumes, allowing the owner to sell surplus electricity back to the regional utility company. It is a progressive system for such an unassuming building, says Organschi, who notes that “everything else about this building is very basic.”

The materials may be basic, but the result is a stunning object that elevates landscaping materials to a decorative level. And the incredibly compact footprint allayed the concerns of local officials. They signed off on the project without objection.


Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition

The Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition was created in 2003 to promote activism, social involvement, and entrepreneurship in young designers. Metropolis saw the need for a new type of competition, one that went beyond the usual beauty pageants for finished projects, a competition that would generate and reward ideas.


The design and building of Tree House was a labor of love. I designed this house for my sister, her first house. The death of our father allowed her the funds to build it.

Tree House sits on a cul-de-sac at the end of a mature subdivision in Wilmington, DE, USA. It is filled with century-old deciduous trees, which form a magnificent canopy 150 feet above the site.

A stream runs around the house, and because of certain restrictions of the Army Corps of Engineers and because of the potential for flooding, the buildable area is quite small. This induced us to design a vertical house, with raised Living Room and Master Suite. These spaces give one the feeling of being in the trees.

The stairs inside were fabricated at the performance stage shop where my sister works. They are made of 1/2” aluminum plate, with two treads in each unit.

Shades of purple set the color scheme: dark aubergine curtains, a grey-purple stone for the wall which encloses the fireplace and media storage.

Horizontal windows encircle the house, providing select views into the landscape. In contrast to these small views, a great wrapping window in the double-height Living Room provides a dominant diagonal focus for the house, and leads views into the deep woods to the northeast.

A roof deck provides a view in all directions from a height of 35 feet in the air.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Death of a Poet: Jim Carroll

I went to Jim Carroll's wake and then to his funeral. It's what one Catholic boy does for another. Conventionally described as a "punk poet" (although there was nothing punk in the least about his Frank O'Hara-influenced/Arthur Rimbaud-inflected verse), Jim died this past Friday of a heart attack in his apartment in upper Manhattan. They found him at his desk, and those of us who loved and admired him like to think that he was putting the finishing touches on his long-awaited novel, The Petting Zoo.

If Jim Carroll's name means anything to you, it is probably as the author of the electrifying memoir of teenaged misadventures and heroin addiction in '60s New York, The Basketball Diaries. It was made into a mediocre film in 1995, redeemed by a searing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio that was nevertheless deficient in one conspicuous respect: Leo did not have game, and his lame attempt to imitate the graceful All-City ballplayer that was Jim turned out to be an embarrassment. The musically inclined will remember Jim's terrific 1980 rock album Catholic Boy, which featured that anthem of early and grisly urban demise, "People Who Died." Cognoscenti of downtown culture knew Jim as a literary prodigy who was publishing his poems and diaries in the Paris Review in his teens. He was a fully paid-up member of New York's hip aristocracy, Lou Reed's peer, Patti Smith's lover, Allen Ginsberg's acolyte, Robert Smithson's friend, permanently welcome in the Valhalla of Max's Kansas City's back room. And I had the pleasure of publishing most of his work when I was an editor at Penguin in the '80s.

Tall, slim, athletic, pale, and spectral as many ex-junkies are, Jim was a vivid presence in any setting. He was a classic and now vanishing New York type: the smart (and smartass) Irish kid with style, street savvy, and whatever the Gaelic word for chutzpah is. The line of succession runs from Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Walker through Emmett Grogan and Al McGuire. In the '30s they would have cast him immediately as a Dead End Kid—he certainly had the unreconstructed accent for the part, an urban rasp that was sweet music to my aboriginal ears. He came up athletically in an era when New York produced the best basketball players in the country—and a lot of them were white. Despite playing his high-school ball for a Manhattan prep school, Jim could more than hold his own on some of the toughest playgrounds in the city against the likes of Lew Alcindor and Dean "the Dream" Meminger. But his street-kid affect never quite hid his essentially generous and vulnerable nature and his poetic soul.

I thought of Jim not as my dopplegänger, exactly—that would have been ridiculous. But we were the same age, came from similar backgrounds (his old man was a saloon keeper; mine, a cop), and had something of the same spoiled altar boy's worldview, and we both worshipped at the dual shrines of the Roundball and the Word. I brought his astonishing first collection of poems, Living at the Movies (1973), and The Basketball Diaries (1978) back into print and edited his next collection, The Book of Nods (1985), and his raffish and absorbing "Downtown Diaries," Forced Entries (1987). That book had a fun legal read, all right: I had to convince our skeptical lawyers that the polymorphously perverse, joyously substance-abusing cast of characters were libel-proof (and that in any case they might sue if they weren't seen snorting and screwing everything and everybody in sight) and that the minimally disguised Warhol "superstar" depicted jabbing a syringe full of amphetamines right through her mumu was unlikely to come forward. Plus, you know, she actually did that. I've never published a more scabrously entertaining book. Jim and I lost touch mostly after I left Penguin, but his editor Paul Slovak kept me abreast of Jim's activities and his declining health. For all that, opening the page to the obituary in the Times was a shock to the system. Surely he (and I) would be forever young?

Jim Carroll was waked (in a blessedly closed casket) in a funeral home on Bleecker Street before a few dozen family, friends, and fans. The grief and loss was even thicker in the air than usual at these affairs. After the priest led us in prayers, Jim's ex-wife, Rosemary, invited people to share their thoughts and memories. New York rock legend Lenny Kaye gave a moving mini-eulogy that touched on Jim's gifts as a raconteur and evoked his sweetness, ending with the famous line from "People Who Died:" "I salute you, brother." Two members of the original Jim Carroll Band, Terrell Winn and Steve Linsley, reminisced about hooking up with Jim in Bolinas, where he'd retreated to get clean, and crafting the triumph of punk sound and poetic sensibility that was the album Catholic Boy. Richard Hell marveled at the early arrival of Jim's gifts and expressed his admiration and astonishment. I spoke of just how much fun it was to be Jim's editor, fun being about as easy to experience in publishing these days as smoking in Mike Bloomberg's New York, and remembered the best Fourth of July of my life, when I played basketball in the Village all afternoon, showered, got good and ripped, and saw the Jim Carroll Band tear it up at the Ritz in their first New York appearance a few days after Scott Muni had unveiled "People Who Died" on WNEW-FM.

And then Patti Smith got up, her star power dialed down, and told a simple funny story about her first encounter with Jim, who had proceeded to recite for her a long section of Whitman from memory until he ... nodded ... off ... for about half an hour. Patti, "because I was a polite girl," sat there patiently until Jim awoke, and then he picked up exactly where he'd left off. This perfect vignette perfectly delivered, Patti turned to the casket, laid her hand on it gently, and and said, "Jim, when you get up there, say hello to Allen, and to William, and to Gregory, and to Herbert [as in Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, and Huncke]. And to all our friends." That's when we all cried.

Patti did it to us again, at the funeral mass held the next morning at Our Lady of Pompeii on Carmine Street. The gaudy Italian baroque interior was well-stocked with the now somewhat aging band of '70s and '80s artists, hipsters, and fans—the one-time loyal customer base of CBGBs, Area, Danceteria, the Mudd Club. It felt like the Soho News should have been covering the event. But there was, surprisingly, no discordance whatsoever between the ultra-Catholic setting and old-school service and the worldly, transgressive-minded congregation. On this occasion, in honor of the man who sang passionately of being "a Catholic boy/ redeemed through pain, not through joy," the sacred and the profane joined hands. Jim's work and life were always at bottom quests for grace, and in a real sense he never left the church, which in any case will always welcome back its prodigal sons and daughters. After the consecration and the communion (which I, against all the rules that I recall very well, went up to receive for the first time in four decades), the priest invited Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye up to the podium. And with Lenny strumming his acoustic guitar, she sang her gorgeous song "Wing" as if it were a hymn, as if had been composed to complement the "Ave Maria" that had been sung 10 minutes before:

And if there's one thing
could do for you
you'd be a wing
in heaven blue

To quote the song's refrain: "It was beautiful/ it was beautiful."

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.


Takato Yamamoto

There is something about the unknown, when an exciting discovery shakes your brain, the flesh quivers, and the heart races just a little bit faster. Eyes pop open forward, with lips drying as the mouth gawks in sheer amazement. As an artist, this can be a regular occurrence when the talent of another is exposed for the first time. Witnessing technique or craft blended together of another’s style is a rewarding experience. It’s the beauty of being one who creates: You can marvel at others who do the same thing. When it's on, it rocks hard.

The perfect example is Japanese artist, Takato Yamamoto. Relatively unknown outside of Japan, there is a brilliance to his highly detailed illustrations that combine tight line work with moments of ukiyo-e, eroticism, bondage, ghostly images, and Bellmer-esque surrealism. Dark, with emotionless, stoic faces, the characters beautiful colors seem helpless, almost soft and doll-like in their positions. With four books already under his wing, Takato is prolific with a fantastic imagination, advancing the dynamics of his stylistic approach. For a fan of this genre, of illustrative embellishment, the work is amazing. Domo arigato Yamamoto-san. —CE

Takato Yamamoto
Interview by Megumi Sakai

There is something about the unknown, when an exciting discovery shakes your brain, the flesh quivers, and the heart races just a little bit faster. Eyes pop open forward, with lips drying as the mouth gawks in sheer amazement. As an artist, this can be a regular occurrence when the talent of another is exposed for the first time. Witnessing technique or craft blended together of another’s style is a rewarding experience. It’s the beauty of being one who creates: You can marvel at others who do the same thing. When it's on, it rocks hard.

The perfect example is Japanese artist, Takato Yamamoto. Relatively unknown outside of Japan, there is a brilliance to his highly detailed illustrations that combine tight line work with moments of ukiyo-e, eroticism, bondage, ghostly images, and Bellmer-esque surrealism. Dark, with emotionless, stoic faces, the characters beautiful colors seem helpless, almost soft and doll-like in their positions. With four books already under his wing, Takato is prolific with a fantastic imagination, advancing the dynamics of his stylistic approach. For a fan of this genre, of illustrative embellishment, the work is amazing. Domo arigato Yamamoto-san. —CE

Megumi Sakai: How did you get to be an artist?

Takato Yamamoto: I drew illustrations for commercial advertising, mainly in the 1980s after graduating from art university. In the 1990s, I had the yearning for UKIYOE to the cut-in illustration book, the work such as cut-in illustrations and cover illustrations of novels, and wanting to draw before increases. After 2000, I mainly worked on original paintings.

What inspires you as an artist? Which inspirations help you to make your stile?

My basic theme is the image of the universe operation that has repeated the circulating generation (life) and dismantlement (death). I express symbolically the image to be a man's body as the main motif, while taking the image of a plant, an insect, and other various objects.

What is the process in creating one of your illustrations?

The character of the boy or the girl who becomes the face of the work is extracted from among the first hazy images. I multiply to imagine the image from that, and tie the form automatically, and then I start to draw the rough sketch of the line that becomes the blueprint of the work, is then made. After the rough sketch is done, I trace on canvas or paper and then paint.

What kind of tools and painting materials do you use for drawing?

Drawing the rough sketch I use pencil and mechanical pencils. And I start to draw on paper by pigment-ink or on canvas by an acrylic pigment, etc.

You have so many art works, all very detailed. How long you take to create one piece?

About one week with a small one. It takes one month or more when it is a large one. It rarely happens for it to take several months.

What is your process to create art works?

Day by day the artwork is changed by meeting something and someone and what image stands up into reality, the dream, and the illusion. Even I am expected for the unknown expression world to be created while enjoying those meeting.

Did you decide the concepts and titles for each of your art books by yourself? Those books are designed beautifully. Do you imagine the design for books or have ideas to tell the designer?

Books take about two years to complete. The whole time, I’m thinking and discussing with the planner and the editor of the book. We overview the art works for those two years, and we figured out the theme and title for them. And then we are thinking about the structure of the book. Furthermore I'd add some new art works. About the book design, we also talk and focus the image for the design.

Recently you released your original Tenugui: Washcloth. Do you want to do anything with another culture or different way of art in the future? Or are you interested in anything else?

Before I considered the size of the art book, there were comparatively a lot of small size works. Otherwise, recently I have had the chance to exhibit with a gallery. It has increased, I think the original work with a little larger size canvas will increased. Moreover I would like to try to draw the hanging scroll and the folding screen, by the technique of the Japanese style paintings.

Do you plan to publish any new books and or have any upcoming exhibitions to speak of? Any new styles or visions that you are approaching? And what about plans for overseas publishing or exhibitions? Let us know everything!

I’m in various exhibitions, and there will be books for all of them: Art Tapei 2009, Japonism at Span Art Gallery, and 100 Alice at Span Art Gallery as well.

For more information about Takato Yamamoto, contact


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kandinsky: The Angel in the Architecture

"Picture With a Circle" (1911), part of a major retrospective of this Russian visionary that fills the rotunda of the Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim Museum is not exactly thinking outside the spiral with its sleek Kandinsky retrospective. But maybe that’s as it should be.

The Russian avant-gardist Wassily Kandinsky — who dressed like the college professor he had trained to be and sounded like a mystic when he wasn’t thinking like a scientist — is the central god in the Guggenheim pantheon and genesis myth. The museum owns more of his work than of any other major Modernist and mounts some form of full-dress Kandinsky show like clockwork every 20 years or so.

It’s that time again. The Guggenheim’s last excursion into Kandinsky occurred in the early 1980s with three context-heavy exhibitions that examined his activities in all mediums, including his Art Nouveau embroidery and works by contemporary artists and designers. This one takes the opposite tack. It distills Kandinsky’s momentous career to about 100 paintings, with a large side order of works on paper displayed in an adjacent gallery. The canvases and almost nothing else fill Frank Lloyd Wright’s great rotunda from bottom to top, sometimes at the magisterial rate of one painting per bay.

This looks sensational. Organized with the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich and the Pompidou Center in Paris — sites of the world’s other major Kandinsky collections — it contains stupendous loans from all over.

The 1911 “Picture With a Circle” from the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi has never been in this country. A big, gorgeous blur of resonant blues, greens and purples electrified by a few black lines across the top, it is said to be the artist’s first completely abstract painting. But this is only relative: Kandinsky is so pertinent to the present because he tended to ignore the distinctions between abstraction and representation.

Surrealist biomorphism: “Capricious Forms” (1937), a work from Kandinsky’s Paris period, is part of a retrospective at the Guggenheim.

In all, this show is the perfect cap to the Guggenheim’s yearlong birthday celebration of Wright’s building, which opened 50 years ago on Oct. 21.

Lots of museums have foundational artists. The Museum of Modern Art has Picasso and Matisse; the Whitney Museum of American Art, Edward Hopper. But Kandinsky is the angel in the architecture at the Guggenheim; he’s part of the bedrock. The circling ramp of Wright’s rotunda was surely designed with that Russian’s swirling, unanchored abstractions in mind. Kandinsky’s precarious, ever-moving compositions suggest that he never met a diagonal he didn’t like; Wright obliged with a museum on a perpetual tilt.

Wright might deny the connection, but he was chosen by Hilla Rebay, a German painter and the museum’s founding director, and she had Kandinsky on the brain. Solomon R. Guggenheim, her patron, caught the fever, and between 1929 and his death in 1949, he acquired scores of works by the artist. All were given to the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which he and Rebay founded in 1937. (It was renamed in Guggenheim’s honor in 1952.)

The purity of the present show limits Kandinsky’s immensity a bit. It simplifies a vision that held music, painting and language as part of a continuum and relegates his activities as theoretician, essayist, poet and (arts) community organizer to the show’s informative, discreetly placed wall texts. In both of his best-known books — “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1912) and “Point and Line to Plane” (1926) — he displays a remarkable ability to reconcile the redemptive power of art’s “inner pulsations,” meant to be experienced “with all one’s senses” and exacting diagrams of the formal effect of different colors, shapes and lines, each of which he felt had a distinct sound. There are formalist possibilities in these pages that Clement Greenberg never imagined.

The impact of his thought on his contemporaries was tremendous. It is always startling to learn, for example, that Hugo Ball and the Zurich Dadaists revered Kandinsky, included his paintings in their exhibitions and read his poetry at their soirees. Some of these poems are virtual prescriptions for performance art. For example, “Not,” in his collection “Sounds” (1912), describes a “jumping man” who “dug a small very round depression” in the ground and “jumped over it without stopping every day from 4 o’clock to 5.” More than a few gallery receptionists of the moment have witnessed things like that.

Kandinsky was alternately propelled by ambition and history itself. By 1901, barely six years after the combined experiences of a Monet “Haystack” and Wagner’s “Lohengrin” jolted him, at 30, to leave Russia for art study in Munich, he had rebelled against the academy and organized like-minded colleagues into the Phalanx. He would go on to become the founding president of the New Artists Association in Munich in 1909. Two years later, when that body chafed at his abstract tendencies, he left to form the Blue Rider group with, among others, the painters Franz Marc, Alexej von Jawlensky and Gabriele Münter, for whom he had left his first wife in 1907.

The outbreak of World War I forced him back to Russia, where he joined the Constructivist experiment, as well as the government bureaucracy. In 1921 he and his new wife, Nina, repaired to Berlin, pushed by physical privation and the rejection of Kandinsky’s teaching ideas. By 1922, he was teaching at the Bauhaus and living next door to his great friend Paul Klee. But this idyll ended when the Nazis closed the school in 1933. Then it was on to Paris, the last stop, where he worked, despite increasingly scant art supplies, until his death in 1944.

The Guggenheim’s lean, clean presentation makes the show as much a Kandinsky-Wright reunion as a retrospective. After Kandinsky’s early chivalric fantasies and landscapes with their vivid stained-glass colors on the rotunda’s first level, the compositions explode into centrifugal abstractions and semi-abstractions that echo Wright’s plunging space-for-space’s-sake rotunda. Nearly each of the exploratory works from 1909 to 1914 — there are more than 40 here — is a hole in the membrane of observable reality that reveals a nonobjective cosmos defined by tangles of line and colored shapes and shadings. Each is a brave new crowded world in free fall, full of more forms, colors and agitation than any single painting needs.

But mainly the show offers an unencumbered view of Kandinsky’s painting career and a style that he adjusted with every change of setting, tending toward Constructivism in Moscow, toward Klee at the Bauhaus and toward a Surrealist-tinged biomorphism — for which he had laid the groundwork 20 years earlier — in Paris. Not surprisingly, he bristled at the suggestion that he had been influenced by Arp and Miró.

Kandinsky’s stature is always a bit wobbly in New York, where the Modern’s heavy-duty Francophilia has had such a long run. This show allows reassessment of the conventional wisdom that his art went into fairly steep decline after 1921, or even 1914. I think one problem is that Kandinsky did not make cleanly resolved masterpieces. He never painted a perfect picture.

His Munich abstractions, which contain hints of landscapes and of his mounted knights, in particular defy resolution. They try to catch art’s transformative powers in the act and are in essence Process-Art narratives.

But the surprise of this show is the strong case it makes for Kandinsky’s long-disparaged Paris paintings, where his colors fade to delicate pastels, his brushy surfaces tighten up, and he catalogs biomorphic form to an extent unmatched by any of his colleagues in that city. Unlike the Munich pictures, which for all their wonderfulness are somewhat repetitive, these paintings are different every time out.

The view that these works are finicky, designy period pieces doesn’t recede entirely here. But with time, the notion that a great artist’s late phase has once more been seriously underestimated could prevail. Kandinsky, the most well-rounded and compleat of Modernist prophets, always had more ideas than he knew what to do with. At the end of his hectic, productive life, he finally began to lay them out one at a time. This marvelous show starts settling the dust.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The face of Ernesto "Che" Guevara is one of the most reproduced images of all time. It's instantly recognisable, a bearded, beret-wearing revolutionary, staring into middle distance from millions of T-shirts and walls. The eyes are determined, even fierce, but also soulful. The long hair inevitably suggests Jesus Christ, Che's only serious competitor for worldwide brand penetration. Unlike Christ, Che doesn't have a globalised bureaucracy doing his PR. Instead, he achieved ubiquity because ... well, why exactly?

Chevolution, a new film by Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez, sets out to tell this story. First, however, it has to tell the story of Che Guevara himself, because the proliferation of his visage has not been accompanied by widespread knowledge of who he was. There are people wearing Che T-shirts who couldn't name the man, let alone explain what he stood for. And the story of Che - his travels, how he assisted Fidel Castro in overthrowing the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, his later disappearance - is very romantic, an important part of his cult.

The other life story in Chevolution is that of the man who created the image, Alberto Korda - a fashion photographer when Havana was the playground of the Americas who became a photojournalist before Castro gatecrashed in 1959. In 1960, Korda attended the mass funeral of the victims of La Coubre, a ship that exploded in sinister circumstances in Havana harbour. Che appeared on the speakers' podium only long enough for Korda to take two photographs. Neither appeared in the next day's paper.

After Che's disappearance in 1965, he briefly became a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel figure, rumoured to be fighting capitalism everywhere: in Vietnam, in Europe, in Africa. Che was killed by the Bolivian government in 1968, but the photograph - simplified into screenprint chiaroscuro - had already achieved immortality as his avatar. Spreading fast as a symbol of protest during the student unrest of 1968, it became a universal symbol of protest and resistance. Today we would say that it "went viral" - the whole story feels like a portent of the internet's fevered culture of memes and mashups - and as it reproduced across the world, it started to mutate. From political statement, it was appropriated first by art, then by consumerism.

In the hands of pop culture, the meaning of the image became utterly plastic: for Zapatista guerrillas in southern Mexico he's still a hero of Marxist insurrection, while for young Republicans on American college campuses, he's a symbol of the all-conquering power of capitalism, a system capable of absorbing its enemies in order to sell T-shirts. For most, however, the Che image is a convenient logo for generic youthful defiance of authority, a non-musical Cobain complete with early death. Even Che's features are only optional - the frame of the beret and hair
is recognisable on its own.

The film suggests that the neutrality of the image - Che looks curiously raceless, for instance - was an important part of its success. Now it has become an off-the-peg brand suggesting a conformist kind of individualism and an unthreatening kind of rebellion. It's appropriate to an age where ideology has dwindled to identifying one's consumer niche, rather than trying to change anything. It's the Nike swoosh of political statements, a shape to which the user can attach any sentiment they like, and this fascinating film is an overdue examination of its strange story


Artist to Project Footage of Distressed Soldiers onto Liverpool Buildings

A suicidal soldier will speak out as part of a Liverpool art installation, which examines the effects of war on servicemen and their families.

Up to ten former soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are taking part in the project, which is entitled “War Veteran’s Vehicle”.

They include Lee Sanger, 29, who joined Queen’s Lancashire regiment at 18 and was sent to Iraq for six months in 2003. He was one of 30 British soldiers caught up in a riot at a police station on the outskirts of Basra, where he came under a hail of bricks and insurgent gunfire from a crowd of 300 Iraqis.

“I thought I was going to die,” says Sanger, “but all I was worrying about was whether [the insurgents] would parade my body through the streets because I didn’t want my mum to see that on the news.”

Sanger has been getting flashbacks ever since—including a recurring image of a little Iraqi girl who begged him for water, but who he was unable to help. “I see her every day,” he says.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2004 and medically discharged from the army in 2006, with £10,000 compensation and an Armed Forces pension.

Since then he has struggled to cope with PTSD. “Anything can trigger it off and I feel like I am back [in Iraq]”, but “doctors just don’t understand the condition”; employers “have never heard of it”, and landlords “won’t give me a chance”.

At his lowest point, Sanger tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in the River Mersey and eventually he ended up living in a homeless shelter.

He believes that soldiers who suffer PTSD should be treated more equitably by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). “I feel really humbled for the man who has lost his legs [in combat] but what about the soldier who suffers from a mental health condition? Everyone who serves should be treated fairly,” he says.

The maximum compensation paid out by the MoD for a physical injury is £570,000, whereas the maximum for a mental illness is £48,875. But Sanger says that in some ways veterans with PTSD face greater difficulties than those with visible injuries: “Because people can’t see my injury, they can’t understand it. If you say you have PTSD, they look at you like you’re daft.”

Sanger has now told his story to the Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Wodiczko’s film will consist of Sanger’s words flashing across a massive black screen while the soldier’s voice will be heard over loudspeakers.

It is one of around ten films recounting the experiences of veterans that will be projected from Land Rover vehicles on to public buildings in Liverpool from 23-27 September, as part of a new film festival entitled “Abandon Normal Devices”.

The likely sites include the bell tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral; St George’s Hall, the grandest municipal building in the city, and the ventilation shaft for Queensway Road tunnel on the George’s Dock building.

Wodiczko denies that the project is anti-war. “This is not about the rights or wrongs” of the conflicts, he says. “It’s about the difficulty of communicating what one went through” with people “who don’t share a similar experience”.

“It aims to bridge the gap between “those who know what war is” and “those who don’t”, he adds, explaining that veterans struggle “to find the language” to describe their experiences in the warzone.

Wodiczko believes more should be done to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “One must change to become a warrior,” he says. “There is a process of preparation for the way one must act as a soldier in order to survive and fulfil one’s duty before going to war. Why are there no training camps or instructions or preparation before coming back home? How [are soldiers expected to] come back and enter the minds and bodies of civilians?”

The artist has created more than 70 large-scale slide and video projections of politically charged images on architectural façades and monuments around the world. In 1985 he projected images of cruise missiles on Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, and affixed a swastika onto the roundel set in the classical entablature of South Africa House that houses the South African High Commission.

“War Veterans Vehicle” has been organised in conjunction with the Foundation for Art and Technology in Liverpool, which is hosting a series of other events as part of “Abandon Normal Devices”. For details visit For full festival listings visit: