Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Paramount titles

Woke up to a truly great article in this morning's Guardian online (e.g. one constructed on just the sort of nonsensical track along which my own idle mind runs): newspaper blogger Scott Murray's ranking of six great TV title sequences.

I was completely with him on the quintessentially British existential angst of Reggie Perrin's naked pasty white bottom disappearing out to sea. Then I was bizarrely charmed to see the relentless twinkly creepiness of Picture Box again, which Murray accurately describes as "an utterly hypnotic film of a revolving jewellery box set to a pipe-organ waltz banged out by the hooves of Diablo himself".

And there's no question, of course, at least in our house, that the opening titles to Hawaii Five-O represent one of the greatest works of art of the late 20th century. (The title zooming up against the huge curling wave! The hula dancer! The molten lava flows! The jerky camera work, extraordinarily prescient precursor of a dozen nineties police procedurals! And that mad kamikaze helicopter shot which looks like it's going to end very badly indeed on the skyscraper's cornice, but which instead culminates in Jack Lord giving it, as Scott Murray says, the full Elvis from the balcony. Oh yes. Bring it back, please.)




But as for the chippy animated titles for The Good Life where the pastel flower petals slowly reveal the show's title, a sequence which Murray compares to the best productions of Saul Bass, the designer of the seminal graphics for Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm, as well as title sequences for Psycho, Casino and North by Northwest, among many, many others ... No, no, a thousand times no, however many happy pre-watershed evenings in the mid-70s Murray spent watching it. (As did I, armed with a large bowl of Bird's Angel Delight. This was England.) Sorry, but absolutely not. You might as well include the opening titles for the Two Ronnies.


Now, I have the greatest respect for anyone with the temerity to put out "best of" lists in the public arena. It's a practice that takes an ounce or two of courage -- or equally the possession of the hide of a rhinoceros. To broadcast one's personal opinion on cultural matters inevitably invites -- at least if the Arts and Letters to the Editor pages of The Press are anything to go by -- dissension, disagreement, and quite probably ad hominem attacks. Many times I've thought that an art curator who puts together a group show, or an editor who produces an anthology, might as well pin a sign to the seat of their pants saying "Kick me". Any reviewer worthy of the name, whether amateur or professional, whether writing in a public forum or chewing the private fat, will immediately come up with several sterling examples of notable omissions from the enterprise as well as several unpardonable inclusions. Ha! Woeful. Take that, etc. That's why curators, editors, bloggers and other assorted cultural list compilers should ideally be drawn from among the ranks of those who like a good argument. Rarely, however, is this the case. (Although blogging makes the possibility of a good stoush far more immediate than in years past.)

Having been on the sharp end of some pointed second guessing myself over the years, it is therefore somewhat sheepishly that I propose some addenda to Scott Murray's list of the great TV opening credits.

For example: how could he have possibly gone past The Prisoner? "I am not a number, I am a free man!" Rev engines. Enter mysterious man in top hat. Cue nerve gas through the keyhole. Etc etc.


For old times sake, I'd definitely pop The Professionals in there ... if only for the titles' undoubted role in the building of genuine excitement each week. "Anarchy. Acts of terror. Crimes against the public. To combat it, I've got special men. Experts from the army, the police, from every service. These are the professionals." Right you are, Cowley old son. Send 'em in.



And then there's the good 'ol boys. Just can't help myself with this one. Guitars, car chases, explosions, cut off shorts, Waylon Jennings; what more could you ask for? As if that weren't enough, the big guy's stories about he and his mate climbing in and out of the windows of his '67 Datsun Bluebird in emulation of the General Lee are the stuff of (rather dubious provincial) legend in our house. (It's just not the same these days with a Holden Vectra and a suit.)

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And of course there's The Avengers, and Doctor Who, and Blakes Seven. But the real contender, the one that might actually give Saul and Elaine Bass a run for their money, is David Milch's opening sequence for Deadwood (which as I may have mentioned before is clearly the best programme in any genre ever to appear on TV, ever). Guns, blood, mud, grit, gold. I must have watched it fifty times without tiring of it.


Jeez Scott Murray, The Good Life? What were you thinking?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Seasonal


John Philemon Backhouse (1845-1908), hand-painted Christmas card showing the White Terraces, c.1880. Oil on paper. Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.


Posting on Art, Life, TV, Etc. will be a bit sporadic over the Christmas break as I simulate reindeer bites in carrots, bash my knuckles on the sellotape dispenser, endlessly replace batteries in remote-controlled toys, swank about pretending to be Nigella Lawson while whipping up a culinary storm in the kitchen, watch the entire run of The Shield on DVD, and hide from small relatives down by the stream with a sneaky pinot gris. Thanks for your readership this year and all your comments and camaraderie. Looking forward to doing it all again in 2009.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Waiting for the Man


Artforum notes that musician John Cale will represent Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2009, producing a new audiovisual work exploring aspects of the Welsh language in collaboration with artists, filmmakers, and poets. Along with Lou Reed, Cale was a founding member of the Velvet Underground in NYC in 1965; creative disagreements saw him leave the band in 1968 and carve out a solo career as a musician and producer working with the likes of Patti Smith, Brian Eno, The Stooges, Siouxsie Sioux, the Happy Mondays and the Modern Lovers.

Here's a quote from Cale, put out by the Welsh Arts Council, and appearing in various articles about Wales's plans for Venice:

“As surprised and honored as I was to be asked to contribute to the Welsh presentation at the Venice Biennale of Art 2009, it also was a challenge that I eagerly accepted,” Cale said. “It offers an occasion to address certain pernicious issues in my background that had lain dormant for so long. There are certain experiences uniquely suited to the exorcism of mixed media and I am grateful for this opportunity to address them.”
It was Cale's use of the word "surprised" which caught my attention. It sounded suspiciously like the Welsh Arts Council simply approached him to take part, not requiring him -- in the tiresome way Creative New Zealand still does -- to submit a detailed proposal which would be considered in competition with those of other artists against the brief for the project, as if a country's participation in the Venice Biennale were an algebraic problem to be correctly solved.

The Welsh selection procedure for Venice isn't entirely clear from their website, but this paragraph in the job description for members of their Venice Advisory Committee leads me to presume that no proposal competitions are required in the watery land of Dylan Thomas and Richard Deacon:

"Research on the artist/s to be selected for 2009 will begin as soon as the Curator is in post. The Advisory Committee will have an opportunity to discuss various possible artists and themes before being asked to ratify an exhibition proposal from the Executive in the Autumn of 2008. Once the artists are selected, the Executive will work with them to create the exhibition that will be installed in Venice for the opening in June 2009."
Eh? What's that? Appoint the curator, discuss possibilities exhaustively with a group of expert advisors, work up a proposal, confirm the selection, no mucking around ... Put this together with the admirable Bedwyr Williams, whose work I've been reading a lot about lately, and I have to say I like the cut of the Welsh jib.


Here's what Alun Ffred [love the double eff] Jones, minister for heritage in the Welsh Assembly Government, had to say about Wales's choice of a singer-songwriter for Venice: "John Cale is a 'bard' in the widest sense - an artistic craftsman whose work is firmly rooted in Wales' cultural history, and it will be exciting to see how this manifests itself on such an important international platform."

I saw John Cale play in Christchurch in 1986. It was one of the best gigs I've ever been to, just the man sitting on a stool under a single spotlight with a floor mike in front of him. There were two perfectly conceived opening acts before him, as I remember: local singer-songwriters Roy Montgomery and Chris Knox. Here's a crazy idea: just imagine if New Zealand's arts council woke up one day and thought, what if we asked Chris Knox to put something together for Venice? Not a bad idea at all, but I just couldn't imagine it happening.

Maybe we're too enthralled by due process and the political imperative to be seen to be giving every man and his dog a fair go ever to operate in such a grand manner and leave the artists-proposal competition behind. Quite possibly there's something inherently bureaucratic in the national psyche which would preclude this kind of thing from happening here, whereas the Welsh (who've only been going to Venice since 2003) seem a bit more relaxed about it all, happy to select someone who is (a) not a visual artist and (b) unlikely to enter competitions, seemingly without fear that the Welsh people will rise up in revolution, crying "Unffair!"? I think it was poet D'Arcy Cresswell who suggested that New Zealand is a nation of clerks. Can't we be a bit more Welsh about things?




John Cale performing Heartbreak Hotel live at the Hillsborough Tavern in Christchurch, 1983.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Are you looking at me?


"There's a lot of paranoia in the arts."

Ronnie van Hout, interviewed by Kathryn Ryan last week on Radio New Zealand: audio available here for a limited time. (Absolutely one of the best interviews with an artist I've heard all year.)


Image: Ronnie van Hout, detail from 'I'm Not Here' installation 1999 including Taranaki 1992. Fibreglass, camera, monitor and framed colour photograph. Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Image from Auckland Art Gallery.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The uses of art (history)

When I was at university, I had a friend whose boyfriend was a high-flying commerce student. As I've mentioned before, there wasn't a lot of fraternisation between the various faculties. Each tended to stick to their own kind, and to the considerable comfort of reinforcing one's personal stereotypes; it was a rare thing, for example, for an arts student (lefty, vegetarian, sensitive) to date a scientist (war-gaming nerds) or an engineer (beer-swilling munters) or a lawyer (self-righteous bores) or a commerce student (smug right-wing money-grubbers itching to get started on their wealth portfolios). And almost unheard of for fine arts students to take up with someone without oil paint on their jeans or fibreglass stuck to their jersey.

As a would-be art historian, my friend had a lot to put up with from her partner's fellow commerce students. "A master's degree in art history?" they would ask incredulously. "Why?"

It was hard to answer in a way that wouldn't incite further derision. Lofty remarks about the value of the humanities to society and the way in which art can provide ways to think through the events of your own life would fall on deaf ears. "Yes, but what can you really do with it?" they'd say, rapidly and accurately assessing the wealth-generating capacity of art history as near-zero. They think it's a joke degree, my friend confided in me.

And occasionally over the years at low moments I've wondered if they may well have been right.

Seraphine Pick, Wandering Rose, 2008. Image from Michael Lett.

We've been hearing for years that the humanities are in a state of crisis (and it's true, but perhaps no worse a crisis than that of capitalist economics at present, one would think). Faced with declining enrolments, arts academics of various stripes have been turning themselves inside out to prove their relevance not only to their students and to the wider public, but to themselves. Art history in particular has suffered. In some universities it's been absorbed into English departments, as a form of textual criticism; elsewhere it's become part of history, as an account of society's changes.

Meanwhile the old certainties that study of the literary or art historical canons provided the path to moral enlightenment and cultural refinement were debunked twenty years ago. In their place a new kind of cultural elitist has developed (because elitism is inherently a state of mind before it's ever dressed up in academic robes) who stresses the incommensurability of the artwork to any other kind of experience, and who teaches the methods and histories of their discipline as though it were a closed hermeneutic system in its own right, thus severing the ties of art's relationship to the history of the everyday world. (If the truth be known, I have a slight sneaking sympathy for the high-handedness of both approaches.)

I was interested to read literary critic Rita Felski's article in the latest Chronicle Review, which suggests a new way of looking at literature (for which I, eternally hopeful for art history's reinvention, substituted "art"). Rejecting the idea of literature being "useful" -- a term which she associates with bad clothes and sensible shoes, clearly a woman after my own heart -- Felski suggests instead that in its "intimate entanglements" with various diverse aspects of our lives, literature might instead be considered "useable":

"Use is not always strategic or calculating, manipulative or grasping; it does not have to underwrite instrumental thinking or imply indifference to beauty or complex form. Reading a novel is not just a means of fulfilling certain needs but can open your eyes to needs you never knew you had. The pragmatic, in that sense, neither destroys nor excludes the poetic. To explore the uses of literature is to open up for investigation a vast terrain of expectations, emotions, beliefs, dreams, and interpretations."
One of the main reasons people read novels and watch films, Felski suggests, is to discover something about themselves: fiction as another way of thinking through real-life experience. Yet this kind of reader-response is just the approach which is most discredited by academic literary theorists:

"For professional critics, such acts of recognition reveal an unseemly confusion of literature and life, yet those same critics are attracted to literary qualities of ambiguity, alienation, and anomie that resonate with and reconfirm their ingrained mind-set of skepticism and disenchantment. Lay reading and academic reading differ, to be sure, in their vocabularies and procedures, but both hinge on processes of interpretation that connect the unfamiliar to the already known."
It is precisely that "unseemly confusion" between real life and fiction, between personal experience and the world of ideas as manifest in an object, which has always interested me about visual art. It's also a great way to describe the process an artist goes through when making a work. Seraphine Pick or Ronnie van Hout (whose late father's garden shed seems to pop up everywhere), for example, both frequently draw on the events or significant objects of their lives to make their work -- but their works are not about their lives, are neither confessional nor autobiographical. Instead they are fictions based on personal observation; which is what I think their viewers are drawn to, in works which are both familiar and mysterious, known and unknown. As much as it isn't about the artist, the work is equally not about the viewer, but there is something uniquely personal triggered in the act of looking.

Ronnie van Hout, Shift, commissioned for SCAPE 2006. Photo: Dean Mackenzie. Image from NZContemporary.

Felski lays down some more aspects of reader-response which she sees as worthy of further study -- "the sense of being utterly absorbed by a work of fiction; the use of literature as an orientation device to help make sense of the social world; the uncanny, unnerving, pleasure-pain of aesthetic shock" -- all of which I'd suggest apply equally to the world of visual art.

Perhaps the discipline of art history would benefit from including aspects of reader-response in its processes? In my experience, artists are always interested in responses to their works, whether "amateur" or "professional"; they are, however, very rarely interested in proscribing the "correct" response. It would be interesting to see if art history could account for some of the ways contemporary art actually functions in the everyday life of the viewer. It would require a massive reorientation of thought, though, to open the field -- at least as it's taught in New Zealand universities -- up to the real world in such a way. And even then I suspect the commerce students would still roll their eyes in scorn.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Prize fighter

Some years ago in Vegas at a two-drinks-minimum lounge in one of the fading resort hotels at the north end of the strip, the big guy and I found ourselves sitting next to an intriguing-looking character in black who sported a cluster of signet rings like knuckle dusters and had a face that looked like it had gone a few rounds. We were there to hear hard-working Chicago singer Tony Ocean -- whose stage name was borrowed from Frank Sinatra's character in Ocean's 11 and who until recently had impersonated Dean Martin in a Ratpack tribute show -- croon his way through a long night of Vegas lounge standards. The man we were sitting with at the circular table looked like somebody, but we couldn't place him. Occasionally someone in the crowd would catch his eye, and he'd incline his head laconically, almost regally, in acknowledgement. Finally we could bear it no longer. We struck up a conversation.

The man in black introduced himself as Rocky Russo, an ex-prize fighter who had boxed professionally as a lightweight since the late 1940s. His main claim to fame, however, as he told us, was his appearance in the first Godfather film where he shot Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in the tollbooth.

James Caan biting the dust in The Godfather. Photograph by Steve Schapiro.

After meeting Rocky Russo, we watched the film again to see if we could pick the ex-boxer out in the general melee of smoke and gunfire around Caan, but couldn't. I was interested to read the other day in the Telegraph that a series of behind-the-scenes images from the Godfather films taken by photographer Steve Schapiro (who also shot the poster image for Taxi Driver) will be exhibited at a London gallery early in the new year, while a limited-edition book, The Godfather Family Album, will be published by Taschen. Apparently James Caan was wired up to 147 separate explosive blood packs for the tollbooth scene, at that time an industry record. (The car behind him also seems to be peppered with what look like adhesive bullet-holes.)

Shooting wires attached to James Caan. Photograph by Steve Schapiro.

In one of the odd synchronicities which often seem to happen when thinking about blogging (or maybe it's simply the inconsequential train of thought in which I specialise), this morning on the way back from the school run I listened to Lynn Freeman's interview with national drawing award winner John Ward Knox, in which he described -- among other things -- his recent fight with a would-be bag snatcher, which left Ward Knox in ultimate possession of both his bag (containing his irreplaceable personal art journal) and a black eye. Audio available here for a limited time.

Horrible thing to happen, of course; but I must admit I rather admire someone prepared to put up their dukes in defence of contemporary art.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Feeling a bit like Howard Hughes

An unintended consequence of having children is that one's movie consumption goes right down. Neither the antenatal classes nor the parenting manuals think to mention this, but they should: it's one of the biggest of the many changes that are wrought in one's previously comparatively spontaneous life. Once upon a time, the big guy and I would go to the movies almost every week. We lived five minutes walk away from the largest screen in the Southern hemisphere, or so the proprietors claimed: at a moment's notice we could run down the hill, buy the tickets, stop for a popcorn and be seated before the feature started. We'd see just about everything that played, from big budget Hollywood actioners (a mutual weakness) to sensitive European low-budget dramas (though rather fewer of the latter than the former if I am being entirely truthful). The only films we wouldn't go to see were those which we knew beforehand were subtitled; the reason for this is complex and will probably be the subject of a later blog post.

What with one thing and another, I haven't been to a movie that is not animated nor has anything other than a G rating for at least two years. (Surf's Up, anyone?) Today, however, I found myself heading for the inner city Metro Cinemas for the one o'clock screening. The movie I saw is nearing the end of its run. I took this photo just before the lights dimmed.


Heaven.

(Like this everyday for Howard Hughes of course.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The value of the mark

Artist signature font pack. Available here.

Seems like going after a flea with an elephant gun really -- but Damien Hirst has reportedly demanded that "Cartain", a schoolboy artist who's been selling collages featuring reproductions of images by Hirst juxtaposed with images from food advertising and other photographs, "not only remove the works from sale but 'deliver up' originals, along with any profit made on those sold, or face legal action." According to the Independent, Cartain has since paid Hirst 200 pounds and given him the remaining unsold works.

I guess when you're a global brand, you have to guard your copyright zealously, no matter the microscopic scale of the transgressor. In related news this week in Christchurch, Playboy Enterprises went hard after the owner of a party booze bus who named his fleet after a bunny transfer he found on the side of his first vehicle. The Press reported that the global conglomerate had accused the Bunny Party Bus-man of using Playboy's "world-famous Bunny mark and a confusingly similar Rabbit Head design". Legal action might ensue, etc.

The Press went to Professor Jeremy Finn from the University of Canterbury Law School for comment. "If you have a well-known mark you protect it by being aggressive about the edges, otherwise you end up not being able to stop that same person in the future. For many of these companies the value of the mark is the biggest asset they have," he said.

"It's just bullying," said the disillusioned bus-man, peeling off his stickers.

Meanwhile the consistently informative Canterbury Heritage blog mounts a strong argument this week that a significant early map of the new Christchurch settlement, "alleged" to have been completed by Assistant Surveyor Edward Jollie on 18 March 1850, was in fact a forgery dating from five years later. The evidence marshalled by the blogger includes various street names which didn't exist until 1853, as well as the incorporation of the signature of a Chief Surveyor who had returned to England by the earliest occasion on which the map could have been drawn. The false map, suggests Canterbury Heritage, was designed to "provide legal status in October 1855 for building on the public reserves and also for the subdivision of three of the green belts that surrounded the original city."

A bad business.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The terror of the empty studio


Clearing out some files the other day, I came across an art history essay I'd written at university in the 1980s. When I looked at it, not only did I have no memory whatsoever of having written it (something to do with the iconography of the Rossano Gospels; wouldn't be a popular course today I'd imagine) but I could dredge up no single fact about the subject that I'd retained over the years. Nothing. It was like someone else had written it.

The other remarkable thing about the essay was that it was handwritten. It was like an artefact from another civilisation, more akin to objects in the family archive like my mother's World War II ration book or my great-grandmother's homemade wire toasting fork, than anything I'd produce today. I suspect I'm a member of the last generation to have handwritten essays; when I was doing my undergrad degree only the commerce students (trainee capitalists and smug young Nats who stood for student politics) ever seemed to use a PC (or "word processor" as it was then referred to) to produce their deathless prose. Arts students couldn't afford to, though my flatmate had an ancient upright manual typewriter he'd bang out his essays on, like the one Peter McLeavey still uses to type his exhibition invitations.

The main thing I remember from writing essays at university was the terror of the empty page. I'd write my name and the title of the essay at the top, and then I'd put my pen down. It always felt impossible to start, even when I had something to say. The paper seemed so clean and white and unforgiving, while my thoughts were so inchoate and meandering, refusing to order themselves sensibly around the topic, let alone suggest anything remotely profound.

Books about writing practice advise people like myself making heavy weather of it simply to start writing, even to write complete nonsense, on the premise that breaking the ice is the first step, and that editing is easier than writing. Even so ... I'd run the first few painful sentences through my mind, eventually write them down, and dismissing them as either pretentious or banal (quite possibly both at once), would crumple up the page, chuck it in the rubbish bin, write my name on another blank piece of paper and sit, there, stumped. This could go on for hours, until in desperation I'd ring my father, a man of action.

"What's the essay about?" he'd say.

I'd explain.

"What's something interesting about the work?" he'd ask.

I'd think of something.

"Right," he'd say. "Here's the first sentence." And he'd dictate it down the phone.

I'd scribble it down, change it a little maybe, and I was away.

For some years after that, although I used a computer at work, I had to initially handwrite anything that required sustained or creative thought, and transfer it later to the screen. It took a decade for me to start writing directly on the PC, when to my surprise I found that there was no equivalent terror of the blank screen. Everything was so provisional, could be changed or deleted so quickly, that it all stopped being so critical, and I could just start writing.

I've done a lot of writing over the years, and although it's got quicker (and I haven't needed to phone my father for opening sentences for a long time now) it hasn't got easier. Each piece of "serious" writing is as difficult as the last, and takes the same degree of temporary withdrawal from the world and emotional energy to sustain it. But there's nothing like the feeling of having finished a text to one's own satisfaction; there's an emotional high that can last hours or even a day or so.

To this end, I have a great admiration for artists who year after year produce serious bodies of work, and send them off for exhibition and public criticism, only to be confronted by an empty studio and the need to do it all over again. And again.

Interviewed on National Radio's 'Arts on Sunday' programme a couple of weeks ago, after receiving one of this year's five Arts Laureates awards, painter Shane Cotton spoke about his experience of completing new works, and the way in which earlier paintings are left behind.
"The only great time -- I'm talking from personal experience -- when one has the real sense of standing on top of the mountain is [when] you've produced a suite of work, the exhibition's up, and you're very happy with it; and then you walk out the door, and you leave it, and then it's down the hill. And the whole thing's got to start again. And that's how it is. The work's always going to be out there, but just in terms of achievement, and feeling like you've got something going here -- it's gone. You go back to the studio; it's empty; the walls are bare; you've got to pick up the brush or whatever it is you do, mix the paint, and start again. And it doesn't get any easier."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Vitriol and indignance

Dennis Hopper visits the Turner Prize, from the Liverpool Daily Post

"Why," ask the editors of Frieze magazine, should the Turner Prize prove to be "always such a lightning rod for bewilderment, bile and blood-vessel-busting debate?"

They muse on the continued hostility and agression of the British press to the prize ("The sport of Turner Prize-baiting is as predictable as rain at Wimbledon", as reflected in recent headlines:

  • ‘Nurses and Curses: A model on a toilet, smashed crockery, two love affairs and a cat lecture’ – The Guardian
  • 'The Simpsons and Squatting Mannequins’ – The Telegraph
  • ‘The Turner Prize 2008: who cares who wins.’ – The Telegraph again
  • ‘Don’t Scream, It Doesn’t Mean Anything At All’ – The Times
  • ‘Turner Fight Begins Again’ – The Financial Times

and consider some vitriolic quotes about the current show from nationally prominent art critics:
  • “[Her work] has the theatricality of a bike-rack outside an office window […] as visually intriguing as an airport lobby.”
  • "a feeble piece"
  • “It was gratifying to see that even members of the live audience were talking and getting up to leave.”
  • “it is too busy hammering its point home with all the didacticism of a fifth-form project.”

After reflection, the overarching explanation that the Frieze editors arrive at for the media's agression towards the Turner Prize is the historical uneasiness of post-reformation Britain towards visual culture. Getting big money for making up stories (e.g. The Man Booker Prize) is acceptable in modern Britain, but somehow making art isn't. Then again, it could be a contemporary problem: the journalists dealing with British art, Frieze suggests, celebrity- and personality-obsessed star-fuckers one and all, are still stuck back somewhere around 1997, when "Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Damien Hirst [were] still livin’ it up at the Groucho Club, causing controversy everywhere they go". The scene's changed, but the reportage hasn't.

In reading about this (and the controversy -- or media beat-up -- caused by Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey's published thoughts about Damien Hirst and Banksy), I've been wondering why New Zealand's equivalent of the Turner Prize, the Walters Prize, doesn't seem to engender the same degree of public disapproval. Sure, Artbash gives it what-for, but the Walters Prize doesn't seem to play in the papers with quite the same sort of mad knee-jerk foaming-at-the-mouth inducement to bile as the Turner. (Leave that for NZ's participation in the Venice Biennale.) The Walters comes and goes every couple of years with nary a public murmur nor a change to the press release put out by the organisers before it's printed in the papers. Can New Zealand's mainstream media and general public really be more art-historically enlightened than the Brits, or is it rather that the Walters Prize has failed to capture the public imagination to the same degree?

That may well be a good thing, mind you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gate series


Anonymous hard-edged post-painterly abstraction hanging at the entrance to Elmwood Park. Photographed by myself on the school run yesterday.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Angry of Christchurch


This morning, I am irritated. I have the hump. I am toey, I am cross, I am vexed, I am incensed, I am quite possibly incandescent with rage. I feel like the mad angry man in Kenny Everett's legendary 'Angry of Mayfair' sketch, railing against the world and attacking the TV camera with a vicious furled brolly. Grrr! Take that, you filthy swine.

What's exercised me is a small piece of local news, which wouldn't warrant being picked up by the national news services, yet it's part of a growing national -- not to say international -- problem.

Here's the story. A developer, responsible for various vile cookie-cutter subdivisions with "executive residences" picked out in poo-coloured brick on tiny sections on the city's old green belt, wants to demolish century-old farm buildings at Mount Magdala, on the outskirts of Christchurch, to put up still more of these.

The notable farm buildings under threat of the bulldozer are unusual in the history of New Zealand's rural architecture in that they were brick-built in the European style enclosing a cobbled central courtyard. The buildings have a group 2 heritage listing in the Christchurch City Plan, which requires a resource consent for their demolition. Even an architect hired by the developer to assess their heritage status confirmed that they should be retained.


A consortium of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the Christchurch Civic Trust and the Halswell Residents' Association urged the council to buy and restore the buildings for an estimated $752,000, suggesting they would make ideal artists' studios, and perhaps a cafe or neighbourhood tavern, but the Christchurch City Council swiftly rejected the idea at a meeting in April, giving their consent to demolish the buildings. The Council's fallback position was to agree instead to spend $75,000 installing a "gazebo" on nearby reserve land recording the historic importance of the area and the farm buildings. The heritage consortium then took the Council to the Environment Court.

This morning I read in the Press that the legal appeal has been thrown out of the Environment Court due to a technical error by the Council, which had provided a map showing an incorrect location for the buildings, thus rendering their supposed Grade 2 historic "protection" null and void. The buildings had no protection, because the map was inaccurate, therefore there was no case to be argued either way. Thank you and good night.

Presumably the bulldozers are revving their engines as we speak.

As this story's developed over the past year, I've noted various instances of what city councillor Yani Johansen describes as "cultural terrorism". Developers, he says hold "heritage buildings hostage. They then demand excessive amounts of money from a public body in order to secure their safety." You might also call it visual vandalism, cavalier disregard for our history, or sheer low-level venality. (With Mount Magdala one might now also add, incompetence, but then having worked in the public service myself I know that things are not always what they seem.)

What amazes me is the lack of comprehension that retaining heritage buildings actually contributes to economic development. People want to live in good-looking cities! All around the world, where tough sanctions have been effected to stop the developer's wrecking ball, property prices have risen steadily and creative, economically-productive people have been attracted to move in. Although no doubt well-intentioned, erecting a gazebo with a notice commemorating the notable historic building that once stood on the spot is simply ridiculous.


So, once again, a gated subdivision with no public or commercial buildings will rise up in the middle of what was farmland. As many houses as possible will be shoe-horned into the site. Without local shops or community amenities of the sort which could have been retrofitted into the Mount Magdala farm buildings, women and small children will be trapped out there during the day, needing to hop into the car even to pick up a bottle of milk. The breadwinner will need another car, to join the endless nose-to-tail single-person commute into the city each morning. No wonder each house comes with at least a double garage.

For all its erroneous pretensions to be a city which takes pride in its built heritage, this kind of issue isn't peculiar to Christchurch. I've been struck by the resonance of the unhappy fate of Mount Magdala's farm buildings to the similarly-aged Dakota Stables on New York's Upper West Side. Just about to be designated a historic landmark building on account of its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, a demolition crew was hired to hack away at the building's notable cornices.

As the New York Times reported:
"Once the building’s distinctive features had been erased, the battle was lost. The commission went ahead with its hearing, but ultimately decided not to designate the structure because it had been irreparably changed ... The strategy has become wearyingly familiar to preservationists. A property owner is notified by the landmarks commission that its building or the neighborhood is being considered for landmark status. The owner then rushes to obtain a demolition or stripping permit from the city’s Department of Buildings so that notable qualities can be removed, rendering the structure unworthy of protection."
It seems that NYC, like Christchurch, has a city plan you could drive a bulldozer through. And developers frequently do, with impunity. Urgent legislative changes to protect our built heritage are needed at a governmental level to shut this nonsense down.

Quick, where's my brolly? I feel a savage venting of spleen coming on...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Steely

Richard Serra, The matter of time, an installation of 8 sculptures, completed 2005, weatherproof steel, at the Arcelor Gallery, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.


Think of steel as a medium for making art, and perhaps more than any other artist, sculptor Richard Serra immediately comes to mind: over the last three decades his work has explored the physical properties of the metal, in epic-scaled sculptures which dramatically alter your perceptions of the internal and external spaces they're installed in. (Serra had steel in the blood: his father worked in a shipyard, and the artist supported himself by working in a steel mill while he studied at Yale.) His massive sculptures seem both beautiful and physically intimidating, as if by comparison to the sheer heft and torque of the steel walls that soar above the spectator you're unavoidably confronted by your own relative puniness and fragility. (It's much like the experience, actually, of standing on a dock next to a gigantic ship.)

As New Zealand art historian Anthony Byrt writes in the latest ArtForum, reviewing a show of Serra's at Gagosian Gallery in New York City:
"The thrill induced by Richard Serra’s sculptures doesn’t come from the sense that they might crash down at any moment. As this exhibition proves, it occurs due to the delicate manner in which they stay up, and the subtle way Serra manages to bend our experience around them."
One of the best art films I've ever seen, Alberta Chu’s 2003 documentary Seeing the Landscape documents the five-year long installation process of Serra's monumental Te Tuhirangi Contour, commissioned for New Zealand businessman Alan Gibbs's farm out of Helensville, and one of Serra's largest works. There are many seemingly dangerous moments in the film, provided not only by the enormous sheets of steel used to make the work (875 feet by 20 feet of 650-ton steel) but by the evolving relationship between the equally strong-minded collector and artist.

In a recent interview with the Art Newspaper's Louisa Buck, Serra -- who expresses surprise that an audience has developed for his work -- discusses his feeling for his chosen medium in a statement which is bound to be much-quoted:

"When I first started working in New York I was working with molten lead and I was working with rubber and I didn’t want to go to steel, not because I didn’t know enough about it, but because it really had been the traditional material of the 20th century in terms of sculpture. But for the most part no-one was using steel in the way that I understood it. It had not been used for its weight, its counterbalance, not for its cantilever nor its stasis or gravitational load. It had not been used in the way that it had been used in the industrial revolution in terms of building processes and procedures.

"Instead what they had done was to cut and fold it and use it as kind of three dimensional surrogate for painting. It was hung out in space and painted to have a 3-D planar look so its basic fundamental balance was untrue. It was either bolted into the ground or welded up in the air, then held with a staff and painted green, blue, pink or purple or whatever, so that its inherent properties of gravity were being denied in favour of its visual image readout. But although that was very, very successful for years it was also a limitation and it always remained the handmaiden of painting. I think [Ad] Reinhardt said that sculpture was something that you bumped into when you were backing up from looking at a painting."

Not much chance of that with a work by Serra.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Drab but strangely cosmopolitan

George Kohlap, Harry Seresin's Coffee Gallery at Parsons Bookshop, Massey House, Lambton Quay, c. 1957, Alexander Turnbull Library


I came across this description of Wellington in the 1950s the other day, in poet Peter Bland's autobiography Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. The city changed a lot over the ten years we lived there, but when we arrived in the mid-1990s I fancy there was still the faintest smack of what Bland describes.

"I shared a flat on Mount Victoria with a bunch of English immigrants and a Polish painter who later turned out to have copied everything he did from the work of a minor German expressionist. Wellington in the '50s was a drab but strangely cosmopolitan town, full of post-war European exiles, escaped Nazis (minor Jew hunters and concentration camp officials -- the big boys went to Brazil) and a gaggle of budding poets who aped Dylan Thomas and drank huge flagons of sweet, cheap local sherry that rotted their brains while fuelling both a heady romantic rhetoric and a strange hatred for someone called Sidney Holland. Dark fugged-up coffee bars slowly appearing throughout the city were full of sexual, political and poetic liaisons... It was, I thought at the time, a fairly Bohemian existence but -- looking back -- it was probably closer to Gorky's Lower Depths than it was to the Parisian cafe society we admired from afar."


The "unusually delicious" menu for the French Maid Coffee House, 1940s, where Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters and other progressive New Zealand artists exhibited, and Wellington's artists and writers gathered. Image from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Gallery evicts nude dwarfs"


Not that I think for a minute that this piece of breathless reportage was really how the story went down (I say curator, you say censor... let's call the whole thing off), but I do take my hat off to the writer of that headline in the ODT. Good work, though they might also have considered some tasteful variation on "dwarf tossing". Nice opening sentence too: "A Dunedin artist is grumpy because she says her nude dwarfs have been banned from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery."

The Herald, on the other hand, has a pretty dopey account of the deep South's art-dwarf controversy with the artist suggesting that it's all down to self-censorship on the Dunedin Public Art Gallery's part because -- ahem -- they're "afraid" of Te Papa, whose touring Rita Angus survey show has just opened there.
"They told me the Rita Angus curator didn't like the dwarfs ... He thought too many little old ladies going to the Rita Angus exhibition would be offended."
All news to Te Papa, of course, and wearily denied by the DPAG who decided to "celebrate the strongest aspects" of the artist's work by leaving the dwarfs out. TVNZ has vision here, if you're up for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Exile on mainstream


"In New Zealand, especially, contemporary art and those dedicated to creating it, discussing it, writing about it and supporting it are tellingly absent from mainstream media sources. The ‘art star’ phenomenon is a completely alien notion. While a local artist may garner media attention once they have been recognized abroad, it is rarely the reverse."

During a recent interview with The Listener, NZ artist Mladen Bizumic, currently based in Berlin, "suggested that whilst ‘Aotearoa is producing an incredible number of good artists [...] we need to advance [...] a critical discussion around art.’ This comment is not about creating more funding opportunities - New Zealand already has many (the former Prime Minister Helen Clark personally oversaw the arts portfolio). Rather it is a backhand aimed at local print editors, many of whom seem addicted to the Associated Press wire and are largely indifferent towards content focused on contemporary art and culture."

Nicola Harvey, 'Auckland', Frieze, 17 November 2008


"A visit to one of the great museums of modern and contemporary art that exist in every important city might easily convince the observer that art is just plain culture, not a subculture -- that is, something central and dominant in society. After all, so much money and civic pride have been invested in it. But the people who make up the art world often wonder if their culture is really central at all. Undoubtedly they believe that it ought to be, but they are deeply aware that there is something eccentric about their relation to the culture at large, something fragile. ... The publisher of Artforum reluctantly admits that his magazine "is establishment in a funny sense"; likewise, contemporary art is a culture but in a funny sense. The art world doesn't know whether it is a subculture pretending to be a culture or a culture pretending to be a subculture."

Barry Schwabsky, 'Agony and Ecstasy: The Art World Explained', review of Sarah Thornton's new book Seven Days in the Art World, in The Nation, 13 November 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Second-hand culture

Furniture designed by Ernst Plischke, 1933, from Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot


When the uncompromising expatriate Austrian architect Ernst Plischke arrived in New Zealand in 1939, he refused to sit the Royal Institute of British Architects examinations which were necessary in order to be registered as an architect in this country. (He got round this by working in partnership with other registered architects, producing some of New Zealand's finest modernist buildings, including the extraordinary Sutch House in Wellington and the glass-curtained Massey House on Lambton Quay, Wellington's first modern skyscraper.)

In his The Nationbuilders, an account of the individuals who shaped the New Zealand nation in the middle years of the last century, Brian Easton recounts a story told by Plischke's stepson, Henry Lang, economist and first chair of the Wellington Sculpture Trust.

Plischke, who had originally worked in his family's joinery business, went to a company of New Zealand furniture makers and offered to design them some modern furniture. The proprietors of the company explained that they had no need of his assistance, showing him the pictures in a European design magazine from which they had taken their ideas. They were Plischke's own design.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ugly buildings


A while ago, an unholy fracas ensued in the letters to the editor page of the Press -- a regular occurrence in the great Southern city, which has a larger volume of correspondence than any other major daily newspaper I've ever read, although not a better-informed one. Only last week the paper decided to stop printing a weekly roundup of the names of those correspondents whose letters weren't deemed fit for publication during the previous seven days, something I must say I always looked forward to with a slightly mean-spirited enjoyment. The number of unsuccessful submissions would appear in brackets after the person's name; notorious letter-writers might have (3) or (4) or even more after their all-too-familiar handles. Apparently, they had bombarded the editor with still more communications requesting that if their letters were not to be published, the correspondents be written to privately, in person, to tell them so, rather than being outed publicly in the paper as they had been for decades. Boo. It's letting them off much too lightly.

The particular literary venting of spleen I'm concerned with involved the building of yet another big box retail warehouse, out at the end of the estuary as you approach the Ferrymead bridge on your way to Sumner. Seemingly overnight, Mitre 10 banged up one of their concrete-sided Mega boxes, as they were entitled to do under a City Plan which allows a mixture of industrial and retail development to burgeon freely amid the habitats of native estuarine birdlife.

And adding insult to injury, they painted the gigantic concrete bunker luminous orange; up until this point, there had been nothing in the council's building regulations to stop them. Needless to say, the community swiftly became apoplectic with rage; the hundred-metre long "orange smear" under the hills that appear in various paintings by Doris Lusk loomed large in the letters to the editor page for some weeks alongside fighting talk of consumer boycotts, until the company finally backed down and toned down the corporate livery. (Proving, perhaps, that newspapers still have their uses as an effective means to concentrate community pressure.)

While the orange Ferrymead Mega-lith didn't appear on the list of "The World's Top 10 Ugliest Buildings and Monuments" reported by Reuters on Friday (I guess they were looking for really distinctive ugliness, such as Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral pictured below), I was interested to read of the Washington Post's project to reimagine the big box. Assembling a team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to "think creatively about what to do with spaces once occupied by big box stores -- our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings", the ideas included vineyards grown inside under solar voltaics or actually planted on the roof, a hydroponic drive-thru truck farm market, and an artists' colony with flexible studio, living and performance spaces defined by shipping containers. With a bit of imagination, it was suggested, with its massive footprint, vast roof span and ceiling height, the failed retail big box might even become the cathedral or museum of the future.

Or maybe you could just knock them down and start again.

West elevation of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, designed by Giles Frederick Gibberd. Photograph by Andrew Dunn. One of the world's ugliest buildings...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Well done


"Anything done well is art."

Damien Hirst, from an interview about his new clothing range. Via Art News Blog.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paranoiac-critical method


Pareidolia is the tendency to interpret a coincidental visual stimulus as something already known to the viewer, and is related to the "paranoiac-critical method" beloved by Salvador Dali, in which the identities of objects are unstable and mutable, and an image of one object gives an affordance of another.

The word comes from "para", or "wrong", and "eidolon" or "ghostly vision". Many examples of pareidolia involve images of powerful entities popping up where one least expects to see them: there's the man coming out from behind a cliff on Mars, seemingly unconcerned that the Hubble telescope has snapped his picture; Darth Vader appearing bold as brass in a nebula photograph taken by NASA; Mother Theresa as a cinnamon bun and the face of the Virgin Mary in a miraculously mould-free cheese sandwich; not forgetting of course my own recent encounter with a world-famous musician.

What is it about corn fritters and their mystical powers? Here's a test-piece of fritter the big guy made the other night which formed itself into a distinct yin yang symbol. Our household has been in a state of perfect equilibrium ever since.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christmas list

Yes please.

Richard Prince, Nurse Hat Chair , limited edition


No thank you.

Damien Hirst, X Levi’s X Warhol Factory Collection, a series of limited edition jeans, t-shirts and denim jackets.

Both via Art Observed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Flotsam


I spent most summer holidays as a child at my grandparents' house near the Essex seaside. Although it had passed out of their possession by then, my grandmother's family had once owned the lease of one of the beach huts that flank the east coast of England, coming down from London on the train to spend their holidays sitting out the front of a tiny, uninsulated shed, smoking and knitting and gossiping and watching the grey breakers roll in to the beach front below. You can't sleep in the huts; they don't have toilets or electricity or running water; they're places for boiling up cups of tea and storing buckets and spades and sheltering during the day from the ravages of the British summer. Or at least, the British summer as it used to be; during my childhood I vividly remember one sweltering day when the temperature climbed doggedly to 25 degrees, but when the big guy was in London a couple of years ago it was regularly 36 degrees and people were frolicking in public fountains.

One summer during my childhood there was an enormous storm along the east coast, and dozens of the brightly coloured beach huts along the Clacton-Frinton-Walton-on-the-Naze strip were overturned and swept out to sea. For weeks afterwards the contents of the huts were washed up each day by the tide. On our morning walks along the beach we would see knives and forks, unbroken china plates, picture frames, chair legs, scraps of curtains, shrimping nets and door knobs lying in drifts on the sand, while flowered cushions bobbed on the outgoing tide. Men sweeping metal detectors in great fluid arcs were the unspoken lords of the beach: kids and idle walkers got hastily out of their purposeful way. I was fascinated by what the sea took, and what it gave back, and what might still be out there, caught in underwater currents. I was desperate to claim some of its treasures. My grandmother, however, forbade us to bring any of the booty home. "It belongs to someone else," she said severely.


In recent years, beach huts have become ridiculously fashionable and regularly command the kind of exorbitant prices which would have made my grandmother's family require a stiff cup of tea and a lie-down. Keith Richards owns one, as does PD James; the royal family have hung on to theirs at Holkingham Beach for more than 70 years. Yet for all their cultural resonance in Britain, the only artwork I know of concerned with beach huts is Tracey Emin's The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here (2000), which consists of the tumble-down blue hut at Whitstable in Kent she bought with her friend the artist Sarah Lucas. It was originally exhibited in its entirety alongside two enigmatic photographs of Emin naked inside the hut, in which she seems to be dealing with some restless memory.

Tracey Emin, The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II, 2000, Tate Gallery

(The hut was subsequently bought by Charles Saatchi for $75 000, and along with Emin's infamous tent on which she appliqued the names of everyone she'd ever slept with, was destroyed in the massive warehouse fire in which many of the key artworks of the YBA generation were lost.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Very dim and brown

Christopher Perkins, Wellington Harbour, undated (c.1929-1934), oil on canvas, 406 x 508mm, Collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, gift of the artist, 1967


Surrounded by "very dim and brown" oil paintings and their makers at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington in the early 1930s, British painter Christopher Perkins unpopularly remarked that he seemed to be expected to be "some kind of missionary for modern art".

Perkins, who somewhat romantically saw himself as "a kind of respectable Gauguin" on his journey to the south seas, had accepted a job in 1929 teaching life drawing and painting at Wellington Technical College under a governmental programme which brought in working artists from overseas to lecture in the fine arts. The La Trobe scheme attempted "to counteract the effects of isolation and indifference to the arts that prevailed in New Zealand at that time," wrote Perkins's daughter, Jane Garrett, reflecting on her family's five-year sojourn in New Zealand.

"All New Zealand historians of the period agree that the 1920s were a time of almost complete stagnation as far as the visual arts were concerned," continued Garrett.
"There were several good reasons for this state of affairs, of which perhaps the most important was the remoteness and isolation of the country from the art centres of the world. Another was the scarcity of talented young artists, most of whom had left to study abroad before World War I, or had been swept into the armed forces. Most of those who survived had preferred to remain and practice their art in Europe rather than return to starve in a cultural wilderness. The few painters who did stay at home tended to produce insignificant or derivative work, interpreting the New Zealand landscape in terms of a Scottish loch or Cornish beach."

"As to the general public, it was as indifferent to art as it was ignorant of it, an attitude shared by the authorities of the day, who showed little interest in anything that did not directly affect the production of sheep, butter, and apples."

Re-reading Jane Garrett's sometimes very funny account of the Perkins family's experiences in New Zealand, I've been struck, not for the first time, by the sheer intensity of the claims of hardship faced by early and mid-20th century artists in this country. Not that I disbelieve Garrett's description of New Zealand society's general indifference to the visual arts in the 1930s; I'm sure it was exactly as she says. Neither do I discount Gordon Walters's much-quoted accounts of the particular difficulties faced by the abstract painter in the 1950s and 60s, nor dispute the justifiable bitterness McCahon felt on being confronted by ridiculous barrages of hostile criticism from the late 1940s onwards.

What I've been wondering about is whether the difficulties faced by modernist artists in New Zealand were much worse (more harsh, more indifferent, generally less professionally congenial) than those faced by progressive artists working in other western countries at the same time, or even in Britain itself. The extreme difficulty of being an artist in this country is a constant theme in New Zealand histories and memoirs of the period, yet I've found nothing to test it against.

Was the problem primarily one of lack of patronage -- that until comparatively recently there were no major private collectors of progressive art, nor any state support for it? (Garrett notes that the only state-subsidised artist in Wellington in the early 1930s was the City Organist, "whose chief official business was to play See the Conquering Hero Comes whenever the All Blacks returned to Wellington.") Or was it simply a matter of scale? Perhaps with a population of just over a million, spread over an area as large as the British Isles, there just wasn't the critical mass of people around to enable the development of a self-sustaining intellectual coterie, like the Bloomsbury crowd or the Seven and Five Abstract Group, for example.

I'm thinking aloud; I'm not sure of the answer; but I'd like to be able to work out whether the hardship experienced by artists between say about 1920 and 1970 (which has defined the way much of our art history has been written) was a specifically New Zealand problem, or -- as I suspect -- a wider one.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Summing up


"I'm just a garbage man, but one with class."

-- Robert Rauschenberg (quoted by artist and fellow collaborator Don Saff at the Museum of Modern Art's recent Rauschenberg tribute evening).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Death of a princess

What seems like a lifetime ago, I spent a couple of gloomy years in the provinces, learning my trade. I thought I would save a lot of money, and possibly also finish a half-written novel, as there were very few distractions where I lived: but I discovered that, as my predecessors had, I spent both my wages and my weekends driving to more interesting places, desparate to be distracted after another week spent in dun-coloured sweaty suburbia.

During what I now refer to as my period of missionary service in the heartland, I spent those long turgid weekends when I was stuck in town listening to music, making compilation tapes for the long drives north and west. On wet Saturday afternoons I wrote playlists and made picture covers for my cassettes. (When I saw High Fidelity some years later, it played like a documentary.) Because there wasn't a decent European mechanic where I lived, when the thermostat in my car blew I drove for some time with the heater stuck on high, which necessitated the driver's window being down and the music turned up loud. It was at this time I discovered Yma Sumac.

Once heard, never forgotten: "She warbles like a bird in the uppermost regions, hoots like an owl in the lowest registers, produces bell-like coloratura passages one minute, and exotic, dusky contralto tones the next," a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote following a 1955 performance. The self-styled Voice of the Xtabay (or "female ensnarer"), Yma Sumac had a vocal range spanning four or five octaves and looked like an Incan princess (she claimed to be descended from the Peruvian imperial line, and may well have been).



Her brand of supercharged technicolour tribalism (described by the Tampa Tribune as "South American travelogue scripted by Disney, directed by Dali") was enormously popular in America in the early 50s, her records outselling even Bing Crosby. Self-taught, Sumac claimed to be influenced in her vocal style by the jungle birds and animals of her native Peru; when she played Carnegie Hall, she was flanked by two erupting stage volcanoes. Somewhat prone to exaggeration, Sumac claimed that when she left Peru, 30 000 people rioted in Lima. Her son suggested ruefully that there was just one -- his mother -- but it may well have seemed like 30 000. (Strangely, a rumour that she was really a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus -- her name spelt backwards -- persisted in clinging to her, though it was vehemently denied by both the singer and the Peruvian government.)

Yma Sumac, who died aged 86 on Saturday at an assisted-living home in her adopted LA, provided a soaring note of tribal exotica to the soundtrack which backed my desparately provincial life in those years. Mondo suburbia ... Glenview mambo ... la la la! (Needless to say, I never did finish that novel.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The thin blue line

Saturday's post about art history and its discontents pointed to Charles M Rosenberg's handy list of alternative careers for art historians. Now there's another option: Scotland Yard has been recruiting part-time volunteer constables to its art and antiquities division. The catch is that you already need an art-history related job.

So far 13 special art constables (who receive a month's basic police training, wear a police uniform, and have the power to make arrests) have been recruited to the ArtBeat scheme, recovering stolen art and working on fraud and forgery cases. The special constables work two days a month on police art business, while their salaries continue to be paid by their employers, the major British museums and galleries who effectively sponsor the scheme. Zoe Jackman, whose regular job is booking school groups at the V&A, tracked down and arrested an art thief only a month after starting her job.

Given that some sources suggest that art-related crime represents the third highest-grossing organised criminal trade over the past 40 years, maybe it's something for New Zealand to look into? Though on reflection, a liberal application of turps might be the most effective solution for many of the art crimes perpetrated here ...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fame, please. And more cash.


It's official. Art historians are a disaffected bunch, much put-upon, ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, working for peanuts without the respect they deserve, battling both rampant anti-intellectualism and the high cost of international air travel. At least, that's according to the results of a survey by the College Art Association of America (CAA), which recently asked its members to list the most pressing issues they face in their profession.

While the CAA divided their responses into 10 categories, the Art History Newsletter blog suggests they can be boiled down to just two:

  • “I deserve more money and/or fame” (91% of respondents)
  • “We should do better work” (9%).

Disillusioned respondents could do worse than consult Charles M Rosenberg's list of career alternatives for art historians. Regrettably, however, most of his suggestions also require a "high tolerance for economic uncertainty" -- which on the strength of the CAA survey would seem to render art historians temperamentally unsuited.

Oh well. Back to the disaffection it is, then.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The people's typeface


Some years ago, I hired a signwriter for a friend who was coming from out of town to make an art installation. My friend said that he wanted an old-school hand-done sign, painted directly on to the wall. When I rang the sign company and explained what I wanted, there was a slight pause.

"You know that we can do anything you want in vinyl?" said the voice at the other end. "Computer cut. You just send us a file of what you want, and we can just print it out. Put it straight up. It'll look perfect. It's how signs are done now."

It was the early 1990s. Designers had recently moved to Macs from paste-up work, jettisoning scalpels and erasers and tins of bull-gum. Typesetters were going out of business and bromide cameras were being relegated to the back room, relics of an old technology for which there was no further requirement. Like hand-painted signwriting, the physical craft of graphic design now seemed ridiculously old-fashioned. You no longer needed a steady hand, just computer skills and -- perhaps secondarily -- a good eye for the page.

I explained that actually I was after a hand-done look for this sign, wonky bits and all. "It's for an art show," I added.

Unsurprisingly, the man the company sent to do the work was getting on a bit. He was greying, and gruff, and balding, and his stomach overhung his trousers, and his nose was a deep crimson. He looked at my friend and I with a kind of sardonic amusement. But when he broke out the brushes, he was an artist. Steadying his arm with a mahl stick, he painted the few words my friend wanted on the wall, in freehand. I stood there and simply stared. I was astounded at the skill, and the speed, and precision, and was utterly charmed by the great beauty of the lettering. It was my own "hairdesser and tobacconist" moment, although rather than being the formative moment in a subsequent career as a painter, it inculcated in me simply a lasting passion for hand-painted lettering.


Colin McCahon, A question of faith 1970, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 208.0 x 261.5 cm, Private collection, USA. Image from National Gallery of Victoria

(McCahon, on the other hand, famously wrote in 1966 of his point of origin as an artist:
"Once when I was quite young… the hairdresser had his window painted with HAIRDRESSER and TOBACCONIST. Painted in gold and black on a stippled red round, the lettering large and bold, with shadows, and a feeling of being projected right through the glass and across the pavement. I watched the work being done, and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting. I watched from outside as the artist working inside slowly separated himself from me (and light from dark) to make his new creation. ")

The typeface my friend had chosen for his installation signage was called Dom Casual. He'd selected it, I think, purely on the basis of its visual qualities -- retro, friendly-looking, with its vertical strokes ending at different heights so it had a slightly painterly, hand-done effect even when reproduced in the font book. But when an acquaintance of his told him that Dom Casual was known as the "people's typeface", he liked it even more.

This was all before the internet, of course, back when it was a lot more difficult to find out more about interesting things that come your way. So that's where my knowledge of Dom Casual began and ended, until the other day when I came across a publication which used the typeface, and I remembered the moment in the gallery as my friend was putting his show together and the signwriter held us captivated as the lettering unfolded across the wall, and I felt that it would be a good time to know more.

Dom Casual was designed in America in the late 1940s by Peter Dombrezian, I've discovered, and it seems to be the only font he published. It was originally called Dom Twixt, and was hand-drawn for photo-typesetting. There were a whopping 213 characters in Dom Twixt, allowing the graphic designer to produce many possible versions for headlines and advertisements; but when in 1951 the American Type Foundry converted it to metal type and renamed it Dom Casual, there were only 52 characters converted, making it much less flexible in its applications. Pete Downer writes that Dom Casual:
"was a rare case in which a type design was adapted to an older technology instead of a new one. While thousands of metal typeface designs were copied to film for photo-typesetting, very few faces originally designed for filmsetting were subsequently cast in metal."

Dom Casual was used by Warner Brothers for its cartoon credits from 1960, and has also featured in the titles for Bewitched (and surprisingly, Neighbours). With its handbrushed, informal look, it remains the archetypal 'cartoon' font -- but as French notes, it's ironic that a typeface cast in metal should be so widely regarded as a textbook example of casual brush lettering.

From Hare to Heir, Warner Brothers, 1960: the first WB cartoon to feature Dom Casual in the production credits. From Dave Mackey's Warner Bros Cartoon Filmography and Title Card Gallery.


I think that what I like about this story is that by hand-painting it on the gallery wall, my friend's signwriter effectively converted the typeface back again to its own point of origin. I'm sure he knew what he was doing, though it's taken me 16 or so years to find out.