The Whispers of Michelle Ross

Small Wild Things gets its due this month with not one, but two, venues featuring this collaborative project orchestrated by Michelle Ross. If you're a fan of Tantric paintings, Walter Benjamin, or adults co-opting the games of children then I invite you to take some time and visit these exhibitions.

Homage (November 3 - December 7, 2008)
The Art Gym @ Marylhurst University, BP John Administration Building
17600 Pacific Highway, Marylhurst, OR 97036-0261

Tuesday - Sunday, Noon - 4pm

Preview Reception: Sunday, November 2, 3 - 5pm
Gallery Talk: Tuesday, November 18, Noon

* * * * * 

Small Wild Things (November 6 - November 29, 2008)
Nine Gallery
1231 NW Hoyt Street, Portland, OR 97209-3021

Tuesday - Saturday, Noon - 5pm

Opening Reception: Thursday, November 6, 6 - 9pm

While I have much to say about this project (having seen it in its entirety earlier this summer) I will put off any further commentary (for now) and simply encourage you to come and experience it for yourself.


Duty and Context

Lincoln, Abraham; three-quarter-length, standing, ca. 1863 
Photographed by Mathew B. Brady 
Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 111-B-3656

Two hours later I emerge from the voter pamphlets with a completed ballot— all of the measures have been measured and my chosen ovals are completely filled in with a black pen. As usual, I'm a tad stupified as to exactly how some measures even make it to the ballot. I also harbor an underlying nervousness about such measures passing and wrecking havoc on our social services and/or state infrastructure. 

Nevertheless, I feel fortunate to live in a country enlightened enough to allow all of us a voice regarding government policy. As a somewhat biased educator I strongly believe that we must bend all our energies towards educating each successive generation about this privilege or it will be lost. Complacency is the first step towards authoritarianism and many signs point to the encouragement of complacency over education in America these past twenty five years. 

Perhaps voter turn-out for this election will be the first break in the chain of national complacency, and this break will help the populace feel empowered to renew our ownership of the democratic system. Owning the means for just government far outstrips the ownership of any material good or monetary amount. So while it's ironic that more people may turn out to vote because of their leaking pocketbook, it doesn't change the fact that this may foster a renewed recognition that the power for change lies within the will of the people.

* * * * *

I have never witnessed an election that devoted so much time to referencing the past. Lincoln, Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan have all been given their due and put in whatever context best suits candidate or party at the time. The fixation on Lincoln and FDR are perhaps the most telling, as they each speak directly to different stories of American struggle. 

* * * * *

The most recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine (November 2008) features an article entitled Election Day 1860 by Harold Holzer which outlines Lincoln's actions on the day of his election to the presidency. It is full of wonderful examples of voting procedures and campaign etiquette of the day. For example: stump speeches were seen as the resort of desperate and weak candidates, the vice president was chosen by party and not by the candidate himself, and to vote for oneself was a mark of immodesty. 

Lincoln is given his due as a witty and thoughtful candidate who recognizes the magnitude of his bid for president. Holzer alludes to Lincoln's understanding of what his presidency might entail. After all, on that day a portion of the states would not even allow his name on the ballots (which makes the issues of hanging chad in 2000 seem almost quaint in terms of voter rights) and partisan politics sowed such fear in the populace that all manner of rumors circulated the nation as election results began to come in. 

It's interesting to consider Lincoln's bid for the presidency in light of his famous "House Divided" speech just two years earlier. Without intention or malice Lincoln became the wedge that split that metaphorical house on 1860 and yet, one almost feels that it was within the destiny of the country to elect the man who would spark and subdue the most devastating ethical dilemma in American history.

Although the situation in America this coming November 4th isn't as openly volatile as the one facing the nation in 1860, who can say that it is any less important? It will be the job of history to make sense of our present— all we can do is vote.


It's Official

I've finally been granted some blogging credibility— www.breakingmurphyslaw.com, a site devoted to staving off disaster when giving presentations, referred to my recent post about Andrea Zittel's lecture at PSU as "snarky." Truly one of the most highly coveted monikers in the blogosphere, I have written so many posts in the past hoping to attain the distinction of snarky that I'd completely given up on it ever happening. Now all I have to do is put up a post about my pet and/or child and I'll have a chance at being called "insipid," which is another distinction I long for. With a new cat in the house it can't be long before I will be a blogger with a capital "B."

All of the hits that have resulted from the link on breakingmurphyslaw (to date, five, which is a veritable landslide of visits on my blog) bring to light another way that I have failed in my duties as a blogger. I rarely link to other sites, comment about other sites, or in any way indicate that I'm at all connected to internet culture apart from using it as a way to subject my ideas and experiences to those poor few who fall upon my page. 

If, up till now, you believed that I log-on to the internet only to type messages on Blogger you would be only half right— I also neurotically check my account balances and the most recent lotto numbers. And every few days I look at the following sites. Most of them have a fairly narrow focus (which displays a single-mindedness that I have difficulty understanding, but certainly can appreciate), while one is more akin to my blog, in the sense that it eschews a single subject and operates more as a personality dissemination platform. So without further ado:

Fruit Slinger— Two teens work on a newspaper (this is not a lead-up to a joke): one teen goes on to attend a prestigious university and obtain a degree in journalism. The other teen goes on to become me. 

Prestigious degree in hand my friend becomes first a copy editor, then a freelance writer, then a freelance traveler who writes, and finally the author of the best written blog I've come across. Now, it's almost entirely devoted to fruit, and his experiences selling fruit to a motley assortment of locals at a farmers market, but it is so exceedingly witty that this seemingly narrow focus is not limiting in any way. Dan could write a blog about peeling paint and it would still be the first blog I visit. 

Photoshop Disasters— Everything that can go wrong when good software is put in the hands of aesthetically incompetent people. The flubs are often jaw-droppingly bad and the accompanying text is appropriately, um, snarky. If you're new to using Photoshop then I strongly encourage you to learn from what others have not.

Drawn— A blog managed by a number of people who troll the internet looking for exceptional bits of illustration, animation, drawings, and typography. While the focus here is much more on the commercial end of the spectrum than the conceptual end, the artists and designers who are featured tend to be very talented and I always find something that I end up bookmarking or smiling about. If you need a way to gauge the pulse of contemporary illustration/design, Drawn is your best bet.

Bunny With an Artblog— Hilary Pfeifer has made a living as a professional artist for years. If that fact alone doesn't inspire awe then you are clearly not an artist trying to make a living with your art. 

Envy isn't the only reason I visit her blog however; take a look at her "Some of the Things I've Blogged About" sidebar on the right side of her page. It turns out that Hilary is also a polymath with relevant things to share about both the Pacific Northwest art scene as well as the larger art world. There are quite a few artist blogs out there, but most of them are simply postings of recent work or upcoming publication and show announcements. I appreciate that Hilary offers more of herself than simple self promotion.

So there you have it. I've linked to something other than my previous posts. I'd like to think that this signals not just my growing maturity as a blogger, but as a person. Enjoy!


Serfs and Lords

This week in the classroom has focused on the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages. I have yet to encounter the sixth grader who isn't fascinated with the feudal system and its blatant disparities between the classes. 

As the divide between the rich and poor has never really closed, I suspect that this peek into the past allows a neutral ground in which to speak about fairness and equality among people. I find these conversations to be profoundly important to the students, and I don't recall anything similar in my own early educational experience. I suspect that it is only in an environment that honors all the players in history, rich and poor alike, that such a dialogue can occur. When I was a child learning history we were still under the sway of canonical conventions that emphasized only victors and land owners. So while post-modern thought hasn't been a boon in all cases, it has forced a more honest assessment of what actually constitutes the historical record.

* * * * *

Each week I place a thematic drawing on the chalkboard to serve as backdrop for the lessons. This image of a peasant threshing spelt was one such drawing that I managed to capture with the digital camera about two years ago. In general, I try to derive the imagery for my chalkboard drawings from art history, so that the students are not only taking home thematic stories and activities, but a visual record of history as well. 


If I Turn This Off Now We Will Go Into Darkness

Image courtesy simonfilm at morgueFile

Andrea Zittel rocks. 

I think that will serve as commentary aplenty for her lecture last night at PSU's Shattuck Hall.

There are undoubtedly finer writers with more nimble minds who can provide a comprehensive, heavily syllabled, dissertation on the work she presented over the course of the evening. I have opted to put my energies towards a low-brow rant instead.

I've been attending artist lectures since the days when humming slide projectors glowed hot in the back of darkened halls. With a couple exceptions, I can safely say that very few of the lectures in those days suffered from one tenth of the technical difficulties that plague modern presentations. Fancy laptops and digital displays may be the norm for every new speaking venue today, but you can tell that as a society we take for granted our mastery of these new technologies. Plug-and-play (which, by the way, was a concept that couldn't be realized until 1996, roughly ten years after computers entered the middle class home) continues to be about as easy as changing your oil— which is to say that anyone can do it, but few can do it without some unforeseen difficulty. 

So after some fresh-faced Portlander bumbled through what might be the most painful introductory speech I've ever encountered: rife as it was with "ums," random shout-outs for local artists, feeble fundraising plugs, and frequent confusion about which canned biographical tidbit he was meant to be reading, Andrea Zittel took over the podium. The audience visibly relaxed, and the fear that we might all have just been represented to a preeminent contemporary artist as West Coast bumpkins dimmed in time with the overhead lights.

Then the real trouble began. Ms. Zittel immediately realized that the image ratio of her slides was wrong. Such an observation is expected of a visual artist, although I doubt many of us in the packed lecture hall would have noticed. She started fussing with the settings and the screen went blue. Then it went black. 

The narrative ground to a halt as Zittel attempted to work through the technical difficulties and then, in slight frustration, she picked the narrative back up without any projection. Instead she hoisted her computer up and turned the screen toward the room. The artist lecture with 200 odd audience members became an inane library story-hour wherein only the ten closest people to Zittel were able to see the images on her laptop monitor. Despite her gently swinging the monitor in an arc to show the image to the entire crowd, it was impossible to make out any detail on a 15" screen when seated 12 rows back in a lecture hall. Was there no one who could resolve this aspect ratio debacle? 

Enter PSU IT guy (well, enter his speaking role anyway, as he'd been poking about at the podium for a few minutes at this point). Oh higher educated IT guy, explain to us simple art enthusiasts why things have gone so wrong: "Well, the old projector had this button you could push that fixed this problem and this new projector doesn't have the same buttons."* 

Phew! A wave of relief flooded over the room as the root of the difficulty was so brilliantly exposed. Granted, none of us grasped how to resolve this fundamental problem of button absence, but we felt better knowing that the foibles of our technologies could be quickly assessed and diagnosed.

Eventually things got back on track and Ms. Zittel was able to turn her attention to the task at hand— outlining a decade of artistic inquiry into an aesthetic of manicured simplicity. Those of us concerned with Portland appearing like a quaint artistic backwater slowly forgot the pathetic gaffs of the first half hour as we sat back and admired the prodigious output of a woman who might be better described as a fierce individualist rather than an artist. Had Zittel come of age in a time prior to Duchamp, she would have just been considered a kooky community eccentric rather than a purveyor of contemporary domestic aesthetics. 

In America today, where individuality is no longer a construct of idealism, but a marketing tool for moving cheap commodity, I suppose the only place a character as unique as Zittel might be appreciated is in the ivory tower of the art world. I was in the midst of considering this idea when Zittel came to a close and, with the slightest trace of hesitation in her voice, proclaimed with a slight nod towards her computer, "If I turn this off now we will go into darkness." 

I don't think she was afraid of the dark, she was simply afraid that we wouldn't be able to find the lights. And that might be the best metaphor to come out of her presentation. Obviously, she would be fine— 

We were the ones who needed some help.

*OK, this isn't a quote verbatim, but it is certainly close enough to be considered the gist.


I Heart Analog

I miss my hi-fi. To be honest, the iPod* has been a woeful substitute despite its space-saving allure. I realized the depth of my regret at having relegated my audio components to the closet only after purchasing a few albums this month. I came home, used cds** in hand, flush with the excitement of shopping in the midst of financial catastrophe, ready to throw them on and bliss out. But life isn't that simple now.

First I must load the tracks into my computer and then I must plug my iPod into the computer and allow the songs to trickle onto the music player. Then the iPod demands more juice if it's to deliver a continual stream of music for longer than sixty minutes, which leaves me sitting about waiting for the battery to charge. 

It is at this point that my interest in listening to the albums begins to wane. I wash the dishes or sort the recycling. I add items to my TO DO list. I contemplate the exact date when JP Morgan will slap their branding on all of WAMU's printed collateral. I look up the word collateral and realize I'm not applying it correctly in the previous sentence. I check the iPod. Still charging. . .

When the earbuds are finally wedged into my ears I'm subjected to a very tinny sounding Cee-Lo. The Cure suffers from an aggressive treble and half the tracks on Bjork's Telegram are bogged down with mushy bass. I think back to the first time that I heard Massive Attack's Protection on something other than a boom-box and how the quality of the sound seemed so expansive and engulfing. Exactly how I managed to stray again from that experience I'll never know. I fell victim to the hype. I chuckled at those silly Mac and PC commercials and I lay my money down on the shiny counter of the Apple store. 

Now my ears often ache from the pressure of formed plastic and I can't remember what it was about the album art of OK Computer that affected me so much in my teens. My hi-fi collects dust in the closet, ashamed of its bulky cases and thick speaker cables. The CD collection has also entered the closet and is only briefly perused when a new album has been loaded onto the computer and needs to be stored out of sight. 

Meanwhile, the iPod travels about with me, delivering far more storage than sound. I watch everyone on the train nod their heads half-heartedly to the music being drowned out by the screech of the wheels on track and I think that we've all been fooled yet again. Now we own music; because experiencing it doesn't sell albums with the same frequency.

*I would put a TM symbol after every instance of the word iPod because I respect the Apple and do not wish to anger the Apple, but I cannot find this feature on Blogger, so let this serve as my disclaimer that iPod is a registered trademark of Apple. I understand that I have no rights to type the word iPod without a TM symbol but I respectfully submit that it is Blogger, not I, who has violated international intellectual property rights by not providing the appropriate typography to legally credit copyright and trademark holders.

**For those of you who care, the purchased cds in question were:
Gnarls Barkley- The Odd Couple
The Cure- Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
Bjork- Telegram
Peter Gabriel- Peter Gabriel
MC Solaar- Paradisiaque
Massive Attack- Danny the Dog: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Underworld- Pearl's Girl


The Director Directs

Tomorrow may, or may not, wrap up filming for the short film I've been producing with The Company. Last weekend was derailed by a tooth extraction  that was in no way exacerbated by our director's recent flirtation with cigarettes. Don't smoke kids— cigarette smoke eats molars.

* * * * *

I've served as cinematographer for this outing, which is a fancy way of saying I've held a relatively heavy camera for very long periods of time while draping myself over cubicle walls or pressing my body into stucco corners. The Director fancies the exceedingly long takes. When I say long I mean takes so long that they potentially border on the uncomfortable for the audience. Relentless monotony isn't the objective of every take, but used sparingly, it may prove to be a very effective way of conveying the indistinct personality of the lead character. 

I must confess that I find it odd to serve as a conduit for someone else's vision on this project. I've spent so many years working alone on my artwork that it has required some readjustment on my part to not be the peanut gallery every time I hear the word, "Cut." 

At the same time I find it strangely liberating to not be the person controlling the final vision. I power up the equipment, check the settings, point and shoot. In some ways it is akin to my relationship with pinhole photography— I can't really control the outcome so faith is the only confidence I can hold. In this instance my faith rests with my friends, with the script, and with the actors. 

* * * * *

My wife has often pointed out that film is a communal art form. It is inclusive because it is impossible to realize alone, and perhaps this contributes subtly to the magic film works over our culture. We must labor together to create it, and then we choose to sit in a darkened theater for two hours and share in the viewing experience with a broader public. Stories are projected onto a screen so that they might add another perspective, another sorrow, another joy to the chronicle of our own lives. Story telling may be one of the few constants in the history of mankind and the moving image shows no sign of relinquishing its century-long domination of our narrative landscape. 

In two hundred years art history texts aren't going to be extolling our contemporary painters with nearly the same vigor that they'll be studying the cultural relevance of James Cameron or the cut-and-paste narratives of Quentin Tarantino. 

Knowing this has made me seriously consider the frequency with which I should be putting down the gesso to pick up the video camera.