Thursday, February 19, 2009

Spiny Oyster Shells

Spiny oyster, also known as the thorny oyster or spondylus has been used to fashion rare and coveted beads from precolumbian through contemporary times. At least 600 years before the arrival of Columbus, the Chimu in Peru were carving and drilling beads from spiny oyster shell. The plate reproduced above is from Louis Figuier's book titled The Ocean World: Being a Description of The Sea and some of its Inhabitants. (New Edition, Revised by E. Perceval Wright. . . with 435 Illustrations) published around 1864 in London by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.
". . . the shells of several species of the genus Spondylus are distinguished for their variety of form and the brilliant colours with which they are decorated. This makes them much sought after by amateur collectors, and procures for them a high price. The shell of Spondylus is solid and thick, . . . nearly always bristling with spines, forming a very peculiar kind of ornamentation. . . Spondylus regius (Fig. I.) is, perhaps, the most remarkable for its immense spines:

Spondulus radians, Lamarck (Fig. III.) is noted for its elegant form:

Spondylus avicularis (Fig. IV.) shows remarkable inequality in the valves:

Spondylus imperialitis, Chenu (Fig. II.) has long projecting spines, like feet:
and the Scaly Spondylus (S. crassisquama, Fig. V.) is covered with scales arranged like so many roofing tiles:
. . . the genus Spondylus is frequently found firmly rooted to rocks and other submarine bodies, and, oftener still, heaped one upon the other, like herrings in their barrel. These animals belong essentially to the seas of warm countries. We find them, however, occupying considerable space in the Mediterranean, where the S. gaederopus (Fig. VI.) abounds:
The variation in the number and direction of the spines is a striking feature in Spondylus. When the whole lower surface adheres to branches of coral--a very frequent occurrence--they are confined to the upper valve; but when a part only of the valve is so adherent, the whole surface becomes covered." [pp.405-406]
Kevin Lampress and Thora Whitehead have written a book titled Spondylus: Spiny Oyster Shells of the World and the Google Booksearch Preview is worth a look to see the color photos on the cover. There is even a Wordpress weblog dedicated to archaeological discussion of the spiny oyster and a very scholarly Spondylous Bibliography has been published there.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Peabody Museum

This follows up on my recent post on Oceanic Art. I remembered some old photographs of the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts that are in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Collection (PPOC). Here's a photo (taken c. 1910) of the exterior of the East India Marine Hall (constructed 1824) which houses the museum:

Detroit Publishing Co. Collection (PPOC), Library of Congress, LC-D4-78028

The massive anchor standing by the front entrance really impressed me as a kid. . . I always wanted to climb the iron fence and get closer! Here's another, more recent shot of the Marine Hall, exactly as I remember it. And here's an older view. . . note the cobblestone pavement and the obtrusive telegraph poles.

Here's an interior shot of their bird exhibits, also featuring the awesome skeleton of a whale:

Detroit Publishing Co. Collection (PPOC), Library of Congress, LC-D4-39495

There was also a big diorama behind glass featuring birds in a facsimile of their natural habitat. All the species were listed on a panel and when you pressed a button a recording of the selected bird's call played while a spot light simultaneously illuminated the bird in the display.

This is the second story of the museum. The room was so big and open that you really had to restrain yourself (or be restrained by an adult) from running! Lots of detailed ship models to see, plus some brightly painted ships figureheads. In front of the arched windows to the rear are two giant sponge plants; Neptune's Cups I think they are called. To the rear left is the doorway leading to the Japanese, South Pacific and African collections. Here's the room of Japanese Artifacts:

Detroit Publishing Co. Collection (PPOC), Library of Congress, LC-D4-39494

And here's my favorite, the room of South Pacific and African artifacts:

Detroit Publishing Co. Collection (PPOC), Library of Congress, LC-D4-39492

The collection was on the uppermost floor and there was the most intriguing smell. As I mentioned before, it only takes a whiff of Labdanum (aka Rock Rose) essential oil to transport me back in time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Beatriz Milhazes

Loving dots as I do, I'm a big fan of the colorful work of Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes (b. 1960). I'm excited to learn about a forthcoming book about her, due out in March 2009. The publisher is The Fondation Cartier, and the cover price will be approximately $40.00.

EgoDesign.CA ("the first Canadian webzine dedicated to global design") recently published a nicely illustrated article titled Beatriz Milhazes: Natural Forms + Rigorous Geometry by Linda Chenit.

The James Cohan Gallery represents her in NYC.

There's a second book forthcoming book listed on Amazon. . . although it could be the same as the first one I mentioned. It's worth a look to be enticed by books about two other artists: Rex Ray (who I'm already familiar with) and Tord Boontje (who I'm not). Life is a tangent!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oceanic Art

200 works of art from Oceania have been brought together by The ING Group of Belgium in an exciting display of the exotic and breathtaking world of the South Pacific in all its diversity. The exhibition, titled "Oceania: Ritual Signs, Authority Symbols," is divided into three parts, each devoted to a major cultural area: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. The artworks are from Belgian, Dutch, French and German museums, plus Belgian private collections.

On the ING website there is a gallery of 32 photos of selected exotic oceanic objects from the exhibit. Some of these photos also illustrate this article from the webzine EgoDesign.CA.

My grandmother lived in Salem, Massachusetts, right around the corner from the Peabody Museum (now the Peabody Essex Museum) which happens to be the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. So as a young child I was exposed to their outstanding collection. They have a great collection of Oceanic objects.

Back when I was young, the museum was open without an admission charge. I remember going there alone just to see the shrunken head. Their exhibits of fish and birds in glass cases used to fascinate me as well. The smell of labdanum essential oil brings back memories of their cool and quiet rooms!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Well-Articulated Collage

I've been computer house-cleaning, going through old favorite links and trying to make room on the Firefox toolbar. The best (most useful and interesting) are under the new heading "Reference Links" listed on the menu to the right.

Here's a link to some very cool collages by Articulation on RedBubble. Some of my favorites are: Origin; Suspended Sentence; Malice; Vieil Art Triste - Imitation; Stooddle; Afterthought.

And for an example of clever animation (he is responsible for starting me on my animation tangent) take a look at the site of Bruno Mallart. I love these: Aviation; Science Mutation; Anvar; Vaudou; Polyhedres; Damier; Indien; Brain 2.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Swimming In a Different Sea"

I've been enjoying the beautiful etchings illustrating Louis Figuier's The Ocean World; Being a Description of The Sea and some of its Inhabitants published c. 1872. (Two illustrate my earlier post titled The Other Side of the Mountain, Revisited.) The artist's name is not identified in this edition published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. but an edition published by D. Appleton, New York lists M. Ch. Bevalet as the engraver. Illustrations to other works by Figuier have been attributed to Auguste Faguet, E. Bayard, Freeman, Giacomelli , Yan D'Argent, Prior, Foulquier, Riou, LaPlante, and others.

Louis Figuier(1819-1894) was a scientist, doctor, pharmacist, chemist and writer, well-known for his popularizations of scientific subjects. A reviewer in his day described Figuier's writing as "render[ing] dry science entertaining to the multitudes."

Figuier also wrote about occult subjects including alchemy (Alchimie et les alchimistes, ou essai historique et critique sur la philosophie hermetique). Another interesting title is: The Day After Death, or, Our Future Life, According to Science. Figuier's four-volume Histoire du merveilleux was a well-documented study which included information on animal magnetism, the divining rod, mediums, and spirits. Le Lendemain de la mort, ou La Vie future selon la science (1872) deals with the transmigration of souls.

I also read that Jules Verne was his assistant at university.

George Tooker

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is holding a George Tooker Retrospective January 30th through April 5th 2009. George Tooker (b. 1920), classified as an American Magical Realist, paints in egg tempera. Among the exhibition images on the PAFA site is Subway, which is one of my favorite Tooker paintings, on loan from the Whitney Museum.

Tooker's "public protest paintings" are what first attracted me: Children & Spastics, Government Bureau, Landscape With Figures, Teller, Waiting Room II, and Corporate Decision.

His use of pattern makes these particular favorites: The Chess Game (checkerboard floor with geometric border), Supermarket (repeat diagonal patterns), Gypsy (circular patterns like old tin ceilings), Red Carpet (border), Three Women (repeat squares), Woman With Oranges (blue and white tiles), Pot of Aloes (shape of leaves echoed by tiles behind them), and Odalisque (rug).

And then there are a few that I admire purely for their strangeness of beauty: Doors, Mirror IV, Lantern, Farewell, Landscape With Figures, Mirror I, and White Wall. You can see them all in Thomas H. Garver's book George Tooker. The reviews of the book on Amazon are informative.

Also, there's a New York Times review of the retrospective's New York showing at the National Academy Museum. And another review from The Brooklyn Rail. The Hirshhorn Museum has The Letter Box. . . first time seeing this one! And here's a lithograph of Mirror I from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Other Side of the Mountain, Revisited

I was very lucky to find an inexpensive used copy of The Other Side of the Mountain (Houghton-Mifflin, 1968) by Michael Bernanos to replace my copy (missing for 25 years) which was the subject of an earlier post. I sat down and read it cover to cover as soon as it hit my mail box. As I mentioned previously, it was the cover art that first attracted me. Now I see that it is credited to Leo and Diane Dillon, a talented team of illustrators. (I remember them best for their Caldecott Medal-winning book Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears.)

And I still love the story it as much as I did when I read it the first time back in high school. For an English assignment I created a series of red clay human figures which I then photographed to create a slide show. I remember using the vine-tangled woods of the Ipswich River Bird Sanctuary as my backdrop, and the arms and legs of my sister and my friend Betsy as props to actualize my vision. One slide featured my sister's bare arm, darkened with mud, reaching around to clutch at a boulder which obscures the rest of her body.

Of course none of this makes sense if you don't know the story. The jacket reads, in part:
This eerie and horrifying short novel. . . begins as a straightforward adventure story and gradually becomes a haunting odyssey through underworlds of despair, drugs, and death. A young boy hires out on a French galleon. . . He is befriended by the elderly cook. . . After the ship has been becalmed for many days and the crew has gone berserk, a violent storm erupts and the ship sinks. The boy and his friend, the only survivors, regain consciousness convinced that they have passed into a different world. This becomes certain as the two arrive at a body of land highlighted by a chain of reddish volcanic mountains. All about them are lifelike statues. . . the faces fixed in a fellowship of fear. But there is no sign of human or animal life, only lush vegetation . . . Everything is covered by the same blood-red light by day and imbued with a bizarre life of its own by night. The travelers decide that their only chance of survival is to reach the highest mountaintop.
Today I understand the "despair" and "death" part but question the "drugs" reference in the description. Unless, perhaps, it is meant to imply that the author himself had to be using drugs to envision such a nightmarish fate for his two characters. Because at no point in the story do I interpret their visions as hallucinatory. Although they are truly and forevermore captive in a hell outside of normal reality, I see it as a physical place, not a chemically-induced phantom of their minds.

As I read the story this time, some of the more fantastic descriptions inspired collage ideas, one utilizing some old engravings from Figuier's The Ocean World (1872). There is this passage when the two are still adrift at sea:
Toward the middle of the day the appearance of horrifying animals plunged us into terror. Truly monstrous, at least ten yards in diameter, they resembled giant Medusas. . . with the exception of one peculiarity that made them more repulsive: umbrella-shells strangely speckled with red. Their numbers increased at an alarming rate and they swam between the waves. . . when the blood-red orb drowned in the infinite expanse of the sea, the animals continued to glow a phosphorescent red in this night of unfamiliar stars. (p. 42)
As the pair first approach the island, this description (which brought to mind Australia's Uluru) reveals that they aren't in Kansas any more and provides a premonition of their fate:
A gigantic ring of red sand, as fine as talcum powder, encircled the base of a thick red wall that towered toward the sky. Majestically, it displays time's erosions--wounds shaped like grimacing masks resembling giants solidified or petrified by countless centuries. There was no vegetation. The atmosphere was sepulchral, but there was no odor of mildew, as if nothing were left of the compost heap made by the dead. (p. 51)
This passage made me think of the ash-covered victims of the ancient volcano at Pompeii:
Here and there statues gradually emerged from the shadows. There were many, each in a different pose. Their features were frightful, tortured, filled with anguish, as if the sculptor wanted to shape them all into a unique kind of suffering, his great artist's hands tolerating only the hideous death brought about by fear. Their bodies were chilling. Men and women, each with a distinctive form, vulgar or elegant, were thrown into relief, as if they had all been cut from the same stone. (p. 54)
In the hope that salvation lies on the other side, they journey to the mountain, passing though woods uninhabited by animals or insects where: "The silence was broken only by the distant song of the crystalline waterfall which the immense carnivorous flowers watched over jealously." But a strange transformation gradually overcomes them, so by the time they are near the summit, the boy describes his companion this way:
He was horrible to see! His mask of mud had become solidified, but his features, so molded as not to resemble him, made his countenance appear as if it were being refashioned. The only flicker of life in his poor old face was the look in his eyes. Their expression left me in no doubt about my own appearance. This should have driven me out of my mind, yet a strange calm inhabited me. Was this the beginning of renunciation? (pp.102-103)
Well, I will leave it to your imagination to visualize what lies on the other side of the mountain. For unless I stop here there will be no reason for you to seek out the book and enjoy it for yourself. Someone should make a film of it!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Philip Taaffe

I see in the February 2009 issue of Art News that Philip Taaffe has a show titled "New Works" in Berlin at the Jablonka Galerie. Known for his joyous use of ornamentation and for his habit of appropriation, his multi-layered work features high-key colors in contrast.

In this article, "The Ornament Strikes Back," a slide show features images of Taffee's studio with a fascinating glimpse of work in process. It is interesting to see how he makes use of stencils. A Tlingit inspired piece features prominently in one shot.

The Official Website of Philip Taaffe is a rich source of images of and information about Taaffe's work. I particularly enjoyed reading this interview with Taaffe and collage artist Fred Tomaselli discussing, in part, the work of artist Harry Smith. I'm a big fan of Tomaselli's work and will make him the subject of a future post. I'll also be exploring Harry Smith, hitherto unknown to me. There is so much to be inspired by!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Life Part

This is the "life" part (such as it is) so those of you who are feeling positive about yours right now might want to skip right over today's post. This one's a bummer, truly, so best quit reading now.

Last night I watched It Was a Wonderful Life (1993) directed by Michele Ohayon and narrated by Jodie Foster. The film documents the lives of six homeless women in California who are, for the most part, invisible to society. Three of the women struggle to raise children without financial support from the father. And they actually fare pretty well at turning their circumstances around. They live in vans, hotel rooms or temporarily with friends and manage to derive strength and a sense of "home" through the bond they have with their daughters and their sons.

It's the older women without dependents who fare surprisingly worse. Their age and their isolated loneliness present much tougher obstacles. They find it harder to secure employment and are vulnerable to robbery and physical attack living unprotected in their vehicles. They are harassed by the authorities and find no support in government programs (many of which are restricted to women with dependent children). Even their pets are taken away. One woman's life ended tragically in suicide a year after production of the film.

I identify very strongly with the older women. I am amazed by their courage and humbled by their ability to present a positive attitude in the face of such oppressive adversity. I admire them for their strength in retaining their self-esteem and overcoming their anger. I don't cry very often but I was in tears throughout this film. I came away with feelings of fear, of despair, and of rage.

At the end of the film I immediately asked myself one question: How much worse is the situation right now? This film was made over 15 years ago. One might hate to imagine what's happening in today's economy. But I can imagine it. . . because it's happening to me.

Back when I was a girl scout we were shown a film called "You're a Young Woman Now" which taught us about sex under the guise of explaining menstruation. Later we were taught about birth control and were warned about venereal disease. But no-one warned us about another danger inherent with making an unfortunate match: that of financial ruin.

I went into my second marriage at age 45 with a house and a business and a certain amount of trust and good faith. And I have become the victim of a vindictive ex-husband and a backwards state county court system. I had financial penalties imposed upon me by the court which forced me to re-finance my home. I now have quadrupled monthly mortgage payments (at an elevated interest rate because I am self-employed and have a unverifiable income) and I must manage to make these payments until age 84. Loss of my house will also be the death of my business which has survived for 13 years.

Homelessness for me is about two months away from being a reality. I doubt if I will fare as well as most of the women shown in the movie. I think today's world is generally a lot less safe and kind than it was fifteen years ago. Wakefield, New Hampshire is not L.A. We don't have a Y.W.C.A. where you can go and shower for a few bucks. Plus it gets really, really cold here so you can't count on sleeping in your car. Anyway, I don't own a car. . .can no longer afford one!

And so it happens. I have personally witnessed two self-employed women in neighboring towns lose their homes and business because of divorce. This was before the recent collapse of the economy as we knew it. I'm sure it's happening more and more today. I don't get out much or expose myself to the news. I just can't keep up with it any more.

OK, now here, finally, is the collage part. If you have read this far you might enjoy: How Humpty Hoodwinked Miss Massachusetts; Divorce Diptych; "I" Before "E"; and Avaricious Transgressor (Feng Shui Mishap No. 666).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Art Quilt

I've been in a very dark mood lately, influenced by some of my recent reading, no doubt. So this morning I decided to lighten up with a random selection from my shelf of over-sized books. Robert Shaw's The Art Quilt (Hugh Lauter Levin, 1997) is a visual delight with 304 pages (measuring 10.5x14 inches) illustrated by color photos of some amazing quilts. I have not looked at this book for some time. . . not since I started doing collage and today I'm getting inspiration like mad!

The book first opened to an abstract piece by Marilyn Henrion titled "Newton's Law." The flyleaf was marking the place so I was attracted to it in the past (before I had a computer!) as I am now. On her web site, you can find "Newton's Law" in the gallery labeled "Grids and More."

I could spend all day just surfing around looking at the work of different artists. Maybe I will add more links later on. . .