Document or Art?

A friend is making an art project by shooting each flight of stairs in a five story building. There is a quiet, haunting quality to the work that struck me as quite impressive. It made me wonder if this casual, random shot I took of a new stairway railing to document its existence might qualify as art?

Does intention matter? Might something done for one reason fulfill another? Did Mr. Campbell think his soup cans would wind up in museums?

Heady questions and perhaps unanswerable, but there’s something worth pondering in all this.  Anyway, here’s the photo I took; what do you think?

stair railing

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Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.

Anniversaries

Everyone has a birthday every year but we save anniversaries for yet more special occasions, from long-term survival in marriages and jobs, to the continued existence of vital institutions, documents and countries.
And even Film Departments.
In this case, the Film Department, now, of course, the Film and Media Department, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in the late ’60s by the noted Canadian scholar Peter Harcourt, it was quickly off and running, hosting distinguished faculty, turning out grads who went on to considerable success, and becoming a fixture in the staid landscape of a venerable but quite traditional university.
Now fifty years later, it’s time for an anniversary and I have a chance to attend and make a small contribution. I haven’t been back but once since spending the first thirteen years of my career there and I am looking forward to offering a report on what the intervening time has wrought.
It seems, at the very least, that the Department has managed to age gracefully and to mature into a major player on the national stage.

Ray and Charles Eames in Oakland

A Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Museum of Art isn’t quite like going to one of the big tourist destination museums in the Bay Area but it should be.

There is a current exhibition devoted to Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who invented Chairs,designed houses, invented splints and stretchers (in WWII), and made films. They have never left the never left the design landscape given how massive their influence has been.

Is it art or is it a splint for an injured leg?

The object on the left, of shaped plywood, was manufactured in the 1000s for the military during WWII. the object on the right is a spin off, a free form figure by Charles based on the splint.

In a Q&A posted on walls of the exhibit, Eames gives one sentence answers to a series of essay questions. Some take up the question of the splint:

Art and usefulness: more than meets the eye

to fulfill a purpose may be to create art

Isn’t a purpose of art, a form of its usefulness, pleasure?

The Eameses, designers by their own admission, remind us that they, like Picasso or Rembrandt, are useful and purposeful but in a more subtle way than an industrial, use-value oriented culture might appreciate. Art and great design affords pleasure. Pleasure is not only useful but essential. It is one of the two great “principles” described by Freud but we don’t need Sigmund to tell us what life without pleasure would be like. That is a purpose fulfilled by great design and great art alike.  Design may also solve industrial problems, problems of commodity production and consumption, but at best, as here, it does more than that.

Consider the Eames chair:

A pricey item today, and a true classic, but also–is it not?–a source of pleasure. It fulfills the need for pleasure by the grace and beauty of its design even as it supports the human body in a seated position. (I confess: I have one. But only one.)

The exhibit includes several of the Eames’s films as well, including the famous Powers of Ten and  Think. They built their films as ensembles, bits and pieces hanging together by the thread of an idea and the form retains its power and beauty to this day.

The exhibit is on for a few more months.

 

Factory Fetishism

The de Young museum has its Cult of the Machine show on. Machines: futurists loved them; Constructivists praised them; Precisionists fetishized them, or, at least, some of them did. Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth sure did love ’em. The show gives them their due and they deserve it. Scheeler, in particular, reveres the majesty and mystery of machines, industry, power as an alchemist’s brew of transformation. It even transforms humans right out of the picture.  His and most of these guys pictures are of industrial might, not as menacing but majestic, sublime, beyond our capacity to fully appreciated even if we created it.

But the show has an underbelly. They’re the works that fascinated me for having some sense, as some do now, of what lurks beneath the utopian dreams, the ones heard now of a world of communication, connection and Friends(hips).

They saw things a little differently.

ault

Void of humans but abristle with energy and motion, there is an ambiguity at work. Seen from on high, the New York city waterfront runs like a ribbon through a tissue of industry, but one that sends up signals of smoke and steam whose meaning is unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity is what convinced Georgia O’Keefe to move to New Mexico.

And then there’s this:

o'keefe

In this work by George Ault, factory and ship smoke, white and black, obliterates whatever lies beyond it.  And the far shore is entirely grey with waterfront wharves and buildings that seem to emerge from or plunge into the water. Up close it is as if the water swallows the buildings; man has not fully emerged from his watery beginnings.

o'keefe 2

Here, O’Keefe captures two great, black monoliths and a white one beyond, all dwarfing the silvery moon that sneaks out between them all. Boldly bleak, capturing the canyon like enormity of New York, it also lacks warmth or comfort, a far cry from the desert world of flowers she later turned to.

ault 3

Ault didn’t see the rural American of the ’30 as much better. Black, devoid of any enlivening detail, absent humans, a warped and pointless fence, the shapes and geometry that give the city its dynamism appear here more as a sepluchral loss than a rustic retreat.

IMGnham and Twinkie thibaut_073Cunni0

With a little hint of mischief the show also includes this shot of Imogene Cunningham and the model Twinkie where Cunningham appears as if she might be coming upon Susanna before the elders find her. Her camera seems to be the main link to the other works and the humor of the shot is largely absent elsewhere, save for the inevitable clip of Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears and cogs of an assembly line from Modern Times.

And for a finale,

c carter

Charles Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, faceless and alone before the altar, or machinery (of the church?), with pews that look like aircraft hangars and two gear works on either side that could be totems from another era. Who gets to marry the machine? Who is left behind? Can anyone survive the marriage of heaven and hell, or man and machine–questions we seem to ask in one form or another every day.

Monet’s Early Years, as seen in San Francisco

What Monet did to get rolling isn’t all that different from what he did later on. But it is already powerful and raw in a way his later, more contemplative images aren’t always.

The streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

the streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

He did this image from memory obviously; otherwise he’d have no doubt drowned. And it’s powerful; you worry about the sailors and wonder about their fate.
He surely loved water and the artistic challenge it presented. Social status and labor were of far less interest than nature, but this was so for most of the Impressionist work.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of "bathers." This is just part of the painting.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of “bathers.” This is just part of the painting.

Compare the “finished” work above with the sketch quality of the one below. He manages to depict a crowd of folk in the water with almost no delineation at all; and the water ripples have an amazing power.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Copies don’t go justice but Monet’s painting, Boats at the Port of Honfleur, can give you chills. Just dabs of paint tossed onto the canvas, these reflections of boats and trees are only that; but their weight, coloration, proportion and placement render the rightside up world of what floats perfectly in its upside down world of reflection. It’s an amazing work and possesses, and exudes, a vitality that the great later works of waterlilies and the like do not (despite their rhapsodic beauty). it has to be seen in person. It is a perfect painting.
Then there’s dad. Dad didn’t approve of son becoming a painter. The placard says this is a calm, respectful portrait of dad in the park, with no hint of the familial tension. Nope. Look, if the reproduction allows, at dad’s posture. Stiff as a rifle, jaw jutting forward, left leg almost levitating as he “reads.” Monet captures a tight, strict figure of black and white that contrasts sharply with the painting of his wife that follows.

He's not only tense but totally alone, Monet's Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

He’s not only tense but totally alone, Monet’s Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

This “shot” of his wife on a cold day outside the house, passing the glass panelled door, imbues her with a melancholy look that may relate to the enforced poverty his not yet successful painting career and his lack of paternal support imposed. A look of sadness, fleeting, perhaps, and yet the room is large, the glass clear, the day bright and Monet pays homage to the woman who endures what must be endured with and because of the very work that honors her.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Some paintings capture another maturing style in the early work: smoother, softer, with less obvious traces of brush strokes and paint dabs. This painting, done, I believe, in the Netherlands, is representative and feels “nice” to me in a more familiar and comfortable way. Yet the reflections–those perfect gestural reflections–are there to remind us of the degree to which Monet’s early work possessed a rawness and perfection, a magic and defiance that slowly gained recognition and acclaim, enough to erase the poverty of these early years.

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work