Anodyne
Saturday, October 08, 2005
 
A pretty spectacular pileup on I-5 made me late for Zadie Smith's reading. I scooted downstairs at Elliott Bay only to find the cafe packed, standing room only. So I squeezed a chair into a corner and hung my head around the door as the alternately droll & articulate Ms. Smith discussed her favorite writers (George Saunders; Hillary Mantel); the nature of literary celebrity in the UK; an uncomfortable stint in Jamaica as a "visiting writer" on the Jamaican government's tab, & etc.

"Please form a line behind me for the signing," said the woman next to me, holding up her hand.

"Haw," I said. "As if."

"Who should I make it out to?", queried Zadie, who'd popped up at the table while I was still trying to get my head around going from being fifteen minutes late to first in line.

"There's a whole room of people waiting," I said, "Plain signatures are fine, thanks very much."

Zadie Smith eyeballed me, pursed her lips, seized On Beauty's Brodart between thumb and forefinger. "Are you a...book collector?"

"I'm a book reader," I said, "and I admire yours a lot. They've kind of restored my faith in realistic fiction. I drove down from Canada just to meet you."

"Thanks," said a smiling Zadie Smith, and signed my copy of On Beauty with a flourish.
 

Nookachamp Hills Planned Residential Community, SR 9, Big Lake, WA.
 

Untitled (White Jug), 2005
Friday, October 07, 2005
 

Smashed Tote, SR 9, Skagit County, WA, 2005
 

The Whatcom County Museum reposing in the sunshine, downtown Bellingham. Dour Mr. Henderson's amazing bookstore is just out of the picture, half a block up on Grand Avenue. Today's scores: White Teeth, US HC 1st, signed later that afternoon by the laconic Ms. Smith; John McPhee, Basin & Range US HC 1st; Table of Contents US HC 1st. I then sat with the second part of McPhee's recent New Yorker essay on coal trains over blueberry pancakes at the Little Cheerful, the nicest small cafe anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
 
Off to Seattle in the morning for a two-part reading by Zadie Smith, one of the only living novelists under 40 who doesn't seem interested in reproducing the McSweeney's house style. Her latest, On Beauty, has been tagged as Forsterish on the basis of her pilfering its plot from Howard's End, but I think a more accurate comparison is actually George Orwell and his taut unvarnished sentences. At any rate, her work's given me a lot of pleasure, and these dark October days, pleasure is well worth the 3-hour drive down the dripping grey I-5 to Pioneer Square.
 
Shark vs. Octopus

courtesy Mr. James Nadiger. I won't give away too much, but things don't go well for the man in the grey suit.
 
I went back to North Burnaby for a second day of shooting. Overcast, a little light rain falling. Someone had turned the suitcase around and added a few extra bags to the top of the bin. The foreground trees have grown up considerably, obscuring most of Burrard Inlet; for greater accuracy you'd either need a view camera or a scissor lift.

Out along the Barnet Highway in the rain, a mostly fruitless search for views dimly remembered from childhood trips in the back seat of my parents' old red and white Volkswagen bus.
 

Foreground study after Jeff Wall, Coastal Motifs (1989)
 

Junked suitcase, East Hastings Street, Burnaby, B.C.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
 
Some Readers Write

Ms. Gwynedd Pickett, London, Ontario:

"I sympathize about the bargain table haggling. I once had a yard sale. Once. Since then, I just take anything vaguely useful down to Goodwill. People attempting to haggle over kitchen items marked 10 cents - I mean, you either need an icecube tray, or you don't. Full stop. (Mind you, I did sell our living room armchair to the guys across the street for $15. Which wasn't bad, considering I'd inherited it from a friend of mine who left it on our porch because she couldn't get Goodwill to come get it, and I think she found it by the side of the road in the first place. It was nice, an old dark hardwood frame, upholstered in faded, squishy orange velvet. Probably dust mite central, but I liked it. But not enough to store it.)"


Mr. Jamie Tolagson, Powell River, B.C.:

"Liked your bit about emulating other artists. It reminds me of something my friend Chris Harris said to me once. I was trying to make electronic music and hitting walls and he suggested that I start by simply picking a few of my favorite tracks and try copying them, exactly. Try to figure out exactly what it is that the people I admired were doing.

I of course recoiled from the idea, and probably spouted the usual odes to originality in blustery response. In hindsight the advice seems invaluable, to any artist.

I stand with you in unwavering solidarity on the 'Burning Emily Carr to the ground and seeding the embers with salt' proposal. Let me know if I can be of any assistance there."


Mr. James Nadiger, Vancouver, B.C.:

"For the record, the Reavers in Serenity weren't zombies. They were cannibals. Mad cannibals in the depths of space."
 
On Emulation
“There are not 100 first-rate artists and many will not be in this exhibition anyway. Another of [the exhibition’s] stated aims is to 'examine the tensions between the ‘older’ generation and artists of today, especially emphasising contemporary works that can be conceived of as quotations and fragments.' These are virtually slogans, and ‘quotations’ simply appeals to the freedom to be unfree. The secret is that the artists supported are very unimaginative, very dull, very academic and ripe for institutionalization. Their absence of imagination must be justified, hence it is alright to ‘quote’ earlier work, which is merely copying, debasing the work of others.”

-Donald Judd, Bilderstreit (Art & Design v.5 no. 7/8, p.51)


An artist friend and I ate pizza and drank beer on Sunday night and talked about shows we’d seen. I singled out the recent faculty exhibition at Emily Carr for particularly harsh criticism; one or two adequate pieces (Carol Sawyer; Marion Penner Bancroft) scattered among dozens of dull and poorly conceived “art objects.” Soon I was suggesting, only half in jest, that the art college be burnt to the ground and the embers seeded with salt. Okay, said my laconic friend, if you’re a young artist, and your school is just a smoldering memory, how do you learn? By emulating, I said. Pick artists you admire and make works “after” them. If you’re any good, you’ll learn.

That sounds like a recipe for a clone army.

Not really. The work process will naturally expel any overt trace of “influence.”

What do you mean?

You make something “after” a work or artist you admire not to re-create that thing, but to study it on a microscopic level; to experience, first-hand, the decisions that went into making it, most of which won’t be visible in the work’s final form.

Uh-huh, said my anonymous friend, still dubious.

I thought I should test out my rhetoric on a day off. So I took my camera and the Subaru and went looking for Coastal Motifs, a photograph that has a deep and permanent lock on my imagination. I tried to find an image to bring with me in the car as reference, but couldn’t turn one up in the apartment on short notice.

Out to North Burnaby. It took a while to find the right site; I spent half an hour shooting at the far north end of Boundary Road, wondering why everything looked so different in 35mm, then finally realized I was supposed to be two or three blocks further east. A few drivers stopped to ask why I was standing on top of the car (A: to correct the slight curve that the 35mm lens induces in landscape images. Coastal Motifs was shot with a view camera, whose controls eliminate this distortion).

Changing light. Clouds trailing by. I worked from a memory of Coastal Motifs: luminous sky, deep “even” lighting (shot in late spring or early summer, probably at noon – no shadows). A little platform sits just below the road, which appears at the far left hand corner of the picture. I accidentally eliminated this detail, and the pictures felt forced and empty, the bottom third of the image devoid of incident. A second location, further up the road, worked better in 35mm; a sundeck at the far left hand edge stood in nicely for the edge of the platform, and the slight gain in elevation helped eliminate the pronounced curve in the mountains.

I had never really thought about the platform’s presence in the original image, but now I see how it torques the scene, pivoting it slightly off-center. It feels like a straight forward perspective-box composition, but it’s actually canted ever so slightly to the right. The sky is important; the original composition works because the high clouds seem to extend toward the viewer, instead of rolling flatly by from left to right.

I made a picture of the Subaru as the light started to fade. Dimly recalling a interview with Wall in which he describes setting up his view camera on the roof of his car to add a few extra feet of clearance from the trees, I was thinking goofy and conceptually schematic thoughts about “materializing the means of production.” Back home, another, more plausible source emerged: Kevin Schmidt’s station wagon, which I had just spent a week staring at on the Web.
 

Study after Jeff Wall, Coastal Motifs (1989)
 

Study after Jeff Wall, Coastal Motifs (1989)
 

Subaru Legacy at Burnaby, B.C., 2005
Monday, October 03, 2005
 

Meet Jack Torrence
 
Research for the Evan Lee catalog essay sent me back to Clement Greenberg's late writings on aesthetics, collected in the posthumous Homemade Esthetics (Oxford UP), which find him grappling with Kant and Croce, trying to tunnel his way into their thinking on the basis of his own firsthand experience of art works. This is remarkably lucid, brave writing; lucid for its avoidance of specialized or technical language, brave because of his frequent admissions of doubt and uncertainty. Received artworld opinion -- cited by Charles Harrison in his sober introduction -- casts Greenberg as an authoritarian monster, a caricature not borne out by the experience of actually reading the essays, which are full of agonizing self-doubt and acknowledgements of previous wrong turns.

Two assertions jump out at me:

1. "If anything and everything can be intuited esthetically, then anything and everything can be intuited and experienced artistically. What we agree to call art cannot be definitively or decisively separated from esthetic experience at large."

2. "If this is so, then there turns out to be such a thing as art at large: art that is, or can be, realized anywhere and at any time and by anybody."

Think about those sentences and their implications for a while. I actually shivered on the bus when I read them this morning; then I read them again to make sure they said what I thought they said. Then checked a third time. Anywhere, at any time, by anybody. The ostensibly arch-conservative "formalist" (I put the word in quotes because I personally don't believe it has any meaning, outside of the clear intent to diss whom or whatever so labelled), the champion of bizarre figures like Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro, coming right out and siding with his arch-foe Duchamp. Anything and everything. A blank canvas, carved wood, solar energy, "red," US Navy SEALs, a shark in a tank, fluorescent tubes from the hardware store, copper plate, bronze sculpture, oil on plywood, language, "oral communication," photographs.

No more craft boundaries. No more guilds of skilled makers circling the wagons.

I thought about these words all day, wandering New Westminster's streets under huge looming skies. Snow on Mount Coquitlam and Cathedral Peak and the Lions, but warm like summer down on 6th Street by the mall.

I never thought that I would derive comfort from a critic's writing, but I took some today from Clement Greenberg. Thanks, CG!
Sunday, October 02, 2005
 

The Serenity verdict: a great genre product. A made-for-TV movie blown up onto the big screen, but far more entertaining than, say, the new Star Wars movies, or any episode of Next Generation I've seen (which, lacking and not wanting a TV in the apartment, isn't that many, though I do dimly recall Steve Caldow showing me one featuring robotic villains in Carl Andre-style aluminum spaceships back in the early 1990s).

The cargo ship Serenity is messy, "inhabited." Writer/director Joss Whedon obviously looked very closely at the first hour of Ridley Scott's Alien, at the cramped and confining quarters of the space tug Nostromo. Serenity's pilot has a plastic palm tree and little plastic dinosaurs mounted on his flight console. Things break or fall off the ship at regular intervals; it's the science fiction equivalent of my rusty Subaru. The onboard lighting is deep and uneven, evoking Scott McFarland's cabin in the woods, as opposed to George Lucas' flat even Final Fantasy-style tones. The characters all talk in a kind of stylized fragmented prose that emerges in little bursts, as if they have to work very hard to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Their misunderstandings and general air of emotional incoherence are awfully funny; it's like your typical Pulpfiction workday, interspersed with ravenous zombies (yes, spacefaring zombies) and a nefarious assassin villain who apparently just flew in from his Othello stint at the Ashland Shakespeare festival. Other highlights include Autistic Teen Goth Girl, a truly over-the-top CGI space battle, and the film's opening fifteen minutes, which nests three or four temporal jumps one inside another, like a Russian doll. The only thing missing is Ms. Carrie-Ann Moss' delectable nose, cruel shades, and black fetish-night PVC catsuit. Come to think of it, though, none of the Wachowski brothers' characters really fit into Serenity's world. The film is a throwback to an older, slower kind of storytelling that lacks the visual polish and videogame pace of things like the Matrix or Doom. It's not great art, but it's definitely an idiosyncratic product, the work of an individual vision, made with great passion and technical skill. It held my interest and entertained me; in these respects, it's vastly superior to every other big budget movie I've seen this year.

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