Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Two Objects

Two Objects; one bought at an antique store in Louisville, Kentucky, and one found on the street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, revealed by the Spring thaw. They are similar in many ways. They are of similar size and weight. Both are cast iron and heavily patinated, showing evidence of heavy use and the passage of time. In addition, both objects are mysterious to me. I do not know what they were used for. I think that the first object may have been some sort of weight. I've seen similar objects used underwater, to weight down fishing nets. Of course, it was found in the middle of Kentucky, far from any major fishing industry, but then, these objects may take convoluted routes in finding their way to the antique store. Embossed on its surface is the number "1 1/4," which I assume is a unit of measurement, although it is certainly heavier than 1 1/4 pounds. This makes me think that it may be either very old, referring to an antiquated measuring system, like 1 1/4 stone (?), or from a far away place that measures weight in something other than pounds or kilograms. For the second object, I have fewer guesses. It reminds me of the excavator teeth that were exhibited under vitrines in the recent MCA exhibit, "The Way of the Shovel." But the end that would have been the point of the tooth has a slot for mounting with a nut and bolt. I thought perhaps it could be a kind of trailer hitch, but the round end tapers in such a way that whatever it held would easily slip off. I have a small collection of these mysterious objects. It is their mystery that attracts me. In some ways I hesitate to say anything about them publicly, or post pictures of them, for fear that some reader may know what they are and fill me in, thus providing a kind of closure and stripping them of their power over me.

But there is something else on my mind regarding these objects, and it has to do with how they were acquired, and how that changes my relationship to them. In some ways, the second object feels more genuine because I found it. It is my claim. I recognized its value and its interest. By choosing to pick it up and take it home and display it on a shelf, I have personally declared it as valuable. I have difficulty taking the same kind of ownership over the first object. In this case, I have paid for the privilege of owning somebody else's discovery. The antique dealer has already curated it for me; already declared it valuable, to such a degree, in fact, that a specific price was named for it. I know exactly what it is worth, because I know how much I paid for it. I do not know the monetary value of the second object. It is likely worth very little, other than the value of the metal itself. But because I found it, rather than purchased it, I do not think of it in monetary terms the way I do the first object, and therefore its primary value is an aesthetic one. Although the value I place on the first object is also aesthetic, it remains clouded by the knowledge of the price that I paid for it, by someone else's assessment of its worth.

There is something about the antique store that seems to interrupt the natural life cycle of an object. The second object came to me through a direct series of events. The iron ore was mined, it was cast into its shape in a factory, it was attached to a piece of machinery. Years of use loosened the bolt which held it to that piece of machinery, it fell off, landing in a snow bank, it was revealed in the spring thaw, I noticed it, wondered about it, picked it up, and took it home. A similar chain of events may have brought the first object into another set of hands. That person saw a value in it, and it made its way into the dealer's hands, into the antique store. It was placed, somewhat anonymously amongst thousands of other antiquated objects thought to have potential resale value. Often these objects sit on display shelves for years before being passed along. Although the object likely had a rich and varied history up until that point, that history is rarely retained by the antique store clerk, who acts as a middle-man between the dealer and the collector. Occasionally, a piece of that history is passed along to the collector, but there are multiple opportunities for that vital information to be lost along the way, and more often than not, it is only the evidence contained within the object itself, or a general knowledge of objects of its kind, that can illuminate aspects of its past. Its specific story is lost.

I suppose a third category of object is the inherited object; one which has been handed down by a previous owner. Only then are the stories attached to the object passed along. These objects are often mythologized, symbolic objects that signify a particular view of the past, held by the object's possessor. I think of an old wooden trunk, owned by my parents, which will likely be passed down to myself or my brother one day. This is a trunk that contains stories of our lineage. I know that it came on a wooden ship from Norway with the emigration of my ancestors. I believe it was filled with lefse, a type of Norwegian flatbread, or so the story goes. Apparently it was a difficult journey and many died along the way. The details are fuzzy, but when the object is again passed down, the story will be retold along with it, and the object's particular significance will be renewed. One day, when there is no longer an heir, a kind of end will come. The trunk will be sold at an estate sale, and it will be emptied once more. Inherited objects are illuminated objects. The mysterious object; the found or purchased object, is comparatively mute. And yet, it is precisely the opacity of the mysterious object that draws me to it. Although the loss of story that accompanies each object in the antique store represents a kind of tragedy, it also leaves room for a more open kind of speculation, an imaginative impulse that is less rigid than that of the inherited object. We are no longer confined to seeking out the particulars of a specific history. Instead, history becomes a fluid, plastic medium. The mysterious object is a kind of hub with many branches and tributaries to explore. And it is in these imaginings that we begin to reveal our own orientation to the past.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Dance of Light

There is a certain beauty to the incidental, unconsidered cell phone picture.  Their interest lies in all of the elements that the photographer traditionally attempts to avoid, the shafts of light invading the field, the broad circles of subtle color superimposed over the subject, the irregular distortions of the outline of an illuminated light bulb, its edges separating into distinct bands of white, yellow and orange.  If we can forget, for a moment, about our accumulated standards of photography, everything we've been taught about what makes a "bad" picture, then these images become captivating studies of the phenomenon of light.  

These are quick reference shots sent by the curator of a venue that we will be showing at in Los Angeles in December.  I am so tempted to just print these 40" x 60" on fine cotton rag paper, hang them on the walls that they depict and call it a day.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New Revisionism

"Adrian Texas. Jul 22th. 1909.  Dear friend:- I will anser your postal now Papa is going in to town so I will have to hurry. From your From your friend marion" Adressed to Miss. Mabel miller, Chatfield Ohio RR#2

I started with a bottle of white-out.  I have this idea of a perfect white plane of unknown dimensions, discovered just under the surface of the soil, as if everything above it was just an elaborate set, staged for the illusion of life. A farmer unearths it in his field. He is horrified by its incomprehensibility.

The old postcard of Panhandle Wheat seemed a good backdrop for a study along these lines. I read the back and hesitated. Can I alter this object, this piece of history, or is it too valuable? 1909. According to Wikipedia, this was the year that the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railway was completed in Adrion, Texas and also the year that the American-Canadian Land and Townsite Co. began attracting prospective farmers to the area.  Probably Marion had just arrived by train to the newly established community with her family to take advantage of the nascent Texas wheat boom and she was probably writing to a friend she had just left behind back in Ohio.  The treeless expanse of the Texas Panhandle must have seemed quite a contrast to a girl growing up in the fertile midwest.

But despite, or perhaps because of its resonance, I did want to alter this object. I remembered that I had only paid two dollars for it at an antique store.  Certainly if that was all it was worth, there was no harm in changing it, even if it was a hundred and three years old.  This is how I justified it anyway, knowing that if I thought about it much further I might talk myself out of it.

I thought perhaps I should pencil out the area that I was going to paint, but the lead didn't show up well on the dark foreground, so I started searching through my drawer for a white pencil. I found one that looked to be a bit off-white, but after trying it out I realized that it was actually a sharpenable eraser. So much the better, for the eraser offered a surprising amount of control. Soon my subterranean white plane became more of a white cloud hovering just above the surface. It emerges ominously from just off camera into an otherwise clear day. Is this a foreshadow of the massive dust storms that were to devastate the panhandle in years to come? Where was Marion in 1931 when drought hit the plains and  the over-tilled earth began to blow and the "black blizzards" began? Was she still in Adrian, Texas on Black Sunday when high winds blacked out the sun removing 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie, burying houses in giant drifts in its wake? How she must have longed then to be back in Ohio with her old friend Mabel.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Four Carriages (at rest)

I found these four photos at a favorite antique store in Minocqua, WI.
This one draws me in for the sheer distance of time.. no date, but surely quite old judging by the horse drawn carriage.  He looks to be pleading with her as she walks away with her head down. The horses wait patiently and obediently.  The pig is indifferent to the situation, content to gnaw on grass.  Is the pig traveling with them?  Is this some low point of a long journey? The photographer keeps his distance. 

A man waits in a model T(?) during a snowball fight.  The boy at the right, with the face of a bully, is more interested in having his picture taken.

1939 - Shot at midday, the man, his barn and his new vehicle emerge from whiteness.  There is no ground and no sky. They are objects in empty space.  

She has been carefully posed in the center of the square frame.  Vulnerable in the openness of this anonymous parking lot.  The white, textless rectangle painted on the building, like a thought bubble without a thought. Space-Age rocket car parked and waiting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wading in Flotsam

Shana and I are currently in two group shows of somewhat random composition.  One is a faculty show at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and the other is an Alumni show at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  These are difficult shows to curate, with such a disparate group of artists, each with their own thematic approach.  Any parallels must be merely incidental.  One wonders if there is some magic configuration which could possibly make such a show coherent.  If all the pieces were shuffled and rearranged a million times, would there be one sublime configuration?  Walking into Continuum (UWM), I see our piece sitting on the floor amongst a sea of disconnected artworks.  The sculpture, entitled "Hundred Year," is a meticulously crafted scale-model of a 19th century Midwestern farmhouse.  It is cut off at about halfway up the first story windows and fastened seamlessly to a low pedestal.  The effect is of a house being flooded by its pedestal.  In this context however, it seems to have lost all presence - just another business card in a show that seems to be showcasing talent more than it is communicating ideas.  It certainly didn't help that I neglected to mention to the staff that the wheels underneath its built-in pedestal were there for transport only, and were meant to be removed once the sculpture found its site.  The result is that the pedestal hovers an inch off of the ground, as if the piece was ready to take off and float away.  In and of itself, this could have been an interesting twist on the piece, but in the end, I think that it merely confuses its intent.  In retrospect, I wish that we would not have submitted this particular piece at all.  Instead I would have liked to take an approach that characterized the spirit of my thought process that I developed while attending UWM.  I should have looked at the problematic nature of the show as a challenge.  Rather than simply submitting 'something that I have made since graduating from UWM', I could have made an installation or a performance that was intended to speak to the randomness of the situation, meant to stand out amongst the cacophony, something that mischievously undermined the whole affair.  Ah well, next time.

The Faculty Show at MIAD, despite the lack of attendance at the opening, was a more pleasant experience.  Granted, the caliber of work was predictably higher, since the criteria for entry is 'art educator', which assumes an active art practice and some previous recognition for your work, rather than 'former art student,' which merely means that you graduated from college.  We submitted two works for the show.  I was pleased to walk in and see that "Burn," a piece consisting of a found hammer on a pedestal, seemed surprisingly commanding.  The hammer was found deep in the woods on my grandfather's land, where my family has held seasonal bonfires since before I can remember.  The hammer is severely pitted and rusted, to the point where the metal is changing shape.  The handle has been burnt partially off, perhaps a victim of a forgotten bonfire.  For "Burn" we simply placed the hammer on a tall, narrow pedestal and painted one side of the pedestal black to align with the burnt handle.  I consider the piece a sort of memorial to my grandfather.  The weathered hammer is an apt stand-in for Grandpa Ray, who was a rugged character who always worked with his hands.  I was always in awe of his hands, so thick and meaty, like a giant's hands, calloused and weathered from a lifetime of chopping wood.  When set down just so, the hammer's handle lifts off the surface, and the object seems to defy gravity.  For me this is the spirit exiting the body.

The second piece, "The End of the Line" is a printed photograph of our original house model (the first scale-model we built) mounted in a found frame.  The house was photographed on a frozen lake.  This was an experiment in creating the illusion of scale.  We wanted to see if we could make the model house look like a full scale house.  In the end we chose an image that held its position somewhere between artifice and illusion, with the intent that the viewer would not necessarily be convinced that it was 'real', but would rather question whether or not it was, without ready access to an answer.  In the original image, the camera was tilted, causing the horizon to appear askew.  Rather than rotate and crop the image to correct the horizon line, we simply tilted the frame.  Something strange occurred with this gesture.  It was as though the house was asserting its reality as somehow more legitimate, more concrete than our own.  The represented space trumped the physical space of our immediate surroundings.

The tilted frame has become a sort of inadvertent practical joke on the gallery staff, who are always remarking that they have to reposition the frame over and over again.  Apparently, gallery-goers cannot resist the temptation to straighten the frame, despite the well established barrier that forbids the touching of artwork on display.  I like to think of this as a kind of tug-of-war between the viewer and the viewed, each insisting on its own conflicting point of view.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reclaiming Lost Histories

Yesterday I found myself scouring antique stores for old vintage postcards as part of my research for an upcoming project. I bought a few good examples, but I kept getting distracted by the old black and white photographs buried in decaying photo albums. I could feel a new collection being born. I was not drawn to the pristine, mint condition photos with proper exposure and lighting, but rather to the amateur, folk photography; imperfect and out of focus, ambiguous images that seem taken almost by accident. The decay of the photo itself interests me as well. The more faded, wrinkled and scratched the better. I'm interested in images that are disappearing. These images have long outlasted the people and events that they portray, and yet they too are temporary; an imperfect attempt at immortality.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Toy Store in Mount Horeb

There's a hardware store in Mount Horeb that has a small section of fine woodworking tools. Its the only time I've ever seen Two Cherries chisels at a Do-It-Best. My guess is that they are catering to all the troll carvers that don't want to drive all the way to Madison. I like to stop there when I'm passing through and buy myself a toy. This time I picked up a little Kunz spokeshave. I had to regrind and polish the chip breaker to keep it from clogging, but after this and a quick sharpening, it worked beautifully. It turned out to be the perfect tool for shaping the profile of the stick shuttles I've been working on.