“Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.”
― Robert A. Heinlein
““When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes. ”
― William Shakespeare, Henry V
“Even chance meetings are the result of karma… Things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
The most arresting sculpture in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden in New Orleans is Do-Ho Suh’s Karma. A faceted, polished steel man stands with another squatting on his shoulders, with his hands over the man’s eyes, blinding him. Another squats on the squatter’s shoulders, and one on his, so on and so forth. They get a little smaller as they go up and curve a little. The sculpture is only twenty three feet high or so, but it looks like it stretches to infinity.
I discovered it is hard to photograph properly. Especially, since I had ridden my folding bicycle there from Downtown New Orleans I had not brought any extra lenses (no wide-angle) to save weight, space, and danger of damage. I should have known – I have seen it before.
The sculpture looks very different from different angles – so here are a few:
I have been trapped inside (except for going to work all the time – which is even worse). I think I’m losing my mind.
I did get out today – actually went to a wedding in the design district. It felt odd. So odd I’m getting worried that I have lost all my abilities as a social animal – which were never strong to begin with.
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#54) More than half way there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
MODERN AMERICAN ARTS DIGEST —– AUGUST 13, 1996
ELMORE SPENCER – AN ARTIST WATERS HIS ROOTS
Elmore Spencer has climbed the mountain of the art world. From a child prodigy that startled adults with his sketching skills at the age of six to a celebrated student of the Paris art schools to a meteoric rise to the jet-setting toast of the New York Art Society, Spencer has had it all.
Instrumental in founding the “New Realism” school, he then rejected this return to “Painting that looks like something” and veered off into innovative artistic experiments that challenged the border between art and observer, maintaining his success and popularity through it all.
Now, he struggles with a return to his roots, to maintain the connection with his audience that has been robbed by his decades of success. The conflict of the avant-garde and the traditional, realistic and symbolic, is at the heart of what Spencer is up to.
“It’s been a long road, but I’ve been lucky,” Spencer said in a recent interview, “To others its looks like a climb, a rise, but it’s a spiral, the further I go, the more times I return to the same place.”
His newest work is a sculpture, a pair of lovers – hyper-realistic. They sit on a bench in the darkest corner of a room with a film playing against a screen, they are only visible during a portion of the film, illuminated by a flame on the screen. They are locked in a kiss, an embrace, his hand is slipped inside her shirt, hers rests on his thighs. Most visitors think the couple is real, the museum received dozens of complaints.
Another sculpture is a mechanical museum guard. He stands inside the room. On those days the film is turned off. Infrared proximity sensors pick up any patron that enters the room, the ersatz guard then plays a recording, “I don’t know, they’re supposed to turn this film on.”
Other sculptures are occasionally placed in the room – such as an ersatz murder victim with a knife protruding from his back. These are obviously intended to shock or annoy. On certain days the room is empty, leading to a scene where patrons in the know walk around examining each other, trying to determine what is real and what isn’t.
Spencer often spends the day in his own installation, sitting on a bench with his famous sketchpad, drawing the observers. This has been so successful, he has taken to walking around the museum sketching patrons looking at art.
“As artists we live for the people that look at our work, really. We rarely think about them, or study them, or try to incorporate their lives into the art itself. I want to change that…….”
She turned from the painting, a huge panel covering most of the wall, hand painted with extreme skill to look like a blow-up of an article from an art magazine, to see her husband standing there.
“What do you want?”
“It’s time to leave.”
“I’m not finished reading this.”
“What the hell?”
“It’s by Spencer, My Life, it’s called. I haven’t decided what it means yet.” Shelby felt anger welling up in her throat. She’s known Jim, her husband, since they were children and they had argued many times over the years, but nothing like lately. There was a fight coming on, mean and nasty, with no resolution. She could feel the heat rising, like a hot nut right under her sternum.
“Come on!” Jim said, placing his hand on her arm, “We have things to do.”
Shelby wanted to explode, but the Kooning museum was not the place to have a knock-down, drag-out, so she walked stiffly in silence, stewing. They passed toward the entrance until they reached an area dominated by a huge landscape painting; the most famous work in the museum. It was a scene of icebergs, a giant white slope, under a brown and purple sky. The ice in the foreground was littered with debris, a shattered mast, a glacier torn boulder. The ice rose in craggy veined cliffs pierced by a surprising emerald green frozen tunnel. The calm sea was disturbed only by circular waves radiating out from some unseen event.
She could not stand it any more, she was so furious. Shelby pulled away and sat quickly down on a circular bench in front of the painting. Jim sat down beside her, staring wide-eyed. Pulling in her anger, she started to speak.
“Excuse me, folks,” said a man they hadn’t noticed. He was gray-haired, wearing old jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, a large sketchpad resting on his knees. “Do you mind sitting there for a while, I’d like to draw the two of you. If you don’t mind.”
Jim stammered, “Well, we have…”
“Sure, go right ahead,” Shelby interrupted.
“Alright then, umm. turn toward each other a little, now look at me…. Fine, why don’t you hold her hand a little…. That’s right.”
He started drawing right away. Working with colored pencils and some charcoal and a bit of an eraser. Jim and Shelby felt nervous; the fight, their day quickly forgotten.
“Ummm… try to relax, why don’t you tell me a story. Tell me about when you first met.”
“Well,” Jim started. Shelby was surprised that he spoke up so soon. She was getting ready to talk, but he beat her to it.
“We met in junior high school, seventh grade, we were both thirteen. She sat if front of me in
English class. I remember, I loved her from the first moment I saw her. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Our teacher was old, he would lean on a podium and lecture us all class long. The room was too small, our desks were crammed together, her seat backed right up against my desk. All I would do is sit there and stare at Shelby’s hair. Her blonde hair. Sometimes she’d wear it down and it would fall in cascades right in front of me. Sometimes she’d wear it up, like a golden seashell, a yellow spiral. Sometimes in one ponytail, sometimes two, it didn’t matter. That was my favorite hour of every day, to sit in that hot crowded room and look at Shelby’s hair. I felt like I could do this forever, for the rest of my life.”
Shelby and Jim sat there then and talked. They talked of old times, when they were young and when they started dating. They talked of old friends. They talked of their first apartment, of their first house, of the cars they had bought together, of the meals they had cooked, of the vacations they had taken. They talked until the artist finished. He put his pencils back into a little wooden case.
“Well, can we see it?” they asked together.
“See it? You can have it.”
He handed them the paper and thanked them simply. The artist walked around the corner and was gone.
The drawing had the iceberg painting in the background. Carefully done in colored pencil it was amazingly detailed and accurate. He must have been working on it for hours. The painting, or, rather the drawing of the painting faded in an oval spot near the center. He drew only around the edges, leaving a blank spot, waiting as he drew for someone to come along and fill it.
Shelby and Jim filled the oval. She gasped as she saw it, it was a life-like drawing, done in pencil and charcoal, cross-hatch and shades of gray, only a hint of color added. Detailed. It was realistic except that they both were drawn naked.
The lower right corner had a quickly scribbled “ES.”
Over a dozen people surrounded them watching the famous artist work, but Jim and Shelby had not even noticed. Embarrassed by the gathering crowd pointing to details on the sketch, they rolled up the drawing, and headed out to their parked car. They held hands as they walked, Shelby leaned her head on Jim’s shoulder as he drove.
They spent a lot of money to have the print professionally framed and mounted. Never really comfortable with the nudity, they couldn’t hang it in their living room. The framer recognized the signature, told them it would bring a lot of money at a sale and recommended a gallery. Jim and Shelby couldn’t sell it, though, it meant too much to them. They did hang it, in their bedroom, next to the closet.
For many decades, it was the last thing they saw at night when they went to sleep, the first thing in the morning when they woke up.
“So generation after generation of men in love with pain and passivity serve out their time in the Zone, silent, redolent of faded sperm, terrified of dying, desperately addicted to the comforts others sell them, however useless, ugly or shallow, willing to have life defined for them by men whose only talent is for death.”
The paper was a thick opaque cloth and came off easily in almost entire sheets. Sam was surprised, shocked, and amazed at what he found underneath.
—- Bill Chance, Wallpaper
Sam tore the wallpaper off the walls in the spare bedroom – the one at the end of the hall. Nobody wanted to sleep in that room – the old house was a firetrap – especially on the second floor and that isolated windowless room would be impossible to escape from in a house filling with smoke. It was handy for drunken visitors to crash in, but not much else.
It was stale and airless and the condensation was making the paper peel. That upset Sam’s sense of order and the he thought about gluing it back – but once he inspected how loose it was, how spotted with mold, he decided it had to go. He’d tear it off, see what was underneath, and then deal with it.
The paper was a thick opaque cloth and came off easily in almost entire sheets. Sam was surprised, shocked, and amazed at what he found underneath.
The plaster that had been hidden by the wall coverings was painted with fantastical figures – one figure, or group of figures, on each wall. They seemed to be a gallery of deities – some shaped like animals – others voluptuous and human in form.
There was a large elephant improbably balanced on one leg and wearing a crown of skulls – holding a massive spear. Across the room a curvaceous woman stood in the same pose with a multitude of arms sprouting from behind her – each clasping a different mysterious object.
To the side, a couple sat – he in the Lotus position – she on lap with her legs wrapped behind his back. They each had three faces – one set looking at each other – the other two off to the side. Their bodies were covered in jewelry – colorful and detailed – with the same shapes as the object held by the many-armed woman.
The final wall was divided into many rectangles and each one contained a small drawing – crude compared to the detailed murals on the other walls – but still clear and strong. Around the characters in the small frames were curved lines of mysterious writing – filling every square inch of the surface.
Sam was stunned and obsessed. The small room had no electrical outlets so he stretched an extension cord down the hall and scrounged up four lamps – replacing the bulbs with a higher wattage in order to study the drawings better. He removed the few items of furniture but brought in a thin mattress. He began to sleep in the room, feeling somehow that the deities on the wall would protect him from the possibilities of fire.
At first, the others were curious and climbed the stairs, braved the hall, to come down and look at the walls – but Sam became surly and began to discourage casual visitors. After a week he repaired the hinges on the door, cut a passage for the extension cord, and installed a strong new lock. He felt and acted like the room was his and the deities were looking over him alone.
He did decide to pay a visit to a professor at the university – an elderly woman from the Asian Studies Department. With frayed nerves and strong second thoughts he led her down the hall and into his room, turning on the lamps.
She showed no emotion, but walked around the room giving the characters names – Shiva, Kali, Ganesha, Rama. Sam politely took a few notes, knowing he’d never need to look at them – the names and stories were instantly burned into his brain.
“This is a strange mixture,” she said. “The deities are mostly Hindu – an unusual melange of times, regions, and sects. It’s as if the person that drew these borrowed freely from whatever tradition seemed to mean the most to him and made up some additional myths to suit his purposes.”
“Purposes? What would those be?”
“I have no idea. And this,” she said, gesturing at the complex wall of panels, “is a complete legend, a story.”
“What is it about?” asked Sam, trying to conceal the eagerness in his voice.
“Well, again, it’s a mixture. The characters seem to be mostly familiar minor Hindu Demi-Gods, but the story looks like the Chinese Buddhist legend of the Monkey King. It’s a famous legend – one of the classic myths of the world.”
“What Language is it?”
“That’s what is especially odd – I don’t really know. I’ve never seen it before. It looks like a dialect of Tibet – one I’m not familiar with. That might make sense – Tibet is at the juncture of India and China – the border of Buddhist and Hindu traditions – which would help explain the mixture.”
The woman wanted to photograph the walls of the room and said she would make arrangements to return with a photographer and proper lighting. But Sam never returned her calls – although she tried many times to reach him. After a few weeks she gave up. By then Sam had become even more obsessed with the drawings, spending more and more time in the room, neglecting everything else.
At first Sam thought that he was losing his mind, but after a month it began happening so often he came to realize it was real. With a great expenditure of willpower he stayed out of the room for a day and a half, sleeping fitfully on the couch downstairs. With a desperate relief he gave in and threw the door open.
There was no doubt now. The drawings were different. They were changing. They were moving.
“We die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different men, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”
I found the sculpture referenced in a book I have on Texas sculpture and discovered it was called Birth II and was by a man named Arthur Williams.
The area is being extensively redone, and the sculpture disappeared – I wrote about that too Earthly and Mechanical Paraphernalia
I figured that was it – all she wrote.
But in the last few days I have been getting comments on my Birth II blog post. The sculptor’s son messaged me to say his father was retired from sculpting and teaching after losing his studio and work in hurricane Katrina, but was still alive and doing well. That was cool
And then I received a message from a representative from the University Crossing Public Improvement District. The sculpture had been donated to the district, and is being restored. “It’s planned to be placed behind The Highland Hotel at the base of the Mockingbird bridge here in Dallas.”
There is a little piece of green space along the bike trail – I hope that is where it is placed.
That is so cool. I hope to be able to go down the the ribbon cutting.
“With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.
Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.”
Yesterday I finished Zola’s L’Assommoir and enjoyed it a lot. In doing some online research about the book I discovered it had been made into a 1956 French film called Gervaise that wasn’t supposed to be too bad. It was directed by René Clément and starred Maria Schell (sister of Maximilian). I was able to find a copy of the film and waited until I finished the book – then sat down to watch it.
L’Assommoir is a big, complicated, 500 page book and I knew they would have to slim it down to get the story into a movie. They did, but remained faithful to the spirit of the Zola novel. The movie concentrates on Gervaise – not surprisingly – and leaves out a lot of the tumult around her. I really liked the film – despite being over sixty years old (a year older than me) it holds up well. Gervaise’s decent into abject poverty, despair, and destruction is rushed as compared to the book – she is still alive at the end of the film and the book conveys the horrors of her descent better. There is a political subplot added to the movie that wasn’t in the book – and I didn’t think it added much. But otherwise, I thought the movie did a good job and illustrated the look of a lot of the story that I had trouble imagining (having never been to Paris of the Second Empire myself).
Like the book, the movie suffered from prudish editing – luckily the version I found seems mostly uncut (it was 116 minutes long). The biggest difference seems to be in the fight in the wash house between Gervaise and her arch-rival Virginie at the beginning of the story – the version I saw had a bloody scene of Gervaise tearing off Virginie’s earring and then beating her bare bottom with a wooden paddle. Tame by modern standards – those scenes were too much for the 1950’s.
The movie is one of the most expensive (in modern currency) foreign films ever made. The sets are extensive, detailed, and realistic.
And the best thing is that many of the memorable set pieces of the book are preserved. The wedding party and its visit to the Louvre, the horrifying fall her husband takes off a roof on the day she is to buy her shop, Gervaise’s Name-Day feast, Coupou’s alcoholic madness (though transferred from an asylum to Gervaise’s shop – probably more dramatic that way), and most of all the famous fight between Gervaise and Virginie in the wash house – all were giving loving care and exciting treatment.
Compare this scene to:
At least Degas’ woman still has her hat (Gervaise has pawned hers).
Reviews of Gervaise:
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
Even artworks… no, especially works of art… develop cracks and hopefully will be repaired. Is the art lessened by this? Or does it add a greater dimension, one of time, pain, and disaster – if not avoided, refurbished.