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Well…it is the middle of the dreariest month.  There is nothing but gray cold outside and there are no prospects for romance or success anywhere on the horizon.  Spring will probably never come and civilization seems to be sinking…all of which means it is time once again for Valentine’s Day! [jazz hands] This frustrating winter pseudo-holiday is a sad vestigial leftover of Lupercalia, a once-great Roman holiday of ritual cleansing and savage fertility.  Yet in the modern world  seems to have become an affair for Hallmark and Brach’s (and maybe, somehow, the martyred Saint Valentine?).  Nothing about this holiday makes much sense (aside from the ancient human need for romance and affection) so I have prepared a somewhat nonsensical GIF to celebrate!

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Behold! It is the Great Flounder himself (or herself?) looking a bit like a cross between an anatomical diagram and a puff pastry.  Hopefully this rudimentary animation will help you enjoy Valentine’s Day, but, if not, you can always betake yourself to the online oracle and ask the all-knowing fish your questions about love, life, and the mysteries of what is in your sweetheart’s innermost heart.  Don’t take the answers too seriously though, since rumor has it that Great Flounder 2.0 is about to roll out with vastly enhanced psychic abilities!  Let me know if you have any questions or comments and rest assured that you are certainly MY favorite valentine (and will continue to be so for as long as you come here to read these posts).  Ferrebeekeeper adores you and believes that you can make this day special just by being yourself!

 

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Shaanxi is one of the ancient cradles of Chinese civilization: indeed at various points of  Chinese history it has been the center of China.  The former Chinese capitals Fenghao and Chang’an were both in Shaanxi.  Can you imagine how exciting it would be to be an archaeologist in a place with such a long rich cultural heritage? Well, in our era of instant news, you don’t have to imagine!  Archaeologists of the Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology just finished excavating a cluster of 12 ancient tombs discovered beneath a village in the province.  The tombs date back to the Sixteen Kingdoms period of Chinese history (304-439 AD), a chaotic time of collapse when small kingdoms fought each other in endless internecine wars.  Some of these kingdom were led by (gasp!) non-Han peoples of proto-Mongolian and Turkic ethnicity and cultural artifacts from the era often betray a curious mix of Chinese and steppe characteristics.

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To quote archaeologynewsnetwork, “The tombs are laid out in two rows, and each tomb consists of a tomb passage, a door and a path leading to the coffin chamber, according to Liu Daiyun, a researcher with the academy.”  The whole complex is thought to belong to a single family, but the exact relationships between the ancient bodies therein interred will not be known until DNA analysis is complete.

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The photos in this blog show earthenware pieces which were found within the tombs.  The little sculptures bring to life a world of farm and family from 1500 years ago (such sculptures were meant to bring the most important aspects of life to eternity with the departed…and in a way they have worked.  Keep that little earthenware pig in your mind! He will be important  the very near future.

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One of modern age’s great obsessions is the desire for simplicity.  You see this concept everywhere—lifestyle gurus sell millions of books about simplifying your life.  Hollywood blockbusters are about salt-of-the-earth country boys with a monosyllabic moral code who become action heroes and easily defeat the bad guys. TED talks distill data science into a short anecdote from primary school.  The infatuation for simplicity is omnipresent—in fad diets, in investment strategies, in household management, above all else, in politics (boy howdy is the desire to make things simple running rampant in politics!).

This is a shame: for simplicity is a fallacy.  Things are not simple at all.  Generally, the more one studies a field, the more one realizes how complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and messy that field is. A lead ball and a feather fall at the same rate…except in the real world where they fall so differently that thermodynamics and gravity are hidden. History is not one all-important person [Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for example] saying “I will accomplish X”: it is countless millions upon millions of people trying to accomplish innumerable conflicting goals in opposition to each other (all while churches, nation states, guilds, secret societies, kingpriests, banks, and other strange cabals work on their own conflicting agendas).  In college I was excited to take cell biology and learn about the simple building blocks that life is made of…until the professor came in and wrote the Krebs cycle on the board as the first thing.  That was the first ten minutes! The rest of the class was learning how wrong the “simple” elegant metabolism cycle (below) can go when you start adding new chemicals.

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Simplicity is not real except as a concept. And it is a dangerous concept! The purpose of today’s post is not to teach you the Krebs cycle (as if I could) or to encompass all of history.  Instead we are pushing back at simplicity by striking at minimalism–the art form which espouses reductive simplicity.

Why am I attacking minimalism instead of other confidence tricks based around the illusion of simplicity? Art is the wellspring that ideas come from.  Concepts that bubble up in a font on Mount Parnassus are sanctified by the muses (or I guess these days by Jerry Saltz) and then trickle into other fields.  To start to make some headway in this worldwide morass we are in, we need to let go of some of these illusions about simple being better.  To start with that we need to go back to minimalism’s aesthetic roots in modern art.

The reason art is so germinal is because it is a place of illusions and magic.  The most fantastic imaginings can be real there.  Do you not like to walk?  You can paint everyone as flying! Are you sad that most of the creatures that ever existed have gone extinct? Just draw them as living together in Super Eden! Do you chafe at the Byzantine organic chemistry level complexity of, well, everything…just draw it as ridiculously simple! And artists have certainly simplified.  There are many artists who became influential just painting white canvases: Malevich, Martin, Baer, Albers, Ryman…the list goes on and on.

Arguably some of these works were made to express the same concepts I am expressing here.  Simplicity is not simple.  That infamous white canvas “Bridge” by Robert Ryman (1982, pictured below) has probably engendered more complex philosophical art essays than just about any artwork from the seventies/eighties.  Looking at a pure white canvas makes you realize that white can be warm or it can be cold. White can have a variety of textures and microdetails…to say nothing of the dense world of allusions it opens up.  Thinking about the nature of white begins to raise troubling questions about cognition, physics, and the psychology behind how we see things.

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But sadly these meanings have not translated well as Minimalism the art movement has flowed into minimalism the cultural phenomena (frankly I think the minimalism wing in the art museums might be a bit of a carnival trick too, to get people laughing and talking not to impress them with the sublime).

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The minimalist aesthetic has been a growing problem in America for decades.  Any New Yorker will instantly recognize the prestige look of the present moment—off-white walls, ugly blocky furniture made of blonde wood and neutral fabric, recess lighting, lots of glass & steel, monochromatic accents, and minimalist artwork.  To obtain the image at the top of this paragraph, I went to Google and image searched “beautiful apartment” and the results were hundreds of images of identical white rooms with what seems like the same furniture set.  It is like being trapped inside a display refrigerator at Sears (does that place still exist?).  Is this beautiful? Obviously not, but it is cheap and simple for developers to craft.

I feel like these rooms are like the GUI of a computer—they are seemingly simple, but they are really designed by vast corporate interests to sell things (and also there are vast worlds of complexity, disorder, and mess crammed into storage, just out of sight).  Minimalism look good on screens—it is simple enough to be comprehensible even in a thumbnail so you can sell it online (no need for photoshopping). Also minimalism is like a carnival barker’s trick or an infomercial pitch in another way too.  Its simplicity makes it easy to sell.

And here is where we get to the real heart of minimalism.  It is commercially successful. That Ryman painting a few paragraphs back sold in 2015 for $20.6 million!  We already know how well Kondo’s works about decluttering your life sell.  The “clean” diet kills people because it lacks sufficient nutrients for human beings, but people adhere to it with religious fervor even when MDs beg them not to.

Our world is so complicated and baffling that the allure of simplicity is an enticement beyond any other.  Yet it is salesman’s con job.  Don’t let people convince you that white paintings have a meaning that supersedes all other art or that empty rooms are best.  Simple solutions in politics tend to be impossible and dangerous. Simple diets will kill you.  I wish I had said my thesis more simply, rather than writing such a winding narrative to say such a straightforward thing.  Anything of beguiling simplicity is almost certainly a lie.

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I am looking forward to writing the second half of my post about minimalism (which I promised in my angry Marie Kondo post), but first, let’s take some time out to celebrate National Polka Dot Day–which is (evidently) observed on January 22nd.  I love polka dots for footwear and neckwear (and I seem to recall a special childhood blanket with beautiful kelly green polka dots on it), but, as we already know, polka dots are not merely for decorative use.  Dots occur again and again in nature, where they are critical for mimicry, display, and camouflage. Likewise, art returns again and again to the dot, not merely as a design motif, but as a formative abstract building block.  Certain artists did not merely utilize polka dots in their works–they utilized nothing but polka dots, which became the entire focus of illustrious art careers. Here are three polka dot theme paintings to mark the holiday.  Let me know if you have other favorite works.

First, at the top of the post is one of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin works (Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (2000), Acrylic on canvas, 53.3 x 65.4 cm).  Kusama is the undisputed doyenne of polka dots in this age…and perhaps in all other eras as well.  Focusing on the dots has kept her sane and brought her unprecedented international fame.  Yet beyond the hype and the relentless obsession, there is a relentless exploration of visual phenomena and ultimately of ontology within Kusama’s artworks.  All things can be reduced to dots…or perhaps to atoms (which are after all another even more abstruse sort of dot). Yet, even if it Is made of circles, still the pumpkin exists.  And there is an enormous formal beauty in its mysterious gestalt.

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Roy Lichtenstein is also famous for making works out of polka dots.  His work is less metaphysical in its subject than Kusama’s, but instead addresses the extent to which humans recognize and respond to iconography.  The above painting, (detail below), takes a panel from a serial-style cartoon strip and blows it to enormous size.  Although the work is instantly familiar from countless anonymous Sunday newspaper strips, it is alien too.  The anxious woman is as strange and inhuman as a Byzantine mosaic (and she is likewise made of innumerable tiny unrecognizable pieces).  Yet because of a lifetime of habituation she is instantly familiar, as is her melodramatic situation (even if we lack the particulars).

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Finally, we close out the post with the oldest painting of the three (below).  This is Georges Seurat’s masterful “Parade de Cirque” completed in 1887-1888.    Like Kusama, Seurat composed his entire world of dots, but he seeks a realistic figurative impression in a way which she does not.  The figures of the circus midway indeed seem real: they wriggle and shimmer like people seen in the footlights during a misty evening.  The subject—a carnival sideshow—has ancient roots which snake back into medieval history.  Yet, like Lichtenstein’s woman they are instantly familiar to everyone.  The cultural touchstone asks pointed questions about reality and our enjoyment of it.  The carnival folk and musicians are not wizards or celebrities, they are humble performers. Yet through the magic of art they have an otherworldly mystery and presence which captivate the bourgeoisie crowd ).  This illusion exists on other levels as well:  after all the artist is a member of the troupe– another illusionist who has made entertainment and mystery out of dabs of paint and showmanship.  These long-vanished Parisian performers are made of thousands of individual spots of paint, agonizingly applied.  Indeed this whole post is just dots on your computer screen and we are just little dots too.  Maybe EVERY day is National Polka Dot Day…

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I completely ran out of time today, so here is a picture of a sculpture which I made at the end of last year.  It is a Romanesque Flounder with strange Babylonian parasites embedded in the various arched niches.  The fish is made of wood and the smaller sculptures within are sculpted of sculpey polymer. As you can see, my “studio assistant” Sumi Cat is reviewing it carefully to see if there is anything which needs to be altered by being clawed off and knocked into a forgotten corner.

It is a bit harder to say what this sculpture represents, but the flatfish is my avatar of Earth life (and a sometimes a sort of psychopomp/spirit guide sent by the dark gods below).  The dark tree is a cruel parody of the tree of life and the parasites are clearly beings of pure appetite (albeit with a certain ecclesiastic flair).  This must be a sculpture about the appetites which religion is meant to satisfy…but what the nature of those appetites is and how we can avoid being controlled by them is a question which resists facile answers.

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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Happy Epiphany!  When I was growing up, my family always celebrated the twelve days of Christmas which started on Christmas proper (December 25th) and lasted until until January 6th (“Epiphany”, “Little Christmas”, or “the Feast of Three Kings”) which is also, my father’s birthday.  Happy birthday, Dad!  The liturgical explanation of Epiphany was that Jesus was born on December 25th (just like Mithras, secret Persian god of the late Roman military! quite a coincidence) and then adored for 12 days until the Magi showed up with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Thereafter the holiday was finished: Jesus had to run hide out in Egypt and my family had to take down the decorations and deal with the grim realities of winter, unleavened by colorful Yuletide fantasy.  Come to think of it, Epiphany also involved some business about the bapism of Jesus, the appearance of the holy spirit, and the revelation of Jesus’ divine nature, but all of this was mixed up in the disastrous sectarianism of different forms of Christianity, so you will have to run ask your favorite bishop about the full niceties.

At any rate, the three kings were always great favorites of mine.  I recall playing Melchior in the Christmas pageant dressed in shimmery polyester 1970s curtain fabric and holding the Chinese jewelry box which my mother used to keep on her dresser.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was always my favorite Christmas song (since it hints at the broader themes of Christ’s life in a way that lesser, newer Christmas songs do not).  Also, the inclusion of the three kings allowed for camels, royal finery, and orientalism in Christmas decorations which was a real aesthetic plus.

To celebrate the holiday I have included two Medieval representations of the three kings:  the one at the top is an enameled reliquary made in Limoges, France in the late 12th century.  The journey of the three kings is portrayed on the top (sadly lacking the camel) and the adoration of the Christ child is shown on the side.  The gothic gilded box probably contained some ghastly mortal fragment of a medieval saint (or a lump of quotidian matter which was labeled as such), but it is exquisitely beautiful and would be perfect in a Christmas pageant, if it weren’t enshined in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

The image below is from an illuminated book of hours (the so-called “Hours of the Queen of Sweden” according to my source) and shows a delightfully integrated group of kings kneeling before a legitemately beautiful medieval Mary.  Look at the tiny Jerusalem in the background.  Around the sacred image are beautiful still-life images of flowers, seed pods, insects, and birds.  Both of these imags are real artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages and I hope they help you celebrate Little Christmas, because we have a lot of winter to slog through now (at least here up north…if you are in Aukland, Argentina, or Madagascar or something send us some pictures of your summer revels so we can get through January)…

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Since the year is pretty new and my bright hopes and shining dreams for 2019 are still intact, here is a Friday evening blog post!  I have been worried that I have not been devoting sufficient time to blogging.  In particular I have lately been especially bad about responding in a timely fashion to anybody gracious enough to post a comment.  I promise I will work hard on doing a better job writing and responding this year, so keep those comments coming!  In the meantime, kindly find a picture of the first sculpture which I finished in 2019: “Galactic Fluke,” which is carved out of wood and adorned with a handmade polymer galaxy and plastic stars.  When I pulled that galaxy out of the oven it looked like a millipede with hairy waving legs…and it was no picnic making it adhere properly to the fluke instead of to my fat fingers.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the flounder as the quixotic avatar of all Earth life in my recent artworks. Concerned friends and relatives have asked why the Pleuronectiformes have so completely infiltrated my ouevre–so I will answer that question in greater depth in 2019 (the emotional side of the story involves a confessional story about my life, and the intellectual side of the story involves a treatise on environmentalism and musings about the future of all of humankind).

This sculpture however transcends such concerns–this is, after all, a galactic fluke…a very great flounder indeed! It represents the apogee of my desires–life transcendent and all-present at an incomprehensibly vast scale.  One of my friends said that his mother, a devout Muslim, was worried that my art is idolatrous (!) which is difficult to respond to, but I do certainly try to imbue my conception of the numinous  into my flounder works.  I have never found a bunch of rules from ancient near-eastern sages to be particularly supernatural…but the interlocking destinies of lifeforms living together in complex ecosystems does inspire me with feelings of transcendent awe.  The great web of life on Earth is the closest thing we know to divinity–save perhaps for the celestial grandeur of outer space with all of its scope and mystery.  This small sculpture is an attempt to bring these two sacred concepts together in poplar, paint, and plastic.

Best wishes for a Merry Christmas. As a once-and-future toymaker, I got pulled into some Christmas projects and didn’t write as many year-end blog-posts as I wanted.  Yet there is an upside: you get to see the projects I made! (in the future, I need to be better about featuring such stories in a compelling way online).  Anyway, all of this is to say that here is the skateboard deck I made as a gift for my friend.

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My friend studied classics in school, but then became a computer programmer.  The word at the right says “the charioteer” because the charioteer was Plato’s metaphor for the human psyche.  The charioteer is swiftly driving forward in a world of mortal peril. He has two horses pulling him–a bright white horse and a dark unruly horse. Often times they strain to rush in different directions and the charioteer is hard pressed to travel the desired direction.  His chariot could come apart at any moment…but he is swift and powerful.

The charioteer is driving on top of a flounder (for that is my own metaphor for the interconnected world of all Earth life).  In this instance the flounder is made of ones and zeros…since my friend did the programming for my online oracular flounder (if you want to give me a Christmas present, ask the fish questions and write your honest impressions below for we are making some changes in the new year!). Not only is the flounder made of ones and zeros…the ocean itself is too.  In this new world, if you want to drive your chariot to creative success, the only way is to drive through a virtual realm!  We are working on it…and so are you, why, I venture to guess you are looking at online content right this very moment.  Maybe you should go enjoy some Christmas cheer in the real world…just as soon as you look at my damn flounder and make a comment below.

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