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Paraloricaria (image from Paul Louis Oudart – Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale)

Do you remember all of the catfish which used to be on Ferrebeekeeper?  There were underground catfish, coral reef catfish, and giant catfish.  We even featured Ancient Egyptian catfish and nightmare vampire catfish that crawl inside people!  Sigh…happy times.  That obsession with catfish was one of the factors which launched this blog.  It is extraordinary how many different species of catfish there are and how wildly diverse this one order of lifeforms is.  Catfish have extraordinary senses which humans lack entirely. They can be tender and solicitous parents and they are capable of building structures.  Ranging in size from nearly microscopic to enormous, the siluriformes are everywhere except for the deep ocean and Antarctica (and, uh, the sky).  Yet, due to human myopia, the first thing I get about catfish on Google is some weird internet mumbo-jumbo about pretending to be somebody else online?  What???

Anyway, I am trying to freshen up Ferrebeekeeper, and I am going to fold the “catfish” category into a larger “fish” category (if catfish are so inexhaustibly diverse, just imagine how diverse the larger category of fish is!).

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For old times sake, though, we are going to feature a few more posts celebrating the diversity of this enormous vertebrate order (1 out of every twenty species of vertebrates is a catfish!).  Today we feature a little gallery of the whip slender armored catfish of the Loricariinae subfamily (aka the “whip catfish”).  These small armored catfish live throughout Central America and South America East of the Andes and feed on small invertebrates of the substrate.

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Rineloricaria sp. (from bluegrassaquatics.com)

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Loricaria cataphracta (Compte rendu de l’expédition de Francis de Castelnau en Amérique du sud)

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Apistoloricaria condei (by Hippocampus-Bildarchiv)

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Aposturisoma myriodon (Image from PlanetCatfish)

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Just look at all of these beauties! It is like wandering through an art show and being continuously surprised at how many stunning variations there are on a single theme.

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Here is an illuminated page from the Da Costa Book of Hours which was illustrated by Flemish master Simon Bening around 1515 AD.  Bening was regarded as the last great Flemish illuminator. His illustrations (somewhat like “The Shepheardes Calender“) chart the months of the year through sensitive landscapes filled with hard-working farmers and gardeners.   It is a remarkable and rare work in the canon or art in that the workers look like they are actually working, but are neither bumpkinish figures of fun nor beautiful superhumans (although they are brilliantly attired in expensive new garb).  The book was made for the Sá family of Portugal (it is a Sephardic surname).  This is the illustration for the month of March when winter has not yet left the land, yet the first green shoots are appearing.  The gardeners are hard at work laying in the new garden and repairing the trellised avenue as a fur clad nobleman explains what he wants. Note the courtly nobles holding hands on the bridge and the stork nesting on the chimney of the handsome little gothic chateau.

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One of the more endearing woodland creatures of the Appalachian hardwoods where I grew up is the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans).  My uncle was always fighting with one that was storing its winter nuts in the roof of the ramshackle log cabin owned by my great-great grandfather.  The nocturnal creatures have huge anime eyes which glisten in their small anxious faces.  They are extremely social and clever at stocking their winter larder.  Although we think of them as subsisting on nuts, this is really their winter provender: during the clement months they eat a wide diet of berries, buds, mushrooms, and flowers…as well as invertebrates, small animals, eggs, and even nestlings (I always imagine the original ancestors of the primates were not unlike the clever and versatile squirrels).  Coincidentally, flying squirrels do not fly, but can glide from tree to tree by stretching out their special sheetlike membrane (which is called a patagium).

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One would think that we would know all there is to know about flying squirrels–perhaps not the species in remote forests of Vietnam, but at least the three American species (there are also two closely related northern species: Glaucomys sabrinus & Glaucomys oregonensis).  Yet this turns out to be wrong.  This year (2019), Jonathan Martin, a professor of forestry in Wisconsin, was exploring the forest at night with a black light when he made a shocking discovery.  He heard some squirrels rustling in his bird feeder and turned the light on them and discovered that, under ultraviolet light they fluoresce hot pink!  The North American genus (Glaucomys) of flying squirrels have a rave-tastic secret color. Sadly most of the photos I could find of this phenomena, were pictures of sad little moth eaten flying squirrel pelts in natural history museums, but here is a black light picture which shows that it is the pale bottom half of the squirrel which glows pink under UV light.

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Hidden UV patterns are common among flowers and invertebrates (spiders and scorpions are particular masters).  Even parrots and amphibians are known to utilize splotches of fluorescent color for secret in-species communications.  Yet fluorescent coloration was unknown in mammals until present.  The discovery is so new that we don’t yet know what it is for…or even whether it is a trait shared by some off the numerous old-world flying squirrels.  More research is necessary, and Ferrebeekeeper will try to keep up with the theories (I suspect that, as with parrots and spiders, it is a way for squirrels to keep track of each other in the three dimensional maze of dark forest canopies).  Still it is good to see that this mainstay of childhood joy from 1980s skateboards and puffy stickers has a natural home in the great forests of North America.  The producers of Miami Vice would be proud…although perhaps they would be dismayed to see that the squirrels’ white light colors are normal earth tones.

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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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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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Hey remember last week when NASA’s robot spacecraft visited a remote double snowball in the farthest reaches of the solar system?  Well that was amazing, but there was an attendant nomenclature problem.  Internet space enthusiasts and NASA worked together to choose a proposed name for the flying space snowman, and they came up with “Ultima Thule”, which was the Roman name for the inaccessible frozen lands of the farthest north (inaccessible to Romans anyway).  This name, however, doesn’t become official until sanctioned by the International Astronomical Union, which faces a conundrum, since apparently Nazis stupidly believed (or stupidly claimed to believe) that the Aryan race came from a mythical wonderland called Thule.

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This is clearly one of those stories that illustrate the dizzying heights of grandeur and terrifying depths of folly which accompany the human condition.  It is also an opportunity for a Ferrebeekeeper post about color since Thulian is also the English name for pink. “Thulian pink” is a striking pale pink with lavender highlights which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has gone down the girl’s toy aisle at a big box store.  Apparently the first recorded usage of this color name was in 1912, which was before the terrible events of the twenties and thirties swept a white nationalist autocracy to power in Germany.  Thulian pink doesn’t seem to have any white nationalist undertones that I can fathom (although I guess ruddy complexioned Caucasian people like me could theoretically turn the color of a Barbie Dream house if we received esoteric radiation burns or drank something toxic). Words are funny…(also I wonder if we sometimes invest them with too much power as we try to protect people from the ignorance and meanness of other people).  Anyway Thulian pink is also named after the fantastic lands to the far north, which makes me wonder what the association was for the people who first coined the name?  Is this the pink of the northern lands under the midnight sun at high summer or is it just regarded as an otherworldly color or ARE there unknown horrible racist associations? What is going on?

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Anyway, apparently this hue was rechristened as “First Lady” in 1948 as the interior decorators of the 50s started using it for everything.  I have always called in “Pepto-Bismol” pink.  Whatever it is called, I have always like the color, although it gets a trifle overused in the gendered marketing scheme of today’s toy world.

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was a glorious golden age of China when trade brought enormous prosperity to China and cosmopolitan city culture flourished.  This exquisite wine cup came from the Tang capital, Chang’an, around 750 AD (the chalice was excavated in the city of Xi’an–which is Chang’an’s modern name–in 1957). According to the census of 742 AD,  Chang’an had 1,960,188 people living in the metropolitan area (which included smaller suburban cities within the larger city).  Such numbers make Chang’an the largest metropolis of its day (the other contenders would have been Baghdad and Constantinople, which were both about half the size).

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This year, I want to talk more about Chang’an and about some of history’s other great super-cities.  They tell us about the roots of contemporary urban culture (more than half of the world’s people today live in a city) and they maybe afford us a peak at the great cities of the future.  For now though let us just savor the details of this solid gold goblet.  Look at the birds and the design elements which come from coastal China and Central Asia! Cities ideally combine the best aspects of different groups of people and different cultures. MY home city, New York City certainly does that, on its good days, when it is not squeezing people to death for nickels.  Speaking of home, this chalice is currently in New York, at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Enjoy the goldsmith’s birds and the flowers–we will be back in Tang-era Chang’an for a real look around a few posts from now.  And if, like me, you live in a city, start looking at it with a fresh critical eye.  Cities are an even bigger part of the future than of the past, and we are going to need to make them better.  Golden cups are not the only place where an idealized natural world of handmade beauty belongs…

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