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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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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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We could talk about my very favorite ceramics makers…but their nation is still prominent in the world (indeed they are the world’s most populous nation), so we will talk about Chinese porcelain some other day.  For now, let’s instead concentrate on my second favorite ceramics artists—the astonishing and mysterious Moche people of Peru.  Ferrebeekeeper has tried to explain the nature of Moche culture (as archaeologists currently understand it to have been) and we have also tried to put up some galleries of their exquisite waterfowl and their amazing bats (which I think are the best bat artworks extant).

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For tonight though I am going to present a gallery of Moche ceramic vessels in the shape of animals without any comment.  This is partly because I want you to experience the exquisite form of the ancient clay without any distractions and…it is partly because I got started working on Christmas projects and didn’t get around to writing this post until the middle of the night.  I think you will agree as you look at this collection of vessels, that the Moche were astonishing at conveying animals in a way which was streamlined and simple yet also brings out the beauty and the personality of the creatures.  These are not Walt Disney-esque cartoon animals of unnatural sweetness and broad comedy…and yet they are also animals which have distinctive emotional resonance and convey the distinctive character, intelligence, and temperament of these South American animals.  It is a hard balance to get right, and yet I feel that the unknown potters and sculptors of long ago have done a superb job at bringing out what was real and what was magical in these creatures.  I am not explaining this the way I wish, but just try sculpting some animals and you will soon see what I mean.

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To celebrate the season, here is a special Christmastime Sunday space post! Discovered in 1948 Comet 46P/Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 Earth years.   The comet’s apoapsis (the point of its orbit farthest from the Sun) is out in the vicinity of Jupiter’s orbit, but the closest point in its orbit brings it to Earth’s orbit.  Unfortunately, because of the dance of the planets it only in relative proximity to Earth every 11 years, and even then, it is generally barely visible except to hardened astronomers.  The comet is also known as the Christmas comet because its periapsis (when it is closest to the sun—and thus, sometimes to Earth) is in December and because the comet has a distinct viridian tinge!

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This year, 46P/Wirtanen’s periapsis is unusually close to Earth.  Tonight, the comet will be a mere 11.4 million kilometers (7.1 million miles) from Earth.  That sounds like a fairly large distance but it is quite close, astronomically speaking:  only 10 comets have come in such near proximity to our home planet in the past 70 years!  Filled with excitement, I glanced out my window only to see that it is raining in Brooklyn and the sky is filled with clouds.  But don’t worry, the comet will nearly as visible for another week.   If you have an internet connection (and if you don’t, how are you reading this?) you can go to this link and find the comet in the sky from your location (that link is an amazing resource, so maybe hold onto it).

 

So why is this comet such a delightful color?  Comet 46P/Wirtanen is mostly melted—it consists of a solid kernel approximately a kilometer in diameter trailing a cloud of gases hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.  The majority of these gases reflect light in green wavelengths. Additionally, the comet is hyperactive—which, in this case, does not mean that overpaid physicians will prescribe it unnecessary medications so it can learn rote facts. In an astronomical context, hyperactive bodies are emitting more water than expected.

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Unless you are avidly examining the comet with a gas spectrograph, its color is likely to be a source of awe and reflection. Does the comet’s color reflect the seasonal green of Yuletide or is it an ironic reprimand for the envy and jealously which grip all of human society?  Is it the eye of a great sky panther or a kindly celestial sea turtle (hint: actually more of a ball of gas with an icy nucleus).  Whatever your conclusions, I hope you enjoy this close-up view of “the Christmas Comet” before it zips back towards Jupiter’s orbit. Season’s greetings to all of my readers.  I will try to find some special posts for this solstice week, before we all take a much-needed Christmas break.

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I have a confession to make: I have always though the classical Russian aesthetic of teardrops, ogee shapes, onion domes, and filigree was matchlessly beautiful.  If I had the money to commission a manor house, people would probably think it was a Russian orthodox church or Putin’s dacha because of all of the onion domes, candy-colored towers, and gingerbread fretwork. Unfortunately, such eastern majesty is a bit outside of my budget until we sell a few more flounder artworks, and so for now I must content myself with a seasonal gallery post of Christmastime Russian crowns and headdresses.

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Fortunately, crown-style headdresses are so much a part of Russian culture that there are all sorts of beautiful examples which fit the season perfectly. The high ornate headdresses miter-like traditional headdresses for women (kokoshniks/povyazkas depending on whether women are respectively wed or unwed).  There are numerous regional variants which are sadly beyond me (has anyone noticed has enormous Russia is?) however this article isn’t really about actual headdresses or history…or really about anything.  It is just a Christmas picture gallery.  So enjoy these amazing Russian Christmas hats.

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Of course, real crown aficianados are probably cursing me now for not really including any real crowns.  I have no intention of doing so (we will explore the crowns of the Romanovs at some other point) however I will include some of the astonishing headdresses of Russian patriarchs.  These archbishop’s caps look like they came from the Byzantine empire—and in a cultural sense, I suppose they did.  They aren’t actually hats for kings and princes, but they are hats for princes of the Orthodox church, and just look how magnificent they are!

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All of this winter headwear reminds me that we are quickly coming up on Christmas and the end of the year.  Prepare yourself for the some Ferrebeekeeper winter’s fun and Happy holidays (sorry I already missed Hanukkah).

I better wrap up before you realize I am pointing these things out because I think they are pretty but I have no real understanding about this at all.  I will have to see if I can find a real Russian expert to explain some of the finer points of exquisite headdresses.

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Oh wow!  It is that time again: the time that Pantone announces the color of the year for 2019.  As you will recall from years past, Pantone is a corporation taste-makers and of fashion insiders which crafts palates that allow all the world’s different corporate concerns to align their offerings with each other. That way consumers can buy matching outfits and housewares in a given season, but can’t find anything that remotely matches any of it the next.  Pantone’s offering last year (which is to say the 2018 color of the year) was ultraviolet, a lovely mid-range purple with some blue notes.

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Purple is one of my favorite colors…but it seems like the colors are just getting better, because this year features a real winner–“living coral”, a beautiful pinkish red which looks like it is alive.  Not only do I love this color…I might actually BE this color (at least if I get out of a very hot shower, or spill allergens on my delicate flesh).

Pantone usually includes lifestyle blather with its color selections, and this year is no different.  According to their press kit, the pinkish orange is a “reaction to the onslaught of digital technology and social media,” which represents our collective “need for optimism and joyful pursuits [and] authentic and immersive experiences that enable connection and intimacy.”

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That is a lot to load onto a color, but Living Coral fits the bill if any color does.  Looking at it just makes me feel happy…like I really did get out of a hot bath and then found some money lying on the ground (although that scenario sounds less good as I look at it on the page).  You can read what else Pantone has to say about their selection elsewhere, but in addition to being a near-flesh color, “Living Coral” makes me think of axolotls, sunsets, summer melons, and roses.

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This last choice probably makes you scratch your head, but my favorite hybrid tea roses were created by a mad German nurseryman in the mid-sixties and both of his timeless greatest hybrids were this same extraordinary orange pink. One was named “Tropicana” (above) and it was a large showy rose which was (and is) unequaled in looks.  The other (pictured below) was smaller and more delicate but it had the most heavenly aroma, which is why it was known as “Fragrant Cloud.”  It was my grandmother’s favorite rose and I remember it growing all around her house (and appearing in vases within) during the halcyon summers of my youth.

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I poke some fun at Pantone for their florid language and their misfires like “Sand Dollar” (a lifeless ecru from 2006 which did not even have the visual interest of a dead echinoderm), however I think they actually do a good job.  Thanks Pantone for the memories of summers past.  Maybe 2019 will have some of the rosy happiness of “Living Coral) and if anyone sees a shirt that color, I definitely want one (although I think I might have once had one during those same summers of yore.

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And see! I really am kind of that color too, although I am also apparently a sad confused doofus being stalked by a youth pastor with a camera

 

Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.

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If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.

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She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.

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Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.

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Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

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