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16_chos rje de bzhin gshegs paThe Karmapa is a very important Lama/guru of Tibetan Buddhism and acts as the head of the Karma Kagyu (the black hat school), the largest sub-school of Himalayan Buddhism.  According to tradition, the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–1193 AD) was such a gifted and sedulous scholar (and so very, very holy) that he attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga. To his adherents, the Karmapa is seen as a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas (not to me though, I prefer to think of Avalokiteśvara as the luminous Kwan Yin, not as some sad middle-aged Chinese puppet).

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Ahem, anyway, due to religious and political controversy so convoluted and schismatic that it would make an antipope blush, the identity of the 17th (current) Karmapa is disputed.  This matters little to us though, for our purposes today, which, as you maybe guessed from the title, involve the Karmapa’s remarkable headress, the black crown.  As implied by its heavy metal name, the black crown’s roots are said to lie beyond this world. According to folklore, the black crown was woven by the dahinis (sacred female spirits of Vajrayana Buddhism) from their own gorgeous black hair. They gave this gift to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual attainment.  The 5th Karmapa was a tutor to the Yongle Emperor (arguably China’s greatest emperor) and the wily emperor claimed that he could see the immaterial black crown above the Karmapa’s head.  The Yongle Emperor was sad that lesser mortals could not perceive this ineffable headdress and so he had a worldly facsimile made for the Karmapa, not out of the hair of dahinis, but instead from coarser materials such as rubies, gold, and precious stones. That’s it, up there at the top of this paragraph (adorning the head of the 16th Karmapa).

I wish I could show you a better picture of the jeweled hat which the Yongle Emperor commissioned for all Karmapas, past, present, and future (fake and real?), but unfortunately, some of the political strife of Tibet, China, and India is reflected in the provenance of the sacred item.   The 16th Karmapa brought the black crown to a monastery in (Indian) Sikkim during the tumult of the 1960s when China’s relationship with ancient cultural traditions grew rather fraught.  When the 16th Karmapa transcended this mortal world in 1993, the crown went missing. It has not been seen since, but one hopes it might reappear at some point when the true 17th Karmapa is revealed (or when all contenders are gone and we move on to the 18th Karmapa).  Alternately, perhaps a careful inventory of Rumtek monastery will cause it to turn up.

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Holy Han Blue! It is already time for the color of the year for 2020!  How did it get to be so late?  The color of the year is obviously a Pantone publicity stunt…and yet, in a fashion-market/artworld way, it tracks larger socioeconomic factors.  During boom times the colors are all coral, gold, and claret; when the economy falls into the abyss they become asphalt, storm clouds, and lunar regolith.  This year’s color is a flashing warning signal.  The 2020 color of the year, Classic Blue, is an ancient neutral middle level cobalt blue.  It looks exactly like what a court geomancer would pick to sooth a mad emperor…just before the realm explodes into civil war. Or. in the ugly patter of finance, this color looks like an inverted yield curve just before the sell-off.  It is a deeply conservative color pretending to have some pizzazz (similar to “Blue Iris”, the color of 2008).

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This is one of the results I got trying to image search this color.

It is worthwhile though, to note how the professional flacks at Pantone talk about this depressing reactionary selection.  They speak very carefully to forestall any criticism that it is, well, a depressing reactionary selection.  Although blue has represented melancholia to artists, poets, and designers  for four centuries (or longer), Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which apparently researches and advises companies on human responses to color said, “I think that’s kind of an older generation reaction.” So Pantone wants you to know that if you dislike the ugly neutral blue which they chose for the coming recession, you are old and out of touch. They also note that this is not a subtle endorsement of the Democratic Party (apparently, like every large business in the country, they enthusiastically endorse and promote the fascist Republican party).

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But politics and economics aside, what do we make of Classic Blue? Blue is not actually the top color on my personal list, but it is good for neutral backgrounds and for blending in. Dark blues like “classic blue” don’t show dirt as badly as some colors.  Classic blue might be good for a daily table cloth or a bathroom mat or a shower curtain.  It would be lovely for a twilight sky around a pleasure garden (although Pantone isn’t marketing it for that, as far as I could tell from their blather).  The real color of 2020 should be chaotic darkness shot through with nauseating flecks of painful brightness, like somebody smashed a sorcerer’s crystal (or like a riot after the teargas).  I recognize that Pantone is hard pressed to choose a perfect color to match that, but, as always they have done as well as possible in trying circumstances.  Any bets yet for the color of the year for 2021?

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Speaking of the holiday season, one of the pleasures which the New York City Department of Transportation offers is “seasonal streets” when swaths of the public thoroughfare are closed off to automobile traffic for the sole use of pedestrians and bicyclists.   “Seasonal Streets” also provide an opportunity for artists to put up colorful temporary work directly on the surface of the road.

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Here is a swath of Nassau Street between John Street and Fulton Street which has been given the seasonal treatment.  Vendors are starting to set up little holiday shops and pavilions (although I worry about how much custom they will find on cold snowy days like today).  Looking south (picture below) you can make out a famous New York taxicab which is advertising an underworld theme show… (?) as it drives beneath some of downtown’s equally enigmatic comic book punching holiday decorations.

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Even despite the sloppy weather the scene is quite festive (while still maintaining a special concrete canyon/Blade Runner feel). Thanks DOT! This (almost) makes me want to hang out more in the financial district!

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Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving from Sumi and me!

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Halloween this year featured scary clowns…but I just realized that I forgot to include one of the best posts on this subject before October ended.  This is Balistoides conspicillum, the clown triggerfish, one of the most beloved of all aquarium fishes because of its wild white spots and bright orange greasepaint mouth (along with sundry yellow/white stipples, squiggles, stripes and some translucent cornflower fins).  I promised I would showcase some Tetraodontiformes (my favorite order of fish), and there could hardly be a showier fish in the ocean!

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Don’t let this fish’s comic good looks deceive you though:  it is not some oceangoing fop.  Clown triggerfish live on coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific (and maybe in the Caribbean part of Atlantic, during these days of irresponsible hobbyists) and the adult fish prefer a solitary life at the edge of the reef where it drops off into the endless blue of the ocean.  The top of deep underwater cliffs is their favorite home, presumably so they can stare forbodingly into the depths like a melancholic hero from Romantic art. This means that clown triggerfish must cope with all of the denizens of the reef…and with pelagic outsiders who live by different standards than those of the bustling underwater “cities”.

Clown triggerfish stand up to other fish, even much larger ones, with an arsenal that includes strong muscles, nimble maneuverability, cleverness (they are reputed to be some of the smartest fish in the ocean), a locking “trigger” bone to make them hard to pry out of caves, and, oh yeah, a terrifying mouth filled with sharp rock-like teeth.  Their diet of tunicates, spiny sea urchins, large arthropods (crabs and lobsters), and bivalve mollusks such as clams necessitates formidably strong jaw muscles.  Apparently clown triggerfish can just bite right through lobster armor and clamshells. True to their common name, these fish sometimes become prankish with their owners and, at feeding time, they have been known to grunt comically and squirt water onto their favorite humans.   If they like a person they can be fed by hand or even caressed, but it is a risky venture since, obviously,  they can use their mouths for more than biting through clams.

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Adult clown triggerfish grow to be half a meter in size and they can live for up to 20 years in captivity.  When they spawn, the triggerfish dig a shallow nest in the coral rubble and lay eggs in it.  Together the couple fiercely guards the eggs until the babies hatch, then all parties go their own ways.  Juvenile clown triggerfish have a diamond shape and are completely covered in white spots (their other markings appear as they mature).

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Behold! This is Costasiella kuroshimae, AKA the ‘leaf sheep.”  It isn’t a sheep at all, of course, it’s really a sea slug from the Sarcoglossan clade.  These marine gastropods can be found in the Indo-Pacific off the shores of Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines. Costasiella kuroshimae scrapes up marine algae and digests it, but the animal then sequesters the living chloroplasts from inside the algae cells into its own tissues.  Chloroplasts, like many other cell plastids, seem to have been independent life forms in the ancient single-cellular dawn of life, but they have since been co-opted and assimilated into the living cells of plants and blue-green algae.  The leaf sheep pulls the same trick–a process known to biologists as kleptoplasty (which is common in protists, but unknown in multicellular creatures except for these slugs).  This is why the leaf sheep glows a glorious living green color.  The slug can keep the chloroplasts alive within its own tissues for extended periods and metabolize the photosynthetic products for its own uses.

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Is this thing…a garbage can?

Ok, these evil clowns are sort of getting to me (and we have a lot more territory to cover before Halloween) so let’s take a little breather with some clown mascots!  Now this brings us to a classic problem which lies at the heart of the uneasy love/fear/contempt relationship we have with clowns.  Clowns wear make-up, prosthetics and masks (assuming they aren’t just a picture of a crazy face–like some of these characters). These exaggerated new features blur or occlude the very subtle facial muscles which we primates are laser-focused on in order that we can tell if a grinning stranger is a new ally or a murderous lunatic.  If the orbicularis oris is occluded with paint–or cast in imperishable plastic!–is hard to tell if a clown is evil or wretched or…happy, I guess.

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Clarabell the Clown was Howdy Doody’s mute partner and the definitive TV clown of the generation before mine

All of this is a long way of introducing some old familiar clown mascots while asking that you examine them with a fresh eye.  When seen anew, some of these guys look a lot more disturbing then I recall–not to mention the fact that they are almost all trying to sell greasy sugary food, weird costumes, or dangerous carnival rides!  You can really see how people become afraid of clowns…or capitalism.  But don’t worry, this is a safe space and this big-shoed saunter down memory lane is all in good fun.

 

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Ronald McDonald was the face of McDonalds when I was growing up, and he can still be found around the 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants worlwide…but I feel like they have been moving him towards a more ceremonial role and shilling deep-fried fast food by other means

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Is Jack Box of Jack in the Box even technically a clown?

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Oh wow! It’s Osaka’s Famous Clown Mascot, Kuidaore Taro!

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Bozo was a figure from the first days of television–he was franchised but each station had their own version!

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Dammit, Mr. Softee, get out of here, you are clearly an ice-cream.

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The Grinning Face of Steeplechase is still an emblem of Coney Island

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GET. KRINKLES. AWAY. NOW.

 

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Emmett Kelly as famous depression-era clown, Weary Willie

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I just don’t know…

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The Trademark Jester of Mardi Gras!

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To say nothing of vintage pinball!

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The Vintage Fanta Jester

Well that was a refreshing break, I guess.  It does illustrate the point that clowns–even the most anodyne ones meant to sell pop and hamburgers–are pretty unknowable and stand right in the middle of the uncanny valley.  Yet they are inexpensive corporate spokespeople and they have a way of hanging on in our memories, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

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OMG! It’s Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal”! Did we ever unlock him? Robbie? Nick? Anybody?

 

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt was the first great flowering of Egyptian civilization when the architectural and cultural trends which we regard as characteristic of Ancient Egypt became all pervasive.  It was also a glorious golden era of ancient human culture and the accomplishments (and some of the individual figures) of the era are still well known.   Although the Fourth Dynasty  (2613 to 2494 BC) is perhaps the most famous period of the Old Kingdom thanks to the enormous pyramid shaped tombs which were built then, the subsequent Fifth Dynasty (2494 BC–ca. 2345 BC) was also an era of enormous wealth and success which witnessed a great expansion of trade and cultural connections (thanks to the development of large ocean-going boats).

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A painting in Khuwy’s tomb displaying the graceful boats and gifted sailors of the 5th Dynasty (Ministry of Culture of Egypt)

All of this is back story to this amazing archaeological discovery which opened to the public earlier this year.  This is the tomb of Khuwy, a Fifth Dynasty nobleman who seemingly had some sort of close connection to Djedkare Isesi, the penultimate pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty.  The tomb was discovered near Saqqara, a vast necropolis just south of Cairo in early spring of this year (2019 AD).  Since the tomb was undisturbed for all of those centuries, the colors of the paint upon the wall are particularly fresh and vibrant (especially the reds greens and yellows).

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Seated Khuwy accepting offerings

The L shaped tomb consists of a passageway to an antechamber. Beyond the antechamber lies the main chamber which features a painting of the seated Khuwy accepting offerings (above) such as the tasty cuts of beef which cattle farmers are cutting off of a slaughtered spotted cow in this vivid painting from 4300 years ago (below).  The mummified Khuwy was present as well, along with canopic jars containing several of his favorite internal organs, however the jars and the mummy were broken.

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So who exactly was Khuwy and how was he related to Pharaoh? Why are the paintings in this tomb executed in a fashion (and with fancy pigments) usually reserved for royalty?  What happened to Khuwy’s mummy and why isn’t there a picture of that wrapped-up spooky fellow in this October blog post?  The answers are not known yet but archaeologists (and others) are working on solving these ancient mysteries and Ferrebeekeeper will be sure to report if and when the secrets are revealed.

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Today we present a seasonally appropriate earthtone blast from the past–a color which was once everywhere and is now nowhere at all.  I am talking about the go-to kitchen appliance color of the 1970s, “harvest gold” a sort of warm brownish golden ochre.  I remember seeing so many refrigerators, ovens, sinks, and toilets that were this color when I was a child that I sort of thought it was some fundamental feature of home fixtures.  Of course, harvest gold, wasn’t just in the kitchen and then the bathroom, all sorts of other items of fundamental importance to society came in this same shade–turtlenecks, shag carpet, macrame, Dodge Darts, hotpants…you name it (this is to say nothing of things which were, are, and always will be this deep yellow like dead corn fields, lions, broken urinals, used cigarette filters, and mustard, mustard, MUSTARD!).  More than rust brown, tangerine orange, or even avocado, this was the trademark color of the seventies.

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Now, if you had asked me about this color in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the early teens, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it is a hideous afront to civilized ideals of beauty and then made some rude remarks about malaise, mustard, and moustaches.  But is that really true?

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Like all earth hues, this dark yellow suffers because there are lots of earthy things which have the same color, but, likewise there are many beautiful living things that are harvest gold (maybe you noticed lions hiding in the comic list in the first paragraph).  There are famously beautiful people who have hair this color. Maize and wheat are both this color (it’s called harvest gold for a reason) as is the element gold which is known to have a certain cachet.

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So if there was nothing inherent to the seventies or harvest gold which brought the two together, what happened? What forces caused this color to become so famous for a decade and then so infamous for decades?  I would argue that it was marketers trying to sell things to people that made it famous.  It was people copying other people that made the color super famous and then it was everyone overreacting to that overreaction which made the color infamous and toxic.  This is a troubling cycle because it doesn’t just apply to harvest gold, it kind of applies to everything that people get really involved with.  It makes you wonder which of the things that are everywhere around us right now are harvest gold.  Where will they be in 40 years?

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