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Dare I say it, but it felt a little bit like…spring…out there today in New York (at least the parts that weren’t covered in huge sheets of discolored slush). Sadly the ice sheets still cover all of my shade garden and flower posts from the back yard will have to wait until spring actually gets here, but looking at the internet I see that some flowers are popping up in the corners of other people’s gardens. The one above is Eranthis hyemalis (winter-aconite), a member of the buttercup family originally native to France, Italy and the Balkans but now widely naturalized across Europe and the East Coast.

There isn’t really a larger point or story to this post. I am just pleased that the flowers are coming back (even if we are talking about the earliest, earliest, earliest flowers of the season). Like all of the ranunculales, the winter aconite is quite poisonous from the tip of its anther to the bottom its root (so don’t go around the snow banks shoveling them into your mouth, I guess). We will get to those promised ideas for improving global society in soon-to-follow posts (😊) and I suspect we will start seeing some more spring flowers too!

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

To take our minds off of the cabin fever of being stuck at home (in a pandemic…in the snow), today’s post features one of the world’s most extravagant and beautiful buildings. This complex is Wat Rong Khun, the white temple of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. Sources inform me that it actually totally exists, right here in the real world (although I find it somewhat difficult to believe such a thing, because, well, just look at it!).

Wat Ron Khun was an extant Buddhist temple (one of thousands throughout Southeast Asia) which, by the end of the twentieth century, had fallen into disrepair. In 1997, Thai visionary artist Chalermchai Kositpipat restored/rebuilt the temple into the fantastical form which you see in these photos. Interestingly Wikipedia now balks at calling Wat Rong Khun a temple and instead describes the complex as “a privately owned art installation” where people can meditate and learn about Buddhist teachings (and which is intended to ingratiate Kositpipat into Buddha’s good graces and ensure immortal life for the artist). Hmm… How is that different from just saying “temple”?

Anyway, the bridges, gates, and buildings of Wat Rong Khun are all white or reflective with one big exception. The building which houses the compound bathrooms are gold. The white/mirror colors reflect the mind and the intellect–colorless, pure, and abstract. The bathroom compound however is gold to contextualize worldly and physical concerns (such as material wealth).

Still, it’s a pretty nice bathroom

Gardens aside, the other non-monochrome portion of the compound is found in the main ubosot, where mind-bendingly strange murals illustrate the human condition. These murals are not as, uh…restrained (?) as the rest of the wat, and I will write about them later when I feel stronger. Suffice it to say that if anything belonged inside this squirming albescent nirvana-cake, it is the paintings which are indeed in there.

Although I suppose I should be comparing Wat Rong Khun with Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew (the “temple of a thousand bottles”) what it truly reminds me of is Orvieto Cathedral, another installation/temple which is completely bedazzled with mind-altering religious ornamentation (and which features insane hell frescoes inside). Let’s all get vaccinated so we can go to some of these places in the real world (assuming they can indeed actually be found there).

The colors we use to make art and artifacts tend to reflect the affairs of the time in a way which is hard to quickly characterize (but which jumps out at you if you wonder though a really comprehensive museum like the Met). Thus cave paintings are made with ochre; Roman textiles are made with decayed molluscs; Han funerary art is made with sophisticated kiln-fired purple; and Victorian wallpaper is made of industrial poisons. During the twentieth century a broad range of sophisticated (albeit not-always-perfect and often fugitive) pigments came onto the market and pushed the nineteenth century colors like Hooker’s green and Prussian blue to the back of the box. But what about the 21st century? Do we have anything yet other than a disconcerting black which is so dark and expensive it is hard to comprehend?

Yes! Back in 2009, pigment makers discovered how to synthesize a new blue out of rare earth elements yttrium, indium, and manganese (my tube of manganese blue–the color of a tropical swimming pool–is probably my favorite blue in my paint box, but I don’t use it a whole lot). The new blue is known by the not-very-pronounceable name of YInMn blue and is finally reaching the shelves of art supply stores (albeit at exorbitant costs). According to artists who have used it, it is delightful because it is so opaque (this perhaps doesn’t sound exciting until you start seeing all of your drawings and paintings turn into muddy, fussy messes).

One of the more interesting things about YinMn blue is that it is strongly extraspectral/hyper-spectral and reflects frequencies of electromagnetic radiation which are not visual to humans. The pigment does not just strongly reflect blue light, it strongly reflects infrared radiation (which may mean we will be seeing all sorts of stunningly blue refrigerated cartons and devices). Naturally I can’t really show you this color on a computer, but we can look at pictures and they make me excited for a future where this is cheap enough that impoverished Brooklyn artist/bloggers can get their hands on it!

Palace Progress (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) Watercolor & ink on paper

Here is a watercolor picture from my the little moleskine sketchbook which I carry around. A pompous, three-legged grandee makes his serene progress through a palace landscape. Around him are fawning moth courtiers and little fairies (as well as a horrified little flatfish who has somehow wound up in the garden’s reflecting pool). Although it is good to poke fun at the airs of aristocrats, my favorite part of the picture are the fluffy pink flying fox in the center and the ancient monotreme. Watercolor is not my finest medium, but maybe if I keep trying to capture fantastical foibles with the set I carry in my bag, I will keep improving…

It is December 16th and a winter storm is blanketing New York City in snow and howling at the windows. I wish I had taken some pictures in Midtown (I work on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building), but, alas, I was hurrying towards the subway instead of standing around taking photos like a tourist. You will have to be content with these candid winter shots from my garden and front stoop in merry olde Brooklyn. At least you can see the holly tree (immediately below) and the beautiful plane trees which live on my street.

Speaking of trees, it is the Christmas/Yule season and I have put up my sacred tree of life to shine brightly in these dark times (you can read more about it, in these posts from past years). I need to think of how to liven it up, if I am going to post it year after year, but all of the animals make me happy (and, since there are hundreds, I don’t think I can add any more). You can also see some of the flounders peaking out from behind it.

We will say more about the holidays as we near the solstice and the end of the year (thank goodness this year is ending…but have we learned anything?). Until then, I am going to drink some cocoa and take a winter nap. Stay warm and be safe! Happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

“Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”

It is mid-December and that means that it is time for Pantone to announce the color of the year for 2021 (on the outside chance that the longed-for new year ever actually arrives).  Through some sort of dark chromomancy, the Pantone high counsel of color wizards usually manages to correctly predict the trends of the coming year with their selections (for 2020 they presciently selected depression-colored blue).  After this epic disaster of a year (when the world was ravaged by a plague and the nation came an electoral inch from re-electing an evil fascist criminal) it is frightening to see what hue the oracles have chosen to represent our shared destiny.

Andddd…to be honest, the outlook does not look so great.  As in 2016, Pantone has cast a vote for transition, change, and uncertainty by naming two colors of the year. However, whereas the colors of 2016 (baby blue and pink) were at least pretty, for 2021 they have chosen the leaden hue of wet concrete and the vivid yellow of “checks cashed” & “liquor” signs.  It looks like driving through South Chicago in 1993! The colors’ proper trade names are “Illuminating” for the bright yellow and “Ultimate Gray” for the dark cold gray.

Good times…

Pantone chooses dull, ugly, neutral colors when they project a downturn and bright, splashy colors when they are predicting boom times.  By choosing both they are throwing up their hands in bafflement (which makes perfect sense, since the world’s economic sages are likewise shrugging and anxiously pulling their collars). The blathering spokespeople who have to spin this stuff into sales copy are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel” and “uplifting, smiley face yellow”, but I think the residents of East Flatbush can recognize down-and-out colors from shared urban experience.

The Colors of the Year for 2020 & 2021…and 2002 there on the letters, I guess

From Ferrebeekeeper’s perspective, there is indeed a hint of better times in these colors.  Bright yellow and wet concrete are not just the colors of the inner city shopping district, they are colors for building!  When you look at a new highway or a new airport, it is all “Illuminating” and “Ultimate Gray”!  Caterpillar paints its bulldozers, backhoes, road-graders, and cement mixers high-vis yellow for safety reasons (speaking of which, a season of safety would be nothing to sneeze at).  Brand new concrete is…the color of wet concrete.  Perhaps the color oracles are indicating that America and the world can indeed move forward, but only if we stop bickering, denying, and doting on cowardly con-artists and start building.

In fact I am writing sarcastically, as fits this publicity stunt non-event, but bright yellow really truly is a beautiful color on a yellow tang, a golden oriole, an autumn cherry tree, Oshun’s dress, or even a good number 2 pencil. All of which is to say: the 2021 color of the year is more of a choose-your-own affair than usual (and we are already talking about colors, any of which take on the meaning you ascribe to them).  Can we work together and dream and plan and rebuild?  Or are we going to spend the year blaming those other people for our problems as we walk down the gray boulevard of broken dreams to cash our sad tiny check before heading into the Dollar General?

Hey! Has anyone checked the Pantone people’s bank accounts to see if they just received a suspiciously large number of crumpled dollar bills?

Since we were thinking about Baroque, um, geologists yesterday, I decided to stay in the same era and present this magnificent harpsichord which was made by Andreas Ruckers in Antwerp in 1643. Just look at this incredible instrument! I really wish we had a sound clip so you could hear the harpsichord’s sweet voice which has apparently staid lovely over all of these years (the resonant soundboard was apparently the true irreducible component of the device). The rest of the instrument though is a bit like the ship of Theseus. The keyboard and action were enlarged and replaced in France in the 19th century which is also when the gold baroque ornaments were added all over the case. Evidently actual baroque harpsichords were more simple and had cleaner lines, but the 19th century owners had little use for the harpsichord as a musical instrument and kept it as a work of art (and so they wanted it to be more ornamental).

The actual artwork on the case is from the 17th century (although it has been retouched) and shows Greco Roman gods and goddesses making music and desporting themselves among melancholy classical ruins. The soundboard itself may be an even finer artwork and is filled with birds, flowers, summer insects, and shrimp.

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

As longtime reader know well, Ferrebeekeeper has always been impressed by the great, beautiful, sacrificial bird of the Americas–the turkey! Although these days, the United States seems to lead the world in turkey fixation (we have an entire month dedicated to the creature), turkeys were actually domesticated 2000 years ago in in central Mesoamerica.

Are there some contemporary Central American art objects that depict the noble bird in all of its majesty, pathos, and silliness (preferably with lots of eye-popping colors)? I am so glad you asked! The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is renowned for its brilliantly colored hand-carved animals made of wood (among many other extraordinary creative traditions). Among the glowing menagerie, turkeys have a special place.

Here are some pictures of lovely Oaxaca turkeys shamelessly lifted from various places around the web. I hope they will lift your spirits and start to get you in the mood for the great feast. I also hope they will remind you of the long heritage of turkey cultivation and worship in western hemisphere. Enjoy the gorgeous carvings and I will start to think up an appropriate turkey theme long post for this long year.

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