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My art theme this year has been flatfish, and I have made quite a lot of them. I think the results are very strong, but the slightly ludicrous subject leaves me at a disadvantage when I am trying to explain my work via the unforgiving medium of tweet or elevator pitch. Nothing vexes a group of high-fashion socialites quite like blurting out “I mostly paint elaborate symbolic flatfish!” The most obvious quick explanation is to make a joke about how I have been floundering (which is certainly true in many ways), however there is a lot more to this favorite subject than that.
The Pleuronectiformes (flatfish) are indeed flat–like paintings and drawings–which makes them an ideal medium for compositions. They are a favorite prey for humankind–which perfectly suits my theme of hooks, lures, traps, and beguilements (which seem to be taking over ever more in human society as we proliferate and jockey for resources). Flatfish also provides an immediate environmental theme–for they are quickly being fished into extinction (like almost all of the ray-finned fishes). Yet flatfish are no innocents. Like many large fish, these animals are all highly sophisticated predators. In order to succeed they make use of their own subterfuges. Flatfish blend in. They can literally change colors like chameleons. I sort of think of them as the middle class of the biome, squeezed between the little shrimpkins, copepods, and minnows they gobble up and the rapacious pelicans, dolphins, humans and suchlike superpredators who in turn hunt them with beaked hooks, sonar, and cruel nets.
Above all, flatfish are asymmetric–which means I can draw both of their expressive eyes without being forced to contemplate a lot of elaborate piscine bending. Their asymmetry also makes them stand out among all of the vertebrates. The universe has twisted them at adolescence–but it has given them an indefinable topological advantage as well. Also look at their little irregular paisley eyes.
Of course Meg Miller thinks I have gone crazy, and perhaps she is right. But after a while staring in the windows, “outsider artist” is the only card left to play. You never know, I could still leap out of the substrate and start gobbling shrimp any day now. Kindly check out my flatfish on Instagram and write me about your thoughts on the subject. Flounders are sad, but they are comical too (which is unusual in visual art) so everyone has an opinion. Please let me know how these flatfish make you feel!
It’s been a while since we wrote about pigeons (after all, turkeys take up most of the national bird bandwidth in November). Let’s get back to the subject with a brief examination of the fanciest of all fancy pigeons–the beautiful fantail pigeons!
Whereas wild pigeons have about a dozen feathers in their tail, fantail pigeons have thirty to forty feathers in their tail. As indicated in their name, they can fan these ornamental feathers up in a magnificent ornamental crest–like that of a peacock or a turkey.
Darwin mentioned fantail pigeons in the first chapter of “On the Origin of Species” as an example of the rapid changes which artificial selection could render to an organism. Even though fantail pigeons seem to be a human creation, they look like they take a great and justified pride in their splendid appearance. I think the fantail which is the normal pigeon color of grey with iridescent trim is particularly spectacular!
Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D. Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body. The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial). There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains. Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth. These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld. However snakes have always looked like that to me. Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand? I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me. Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago. It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.
The first known farmers were apparently…ants. Leafcutter ants have been growing fungus on chopped up leaves for at least 50 million years. It is an amazingly long time. Yet, when one thinks of the astonishing range of different “breeds” of animals and crops which humankind has created through artificial selection during the 10 millenia or so years since we started farming, the ants seem a bit lackluster. For all of their workaholic zeal, ants are not as relentless as us in selecting for traits in their crops.
Yet, as we learn more about the ants and their empire, the amazing extent of their symbiosis with the plants they use is beginning to become more apparent to us. Because of the vastly greater timeline of their endeavors, they have coevolved in astonishing ways. An example of this can be found in the homes of Philidris nagasau, a species of leaf cutterant native to Fiji. These ants literally grow their homes out of Squamellaria, an epiphytic plant which grows on tropical trees.
The Economist described the mechanism through which the ants grow a home (or, alternately, the way the epiphytic plant obtains an army of insect servants):
P. nagasau worker ants harvest seeds from their epiphytic homes, carry them away, and then insert them into cracks in the bark of suitable trees. That done, they patrol the sites of the plantings to keep away herbivores, and also fertilise the seedlings as they grow by defecating into hollow structures called domatia that develop in the bases of the plants’ stems. As a Squamellaria grows, its domatium swells (see picture) and develops galleries that can accommodate ants—which then move in. This, and the plant’s habit of growing flowers that generate nectar long after they have been pollinated, provide the evolutionary quid pro quo that makes the relationship between insect and epiphyte work.
It is incredible that the ants grow their own houses. Yet, as one looks more closely at familiar domestic arrangements with this story in mind, they start to seem less familiar. Is farming really as unique as we make it out to be, or does it resemble mutualistic arrangements found throughout the natural world.
We would never say we co-evolved with goats, cows, and horses: their domestication seems like a one way exchange to us. Yet an outside observer might look at our leather sofas, cheeseburgers, cavalry charges, or angora sweaters and come to a different conclusion.
A persimmon is a berry which grows on a persimmon tree, a group of species within the larger group Diospyros. The Diospyros trees are part of the majestic ebony family, and indeed persimmon trees are likewise noted for their hard, dense, elegant wood. The Diospyros are widespread trees, and native species of persimmon can be found in East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Philippines, and North America.
Persimmon berries (or fruit, as people call them) are an excellent source of dietary fiber, manganese, and beta-carotene (which people are always banging on about, but which I think is overrated). They do not otherwise contain significant nutrients…except perhaps sugars (once they have been sufficiently ripened or bletted). Unripe persimmons are astringent and somewhat indigestible. Indeed, green persimmons are noted for sometimes causing bezoars in humans who eat lots of green persimmons–the unripened flesh polymerizes into a woody ball which traps other food materials. These horrifying lumps can necessitate surgery (although apparently coca-cola dissolves them).
Persimmon trees are rugged and grow fast. Not only do their blossoms emerge after their leaves, which protects the buds from frost, they can also survive in polluted or unfavorable situations. My grandfather had a garden and a fruit orchard next to the Chesapeake Bay. The East Coast is slowly (or maybe not-so-slowly) receding into the ocean and the persimmons lived shockingly close to the saltwater until Hurricane Fran knocked them down in 1996. Throwing a football around while running across the slippery rotting fruit is my foremost persimmon memories, although I have also drunk the Korean spicy punch called sujeonggwa (and I found it delightful). Maybe I should try making a persimmon pie!
Additionally there is a beautiful autumnal orange color named after persimmon. It is a mid-tone orange with hints of red, almost the same hue as senior republicans, but slightly darker with woody brown notes. I like to write about seasonally appropriate colors, and I can hardly think of a hue more suited to early November (unless it is some sort of russet or woodland gray).
Well, the 2016 election is finally over. And I sort of got my wish–all three branches of government are fully united and deadlock is over. Plus we have our own Kim Jong-un now, a glorious orange child-monarch of absolute privilege who is beholden to no one and obeys no rules. Perhaps we can use this loose cannon to deal with North Korea once and for all, before they get long-range nuclear missiles or trade warfare leaves China with nothing to lose. Oh! and maybe Newt Gingrich will finally get his moon base. Anyway, we can talk about affairs of the world again in 2020 (if any of us are alive)…or maybe in 2018 if demographics moves faster than the statisticians say.
But the end of the never-ending election brings up one big problem: what is anyone going to write about now?
Fortunately Ferrebeekeeper has the answer the nation craves: Ancistrus–the endearing bushynose catfish! These armored catfish from South America (and Panama) have faces so ridiculous and ugly that they are actually adorable. Ancistrus catfish are part of the Loricariidae: armored suckermouth catfish which live on plant material. Many of the 70 species of Ancistrus catfish live in the Amazon Basin, but some live in other South America river systems–or up in Panama. Females have a few short bristles poking out from around their mouths, but males have a magnificent beard of tendrils running from their midface.
Male Ancistrus catfish are dutiful parents. They hide in underwater dens and guard clutches of eggs which the females lay upside down sticking to the roof. When the fry hatch, the father guards them when they are little and vulnerable. Female catfish like dutiful fathers, and they are amorously receptive to males who have clutches of young (since successful males tend to have multiple batches of eggs). It has been speculated that the tendrils actually evolved to help males look like they have young in low-light dating situations. Undoubtedly these tendrils also help the catfish feel and taste their way around in low light situations (although the fish, like all catfish, are blessed with an astonishing array of senses).
Three species of Ancistrus are, in fact, true troglobites: they dwell in underwater caves and have lost most of their pigmentation (and their eyes are becoming less acute and withering away). The other species of Ancistrus are pretty stylishly colored too: they tend to be covered with yellow or white spots. I think we can finally agree that this is a face we can all get behind!
Hilary Clinton should be our president. If you are a voting-age United States citizen you should vote Democratic up and down the ticket.
Now, admittedly Hilary is 1) grasping, 2) secretive, and 3)shifty , but she exhibits these traits well within the ordinary operating tolerances of American politicians. Indeed, in the right light, and, with a bit of squinting, these traits could be 1) ambition, without which, no one would be a politician to begin with, 2) the ability to plan, and, 3) the ability to compromise and change tack based on the circumstances. Additionally, she personally knows every important leader in the world. Above all, she is a workaholic, a smart person, and somebody who cares that the nation succeeds and prospers.
East Flatbush, the Afro-Caribbean immigrant neighborhood where I live now reminds me greatly of Clay County—in bad ways and good ones. Poverty, addiction and and feuding are big problems, but the great bravery, loyalty, and personal generosity of the inhabitants tends to keep everyone moving forward and make life worthwhile. The distinction between city and country is a false one. The distinction between Americans of different races, religions, and genders is likewise not so big as some people would make it out to be. Democrats for all of their flaws, believe in a united nation. Lately Republicans are deliberately dividing us so they can get everything they and they alone want. The Democrats are wrong-headed and frustrating. They tend to neglect the two most important issues in front of us, research and national defense. But Republicans have stopped caring about these issues as well and they are actively trying to injure the nation so that they can advance their own agenda. This political infighting is causing people to lose faith in the system (which feeds into the “government is broken” death cycle which is so dangerous).
The United States needs to be careful. The Han Dynasty and the Soviet Union stopped thinking they were countries and suddenly they were not. We are the United States of America, but it could be otherwise. Anyone who wants to be president should recognize that the nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from West Virginia and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair–and all sorts of people from everywhere else (Hillary Clinton, an Appalachian who ended up in New York, knows this) . The states and their people are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. Let us remember that on election day…and all of the other days after that. We must work hard with President Clinton so that the election of 2020 is not so divisive and awful.
Throughout October, I had the uneasy feeling that I was missing something….and lo! such was indeed the case… Sadly, I somehow forgot about the Shepheardes Calender October eclogue. I am now faced with an unappealing choice. Either I must publish the October chapter swiftly, before your memory of October fades away forever, or I must wait for next year. The Shephearde’s Calender came out in 1579, and the passage of the years is not making it any easier to understand, so I think we better have a belated little piece of October in November. On the plus side, the October eclogue actually makes sense: Cuddy is lamenting the poet’s life and the meager remuneration thereof. It all sounds too familiar somehow…. Here it is.
A R G V M E N T.
IN Cuddie is set out the perfecte paterne of a Poete, whishe finding no maintenaunce of his state and studies, complayneth of the contempte of Poetrie, and the causes thereof: Specially hauing bene in all ages, and euen amongst the most barbarous alwayes of singular accounpt & honor, & being indeede so worthy and commendable an arte: or rather no arte, but a diuine gift and heauenly instinct not to bee gotten by laboure and learning, but adorned with both: and poured into the witte by a certaine [enthusiasmos], and celestiall inspiration, as the Author hereof els where at large discourseth, in his booke called the English Poete, which booke being lately come to my hands, I mynde also by Gods grace vpon further aduisement to publish.
Cuddy, for shame hold up thy heavy Head,
And let us cast with what delight to chace,
And weary this long lingring Phoebus’ Race.
Whylom thou wont the Shepherd’s Lads to lead,
In Rimes, in Riddles, and in Bidding base:
Now they in thee, and thou in sleep art dead.
Piers, I have piped earst so long with pain,
That all mine Oaten Reeds been rent and wore;
And my poor Muse hath spent her spared Store,
Yet little Good hath got, and much less Gain.
Such Pleasance makes the Grashopper so poor,
And lig so laid, when Winter doth her strain.
The dapper Ditties thee I wont devise,
To feed Youth’s Fancy, and the flocking Fry,
Delighten much: what I the bett for-thy?
They han the Pleasure, I a slender Prize.
I beat the Bush, the Birds to them do fly:
What good thereof to Cuddy can arise?
Cuddy, the Praise is better than the Price,
The Glory eke much greater than the Gain:
O what an honour is it, to restrain
The Lust of lawless Youth with good Advice?
Or prick them forth with Pleasance of thy Vein,
Whereto thou list their trained Wills entice.
Soon as thou ‘gins to set thy Notes in frame,
O how the rural Routs to thee do cleave!
Seemeth thou doost their Soul of Sense bereave,
All as the Shepherd, that did fetch his Dame
From Pluto’s baleful Bower withouten leave:
His Musick’s Might the hellish Hound did tame.
So praysen Babes the Peacock’s spotted Train,
And wondren at bright Argus’ blazing Eye;
But who rewards him ere the more for-thy?
Or feeds him once the fuller by a grain?
Sike Praise is Smoke, that sheddeth in the Sky;
Sike Words been Wind, and wasten soon in vain.
Abandon then the base and viler Clown,
Lift up thy self out of the lowly Dust;
And sing of bloody Mars, of Wars, of Giusts;
Turn thee to those that weld the aweful Crown,
To doubted Knights, whose woundless Armour rusts,
And Helms unbruzed, wexen daily brown.
There may thy Muse display her fluttering Wing,
And stretch her self at large from East to West;
Whither thou list in fair Elisa rest,
Or if thee please in bigger Notes to sing,
Advance the Worthy whom she loveth best,
That first the white Bear to the Stake did bring.
And when the stubborn Stroke of stronger Stounds,
Has somewhat slackt the Tenor of thy String;
Of Love and Lustihead tho mayst thou sing,
And carrol loud, and lead the Millers round;
All were Elisa one of thilk same Ring,
So mought our Cuddy’s Name to Heaven sound.
Indeed the Romish Tityrus, I hear,
Through his Mecoenas left his Oaten Reed,
Whereon he earst had taught his Flocks to feed;
And laboured Lands to yield the timely Ear;
And eft did sing of Wars and deadly Dreed,
So as the Heavens did quake his Verse to hear.
But ah! Mecoenas is yclad in Clay,
And great Augustus long ygo is dead;
And all the worthies liggen wrapt in Lead,
That matter made for Poets on to play.
For ever, who in Derring-do were dread,
The lofty Verse of hem was loved aye.
But after Vertue ‘gan for Age to stoup,
And mighty Manhood brought a bed of ease;
The vaunting Poets found nought worth a Pease,
To put in preace among the learned Troup:
Tho ‘gan the Streams of flowing Wits to cease,
And sunbright Honour pen’d in shameful Coup.
And if that any Budds of Poesy,
Yet of the old Stock ‘gan to shoot again:
Or it Mens Follies mote so force to fain,
And roll with rest in Rimes of Ribaudry;
Or as it sprang, it wither must again:
Tom Piper makes us better Melody.
O peerless Poesie, where is then thy place?
If not in Princes Palace thou dost sit
(And yet is Princes Palace the most fit)
Ne Breast of baser Birth doth thee embrace;
Then make thee Wings of thine aspiring Wit,
And, whence thou cam’st, fly back to Heaven apace.
Ah Percy, it is all too weak and wan,
So high to sore and make so large a flight:
Her peeced Pineons been not so in plight,
For Colin fits such famous Flight to scan;
He, were he not with Love so ill bedight,
Would mount as high, and sing as soot as Swan.
Ah Fon, for Love does teach him climb so high
And lifts him up out of the loathsom Mire:
Such immortal Mirror, as he doth admire,
Would raise one’s Mind above the starry Sky,
And cause a caitive Courage to aspire:
For lofty Love doth loath a lowly Eye.
All otherwise the state of Poet stands;
For lordly Love is such a Tyrant fell,
That where he rules, all Power he doth expell,
The vaunted Verse a vacant Head demands,
Ne wont with crabbed Care the Muses dwell:
Unwisely weaves, that takes two Webs in hand.
Who ever casts to compass weighty Prize,
And think to throw out thundering Words of Threat,
Let pour in lavish Cups and thrifty Bits of Meat;
For Bacchus’ Fruit is friend to Phoebus’ Wise:
And when with Wine the Brain begins to sweat,
The Numbers flow as fast as Spring doth rise.
Thou kenst not, Percie, how the Rime should rage;
O if my Temples were distain’d with Wine,
And girt in Girlonds of wild Ivy Twine,
How I could rear the Muse on stately Stage,
And teach her tread aloft in Buskin line,
With queint Bellona in her Equipage.
But ah, my Courage cools ere it be warm,
For-thy content us in this humble Shade:
Where no such troublous Tides han us assaid,
Here we our slender Pipes may safely charm.
And when my Goats shall han their Bellies laid,
Cuddy shall have a Kid to store his Farm.
Agitante calescimus illo, &c.
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!