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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists). Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history. One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty. The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red). These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago: laying out fine clothes and setting the table. One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch. The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.
The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries. Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”). Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires. The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea. To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument. But look at these amazing paintings! Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.
The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right. The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life. Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines. If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.
These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.
For years my most popular blog post was about leprechauns…so I need to make some Saint Patrick’s art pronto! However before we get there, here are some weird green flounder artworks to lead up to the holiday. Spring is almost here, even if the thermometer says otherwise. Some kelly green artwork should remind us of that fact (even if flatfish are not traditionally spring green).
Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter. It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry. The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.
I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful. The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power. Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages. However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration). The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)
This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival). Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention. There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.
Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness. The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food. The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict. Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea. Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers. His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden. Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy. Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden. The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.
Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness. That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power. Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement. Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).
Saturday (January 28th, 2017) was Chinese New Year! It’s now year 4714, the year of the fire rooster! Holy smokes, that sounds like an intense animal. Ferrebeekeeper is going to celebrate the spring festival with a whole week devoted to chickens (especially roosters). I write a lot about other animals, but I owe a truly inconceivable debt to chickens, since chicken and rice are my staple foods. Indeed, I eat so many chickens that, I am probably going to get to the afterlife and find hundreds of thousands of angry spirit chickens waiting for me with flame eyes and needle sharp ghost beaks. A week of pro-chicken posts can only help when that day comes.
Tomorrow we will talk about the ancestral wild chickens—the red junglefowl of the subcontinent—and how they became humankind’s favorite bird (if you look at the scale of chicken farming, I think you will agree that no mighty eagle, or super-intelligent pet parrot can compare in our collective esteem). We have some other observations to make about chickens as domestic animals and some rooster anecdotes. A brain-damaged rooster was the animal sidekick in Disney’s latest (amazing) princess film. My parents have an ugly multicolor rooster who is somehow endearing himself to them. Before then though, so I have something on this first workday of, uh, 4714, I would like to present these 4 chicken themed flounders.
The one at the top is a fairly straightforward rooster, greeting the dawn from the back of a turbot which is swimming between classical urns and stars which look like flowers. We will talk more later about the second flounder/chicken hybrid (which not only evokes the lost world of zoomorphs, but also speaks to my roommate’s latest creative/spiritual/magical pursuits (?). This leaves the third flatfish (in glowing green), a clear allegory of the serpent tempting humankind to taste chickens (as various mythical animals and imps excluded from creation look on from beyond the charmed circle).
Finally, there is a contortionist aiming her bow at a target beyond this world as a glowing multicolor cock stares her beadily in the eye. The sable flounder is surrounded by bats in the crepuscular sky as well as an armadillo and a horny toad. We will talk more about chickens tomorrow, but these images should give you plenty to think about as you start off the new year.
It’s Friday the 13th today and I made a little show of unlucky flounder drawings to celebrate the occasion…unfortunately (or perhaps predictably) after I handed them over to my gallerist, I realized that I had accidentally erased the digital photographs I made. I only have pictures of the three drawings I photographed for Instagram. Gah! this is sad and frustratind, but it is 12:30 AM here, and I am not going to have time to conceive a whole new blog post (not if I want to be able to comprehend infernally over-complicated transactional spreadsheets with any degree of comprehension tomorrow). So, here are three of the thirteen thirteen-themed flounder.
With its engraving-style lines and elaborate ornamentation (and its green color) the first flounder 9at the top) evokes currency. the title is “Banknote Flounder” and I already sold it! Yet if you look closely at the ornate margins, you will see they are filled with little parasites and scavengers. The Latin phrase means (roughly) “fishing using a golden hook” (which is funny considering that I immediately sold this picture…which looks like money).
The second picture features a lovely leopard gecko and thirteen colorful dots. It has thirteen translated into other mathematical notations (hexidecimal and binary). the flounder’s back is covered with various spirals, fractal patterns, and chaos scribbles which also denote different systems of order. Here is a second phot of it in different light.
Finally, just for fun, there is a “Luckyduck Flounder” with a cartoon cat, a good-hearted duck, and a shepherds primitic tally for thirteen. the flounder is attractively mottled and seems broadly happy.
Of course there are ten more thirteen themed flounder out there, but you will just have to imagine what they are like until I get my act together and learn to save images to the cloud right away. Although…come to think of it, there is another Friday 13th in October this year [spooky floundery music plays].
I promised a post with New Year’s Resolutions, but we’re already up to January 10th. The year is whipping by fast. What happened?
On New Years Day I looked around to take stock and I noticed that I have become middle-aged and I am a failure on pretty much every level. I have no wife and children. I have no towering art achievements (other than those that hang on my own walls seen by no one but myself). I have no fame. I have no money. I have a new job which takes all of my concentration and plays to none of my strengths. Waking up every morning to go into that thing is like going to…well, there is no need to get into it on this public forum, but let it suffice to say I really have to expand my talents quickly.
I think my blog readership is dwindling, possibly because I write less because of time constraints, but also possibly because my content is slipping or just because my posts are becoming depressing (for example…this one). Not just that! My country is swiftly becoming a fascist failed state. After a few fat cow (fat cat?) years when the masters vote to give everything worthwhile to themselves and break everything else, there is going to be no upcoming boom in the future. Plus, in the not-so-distant periphery of doom, the machines are coming for all of us anyway.
This is all a bit discouraging. Especially since, in our primate world, people tend to be drawn towards blustery self-confidence even if it is all false and made up.
All of which is a maudlin way of saying that this year’s resolutions are going to need to be really good. Here’s what I have so far, but maybe you can help me out a bit. In 2017, I resolve to:
1) Finish the Four Great Classics of Chinese Literature: I have actually already read three of the four, so this is almost cheating…except each of these things is a thousand plus pages long. Also, they also all have casts with hundreds–or thousands–of characters (with superficially similar Chinese names) and Chinese literature is almost impossibly sad. But the final one, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is different than the other four in fundamental disturbing ways. I will flesh this resolution out more in tomorrow’s post.
2) Get really good at boring transactional work with lots of numbers and pettifogging details. I have always fled from this horrible stuff, but there is nowhere left to flee. Whenever I try something, there is a spreadsheet, or a collections list, or an unimaginably complex tax bill, or some other organizational challenge in the way. It ends now. I have decided to change my attitude. I LOVE my dayjob. I can’t wait to go back tomorrow. I love nightmarish spreadsheets. I thrive on monetary sums and incomprehensible alphanumeric codes. From now on, I am going to be the best at . If you need help doing you taxes or refinancing, you just call me. You have to use the time.
3) Keep up my art production. Despite less than ideal circumstances, I made an immense amount of art last year. I improved too (albeit in a direction towards beautiful visionary madness rather than towards realism) . This year, I will work even harder and produce even more. And I’m going to take it out in the world and show it to people too (if for no other reason than the fact that my walls are full). Just you watch! Also, do you maybe happen to know anybody in the art world?
4) Speaking of jobs and the art world. I am going to get much better at applications, and I am going to send them out by the score. Last year I resolved not to be upset if my applications were rejected, and I failed at that somewhat (grumble). This year i just resolve to apply more. Who cares how I feel afterwards so long as the darn things get written and go out.
5) Apologize less. for example I was going to apologize for this ridiculously autobiographical post…but 2017 showed that those who apologize for themselves are crushed by society. What I have written here is unflinchingly honest and nakedly forthright. if life is an emotional roller coaster than so be it. There are ups and downs, but you can’t doubt who you really are.
I have not thrown away my sword. I will not lie down in the frozen mud and give up . There are wonders ahead, readers! Come with me. I know there has been some raggedness around the edges these last few years and I don’t pretend the coming years will be any easier. They may be a lot harder. Yet we have come so far, and it was amazing! We cannot let ignorance and greed win out. We mustn’t give in to despair. Life is so beautiful, and we are not so far from all of our goals as it seems. Not at all.
Ahem…cough. Anyway those are my goals (plus eating more vegetables and taking my cat to the vetrinarian). What do you have planned? Please tell me. I know I have been responding slowly (uh, i vow to better about that too), but I really read them all and they mean alot to me. Happy 2017! Come Tartarus or grievous flood, or any other damned challege WE ARE GOING TO AND MAKE IT GOOD.
The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well. It makes you wonder about 2017.
However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites. Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well). You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.
Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).
Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets). His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.
Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison. His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.
Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).
Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust. His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.
Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American. His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).
Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016). Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out. Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut. A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.
Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.
Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion). I have trouble with some of these concepts. After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.
and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.
Ferrebeekeeper has a great love of space-themed art. Yet the beginnings of western art as we know it today were not about space, but instead about religion. Christian iconography dominated: the heavens were not the literal heavens but instead the supernatural …uh…actually, never mind. This is a fresco by Giotto from the Arena Chapel. Giotto single-handedly reshaped the classical and medieval precepts of art (and remade our notion of visual culture). The Arena Chapel is his masterwork–a project where Byzantine opulence, Christian devotion, linear perspective, and new Italian realism converged to give birth to the European artistic tradition (although, to be sure, Western art had many grandparents…and lots of weird uncles that were an influence before–and after–Giotto).
Here is the birth of art…showing the birth of Christ, and there, proudly in the center of the composition, right above Jesus and the adoring Magi, is a comet which would not look out of place in nineteen-sixties space art. The flying ball of fire points directly into the manger where the astonished kings (and their even more astonished camels pay homage to the new-born savior who has appeared as a refugee child). It is a beautiful picture–and an unexpected appearance of outer space imagery right at the dawn of the 14th century as art began to manifest itself in familiar fashion.
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!