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Last Friday I took a walk from my company’s office on Wall Street up to a dinner party in Alphabet City. It was a lovely foggy night and lower Manhattan looked splendid and foreboding: the skyscrapers disappeared into the clouds as though they had no tops and weird glowing halos wreathed the many lights of the finance district. I decided to walk through City Hall Park (which has a big Victorian fountain surrounded by flickering gaslamps which I like to look at), however, when I walked into the park I was stunned to see a large photoshopped sculpture/poster thing of two enormous cuttlefish mating on the entire planet! What could it mean? Has the mayor been reading Ferrebeekeeper? Have the cephalopods finally won a stake in city government?

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(also note the ammonite patterns on this shirt my mom made me)

Here is a shameless selfie of me with the aforementioned work…and it turned out it was not alone: the whole park was full of tentacles, sticky lizard limbs, and planetary bodies.

These sculptures are the environmentally themed artworks of Estonian artist, Katja Novitskova. I had wandered into her show by accident! She used digital technology (and microscopes and satellite imaging) to bring us a juxtaposition of small curious grasping creatures against a background of entire worlds. She particularly specializes in creatures which are the subject of extensive biomedical or biomechanical research—literal and figurative model organisms like the axolotl, the cuttlefish, and the little hydra.
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“EARTH POTENTIAL” (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

This theme is much in keeping with my own artwork which involves biological and historical cycles seen at differing temporal and spatial vantages. Yet because her works are so colorful and pleasing (and so photographic and digital) I am not inclined to view the successful Miss Novitskova with envy. The photographic sculptures remind me of Ranger Rick, the wonderful ecology-themed magazine of my childhood which always featured a “What in the World?” section of photographic sections removed from their original context and blown up. It was a real puzzle to figure out if you were looking at a vascular wall, a butterfly wing, or an aerial photo of the Nile Delta. Just thinking about these different scales (and the discomfiting similarities of appearance and perhaps even function) always blew my mind. So does Katja Novitskova’s artwork! I would like to thank her for putting it up in New York and wish her every success.
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EARTH POTENTIAL (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

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There was a huge thunderstorm in New York City this afternoon. Enormous black thunderheads loomed up above the skyscrapers and great peals of thunder echoed down the concrete canyons of Wall Street. Then a wall of water fell out of the sky. It was no easy matter getting up to Alphabet City to meet my friend after work, however when we stepped out of the restaurant, suddenly the clouds lifted for a second and the whole world glowed with an unholy and alien mauve. That is when I noticed a rainbow leading to this weirdly garish (and rather lovely) building across the street. Sadly my phone is not very good and you can barely see the rainbow–but it was there…pointing to the pot of gold that is somewhere here in New York. Or maybe it is a pride rainbow. At any rate it was splendid and I wish I had managed to take a better picture.

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I’m sorry this week got away from me and there were fewer posts than there should have been. I’ll see if I can put up a rare Saturday post tomorrow, but first here is a post about spring rain. Today there was a great monsoon-like storm which swept through New York and though it was gray and cold and filled the streets with water it was strangely beautiful too. I took these pictures from my office (I work on Wall Street, but believe me I am no overpaid master of finance: I think I might have fallen out of the middle class—through the bottom).
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Snow falls outside the New York Stock Exchange during a winter storm in New York

Anyway, in the picture at the top you can see the very beautiful and somewhat haunting City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, with its great sad art-deco faces. The building is underappreciated, but I think it is one of New York’s unheralded gems. If I look out the window to the right there is a sliver of the astonishingly beautiful portico of the stock exchange which features Mercury, fickle god of commerce conning the entire world (since my picture is pretty terrible I included a different picture which I stole from the internet immediately below it).
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Finally, here is a picture of the National City Bank Building which is currently owned by Cipriani. They regularly have obnoxious events with lots of red carpets and celebrities I don’t know, but I like the sheer number of heavy columns on their building. All of the Wall Street buildings look sort of good in the gray rain. I wish my pictures were better so you could feel the morose charm.
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The Last Judgement (Alex Gross, 2007, oil on canvas)

I failed to write a post for Martin Luther King Junior Day because I was out enjoying the holiday….just off gallivanting around the 19⁰ city (I guess that translates to -7 degrees in Celsius, in case my European readers mistakenly think I moved to Rangoon). To make up for the omission, here is a historically charged contemporary artwork by Alex Gross. Gross is a Los Angeles based artist who is part of the pop-surrealism movement which is based out there (aka “Low Brow” art). This painting is titled “The Last Judgement” and it portrays an anachronistic union between the races occurring in 1930s New York…among other things.

In the painting, Frederick Douglass, the great human rights leader and voice of abolition, weds a Chinese bride…or perhaps he is giving her away (the ceremonial import of his great sword and strawberry ice cream are unclear—although they suggest he has finally obtained power and leisure). The bride has left Chinese tradition behind enough to wear white, the bride’s color of purity in the west but the color of mourning in China. There is an anxious cast to her features which suggest that she may be with Douglass as a symbolic rebuke to the racist and xenophobic immigration acts which bedeviled the United States in the late nineteenth century (reactionary laws which do not show the American democracy or melting pot at its strongest).

Around the two figures ancient WASP ghosts rise from the ground, but they are joyously photographing the moment and releasing butterflies. A coral snake curls at the couple’s feet, for the way forward is always filled with perils. In the background a blimp crashes into the Chrysler building…for the conturbations of the greater world continue, irrespective of the state of relations among our citizenry. I have no idea what the goat means: is she an outcast figure of disunity? A happy pet? An ancient agricultural figure showing up along with the resurrected dead? Who knows?

I am a big fan of pop-surrealism (aka “Low Brow”) art, though I hate both of its names. I like the ambiguous symbolic literary meld of figures from history and natural history. Such paintings must be interpreted, and there is often plenty of room for ambiguity which gives the mind great scope to contemplate aesthetics and the direction of human affairs. Gross’ emphasis on style, technique, and beauty is telling. This is a painting by someone who can paint well. It has beauty and narrative although the absurd anachronism of its cast and its implicit polemic threaten to overwhelm its winsome charms. Contemporary critics, distrustful of beauty and meaning, accuse the style of being intellectually facile. To them the symbols become merely pictorial and lose their meaning. I feel like that may sometimes be true of Mark Ryden, who does indeed seem to have lost sight of what Lincoln and pre-pubescent girls mean. Yet that isn’t true here. This painting is not located in the great morass of “irony” (where today’s art establishment wanders, phony, lost, and alienated). Instead this hearkens back to Puritan symbolic painting—if that had not been lumbered with the problems of the past. It is a vision from the artist’s heart of a more perfect America.

USS Maine Monument designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli

USS Maine Monument (designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli, 1913, marble)

Here is an image of my favorite war memorial sculpture in New York City (which has no lack of amazing memorial sculptures from conflicts throughout American history). This is a memorial to the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the battleship Maine unexpectedly exploded. When the battleship blew up, it was located in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and the event quickly became a casus belli for the Spanish-American War (a lop-sided conflict which announced the U.S. as a great world power). The events surrounding the destruction of the Maine–and the attendant yellow journalism, which led to war–are complicated and controversial: you can read about them elsewhere (although, frankly, it seems likely the battleship exploded because of an accident rather than due to Spanish perfidy). Today we are concentrating on Attilio Picarelli’s glorious sculpture, which was placed in Central Park at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1913. It is a triumphant celebration of American imperial might, but it is also a poignant evocation of the sodier’s forced estrangement from his family (which sometimes lasts forever–as in the case of the sailors of the Maine).

The Front of the Monument: The Antebellum State of Mind:  Courage Awaiting

The Front of the Monument: “The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting”

The monument takes the form of a classical trireme-style warship made of marble with a huge cenotaph in the middle. Atop the cenotaph is a gilded figure of Columbia–a pre Uncle Sam allegorical figure who represents America. All eyes tend to focus on the triumphant Columbia, who is riding in a seashell chariot drawn by three hippocampi (she is reputedly cast from metal from the actual cannons of the Maine, which were raised from the watery depths after the Spanish War was won), however it is the figures near the base which are finer artworks. In the front of the statue, Justice stretches out her arms in a plea for vengeance for the murdered seamen as the nation starts out for war. At her feet, a beautiful mother holds a disconsolate child (left at home by a soldier father or perhaps orphaned outright?). A muscular nude man (who represents the soldier) is forced to turn away from her. At the ships prow a beautiful youth holds a victory wreathe. On the right side of the statue is a half slumbering old sea god which looks like Proteus (and represents the Pacific Ocean). On the left side is an Athenian warrior reclining, whose warlike trappings are at odds with his serene pose and distant expression: he represents the Atlantic Ocean. At the back of the statue is a group of figures titled “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War”. The statue is engraved with the names of the men who died when the Maine sank.

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The stone figures are carved with unusual skill and grace which is so often absent in American civic statues. Their faces are solemn and beautiful and every line is simultaneously forceful and yet delicate. Although it takes time to tease out the allegorical meanings of the groupings, there is no mistaking the grave solemnity of the figures.

The back of the monument: "The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War."

The back of the monument: “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.”

[As a special weekend treat–and in keeping with this week’s theme, kindly find a repeat of a post about brown bullhead catfish from 3 years ago]

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions).

 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows:

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

“Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!”

My first paying job in New York City was working as a temporary paralegal for a white-shoe law firm.  The gig only lasted a night–but that time was very instructive. I was called in because there was a task so boring that none of the extremely bored people who worked in that great temple to dullness wanted to undertake it.  I came in at 8:30 PM in the evening and worked straight for 13 hours–after which they called a Cadillac to take me home.

There was an immense stack of old-timey dot printed financial records (the ones that were attached to each other by perforated edges to form a continuous spooling sheet).  This huge primitive spreadsheet detailed all of the transactions made by a group of companies in all states, territories, and dependencies over all time.  My job was to go through everything and find each time a certain sequence of numbers came up.  I then noted down the relevant numbers that appeared beside the sacred sequence on a computer spreadsheet.

Welcome to New York!

The main difficulty to this task (other than not despairing at the absurdity of human endeavor) was to keep one’s place on endless nearly identical sheets of densely printed numbers.  I therefore asked for a ruler or a straight edge and was told I would be provided with one immediately.  An hour later, at 9:30 PM, an immense packing crate suitable for, say an industrial microwave, arrived, delivered by expensive private messengers.  I opened it and found the box was filled with packing peanuts.  In the very middle, nearly lost, were two 75 cent plastic rulers.

This was an important lesson about business in New York.  It doesn’t matter whether a job is done cleverly or efficiently or even well.  It only matters that it be done as quickly as possible in the most expensive way possible.  I have always remembered this when following the news of finance and legal affairs in the morning papers.

Jamaica Bay (Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

New York City is fortunate to have a thriving wetland inside the city. Visitors who have flown in or out of JFK have seen the huge intertidal salt marsh known as Jamaica Bay which lies along the boder of Brooklyn and Queens.  Unfortunately the wetland has been eroding away into the Atlantic Ocean.  This is partly because the east coast is a receding coastline and partly because of overdevelopment: there are numerous large sewage treatment facilities around the bay.  The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been trying to clean up the bay and prevent the loss of a uniquely beautiful wilderness.  To do so they will need allies…little gray faceless allies. 

Jamaica Bay is there at the bottom right

Jamaica Bay is still host to 120 species of bird and 48 species of fish, however one particular keystone life form has gone missing. During the last 5 decades the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has vanished entirely from Jamaica Bay. The mollusks used to be so plentiful as to be a hindrance to navigation, but they gradually fell victim to overfishing and the pollution caused by 8 million pushy, pushy New Yorkers. 

All of this was true until two days ago (October 5, 2010) when the city laid down huge beds of oyster shells and reseeded Jamaica bay with endearing baby oysters.  The DEP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing and improving the water treatment plants around the bay to shrink nitrogen levels and give the oysters a fighting chance.

Artist's Conception of Jamaica Bay at present

Hopefully the young oysters will thrive and again become a backbone of the recovering bay ecosystem.  There are terrible perils out there facing the stalwart bivalves.  Stressed oysters are susceptible to two horrid diseases known as “Dermo and “MSX“, both virulent pathogens with the names of German industrial bands.  If the little mollusks can establish a foothold, filter feeding oysters are an immense boon to water quality.  One large adult can clean up to 48 gallons of water in 24 hours.  I’m rooting enthusiastically for the new neighbors. 

"They never asked to be heroes."

The most common catfish in New York State is the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus) a fish sometimes also gracelessly known as the “mud pout” or the “horned pout”.  The brown bullhead lacks the beauty and charisma of many other catfish.  It is not electrical, has no armor, does not walk, and does not grow to immense size (average fish are usually 14 inches long or smaller).   It has two-tone coloration: unremarkable brown above and off-white below (although, like most fish, it can adapt somewhat to local conditions). 

The Brown Bullhead Catfish

The fish does however illustrate one of the reasons I like catfish and write about them so much.  It is the most common catfish of New York State, a state marked by extreme differences of population density, landscape, temperature, and water quality. The brown bullhead is a hard-to-kill generalist which does well everywhere in the state (and throughout the east coast, the Great Lakes, the midwest, and the south).  It can be found in Prospect Park, a short walk from my apartment just as easily as in a cold Adirondack lake. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website describes the fish as follows: 

Brown bullheads are probably the most adaptable member of the catfish family and live in a wide variety of habitats. They exemplify the hardiness of catfishes in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in many cool Adirondack lakes and often abundant in warm water ponds, lakes, and larger, slow moving streams. They occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both muddy and gravelly bottoms.

The brown bullhead has the same exquisitely refined senses as other catfish.  Its whole body is covered with taste buds, which are particularly numerous on its eight barbels.  Though not especially large, the creature is strong, agile, and flexible.  An omnivore, the brown bullhead is protected from predators by the extremely sharp spines on its dorsal fin and its pectoral fins.  Both parents builds nests together and together they protect the eggs and even the young fry for a while after hatching.  Most astonishingly, the fish is heartily indifference to water pollution which makes it the foremost city catfish.  Below it is pictured with the other common New York City fish.  It is apparently a reasonably fun sportfish, although some fishing experts think that it is only suitable for child anglers (due to how extensively it can be found).   When not caught in polluted water it makes a tasty meal.

Whereas I usually write about invasive species coming from some exotic locale to the United States, the brown bullhead is the opposite.  When introduced abroad it has been the classic ugly American, stealing food and habitat from native species or eating them outright (which seems even more gauche than my habit of anxiously overtipping). Large populations have now established themselves in Europe, Russia, China, Australia, and New Zealand and the fish keep expanding their range.

"Free me petty human! Soon your world will belong to us!"

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