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Flounder Rover

In my art career I have been on an enormous flatfish binge. People have asked me what on earth this means, but unfortunately, it is hard to write about one’s own art. Therefore I am “crowd sourcing” my artist’s statement to the smartest and most sympathetic crowd I can find. Please, please let me know how you think I could phrase this better (and enjoy the fish!).
Wall of Dayglow flatfish

Asymmetry betokens a lack of equality or balance between the parts or aspects of a greater whole. Outwardly, the most asymmetric vertebrates are the flatfish, an order of carnivorous marine fish which are extensively fished for food and sport. In his art, Wayne Ferrebee adopts the flounder as a symbolic proxy to explore the growing asymmetry between the natural world and artifical manmade ecosystems. Simultaneously a lurking predator and a hapless victim of fishermen’s guile (and the shark’s ravenous gullet) the flounder is a tragicomic google-eyed mirror for humankind’s march towards ascendancy and disaster.

With a background in biology, history, toymaking and painting, Ferrebee utlilizes symbols and narratives to contextualize the role which organisms have in the context of larger life cycles. Thus a wheeled toy flatfish with a rotating musical painting becomes an oracular mirror for to seeing into the near future. A pleasure garden of glowing sphinxes, topiary, and musicians is revealed to be a disguised fish monster, waiting for the unwary aesthete. Beasts of the watery realm join with mythological beings from antiquity to show how our cherished aspirations contain poisonous hooks. Each of us thinks we are a heroic individual, yet we are also a tiny part of a billion-headed hydra. So too each artwork of dynamically intertwined symbols glows with hidden meaning. By represents the cycles within life, history, and paleontology, Ferrebee highlights patterns of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the perspective of a single lifetime.

Detail

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Here is a contemporary sculpture by a modern Chinese artist.  This is Pigeon’s House, by Cui Jie, a Shanghai-born artist who now lives in Beijing.  The work is an ugly amalgam of dull architectural styles: Bauhaus, Russian Futurism (which spawned countless identical state-sponsored heaps), Retro-futurism, and “International.”  It measures 4. 5 meters in height (15 feet) and is manufactured of metal.  Despite the unwholesome mélange of second-tier architectural styles, there is an appealing dynamism to the sculpture: lively metal pigeons metamorphose out of the skyline and take to the sky.

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The most common of styles give birth to the most common of birds, yet somehow there is a suggestion of freedom and dignity to just surviving and enduring in the great supercities which are increasingly the home for humankind.  Like the 21st century art world, these cities may seem to be homogenous, tedious, and so competitive as to prevent any creativity whatsoever.  Yet if one looks more closely one realizes that they are a living habitat…and even a sort of ecosystem…if only for prosaic animals and middling aspirations.  The work’s setting–a verdant field in rural England–further emphasizes the nature of sprawling urban habitats.

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 206, wood)

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 2016, wood)

A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy.  The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft.  But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth.  The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.

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“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol.  It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together.  Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.

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Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct.  There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens.  There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando.  There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike.   There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.

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The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it).  We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals.  The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity.  The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.

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Marisol self portrait with sculpture

Self Portrait with Sculpture, Marisol, 1965

Sad news from the art world:  Marisol Escobar (who went by the single name “Marisol”) died on April 30, 2016 at the age of 86. Marisol was one of my favorite living sculptors.  She turned away from minimalism and conceptualism (the emotionally and intellectually empty aesthetic forms which monopolize contemporary art) and built her own powerful visual idiom.  By mixing ancient and modern forms (and joyously combining 3 dimensional sculpture with 2 dimensional painting), Marisol created astonishing portrait sculptures which capture the humor, heroism, and conflicted self-identity of America in the sixties and seventies.

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Women and Dog (Marisol, 1964, wood, paint, mixed media)

Although she is loosely affiliated with the Pop movement, Marisol based her sculptures on Pre-Columbian sculptural forms. Her sculptures of people are like a combination of giant ancient sarcophagi, wooden toys, and folk painting.  The rude forms are sometimes grotesque—but they capture true emotional intensity…and real humor (so much a part of life, but so infrequently seen in fine art).

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Dinner Date (Marisol, 1963. wood, paint, mixed media)

Just as three-dimensional objects have many sides: Marisol’s wooden people present different aspects of their identity from different angles—to such a degree that they have multiple faces or too many arms.  This multitudinous bricolage of overlapping identities was second nature to Marisol, a French Venezuelan who moved to Los Angeles as a teen ager. She was deeply involved in the private asceticism of Catholicism, yet she was also overexposed sixties celebrity in New York’s libertine art world.

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“Mi Mama y Yo” (Marisol, 1968, mixed media).

Her works often portray celebrities du jour—and the multitudinous juxtaposed iconography of the portraits gives insight into the strange stagecraft of fame.  In the portrait of John Wayne below, the famous actor has been grafted, centaur-like, to his horse.  Multiple blockish hands reach for multiple fake guns.  Only the solemn politician’s face and the quotidian cowboy boots seem real. The cartoonish formulaic aspects of Hollywood oat operas is combined with larger-than-life western iconography, which is combined with a real man.  The synthesis provides a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic portrait of the actor.

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John Wayne (Marisol, 1963, wood, paint, mixed media)

A famous anecdote about Marisol concerns her taking part in a panel discussion with four famous male artists.  She arrived wearing a white mask which she kept on during the discussion.  Marisol was a famous beauty and the crowd began to chant for her to remove the mask. When the hullabaloo drowned out the conversation, she untied the mask…only to reveal that her face was made up exactly the same way.

 

Her shyness and unease at the performative spectacle that is identity gave her unique ability to discern and portray the multiple faces–greedy, solemn, sly, sad, and laughing aloud–which we all wear.

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The Blossom Monster Sculpture (last year, after I had just made it)

Last year, for a cherry blossom viewing party, I laboriously built a human sized blossom monster out of papier-mâché.  But what does one do with a blossom monster when the party is over and the blossoms have fallen?  I really meant to throw him away. Yet, somehow, whenever I went to discard him, something else always came up.  He was lurking in a different part of the garden..or it was not garbage day. There was always and excuse to save the fluorescent monster, no matter how threadbare he got.

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But winter was not kind to him: he had sunk to the ground and his legs were coming off. One of his glitter lantern eyes was gone. It really was time for him to go (plus I made a new group of blossom monsters to celebrate this year’s cherry blossoms).  So I had to toss the poor art creature (a fate which will seem instantly familiar to arts professionals).

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However, once I threw him in the garbage he gained his creative fulfillment. Indeed the pathos of the discarded monster was quite moving.  His last act was his finest and now I will forever think of him like the maimed protagonist of a Caravaggio religious painting, with divine light shining on his fallen countenance.

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Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo:  Museo de América de Madrid)

Moche Ceramic Vessel in the form of a Crab (Photo: Museo de América de Madrid)

Yesterday’s post for World Oceans Day did not sate my need to write about the endless blue bounding.  I am therefore dedicating all of the rest of this week’s blog posts to marine themes as well (“marine” meaning relating to the sea—not the ultimate soldiers). Today we are traveling back to South America to revisit those masters of sculpture, the Moche, a loose federation of agricultural societies which inhabited the Peruvian coastal valleys from 100 AD – 900 AD.

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

Moche Vessel: A Human with a Large Fish

I keep thinking about the beauty and power of Moche sculptural art, and the Moche definitely had strong feelings about the ocean.   In fact an informal survey of Moche art online indicates that their favorite themes were cool-looking animals, human sacrifice, the ocean, grown-up relations between athletic consenting adults, and crazy nose-piercings.

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Golden Moche Nose-Ornament in the shape of Lobsters

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

Moche Sea Turtle Vessel

You will have to research some of these on your own, but I have included a selection of beautifully made Moche art of sea creatures.  Look at the expressiveness of the crab, the turtle, and particularly the beautiful lobsters (which are part of a large pectoral type ceremonial ornament held in place through the nose).  Moche ceramics are as rare and beautiful in their way as Roman paintings or Greek sculpture.  I wish we knew more about Moche culture and mythology to contextualize these striking works—but the outstanding vigor and grace of the figures is enough to feel something of what this vivid culture was like.

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish

Moche Ceramic Vessel shaped like a Fish

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

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There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).

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Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

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Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.

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Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

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Serpent d'Océan  (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.

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.”

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

If you have been keeping your eyes on the internet lately you have probably seen the shimmering tapestry of pink, purple, red, and white blossoms which is the “tree of forty fruits”. This is a stone-fruit tree which has been agonizingly grafted together out of numerous branches from heritage peach, apricot, plum, apple, quince, cherry and other rose-family fruit trees into a frilly pink Frankenstein of a fruit tree. The root stock is a hardy plum tree to which the other stocks are added one by one. The effect is simultaneously garish and beautiful—particularly in blossom season (though it must be impressive to see the tree in early fall when it is laden with heterogenous fruits).

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The tree of forty fruits seems like it might have been designed by a mad scientist, a huge biotech corporation, or a high-minded super-villain (like Poison Ivy or someone), but it was actually the creation of an art professor, Sam Van Aken. Van Aken gre up in rural Pennsylvania and he wanted to save the vanishing heirloom fruits of his youth. In an article about his project in Epicurious, Van Aken explained why he is working to safeguard these classic fruits, “In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing,” To him the number forty has a talismanic quality which represents superabundance. He has already created 16 of the intricately grafted trees and he dreams of spreading them around the country and perhaps the globe.

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The tree of forty fruits is a living sculpture—a bizarre amalgam of trees, agriculture, and diligent manual artistry. It isn’t just a splicing together of different tree species, it is a hybridization of ancient fundamental human pursuits. If you told the nurserymen and sculptors of Babylon that we would live in a world with such a tree, they would applaud. So should we!

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