Thursday, January 31, 2008

Painting post

There is a certain cosmic element about large battles described in epics like the Iliad or the Mahabharata. Maybe the forces unleashed from the large seething masses of humanity numbering in the tens of thousands as they stand to square off in what could be the last day or night in their lives evokes out of control celestial bodies – or maybe it is the magnitude of destruction about to unfold while rational thought remains crucified at the battlefield entrance helplessly watching the bloodletting that ensues… I am not sure, but there is something other worldly about them that pricks our atavistic core. Childhood memories are fairly strong – or so neurologists say – it must be because our brain cells have not fully formed then and any available information sliver is indelibly singed on our neurons… For some reason, to this day, I remember vicariously participating in the imaginary battles while the warring clans clashed under the overcast demeanor of Kurukshetra through comic books such as the Amar Chitra Katha

One such scene from this epic tale unfolds with two very large armies about to face off each other over a vast battleground. Moments before the time of reckoning draws near and that first arrow rends the sky, one of the commanders experiences a sudden burst of self-doubt and starts a dialogue with his charioteer on the nature of humanity, the soul, our existence and filial duty. A striking tableau develops when his charioteer drives the chariot out to the midlines of the battle field and starts to explain the answers to some of the questions posed. The interesting dialogue between the doubtful commander and his self assured charioteer is so powerful that it forms a separate section of the Mahabharata called the Gita. Though I would consider certain portions of the conversation between the two to be bit facile, a lot of the principles laid out in the exchange thousands of years back does resonate even today.

Even if the words did prod my conscience in many ways, the aspect of the epic that was most retained in my mind from all those surreptitious nights of comic book mythology was this scene from the battle. This painting is an attempt at trying to capture some those crucial moments before the impending battle. This scene is a familiar one and numerous Indian homes have a semblance of this tableau in some framed format. Owing to the scale and the gravity of the scene, I decided to try something large scale (though it was not really necessary) – I had not done anything so large before and the aspect of size in and of itself presented its own peculiar problems. Finished, the painting is about nine feet wide and six feet tall. I did make a mess of our basement completing the thing and am not sure how long that is going to take to clean the oil paint mish mash left on the floor. It took about two and a half months for me to go through the motions of the initial measurements, sketches, gesso ground and finally painting the canvas in three sections – the middle first, followed by the left and finally the right side.

This post also appears in Art and Perception here.

Sunil, ‘Everyman and Charioteer’, Oil on canvas, 101" X 73"

60 mph sunsets

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Gandhi was killed sixty years ago today (Jan 30, 1948). In pugnacious times as these, it is instructive to go back to some of his principles (even if some of them were deemed utterly pacifist) – many of them are laid out in his book (now online) 'An autobiography or The story of my experiments with truth' here.

An excerpt (takes place in a time of rampant apartheid in South Africa) that probably led him to change his entire life is copied below.

On the seventh or eighth day after my arrival, I left Durban. A first class seat was booked for me. It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me. 'Look, now,' said he, 'this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may need.'

I thanked him and asked him not to be anxious.

The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. Beddings used to be provided at this station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. 'No,' said I, 'I have one with me.' He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a 'coloured' man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, 'Come along, you must go to the van compartment.'

'But I have a first class ticket,' said I.

'That doesn't matter,' rejoined the other. 'I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.'

'I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.'

'No, you won't,' said the official. 'You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out.'

'Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily.'

The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat in the waiting room, keeping my hand-bag with me, and leaving the other luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Toddler Ab Ex

When I came home this evening, our son had this bit of water color based ab-ex art on the dining table...

A taste of the union

Warren E. Buffet tells us a story... Hopefully we do not end up with this as a state of the union...

Read the full article here. An educational excerpt below...

"Lets take a wildly fanciful trip with to two isolated, side-by-side islands of equal size, Squanderville and Thriftville. Land is the only capital asset on these islands, and their communities are primitive, needing only food and producing only food. Working eight hours a day, in fact, each inhabitant can produce enough food to sustain himself or herself. And for a long time that's how things go along. On each island everybody works the prescribed eight hours a day, which means that each society is self-sufficient.

Eventually, though, the industrious citizens of Thriftville decide to do some serious saving and investing, and they start to work 16 hours a day. In this mode they continue to live off the food they produce in eight hours of work but begin exporting an equal amount to their one and only trading outlet, Squanderville.

The citizens of Squanderville are ecstatic about this turn of events, since they can now live their lives free from toil but eat as well as ever. Oh, yes, there's a quid pro quo -- but to the Squanders, it seems harmless: All that the Thrifts want in exchange for their food is Squanderbonds (which are denominated, naturally, in Squanderbucks).

Over time Thriftville accumulates an enormous amount of these bonds, which at their core represent claim checks on the future output of Squanderville. A few pundits in Squanderville smell trouble coming. They foresee that for the Squanders both to eat and to pay off -- or simply service -- the debt they're piling up will eventually require them to work more than eight hours a day. But the residents of Squanderville are in no mood to listen to such doomsaying.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Thriftville begin to get nervous. Just how good, they ask, are the IOUs of a shiftless island? So the Thrifts change strategy: Though they continue to hold some bonds, they sell most of them to Squanderville residents for Squanderbucks and use the proceeds to buy Squanderville land. And eventually the Thrifts own all of Squanderville.

At that point, the Squanders are forced to deal with an ugly equation: They must now not only return to working eight hours a day in order to eat -- they have nothing left to trade -- but must also work additional hours to service their debt and pay Thriftville rent on the land so imprudently sold. In effect, Squanderville has been colonized by purchase rather than conquest.

It can be argued, of course, that the present value of the future production that Squanderville must forever ship to Thriftville only equates to the production Thriftville initially gave up and that therefore both have received a fair deal. But since one generation of Squanders gets the free ride and future generations pay in perpetuity for it, there are -- in economist talk -- some pretty dramatic "intergenerational inequities."

Sooner or later the Squanderville government, facing ever greater payments to service debt, would decide to embrace highly inflationary policies -- that is, issue more Squanderbucks to dilute the value of each. After all, the government would reason, those irritating Squanderbonds are simply claims on specific numbers of Squanderbucks, not on bucks of specific value. In short, making Squanderbucks less valuable would ease the island's fiscal pain.

That prospect is why I, were I a resident of Thriftville, would opt for direct ownership of Squanderville land rather than bonds of the island's government. Most governments find it much harder morally to seize foreign-owned property than they do to dilute the purchasing power of claim checks foreigners hold. Theft by stealth is preferred to theft by force."

If the above story sounds like poppycock, then you definitely should look at this article over at the Washington Post that delves into just how much of us (or is that US) is being bought off by the Chinese...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Applications invited for more superpowers...

An epitaph for England appears in the conservative New Centurion after Gordon Brown joined twenty-six other European countries in signing the Lisbon Treaty last month. I must say it is beneficial… Having two or three superpowers around is not a bad thing – even if it is in the form of a loose coalescing of member states as they dream of in a nascent Europa or the blitzkrieg oligarchic formula currently practiced over at Putinstan… One will need to get more permissions before starting something as big as Iraq... The rumbles have been heard over in the distance with calls for an African Union...

After Dead Souls by Allen Ginsberg

Where O America are you
going in your glorious
automobile, careening
down the highway
toward what crash
in the deep canyon
of the Western Rockies,
or racing the sunset
of the Golden Gate
toward what wild city
jumping with jazz
on the Pacific Ocean!

----------- Spring 1952

Sunday, January 27, 2008

An interesting story...

A story I read on the Antioch Review... (could not help but post here - a useful commentary on what sometimes gets lost in cultural translation)

My Wife, Their Sister by Robert A. Rosenstone

Only after the ceremony did I learn that when you marry a Muslim woman she remains related to her brothers as well – about half a billion of them. This bit of knowledge became evident on our travels to lands where Muslims and Jews live or once lived together in close proximity, but the first lesson came in London's Euston Station after we drag three large suitcases off a train and I go to search for a luggage cart while Aisha stands in the crowded concourse, guarding the bags. A middle aged Pakistani man in a uniform that seems to connect him to the station sidles up to her and asks: Can I help you, sister?

I return with a cart to see a dark man, bent painfully low beneath the weight of our suitcases, leading Aisha towards and then down a steep staircase to the lower level of the station, then out along a platform to distant taxi stands. I draw close, thinking perhaps I should help him with his burden, but Aisha looks over her shoulder and, her right hand palm towards me, waves me off. She repeats the gesture when I draw near and put my hand on my wallet just as he lifts the bags into the trunk. Aisha smiles at him, says shukran, and gets into the cab. I jump in next to her and say: You're not going to tip him?

Of course not. It would be an insult to tip your brother.

Photo of the eastern shore of Staten Island, January 25, 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Oil painting: Work in progress

I managed to finish up another third of the large scale oil painting originally talked about here. This is about six feet in both directions now. Have another third to go...

Notes on a Korean artist

I was over at Kim Foster gallery last week to see the featured exhibition when I happened to run into a very singular piece of artwork hung in an obscure corner of that gallery. Approaching it from afar, it looked like sculptural relief on canvas with a highly patterned black and white surface that exaggerated shadows and spaces. On closer examination, one realizes that it is a complex composition of thousands upon thousands of folded paper blocks arranged in a collage like pattern that produces an illusion of depth. What initially looked like a 'tunnel' morphed into plane surface modeled cunningly in three dimensions – yes, trompe l'oeil. I talked to the gallery assistant and got some more information.

Kwang-Young Chun’s compositions are constructed of hundreds of tiny triangles wrapped in century-old handmade mulberry paper. Using a range of gray to black tones, Chun creates what looks like deep depressions or craters. He fabricates small triangles out of Styrofoam and then wraps them with mulberry paper. He then fastens these objects with string to a canvas, creating make-believe surface relief by appropriately patterning the triangles. These deep depressions are not actual indentations but are a result of the triangles coalescing into an illusion of depth.

For those unfamiliar with Korean culture, the mulberry paper used in these compositions offers an additional layer of meaning. In pre-modern Korea, herb medicines were wrapped in white mulberry paper and were then hung along ceiling rafters of family run pharmacies to prevent dampness and to keep away insects. Like the Ayurvedic medicines of India that are falling into slow obscurity, the herbal medicines of pre-modern Korea are also falling into disrepair.
I found the following page on artnet that shows a little more of his works:

Two view of Aggregation by Kwang-Young Chun
The original reason for going to this gallery was to see the audio/sculpture art of Scott Sherk. I was not that impressed, but if you want to read about it, please see here. I have a picture below.

Scott Sherk began with the idea that he could find a visual and aural way to document an interesting walk. Recording the walk with both a stereo recorder and a GPS tracking system led Sherk to the realization that the act of walking was itself a drawing in space. This drawing – his walking – could be represented three dimensionally in sculpture. Back in the studio he transformed GPS information that recorded his path and elevation into welded steel forms. He edited his field recordings from his stereo to accompany the sculptures. Together, these works become an installation of soundscape and landscape.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And now, the rest of the story

The current president of the United States is known to wax eloquent about his favorite painting in his official autobiography. A particular painting that he acquired after becoming a 'born again Christian'. The painting evokes the Wild West and depicts a bedraggled horseman charging his steed up a craggy slope followed by a couple of other men on foot. Titled 'A Charge to Keep' by Wilhelm Heinrich Dethlef Körner, the President says that this painting conveys the message that we serve the One greater than ourselves (the title also is the title of a Methodist hymn written in the eighteenth century). An additional reason this turned out to be his favorite painting seems to be the supposed allusions to circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. Given the resurgent religious revivalism engorging the States, the reading seems appropriate if hackneyed.

Of course, a little bit of enterprising research by political journalist Jacob Weisberg has turned up this story behind the painting: (quoted from the Harpers magazine). It turns out that the title, message or meaning of the painting were all different…

"The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled “The Slipper Tongue,” published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: “Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught.”

The parallels that may be drawn are entirely accidental.

Go figure.

W.H.D. Koerner, “A Charge to Keep”, 1916, Oil on canvas (Image ripped from Harpers magazine)

To revel in obscurity

A great review of Madelon Vriesendorp's works at artreview magazine, (an artist I really have not heard about, but her work captures you)...

How many others revel in obscurity? References to Duchamp hang heavy.

Madelon Vriesendorp, Flagrant Delit, 1975, Oil on canvas

From the review: "The painting shows the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in bed together, a wilted prophylactic with "Goodyear" on it discarded on the bed. The straight-laced RCA building has burst in the door, shining its spotlight on them. Through the window, all the buildings are faces glaring at the naughty couple. It's impossible to look at the Manhattan skyline in the same way after Flagrant Delit. Vriesendorp's ultra-sensitive antenna picked up the latent desire in the these preening skyscrapers, aching for each other and crying out to each other across 10 relatively stumpy and drab midtown blocks. Vriesendorp's imaginary intervention into the skyline is as psychologically significant and enduring as any new building there would be".

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ennui envy

Greek humoral medicine had endowed the spleen and the black bile produced as an antidote to cure melancholia or depression. Of course, in today’s world there are dozens of pharmaceutical devices to cure depression and in the odd case, an overdose (accidental or intentional) could also send one to states of happy ecstasy. In an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Wilson talks about the overemphasis of happiness in American life and the problems inherent from our constant struggle to create new and innovative ways of beating depression.

Come melancholy! silent Pow'r,
Companion of my lonely hour,
To sober thought confin'd;
Thous sweetly-sad ideal guest,
In all thy soothing charms confest,
Indulge my pensive mind.
…. ….
In Death's soft slumber lull'd to rest,
She sleeps, by sliming visions blest,
That gently whisper peace:
'Till the last morn's fair op'ning ray
Unfolds the bright eternal day
Of active life and bliss.

In 'An Ode to Melancholy' by Elizabeth Carter (full poem here) starts by actually courting the beneficial power in the extreme isolation offered by melancholy only to tell us in the end that the author was indeed blessed by the ‘sweet’ episode that taught her to further appreciate life in greater fullness than ever before. That applies to a lot of us - we go through periods of want where everything seems to be a struggle and the smallest tasks a big hurdle. All of these tasks and struggles suddenly seem simpler when the tides turn (and they do) and fortunes are reversed. In addition to the tasks seeming simpler and lighter, often we tend to appreciate the new found goodness in a deeper and thoughtful manner.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. There is nothing wrong with this, it is good to be happy, but Eric writes rather compellingly that the dearth of melancholia in society also means that the muse that powers the arts, poetry and music is slowly disappearing from our society. It is commonly believed that sadness lends to a deeper introspection of our condition in society – thus leading to a flowering of deep, introspective works in music and poetry. It can only be extrapolated that the slow banishment of the same (for the first time in recorded human history) might lead to structural re-adjustments whose effects are yet to be clearly understood. Moreover, he also asks the question: How can so many of us be so happy when globally the problems are ever more dire by the day? (yesterday I read a report that talked about killings in the Congo - 1500 people die each day from ethnic clashes, roughly 45000 a month). Not to mention of mutual aggression and hatred taking place in the Balkans, Chechnya, North West Pakistan and a host of other countries. Maybe the adage of the 'frog in the well' seems more adept here. ‘Everything looks good in my well and I can see no further, hence all is well’ syndrome that might be afflicting the American populace. Maybe it is a complex combination of positive psychology adherents, isolationist tendencies (if you tune into the news any evening and check the percentage of ‘global’ content, you will see what I mean), fear of seeking reality and pharmaceutical anti-depressant cocktails that seem to have led us down this path of being extra happy and bubbly.

I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations.
My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience.
Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.

Again, I must hasten to add that I am not endorsing a sad, melancholic outlook to life, but rather a tempering down of the extreme forces that assail us in achieving ultimate bliss, the American dream and super satisfaction might be actually good for the society in the longer run. A closer look at the problems around the world and a deeper appreciation for the issues might make us better global citizens.

In the end, I am really not sure. On the one hand, we as a family seek the dream – nurture our children - catering to their every need and making sure that hints of sadness in their eyes are wiped clean with that next candy or toy that we dutifully buy from the global marketplace. We also are privy witnesses to the paradox – the blank stares that greet you when you talk to teenagers about global issues and the fact that they are about to compete in a world gone flat, where geographical, linguistic and cultural barriers would not mean much and all of us would be expected to compete and cooperate in closer ways than ever before… Of course, it is not the children one should blame; it would be us - who foster them – foster them in ways that are bereft of the larger landscape…

Gaspard Gresly (French, 1712 - 1756), 'A candlelit interior with figures around a table', oil on canvas, 27" X 33", 1740

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


It is nice to see the mainstream media recognizing blogging - albeit grudgingly (The New York Times euphemistically calls it ‘citizen journalism’)...

Read Michal Yon's profile in the Times - a blogger who covers the quagmire in Iraq by actually staying with soldiers under fire...

His blog here...

On that note, a new database was launched by the Center for Public Integrity featuring about 1000 ‘statements’ that helped ‘sell’ the war (now in an easy-to-search format)...

Kerala Diary

During a visit to India last year my wife and I went to the temple where we were married eight years ago. We were struck by the beauty of the oil lamps that dot the outer walls of the five hundred year old temple structure. The scene gets especially compelling during nights of festivities when the entire village volunteers to light these lamps. The lamps themselves are made of beaten copper and brazed onto the weathered stone walls of the temple. The handmade wicks are made of rolled cotton and coconut oil is used to sustain the flame. Once lit, they last for hours into the festive night shimmering and dancing in the light breeze of Central Kerala.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A painting in progress

One of the largest attempted thus far. About a third is complete. Finished, it should be nine feet across and six feet high. Let's see...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A wrong rite

According to a foundation that performs over 200 female circumcision's (I would rather call it mutilation) each weekend in Bandung Indonesia, there are three “benefits” to circumcising girls.

- “One, it will stabilize her libido,”
- “Two, it will make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband.
- Three, it will balance her psychology.”

A report of this deplorable practice in Indonesia and a slideshow here.

It is now reported that this horrifying procedure is slowly gaining a quiet following among newly arrived immigrants in the US and England.

Picture courtesy: The New York Times.

They do the darnest things...

This weekend found a little bit of family gathered at our home. The kids and I had one of those unplanned art sessions where some acrylic paint and canvas paper can do wonders.
Yes, kids do the darnest things...

Aswin Unni (age 9), 'Mirror Grid', Acrylic on canvas paper, 8" X 6"

Hari Nair (age 3), 'Birds', Acrylic on canvas paper, 8" X 6"

Aswin Unni (age 9), 'A Parrot', Digital art

Hari Nair (age 3), 'Spiderman's tracks', Digital art

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The R word

For the first time in recent memory, ninety percent of the headlines on the bloomberg news site talked about falls, drops, losses, slumps, writedowns, cuts, crash lands and tumbles... (see screenshot below).

A recession is not a good thing - for us or for the world at large (even if a large part of it was precipitated by our scheming banks - yes, I was referring to the subprime mess).

Gallery visit: Jonathan LeVine Gallery

Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea is known for representing artists who are not really mainstream but getting there. I personally like this gallery for the interesting, out-of-the-ordinary exhibits that have become their trademark. Most of the shows involve large scale paintings featuring fantastical environments straddling equal parts reality, absurdity, graffiti and comic. Their current three artist show is worth a visit.

The main room features Jonathan Viner. His paintings focus on themes of survival where individuals use aspects of their personality or environment to survive (I know this is a oft beaten artistic track, but his technique trumps stereotypes). The characters (mostly painted from live models) employ a variety of devices to survive : they run away from trouble, take stock of the world from afar, fight or strip naked. The paintings were a mixture of Weimar’s Otto Dix, Old Master imagery and psychoanalysis.

The project room featured two artists. Xiaoqing Ding from China and Esao Andrews from Arizona. I can’t seem to decide whose works I like better. Is it the Chinese lady’s works with its sexual innuendoes referencing mythology and fairytales done in a ‘cheap Chinese calendar’ style or was it the undertones of despair and brooding perpetuated by Esao’s paintings? - I am not sure, but, both the painters seem to have a lot of talent and imagination.

Xiaoqing Ding obtained her MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland and Esao Andrews has a BFA in illustration from SVA. Jonathan Viner has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and is based out of New York.

Jonathan Viner, The Ladies' Demands, Oil on Panel, 48" x 36"

Jonathan Viner, The Courier's Kevlar, Oil on Panel, 36" x 24"

Jonathan Viner, Look Away III, Oil on Panel, 36" x 24"

Jonathan Viner, Look Away II, Oil on Panel, 36" x 24"

Jonathan Viner, Rinse, Repeat, Oil on Panel, 20" x 16"

Jonathan Viner, Madamoiselles de Hoboken, Graphite on Paper, 11” x 14”

Esao Andrews, Separate Lives, Oil on Wood, 32” x 24”

Esao Andrews, The Scourge, Oil on Wood, 24” x 16”

Esao Andrews, Thought, Oil on Wood, 32” x 19”

Xiaoqing Ding, Little Drop of Poison, Egg tempera, Silverpoint and Pastel on Paper, 40” x 32”

Xiaoqing Ding, Once Upon a Time, Egg tempera, Silverpoint and Pastel on Paper, 40” x 32”

Breadwinning was the only option...

An excerpt from the book The Logic of Life by Tim Harford.

The logic of comparative advantage highlighted something that most men — except economists — have found it hard to get their heads around: there is no reason to believe that men were breadwinners because they were any good at it. They might simply have been breadwinners because getting them to help around the house would have been even worse.

Read a compelling take about how the institution of divorce actually helps women on Slate here...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Journey of the U.S. dollar

A fascinating essay over at the Atlantic Online on subsidizing American life by dollars from China while simultaneously holding down living conditions in China so that the vicious cycle continues... A must read.

The following poignant excerpt from the essay traces the journey of the U.S. dollar from a customer’s hand in America to a factory in China and back again to bond auctions here.

Let’s say you buy an Oral-B electric toothbrush for $30 at a CVS in the United States. I choose this example because I’ve seen a factory in China that probably made the toothbrush. Most of that $30 stays in America, with CVS, the distributors, and Oral-B itself. Eventually $3 or so—an average percentage for small consumer goods—makes its way back to southern China.

When the factory originally placed its bid for Oral-B’s business, it stated the price in dollars: X million toothbrushes for Y dollars each. But the Chinese manufacturer can’t use the dollars directly. It needs RMB—to pay the workers their 1,200-RMB ($160) monthly salary, to buy supplies from other factories in China, to pay its taxes. So it takes the dollars to the local commercial bank—let’s say the Shenzhen Development Bank. After showing receipts or waybills to prove that it earned the dollars in genuine trade, not as speculative inflow, the factory trades them for RMB.

This is where the first controls kick in. In other major countries, the counterparts to the Shenzhen Development Bank can decide for themselves what to do with the dollars they take in. Trade them for euros or yen on the foreign-exchange market? Invest them directly in America? Issue dollar loans? Whatever they think will bring the highest return. But under China’s “surrender requirements,” Chinese banks can’t do those things. They must treat the dollars, in effect, as contraband, and turn most or all of them (instructions vary from time to time) over to China’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank, the People’s Bank of China, for RMB at whatever is the official rate of exchange.

With thousands of transactions per day, the dollars pile up like crazy at the PBOC. More precisely, by more than a billion dollars per day. They pile up even faster than the trade surplus with America would indicate, because customers in many other countries settle their accounts in dollars, too.

The PBOC must do something with that money, and current Chinese doctrine allows it only one option: to give the dollars to another arm of the central government, the State Administration for Foreign Exchange. It is then SAFE’s job to figure out where to park the dollars for the best return: so much in U.S. stocks, so much shifted to euros, and the great majority left in the boring safety of U.S. Treasury notes.

And thus our dollar comes back home. Spent at CVS, passed to Oral-B, paid to the factory in southern China, traded for RMB at the Shenzhen bank, “surrendered” to the PBOC, passed to SAFE for investment, and then bid at auction for Treasury notes, it is ready to be reinjected into the U.S. money supply and spent again—ideally on Chinese-made goods.

At no point did an ordinary Chinese person decide to send so much money to America. In fact, at no point was most of this money at his or her disposal at all. These are in effect enforced savings, which are the result of the two huge and fundamental choices made by the central government

Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Metal fucking rats with heart shaped tail, 22" x 25" x 7", Welded scrap metal and light projector, 2007

Weekend museum visit...

Last weekend found my wife, our sons and me at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. This is a little bit of a project that we have on the side that involves visiting all of New Jersey’s museums (can be done over a small part of one’s lifetime whereas a similar undertaking for the state of New York would require several lifetimes)… Montclair Art Museum was not the greatest considering standards set by museums like Newark or Rutgers but they did have some art that did stand out from the usual gilt edged period stuff that gathers dust at a lot of our state museums. Of course, in addition, the already high entrance fees for such a small museum did not make much sense either… They did have a fairly extensive superheroes exhibit that featured drawings for comics and collages as preparation for comic book designs that would definitively catch the interest of print illustrators. I was not very much into that kind of stuff, but some superhero life size mockups had our three year old son salivating and both of us tried imitating Spiderman deploying his extensive webbing to the bemused look of the museum security guards.

Some pictures from the weekend…

Louise Nevelson (1899 - 1988), Black Zag A, 1968, Wood, found objects, pigment, plastic laminate.
Louise Berliawsky Nevelson was a Ukrainian-born American artist. She was known for abstract expressionist sculpture that primarily featured box like objects grouped together to explore form and three dimensional space. She primarily worked from found objects and everyday discards.
In her words:”When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you’re really bringing them to life – a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created."
Note: Her work reminded me strongly of the work of another artist that I have the distinct pleasure of knowing online: Corrine Bayraktaroglu, whose artwork that featured a homage to Louise’s work is here. Corrine's entire portfolio here.

Richard La Barre Goodwin (1840 - 1910), String of Game Birds, ca. 1892, Oil on canvas.
His work is distinctive for his many subjects that feature cabin doors decorated with hunting and other outdoor equipment. Trompe d'oeil in nature, his work really startled us for its simplicity, realism and the life of after lived animal lives

William Couper (1853 - 1942), Crown for the Prince, 1896, Marble
I know that marble sculptures is not going to turn any heads, but William Couper's sculpture of this Greek maiden wreathing an olive crown for an Olympian victor is timeless as well as symptomatic of most of the 'class based' art' that was prevalent around the end of the nineteenth century.

Chakaia Booker, rubber tires and stainless steel.
My personal favorite piece from the show. She slices, twists, strips, and rivets rubber and radials to create exaggerated textures, prickled edges, and torqued forms. The resulting sculpture had a strange life of its own, pulsing behind the façade of dirty old rubber tires and radials. She was fantastic.

Herbert Ferber (1906 - 1991), Jay III, 1970, Bronze.
He was an Abstract expressionist sculptor and dentist. He actively practiced dentistry between 1930 and 1950. His best-known sculptures are open, hollow forms in soldered and welded metal and also roofed sculptures ― some parts of which hung from the ceiling while other parts rose from the floor.

Alan Houser (1914 - 1994), Earth Mother, Bronze, 1981 (Cast 1986)

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, 1855, Oil on canvas.
The Montclair museum has a great collection of that late nineteenth century landscape artist George Inness. Some of the works have been made maudlin by today’s standards by the prevalence of landscape paintings in our malls, but a couple of these stand out for their stunning originality at a time when the Hudson River artists insisted on an almost total detail replication to beauty and the attendant forces of nature that shape it. This artist would have had principles very close to Thoreau (just looking at the artworks and his writings on display there – an ecstasy in the joy of nature and its unity with the material and non-material world).

George Inness, Evening Landscape, 1863, Oil on canvas

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Art movements, specialization and the attention economy

Holland Cotter in a Times review for an exhibition devoted to the 'Pattern and Decoration' art movement up at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers calls the concept of art movements dead.

We don’t do art movements anymore. We do brand names (Neo-Geo); we do promotional drives (“Painting is back!”); we do industry trends (art fairs, M.F.A students at Chelsea galleries, etc.). But now the market is too large, its mechanism too corporate, its dependence on instant stars and products too strong to support the kind of collective thinking and sustained application of thought that have defined movements as such.

Yes, I tend to agree that the idea of broad based art movements might be archaic in today's attention deficient world, but movements still abound: albeit in a smaller, more focused way. Today's ‘attention economy’ tends to offer something to everyone. Sometimes, the quirkiest of art appeals to a select few while others may find solace in the banal. Access to multiple avenues and their specialized agendas are very much possible in today’s specialized world. This is not a characteristic limited only to art, but of all expressions of our existence today – be it the sciences, religion or sex. Take the case of computer based art where seemingly simplistic art generated from animated gifs have their own following, or take the case of ab-ex video art pioneered by the likes of Jeremy Blake and one sees the definite existence of specialized sub-genres that might have their own select followings. Another example might be the concept of ‘subversion’ where an original concept is subverted to instill current or artist-desired-values while still feeding off the wake left by the original’s aura.
Of course, broad art movements of the type defined by Mr. Cotter might be gone, but in its place are tens of hundreds of mini and micro art movements all around us waiting to be discovered and then either rejected or adopted by the elusive eyeball.

Herbert Simon defined a concept of attention economics in the following (source: Wikipedia):

" an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it"

Rephrasing the above with the word ‘art’ taking the place for the word ‘information’ makes for an instructive statement.

" an art-rich world, the wealth of art means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that art consumes. What art consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of art creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of art sources that might consume it"

In fact, you could replace the word ‘information’ in the first paragraph with any of the following words ‘religion’, ‘sex’, ‘medicine’ or ‘science’ and still arrive at a coherent paragraph that rings true and pays homage to specialization…

"Gates of Paradise," by Miriam Schapiro, 1980

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sign of our times...

Some time back, Simplistic lamented on our trend to shut oneself out of the normal world and live in one’s own creation using digital music players. Walking around like automatons with those ubiquitous white buds strapped to the ears, we see more and more of this sect avidly listening to music or whatever that comes blathering out of those hand held devices. If ever you make the mistake to unknowingly ask them a question in the middle of their reveries, you may count yourself lucky if they condescend to answer you with a mixture of defiance, nonchalance and irritation coupled with a 'you, luddite!' stare.
If the above does not manage to insulate society, then a new gadget unveiled last week at the Consumer Electronics Show called MPH (Music Playing Holster) from TASER will guarantee the complete removal of the individual from everyday life. This device from TASER (yes, those guns that stun or sometimes kill unsuspecting individuals who are unfortunate enough to be jolted by the law or by fellow citizenry – yes, anyone can get one) comes with a MP3 player built in.
In addition to enjoying the music, one can also enjoy visual displays of wild contortions of unfortunate individuals who could be TASERED by the device (which can deliver about 50,000 volts of pure electricity in a split second). Well, next time, before you disturb that individual with those cutesy buds shape-fitted over their ears, think deeply and ponder if you would like to be jolted to the extreme realities of our current times. For those who are color conscious, these ‘mp3 guns’ come in pink, original color (not sure what that means) and leopard skin color.

In other sign of the times, the venerable Associated Press declared that Britney’s woes were very newsworthy:

The Associated Press is bolstering its entertainment news coverage — and for many readers and viewers, Britney Spears is nothing if not entertaining. An internal memorandum from The A.P.’s Los Angeles bureau dictating coverage of the troubled pop star was published by several media blogs on Tuesday, prompting some punch lines at the news service’s expense. “Now and for the foreseeable future, virtually everything involving Britney is a big deal,” Frank Baker, the Los Angeles assistant bureau chief, wrote on Tuesday morning, three days after Ms. Spears was released from the hospital where she had been admitted in the wake of a custody dispute.”

British School, 19th century, 'A Knighting Ceremony', 49.5 by 81 cm, Lithograph

American School, 2008, 'Stun Gun that plays sweet music to your ears', Metal parts, hard drive, plastic and battery

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sepia Suburbia

A nutty joke I read online...

There was a man who loved to make up puns. One day a local magazine sponsored a pun-contest.The man entered the contest ten different times in the hope that at least one of his puns would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Unblinded with science

A fascinating article in the British Medical Journal dispels some commonly held myths that we harbor about health, medicine and their intertwined hand-me-down tales. Among the myths debunked are the ones listed below. I have heard of most of them except for the one about fingernails and hair growing after a person passes on. The study gave reasonable scientific explanations debunking each of these myths. My personal favorite is the much touted myth that we use only 10 percent of our brains - modern fMRI has clearly shown that we use nearly all parts of our brains - putting it to use in actions that have efficiencies of 10 percent is another matter altogether... Plus, having this knowledge will come in handy the next time that burly security guard tells you to turn that cell phone off in a hospital… Throw some science at the person while singing that classic 80’s one hit wonder “She Blinded Me with Science”…

Myths explained to be untrue:
- People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day
- We use only 10% of our brains
- Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
- Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser
- Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
- Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
- Mobile phones create electromagnetic interference in hospitals.

Despite their popularity, all of these medical beliefs range from unproved to untrue. While some of these myths simply do not have evidence to confirm them, others have been studied and proved wrong. The venerable journal also reports that even physicians sometimes believe medical myths contradicted by scientific evidence and stresses the need for more objective evidence based medicine.

Madeline von Foerster, 'O Rubor Sanguinis', Acrylic on panel in wood frame, 27" X 21"

No trickle down here

I have a post over at Art and Perception on exploitative aspects of art - especially those charging five figure numbers for photographs of people in disadvantaged situations.
There is nothing patently wrong about the price - hey, that's why they built the gallery in the first place - but the question as to what percentage of this amount goes back to the disadvantaged who willingly posed for the artist. Visiting Yossi Milo gallery and looking at the hyena men set me thinking about this.

Related statistic: Percentage of American's who said they were among the 'have-nots' in 1988 and 2007, respectively: 17, 34 (Source: Harpers Index)

Andy Werhol, Dollar Sign, 1981, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 90" x 70"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bayonne color

Sunil, 'Sunset, Bayonne', Digital photograph


Sunil, 'Bully Pulpit', Sumi ink on paper, 12" X 17"