Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.
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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Remembering Jeremy Blake
Collection of the author
This is the first installment in a three-part remembrance of Jeremy Blake. Jeremy committed suicide this past summer, shortly after losing his long-time partner, Theresa Duncan, also to suicide. Their story, which was documented in all the nation’s major dailies, was skillfully related in the January issue of Vanity Fair. Leaving the biographical task to others, my approach will be much more personal. This entry will describe the considerable influence Jeremy had on me when I met him as a teen-ager. Subsequent missives will review his work and muse on his passing.
“You are a good-hearted and sentimental guy. You remain undaunted.”
--Jeremy Blake in my high school yearbook.
I met Jeremy on the first day of ninth grade French class. I was a huge nerd back then and—worse still—a transfer student from out-of-district. I didn’t know anyone and had, in fact, moments earlier narrowly escaped a severe beating after spilling some vomit-like mushroom soup on a big senior in the cafeteria. Another, even bigger, senior had jumped to my aid, but I was keeping my head down.
I was assigned a seat between a sweet Iranian upperclasswoman and a scruffily-dressed kid with a handful of pens and ink-stained hands. I fit right in; not because I had figured anything out, but because I wasn’t any more befuddled and threatened by my surroundings than my neighbors. Jeremy appealed to me right away because of his constant drawing. My mother is an artist and although she had never pushed me toward her footsteps, there was never any shortage of pencils, paints or crayons—or praise and encouragement. But I had always thought of art as a hobby, not as a career or a life-path.
Jeremy showed me right away that art could be a powerful way to come to grips with an overwhelmingly complex reality and, when necessary, a retreat to an inner experience that was more orderly. He approached his art with a single-mindedness that I had never seen, and which I now know to be a requirement of top-level success in any endeavor from art to sports, politics, scholarship, business—anything. Jeremy drew relentlessly and his unflagging effort combined with his considerable talent to produce results that were simply spectacular from a very early age.
He could draw whatever he wanted, and he did so with wit and a style that was entirely his own. His skill was obvious to everyone. Teachers eventually stopped trying to make him pay attention to their lectures (though he did listen with one ear); girls wanted him to decorate their jean jackets; and every garage band and drama club wanted him to produce their posters. He shared his talents generously and there was never any doubt that he would one day make it. It was pretty special to know for certain at age 14 (when few things sureties existed) that one of my friends would someday become an art-star. That in itself offered a promised exit from the crushing alienation of adolescence.
Jeremy was like a teenager like the rest of us, given to bouts of self-pity, unpredictability, unnecessary meanness, and a reflexive tendency toward revolt. Of course most of it was quite justified, as is typically the case in those difficult years and I later learned that he had perhaps more on his plate than the rest of us. He was a skeptic to the first degree (and beyond) and a psychedelic visionary even back then. He taught me far more about the Grateful Dead and the interpretation of cloud-shapes than he did about the mechanics of art. He was very well informed about politics and his art highlighted many of the unsavory connections from that frightful time that too many others blithely ignore. He could not ignore them and it could not have helped Jeremy to watch the subterfuge deepen and grow more horrific as the years passed. We’ll look at that some more later.
I am really grateful to have met Jeremy because he made me what I am today. He showed me the path toward becoming an artist. Clearly I’m pursing my own unique destiny as a man and artist but he gave me an early push just when I needed it. Now without his beacon I shall endeavor to go forward, undaunted.
Our Children OUT OF DANGER?
No word yet on how they're going to address that failing school designation though.
Failing grade from the city, complete segregation, only half the neighborhood served, under 50% capacity. The math is not that complicated....
Update 2/1/07: There are pretty even-handed reports in the Daily News and the New York Sun.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Surfing a Vibe
For example, I was on my way to work the other day. I got off the L train at Union Square and found the platforms for the uptown trains completely packed with people. No trains, so why not go upstairs and have a coffee in the square? No use getting pi$$ed off. On a whim, I decided to scoot the two blocks to Utrecht to pick up some spray fixer I needed. I walked in just as the store was opening and asked for the product. They showed me the empty space on the shelves and apologized. I poked through some nearby boxes and found just what I needed. They asked at the counter if I had a discount card.
"Expired," I replied.
"We never check the date."
"As I was saying: I do have a discount card, thanks!"
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Our Children IN DANGER?
Sebastian’s pre-k class at P.S. 84 is a portrait of racial harmony, a best-case scenario where all kinds of children from around the neighborhood grow and learn together.
The later grades are an entirely different story, however. Situated in the heart of one of the City’s most rapidly changing neighborhood, where artists have been gathering for 20 years and are now leaving, and where one-bedroom condo price tags routinely surpass seven figures, 84’s demographics skew to a 90+% Latin (read Puerto Rican). The playground outside is a beautiful melting pot, but the school itself is more homogeneous than anything I’ve seen in the South or the White Midwest.
It’s not that the white parents don’t have children: they do. Nor do they send their children to private schools: these are artist-types who believe in the virtues of public education. I know several families who live directly across the street from P.S. 84, yet commute their children an hour or more every day to Manhattan to give them a reasonable education. I’ve worked hard to reduce my own commute and we’ve vowed to never follow the absurd path of taking our child to a whole other county for a public education.
Primary schools are the heart of a community and to give up on the local school is to write off one’s community. And therein lies the rub. Two (or more!) distinct groups live side by side in Williamsburg but they do not interact and in situations where real cooperation is required (like schools) things get very difficult. So P.S. 84 is this Latin enclave and the Latin community wants it to stay that way. Let’s be real: that’s the truth of the matter.
The problems of the school go far beyond its near-total self-segregation, however. I’ll leave for another entry my rants about the saint’s-day processions the school sponsors, or the fact that the PTA uses its treasury to hire a Santa to bring presents to the children. I’ll be generous and say that that stuff has anthropological value and it is undeniably sweet. Far more devastating is the failing performance measure the school recently received from the Board of Education. This is an objective evaluation that rates the school’s progress against its socio-economic peers, so it's not just that it's a difficult school; it's a difficult school that's not doing anything to right itself. Here are a few other failing grades: Great Schools Rating (Graded 1 out of possible 10); Inside Schools
The school’s leadership does not have a plan to correct the problem, which is how the school got into the mess in the first place. In absence of leadership from the school, the Board is required to provide other options in-district for parents—presumably to save parents from making absurd efforts of I’ve described above. So it was apparently announced (though the Board of Ed. denies this) there will be a charter school opening in P.S. 84’s underused third floor (the school is currently 60% capacity).
Reaction from the "community?" Quiet hallelujah’s from the middle class and very public outrage from the school’s PTA. The school was wallpapered with flyers proclaiming a threat to the children’s education and [ominously] safety. Anyone who has read American history should be able to easily decode invocations of "safety" when segregated communities see someone new on the block. There were women outside the school talking to parents (not me, oddly enough!) about the ominous news and telling them to write to their public representatives. Does that mean Sebastian is some alien agent, some kind of one-Booga sleeper cell?
I can well understand the concern of many people who have worked hard to make P.S. 84 reflect their family’s heritage and values. It’s very sweet and I want Sebastian to see it. Where, then, was the outrage when the failing grade was announced? Not a murmur.
My concern is that the school’s principal, who is very much complicit with this explosion of outrage, is creating a diversion from the real issue, which is the school’s performance, and her own inability to improve matters. Principals in more difficult neighboring schools have had success.
By telling the parents that "the Man" is coming to steal their kids’ school, she is invoking one fear that trumps all others for many long-time residents. And they’re buying it. If the school performed better, the neighborhood could have a school that the whole neighborhood could love. It seems that preserving cultural heritage trumps educational achievement in many minds. And the principal is playing into it.
Yet the school will change, one way or the other. The question is whether this latest spat of outrage is a communal coping mechanism or an active effort against the children’s interests that will prolong the school's decline.
Time will tell, and very soon...
Sunday, January 20, 2008
WWW: Walkin' While White
Apparently, panthers striking from the trees
are not the only menace lurking on South 4th Street...
So the other day I burst out of the door to my apartment building in my usual bat-out-of-Hell way. I’m always in a hurry.
Out of nowhere, who plain clothes police officers told me to stop right away and keep my hands away from my pockets. This was the second time this has happened and I was annoyed. But I rarely lose my cool. Especially when the other guy has a gun.
"You must be joking," is what I said and it made them laugh.
They weren't joking though and began right away with questions like, "Are you carrying anything you shouldn't?"
"Do you live here?"
Yes. Apartment 4R.
"We're looking for someone who lives in 6R. How long has it been since you were incarcerated?"
It went on like that even after they had established that I wasn’t the guy they were looking for and was totally minding my own business. The whole Civil-Rights thing bothered me a little bit but what really got me was the incompetence. They had to have known that I wasn’t their suspect (my driver’s license said so) yet they kept trying to trip me up with leading questions. I understand that they have a difficult job but they could have made it easier by asking questions like:
"Ever see any suspicious activity?"
"Have you seen so-and-so lately?"
And the like.
But they never did.
Finally, in lieu of apology they told me that they get a lot of complaints about drugs in a certain apartment (not mine) and that I should be careful since it's a dangerous neighborhood.
Really? News to me.
Actually, the Civil Rights part does bother me alot, but not because I feel targeted. I just had a tiny two incidents of stop-and-frisks because I dress scruffy and am always in a hurry. I guess that puts me into some kind of profile. But what if I were black? Let’s be real here: it would happen all the time. So I’m not sure if the cops were a) incompetent, b) sadistic, c) trying to find some white guys to harass so they could harass black guys more often.
None of those possibilities inspires confidence...
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Jorge Alvarez: Atypical Williamsburg Artist
is on view at Figureworks through Feb. 17.
Property of the artist's estate.
Sitting next of Jorge Alvarez in Randall Harris’s weekly drawing group, I could not help being struck by—and admiring—his facility with a pencil. It was very linear, reminiscent of David or Ingres. He was he unusually talented, a draftsman of the first rank, but it was always a little strange to encounter a 19th Century academcien in the middle of hipster Heaven.
The more I got to know Jorge, the more profound, deeply expressed his neoclassicising Romanticism. He very neatly substituted pre-columbian mythos and the magical realism of his native Colombia for the orientalizing tendencies of his Second Empire artistic forebears.
To visit his studio was to turn the calendar back before Monet, before Delacroix. All the trappings were there: velvet curtains, animal skeletons, a platform for a reclining model, and an artist in fine, unstained but slightly threadbare attire. His huge, luscious, allegorical tableaux leaned against the walls, with the preparatory studies in sepia and sanguine pinned nearby.
Those sketches, though light and deft of hand, were as rigorous in their way as the big canvases. Randall was able to secure some of each for his memorial retrospective, and the two forms are both essential to properly understand Jorge’s world. One can like them or not depending on taste but I’ve never met anyone who did not respect them. They have authority.
Jorge knew only too well that his tastes were out of step with the so-called Art-World (sounds like a craftshop in a mall when written that way, doesn’t it?). Savannah was the perfect place for him and his students there loved him well. Anyway, the works—and especially the work—were motivation enough for Jorge.
After a long chat in his studio, and more than a few of his little juice glasses of wine, the time came for me to go have dinner with my family and he declined my invitation. I asked what he was up to, he poured another glass and sighed, "Looks like another night of passion." I knew exactly what he meant and clinked my empty to his.
"Here’s to the artist’s passion!"
Friday, January 11, 2008
A Fine Spring Evening in January
Happy Birthday J-Dalt! You're one hot 40-year old!
(and those are some good-lookin' young'uns you're with)
Last night was one of those special nights when everyone was out and every place I went felt like the center of the action. It started with a beautiful gift from our friends at Luhring Augustine--Sweet Earth a lovely book of Joel Sternfeld's photos of communes across America, including my very own Springtree! Followed that up with a lovely artwalk with the goddess-like Amelia Abdullahsani. A visit to Feigen and a lovely chat with them about my forthcoming Jeremy Blake Remembrance. The show ends the 19th so go now. They're being really helpful even though this whole thing isn't easy for anyone.
Robert Jack at Josee Bienvenu. Peeked in a bunch of places. Saw Mike Cockrickrill has climbed the next rung up to Kent Gallery. Across the street, Pace was in full swing with a huge Rauschenberg show. It was a real celebration: full of fur coats, television cameras, frustrated paparazzi, art students with little cameras, good-looking people in %$#*-off clothes... the usual stuff.
But the best part was a jubilant Chuck Close in his amazing chair. This chair is a wonderful marriage between a segue scooter and a standard motorized wheelchair. It balances perpetually on two wheels (side by-side) letting him move nimbly and with constant shifting of weight, as when one stands. Very significantly, it raises him up to eye-level, which is a step forward in terms of dignity. He greeted me very warmly and I thanked him for his many contributions (I think it's important for people to hear the word thank-you from time to time).
The tour ended at Schroeder-Romero and Winkleman. A little Williamsburg community in exile. Met old friends and saw new friends. Met up with the Cole and finished with a lovely little dinner/cocktail party honoring Jen Dalton's birthday. Tchin-tchin!
It was one of those evenings where life and culture are a giant celebration. And I was surfing perfectly from moment to moment.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
That #$^%@@& Squirrel!!
Not THAT squirrel! We LOVE the Splinter squirrel!
It's the one that's been digging up our garden that has us all outraged.
With the passing of Epiphany, it was time to compost our enormous Christmas wreath. Sebastian and I took it outside and methodically unwired and dismantled the thing, making little blankets of greenery for the sad trees that line our street, like they do on the Upper East Side. Those pine needles were the only greenery to be found within about a mile radius of our house. I’m not exaggerating about that.
We saved a bag full of twigs for the flower box in our kitchen window, that planter being the only green anything visible from our apartment window. There used to be a tree back there but our lovely neighbors chopped it down to give the “denunded-tropical-hillside” look that reminds them of home. They, did, surprisingly enough, leave an eight-foot stump, so the grandmas could still hang their laundry lines. The drunken supers and the old ladies are serious threats to the backyard ecosystem, but the greatest menace of all is scruffy, vicious squirrel.
In one of my fondest recollections of the summer, we once spotted him digging the plants out of said flowerbox so I called my cat (Creepers) to deal with him. Creeps is a bad-a$$ kitty: big, burly, aggressive and a very efficient and reliable hunter. Prototypical New York street cat. Anyway, Creepers made good on his name and crept right into the windowsill until only a screen window separated himself from the rodent.
When the squirrel looked up from his depredations and saw that he was face to face with a big cat, he did not run. No sir, he bum-rushed Creepers, leaping spread-eagle onto the window screen and hissing, sending the cat rolling backward head-over-tail in astonishment. It was very cartoon-like.
Creepers was pi$$ed. His expression read “Let me at him, I can take him!” I was quicker though and repelled the varmint with a broom I had ready for the occasion. Our victory was merely tactical (not strategic) and he soon returned while we were away and completely devastated our fine window planting.
So we’ve decidedly lowered our expectations for the flowerbox. I thought about planting my bulbs while I was gardening, but I figured the pest would quickly devour them. So I decided to simply mulch the flowerbox with the pine branches, to keep the soil moist and active. Well, no sooner had I finished and closed the window then the wretched thing arrived and started rooting around. Finding nothing buried under the needles, he proceeded to eat the pine needles themselves. Ouch! Yucky!
That’s one hungry squirrel, with a belly full of turpentine. I’m sure his nastiness results from starvation and he’s undoubtedly driven to desperation by the total lack of vegetation. But he’s also to blame for it. I once saw him systematically going from branch to branch of the now-deceased tree and stripping off every leaf one by one and letting it fall. That squirrel is sort of typical in my neighborhood. It’s a vicious cycle where people live in squalor and don’t see any reason to not trash the place.
After chasing the squirrel off again, Sebastian and I decided to go to the playground (which obviously has no grass, but at least affords a decent view of the sky). As we left the building, we noticed that the super had meticulously removed the garlands we had laid and dumped them into the trash.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Asher Durand: Tree Portraitist
in the Catskills (NY Historical Society)
Ironically enough, I couldn't catch the Asher Durand show at the Brooklyn Museum because I was in the Catskills at the time studying the very trees and waterfalls the 19th Century master so lovingly painted.
So it was with great relief that I managed to slip into the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to see the show in Washington, the day before it closed.
In some circles today, Durand is better known for his associations than for his work (witness the fact that the exhibition is organized around his portrait of the more-revered Thomas Cole). In his day however, he was a chef d'ecole, a motivating force for landscape painting and one of the best-known artists of his generation.
It's true that Durand had first-rate chops as a portraitist, apparently painting a dozen presidential portraits. What excites me, though, is that he brings a portraitist's incisive gaze into the landscape, treating plant life and the earth itself as specifically as he can. Though Romantic in temperament, there are none of the generalizations and aesthetic ellipses one usually sees in American Rontanticism. His paintings are not about God or Manifest Destiny, but about the land and trees themselves--and the artist who painted them.
The work lets us each determine its meaning on our own and does not editorialize beyond making evident the artist's love for his subject matter. And yet these are not nature studies either--they're full of emotional weight because they cause the viewer to reflect back inward and our own baggage comes tumbling out.
Durand's spiritual reflections on Nature opened the door for people like me, who use imagery from the natural world to reflect on the Human Condition without resorting to baroque moralizing. Nature is not some agent of God bent on wrecking us, nor is it some unattainable Acadia. It's right there in front of us; it's us.
Love Knot. Charcoal on paper 28 x 40 2007. [more]
I had not seen the above painting prior to visiting Platte Clove,
but my debt to Asher Durand is obvious.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
The Commonplace Made Strange:
Edward Hopper at the National Gallery
(Image: Art Institute of Chicago)
Edward Hopper was a reluctant icon, retiring, etc. Don’t mistake his shyness for lack of ambition. He had one eye turned toward posterity at all times, but he was modest and hard-working, an artist who regular Americans could relate to. He was a consummate artists’ painter: "I can’t think of any artist who doesn’t like his work," comments Eric Fischl in the excellent documentary that accompanies this triumphant—but never triumphalist—exhibition. His work was rigorously composed, his colors painstaking developed through complimentary layering and juxtaposition, very sound from a technical perspective.
His work speaks of the unspoken, the unmentioned awkward silences that sometimes between descend between people. No one is looking at each other and their silences are as deep as the waters off the Maine coast. His couples are are always in distress and I wonder about his marriage. Isolation, alienation, estrangement are Great Themes of the 20th Century and he really nailed them. I will observe, however, that when you spend time with the work, it becomes apparent that much of the work is about solitude, as opposed to alienation. And in an urban setting, solitude is desirable.
Friday, January 4, 2008
Confronting the Sublime: J. M. Turner at the National Gallery
"He did great work in the trees! [..and the skies!]"
-heard in the exhibit hall.
Image: J.M. Turner, "The Junction of the Thames and the Medway", 1807, National Gallery of Art)
"Contemplation of an infinite and powerful nature was thought to be not only exhilarating but also enlightening—leading to thoughts of transcendence and man’s insignificance in the face of the vast universe." –Wall text
Well, that’s part of what I’m after, but I don’t think Man is insignificant—would that he were! I think all beings are very much a part of the grandiosity that surrounds us all. Still, I love that reverence and his pictorial ideas are very relevant to my own work—especially those relating to vegetation and treatment of the sky. This is a major retrospective and I’m glad I saw it—especially as prologue to the Hudson River show tomorrow. Here are a few impressions:
- His skies are some of the most turbulent and dynamic in all of painting.
- His sky theatrics are motivated by the horrible haze and pollution of 19th C. London.
- His skies divide into three types: wrath-of-God turbulence; smog; untroubled blues of purer and more primitive places, including Italy; and serene yellows of late life.
- He REALLY could not draw the figure. Whey the British so revere such a pathetic draftsman is beyond me.
- He executed small sketches on site, then rushed to the studio and did quick watercolors from memory. Then he did more refined watercolors that he used as models for much larger oils.
DC is Heaven for a Tree-lover...
Anthony Williams to see how he did it...
a Christo piece.
I’m writing this on a New Century "Dragon" bus to DC. I’m going there for a few meetings, to see a few friends, and to see some shows. I want to see the Hopper show (one of my earliest faves) at the National Gallery and the Hudson River School at the newly-renovated National Museum of American Art. My work is a direct descendant from the American Romantics who sought the face of God in Nature. John describes my naturalism as "mediated," which is spot-on and very much in the same spirit as Durand and company. I’ll stop at the Corcoran to see the Ansel Adams show (for reasons which should now be obvious) and for the ultimate purpose of my trip, to see Jeremy Blake’s retrospective. This will be a sort of pilgrimage and a chance to pay my last respects.
So this trip is about more than seeing art. It’s about clearing my head and Art’s healing powers. Big respect to Meredith for her understanding and allowing me a few days away for this restorative. Big thanks to Evelyn for letting me crash in her posh hotel room.
Today is the 3rd of January, and the Iowa caucus is the opening shot of what looks to be the most lively election season in recent memory. The stakes are huge: America stands at a potential turning point...or we could let the moment slip away into hopelessness, depending on whether we are guided by our aspirations or our fears.
A side note while we’re on the subject of popular democracy. I’m sitting in the back of the bus because I was late and that’s all that was left. It kind of sucks (no light and right next to the bathroom) but it’s not the end of the world. What I find very striking is that I’m the only white person in the back third of the bus. Everyone else is black. The front two-thirds are mostly Chinese, with some white people mixed in.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
How'd we do?
This chalkboard contrition is not really a New Year's resolution, since it was written following a bad night in February. But like the official resolutions, it's been quite effective.
OK. So let’s take a look at my resolutions from 2007 and see how I did. The following list is from a journal entry dated 1/2/07, with commentary from today’s perspective.
Eliminate absurdity, broadly speaking, from my life.
Well, that was ambitious, wasn’t it. I won’t say that there’s no more absurdity, but it’s better. I don’t feel that I’m putting up with absurd life-demands nearly as much as I did. There are still some absurd situations that I’ll tackle one by one.
Check. By running to/from work, I’ve combined two important activities, saving a lot of time. And running is a much more enjoyable way to travel compared to the rush-hour subway. Too bad I can only go one-way (logistically impossible and REALLY far—16-miles RT). And I’ve reduced my number of office days to just two/week. So a big victory there.
Don’t be hard on myself.
Yeah, right. I think I’m pretty patient with myself, though I can always be better.
Get the sunrise/sunset back.
The commute issue unexpectedly solved this one too. And I get up on my studio roof fairly often as well.
No autumn in New York.
It used to really bother me that I missed the fall art season by being so engrossed with the marathon. I’ve managed to become slightly less engrossed, but more importantly, I’ve decided to embrace the marathon as a quintessential New York fall event and that has made a big difference. So that’s better.
Know the difference between boundaries and inhibitions.
Better, much better.
Get health insurance.
Buy a house.
No more albatross art. Make art that’s sized appropriately for the shows I’m having.
So far, so good, though there’s no stopping the creative urge sometimes. I see now that I need to get more, bigger exhibits, as well as making more appropriate art.
Don’t let circumspection become paralysis.
Hard to tell, isn’t it?
Take money career to next level.
Definitely. My work at Road Runners is REALLY interesting and it doesn’t distract from my other lives.
Broaden my [job] client base.
It’s about as big as I can handle now. I’ve decided that I can always find work when I need it. So that’s a strategic shift from last year.
Take complete advantage of prime studio location.
Put one foot in front of the other.
One day at a time, right?
Take a vacation—the kind that’s not about work or family obligations.
Woefully no! But the cabin week was very refreshing.
Get that tatoo.
Not yet. What’s with that? It seems like a simple thing compared to some of the others.
Be a leader, not a follower.
Difficult to measure this one, but I think I’m stepping forward more assertively. I’ll need to keep an eye on this one because it’s very important.
Looking back, most of these issues are about embracing success. That idea seems so simple but it’s extraordinarily difficult. Some people never even seem to try. I’m happy with my effort but not yet satisfied with the results.
One other thing I noticed is that the list is surprisingly long, pretty ambitious, and almost entirely accomplished. Perhaps I’d better revise/upgrade my list for ’08!