Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees

March 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, has an uncommon knack for inciting art appreciation in others. John Colapinto describes Meyer’s method in last week’s New Yorker:

In the Antonello [da Messina] gallery, Meyer walked over to an Annunciation on the far wall and explained that the painting was rare in that it depicted only the Virgin Mary, and not the announcing angel. “You, as a viewer, are put in the position of Gabriel, who comes to tell her of the miraculous birth,” Meyer said. He stopped in front of the painting, which was made in about 1475 and is not much larger than a page of this magazine [about 8 inches by 11 inches]. Mary gazes out, past the viewer, her left hand holding her blue robe closed in what Meyer pointed out was a “protective” gesture. “Because you are a stranger,” he said. Then he fell silent. Something about his focussed presence facilitated a deeper absorption in the work, a greater attention to its delicacy, its quiet grace, and its reserves of understated emotion. I could not recall being so moved by a painting. Only when I turned from the canvas did he smile at me and say, with an arched eyebrow, “Amazing, no?”

Lawrence Weschler, one of my favorite authors, has a similar gift but very different methods. His new book, Everything That Rises, is a collection of what he calls “convergences”—visual rhymes that he has noticed between two photographs or paintings—which he uses as a jumping-off point for a vertiginous chain of free association. It sounds a bit like late-night dorm-room bullshitting; at his reading tonight at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, Weschler said one reviewer had described the book as “bong literature.” But Weschler’s erudition and relentless curiosity save the book from that trap. Instead, each page offers a new way to see the world.

Every museum should employ someone like Meyer or Weschler. That someone should neither be featured in a $10 audio tour nor responsible for leading people around hourly. Ideally, visitors would not even know of that someone’s existence until a mysterious stranger sidles up to one of them in a gallery and murmurs a few words that fill the lucky visitor with a sense of wonder.

(Incidentally, Weschler is not at all the timorous intellectual one would expect based on his old book jacket photo. He’s as bold and confident when he speaks as he is when he writes. A more recent photo comes closer to capturing who he is; image and personality would match even more closely, though, if he got a pair of contacts and a clean shave.)

Where it’s at (I’ve got two neologisms and a portmanteau)

February 27th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

An article in today’s New York Times Magazine about Broken Social Scene, a Canadian musical collective that’s all the rage with the kids today (including me), described one Toronto musician as having “an interest in hipsterish pursuits like urban planning.” I’ve long known that I am one trendy, trendy bastard, but there it was in black and white, and in the Times no less: My very profession is a hipsterish pursuit.

As I sat reading the article, wearing my favorite American Apparel hoodie and sporting black plastic glasses, slightly shaggy hair, and a day’s worth of stubble, I thought about commemorating the moment by taking a photo of myself using my cellphone camera. Thankfully, I stopped myself at the last possible moment, thus averting what would surely have been a cataclysmic hipstersplosion.

Accidental truth

February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

An article about the Winter Olympics in today’s New York Times included a strangely insightful misspelling:

[T]he Turin games have provided a vivid demonstration that gravity and fiction exist for a reason: they’re what keep us safely tethered in our place.

Only connect

February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

While I was browsing at Cody’s Books last night, I noticed that some wag had shelved Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type under “urban planning.” The reference to grids reminded me of a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik that I had been reading that afternoon, in which Gopnik mentions the grid plans of Shaker villages. The article’s focus, though, is on describing the qualities that give Shaker crafts their distinct appearance:

…Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops. Repetition and the grid are two alternatives to design that refers to classical perspective space and the roundly realized human body. …Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think “pictorially” about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems, whether you are in Japan, Montmartre, or Hancock. …The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

One sees the pattern clearly in the evolution of the casement clocks—what we call grandfather clocks—made by the Youngs family of New York over three generations, in and out of the community of Believers. …Isaac Newton Youngs, the grandson, was reared as a Shaker, and the clocks he made became as reductive as a refrigerator case, with the sides of the clock neither tapering nor swelling, and, telltale sign, with a knob on the clock face as well as on the clock body to allow the worker to adjust or repair the inside: the allergy to putting a functional element on an object’s “face” was overruled, because the artisan was not thinking of it as a face. In each case, the clocks got not merely simpler—though they did that, too—but progressively less figural.

This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are “inhuman” in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be “humanistic.” …Shaker objects are, like Zen Japanese ones, unworldly but material, far from sensuality but solid as a rock. They annihilate the body, and leave us timeless form to tell the time with.

And that recollection, in turn, reminded me that I had been meaning to get a book about David Ireland, a Zen-influenced artist whose work I saw at the Oakland Museum of California a couple of years ago.

I thought there was a point to this story, but I guess there’s not, except to describe the pinballing way in which I think.

The power of visions

February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.

One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.

Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.

As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.

Baby, I can drive your car

January 30th, 2006 § One comment § permalink

I’m chagrined to announce that after eleven years of resisting the idea, I’m now licensed to drive in the state of California. Yes, it’s true. I took my driving test at the Claremont DMV in Oakland this afternoon and passed with flying colors.

And no, I don’t plan to buy a car, now or in the future. I only got the license for my job, which sometimes requires that I travel to far-off cities (and nearby cities with terrible transit service); a borrowed or rented car works fine for that. I haven’t ruled out City CarShare, but since I won’t be eligible to join until I’ve had my license for a couple of years, I have a while to consider that option.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ride my bike.

I learned this at the uni-versity

January 11th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

One of my coworkers sent an instant message to my office this evening, asking if anyone wanted to join her at the sushi place down the street for a “Rock ‘n’ Roll roll.” I promptly diagnosed her with a severe case of sushi stutter. It’s usually caused by eating raw fish in combination with cream cheese or avocados.

The spreading decline

January 9th, 2006 § One comment § permalink

From Oranges, by John McPhee:

Some foes [of orange trees] attack underground, most notably the burrowing nematode, a small worm that is the author of a disease called the spreading decline. The nematode feeds on small roots and increasingly cuts off the food supply of the tree, which dies slowly, from the top down, as more and more skeletal branches appear each year and the amount of fruit steadily decreases. When people in Florida are feeling depressed and miserable with some unspecific malady, they sometimes tell one another that they have the spreading decline. Since no one has yet found a way to kill the nematodes without killing the tree, decline brings economic disaster. Whole groves of affected trees and a surrounding margin of healthy trees often have to be bulldozed into a great pyre and burned; after the land they stood on is fumigated, it must be left empty for three years. As we drove along, [the orange grower] Mathias would now and again point to areas full of half-dead trees and say, “Decline.” Some were all but leafless, and looked like Northern apple trees in February. Once, we were on a secondary road, moving along between healthy, thick-foliaged orange groves, when perhaps fifty acres of treeless land suddenly came into view, covered with new houses, all of which looked alike. “Decline,” Mathias explained.

Corn syrup is the new opiate of the masses

January 9th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

For anyone who’s not reading the New York Timesseries about diabetes in New York City, here’s a typically distressing excerpt from Tuesday’s article:

Mr. De La Vega said: “People ultimately feel powerless about a lot of things. People think about bigger things. They think about survival. Kids grow up fighting in the streets, so you want to raise big, strong kids. So you give them three pork chops, a nice tall glass of soda to make them strong.”

Shockingly, no lifeguard was on duty

January 4th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

This was the highlight of my day: A woman was searching for her shopping companion in Berkeley Bowl‘s cavernous produce section. She didn’t see him, so she yelled, “Marco!” Several people immediately replied, “Polo!”

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