Category Archives: art

Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, etc.

I’ve begun to wonder why writers seem so hung-up on reusing the same tired words in and the same troublesome scenes. Perhaps this is only my trouble: a persistent habit of revising drafts not by using the rough as a vague blueprint from which to rewrite the entire story, but by lopping off a paragraph here, bloating a scene there. Maybe for some people it works, but for me it doesn’t seem to.

Pen sketches.

In painting, studies (often many, many studies) are often integral creating the finished work. When create a study, it is usually in order to get out all my worst ideas first:  boring composition, anatomically incorrect angles, badly chosen palettes and other rudimentary problems. Studies also help me to establish what is working well, visually, so that I can reproduce it in the final work.

Finished painting.

Why is it that this repetitive process seems less frequently used by writers? The late great JG Ballard rewrote his novels using the previous draft not as gospel but as a reference or rough guide. His process strikes me as more useful than what I’ve been doing up until now: trying to tweak large, unwieldy slabs of story, becoming frustrated when nothing quite works, when nothing really fits.

Some of the studies I create toward finished paintings engage viewers on their own; many have at least a few redeeming features (for example, I like the position of the feet in the studies; but, due to sizing and proportion issues, I didn’t paint any feet into the final work). However, they tend to pale in comparison to the final work, because they contain many of the problems that have been resolved by the time I set out to create a polished painting.

I’m going to take a leaf from Ballard’s book (not literally, of course), and try to apply this method to writing as well. I suspect that it may yield good things.

I bet there are a million of you out there talking about this, just like me–so “if you see something, say something.” That is to say, if you’ve been thinking or working along similar lines, don’t hesitate to chime in.



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Shanghai Art and Science Fiction

Objects In My Drawer

Jiang Zhi -- "Objects In My Drawer"

I didn’t know I was interested in Shanghai’s contemporary art scene until I started reading the blog Asian Art Nerd.  The blog offers commentary and showcases Shanghai art (often via the author’s own photos) such as Jiang Zhi‘s photographs, which recallsome bizarre combination of dreams, nostalgia, and horror films:


Jiang Zhi -- "Sucker"

Each image makes my skin prickle, as though images of my private nightmares are being put public display. It feels great to see them so clearly in focus, but also frightening, even embarrassing.

On a completely different note I’ve also been enjoying Space Canon, a blog reviewing Science Fiction exclusively. Sounds dull and common place until you actually read the thing. Here’s Space Canon’s recent review of an Arthur C. Clarke novel titled Imperial Earth:

Impetuously, a space-living
Man, still young,
Plots his first and last journey to
Earth, for him, a
Return to his long-forgotten birthplace.
In the ship, he trains for
All those forgotten rituals, including:
Life with gravity.

Everything he finds, including the most anodyne of
Animals, seems mystical, meaningful, alien.
Returning to his home on the moon of
Titan, he is

Here’s what the author has to say about this undertaking to read books from the SF canon:

I would like to become a kind of expert on the subject, and because there are no genuine, bricks-and-mortar institutions where a person can do such a thing. Because I would like to continue striding straight and calm into the future, assured of all possible realities, of how to foil the pitfalls of humanity when faced with sentient clouds, steel planets, and moon pools. And, while the canon of traditional literature forms a majestic, complex image of humanity, the space canon as a culture is as yet lightly-trodden, but full of important, and undoubtedly prescient, ideas.

Happy reading!

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Alessandro Busci at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art

Last month I saw a show of Alessandro Busci‘s paintings at the Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art. Each of Busci’s paintings featured “train depots, service stations, power plants, and airports”. The enamel palettes used were vivid, usually limited to the brown chemical rainbows over iron panels, thrillingly lurid red paint, near-pure white, and an empty middle gray — now applied thickly, now diluted outward giving the impression of water and light on a runway.

Busci’s paintings speak to the part of industrialization that hard, dehumanizing, and sometimes bloody. In other ways, his paintings act as a paean to the great seductive joys of mass-production. There is a beauty to mass-production — the sense of a sudden rush of material wealth — but also a fear and latent violence, as it always seems in danger of growing into a Goliath, both cruel and easily toppled by its own great girth.

Unfortunately those amazing airport and factory paintings were shown in the wretchedly over-designed Mark Wolfe gallery. The gallery space juxtaposes a slick design aesthetic with raw cement pillars. It’s cold in a way that makes me breathy with claustrophobia. The Mark Wolfe gallery belies Busci’s paintings. While the “raw” space speaks to a similar appreciation of industrial design, the application of that design unwittingly implies a total lack of comprehension of the genealogy of the industrial aesthetic.

For these reasons the entire gallery space put me on edge, which might be considered a feat of architecture and design if the subtext (exotification of raw utilitarian architecture) didn’t distract so much from the artwork displayed.

In that setting Busci’s hauntingly beautiful chemical-and-metal paintings — which, given their color and the spontaneous yet sinuous application of paint seemed an homage to the blunt violence of industry — seem almost like mockeries of themselves. The paintings are inherently effective and powerful; and, unlike the gallery, they are infused with a sense of the history and psychological gravity of utilitarian architecture. However, when juxtaposed with the Mark Wolfe space, the paintings are subsumed and hence trivialized.

Busci’s paintings are wonderful but I would prefer to see them in more fitting space.

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When I first learned to paint I was timid. I had to learn to trust what I saw and the ability in my hands. Like most beginning artists I had trouble recording what I actually saw. My frustration wasn’t so much with inaccuracy in my work as a lack of beauty. If sunlight fell a certain way on a table, I became happy if I could capture at least some of the depth and ebullience of the light. I was much less perturbed about things like perspective and where the tables legs lay. Those sorts of things you can practice. But putting down the life of an object or a scene is a process of learning the language of your own vision.

I think writing may be similar. Often when I write I’m discouraged by my inability to tell the truth about the things I know about a scene: sight and smell, the things that occur during speech, underneath it. (For example, the second to last clause didn’t capture what I wanted to say about the thing that occur underneath speech! I had this image of people exchanging small folded notes in a dimly lit room, maybe a black market pub, windowless, and everything is made from exposed wood with ridges raised like angry lines of welts and just as raw to the touch. The exchanged notes are tattered, the people sit across from each other with their whole backs clenched, and their forearms stiff with fury. Their hands move fast and pluck like frightened, hungry birds. Sharp. It smells like wood and sap and that smell I can never explain except that it’s “what cold smells like when you’re outdoors at night in a small town on a street where everyone’s indoors and all the people and radios are at a low volume, and the snow has just fallen and all the smells in the word and tamped down to the ground so the air is clear almost as though the stars flood pure oxygen down to you and the whole sky is clear and the stars shimmer like tears in a dark room and you’re alone and wearing your winter coat but going someplace that is indoors, the light a dim claustrophobic red and yellow, and other people are there but they’ll be drowsy and it’ll smell like the hair and cigarette ashy collected on your thick carpet for several months, and remembering this smell so sharply the air outside is even cleaner, so clean it shakes your body like high pitches in singing.”) My senses know all of these details simultaneously but the translation is so arduous it’s almost painful. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense. I can’t tell whether it’s making sense to anyone but me.

But I do think it might be like painting or drawing. When I started a curved line took many tiny marks to make, and the whole was unsatisfactory. Sometimes now when my eyes and hand move in tandem the mark is single, swift and right. Most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. Most of the time I’m frustrated with myself. But maybe if I practice the patience of translation and the trust of my senses and tools what I see will become what I record more often.

I hope.

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Gregory Orr: “This I Believe: The Making of Poems”

Gregory Orr wrote in his essay This I Believe: The Making of Poems:

“I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive.

“….Because poems are meanings, even the saddest poem I write is proof that I want to survive.

“….Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I’m not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I’ve experienced, or felt something like what I have felt. And their poem gives me hope and courage, because I know that they survived, that their life force was strong enough to turn experience into words and shape it into meaning and then bring it toward me to share. The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living.”

The latter part of this succinctly and beautifully makes sense of all the things I was trying to explain in a prior post about JT LeRoy. Art can an act of survival and a (sometimes dark) joy-taking in that urge to press forward, to keep living and trying to thrive.

Here’s one (of many) Gregory Orr poem(s) that I like:

The Project

My plan was to generate light
with no outside source.
To accomplish this, I lived alone
in a burrow under the earth.
Previously I had observed
that in darkness my body
gave off a faint light. Suspecting
that this glow came from the bones,
I scraped the flesh from my right hand.
I’d been underground so long
the meat came off
painlessly, like wet clay.
But when the flesh was gone,
the light was gone too.

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“If you don’t see it in the work in front of you… your job is to write it yourself.”

“You want to read work that reflects yourself, not necessarily literally yourself, but your perspective, your point of view, and the community around you, and if you don’t see it in the work in front of you, as a writer, your job is to write it yourself. You want to put that world on the page.” –Speculative Fiction editor Sheree R. Thomas on NPR, August 13, 2007

I remember reading a message board discussion about the potential of Fantasy and Science Fiction to champion possible worlds in which race is dealt with deftly, interestingly, unusually – the very context of race and race relations is altered. Power dynamics can be shifted (Martha Jones from Doctor Who and Torchwood, anyone?*), sometimes even made void and null (Ursula LeGuin). The point was that Speculative Fiction (Science Ficton, Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism, etc.) can offer a more flexible context to present and consider race. Unfortunately, a majority of Speculative Fiction offers little more than dulling doses of “Blandy McWhitey White in Blandy McNeighborhood in America or Blandy McMedieval Europe or Blandy McDefaulty Man in any setting anywhere.”**

Speculative Fiction appeals to the imagination and the unconscious – and therein lies its power. It can be used not only for escapist daydreaming, but for social commentary (which, of course, lots of Science Fiction already is), change, even as a visionary medium. Speculative Fiction can be used to address race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., all within unusual or altered contexts.

*Actually, Martha’s treatment by the Doctor was always disappointing, but her treatment by the Doctor Who scriptwriters wasn’t (Martha’s character is great, the Doctor is boring and patronizing). The characters of Torchwood appreciate her far more.
**This is the second time I’ve quoted The Angry Black Woman – an excellent blog on “politics, race, gender, sexuality, anger.”

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Kara Walker: Race, Sexuality, Fantasy, Irony, and Controversy in the Art World

First Impressions: What Kara Walker Has Meant to Me and Some of Her Admirers

When I first encountered Kara Walker’s art, I thought it was about revenge, specifically the revenge of a stereotype on a sinister caricature of history. The piece I viewed filled an entire circular room. It was comprised entirely of paper cut-outs and had a distinctly disjointed narrative. The use of the negative and stereotypical representations of Black figures appeared satirical as though to say, “Now imagine if these roles were filled – would you really like the consequences? I think not.” In some of the images, the fictional stereotypes received the abuse that once abetted their creation; in others, they enacted vengeance upon their creators. The entire piece was implicitly ironic and contradictory, and I was captivated by its paradoxes.

Some other critics have taken similar standpoints. Whereas well-known artist Betye Saar (who loathes Walker’s work) perceives nothing but negative stereotyping and the perpetuation of racist imagery, her daughter Allison Saar (also a professional artist) sees Walker’s work as an vital political statement, intentionally reminding its viewers that “racism is subtle and persistent” in the present day. Christina Elizabeth Sharpe (a journalist who has covered Walker’s past shows) suggests that Walker’s work implicates the viewer in ways that allow the dichotomy of Black/white to break down and resuscitate the corpse of a body of cultural imagery that refuses to stay buried regardless. Others have commented that Walker’s art is reflective of popular culture’s subconscious narrative, and that her work exposes the seedy underbelly of a falsely benign mainstream.

Second Thoughts: Negative Criticism of Walker‘s Work

The popularity of Walker’s paintings, prints, and paper cut-outs has generated a great deal of backlash, much of it in the form of criticism from other African-American artists. Her detractors claim that her use of the slave narrative is cavalier and her application of negative stereotypes works to enforce a false history in the minds of both Black and white viewers. Critics are also disturbed by Walker’s success in the mainstream art world as juxtaposed against the marginalization of most other Black artists. In fact, some critics suggest that Walker is intentionally seeking to reinforce negative stereotypes – knowing that they appeal to a sect of wealthy white art dealers – and thereby sacrificing her own history and culture in order to achieve success. Indeed, this last claim is difficult to refute: Walker is almost inexplicably popular within the mainstream art scene, which substantially favors negative images of African-Americans over positive images, neutral images, or even non-race-related images created by Black artists.

However, according to Walker, reinforcing negative stereotypes is not her intent. Instead she seeks to investigate the impact that fictional racist narratives have had on her own psyche and – ultimately – America’s cultural imagination. She attempts to explore the ways in which these stereotypes are acted out by both whites and Blacks in a contemporary context.

It seems unfair to blame Walker for her success when her control over who takes interest in her art is (necessarily) limited. At the same time, it can be argued that Walker has some responsibility to consider who may or may not view her work, and how or in what context that work is displayed; and it is unfortunate that she does not take more care to refute poor (and/or inaccurate) interpretations of her images. For example, I find Jerry Saltz’s November 1998 review of Walker’s work in the Village Voice a gross misinterpretation which has, unfortunately, not been refuted. In his review, Saltz insists that a female figure in one of Walker’s cut-outs – a caricature who particularly and quite obviously references Josephine Baker – is “sexy.” His comment is entirely serious, devoid of any irony. His observation stands in direct contradiction to Walker’s stated artistic purpose.

Similarly, some other white critics appear a bit too enthusiastic to extract reinforcement of their own beliefs from Walker’s narratives. The subtexts of their reviews often seem to say, “Look! We were right all along – Black people secretly enjoy our negative stereotyping.” However, the perspective of this group of oblivious and insulting critics appears to be in the minority.

There is something essentially unfortunate inherent in Walker’s work in that it is in some ways an act of self-flagellation. In an interview Walker states that many of her works are based upon a self-loathing of her own identity that was fostered over time and emerged from its latency when she moved to Georgia as an adolescent. In some ways, this confirms the critics: the work contains aspects of self-loathing. It is an expression of a cultural double-standard as filtered through one woman’s psyche.

Autobiography and/or Political Statement?

Walker has used some of her art to wage a kind of war against detractors. In a certain watercolor she lambastes Betye Saar in both the text and title of the piece. Simultaneously she displays pieces that have an autobiographical flavor, as in “Why I Like White Boys” (1998) – a piece which is a self-proclaimed reflection on her own struggles with interracial dating. Of this she says, “I want the viewer to feel as though they’ve just encountered a History (with a capital H) that they Never knew — only to discover that it is mostly my Own (and my attendant longings and imperfections) they have just experienced.”

However, Walker has stated that although she intends her work to provoke, her primary goal is not to create a shock-effect, but to foster dialog. Walker says that her work is satirical and ironic, intended as social commentary but not comedy.

Conclusion: Present and Future

Walker’s work can be read many ways, but it is clear from all her statements that her intent is a satirical portrayal of the history specific to the individual. It is also apparent that in Walker’s vernacular, the “individual” is imagined not only as the artist but also as the fictional historical other. Walker’s work is simultaneously political and fantastical; it has elements of both imagined and real American culture and history.

However, because Walker is one of only a handful of successful African-American “art stars” she is perceived as a mouthpiece for the Black community, although that role is ultimately not one that she claims or desires to play. Therefore, there is an inherent likelihood that some viewers will (mis)interpret her intimate, imagined histories literally. And there is, indeed, the risk of perpetuating negative stereotypes, which may appear less satirical to some than to others. Walker has been pigeonholed as a Black artist who uses her work to address race – even if her primary object is to confront a battery of issues, of which race is only one. When Walker is publicly interpreted as a one-dimensional, race-obsessed artist, she is made into a token figure, silenced and stripped of her own depth.

Were there more examples of popular African-American artists who produce a variety of images (positive stereotypes, political, abstract work, and art about virtually any topic including and besides race) it is likely that the controversy over Walker’s work would decrease. However, if Walker continues to be perceived (by outsiders) as representing the entire community of Black artists (most of whose work is vastly different in subject matter and style), she will be criticized and resented. Tokenization is, of course, not Walker’s goal in producing and showing art. Unfortunately, art and reality have collided, and what is left is a lot of rather interesting art made by an individual and a system that frequently perverts that individual’s intent.

In the future, it is imperative that viewers be given more choices and are exposed to a cornucopia African-American artists whose works speak about a diversity of topics. It would be refreshing to have access an array of narratives that play with the spectrum between real (historical, factual) and imagined (a-historical, fantasy). At present, Kara Walker is defining the spectrum – in fact, it often seems that she is the spectrum. It will be interesting to witness the responses of future artists to the issues Walker has raised, and how Walker herself will cope with the concepts and questions of her own artistic output.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

Falconer, Morgan. “Kara Walker: Tate Liverpool.” Art Monthly July/August 2004: p. 41
Falconer, Morgan. “Screen Time: Kara Walker.” Art Review February 2007: p. 30
Hixson, Kathryn. “Kara Walker.” New Art Examiner April 1997: p. 41-2
Isaak, Jo Anna (Editor). Looking Forward Looking Black. Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press, New York: 1999. Pages 6-7 and 38-43.
Leslie, Richard. “Racism in the art world: a report on a report.” New Art Examiner September 1997: p. 44-45
O‘Brien, Barbara. “Shadows and Stories: Kara Walker’s History.” Art New England December 2003/January 2004: p. 16-17
Subotnick, Ali. “Kara Walker.” Make: The Magazine of Women’s Art Issue 92 2002: p. 25-7
Unger, Miles. “Contested histories.” Art New England June/July 1998: p. 29,50thsaltz,69293,31.html


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