Saturday, 16 October 2010

EYE 95: The Interstate of Access to Visual Delight

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: Dinophilia is clearly an infectious disease, to judge from the Sunday crowds of eager patrons spilling halfway down to Arch on 19th. “Dinosaurs Past and Present” comes from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History before slithering on to its next stop April 19th. What’s the fascination? It’s more than Godzilla fever and less than simon pure esthetics. The return of the figurative is part of it, along with long-deserved respect for “scientific” specialties like bio-medical illustration.
But this genre is more moppet-centric than most art, although the unaccompanying adults I overheard talked the same way the visitors to the Delaware Art Museum’s recent fantasy and sci-fi national expo did. “Man, a thirty-two foot neck! What an animal!”
The most interesting tidbit I picked up from the ANS Dinorama spectacular that opened a year ago was how speculative all these “artistic” creations are, from the color of the skin and the shape of the scale, not to mention which way the retrieved bones hang. (With delightful lack of abash, the Academy fessed up that it had been hanging one of its prize fossils upside down for decades!) That’s all right. If the kids learn one thing they should deduce that SCIENCE is no fill-in-the-blanks “Wheel of Fortune” quiz show, but rather a meticulously controlled sequence of induction / deduction always up for the grabs of revisionism. A healthy humility for a techno-whizbang culture.
I like the historic drama in a canvas like Mark Hallett’s “The River: A Jurassic Dinosaur Panorama: National Dinosaur Monument Park 140 Million Years Ago.” But the really delectable pieces are the allegedly supporting, fill-in material. Take Colorado schoolmaster Arthur Lake’s marvelous color pencil drawings of the excavations in 1877, which got Yale’s and Penn’s paleontologists into a disgracefully spiteful academic harangue. Or P. Berger’s splendid black and white section of the Brontosaurus Excelsus vertebrate. He was just telling it like he saw it for his class lectures, but the elegance and grace of Nature absorbed artfully gave my eye great pleasure. Check it out.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: No Mannerist I, nor do I go gaga over the burin and its works, mostly. But I must say the Dutch printmaker Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) caught me by my eye the other day. He did over 400 prints in 23 years, at which point he abruptly turned to painting for good. I’m glad he waited. His miniature medallion of his wife Margaretha Jansdochter (1580) is just a marvel of radiant economy.

At the other end of his scale is his most famous image, “The Large Hercules” (1589), a tour de farce in which the great muscleman of classical times would make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Charles Atlas eating sand, so humongous has he drawn the various pectoral and less showy curves. This knobby man emblematizes his force by draping the skin of a Nemean lion loosely over his capacious shoulders. He’s bracketed by smaller versions of two of his feats—wrestling Antaeus on the right and dealing with Achealous disguised as a lion on the left. They were fools to mess with such a mensch.
I was interested to learn that Goltzius got into his medium so that he could make mass editions of only the better known artists like B. Sprange, whose “Adam and Eve with Serpent” (1575) he thereby made accessible to those upwardly mobile Dutch burghers who wanted to garnish their new abodes. (Heh, not all of them could afford Vermeers!) The sexy sinuosities of the Primeval Pair must have given a Hugh Hefneresque kick to those fantasizing about it, but how the nondescript mutt in the foreground figgers into this lubriciousness I’ll never know. There’s also a centerfoldish aspect to his “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan” (1585). In the left background we see Vulcan at his forge while Mars is pounding away on the anvil of Venus. In the nick of time, the sun god Helios bares all.
Meyerson Hall, The Graduate School of Fine Arts, Penn: I wonder how many visitors to the Institute of Contemporary Art’s major exhibitions know what they’ve been missing by not walking up the left flight of stairs to the corridor outside the Dean of Architecture’s office. Quite apart from getting clued in on the plethora of speakers they have, like, say, sculptor Harriet Feigenbaum lecturing on Environmental Art, Reclamation and Reality,” March 25, Towne Building Alumna Hall, 6:30 p.m. She gave a brilliant illustrated lecture on her schemes to heal the wounds of landscape in the Scranton coal region at PAFA’s recent daylong symposium on the state of public art in America. Hers is a minority attention. This flight up I was not disappointed either.
Christopher L. Sholes, who spent twenty of his twenty-eight years of Foreign Services in India and Pakistan, started a second career in 1977 by exhibiting his photographs about the cultures of the region. “Living Gods, Hindu Faces” were 34 color photos about how deeply embedded Hindu religious life is in the everyday environment of the people of India. And a remarkable aspect of this small but beautiful show of a professional diplomat turned professional photographer was the scholarly captioning supplied by Dr. Nalini Shetty.

For example, Plate One, “Priest in a Temple Doorway” would be just another funky bit of exorcism without her positioning it in time and place: “A priest looks out of the door of a temple dedicated to Shiva. Sculpted on a panel beside the door is the figure of a river goddess, symbol for the holy river Ganges which Shiva is said to have caught in his matted hair as it gushed earthward from heaven.” This is Horace’s formula dulce et utile at work, the sweetness of the pictures and the enlightenment of the captions. All our schools, form elementary through graduate, need such artful embellishment. In Shanghai, waiting for the #20 bus, I realized there was such a photo gallery at the terminal stop. Almost missed it too.
Art Institute of Philadelphia: If mass consumption is the engine that fuels American abundance, then the graphic designer is its prophet nonpareil. No packaging of desire, no sales volume, no mass abundance. I think few would question that the Renaissance mensch of this esthetic specialty is Milton Glaser. That man can deal with any problem of design. Original drawings, paintings, posters, book illustrations, album covers, calendars, games, and packaging. For a local philanthropic touch there was the 24”x36” lithograph he designed for the Philadelphia Orchestra, sales of which poster will keep the PSO more happily tootling.
As co-founder of the internationally renowned Push Pin Studios, Glaser combines genius with unpretentiousness. And like our Walt Whitman, who would have adored his demotic genius, Glaser contains multitudes. His assignments run the gamut from graphic breakthroughs like New York magazine to designing the observation deck and restaurant theming for Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. (Before this show, I didn’t know I owed him my greatest acrophilic thrill in North America—the only high rise competition he has there is Timothy Pfleuger’s Top of the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, but that’s pitting Berkeley against Jersey, a difficult handicap.)

His most ecumenical assignment has perhaps been redoing the Grand Union supermarket chain—encompassing advertising design, packaging, marketing strategies and architectural and interior design. My only quibble is one I made about Saul Bass on “Two Cents Worth!” a Honolulu radio program in 1962: What a pity such talent must concentrate on 90 seconds of “The Man With the Golden Arm” logo. Bass chewed me out for 90 minutes on the phone—for praising him!
State Museum of New Jersey / Trenton: “Pinelands: Tradition and Environment” is a beguilingly popular piece of family museology (through April 3 with a day long symposium on March 14). It cases those one million acres we know as the Pine Barrens with sharply focused eye (the photos by Joseph Czarnecki of the American Folklife Center are world-class images of its variegated locales) and are finely tuned to the cadences of local speech (salt hay farmer George Campbell muses, “Half the enjoyment of working outside is going down in the meadows and seeing the osprey and the eagle taking the fish.”)

Each of the exhibition’s five sections—meadows, cedar swamps, rivers and bays, farmlands, and upland weeds is preceded by such an epigraph on an introductory photo mural. What the details add up to is a paean of praise to the tinkerers who took received ideas and implements and adapted them to this “barren” environment. Fecundity is clearly in the eye of the adventurous settler.
The tools they devised are a delight to dally over: salt hay rakes as well as special horse shoes to keep the animals from bogging down in the squishy turf; eel pots and eel spears that are as marvelous shapes as you’ll find anywhere; boats for the special aqueous natures of Delaware River or Barnegat Bay with delicious names like sneakboxes and garveys; scoops to harvest blueberries or cranberries that are marvels of vernacular design, and fykes to trap snapping turtles and progues to probe for sunken cedar logs; man, our South Jersey ancestors sure knew how to improvise.
Tarry long enough to savour the New Jersey Network videos.
Reprinted from Art Matters, March 1987

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