Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Der Blasse Tanz/The Pale Dance, Martin Eder, intr. Isabelle Azoulay (Prestel) $65

Prestel has published a 320-page collection of watercolors by German artist Martin Eder. Admittedly, I had never heard of Eder, and based on this book and a small amount of research, I’m still not quite sure how to feel about him. His subject matter is comprised of pornographic girls in pornographic positions, and kittens. It sounds very conceptual because it is, and Azoulay uses her economic introduction to discuss how traditional concepts of feminism and erotic art play out in his work.

The resulting art is a bevy of hot, naked girls, tone ranging from smutty to sensual, interlaced with hazy, demonic cats. All Eder’s portraits use watercolor well to create a genuine nightmarish quality—to what end is undoubtedly articulated in his artist’s statement and gallery publicity, but my initial emotional reaction is a vague sense of creepiness and bewilderment.

As a frequent user of watercolor, I appreciate the skill and color schemes employed throughout the book. Most of the portraits look as though a photograph had been masterfully put through many Photoshop filters; it’s clear that Eder is able to accomplish a lot with a handful of quick, well-placed brush strokes, making his art a realistic sort of impressionism. The palates are harmonious and interesting. Eder’s skill level is obviously high, so this, combined with my appreciation of naked women, led me to like the book. The Pale Dance is stronger in technique than concept, but Eder’s technique is virtuosic enough to make this book worthwhile.



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Illustrated Three-Line Novels: Félix Fénéon, Joanna Neborsky, tr. Luc Sante. (Mark Batty Publisher) $24.95

Joanna Nebrosky studied under Maira Kalman, and it shows. That influence has less to do with the collage and drawing techniques employed than its general aesthetic, which combines intelligence with whimsy in equal portions. The concept is simple: Nebrosky illustrated Fénéon’s newspaper bylines, first published in Sante’s translation by the New York Review Books as Novels in Three Lines. Some of my favorites include:

The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Giquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophîle Papin of Ivry collapsed.

The laundrymen of France welcomed yesterday at the Gare du Nord the illustrious laundrymen of London.

Most of Nebrosky’s collage incorporates old newsprint, especially to populate its characters, but her work also demonstrates skill in a wide variety of other mediums, from colored pencil to marker and water color, each well chosen for its specific effect. In her own introduction, she writes

I have spent the last year elbow-deep in the newsprint and gore of Félix Fénéon’s antique news briefs, severing bowler-hatted heads from ascots and vested bodies from pantaloons in fields of torn Xerox and construction paper. A gruesome business, collage. The form lends itself to depicting unlucky ends, which is good news for the collagist illustrating Fénéon, if not such good news for Bonnaut (stabbed by a gangster named Shoe Face, Montreuil), Mme Lesbos (run over by a tourist omnibus, Versailles), and Inghels (pile of logs, Qaui d’Austerlitz). The true short stories of Félix Fénéon, in which people die ignoble, comic, half-forgotten deaths, confirm that we are each hurtling toward unseen disaster. The thousand of them attest, like collage itself, to the absurd miscellany of life.

Three-Line Novels is beautifully produced: the first thing I noticed upon removing it from its packaging was the smell of ink. It’s colors are bright and Mark Batty Publisher has done what small publishers do best, by managing this edition with care so that the “gruesome business” of collage truly does attest “to the absurd miscellany of life.”


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I met Pascale Petit while studying at Oxford, and we became friends over the course of the single trimester she tutored me. My own preoccupations with contemporary indigenous poetries and my upbringing in Mexico very obviously overlap with her interest in and study of Amazon and Aztec mythologies, which she explores extensively in her collections The Zoo Father and The Huntress. Named a Next Generation Poet by the Poetry Book Society, her collections have twice been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, as well as having been selected as Books of the Year by the TLS and Independent. She has traveled widely to write and perform, and has also worked extensively in literary translation. I particularly admire her translations of Chinese Misty Poet Yang Lian, who now lives in London.

In 2004 she published a chapbook of poems about Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, which marked the beginning of her exploration of the painter’s life in poetry. This May Wales-based Seren released What the Water Gave Me (£8.99), a full length collection of poems exploring the life of Frida Kahlo. Already glowingly reviewed by Ruth Padel in The Guardian, WTWGM continues to garner critical praise.

Though we seldom see each other in person, we do maintain a regular electronic correspondence, and it was a pleasure to discuss Petit’s latest collection by email. Coincidentally Pascale Petit has also been selected by Molossus contributing editor Sudeep Sen for the next installment of his World Poetry Portfolio series, which will include several poems excerpted from her new collection.


So, first the obvious. Why Frida Kahlo?

What the Water Gave Me is a sequence of fifty-two poems, each based on one of Kahlo’s paintings. When I was at the Royal College of Art, training as a sculptor, a tutor said my studio reminded him of her home, the Casa Azul, and he suggested I should take a closer look at her paintings. Though I’d noticed her personal, bold and sometimes shocking style, I didn’t really know her work well. It didn’t occur to me to write poems in her voice until I was finishing The Zoo Father, my second collection, in 2000. I must have been reading about the bus crash she suffered when she was a teenager, and how the injuries from that caused her lifelong pain, which she depicted and transcended in her art. I saw a connection with the poems in The Zoo Father, which is also about transcending childhood trauma.

I wrote the first two poems ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ and ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, on the same day. Both narrate the violence of the accident and how the bus handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her vagina. It seemed to be a kind of rape with no one to blame. I could use the images of the bus and tramcar colliding and the gold dust that splashed over her from her fellow passenger. Afterwards she told people this accident was how she lost her virginity.

A few years later I saw her painting ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’ (the one with the dark leaf background, that Madonna owns,) in the exhibition Surrealism: Desire Unbound at Tate Modern (2002) and was struck by how alive she looked in it, gazing defiantly out at the viewer. I wanted to try to capture that. In 2005 I published a pamphlet of fourteen of these poems in The Wounded Deer and it was launched in Tate Modern’s Frida Kahlo exhibition. It was an unforgettable experience to read surrounded by the paintings. I didn’t then think I would write any more of these poems and a few years passed before I did.

You’re both a visual artist and a poet, and you’ve written and talked extensively about the relationship between the two disciplines. How did your personal experience in both fields intersect or engage each other in What the Water Gave Me?

I was a sculptor but I don’t make visual art any more. As an artist I used intense colour, often on transparent materials such as glass, fiberglass and resin casts. I made translucent female figures with parts of their abdomens exposed so you could see their reproductive organs. I placed iridescent beetles (gifts from the Natural History Museum), and tropical butterflies on their glass-like sexual organs. I also made installations of glass structures crisscrossed with brightly painted thorn branches, and there were hummingbirds inside domes and boxes, a warbler, a blue tit, eggs, nests, dragonflies, and so on. So some of Kahlo’s imagery was already there in my work, even before I’d fully explored her pictures.

When I started writing the Frida poems, it felt like I was making my own ‘paintings’ after hers. Not exact replicas, but my versions. Except that they were made with words. Ever since I stopped being a visual artist it’s been important to me that my poems are physical – solidly made and visualisable, and I’m aware of the objects embedded or suspended in them. My sculptures were transparent, but there were also arcs of colour – glass tendrils drawn out of the kiln, and hawthorn branches that I collected and painted bright blue, green or red. Perhaps the lines of the poems are these arcs, around the face, body, nest or bird in the composition.

I love the idea of the biography in verse. Here you include interpretations of Kahlo’s work, reflections on her lifelong physical pain and tumultuous life with Diego Rivera, and more. It seems like the appropriate form of biography for another artist, especially such an iconic painter. Can you reflect on that?

It’s a strange kind of biography, half her, and half me disguised as her, which was great fun to do! I loved pretending to be her. There was so much I could identify with. I’d been through a long period of illness and isolation so could relate to her months of being bed-bound and her loneliness (she said she painted her self-portraits because she was always alone). I don’t have children and I’d never written about that, but explored this subject through her, her inability to bring a child to term because of injuries as a result of the accident. I enjoyed depicting her troubled relationship with Diego, her jealousy and sense of betrayal when he had his affairs. It was much better than me writing about myself, made those common human sorrows more vivid and somehow joyful (because she turned them into colourful art). I should say though that, however much I was putting myself into her persona, I kept to the facts as rigorously as I knew them. The poems had to be true to Kahlo and sound like her.

What Kahlo biographies did you read? What else did you do to research your poems?

I started with the Hayden Herrera Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, and Kahlo’s fabulous diary The Diary of Frida Kahlo, and Martha Zamora’s The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas. I spent a lot of time in the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council library in Hyde Park, devouring all their books about her. And of course I went to visit the Casa Azul, back in 2000 when I started writing the poems, and all the museums for her and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Later, more books were published which I found very helpful: Gannit Ankori’s Imaging her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation (particularly good on the painting What the Water Gave Me), and Magdalena Rosenzweig’s Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, which was written after the unsealing of her bathroom and dressing room. I’d been disappointed the bathroom was sealed up when I visited her Blue House, but here were evocative descriptions of her bath and clothes. I went back to Coyoacán a few times. I also went to the nearby Pedregal, to see the volcanic plain that forms so many backgrounds in her paintings of her broken body, the fissured landscape mirroring her scars, and although it’s now a built up area, you can still see outcrops of volcanic rock here and there around the drug baron mansions.

You bring sexuality into your poems with very sharp images—I’m thinking of “Whenever we make love, you say / it’s like fucking a crash – / I bring the bus with me into the bedroom”and that reminds me of some of your earlier work. I see it as a sort of incursion into the mythologies you build up in the work, and, I suppose, part of the mythologies, too. That said, I wonder how this collection, and especially the process behind it, might have been similar or different to other books.

My preoccupations in What the Water Gave Me are quite similar to those in The Zoo Father. Both books are about overcoming childhood trauma and at the heart of them is sexual damage. It was useful for me to write as someone else but still explore the transforming of pain into art. Kahlo’s paintings were a vehicle to expand these explorations into more adult concerns such as marriage, surgery and miscarriage, and there might be less of the embarrassment of so-called ‘confessional’ poems. The Zoo Father and The Huntress are often read as autobiography, however much I’ve mythologised them with Amazonian and Aztec rituals. In What the Water Gave Me I’m confessing the biography of an icon, an extraordinary woman who turned herself into myth. My previous book The Treekeeper’s Tale is different I think. In it, the natural world, which is always a strong presence in my poems, takes more centre stage.

With such a thematic collection, I also wonder how you knew when to stop. Especially with a life as full of little details as Frida’sfrom her early accident to her later dog Señor Xólotl.

Stopping was hard. There are still paintings I haven’t written about. Each poem has the title of a painting and I regret that some are missing, and there is much about her life I left out, because it wasn’t of such interest to me. I could have gone on and made a bigger book, but I’d already taken ten years, so thought it best to stop. I wonder if I will write any more. I resist that prospect, for now at least.

What are you working on now? What are you reading, watching, listening to?

I’m writing my first novel. And I’ve started writing some new poems, but I don’t want to talk about the novel, and the poems are linked to it so I won’t talk about them either – it’s too early. Almost all my current reading is research for the novel. But I’m also reading in preparation for the next Poetry from Art course I teach at Tate Modern, when we’ll start off in the Gauguin exhibition, so I’m reading his journals and letters from the South Seas and the myths of Tahiti. Recent exhibitions I’ve been fascinated by include Annette Messager’s The Messengers, and Surreal Friends in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, especially the paintings by another of my favourite Spanish/Mexican painters Remedios Varo, whose work I first encountered in Mexico and whose paintings I wrote about in The Treekeeper’s Tale. I also loved Francis Alÿs’ powerful video Tornado in his recent exhibition at Tate Modern.

August/September 2010

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Art Director Geoff Gossett introduces recent, rare, and random titles that inspire his work at the drawing table.

Blacksad, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse Comics) $29.99

Blacksad is one the most visually beautiful and well-executed comic books on the market right now, even if you’re not a furry. It is to comics what Sleeping Beauty is to animation—a fitting comparison being that its Spanish creators, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, were once animators in the French division of Disney. Both also chose the daunting medium of watercolor for this project, the least forgiving of paint mediums.

The story is set in a late 50s noir American metropolis. It’s inhabited by human characters who assume the identities of animals—signified by the varying animal heads worn by each.  These heads reflect the personality and job description of their respective owners, though from the neck down they are entirely human in form and function. Within this microcosm of human behavior there is even a fascist group of winter animals that don swastika-like snowflakes for their political brand of white fur-only racism.

Canales and Guarnido masterfully tackle complicated cityscapes, realistic animal heads,  era-appropriate clothing, and action scenes from multiple angles—elements which are difficult to manage independently, let alone in conjunction with one another.

Facial expressions are detailed and cater to each individual character. Poses are dynamic, solid, and indicative of true draftsmen. And they’re composed within a tightly controlled color watercolor palette.

The first of the Blacksad series was released in 2000 in French. Subsequent volumes were then issued roughly every three years, which should give readers some sense of the artists’ laborious creative task. The new hard-bound volume contains 184 pages, comprising all three original volumes, and was published in June of this year by Dark Horse Comics after conflicts with publication rights. Although the book is Canales and Guarnido’s first, it has been translated into nearly every major language and hundreds of copies have been sold worldwide. Hollywood has expressed interest, and I recommend you read it before it gets the Marvel treatment.

Weathercraft: A Frank Comic, Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics) $19.99

Jim Woodring has been a driving force in American comics since the early 1980s. Throughout his childhood he experienced hallucinations—especially of severed heads and creatures—that he eventually grew to live with. His tolerance for hallucination, and his self-taught drawing in quill pen, serve as the basis for his newest book, Weathercraft.

The story of the comic has a plot that’s difficult to explain, since there’s no dialogue, and everything seems to be a dreamy hallucination. Characters melt into other characters, and line work evolves to gradually change the landscape and lighting. Woodring’s lines’ undulated thickness visually complements those narrative transitions. All the more impressive is how such complicated, hand-drawn line work can be pulled off so freely, cleanly, and legibly. Woodring is probably one of the few people in the world able to give Crumb a run for his money in the world of nib-made art.

It should be mentioned that frogs are a central theme through this book, and in quite a few of his other works. One appeared to him during an art history class, and there doesn’t seem to be any academic reason for their inclusion, subconscious or otherwise.

Weathercraft, though plotless, is incredibly interesting, much like David Lynch’s more abstract films . At the moment Woodring is dedicated to furthering odd projects by mastering the use of a six-foot quill pen with a sixteen-inch nib. I am excited to see the result.


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Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), ed. Steven Henry Madoff (The MIT Press) $29.95

Art School is a serious study of the institutions that facilitate arts education, but more importantly a critique of the prestige those institutions grant within the art community. The anthology considers the contemporary state of arts education not as the culminating final act of history but as a single stage in a larger, more dynamic story. It refuses to stop at criticism, but proceeds with alternatives, never offering a definitive prescription for arts education but detailing attempts at other methods. The volume is well-edited, arranged in a thoughtful sequence of essays, interviews, and case studies, with plentiful photos, not unlike the diversity of a magazine but with real critical heft. My favorite chapters include 13, a conversation between Marina Abramović and Tania Bruguera about the realities of teaching performance art—which they agree less suiting a name than “behavior art”—in Europe and the United States, and 15, “In Latin America: Arts Education Between Colonialism and Revolution,” a more traditional academic essay. The longer chapters are interspersed with short case studies, like number six, “Marfa Complex, 1973 on, Donald Judd, Marfa, Texas,” which immediately follows the latter chapter above, and offers a thumbnail history of that colony and exhibition space for Judd and his fellow Minimalists.

Besides being impressed with Art School, I’m immediately jealous. I wish the contemporary Creative Writing culture would encourage consistent debate and discussion across groups for and against, rather than the occasional Donald Hall-style critique and the incessant growth of the great self-perpetuating, MFA-granting machine.

Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro & Blake Stimson (The MIT Press) $39.95

Another stellar volume in what might be the best line-up of any American press currently publishing critical titles on art, Institutional Critique collects short essays by artists about the institutions that house and present their works—from Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni writing in 1968 to Greg Bordowitz in 2004. Like its MIT counterpart above, it also contains interviews (Michael Asher and Stephan Pascher, for example) and is characterized by its variety, its consistent critical quality, and its refusal to diagnose without prescription.

Netamorfosis: Cuentos de Tepito y Otros Barrios Imarginados, El Sótano de los Olvidados (Editorial Sur +, Avra Ediciones) n/a

In their first Spanish-only title, Editorial Sur+, one of the most cosmopolitan and interesting young publishing houses in Mexico, anthologizes short fiction by members of the Mexico City writers co-op El Sótano de los Olvidados, which unites writers from several marginalized neighborhoods of that unfathomable city. The collection contains stories by Primo Mendoza and Umberto Vallejo, as well as “Cuento de pachucos y de penas, by Mario Puga, a story in photos about a drunk pachuco that gets arrested. Recent Sur + poetry titles include Juan Felipe Herrera’s bilingual Los vampiros de Whittier Boulevard and Tom Raworth’s El tiempo se volvió cuero, translated with grace by Sur + editor and poet Gabriela Jauregui. Both those and Netamorfosis are testament to the great work done by Sur +, the latter the great work by El Sótano. I look forward to the next volume in their Colección Imarginalia, which showcases work from marginalized voices,”from wherever they rise.”  Sur + is a press as ideologically engaged as the work they publish. Their copyright page reads:

Se permite la copia, ya sea de uno o más cuentos completos de esta obra o del conjunto de la edición, en cualquier formato, siempre y cuando no se haga con fines de lucro, no se modifique el contenido de los textos y cite al autor y a la editorial.

It is permitted to copy, be it one or more complete stories from this work or from the assembly of this edition, in any format, so long as no profit is sought, no modification is made to the content of the texts and the author and publisher are appropriately cited.

It makes sense to include in a book written by a writers’ co-op that practical engagement with the contemporary publishing industry, and it’s nice to see a forward-thinking press grappling with audience, distribution, and profit, something important not just in the Mexican context.


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Night Train, Sean O’Brien & Birtley Aris (Flambard Press) £9.99

Night Train’s horizontal format seems chosen merely to accommodate the train-scape panoramas drawn in black and white by Birtley Aris, an important part of the “poet-artist’s sketch-cum-notebook,” but ultimately the less satisfying half of the collaboration. His drawings are good and they do reflect the England-noir tone of the book, but like the poems they seem too rough-hewn, too little polished. In O’Brien’s case individual poems of excellence can peek their heads above the rest, but Aris’ drawings are less able to distinguish themselves. Aris’ lettering is great: it is artful without being overdone, and, importantly, entirely and easily legible. Overall the poetry lacks the narrative cohesion of its noir counterparts, like Kevin Young’s Black Maria or Tedi López Mills’ Muerte en la rua Augusta. Puns be damned, Night Train picks up steam in particular sections, like its three-page poem “The Island”:

Who killed the white horse?
The long man? Who severed his member,
Who did for the greenhouse? Who thrashed
The recalcitrant carpet to death
With a length of Malacca?
Who commanded the hideous
Stockbroker villas be flung up like sets
For the Bad British Movie, redeemed
To a certain extent by the actors?

Perhaps we shall never be told—

A sign that its quality is greater than its novelty is my own desire to return to its pages; in any case it is a worthwhile book in an under-published genre, and Flambard Press, as well as O’Brien and Aris, have done the poetry community a favor with its publication.

Double Moon: Constructions & Conversations, Margo Klass & Frank Soos (Boreal Books) $19.95

Margo Klass is a mixed-media sculptor, a maker of boxes, a hewer of junk. Frank Soos is a novelist, but in this collaboration he has written brief reflections—he calls them “responses to her shoebox-sized constructions”—which resemble the lovechildren of a orgy attended by aphorism, flash fiction, and prose poetry. The photos of Klass’ boxes are divided into chapters based on the period and inspiration of their construction, included chapters “Japan,” “Alaska,” and “Altarpieces.” The boxes remind me of James Tate’s later poems: full of narrative potential but often thrown off track with spectacular distractions.

Though they do offer incredible opportunities for response, they are incredibly challenging because of their strength of suggestion, and Soos has done well to interact with them rather than merely reflect them. Many are playful, like “I Have Two,” which responds to a small humanoid figure with a domino attached to its head with a spring, balanced on a large bullet-shaped silo, here in its entirety:

Surprising how little it matters, one a little high, another a little low, one soft and squishy and sometimes scarcely here at all—when I’m lying in bed, it seems to recede into the rest of me—the other hard as a fist, punching me, reminded me it’s here. I’ll tell you the truth, I like sleeping naked. I like myself bare as birth and alive.

His playfulness refuses, for the most part, devolution into triteness, and he’s also able to render a fair amount of Zen. His response to “Commerce 123,” an altarpiece with a steel hand and forearm in its center chamber—its photograph a magnificent fold-out, reflects a variation in his tone:

Steel is not a transcendent material. It will also wing up bowing before gravity; it will always give in to rust. Leave it alone on the ground; it will burrow in and hide itself back where it came from. We build our wishes from steel just the same. We build them into towers and climb.

Look out, birds fly over us.

Before describing their differences, Kesler Woodward, in the book’s afterward, articulated what it is that makes for as effective a collaboration as Double Moon: “As constrained in scale as Margo’s visual constructions, Frank’s verbal ones are similarly dense, as carefully composed, as finely calibrated for suggestion rather than elucidation.” That powerful suggestion has been captured here in a beautiful but too-small, too-thin book.


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Drawing Life, Javier Mariscal (Phaidon) $69.95

Javier Mariscal is and has been Spain’s leading artistic everyman since he gained international notoriety in 1992, when he created Barcelona’s beloved Olympic mascot, Cobi. It’s a simple, happy, stumpy, dog-like creature who, according to Mariscal’s new hardbound collection of work from Phaidon, seemed able to express the happiness and cultural pride of Spain and its people. He appears to fit right into Spain’s sporadic lineage of artistic geniuses, with his UPA animation-style characters and cheerful color combinations. His furniture designs are equally as chipper.

Normally, artists who use minimalism as the cornerstone of their aesthetic tend to do so because they’re technically stifled. At best, they are limited to elementary visuals with mild wit and no sense of control. The difference between that general group and Mariscal shows not only in Mariscal’s versatility of media (he’s well respected as an illustrator and designer, both graphic and of furniture), but also in the consistent feeling one gets from looking at his work and his ability to spread his style over many directions. The paintings are consistent and pleasing to the eye, and there’s something totally new and interesting on each page. Then, every so often, he’s able to display something technical, showcasing his versatility. He’s one of the rare apparently happy artists, and he doles out his joy by the shovelful with his work, as only one who’s been gleefully doodling his entire life can.

Drawing Life is a crowded, retrospective collage of Mariscal’s collected works over the decades, along with interviews and articles about his thought process and influences. The writing is incredibly indulgent in its meta-talk about art and the childlike nature of the artistic process that Europeans—especially the French—can’t seem to get enough of. Thankfully, if you’re not into that sort of talk, you can easily flip through the book and ignore the text, still ending on a note of satisfaction. Reading through Drawing Life you realize that Mariscal has talent, as well as brilliant, genuine vision and a prolific nature that goes for miles, enough to give even a moderately successful artist (as reader) a massive inferiority complex.


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