Dead Nuts

Like my Pier 24 post, this is another summer visit that got caught in the backlog of move-related business.

I was sort of obligated to check out the Museum of Craft and Design’s show, Dead Nuts. Buiding a show around the concept of “The ultimate machined object”? Super up my alley and a great intellectual exercise. Do you go with something basic or complex? Beautiful or functional? I was looking forward to seeing how the museum presented the possibilities.

It was a good show with a lot of good choices I recognized such as the Curta calculator, original Bridgeport mill, Harrison‘s Marine Chronometer, and even a simple quarter-20 machine screw. And there were a lot of of cool new products I had never heard of such as a planimeter or Newbould indexer.

At it’s best this was a celebration of machining and the ability to produce highly exacting and complicated mechanisms using relatively simple machines.

Just the flourish of being able to mill a hole in a human hair and the minuscule tolerances some of the mechanisms require is a reminder to celebrate the craft of machining parts in the same we we appreciate the craft of painting or sculpting.

At the same time the exhibition also betrayed its origins in an internet forum. So many of the nominated devices were military, weapons, cars, etc. Yes I appreciate how these items are frequently the driving force of technical innovation but it’s a depressing thing to see a significant number of men insist that the pinnacle of machining is enabling us to kill people more efficiently.

Still, that the curation involved putting the forum discussions on the wall was good. For every post that ran down the path of war there were others pulling things back and focusing on small technical innovations rather than the entire mechanism. And there were other posts that intentionally went in other directions to call out more-common items like the sewing machine or typewriter that existed in everyone’s home.

It’s not just that those devices are technically fascinating from a machinist’s point of view, they also impacted everyone in a much more personal way. Are they the “ultimate” object? Who’s to say. But the reminder to appreciate the craft of things you have at your fingertips rather than gushing over technical marvels you’ll never see in person is a good one.

As a parent and a bit of a gearhead I’d much rather get my hands dirty with my kids and look into mechanical things that are more familiar. Take some old toys apart. Look at an old typewriter. Find a geared clock and see how an escapement actually works. That the show never lost this aspect is what saved it from getting fully derailed by the internet.

Pier 24, Looking Back

Oof. I try and get these posts out faster but sometimes life gets in the way. I took my annual visit to Pier 24 last summer but am only just getting to writing about it now. Posts about cards and my photos I can jam out quickly. Posts requiring me to reflect and think about something I’ve seen take a bit more time than I ca muster while trying to get a new house moved into.

I try to get to Pier 24 every summer no matter what the exhibition is. This summer the show was looking back at the previous years of shows and sort of summarizing where the collection has been over the past half-dozen years. In many ways this was the perfect show to let marinate longer. There’s nothing specific to review. Instead I get to reflect on how my thoughts about photography have changed over the past couple decades.

The Pilara Collection is kind of like the Criterion Collection in that it’s most of the standard canon of must-know works. As a result, it’s heavily western white-guy dominated with a few key Japanese artists thrown in the mix. Most of my formative photographic education came through viewing these artists and they’ll always be there as point of reference.

However, the missing pieces are increasingly obvious. Unfortunately, Pier 24’s no-context display does the collection no favors in terms of admitting any awareness of it’s deficiencies. It’s very easy to walk through the galleries and let yourself be led by the images into imagining a medium and history that’s dominated by a narrow point of view.

Or you can walk through like I do and let the no-context stuff be an excuse to project my own context on everything instead. This is especially true with the portraiture section and the way we know how white gaze works coupled with the increased access to photographic self-expression over the past couple decades.

Portraits

That the exhibition started off by grouping Diane Arbus, Paul Strand, and Richard Avedon. I laughed. While this does a disservice to Arbus’s work it says a lot about photography’s tendency toward othering its subjects and putting them on pedestals. The photos are great but we’re immediately put in the position of either gawking at the subjects or worshipping them—neither of which is the frame of mind I want to be in when viewing portraits.

Many of the portraits are beautiful but also emphasize the surface of the of the subject over all else. Halsman’s photo of a refugee woman is a full-on glamour shot even though she’s identified as a refugee. August Sander’s Pastry Chef* is surrounded by other portraits featuring similarly larger-faced subjects. In many ways the key image for me is Valerie Belin’s mannequin since it at least admits that the whole gallery is about the superficial.

*Always a joy to see in the flesh. As much as I sometimes side-eye Pier 24’s displays it’s great to just see some of these images live. Also Sanders’s matting is interesting in that it’s just a hole cut in a piece of paper.

Still even in the one or two images per photographer on display I found my self making connections and learning some things. For example I’d never seen an Edward Weston nude of a black model before. And there were a couple common subjects—a Marilyn Monroe photo booth image vs one by Avedon and an Irving Penn Truman Capote portait vs Avedon’s—that are always something fun to compare.

It was interesting to compare the room of portraits to the room of mugshots. There was a wall of women from Philadelphia, most of them black, which ended up being most of the non-white photo subjects in the entire exhibition.* Even though the rest of the mugshots were mostly white subjects I found myself thinking about the ways the photography canon traditionally represents people.

*Curiously the excerpt in the gallery guide was closer to only 50% black.

I enjoyed going from the mugshots to the deadpan portraits room. That half of that room was Dijkstra was a bit unfortunate though. The idea of featuring deadpan portraits as a way of looking at other expressions in the sitter is great. But a lot of the works on display here pointed the discussion toward the photographer instead of the subject.

Which brings us to Alec Soth who probably more than any other photographer represents where Pier 24 has been. Yes it’s an archive of the photography canon but it’s also been a platform for a certain kind of photo project looking at Rust Belt and other communities which are increasingly overlooked by mass media.

I…These have not aged well for me in the age of Trump. I had the same thought last year but every time I see A-list photo projects investigating poor white communities now I get the same hives I get from the endless media profiles normalizing Trump voters.

Industry and Labor

The rest of the show was mostly typical photo subjects. A big room of industry and labor which showed how factories and labor conditions worldwide have changed, or not, over the century from Lewis Hine to today. These were generally good and provided an interesting counterpoint to the studies of modern American Rust Belt decline in that we got to see where the work is going and can think about whose choices are responsible for that movement.

I was struck by Madon Mahatta’s Escorts Factory photo which showed workers in 1964 wearing sandals and no eye protection. Also, amusingly, my brain misidentified a Burtynsky as a Gursky and in a very un-Peer 24 choice there was a solitary Becher image. This wasn’t as weird as the Met’s solitary Becher since at least there were other industrial photos for context but after SFMOMA has had an entire Becher room up you’d think people in San Francisco would know better.

The highlight of the room though was the wall of Renold and Coventry component cards. Both the cards and the components the depict reflect such a different age of infrastructure and industry. We can see the commonality in photos of factories and assembly lines over the years. However the components of the factories themselves and the way they’re inventoried and cataloged are going to be completely different. Looking at the individual pieces takes us into the technology of the time and orces us to think about what specifically those factories were making.

Locations

There was also a lot of photography of locations in the United States—specifically New York City and the American West. As someone who grew up in California, New York City was always a bit of a cliche. It’s nice to see older photos from Winogrand or Friedlander but the way their influence so dominates what a certain genre of photos is supposed to look like is troublesome.

This is especially with a lot of Winogrand’s photographs. I still have favorites but more and more of them look dated and uncomfortable as society’s norms around photography and publishing has become a lot more aware of how intrusive photographers can be. When he’s good he’s great but man are a lot of his images tough to look at now. Friedlander-wise I like a lot of his humor and can look at his cat or car photos all day.

Moving to The West and, while as an East Coaster now I see a decent amount of cliched views, photographers like Robert Adams and Henry Wessel are still doing things that new photographers aren’t trying to emulate. Maybe this is because both Adams and Wessel are just too fucking good or maybe it’s because the western cliches I see from the East are all landscapes instead of cityscapes.

Anyway it’s always a joy to see a room of Robert Adams or Henry Wessel. It’s especially nice to see some of the Adams photos be taken in the same photo session since getting a bit of a primer about how Adams worked a scene and moved around to find the angles is a free photography tutorial in finding the light and exploring the relationships between elements in the frame. Wessel meanwhile is all about that glowing light and the way it produces textures and shadows.

The last bit of photos in this section were of San Francisco. I’m unable to react to them the same way as anything else since these are home to me. While I’m no longer a tourist in New York City, I’m in no way a New Yorker either. But with the SF photos I just end up liking what I’m seeing. Highlights here were Ed van der Elsken, Lee Merrit Blodgett, and Fred Lyon.

Looking Forward

Last room of the show was a room of Adou’s ghostly and ethereal photographs. I enjoy these very much but they seem completely out of place with the rest of the show being so Western.* Adou is someone I saw at San José and just doesn’t feel like someone Pier 24 was showing.

*Yes there’s a couple Sugimoto rooms but since they’re his wax museum portraits of Henry XIII and his wives along with the Last Supper they were very western subject matter.

That said the Adou room is something that points the way forward about where Pier 24 can go as it expands the canon. New artists doing work that doesn’t operate in the same Western traditions or with the same gaze that the rest of Pier 24’s show does. Photos that are more inside jobs than one which centers the Western gaze.

I can appreciate Adou’s work as being beautiful and evoking a sense of cultural pride while also mourning the loss of a way of life. But I know there’s more there than I can ever hope to get. And that’s OK, I can still feel the power of the images without having it spoon-fed to me.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

After going twice in 2016 it’s taken me three years to return to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The kids have gone the past couple years (including an overnight with their grandparents in 2017) but I haven’t. It’s nice to be back and just sit in the Outer Bay gallery or watch the Kelp Forest tank. The main exhibits are the same as always but they’re also my home waters and speak to me.

As comforting as it is to see the same exhibits and animal life I’ve grown up with, I can’t help but wonder how the aquarium’s focus is going to change as sea water temperatures rise and the mix of the bay changes. I love that my kids love this aquarium and I hate that they’re most-likely only going to know about all this stuff as things they saw when they were little before they vanished from the Earth.

Anyway, I got to try out a new phone camera and further figure out how I can try and keep my DSLR from blowing out the blue channel.

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Back to my roots

Despite living in New Jersey I maintain a membership with the San José Museum of Art both because it’s a good deal and because I really value my yearly visit. More than any other museum in the Bay Area I find myself appreciating what San José is doing and how it so frequently manages to display artwork that feels both relevant to the area and which appeals to my specific sensibilities.

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The big exhibit this time is a large exhibition of Rina Banerjee’s artwork. Her work investigating is especially relevant to the Bay Area in how it investigates globalism and the way it intersects with identity, assimilation, gender, and colonialism. There’s very much a “the world is at your fingertips” sense in this artwork and she’s asking us—and especially the Silicon Valley culture—to think about the power dynamics at play when we combine things from all over.

Her work straddles that line where it’s simultaneously beautiful and grotesque—very often just the viewing angle is enough flip it from one to another.* Ornamentation becomes something monstrous. Small details show up and totally change the context. Superficial beauty falls apart the more you look.

*It reminded me of Kara Walker’s work and how it often does similar things where you can look lazily or you can really look and see all the layers of colonialism and gender and how things can be simultaneously exotic/alluring and vulgar/threatening.

There was a large tour group from Apple at the museum when I went and I just hoped that they were sensitive to the way that these large, apparently-beautiful objects completely turn the longer you look at them and see all the embedded issues in what they’re made of. While Banerjee is doing this on purpose, she’s also doing it to ask us to look closely at everything.

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There was a smaller gallery of Catherine Wagner’s photographs. I was unaware of her work but I love it. Her science photos are great and deftly illustrates the artisty in how science is as involved in the process of looking (and seeing) in the same way that photography is.

Her Pomegranate Wall takes this a step further and essentially uses an MRI machine as a camera. The way it’s presented in a back-lit wall of multiple small images abstracts the subject matter and makes my brain think of all kinds of other connections from MRIs of brains to microscopic views of single-celled organisms.

San Jose has had a tendency to put up large pieces that feature small multiples of information (eg Listening Post and Epilogue). Wagner’s work fits right in with this and feels especially appropriate for an area that specializes in managing an overwhelming amount of little pieces of data.

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The last exhibition in San José is an installation of Pae White’s foreverago along with a couple other pieces of hers. Foreverago is a lot of fun. It’s huge and a ton of stuff to explore (the back view is as nice as the front) and I appreciate the circular relevance of digital design and jaquard looms. Recasting tapestry as “modern” is the perfect way of reminding people that it was also the original punch-card programming.

I also love the canvases of paper. They’re fabulously tactile and the colors are wonderfully subtle. I just wish there was a video or photos of how they were made since I couldn’t quite picture it based on the wall text.There are also a couple other neat installations in this gallery. The chess pieces in particular are a lot of fun and look like the kind of thing that will show up in museum gift shops eventually.

Coordinates: Maps and Art

After I went to the Cantor Center I wandered over to the Stanford Library to check out the current David Rumsey show. It’s a wonderful little show which pairs maps with artwork and explores how maps and the choices mapmakers make parallel the artistic choices that artists make.

Rather than going through my notes and highlighting everything that jumped out at me like I did with my previous visit, I’m going to go through the two or three groupings I enjoyed the most both in terms of the parallels they offered as well as the maps they showed. The Rumsey webpage includes links to the excellent catalog and I totally suggest downloading the high-definition PDF.

We’ll start with two pieces that best demonstrate the spirit of the exhibition in Baron F.W. von Egloffstein’s map of Mexican mining districts and Tauba Auerbach’s Fold series. Von Egloffstein’s shaded relief maps are a great example of how maps make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional. This is not the first such map but it’s both an early example and von Egloffstein is apparently somewhat of an inventor in this category.

Tauba Auerbach meanwhile paints a folded canvas with spray paint that mimics raking light so hat the resulting stretched canvas maintains the image of the earlier folds and still looks wrinkled.

Both pieces look three-dimensional and just ask to be touched even though they’re actually flat. And in both cases the intent of the craft is to actually use this shading to take advantage how our eyes can mislead us in how they interpret a two-dimensional image.

My favorite grouping were a selection of maps and artworks that removed maps’ attachment to geography and replaced it with other spatial and temporal relations. Maps aren’t just about seeing where things are in relation to each other, they frequently correspond to travel time and reflect our understanding of when we’ll get someplace.

At one level, these aren’t maps anymore because they no longer feature any geography. At another level, they absolutely are since geography isn’t the point. By removing the geography we’re forced to think about the world in a different way where the specific pathway no longer matters.

I also particularly liked pairing a couple maps that worked as small multiples. Sometimes one map isn’t enough and instead you need to see a series of maps. Pairing a series of weather maps with On Kawara is brilliant. One map is boring. Even two is pretty weak. Four though? We’re starting to see how things can be interesting.

What happened this day? What happened that one? Our brains start to fill in stories and connect dots even with this small of a sample set. The map information itself ceases to be the point and instead becomes the context for the actual data that changes day-to-day. It’s a neat trick.

There are so many other great groups. A Trevor Paglen star timelapse that reveals satellite movements paired with a map of the Apollo 11 mission is fantastic. Photographs of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Running Fence paired with maps of the US-Mexico border are similarly great. I love that they found a way to work in Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. For such a small little show there’s so much awesome stuff.

Cantor Center

Last week I took my annual visit to the Cantor Center. No specific exhibits I was looking forward to but I always enjoy walking through and seeing what’s there.

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The special exhibition this time is an installation of Josiah McElheny’s sculptures. These were pretty cool in a mid-century way. All the multiverse drawings are neat to see and the sculptures themselves are a lot of fun to take a good slow look at.

The main interest to me in this gallery though turned out to be seeing the latest evolution of how museums have to deal with photography. I’ve seen “no flash” turn into “no photo” turn into “please photo and hashtag.” This show is the first I’ve been to with designated photo spots.

This isn’t a complaint (even though my favorite view of the room was not from one of the two designated photo sites), just an observation about how something that’s clearly selfie-bait (complete with signs around the museum encouraging posting to social media) is also too dangerous to let people photograph freely. Too easy to blunder into a sculpture either by getting too close or backing up and not being aware of what’s behind you and despite their size these are clearly pretty fragile.

There’s an awesome point where you can see both one sculpture and the entire room reflected in that sculpture. I spent a while there taking everything in and getting the full multiverse experience.

The other big exhibition is a hang of modern art under the theme The Medium Is the Message. I love the idea. Much of the art itself didn’t move me* but it’s a great concept for an academic museum to have since it digs right into the concepts of how the medium itself informs abstract art and how much of modern art is explicitly provoking how the medium itself behaves. This was one of Matt Kahn’s design prompts and it’s great to see that legacy still at Stanford.

*It is however always nice to see Ruth Asawa.

Two of the sections cover abstraction and the idea of artwork being more than the sum of its parts—often literally when considering assemblage. I viewed these two sections as being very similar since the artwork was always about what it was made of and the disconnect between our expectations of that medium and the way it actually behaves in the piece.

I especially liked the third section though which focused on portraits. While the portraits are all paintings, recognizing portraiture as a medium of its own and then interrogating the concept of what a portrait actually is is great to see. In this specific case the museum calls out who is traditionally depicted in portraiture and the disconnect that results when non-traditional subjects enter the frame.

I found myself thinking of how audience comfort works in to this equation as well since very often what people count as a “good” portrait is one which looks comfortably like a traditional rich white person’s portrait. I also found myself thinking about the way photography’s extension of portraiture to almost anyone is as similarly disruptive to our concept of what a formal portrait should look like.

Much of the other galleries were the same and I’ve covered them in previous posts.* However there are a few standouts. The corner of Yinka Shonibare prints was a lot of fun. I like combining his prints with the paintings of St. Michael. I always like seeing Vlisco turn up although I wish there was more of an explanation given for the fabric since it features prominently in each of the prints.

*Specifically the non-white galleries.

I also liked the small gallery dedicated to providing context to their new Jeffrey Gibson acquisition in that it included samples of items from Sol LeWitt to artisan beading to explain the myriad influences and references that the piece was making.

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And I was happy to get a chance to walk through Sequence again. I much much prefer it outside with strong shadows and the clear blue skies which photograph so white in black and white. It’s great to walk through and let my camera’s restrictions guide what I see. This time I let my iphone direct my eye.

Tolkien

On our big New York day trip, the stop I was most looking forward to was visiting the Morgan Library to see the Tolkien exhibition. As a long-time Tolkien fan* being able to see the actual artwork that I grew up with on the covers** was super exciting.

*Lord of the Rings is on the short list of books my wife had to read when when we got together and I’m in the process of reading them now with my eldest.

**Specifically the Ballantine editions that published in the 1970s.

I don’t have much to say about the book illustrations aside from how great it is to see them in person. It’s always nice to see how he envisioned Middle Earth and being able to see the actual brush strokes is especially wonderful.

The best part of the exhibition though is all the ephemera related to how he developed the books. His working maps with multiple layers of revised geography. His lettering sketches where he’s working out how the fire writing or other illustrations will look. Notes about units and how Hobbits will measure distance or volume. Timelines so he can keep the multiple storylines synchronized.

Much of this information didn’t make it into the Lord of the Rings Appendices. Instead I’ve seen people reassemble and compile it after the fact. It’s fantastic to see that he considered it all during development.

Related to this, I love the production notes and how his desires for the artwork printing was more than the printer was able to do at the time. From the red sun and dragon on the classic Hobbit cover to the silver on black desire for printing the Doors of Durin* it’s nice to imagine what things could have looked like. I can’t help but wonder why no one’s printed a copy of Lord of the Rings which follows Tolkien’s desired artwork reproduction.

*So as to mimic the look of Mithril on rock.

Finally, there were a lot of items that didn’t relate to Middle Earth but which demonstrated Tolkien’s development as a graphic artist. I kind of loved these too. His sketches and doodles are wonderful. You get a sense of his esthetics and his love of lettering and it was great of to see these with my kids so they could see how doodling is a way of practicing skills.

There’s also an amazing letter from his mom—who has the same hand lettering that he uses throughout his books. I’d always thought that his lettering was something he practiced and created himself. It turns out that he owes much of it to his mom. And that’s pretty cool.