Category Archives: Art & Architecture

The Journey Within

All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.

We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.

But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.

Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.

 

Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.

But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.

 

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Nesters, Empty and Otherwise

Consider the robin.

It is, at least in these parts, common, ubiquitous and typical, except for that famous red underbelly. It is small, and it weighs only a few ounces, except, maybe, for those chunky, bulbous redbreasts you see every now and then who look like they’ve traded in their diet of invertebrates for a Krispy Kremes binge.

 

It is not awe-inspiring to view a robin, the way it is to spy an eagle or a hawk, but it is always nice to see one on your lawn – it means that spring must be near, or that summer’s still with us, and that the ground must be nicely worm-aerated. More snazzy than a sparrow, less showy than a cardinal, it’s a fine avian neighbor, and an urban pleasure.

But, now, consider the robin’s nest.

We’ve had the opportunity to do so recently. Here’s a photo of one of them:

Beyond its surface beauty, it is perfect, not only as an object but for its function; a human craftsperson would kill to be able to blend together all the disparate twigs and string and mud and end up with a gorgeous basket of such lovely proportions of width to length to depth while creating the illusion of smoothness and motion. And robins do it without hands – you go and try making one of these with just a beak and a couple of three-toed feet. And then, once the raison d’etre for the whole shebang – little robins – are hatched and all have flown away, this awe-inspiring bit of work is abandoned, left only for us to admire, and for the elements to ultimately disassemble. Place created, place appreciated, place left for discovery, place left to mutate and disappear. Arslocii.

But – and here begins the questions-without-answers portion of today’s sermon – is it art? If the robin has not entered into this project with the thought of creating a work of art – and, to complicate matters, we don’t know that it hasn’t, but let’s say it hasn’t – can it be classified as a work of art, as much as it seems to us to be art? Is intention a necessary element of art? Or is the determination up to the perceiver alone? Is a spider’s web art? If not art, then “artful”? Or does there have to be intent for something to be “artful”? (And, then again, of course, we can’t know that the spider isn’t loaded with intent, and even artistic analysis.)

Then, we have to ask: Does it matter? Does it really matter to anyone but an artist who needs identification and validation and aggrandizement, that what has been created is art? Does the robin make its nest for ego strokes, or to attain the title of “artist”? Unlikely. So, then, another question: Why does the robin do what it does? Making a nest is certainly hardwired into its massively interesting and complex little brain, but making such a perfect one, and one so beauteous? What is gained if it is perfect? What is lost if it is not? Does the robin even know that its nest has beauty; did it even have the desire to make it so? Does “art” and “art-making” play any part in the life of a robin, or a bee, or a cat? And, of course, that submerges us into the definitional discussion of “art.” Let’s not forget: To 99.9 percent of the creatures who live on this planet, the Mona Lisa is something to crawl over or chew on – it is only to us humans, one of whom painted it, that it is something called “art,” and something called “representational,” and something we hold in a value known as “esteem.” History is always written by the winners, and “art” is defined by the dominant species.

So, let’s agree: the robin does what it has to do, and we look at it and say it is beautiful and art. But: Is there anything we humans have to do – not want to do, or like to do, but need to do – that we call “art”? On first glance, the answer would be “no.” Most of us go through life doing nothing that could be seen as art-making; for most of us, art is something we perceive, not conceive, if indeed we even perceive. Most of us don’t seem to have the time, or the inclination, to make art, or even to go to look at it, or to know it when we see it; art isn’t what we’re after, but rather distraction. As someone once said, “Anything will make us look, but art will make us see.” Truth is, most people just look, and don’t care to or want to or know how to or even know that they have the capacity to see.

On second glance, though, it seems clear that we humans are just as hardwired to create as are the other creatures on this planet, of whom we are a small part. From the start, it has been a need to draw. The cave paintings are evidence of that. And, after recently seeing the wonderful documentary “Playing for Change,” it seems clear to us that making musical sound is something that we are meant to do; we hum, we manipulate objects to produce tones and rhythms and subsonic vibrations – some will say that that is the most basic hardwired “art-making” we do, and maybe they are right: babies sing, after all. But performance seems something strong within us – go to just about any part of this country, perhaps the world, and wherever there is a settlement of moderate size or larger, the people there will have established a theater group, so that they can combine all those other arts – painting sets, singing show tunes – and also find themselves by pretending to be somebody else.

But maybe all these urges are simply subsets of what seems to be a human narrative imperative. That what it all is, really, is the need to tell our story, personal and cultural, through whatever natural or near-natural means we can. To produce something that says we were here, see what we are, and who we are, and what we can do. And, now that we’ve put it out there, and left it behind, it’s yours to do with what you want – live in it and with it, or appreciate it, or let it be. What’s hatched has flown away, leaving behind shards of our inspiration, and placeness, and magic.

 

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A Step Up

When it comes to most houses, the front steps are usually shown the servants’ entrance. Next to what real-estate agents like to call “curb appeal” – the fetching come-hither look of a property that makes you want to stop your car and see more of the place – the most important first-impression portion of any house is its front step … and, yet, it is, in arslocii terms, one of the most terribly overlooked, in all senses of the word.

Money is spent on the front yard, on the path to the front door, on the plantings bordering the front step … but, then, those few flat rises to the door are usually just … flat. After what should be an orchestrated, even ceremonial transition from public space to private, the visitor ends up walking onto and standing around waiting on beige or brown or gray, poured or sliced or milled rectangular solids of no consequence.

What a wasted opportunity to create a place for art, a place that, even before the front door opens, tells the visitor something about the personality of the house and the people who dwell in it. It’s an unfortunate dead zone instead of what could be not only one of the best and first greetings to a home but also an unexpected place for creativity and even wonder – an opportunity to create placeness.

All that most people do is cover the top step with one of a slew of same-old, same-old cookie-cuttered, mass-produced mats – rubber or cocoa fiber or some synthetic approximation of one or the other of them – with pre-fab designs or T-shirty/bumper-sticker-ish verbiage that can be found by the truckloadsful (and the shiploadsful, coming from Taiwan or Sri Lanka): “Welcome” mats that coyly say “Keep Out,” mats with flowery or geometric patterns, mats with representations of the kind of animal one will encounter and surrender his pants cuffs to upon entering the house, or the sort of weapon the householder keeps at hand, or the politics that might explain the weapon, mats that stake a claim to the turf by having owners’ names imprinted on them … this stuff, available in stacks in big-box superstores everywhere is, apparently, what goes for “personalization” these days, as well as a signal of current American standards.

But there is nothing personal about them; in fact, just the opposite: they trumpet conformity, the safety in numbers, the lack of introspection, the absence of a certain kind of pride. More thought goes into the selection of the brass-or-brushed-chrome doorbell and “custom” house numbers than this precious portal plot.

We don’t say that making something of your front step won’t take some effort – it will, if done right. But, you may ask, why do it, if it’s not easy, and so few people will see it? Because, besides creating a special, hip and hidden spot, when done it will not only be something that is by you but also something that is you, something of you that extends beyond the doorjamb to envelop your guests – something that, conceivably, will live on after you, or just until the next owner puts her imprint on the space.

Take the example, just below. Once, unadorned cement steps projected directly out from the front door to the sidewalk. The homeowners, while using privacy and separation from the street as the incentive, reoriented the steps to rise alongside the house. At that point, a simple brick or block wall to enclose those steps would have been the easy, rote thing to do. But with a bit of artistry and vision and a desire to express the individual likes and tastes of the owners, an Art Deco-inspired wall, complete with porthole, aluminum stripes and Streamline tapering became a landmark on the street, a unique, unmatched statement.

 

And then, even more: On a lower landing and on the top front step, on the spot where a typical mat might have been slapped down, there are owner-designed and -installed mosaics – a greeting and a tease of what (and who) await the new arrival. A blending of art and place, of pure function and pure imagination. Arslocii.

Is it asking too much to hope that homeowners will see this “bonus room” as an opportunity for self-expression, even self-revelation, and that they will take a step in the right direction?

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Inside the Box

In passing a number of packing, shipping crates lately that seem to be everywhere – on city streets, in suburban enclaves – it looks as if everyone is relocating. It got me to thinking about boxes.

 

Obviously, Donald Judd was thinking about boxes long before this synapse occurred in my brain. His boxes are definers, forms, containers for space. I think he was prescient and profound about their metaphor for life because our lives are defined and contained by boxes. Cradle to grave.

 

There is the large box we inhabit, whether it be apartment or house or office cubicle. A rectilinear world surrounds us, encases us. If our homes can’t contain all of our belongings, we rent a storage space – another box – unless we have a garage, also a box. If we are moving to a different location, a structure is supplied in the shape of a  pod, referred to as “container-based moving,”  and it is a box for your belongings. Then we move and we find a place to live in that needs remodeling, so we bring in a Dumpster, a huge rectangular box to fill with debris; the unwanted stuff gets boxed and carted away. Often, too, the wanted stuff gets boxed but stays with us – look at all the plastic storage boxes you can buy at big-box stores. Many of our furnishings are, face it, boxes that hold other belongings.

Our cars are just shiny, molded boxes – containers to move us from place to place – also with as many of our belongings as we can carry. Overseas shipping containers are huge boxes that fit on boats, train cars and 18-wheelers – and they float. And, too, smaller boxed items are shipped everyday, everywhere by many competing shipping companies.

Proposal rings come in small boxes, gifts come in boxes of all sizes; England and Canada, among others, celebrate Boxing Day. Books and DVDs come in boxed sets. Box seats are desirable to some theater-goers, if they can afford them. In the sport of boxing, somehow, the square stage of the event is called a ring, but we all know it is really a box. Heck, these days, even liquids come in boxes. A typical day could involve starting off with boxed cereal, working with text boxes and going out to check your post-office box before sending off a box of chocolates to an admiree and grabbing a Bento box for lunch unless you have brought along your own lunch box, then off to the box office to get tickets for a performance.

Why do shoes come in boxes? Mass production, it seems. Funny how they can become stashes for treasured items like seashells and love letters.

If you get on your soapbox, it may elevate you in a crowd but its useful life as a container happened before you came along; unless, of course, you might argue that it helps form and package your thoughts for a public forum. But beware, you might inadvertently open up Pandora’s box, resulting in a crowd-displeasing pummeling by round rather than square objects. Boxed ears can occur.

Ultimately there is the last box. It can be made of wood, metal or cement. It can be lined or bare and it will contain for eternity, only this container must be contained by non-rectangular earth cut into a rectangle to receive the box. A fitting end for a square peg.

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Arms and the Men

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” mused Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, “if all those people who roam the streets of New York, talking to themselves, were paired off so that they could walk around in couples and look like they’re having a conversation?”

This line came to mind, unexpectedly, this week when the news was filled with reporting of the ham-handed official removal of a statue of Penn State fallen hero Joe Paterno from in front of the stadium in which he spent his life coaching, following a report that implicated him in the coverup of longtime child sexual abuse by one of his staff. It wasn’t so much the yanking of the bronze figure or the material facts of the case that brought Tomlin’s one-liner to mind – as far as I know, the two never met, never had anything to do with each other, and this may be the first time in print that the two have been mentioned in the same story – but rather the photo of the statue itself. Here’s a view of it, pre-excision:

 

I’m not much of a college-football fan, nor have I had good or bad or, really, any feelings for or against Paterno. And the statue itself veers pretty far from anything that resembles the good or meaningful art that we try to discuss here; it seems to have had aspirations of competence but succeeded only in completion. However, applying some aspect of my arslocii empathy in considering the statue, I actually started to feel sorry for it. I mean, it had spent its life viewed by perhaps millions of Penn State fans, was the center of attention, had become a campus icon … and, now, it’s whisked away to be mothballed in some Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, next to Rosebud and the Lost Ark. I wondered if it would be lonely, with no one to glad-hand to, caught in unobserved suspended animation, “We’re Number One” finger frozen in the air for nobody to see or honk an air horn at.

Then it struck me (not the statue, but an idea): The Paterno statue, in pose and style, reminds me so much of another civic figurine, this one in Philadelphia, of former top cop and mayor, Frank Rizzo, whose barrel-chested likeness appears to be hailing a cab (or, perhaps, giving to go-ahead to a firing squad) from the steps of a municipal office building. It’s a memorial that, depending on your politics, is either an imposing thing or something that has been imposing itself on the public for decades. So, I thought: Maybe, for its sake – for art’s sake, as well – Philadelphia should acquire the Paterno statue and give Rizzo a buddy. Place them near each other, facing each other, Rizzo waving to Paterno, JoePa eager to make a point to Frank – balance, symmetry, dialogue. A bit of conceptual perfection.

But, no – perfect, or more so, would be to take these two and haul them about a mile up the road where a similarly crafted statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky anchors a corner outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Here’s what we had to say about that in an earlier commentary.) And, always the overachiever, he has two arms up.

 

To make it a fore-arm foursome, how about including Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statue? Do I smell some pinochle in their future?

 

And, lest this thing takes on the politically-incorrect parameters of a Bunch of Italian Guys With Their Arms Up Plaza, let’s throw in this fella, just because – he hasn’t been the recipient of much sugar lately.

The question is: What is this with arms up? Is it supposed to make these guys look commanding, or vibrant – something the artists aren’t capable of doing in other, more subtle, more artful ways via their limited talents? Of course, with some laughable hyperbole, these poses harken back to classical Hellenic and Roman sculptures of soldiers, emperors and the Ancient World equivalent of power-lunch guys – as if these current honorees belong in the same pantheon. But, think of one of the most powerful of such monuments – Mount Rushmore; those heads don’t even have bodies, and look how imposing they are, and what placeness they create – perhaps because they don’t have arms up. Michelangelo’s David has an arm raised, but it is kept close, and draws the viewer in, creating a circle, a campfire of controlled intensity – you could put it in a museum, in a courtyard, in a barnyard, and it would bestow arslocii life in situ.

The fallacy of these thrust up or outward statues is that our eyes follow the energy, such as it may be, up the body, through the arm and up away from the statue and the place it sits in. In other words, these figures, by directing our eyes elsewhere, are pretty much anti-place and, despite themselves, anti-art and anti-reverential. And by showing these men (and they’re almost always men) in the acts of waving or pointing or flailing or whatever, we diminish them, either by giving no sense of what it is they’ve done to deserve our memorializing of them or by reducing their lives to the patently artificial photo-op gestures of political persona.

Good sculpture, like safe geopolitics, needn’t be an arms race.

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Picture Perfect

The searing heat has abated a bit, but it is still summer-warm and sunburn-bright around here, and just down the hill they – the noisy kids, the sulky-surly and conspiratorial teens, the plus-size families – continue dunking and diving at the swimming hole in the millstream, and it is, in all senses of the term, “picture perfect.”

This spot has been drawing people to it since there have been people in these parts, and for the past century it has been more than merely a place to cool off in lieu of a public pool – it is the site of a rite of passage. Your formative years have not been properly spent if, at some time during them, you and your friends (or, if lucky, this year’s current forever love) did not come here as soon as school was out, sneaking away from parents or chores or summer jobs to spend some time there in daylight and, even better, starlight. It is a place where history, tradition, memories and community flow and converge into something akin to a work of art.

In terms of American iconography, this is a picture-perfect place. How much more like 1950s Mayberry, or, say, mid-19th century Hannibal, Mo., could this spot be, resisting, as it does, the passage of time and the vicissitudes of persistently decaying civilities in the United States of the early 21st century? Swimmin’ hole, playin’ hookey, the first stirrings of the power of the body and sexuality; an experience unadorned by modern conveniences or technology or even supervision, and yet all peaceful and harmonious: the stream rushing and hissing ceaselessly down from the mountain and splashing over and between rocks, forming pools of varying depths, and around them shelves of stone, flat and layered and bleached by the sun, on which bathers lounge, or gather to exchange intimacies, or show off for the person they wish to impress.

But, even more, and easily in keeping with the scope of our explorations here – arslocii, placeness as art – the millstream scene is picture perfect because it is straight out of a picture, or as if it were set up and readied to be made into one. The quality of the light, the way the figures compose themselves on the perches, the way muscled skin looks doused by the pure water, the dappling of light as it passes through the trees lining the waterway – as you stand on the bridge road overlooking the spot, it is impossible not to think that you’ve seen this all before: in a fine work by an Impressionist painter, like Cezanne, or in a painting by Thomas Eakins (which, except for the nudity and homoerotic overlay, is nearly a dead ringer for what you see in the stream on any given overheated day).

Life and art and place have rarely so picture-perfectly meshed. Which came first: the painting or life? Which engendered the other? When the painting and the reality have equal existential weight, which is the more real? Which is the more art? Does art define the place, or vice versa?

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The S-sence of Art

Grass is grass. It’s green, it grows. You mow it or you don’t. That’s it. Marketers of the stuff try to commoditize it by enticing the homeowner/snob with exotically named boutique-y brands that come with promises of sexy lushness bound to defy nature and impress neighbors with your apparent richness. Still, though, and frankly – just lawn.

For 26 years we, cement-locked city dwellers that we are, have not felt the lawn lure of grass envy because, quite simply, we do not have land around us on which to grow it, even if we wanted to, which we didn’t, and don’t. Now, however, aging life-affirming-peace-seekers that we are, we have a second (soon to be only) place in a more rural, less congested, quiet and humane spot – complete with three-fourths of an acre of grass. It’s green, most of it, and, boy, does it grow. And about that mowing part …

We can’t free ourselves to make the hours-long drive to get up there more than every 2-3 weeks, and so, during that time, the grass’ reach exceeds our grasp. It’s amazing how quickly the stuff goes from kempt to crazy. In a rural setting, there might not be much to do except watch the grass grow, but, where our house is, it’s like viewing an action-adventure film, or sci-fi. And we simply can’t afford hiring someone to keep the grass mowed on a regular basis; besides, being the kind of folks who have lawn-care workers is just not us. Having, for the moment, two houses seems enough to cement our bourgeois-pig credentials – having groundskeeping help would put us over the top, or, perhaps, below the bottom.

Besides, we just don’t think that, other than for societal acceptance, lawns need to be manicured. Most of the other property owners on the same side of the mountain that we are have well-tended, rolling carpets of green. Seems dumb to us, which is why, over time, we’ll replace most of the grass with no-maintenance ground cover. Until then, we’ll tackle the job of controlling nature in the most natural way we can, short of accumulating a flock of grazing livestock. We will continue to mow some of it, but with old reel mowers – no motor, no fumes, just muscle power and the pleasant clip-click of the blades. Like walking instead of driving, pushing one of these old mowers gives the place a placeness – it’s not a flyover … you see the land, you notice things, you can hear your own heart over the rickety clatter of the basic machine. There is an artfulness in the act, full of memory and history, a kind of elegiac experience. It is almost like walking with a divining rod, one that will dip when it finds that frequency where you and machine and Earth all hum as one. It’s physical, it’s tiring, it takes a lot longer to do the task than if you used a power mower, but it’s worth it to feel the connection that comes up from the land, through the machine, into your arms, up through you to the sun, and it lulls you into a contented complacency. 

We have decided, too, to give over a big swath of the land to meadow, just letting the grass and clover and weeds (which is the natural world’s answer to the computer world’s “undocumented feature”) and wildflowers and whatever do their thing. Some of it is practical and self-centered: the more meadow, the less work for us. Elegiac is one thing, keeling over heart- and heat-stricken is another. But here, too, art can find its place. Where mowed grass meets Zoysia gone wild, we have shaped the border into a lazy S-curve that flows down a hill to the edge of a stout hemlock. With that simple imposition, art is made – there is visual interest, certainly, but beyond that is the creation of something not found in nature, something clearly asserted onto the land by a human hand, which is self-conscious and artificial, and yet resonant and imitative, all of it grass but establishing a diversity of likes, a debate of material and intent and choice. All from just a simple swerve. Arslocii can be like that, and often should. And to return at the end of the day to the tool shed, with the lawn mower clopping behind, shooting off sparks of cut blades, and to look back and see that place where nature ended and you intervened, but not too drastically, respectfully but artfully, is like scratching a masterpiece in the sand, knowing that the tide will come in and erase your lines, but also knowing that you’ll be back to create your simple, impermanent but imperative art again.

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