Category Archives: Art & Architecture

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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Where and When

So much of the arslocii experience – the feel of placeness commingled with the mindfulness of art, held together, often, with a tissue-thin wrapping of empathy – has to do not only with presence but also the present. The perception of art and the strength of its impact has, as a key element, to do with time – the time of day you see it, the length of time you’re with it, the time in your life you perceive it.

There are some loci of placeness that affect you no matter the time variable: morning, night, spring or winter, at a youthful age or in later years, these places just have that ineffable “it,” a charisma, a baraka, making us feel as if we are being reunited with an entity from which we were separated at birth. A memory, recalled. But, for most other place experiences, time is a defining factor.

I am not one, American though I am, who thinks that sports is art, or an art; in many American minds, games and athletes seem to have supplanted art as a high, or even highest, form of human attainment. But I am certainly aware that, from art’s very beginnings, the athlete in the midst of some physical endeavor has been a subject-matter honorific staple, from the kinetic grace of the discus thrower to, God help us, Leroy Neiman’s drippy-gloppy Playboy-era renderings. Yet, every year for the past two-and-a-half decades of my life, I have found myself drawn to a sporting event that passes  by not far from where I live, and in it I have found something artistic, and even something arslocii.

It is a bicycle race that runs for more than 120 miles, circling through the city, and, in its looping course, coming multiple times up a ridiculously steep hill, nearby, that tests the strength, agility, ability and smarts of the participants. They call the spot “The Wall,” and when you hit it, you really hit it.

It has become something of a tradition with us: We get up somewhat early; the race begins at 9 a.m. about 7 miles away. Sometime between 9:15 and 9:30, the racers have made their way to our area, to attempt their first ascent. We know, attuned as we are now, when to start out and how long it takes to walk the two blocks from our house to what has become our favorite viewing spot along The Wall, so that we can see the cyclists, already miles into what will be a grueling day, struggle up the hill. That time of morning, even on what will inevitably become a drainingly hot June day, it is still crisp, even a little dewy. The sun hasn’t yet awakened and realized that its job is to help the vendors of high-priced cool liquids. The crowds – and this race, and especially this particular part of the course, attracts perhaps thousands – haven’t yet arrived. The cordoned-off street is sparsely populated with aficionados, or, like us, traditionalists, and neighbors. Good vantage points along the barriers separating viewers from participants are easily had; in an hour or two they will be filled, three deep in spots. You can almost, at this moment, taste the anticipation, smell the potential energy. We few, we happy few, we still half-asleep few, stand by the barricades, look down the hill, and know that something wicked-good this way comes.

And then, it’s here: First, the sirens and horns, and the police motorcycle escort rumbles by in perfect formation. Then, cars with race officials, and media, and friends of the sponsors, roar by, honking and blinking their lights, trying to convince us that they, too, are in the race and not just gladhanders. We viewers move even closer to the metal grating of the portable barriers, and we grip the top rail of them, and lean out over them, to get the first glimpse.

And here they come: At first, just a row, then a group, then a phalanx, and then a sea – of multi-colored team uniforms and helmets, from a distance a strange oceanic wave rocking back and forth in rhythmic fashion, drifting closer. And then, they are at our side, this peloton, these athletes, already laboring to make it up the hill, of which there is much more to go from where we stand. The cyclists’ faces are grim, determined; their arms, taut on the handlebars of their aerodynamically austere bikes; their calves bulging, already on the edge of cramp. Dozens, a hundred, swoosh by, and we greet them and celebrate them with cheers, and whoops of encouragement, and the clanging of cowbells, a welling up of not only human kindness or sports fandom but an empathetic desire to give them our strength, a gift that will help propel them up the hill and send them on their way more easily. For a moment, we give them us – an odd symbiosis. The cyclists are not artists, and what they do is not art-making, but there is art in the color and kineticism, and in the relationship between us and them. Not Art with a capital A, but art that rhymes with heart. 

And then they are past and gone, except for a few stragglers, whom we give our loudest cheers and deepest support, to urge them to keep going, keep at it, catch up with the pack, go for the gold – and, once they’ve struggled past, in the residual roiled quiet we make our separate ways home, as if from a dream, or to return to one. The race will go on, most of it without us. But we had that moment. Alone, individual, we shared it.

Or, that is, we used to. This year, the real world encroached, and financial considerations caused the race organizers to pare down the event, cutting the 14-plus mile circuit from 10 loops to seven. And the way they decided to cut was from the top – that is, the race started at 10:45 a.m. Which meant that the first assault on the hill didn’t arrive at our location until about 11 a.m.

The later time changes the way we see it; it feels different on our skin; our noses sense something else, something more already-used; our bodies are not as tight and stiff as an early-morning body is; there are more viewers, and not just our in-the-know veterans, but callow interlopers; it seems to be no longer our turf but just another place. And when the cyclists do appear, there is something indescribable gone – they are no longer a cloud of fantasy but some bunch of bikers, interrupting our brunch. There is still excitement, of a base sort, but what was once special, magical, unintentionally but definitely artful, is now a reminder of a world ruled by and transformed into a commodity. The thrill is gone, and with it the magic.

And so is the art. And the placeness. When the experiential elements alter, even by a few ticks of the clock, the world is a changed place, as are the events in it.

To paraphrase Woody Allen’s oft-quoted bon mot about success, 80 percent of arslocii is showing up. The other 20 percent is showing up at the right time.

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Gabion Gazing

Admittedly, I have a fascination for gabion baskets. Can’t explain it, but there it is. There is something so arslocii about them. It is the unlikely pairing of a rectangular cage and collected rocks, used mostly for retaining-wall structures or anti-erosion control, and also for enabling water runoff to occur more naturally around manmade obstructions. And, yes, all those engineering issues need solutions – but amazingly, here is a visually interesting one.

So. back to the arslocii bit: this sometimes artful arrangement of metal grid in geometric skeletal form filled with natural, rounded stones; the container holds the shape revealing the shapes within. Caged nature is not what I see but rather nature being put on display. Whatever the meaning, the objects are both found and created, natural and unnatural.

I started seeing these alongside roadways cut through mountains. I am opposed to the cuts made but I am cheered by the striking appearance of minimal-meets-environmental artforms. I have also spied them used as barriers on misengineered highway projects that dead-end abruptly – many of those have been hit and “contoured” in unusual ways. Mostly I have seen them stacked, pyramid-style, like a Sol Lewitt sculpture, only filled-in with an Andy Goldsworthy structure.

Gabions were used in medieval times for military fortifications; they were cylindrical wicker woven cages that were filled with dirt, perhaps similar today to cellular confinement systems or geocells, used to control erosion and stabilize soil. 

The metal version of the sack gabion was invented in 1893 in Italy by the Maccaferri family to repair a dam destroyed by flooding. The family then patented the box-type gabion that is made today. These mass-produced berms have variety to them because the basket frames vary in material: either rigid re-bar or cyclone fence caging. And the fillings can vary by shape, size, color – river stones are particularly nice.

As another side to this affinity, I am also attuned to anything gabion-like. This remarkable fence, a clever and artful combination of metal grid and cross-section slices of trees is put together just like the outer layer of a gabion, except that it is linear as opposed to solid, and it moves like an extended folding screen through the landscape.

And, just as wonderful are these extremely clever and referential “columns” that were used as sculptural elements for a garden-design theme at the Philadelphia Flower Show by Temple University Ambler campus’ horticulture department. Not only are they natural, they are fanciful and beautiful – and such variety! But, see how they encompass the original idea of portable protection during military maneuvers, their references to structural gabions and, also, the limitless use of textures and colors of natural materials. Cool, indeed.

Apparently, I am not alone when it comes to gabions and their potential for design statements. Next time you find yourself on a more-recently-engineered highway, look for them along the roadside. They can be an unexpected glimpse of arslocii in the fast lane.

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Up Against the Wall

What sort of ego – or utter lack of it – causes someone to create a haunting bit of art and not sign it, or give any indication as to who made it? And what sort of reticence, or shyness, or insecurity – or, perhaps, even contempt – would make one create a public space, redolent of an irresistible and memorable placeness, that nearly everybody cannot find and few will see?

As all eyes in this city (and, it seems, of the entire art world) are on the reopening in new digs of the renowned and yet famously odd Barnes Foundation, and as most articles written about the event mention the collection’s idiosyncratically masterpiece-festooned walls (the inestimable pieces displayed as if merely web-page thumbnails) – as this is going on, our minds wandered to a quieter place, just across town, where other walls make their own odd magic, outdoors and mostly, as good sleight of hand always is, out of sight.

It is down an alleyway that you must go, or, more likely, stumble upon, accidentally – a cobblestoned byway you would probably not even think to walk down as you ambled near the Philadelphia waterfront. And, even if you did happen to let chance and curiosity rule your wandering, sans tourist map, if you didn’t happen to turn and look in the right direction at the right time, or were distracted by a couple of cute Colonial-era buildings or their facelifted and gentrified neighbors, you could easily miss this odd and wondrous spot, which we spotlighted (ALERT: shameless promotion ahead) in our book Hip and Hidden Philadelphia.

What you will see – if you are lucky – and resembling a found-object assemblage, is part of a complex of old commercial buildings dating back to 1759 and continuously occupied by a metal manufacturer/distributor for three centuries until some of the buildings became residences and artists studios, in 1986. But, during that time – possibly in the 1960s and ‘70s – someone looked at this inset area, this car-park opening begging to be a courtyard, and had a vision as to how to make a space into a place. He or she began applying stone and terra cotta and cast concrete reliefs & sculptural decorative pieces all over the bare, stuccoed facade – architectural design elements rescued from demolished office and theater buildings around town and attached there, with no knowable philosophy or reason behind it except a pure attempt at creating a placeness-filled mews, redolent of history and misty-past endeavors. The space feels as if you’ve come upon, or, after passing through some time-travel portal, awakened in an ancient amphitheater, or place of the gods, and that yours will not be the only surprise visitation. Though in no way museum-like, it has something about it – a something of having been saved, yet of something appropriated and removed – of the feel that one experiences in the presence of the Elgin Marbles. 

So many of the applied items look to be about music and/or theater; they could be (or we would like to imagine them being) relics and remnants, heroic or celebratory portraits of the now-unknown performers of their day (whatever or whenever that “day” might have been, if indeed there was ever such a what or when), or the deities overseeing creative invention among humans. There are also quite a few lion heads, giving the place an aura of power, and of kings. Mixed among the faces are moldings, wall caps, and many other figurative pieces  – the effect being like entering an old mask shop that has amassed an antique collection of bygone importance. It is, we imagine, what it must have been like to be the first modern archeologists to uncover Pompeii.

But this is the vision of someone who must have known that this would not be seen by many, but who felt compelled to do this, and in the process created a placeness unique to this city, a cloistered place, knowing but compelled by instinct, captivating for its purity of purpose and its gift to the unsuspecting.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, good walls make good arslocii.

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Ignorance is Bliss

We who wish to make art, many of us, and who are serious about it and dedicated to the dream, have come at it from essentially the same direction – a direction shaped and codified through the centuries, ever since humans began creating representations of things, or making things that exceeded mere functionality and displayed an “added value” of some sort that appealed to something greater than utility. That direction was either a formal or a catch-as-catch-can student or apprentice training, during which one learned how to perform one’s task, to have the basics drummed into him, then to do the work over and over until one attained a certain mastery of skills. If one wanted to be a painter, say, it would include the grunt tasks of mixing paints and cleaning brushes and stretching canvases, and acquiring a second-nature knowledge of tools and how they are best used, and the nature and properties of mediums to be painted with and on, and so much more. If one were to be a writer, the novice would need to know grammar, and punctuation, and have a good vocabulary, and know how to put words together, and then paragraphs, and how to get as close as possible to putting down on paper what is in your head, and to do so in your own voice. Beyond the mechanical skills, one also needed to be taught the ineffable wisdoms – of perspective, proportion, color, metaphor, assonance, consonance, repetition, rhythm, symmetry, syncopation, harmony, juxtaposition, and so on – all these to modify and enhance and, in the hands of good craftsmen, to personalize.

But the problem with becoming knowledgeable, to the point that these abilities and acquired bits of information become as much a part of your life as breathing, is that too many get mired there, stuck in that place of skill and knowing. For them, the knowing is sufficient – more than sufficient: the knowing, and the doing resulting in replicable, polished, admirable and talented end-products, were the endpoints, the pinnacle. That to have it down is to have “made it.” For many, this is enough, this is the point, like breaking a horse so that it will respond to your slightest knee prompt. And one can make a fine living, and receive the accolades of fans, and also experience some self-satisfaction, by arriving at this level of doing – the attainment of the level of craftsman, of tradesman, of technician.

But, in some sort of ironic twist, to be an artist, a true artist, one must know all that needs to be known about how to do what one does … and then one must venture into areas where one does not know anything, and, by using the skills now inherent in him, must wade into the unknown and grasp it.

This is most perfectly articulated, in a recent documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, by Richard Saul Wurman. In speaking about the multifaceted achievements of Charles Eames – from chair design to filmmaking to exhibition design – and how, in a sense, he might be considered the epitome of a true artist, Wurman said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”

Nice work if you can get it.

To know every step, no matter how skillfully you stroll, is to follow paths and create ruts. To start with the knowledge of how to walk, then to set off in a way that will challenge you to overcome your ignorance, redefine your way of walking to suit the terrain, and arrive at a place that the journey compelled you to find – that is the making of art.

The place where art resides is the place furnished with your knowledge but fueled by your not knowing and your wanting to learn, to do not what is merely acceptable but creatively unexpected, and yet inevitable, to embrace the challenge even if you have never met that challenge before, and to use the old to form the new, and use the new to remake yourself. The outcome will not always be successful – Eames had his failures, and his reliance on the chair that he helped design in many ways limited him (though financially supported him) – but, then, it needn’t be. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Art is not the place you are now, but the next one. You get to it with a sense of direction but no map. And where you end up is where you were meant to be.

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The Locked Room

In the subset of literature that, for no lack of you-pick-it labels, goes by “detective fiction” or “crime fiction” or “mystery novels” or a half-dozen others, one of the classic amuse-bouches is that of the locked-room story. Depending on which absolutist promontory you stand on – my foothold, quite securely, is on the peak of crime fiction / police procedural, leaning more to the American hard-boiled than the Christie drawing-room mechanical – the locked room is either the epitome of brilliant writing and detection, or a slippery trope of gimmickry and trickery. I kind of like them, the way I like any good, clever puzzle, although they are often devoid of real characters in their slavish concentration on a narrative that is less whodunit or whydunit than howdunit.

To explain: While a locked-room mystery needn’t involve a murder, it usually does, just to up the ante. The story usually goes like this: Someone is noticeably missing, or an apartment-building neighbor detects “that smell,” or a landlord can’t get into a rented room, or the door to the den in an ancestral blue-blood manse can’t be opened and the key is nowhere to be found and Lord Grosvenor hasn’t been seen since dinner, or the high-tech computerized keypad (with iris ID) can’t be activated because nobody knows the PIN number. In all these cases, the door is broken down and, alas, a body is found, slumped over a desk, or at the center of the floor, or someplace instantly discoverable. But here’s the hump: the room was locked from the inside, yet the culprit is not inside, and somehow got out – but how? There are no signs of forced entry, or exit. How does one commit a murder (and sometimes in exotic, arcane fashion) in a locked room – often trying to make it look like suicide? How’d the killer get in, then get out? And what is it about the scene – or absent from the scene – that solves the mystery? (I’ve just finished one, an early Martin Beck procedural by the excellent Scandinavian team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, titled, appropriately enough, The Locked Room, an airier-than-usual foray for the writers, more in an 87th Precinct vein, especially one of those Ed McBain corkers involving the Isola cops’ devilish Moriarty, the Deaf Man. The Beck locked-room story has a less baroque solution than most, but, as with most, is far-fetched; many are just brain-twizzlers stretched to 200 pages, and many of them cheat a little by not giving you a pertinent detail, or by basing it all on facts or motivations that are, essentially, unrealistic. Still, the Beck is the one that got me to thinking.)

What hit me this time around, in my reading, is that far beyond being just an entertainment form – a disposable diversion that we read quickly, are engaged and entertained by and then almost immediately forget  – it is clear that locked-room mysteries are, in fact, metaphors. Actually, that realization merits a “duh.” But, while some or most will see the metaphor as one of an existentialist expression of life, I see it, for the purposes of our explorations here, as a metaphor for placeness and art, and of art-making, and even of art criticism. For years now, I’ve thought of the act of creating, whether it be writing or fine arts or even performance, as a painting of oneself into a corner and then finding one’s way out (or not); it used to be that it was important to find the exit path without leaving footprints in the wet paint, but these days that is no longer a necessity: some of the best art leaves tell-tale tread marks, and gladly and purposely smooshes the perfectly coated surface, in attempts at modern or post-modern “transparency.”

But, really, isn’t being an artist a lot more like finding oneself in the placeness of a room locked from the inside, alone, committing the “crime,” keeping the culprit world outside, and, in a sense, waiting for the curious and interest-piqued “detectives” to break down the door and discover you and your work, and your stage-posed ingenuity? And doesn’t the locked-room describe the art lover, who enters that mysterious place and finds a scene that needs “solving,” that demands an understanding of not only its methods but its meaning? Is not art appreciation, on its highest level, standing in a now-unlocked room – one opened by you – and through not just looking but seeing, not just inventorying but empathizing, not just looking for the weapon but also both superficial and deep-rooted motives, finding the answer? The resonance of this placeness is both in the locking and the unlocking of a room we need to be in.

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Uplifted

They’ve taken in the David Smiths for the winter, up at Storm King, and put them in storage until it’s safe to have them re-emerge in the spring, like crocuses, or tax preparers. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why so many of the sculptures up on Museum Hill disappear every year at season’s end. Does the bronze or steel of the pieces tend to crack in the area’s bitter cold, or collapse under the weight of the heavy snows? Or are they trundled off to the indoors because they are smaller and can be moved, and that it would be good if all of the works could be nestled in shelter but are simply too big to move? Not one of life’s great mysteries, but a puzzlement nonetheless.

The mystery, such as it is, was solved recently when – on a winter walk through the browned and still beautiful (indeed, perhaps, more beautiful) grounds, devoid of all humans except for our small, select group (one of the benefits of membership) – what to our wondering eyes should appear but the realization that the hilltop area is covered with trees mature enough that, when the winds barrel down from the mountains or ice storms coat everything, large and weighty branches snap and hit the ground (or David Smiths) with damaging force. Ergo, the sculpture exodus – no sense playing dice with Nature, not when fine art and millions of dollars are at stake … and, especially, when some of the stuff is merely on loan. So, off they go, to their Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, awaiting the equinox.

Which leaves the pedestals. Here and there, poking up from the beaten down grass, the concrete rectangles remain, devoid of duty, like doormen in a doorless world. In a sculpture park, as Storm King is, or in any museum or gallery, the pedestal is the most overlooked and nearly-invisible object in the place. But they also serve who squat and support; without pedestals, there’d be a lot of lopsided pieces ruined by contact with the elements, and a lot of art lovers with bad backs from bending over to look at things situated at the wrong height. The art would suffer, too, by just being plunked there – to be on a pedestal, after all, is a figure of speech indicating honor or praise or the implication of importance … all of which a lot of today’s art could use, if only to be considered adequate. Sometimes, pedestals are what make art “Art.”

But, up there, nearly alone on the semi-barren rise above Storm King’s di Suvero’d landscape, one can imagine more life to pedestals than even those functions already mentioned. One can dig deep into one’s memory and try to remember the pieces that had recently been on those pedestals, and imagine them there, seeing them, the shiny burnished surfaces, the geometric forms, ghostly, like phantom limbs. It’s a good mental exercise. Then take it to the next step: use the empty pedestals to envision your own sculpture garden, imagining works that could go on them, whether they be works you know or works you’ve made (give yourself an ego boost by seeing your art in Storm King), or even works you devise out of your own creative wisps as you stand and peer at the pedestals. And, for that moment, in that very site-specific magical moment, when site impacts you and you create art, you have an essential arslocii experience that is not only wonderful and ephemeral, but entirely personal – and, yet, no less valid or “real” than if the solid pieces were standing there before you. So much of the appreciation of art is what we make of it, our “take,” the intellectual and emotional resonances, the inner gong we strike; so why should imaginary artworks, utilizing the site and your brain, have less personal impact? They don’t extend beyond you … but, then, what does?

And, then, consider the concrete pads themselves, without any whole-cloth addenda. Fanned out across the ground, low to it, quietly making their presence known, they seemed like an artwork in and of themselves: physical, minimalist in the sense of a Donald Judd or even a Serra, as well as conceptual – a piece playing with the idea of pedestals without art, engaging us with the absurdity and opportunity to imagine. Believe me, we have seen worse things that call themselves art by big names who call themselves artists in places that call themselves art collections.

We’re not saying here that anything can be art – it can’t, although some might disagree – but that sometimes the art need not be present to appreciate and perceive the placeness inherent in an art place, and that sometimes the littlest things can be art, even unintentionally, and that when art is the thing under discussion, you the observer are in the driver’s seat. When they take in the David Smiths, it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken in your senses.

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