Saturday, May 25, 2013

Chicago photo diary

Here are some photos from our recent trip to Chicago. I was really gripped by the city this visit: by the light, the spaces, the buildings, the history, the bustle, the visual collisions and contradictions. It's a stirring, lively place to photograph.

I took the last ten shots while on a fantastic architecture boat tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The city's a living building museum, and getting the chance to explore it by water was a treat.

I also geeked out over a few pieces of public art by Frank Stella, all part of his Moby-Dick series. I included one of the pieces here; for more, check out this post, where I collect & muse on the rest.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pieces & parts of Frank Stella's 'Moby-Dick' series in Chicago

So I recently read Moby-Dick for the first time, and for a minute there, I couldn't stop talking about it. Reading Moby-Dick is an event; if you enjoy the experience (and maybe even if you don't), you feel compelled to go on about it, all the time, to anybody who will listen. At least that's what I wanted to do.

Borges called Moby-Dick an "infinite novel." As such, the book that's so famously about obsession easily becomes an obsession -- a satisfyingly communal one, too, since so many other people have been similarly gripped. The cultural record surrounding this book is massive, boundless. You could spend a lifetime just reading what other people have written about it, considering the art it's inspired.

"Moby Dick Transcendent" by Rockwell Kent, 1930

And if you become obsessed with Moby-Dick, you end up in fantastically good company. You suddenly belong to the same club as people who are far more brilliant and talented than you (and who are obsessed in a way that makes your own fascination look like disinterest): Laurie Anderson, say, who designed a multimedia performance inspired by the book (here's a lovely song from it), or Matt Kish, who imaginatively illustrated every page of it, one day at a time, for 552 days in a row.

Matt Kish, "At length as the craft was cast to one side, and ran ranging along with the White Whale's flank, he seemed strangely oblivious of its advance...," acrylic paint and ink on found paper, 2011

I was a little surprised to learn about Frank Stella's contribution to the history of Moby-Dick-inspired art. The one-time minimalist spent the better part of the 1980s and '90s creating more than 135 abstract works, each titled after a particular chapter of the novel. This staggering body of work includes huge metal reliefs, prints, sculptures, and murals.

After finishing Moby-Dick and learning about Stella's related work, I checked out a great book about his series (thanks, inter-library loan!) called Frank Stella's Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes by Robert K. Wallace.

Wallace is a Melville scholar, but also an attentive visual art critic and champion of Stella's series. I don't think I've ever seen a book quite like his, which dazzingly marries literary analysis to art criticism.

I didn't finish the book and I don't have it in front of me, so forgive my bungled and bastardized version of the thesis that Wallace advances early on, but it goes something like: the Moby-Dick series liberated Stella from pure abstraction, enriching and enlarging the scope of his work (and reflecting the expansiveness of Moby-Dick) by facilitating its evolution into something closer to figurative abstraction. Stella's series doesn't illustrate Moby-Dick (like Rockwell Kent did in 1930) and it certainly isn't beholden to the novel (you could easily see any of the pieces and never associate them with Melville or Ishmael, Ahab or the white whale); instead, the two sort of swim alongside each other. The series establishes a visual language that can both be applied to Moby-Dick and convincingly shown to have been drawn from the world of the novel (that's Robert Wallace's job, which he does with systematic gusto), but that language is, at the same time, all its own.

The pieces in Stella's series are scattered throughout the world. (Wallace's book is your best chance to get a comprehensive sense of them.) Having recently scheduled a trip to Chicago, I was delighted to learn from the book that (at least) four of the pieces currently live there: Loomings and Knights and Squires, which hang on opposite walls of a postmodern skyscraper's soaring, spartan lobby, and, just a few blocks away, Postscript and The Town-Ho's Story, which tower, monstrously and commandingly, in the lobby of the Miesian Metcalfe Federal Building.

I dragged my willing husband and a patient friend around to see all four while we were checking out other pieces of public art downtown. We found 181 W Madison first, the 1990 skyscraper that houses the late '80s reliefs Loomings and Knights and Squires. (According to Frommer's Memorable Walks in Chicago, "In planning this building, the developers specifically asked architect Cesar Pelli to design the five-story, 100-foot long marble lobby as a gallery to display Stella's two works.") Upon entering the lobby, I was struck by the scale of the things; they're huge! I guess I knew that when I read about them, but it surprised me nonetheless. Here they are:

"Knights and Squires," etched aluminum and magnesium, 15' x 14' x 6'
"Loomings," etched aluminum and magnesium, 13' x 14' x 3'
I found these two beautiful and beguiling. The explosive, tumbling buoyancy of Knights and Squires and the elegant balance and contrast of Loomings did not prepare me, however, for the industrial darkness, might, and confusion of the 23-foot-tall Town-Ho's Story and its small companion, Postscript

"The Town-Ho's Story"

"Postscript," mounted on the same base as "The Town-Ho's Story"

These chaotic and difficult pieces were installed in the clean, modernist lobby of the Metcalfe Federal Building in 1993. Robert Wallace explains that The Town-Ho's Story is comprised primarily of thirteen one-ton pieces, shipped to Chicago on two flatbed trucks and installed (by crane) only after an upper window panel was removed to accommodate them.

This piece is not exactly universally loved. Wallace reports that during the week of its installation, employees of the building circulated a petition to have it removed. This 2003 commentator referred to it as a "wholly abysmal...monstrosity," a "misshapen lump of metal" that "still tastes bad."

I said earlier that I don't have Wallace's book in front of me, but I do have a few photocopied pages about these particular pieces. He refers to The Town-Ho's Story's "vertical aspiration" in terms of the "whale shape becomingly increasingly ascendent over the human shape," both in the novel and the trajectory of Stella's series. "This sense of an impending, stupendous mass is what closely relates The Town-Ho's Story to Melville's novel...and to the most characteristic appearances of Moby Dick himself." He goes on:
From the human point of view, The Town-Ho's Story can be viewed as a wreck, as the residue of a not entirely pleasant story. From the whale's point of view, it can be seen as a survival story, even as the resurrection of a crucified or mutilated shape. The arrival of this monumental sculpture near the end of the series is comparable to that of Moby Dick himself near the end of the book, when the undulating two-dimensional surface of the sea that has served as the liquid, spatial ground of the entire story is suddenly disrupted in an entirely new way, in the form of a living creature whose presence changes the rules of the game, and the relative strength of the players.
I found The Town-Ho's Story wholly absorbing -- sublime, even. It soars at the same time it looms. It offers a startling and engaging variety of textures that echo (and expand upon) the large-scale industrial works of John Chamberlain while simultaneously conjuring the biological, the animal -- the cetacean. It's a near-infinite sculpture for an infinite novel. In it are ragged landscapes, a striking portrait, terror, violence, power, even peace. Here are my best detail shots:

Creative Commons License
This work by Matthew Piper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Say yes, Michigan: Marriage equality now

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 5/21/13 in Model D)

My partner of seven years and I were married last September in a small ceremony on the Detroit River. The next day, we celebrated with a big picnic on Belle Isle. It was wonderful: simple, informal, and (almost entirely) stress-free. Family and friends streamed in and out steadily all day, bearing goodwill and great food, chatting, relaxing, and playing games until nightfall. In the end, our union was thoroughly witnessed and enthusiastically affirmed, and we understood, for the first time, really, the extent to which our community's love and support surrounds and strengthens our relationship.

Those two days felt perfect, while we were living them. But the truth is more complicated than that, because there were two important parties notably absent from the proceedings (and, more to the point, from the union): the federal and state governments. Her words rang true when our friend and officiant proudly pronounced us husbands that day on the river, because as far as we're concerned, and as far as the community we're a part of is concerned, that's what we are. According to the laws of the land, however, our marriage is no marriage at all.

Read the rest at Model D.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Green City Diaries: Conserving water, improving neighborhood life

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 5/7/13 in Model D)

Last month, I reported on a community forum that brought Detroiters together to talk about water. The forum addressed issues of water conservation and stewardship by focusing on neighborhood landscape infrastructure projects (a stormwater infiltration forest, for instance) and everyday individual choices (like using a rain barrel instead of a hose to water your home garden).

This week, let's dive a little deeper. I'd like to introduce you to two passionate Detroiters who spend much of their free time thinking about our water problems and trying to help solve them. First we'll learn from Deborah Dorsey, a member of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative (WGBC), about the remarkable "blue" infrastructure projects she and her neighbors are developing along the boulevard between the Lodge and I-96. Then we'll turn to Erma Leaphart-Gouch, a North Rosedale Park resident and everyday water activist, to get an up-close look at water conservation at home."

Read the rest at Model D.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Free City & Jason Mitcham

We went to a curious art festival called Free City last night in Flint. We'd caught a few minutes of a conversation about it that morning on the Craig Fahle show and liked what we heard: something something old Chevy plant, something something light art. Well, why not?  The last (& first) time I was in Flint I was 15 and watching that terrible Avengers movie with Uma Thurman & Sean Connery at the drive-in.

Free City (at least this first night -- it's a three day festival) was kind of a mess. Poorly lit, difficult to navigate, and attended (pretty sparsely) by as many rowdy, wasted teenagers as arty types. Not that we had a bad time, exactly. There was a certain sloppy, anarchic, '80s movie charm about the whole thing. It was like ... an art carnival, complete with hot dogs.

Some of the art was pretty exciting, including a big inflatable silver dome (remember Starlab?) with a party waiting to happen inside. One participant at a time pedaled a stationary bike that powered a stereo blasting "Move This" by Technotronic. There was a tiny disco ball hanging from the very top of the dome, and if you weren't dancing or making the music happen, you could make bubbles with tennis rackets, instead.

There was also a pretty spiral made from strings of different colored LED lights. It seemed to invite participation, so I walked through it, carefully & concentrically, for about five minutes until I got to the center, where jets were spraying cold mist. Later I talked to the artist and she seemed surprised that people were walking through it. And by "surprised," I mean "dismayed but resigned." I told her I was sorry, but that it seemed like it was made to be interacted with. I think mostly she was sad that drunk kids were stepping on her light bulbs & breaking them.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the work of Jason Mitcham, the whole reason I wanted to write this. His stop motion paintings stopped us in our tracks, and made the ~140 mile round trip excursion totally worth it.

Each short video piece is assembled out of still images of a single, painstakingly altered painting. These keenly observed depictions of American-style progress are rendered in a rapid, fluid visual language that shows the viewer years, even decades, in minutes. In constant forward motion, we see landscapes, development, construction, infrastructure and economic boom; we also see transformation, neglect, collapse, and decay. Mitcham's moving paintings provide lyrical & transcendent birds' eye views of triumph, folly, and the steady erosions of time. They pull us back from the historical moments and processes we unconsciously inhabit, thereby revealing them.

According to the artist, he is inspired by Robert Smithson's view of suburbs as "rising into ruin." "They exist without a past," he writes, "at least in any real sense, and thus have no hope for a lasting future.  As they are being built, their immanent decay can already be predicted."

Below are three examples of his work, all of which were featured at Free City. (The last one is a music video for "Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" by the Avett Brothers.)

This Land is Your Land from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

Valley of Ashes: A Brief History of Flushing Meadows from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise from Jason Mitcham on Vimeo.

For more examples of Jason Mitcham's work, check out his Vimeo page.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Yamasaki restored

We visited Minoru Yamasaki's recently restored 1958 reflecting pool & sculpture garden behind the McGregor Memorial Conference Center on Wayne State's campus this morning. It's a beautiful public space: simple, elemental, elegant, and tranquil. For its relatively small size, I nonetheless felt a powerful sense of both freedom & exploration while poking around. What a joy to see it restored, to have the opportunity to interact with/in it.

I'm looking forward to returning soon and getting more, better, & wider shots; these are just hints of the whole.

Creative Commons License
This work by Matthew Piper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.