21 April 2017

Neri Oxman: A New Daphne

"Daphne has escaped the god's embraces, which promising love would but result in ungraceful fertility." - T. E. Hulme

Like a ray of light from an unlikely source, comes this quote from T.E. Hulme.    Only the fanatic reader of English poetry or the dogged scholar now remembers  T(homas) E(rnest) Hulme today. This surprised me when I went looking for his poems recently; I remembered Hulme from my high school English literature studies.   More familiar is the term Imagism, invented by Ezra Pound to describe a new kind of poetry,  but it was Hulme who supplied the theoretical ballast.  Not that Hulme wrote that much poetry, but that he did write impressed the right people:  Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, who attested to Hulme's influence on his own work after they met in London in 1913.

That same ray of light is captured in  Imaginary Beings (Daphne) a sculpture recently created by  Neri Oxman using colored digital powders and other materials that were programmed through a 3-D printer.  Daphne appears in several ancient Greek texts, including in Ovid's Metamorphosis, but all agree that she was a water nymph who attracted the amorous god Apollo, a misfortune that led this sworn virgin  to appeal to her father to rescue her so, being a god himself, he turned her into a tree. 

Oxman's Daphne glows from within,  usually portrayed as a woman with branches sprouting from her head and arms, here she becomes a source of light herself, the thing that makes photosynthesis possible, and bursts forth in ruffles of leaves.  When you realize that glass is composed of particles of silicate it is not so surprising that Oxman's bits of colored powders looks so much like glass.  You could think of this as a 21st century form of alchemy.

Oxman, who is an architect, has thought long about what makes for good design. At the MIT Media Lab, she  has created digital versions of morphological objects, combining the forms and structures of biological organisms with elements from architecture  to create objects that Oxman has characterized as 'Material Ecology.'  So common that we barely notice it, much less give it a name, designers have long used elements from nature  as their inspiration in  a process known as biomimicry.  But now, using computer assisted design programs (CADs), people like Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at MIT are able to produce algorithms that translate their two-dimensional ideas into three-dimensional art objects,

Oxman grew up in Haifa, Israel,  among architects and engineers so, from an early age she saw her American father and Israeli mother designing things.  She enrolled in medical school but then switched to architecture.  At MIT, Oxman has been  developing 3-D printers that can layer molten glass, in the way that they currently work plastics or polymers.  Her work was featured in a 2016 exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York,

For further reading;
1. Tashima Etsuko: Learning From Nature, at The Blue Lantern, 25 March 2016.
2. Survival of The Beautiful by David Rothenberg, New York, Bloomsbury Press: 2011.

Neri Oxman & Mediated Matter Group, Imaginary Beings (Daphne), 2011, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

14 April 2017

Jacques Prevert: A Celebration

Forty years have passed since the death of Jacques Prevert on April 11, 1977.   Prevert, a lyric poet in a country that reveres its masters of song, going all the way back to the medieval troubadour Francois Villon (1413-c.1463), the French  are marking the occasion with numerous celebration.  Although Prevert's name may be somehwat vague in North America, French children learn Prevert's songs as soon as they begin school. 
Like Villon,  Prevert's poems were passed around on handmade copies and by word of mouth during the German Occupation, much as the peripatetic Villon's verses  were sung in taverns by people who probably could not read them.   When Prevert's poems were  collected in book form for the first time  in Paroles (Songs, 1946)  they caused a sensation.  He had experienced something similar the year before when he collaborated with the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma on the song Les feuilles mortes.  Autumn Leaves, as it is known in English, has become the most recorded song of all time.  For their part, Parisians and all the French, even those who had escaped the Occupation, were   ready to celebrate and Prevert gave them what they needed - romantic nostalgia, in song with Les feuilles mortes and in the film Les enfants du Paradis, a romance among theater people set in the 1820s.

Fortune smiled on the boy Jacques, giving him a loving mother and an unconventional father.    After leaving school, Prevert served in the French army during World War I, getting as far from home as Constantinople.  Returning to Paris,   he was introduced to the Surrealist circle, and their leader Andre Breton, by his friend Raymond Queneau in 1925.  Their abhorrence of war and the utter absence of what the French reverently refer to as la gloire  drew the circle together.    But within three years Breton expelled Prevert from the group; the younger man's anarchic sense of humor was no match for Breton's heavy-handed leadership.  For his part, Prevert considered Breton too "grave." In what counts as a surrealist move, Prevert went to work for an advertising agency and began to write the poems that eventually became Paroles.

Prevert's gallery of usual suspects included clerics ("Poetry is everywhere as God is nowhere") and the military  but, unlike others he named names, never hiding behind abstractions.  That was the kernel of his "anti-intellectualism,"  his scorn for the typical scholar  who would "expend his life erecting a self-glorifying  monument of theories."   Prevert called out the "religious insincerity" of the Popes, especially during war times, and social injustices in the persons of Marechal Petain and the French colonials in Vietnam.  His youthful encounters with the poor, introduced through his father, led t Prevert to join the Ocotber Group, a troupe of amateur actors in the 1930s.  The plays they put on may not have been much more than "agit-prop" but Fabian Loris, a Prevert biographer syas, "It was not a theater, it was a way of life,  with Jacques Prevert as its strong foundation, his humor corroding like acid on a plate."   The Communist Party was not amused but the public was and this kept the group members safe.  Meanwhile Prevert also put his politics to work in  screenplays, among them Le crime de monsieur with Jean Renoir (1935), an idyllic story of a publishing cooperative in the days of the Popular Front and Quai des brumes with Marcel Carne (1938), the story of an Amry deserter.

Abstraction, in words or images, meant little to Prevert who believed that "everything starts from something."  According to Prevert, if you paint a bird and the painting doesn't sing, "it's a bad sign."    In Gilbert Poillerat's  Portrait of a Bird that Doesn't Exist   bird song is made visible, a sunny version of the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.   Remember that Plato believed sensations are the vehicle that allows us to experience what is universal; ideal forms he called them.   A fanciful picture of a child at the beach on a summer day anchored, so to speak, by ontology.
So who was Gilbert Poillerat, an artist who never seems to get more than two paragraphs to himself in any written forum?    Poillerat was a maitre- ferronnier, a specialist in metalwork who studied for eight years, from 1919 to 1927 with the Art Deco master, Edgar Brandt.  According to journalist Mariana Paul-Bousquet, it was his graceful iron balustrades that made Poillerat's name and fortune.  In 1943, she wrote: "They are like a winged language,  crossing from the present to sweet visions from childhood."  (translation JAL)   There are those wings again! 

Paris-Prévert by Danièle Gasiglia-Laster was just  published by Editions Gallimard in Paris.

1. Israel Bidermanas - Jacques Prevert in Paris, 1954,Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Gilbert Poillerat (1902-1988)  - Portrait-de-l'oiseau-qui-n'existe-par, 1979, Pompidou Center, Paris.

06 April 2017

Music Under The Radar: Melanie De Biasio

"I'm gonna leave you, yes I'm gonna
I'm gonna leave you  'cause I want to
And I'll go where people love me
And I'll stay there 'cause they love me"

For anyone familiar with the outlines of singer Nina Simone's biography, it would be easy to imagine that she wrote these lyrics but, in fact, they were written by her guitarist who, on the evidence, was a keen observer of the artist who first became known as 'little girl blue' but was well on way to becoming the 'high priestess of soul" when they began working together.   An angry, wounded song from the 1960s has recently been given new currency from an unexpected quarter - a Belgian singer and songwriter who knows a good song even when it arrives smothered by a Broadway pit orchestra.

Rudy Stevenson, who wrote "I'm Gonna Leave You",  joined Nina Simone's band in early  1964, while  Simone was recording I Put A Spell On You, her finest studio album for Phillips Records, in New York City.   Stevenson, also a  composer and arranger, wrote a song ("One September Day") and an instrumental number ("Blues On Purpose") for the occasion.  Buried on Simone's next release High Priestess Of Soul was another Stevenson song "I'm Gonna Leave You."  It sounds as though it was recorded in a hurry, without much thought or care, in an  uptempo Broadway-style arrangement.   Simone herself was famous for introducing her own incendiary civil rights anthem "Mississippi Goddam" with the comment, "This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet."  Still, the song has presentiments of a more intimate meditation laced with payback than what usually gets belted out across the footlights.

Melanie De Biasio (b.1978) is a Belgian jazz singer who writes many of the songs she sings, so her inclusion of a song recorded by the American Nina Simone in the 1960s De Biasio knew she would not be able to afford much studio time to record  No Deal, which she produced herself,  so she spent weeks working out the ambiences she wanted for each track  in three short days.

I'm Gonna Leave You
  Melanie DeBiasio, 2013
I'm Gonna Leave You
  Nina Simone, 1966.

Melanie De Biasio, courtesy Worldwide FM, Gilles Peterson.

01 April 2017

Music Under The Radar: Josh Roseman

It may be a long way from Brazil to New Jersey, but not so far as you might think and the trail winds leads through an undeservedly overlooked song, Long Day, Short Night.  
The words "music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David"  described a  type of song that was  sui generis in the 1960s, complex melodies driven by abrupt  meter changes (from 5/4 to 9/8 in Anyone Who had A Heart, for instance), harmonies  modulated in ways seldom found in American popular music, and insidious rhythms.  All of which are present in Long Day, Short Night. 

Bacharach wrote the song for the Shirelles in 1965, with every expectation that it would be a hit as  Baby It's You  had been for them in 1962.  Both songs make use of the baião, a style originating in the rural states of northeastern Brazil, less familiar than the urban bossa nova but just as mesmerizing Once you know that the  baião is characterized by percussion-driven melodies dominated by a bass drum, the link between The Shirelles' Baby It's You and Josh Roseman's version of Long Day, Short Night is obvious.

Trombonist Roseman has been a sideman with a too many jazz musicians to name but his recordings as a group leader suggest a strong connection with some in particular, Art Ensemble of Chicago member and trumpeter Lester Bowie is his Brass Fantasy phase and his collaboration with Don Byron on the clarinetist's klezmer project.

Bacharach had studied composition with French composer Darius Milhaud whose Le Boeuf sur le Toit (1920) is a melange of popular  tunes lifted from Brazilian well known musicians, put through a French press of Parisian urbanity.   For more on this subject - lots more! -  check out the website of Daniella Thompson, a jazz programmer at KPFA, 94.1 in Berkeley, whose Boeuf Chronicles is just one of her many explorations of Brazilian music.

The Shirelles were a vocal group from Passaic, New Jersey.  They won a high school talent contest in 1957, attracting the attention of Florence Greenberg, a record producer who eventually brought them to Scepter Records where they had the good luck to work with Burt Bacharach, before his collaboration with Dionne Warwick captured the pop public's attention.

Long Day, Short Night
 Josh Roseman Unit, trombone, Treats For the Nightwalker, 2003, Enja Records

Baby It's You
  The Shirelles

To read more : Education By Stone: selected poems by Joao Cabral de melo Neto, translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, New York, Archipelago Books: 2005.  One of the finest poets writing in Portuguese in the 20th century, Melo Neto (1920-1999) was a native of Permanbuco, one of the Brazilian states that make up the 'nose', the country's most eastern outpost on the Atlantic Ocean.

Image: unidentified photographer for BBC - Josh Roseman

26 March 2017

Rain Blossoms: The Waters Of March

Drops of water pearled on pale blue flowers ... rain blossoms.   In March all flowers drip with rain  but capturing the phenomenon in photographs requires a deft touch.  The Viennese photographer Ernst Haas (1921-1986) was an early enthusiast of color photography, a medium he discovered shortly after he moved to the United States in 1951.  Haas became  a member of the Magnum Agency in 1949, the same year as that other underappreciated photographer, the Swiss Werner Bischof (1916-1954).  

Unlike some of his contemporaries who turned their noses up at color, considering Kodachrome a dirty word, Haas quickly became adroit at catching temporary effects, becoming the first photographer to receive a solo exhibition of his color work at the Museum of Modern art in New York City in 1962; there would not be a second such for another fourteen years.  Prejudices, however baseless or silly, fade slowly.  Just look at the Cosmo (below), its rain-drenched petals mimicking the shape of an iris for a moment.
The Errant Aesthete, subtitled Essentials for the Cocktail-swilling Set, was a website that  often featured the work of Ernst Hass, and although the website no longer publishes, you can still  explore Suzanne's archives.

1. Ernst Haas - untitled, date not given, Ernst Haas Estate.
2. Ernst Haas - Cosmos, California, 1981, Ernst Haas Estate.

21 March 2017

"A Singularly Lucid Spirit" - Eugen Gabritschevsky

Gabritscevsky is an « esprit singulièrement lucide » dont la vie a été « dérobée ». - attributed to Pierre Chave

My introduction to the art of Eugen Gabritschevsky was through seeing this portrait of his dog Luce almost ten years ago, and  its radiant affection and stylistic panache have  colored my responses to what I have seen and learned since.  Gabritschevsky has long been pigeonholed as an outsider by art critics, which gives permission to give short shrift to his work or condescend to him.  Now, the first major exhibition of Gabritschevsky's work  in New York City is on view.

I am not convinced that the term ‘outsider art’ explains much about Gabritschevsky's work or anyone's.  The term and its French equivalent (art brut or rough art) were coined by critics and artists  for purposes of marketing and exclusion exclusion, more than for aesthetic purposes. It's a hair-splitting distinction for describing much of 20th century art.   I suspect that artists - or anyone else - are called outsiders when someone is uncomfortable with sharing their corner of the universe with them.  Gabritschevsky was a tormented man but, as is often true when confronted with human vulnerability, this is about us, as much as about him. A brilliant man, confronted with a bleak diagnosis, who chooses a new outlet for his energies, is someone I want to share my corner with, just as he shared his with his beloved dog, Luce.

Why not call Odilon Redon an outsider artist?   Redon declared "Everything is done by the submission to the coming of the unconscious”  and that art was "the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible."   Redon created hybrid creatures that floated in air or grew from unlikely hosts.    Like Gabritschevsky, Redon drew freely on dreams and nightmares for his imagery and, again, like Gabritschevsky, he was keenly interested in evolutionary theories and in insects, botany and the world revealed under a  microscope. You could argue that Redon’s imagination was voluntary, whereas for Gabritschevsky's was the stuff of  emotional disconnect,  but how much of this is rooted in our expectations?   

Gabritschevsky’s  gouache images of winged insects, and fantastical butterflies,  are magical creatures, not monsters.. A series of precisely detailed abstract and geometric forms that blend into a harmonious whole, convey benign emotions unlike the artist's anxiety-filled paintings of human or hybrid human-plant forms, with their air of menace.  The backgrounds, filled with subliminal reminders of earth and sky, ground these extravagant flyers in a recognizable world.  The Russian-born Eugene Gabritschevsky (1893-1979) knew these flying creatures well.


He was a precocious student, drawn to entomology, the study of insects.  Forms, their appearance, their adaptation, their evolution  or their disappearance  were the stuff of his researches, the same ideas that preoccupied contemporary artists.  After earning  advanced degrees in biology and genetics in Moscow, he did postdoctoral research at Columbia University in 1925.  His work on mimicry and genetic mutations in insects earned him a post at the  Pasteur Institute in 1927 but  his  mental state deteriorated.  After being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1929, Gabritschevsky was confined to a mental hospital in Munich.  Without a laboratory, he still had art

Even after two decades spent mostly confined and  and in relative isolation, Gabritschevsky could still summon imagined worlds other than the phantasmagorical ones he created using a signature device of his (seen here in attenuated form) the  proscenium or theatrical arch that distanced himself and the viewer from his more frightening visions.   Sometimes, they have seemed to me as though Gabritschevsky used - seriously and/or tongue in cheek, - the Rorschach tests (ink blot) that came into vogue during the 1920s, tests he might have undergone himself.   Although their validity has since been questioned, their ambiguity has kept them alive in the netherworld of pseudo-science, never quite debunked but never quite acceptable.  Rather like 'outsider art.'
For more about Eugen Gabritschevsky at The Blue Lantern read Artist Of Loneliness.

Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible, on display at the American Folk Art Museum  in New York City  is the first in-depth exhibition of Gabritschevsky’s art,  composed of more than eighty artworks (gouaches, drawings, and watercolors on paper), a film, publications, and archival documents.

Images: are by Eugen Gabritschevsky are from the Museum of Modern Art, Toulouse, France, uhnnless otherwise noted.
1. Luce the Dog, 1947. 
2. Papillon, 1941.
3. untitled butterfly, 1941.
4. untitled, 1950, Galerie Chave, Vence, France.