The question of teacher-student relationships is a tough one. If they’d been banned at Cranbrook Academy of Art, would the world have missed out on one of the great creative relationships of all time, Charles and Ray Eames? Or could the two designers simply have waited the few months until the end of semester to embark on their inevitable journey together, one that lasted from May 1941 until Charles’s sudden death in 1978 and produced not only furniture but industrial design for WWII, hundreds of films, toys and graphic design.
Lately, I’ve been reading about Case Study House #9, aka the Eames House, the interior of which is a true sensory and sensuous delight. Ray (a nickname for Alexandra) was the visual artist, having begun in NYC as an abstract painter studying under Hans Hofmann, and the home–preserved just as it was when Charles died–is full of objects she collected and arranged that on their own have ‘little value’ but taken together create a rich and deep variety of colour, texture, rhythm and movement. Flowers–roses, lobelia and Santa Barbara daisies–and plants–ficuses, ferns and philodendrons–line the glass walls both inside and out, blurring the distinction between outdoors and indoors.
Initially, the Eameses meant to build the house cantilevered out across the meadow, but the war delayed the arrival of their building materials for so long that they ended up spending time on and growing attached to the expanse of grass and thus changed their design so that the home nestled into the hillside. They must have been frustrated at first, sitting on their blueprints for months and then years, but after a while, Ray said they realized that taking down the Eucalyptus trees and covering up the meadow “seemed criminal.” The imposed waiting period, in the end, made things better.
September 12th, 2018
I recently read Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, a glitzy tragicomedy that follows one woman’s attempt to escape her terrible past by making her present self unrecognizable. Part of this transformation involves becoming hyper aware, almost to the point of obsession, with etiquette. Ani (Née TifAni) knows that if she is going to pass as a blue blood in her new circle of old money, there are certain habits and behaviours that must appear to come natural to her. Throughout the novel, we see her execute peak performances in moments of high tension. Encountering the spouse of a man who knew Ani at her most traumatic? She still remembers not to say “Nice to meet you.” At a gala full of millionaires? She still remembers to flip the empty oyster shell upside down onto the ice. At a tense dinner with her future in-laws? You pass the salt and the pepper together, always. These customs help Ani exact control over a life that continues to unravel as she keeps running from two major traumas that only the strongest–or the luckiest–girls could survive.
In Luckiest Girl Alive, Ani knows that for every etiquette rule she’s learned the hard way, there’re more that remain obscure to her and are used by others to prove that she doesn’t belong. At the end of the novel, having reached the point where she can’t physically withstand any more inauthenticity, Ani performs the ultimate high-society faux pas. To take back the control that a group of boys wrested from her in her youth, she must let go of everything she’s been white-knuckling for so long.
September 11th, 2018
Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye // Photo by Laurence Baulch, Creative Commons
In 1931, Swiss architect Le Corbusier completed arguably his most famous building Villa Savoye, a reinforced-concrete modernist manifesto, and last week, Danish artist Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen sunk it in the Vejle Fjord.
Well, not really. He built a scale model of Villa Savoye and submerged it in water as a comment on Brexit and Trump: “I think the Russians and Cambridge Analytica have been cunning enough to see the potentials of psychometric profiles to influence and manipulate voters via the internet. Through this meddling, a certain sense of democracy has ‘sunk’.”
People really love or hate Le Corbusier. Obviously, Havsteen-Mikkelsen believes he represented some sort of democratic ideal, while social scientists have blamed his urban planning theories for the fated low-income housing projects in post-war America. (This contradiction was embodied by Dali, who counted Le Corbusier as a “friend” even though his “death filled (Dali) with an immense joy.”)
Here are the four best moments from the greatest film of all time, Dirty Dancing.
1. The moment Baby, egged on by Johnny’s incredulity, resolves to learn that goddamn mambo better than anyone else has ever learned the mambo in the history of white ladies learning the mambo.
2. The moment Robbie refuses to help pay for Penny’s abortion and recommends Baby read The Fountainhead so she can learn why “some people matter and some people don’t” and Baby–with the intensity of a Canada goose guarding her young–hisses for him to “stay away from my sister” and pours iced water all down Robbie’s dishonourable crotch.
3. The moment Baby figures out her hypocrite father’s game and sees he doesn’t want her to “make the world better,” he wants her to “make the world better for people like HIM,” and while she may have let him down (by ordering that illegal abortion that almost killed Penny), but you know what? “YOU LET ME DOWN TOO (BY BEING CLASSIST AF)!”
4. The moment Tito and Penny finally get to let loose on the main floor because let’s face it they are the best characters in this contemporary masterpiece, the end.
September 7th, 2018
This is a table my father built.
There were two of them and when I was a child they flanked my mother’s bed for a period of time. My sister and I had chores every weekend and I dusted these tables with lemon furniture polish and rags made from torn cotton. My mother smoked cigarettes while reading in bed, and the ashes, mixed with the polish, would gather in the corners and stick in the crevices. I’d tighten the cotton around my finger and dig my nail into the corners as deep as I could, but I could never get it all.
After she remarried, the tables moved to the basement. Then, when my sister was furnishing her own home, they migrated there, to her own basement. Last Christmas, when I slept next to one, I realized it would make the perfect coffee table for my small apartment. The top lifts off like a tray. I imagined small gatherings in which I loaded the tray with cheese and grapes and bread and carried it from my kitchen area the three steps into the living room and placed it in front of guests who would ooh and ahh at the convenience of a piece that is both a tray and a table.
So at the airport we wrapped it in plastic and it boarded a plane and met us in Vancouver. I decided the stain–almost black–was too dated and the cigarette burns had to go. This home is now. This home is healthy. But paint stripper wouldn’t bite through the surface layer and we ended up having to sand down every inch. It was January and the rain kept us in the garage and a fine layer of dust flew up from the electric sander and settled on the lawn chairs and my bicycle so that when I arrived at work my hands would be covered in a fine brown silt.
Even the smallest of renovations take longer than one can imagine and between classes and dog walks and meal preps and workouts and time spent sitting in silence it was two months before the table was ready to reenter our home and fulfill its dual purposes: to remind me that my father made something; to hold the things that nourish us (books; food; drink).
Of the first guests we had over, one was a woodworker. I told him my father had made this table and he looked at it closely, lifting the tray, running his hands along the legs.
“I don’t think he made this,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“These pieces were built in a factory and he fit them together.”
Same, same, I guess, but different. I can’t ask my mother if that’s true, because she’s gone. And I can’t ask my father, because he is gone too. But regardless of what role my father played in constructing this table, it has proven very useful in this home, and for that, I am grateful.
September 6th, 2018
“Great artists steal.”–Pablo Picasso
At the hair salon on Tuesday, waiting for my appointment to start, this National Geographic on the table. The headline, “Pablo Picasso: artist, provocateur, rogue, genius,” and in the bottom lefthand corner, a quote from the artist: “When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you’ll become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the pope!’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”
Context matters! When did Picasso say this self-aggrandizing statement, and to whom?
He said it later in his career, comfortable with his status as a living legend, sometime between 1943 and 1953, after Cubism, after Surrealism, to one of the many women he abused, an artist herself, Francoise Gilot. A woman whose cheek Picasso burned with a cigarette when she refused to move in with him. A woman whose paintings Picasso told art dealers not to buy after she finally left him.
To that cover of National Geographic, I humbly submit this addendum (from a December 8 2016 story in Elle Magazine). Context matters!
September 5, 2018
“Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.”–Malcom Gladwell
In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker called “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In it, he tells stories from the Civil Rights movement–specifically the sit-ins of the South and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project–to illustrate how only a certain kind of activism (what he calls “high-risk activism”) can cause real change. After three volunteers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman–were kidnapped and killed for their roles in helping register Black voters in Mississippi, many workers left the Project. Who stayed? People with the strongest ties to other participants or people most impacted by the civil-rights movement: “All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi.”
Then comes the nut graph: social media activism (a distinction that’s always reminded me of how we use qualifiers to lessen their nouns’ seriousness, such as “statutory” or “date”) cannot attack deeply rooted problems because it is “built around weak ties.” A couple strange anecdotes are meant to provide examples of weak-tie activism: a woman crowdsourcing for bone marrow, a Wall Street banker getting his phone back from a Black teenage girl who, after retrieving it from a cab, told him basically “finders, keepers.” Gladwell’s thesis is that social media activism will never shift the status quo because it is based on mere (the connotation is “lazy”) participation and not committed motivation.
2018 is not 2010; we know now that social media activism–and just social media presence in general–can have a serious impact on the user’s life. We can lose jobs, incite violence, win and lose elections based on what we post and read online. While it doesn’t take much physical effort to tweet our political beliefs and calls for action, we still have to adhere to these beliefs in “the real world” (as if there’s any distinction). It’s proven to be a “high-risk” activity to stand by our principles both online and off.
September 4th, 2018
Over the long weekend, during a game of Trivial Pursuit (Masters Edition) with friends, someone mentioned Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest tome The End and another person suggested that he might suffer from a condition known as hypergraphia–an uncontrollable compulsion to write.
We often think compulsion lessens the value of expression or the authenticity of an artwork. Words used to describe something done compulsively tend to have negative connotations. If the art or the action or the decision isn’t the result of informed intellectual thought and planning, then we consider it more naive or careless or rash.
To me, there can be so much beauty in visual art that results from compulsion. The artists’ vulnerability, despair and hope accumulate outside their bodies. In Palm Desert, I visited the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Sculpture Museum, ten acres of assemblages Purifoy created entirely from discarded materials. I stepped onto the grounds and felt the physical pull of each singular piece and was very moved. It’s a project he worked on for fifteen years, though some mark the 1965 Watt’s Rebellion as the true start, because after the violence was over, Purifoy started making sculptures from the debris and never really stopped.
September 1st, 2018
Over the past year, I’ve started watching reality TV. I didn’t watch it before (save for competition shows Project Runway and RuPaul’s Drag Race) because I did not understand the allure of watching normal people get rich for fighting with each other onscreen. Though I have always been interested in the affairs of other people–colloquially referred to by many as ‘a gossip’–it never occurred to me that the safest and most satisfying place to focus my curiosity would be the scripted settings of manufactured drama coupled with the real emotions of the human players obliged to play through the storylines of each season.
Things in my life have changed and now I am drawn over and over to the petty and serious ruckuses that unfold between men and women contracted to spend portions of their lives together in public and creating intrigue. I like to imagine I can discern between real emotion and fake, spontaneous action and scripted, actual dialogue and lines that have been added in post-production to create the verisimilitude of narrative. I used to think I understood human relationships very well. I now know I do not. I watch Reality TV as part of my re-education. I ask questions: who can be trusted? Who is lying? Who benefits from the lie? Who should I watch out for? Who is unsafe?
August 31st, 2018
The first thing you see when you enter the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012). The boulder weighs 340 tonnes. Several years ago, a custom-made transporter carried it at a speed of seven miles per hour from Jurupa Valley to LACMA–as the bird flies a distance of fifty-five miles, but 106 miles in total to avoid any overpasses too low to allow clearance. Once in the vicinity of the city, hanging street signs and traffic lights had to be lifted and swung out of the boulder’s way. Its slow pace and disruptive size caused a lot of fanfare, and the final miles of its journey attracted thousands of spectators, footage of which you can see on the museum’s website. Now, the boulder hovers in the centre of a long concrete corridor, allowing visitors to walk toward it and then stand beneath it, feeling the energy of the suspended weight above them, imagining how it would feel to be flattened by granite. The first time I saw it, I realized that this is the experience I have of all art that stays with me long after I’ve left the gallery; it has the ability to overtake me, and the tension, the thrum, the movement that the work causes within me is the quiddity of that possibility.