Tag Archives: Art

No Swimming, Wading, Dog-Bathing or Skateboarding

A very specific sign outside the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton.

A very specific sign outside the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton.

If the rather disparate ideas of swimming, wading, dog-bathing, or skateboarding in an empty, frigid, December fountain plaza in the middle of an Ivy League campus ever occur to you:  please don’t.

First of all, the nice people in charge here at Princeton have put up a very explicit sign forbidding such conduct.  (Note the word PROHIBITED is in all-caps.)

Second, they’ve erected an enormous procession of Chinese Zodiac-themed statues overlooking the potential location of your chicanery.  Leering and toothy, these figures seem like they have been placed here just to ensure, in case you’ve missed the sign, that the bejesus will be scared out you.  Any crazy thoughts of splashing around in the waterless fountain will safely subside after you glance up from your frolic to notice twelve sets of beady eyes and bronzed teeth (is the rabbit the scariest of them all?) staring at you.

However you look at it, it’s a little weird, a little NQR.

Just in case you missed the sign.

Just in case you missed the sign and feel like taking a dip.


Offspring of Lightning and Pure Darkness

So, my ten year old son asked me to take him to the local library last week to get some ‘how to draw’ books.  He chose five:

“Wildlife Sketching”
“Drawing Life in Motion”
“How to Improve at Drawing”
“Drawing Birds,”

. . . and, with a little nudge from me, “Michaelangelo and His Drawings.”
(The proud parent never knows when his well-timed hint might cause latent genius to flower.)

We returned with books in hand and my boy immediately locked himself in his room for the better part of a day, working away feverishly, burning through several pencils, scattering eraser dust and crumpled printer paper all around him like some sort of gigantic nest.

The product of all this work?  A couple of nice sketches of robins, a rabbit or two in motion, a deer, a bit of birch forest, an attempt at a hand (with no noticeable Sistine influence) and, in true NQR fashion, this lovely gem . . .

Do ten year-old artists go through a ‘black’ period?

The brushstrokes are nice, though I’m not sure whether the pronounced black splotches under Night Fury‘s wings(?) are some sort of black webbing or armpit hair.


Self-critique through Sudanese Art

While staying in Khartoum last year the lobby of my hotel was liberally sprinkled with very nice oil paintings, all floor-mounted like some sort of temporary bazaar, though without the artist there personally hawking his wares.

The particular piece below intrigued me more than any other and I stopped in front of it at least four or five separate times, contemplating it as a purchase — how to ship it back to Oman, whether the meagre price of $300 justified it (certainly, in retrospect, the price seems right!) — and contemplating also, at the same time, though more subliminally, the reasons I felt so drawn to it.  In the end I merely took a picture of it, wanting to look at it again in the future, like now.  Perhaps, during this coming summer, I’ll try my hand at painting a version of it myself (though in acrylics rather than the touchier, more drawn-out oils).  For now, I find it interesting to once more look at it and, having gained a bit of time and distance for self-study and for processing the experience of Sudan, I’d like to list the reasons (some of them NQR) that this particular image engrosses me.

Oil painting of a Sudanese market.

Reasons I like this painting:

1.  Color scheme — First, and most obvious from a distance, the color-scheme is a cooling one.  It contrasts markedly against the actual experience of Sudan, which is (or was for me) one of incredible bustle, dust, noise, and heat.  As such, this scene reveals the artist’s fantasy of what Sudan should be, not what it actually is.  Perhaps that is the primary attraction for me, a romanticized, Oriental idea of what Sudan might be.  On the other hand, just maybe on some perfect spring or winter evening with the light diminished, slanting through massed urbanity, a person might actually witness these shades.  Also, beneath the purples and blues and blacks, a latent heat remains, or I am reminded of this heat’s presence by the very fact of its absence, like a heart grown suddenly fond of what it would, when subjected to full and direct confrontation, undoubtedly consider a blinding and hurtful truth.

2.  Perspective — The thoroughfare in the foreground spreads horizontally while the maze of the market, the depths of the market, open with the single focus of a grade-schooler’s first attempts at perspective art, buildings getting smaller, smaller, as they recede toward a central vanishing point, people reduced in the crowd to heads and shoulders and shapes that subjectively might mean ‘human’ or ’emptiness’ or ‘wall’ depending on the way the eye sees each particular blotch of color, each shape and thrust of flattened object.  This again brings me toward the Orientalist fantasy of standing outside yet being permitted to gaze at the interior, to wander the maze, to drown oneself in the thriving exotica of a place ultimately foreign.  It is voyeurism taken to a second remove, the first being the situation of the canvas vis-a-vis the captured scene, outside the market; the second being the even more comfortable distance between viewing art and standing in actual living reality in such a scene, having that scene transformed, robbed of its grosser sounds and visions, simplified, idealized.

3.  Homogeneity / Anonymity — The people are faceless.  The buidlings largely nondescript.  And each of these, building or human, seems constructed on a theme, of one part, one mold, variation but only within defined parameters.  In truth, Sudan (and Khartoum especially) vibrate with advertising, with striving, with differentiation, everything from Bob Marley t-shirts to traditional dishdashas like those the people in this market painting wear.  Does such a market actually exist, still devoid (or ever devoid) of the capitalist slogan, the Coca-Cola sign, the Marlboro horseman, the vendor calling out to each pedestrian so that he might sell his kebabs, his falafel, his magazines, his boxes of cheap tissue?  With the self so foremost in every Western mind, the idea of this anonymity is yet another fantasy:  who am I to think myself different, unique, and better?

4.  Shadow — This might have been the first thing to draw me to the photo.  The short shadows at the feet of the marketgoers.  They speak to a noonday business, to heat, betraying heat despite the change of the color to purple and black.  The shadows quaver on the ground.  They seem to move, illusions, mirages.  And the dusty ground drinks each shadow into itself, not letting it spill further than a few feet, not letting it spread a black and definite edge to the height of the shadow-maker’s head.  A sense of comfort hides in these shadows, so different than the Western mentality, which wants nothing to be left mysterious, everything to be exposed to the glare of science.   The Arabic expression itself, which is — contrary to our version of “Shed some light on the subject” — usually rendered “In the shade of that . . .” speaks to this altered perception of shade=good, sun=bad; secrets=good, too-much-truth=bad, dangerous, and absent of the very stuff that makes life worth living — surprise, serendipity, mystery, awe, love, abode.

5.  Texture — The whole paiting has a smoothness to it, empty planes, empty shapes that slide one into another.  Yet there is another texture at work too, on the edges, the faces of the buildings.  This texture nods toward Klimt, enlivening while also reducing the buildings to abstractions, to canvasses themselves, to dreams.  These textures capture dirt, graffiti, mildew, and decay and turn them into art, which is, I believe, a higher purpose for the artist, to ennoble sight, to turn sight into a better seeing.  It makes me take a step back, when I recoil at an old and worn-out metropolitan’ filth, to see in it the marks of so many people, incessantly worrying, hurrying, to-ing and fro-ing, but in art made still and made to behave as if each mark of passage has become a hieroglyph, a telltale sign, a signature, a sweetness.  These textures occur on the edges of the painting, leaving the inside, the maze, pure and empty, an unwritten page for the mind’s eye.

I could look at this painting all day, which is a criterion for greatness in my book.  All its portions of NQR — the fantasy, the unreality, the untruth — add up to a whole for me far greater than any one individual lie.


The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Joris Hoefnagel's painting: "Animalia" -- unknown whether the artist employed a fine camelhair brush in his creation

On to a discussion of the sort of completely esoteric (by which I mean, ‘interesting but utterly useless from a practical sense’) things a person might encounter during graduate school.  Add to this esotericity a small dose of humor and we have a subject begging to be NQR‘ed.

This is the somewhat famous taxonomy of “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”

As background, this list is reputed to be genuine, though likely is a fiction created or latched onto by Jose Luis Borges to show that all organization of the world into categories — despite the very convincing and cannonized taxonomies of Artistotilian and Linnaean thought to which we in the West have become accumstomed — is necessarily arbitrary.  In simpler terms, even though we think of classifications like ‘mammals’ and ‘reptiles’ to be fundamental to a ‘correct view’ of the world, those classifications are no more real than what Borges presents in this following list of ‘ancient Chinese’ groupings.

That’s prolly ‘enuff words for today.  Enuff high-falutin’ talk.  I’ll merely leave you with the original Borgian list, hoping that ideas will roll around in the back of your brain and that, the next time you look at something and slap a label on it, you think twice: “Does it belong to the emperor or has it just broken the flower vase?”

All animals fall into one of 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.


Hovercat

I’m tempted to write nothing to accompany this, the NQR factor being quite obvious on its own.  Saw it on a message board while walking into class today.  Had to take a picture.  Had to share.  (Hovercat controlling my mind with his beady and unflinching stare?)

Hovercat: fine print reproduced below.

— My choice of overlord matters to me.  With Hovercat I can be sure that I am choosing a reliable source of guidance for myself and for future generations.

— FACT:  Plagued by red lasers?  Hovercat is committed to finding and punishing those responsible.  Finally, leadership we can believe in.

— As a sign of Hovercat’s eternal generosity, kindly take a mustache.


Odd Angels on High

For those of us around the world — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheist — there is one shared conception from this Holiday Season that has undergone little debate but has left a lot of room for popular imagination:  angels.

Growing up in a very Protestant Christian environment where the frenetic reach of mass marketing intrudes even into the most sacred of objects, I became accustomed to one particular image or ‘idea’ of what an angel should be:  white, fluffy, well-preened feathers, golden halo, usually Caucasian in appearance, holding a harp, sporting a few other little daubs of golden accessories, like a trumpet, and perhaps wearing a neatly-pleated toga of some sort.  Very clean and white-washed and harmless.  Angels of this sort appear everywhere in the USA — on the topmost boughs of Christmas trees, suspended from streetlights along the main thoroughfares in many little heartland hometowns, adorning the covers of greeting cards, even making appearances in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “City of Angels.”

So, when I read in one of my guidebooks that I would find frescoes of angels — four huge seraphim dating to the 4th Century AD — on each of the main arches inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul (which had once, for more than a millenia, been the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, much like St. Paul’s Cathedral for Catholicism in Rome) my mind immediately latched onto this image of fluffy happiness.

But that idea was completely, utterly mistaken.

What I found inside the Hagia Sophia turned out to be downright weird, if not frightening.  But, in a way, this sort of angel seems much more real, much more like the type of messenger commonly noted to have stricken fear into the hearts of the Prophets to whom the angels came as messengers of God.  Ezekiel, Abraham, Moses, and many more right up to and including Muhammad — all who encountered angels report a sense of terror and numbness at seeing or being in their presence.

So, maybe it’s our plastic and lily-white conception of an angel that is Not Quite Right while this frightening and disembodied mass of shifting feathers painted 1500 years ago more closely represents the truth —

An angel inside the Hagia Sophia.

 


Heavenly Etymology

The Garden of Allah by Maxfield Parrish.

I’m going to nerd-out here for a moment in order to show my enthusiasm for what must be a totally obscure and academic discipline:  etymology.

I’m taking a course right now with Professor Michael Cook, who is a truly entertaining teacher as well as being one of the world’s most iconoclastic scholars of Islam.  During the course, reading through an Arabic passage on the life of the revered Muslim scholar Bukhari, we came across a strange nisba, or surname, in Bukhari’s lineage.  The name, roughly transliterated into English, was Birdizbah.

This is, doubtlessly, a non-Arabic name.

We asked Professor Cook about it in class and he launched into a really groovy etymological explanation.

It seems he, too, had the same question but was not, like me, completely dumbfounded when it came to deciphering the word.  He guessed that it likely derived from a very obscure Iranian language (still spoken in one little valley in Tajikistan) called Sogdian.

He found an online Sogdian discussion forum (wonder of wonders!) and posed the question of the origins of this name to the assembled electronic Sogdians and Sogdian enthusiasts.  It seems, within a short period of time, that a Japanese scholar identified the ‘–bah’ ending of Bardizbah as roughly equivalent with the Indian term ‘walla,’ which could mean lord or possessor or owner of something.

Then in the same forum an English professor, switching the Arabized ‘B’ to a phonetically equivalent Persian ‘P’ arrived at Pardiz for the first half of the name.

This gave Professor Cook “Pardiz-walla’ or “Owner of Pardiz” for the rough meaning.

It was only a small step further to produce our English-language version:  Paradise.

Lord of Paradise.

When you think about it, it’s quiet beautiful as a name, really.  And the only quip I can make as far as NQR is the fact that such a linguistic excavation was really incredibly interesting to me.  I guess I’m in the right place, immersed in academia!


Un-American Graffiti

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must stop and surreptitiously carve his bit of history into history?  Have none of those who have immortalized themselves considered how they whittle down the artifacts until, someday, nothing will remain?

I became fascinated, in the same way a motorist is fascinated by a car wreck on the roadside, with the scribblings on Sudan’s monuments.  Looking more closely, what I started to notice is that some of the graffiti itself has aged to the point where it is a new archeological record of its own:  French, Polish, British, Arabic names (and dates!) stretching back through several hundred years.  Looking even deeper, I realized that a good portion of the original hierogylphics were, themselves, graffiti.  Pharoahs had erased previous pharoahs’ names, carving their own glyphs over older glyphs.  So, perhaps graffiti is more of a continuation of a time-honored tradition than a new and destructive pestilence.

Yet, one can’t help but think that Mr. Letorzec’s knife, working over a fresher surface back in 1820, was Not Quite Right.

Graffiti over hieroglyphs, Merowe, Sudan.



Megalomania

This might be a peculiarity of the Middle Eastern monarch. Or it might relate to any monarch in any country the world over.   But, coming from a democracy one of the oddities we noticed, one of the things that certainly strikes us as Not Quite Right, is the ubiquitous presence of photography featuring the face of each country’s ruler — on signposts, in barbershops, in supermarkets, malls, promotional materials for national festivals, airport warning signs, greeting signs, instructional signs, etc, etc, etc.

These photographs might be smiling.  They might be stern.  They might feature the ruler in military gear or in traditional clothing or in a western suit.  The photos sometimes include the monarch’s family, especially if he is actively grooming his son, or sons, to succeed him.

One thing interesting about our perception of this blatant self-promotion:  our children notice it more than we do.

My son Jack standing under Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan's nose

Is this because they’re more in-tune to media, more saturated by it, more a part of a new generation that really thrives on media messages?  In Oman, when we first arrived, they actively sought out and compared various pictures of the Sultan:  he’s smiling here, he looks grumpy here, his beard hasn’t turned white yet in this one.  In Jordan they laughed and laughed at the multitude of different photos of the King, asking us if the King did anything other than take pictures of himself.  In Morocco they commented that the king was a good looking guy and they wanted to see a photo of him on a jet-ski, which is apparently one of the Moroccan king’s favorite pasttimes.  And, in the United Arab Emirates we caught this photo of my youngest son obviously very interested in former ruler Sheik Zayed’s huge portrait.

The question this brings to mind is whether — like the similarly ever-present advertising images of scantily clad women in America (largely absent here!) — does the image of a country’s ruler eventually fade into the subconciousness of his people?  Is the ruler’s presence in advertising eventually taken for granted?  Does the forced consumption, the endless repetition, reinforce the ruler’s prominence or reduce it to a gimmick?