Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.


Tick, tock, tick, tock …

Ames Hazmat

How about a round of badminton while we wait for the burgers to come off the grill?

Yes, it’s that time again. Winter is finally over, Ice Season is melting into slushy, gritty memories, and we’re moving into that other half of the year: Tick season.

Here in the Ozarks, tick season runs from about the first week in April through the end of December, with occasional outbreaks in January, February, and March. By mid-May roving hordes of the little monsters will be moving through the underbrush like piranhas with legs, armored specks of concentrated evil seeking whom they may devour.

We’re all becoming pretty current on the latest tick-borne diseases in humans, and the toll on pets is equally terrifying. Repellants, foggers and sprays fill the air like morning mist; gatherings of the beautiful people are aromatic with eau de permethrin, and the rest of us bathe in Deet as if were Chanel No. 5.

The awful truth, however, is that nothing seems to work: we cover ourselves with “Deep Woods Off” to cross the lawn to the mailbox, and by the time we get back to the front door with the junk mail our shoelaces are seething with activity.

At the risk of betraying an obsession, I will say that I have written on the subject of ticks before, focusing a little more on what they are rather than what they do:

What to do? Well, there are, in fact, two chemicals that are widely used to deal with ticks around the home:  N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET for short), and permethrin.

Like the atom bomb and Agent Orange, DEET was invented by the US military in the latter stages of World War II; jungle warfare had taken a toll on soldiers who were not acclimated to the wide range of insect-borne diseases that they encountered in the Pacific and Asia, and the army wanted a single product that would defend against an assortment of pests. DEET is effective against the worst offender, the mosquito, not just repelling the creatures but killing them on contact. Unfortunately, it is only effective while still wet: once the application has dried completely, the hapless jungle warrior might just as well be slathered up with carrot puree. Furthermore, DEET is a powerful solvent, and will destroy rayon, nail polish, and spandex (“Holy holes in the tights, Batman!”) and is known to have toxic side effects on a very small percentage of humans. Mosquitos also lose their susceptibility to it after the first exposure, so it becomes less effective the longer you use it.

And ticks? Well, they don’t exactly slurp down DEET like it was coconut pie, but it might as well be: unless the tick actually ingests the chemical it has no effect, and the DEET is not recommended for application directly to a person’s skin, which is the only place where the tick would ingest it — in the act of biting, which would seem to defeat the purpose.

Permethrin is somewhat more effective against ticks: it kills on contact, and it continues to work even after it has dried; it will even remain active after repeated washings. In small doses it is not known to be toxic to humans — although, as with any insecticide, infants and breastfeeding mothers should avoid it, just to be safe. Toilet paper tubes stuffed with cotton that has been soaked in permethrin can be placed in locations frequented by mice, who use the cotton for nesting material, killing ticks at one of the early stages in their development without harm to themselves.

The downside? Permethrin is very harmful to cats even in small doses: flea and tick medications containing permethrin that are perfectly safe for dogs will kill cats outright. Permethrin also does not discriminate between “good” and “bad” arthropods: it will kill the mosquitos and ticks, but also the honeybees and spiders. If it gets into water it poisons fish, frogs and other aquatic life, and in large doses it can harm humans and other mammals. It persists in the environment for up to ten weeks, so repeated applications can result in dangerously high concentrations in and around the home.

This flyer from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (in PDF format) provides some pretty detailed information, including preventive measures, comparisons of insecticides and repellents, and treatment for tick bites. (The data used to compile this guide comes originally from the EPA, so if you’re a Republican you won’t want to read it.)

So chemistry still hasn’t provided a magic bullet. The old-fashioned approach is still the best: light-colored clothes covering the entire body so that ticks can be easily seen and brushed off, tightly-woven socks, pants tucked into boots — all those things that we so look forward to when the weather reaches 98 degrees with 85% humidity. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t drop out of the trees onto their prey — they can only see a few inches, so you’ve got to be on top of them before they’ll make their move — they simply crawl to the extreme end of leaves and twigs and wait for something to brush against their perch to they can grab on for dinner and a free ride. This means that the worst infestations can be avoided simply by keeping to the open trails, avoiding tall weeds and grass, and staying well away from underbrush. Tough rules to follow when you’re trying to mow the lawn or weed the garden, but every little bit helps. Ticks usually develop in stages on small, medium, and large hosts, so providing permethrin-treated bedding material for mice and packrats (you’ve got them, don’t fool yourself), fencing out deer, and keeping dogs and cats indoors will help break up the life cycle.  Chickens and guinea hens eat ticks, so keeping a few fowl around the back door doesn’t hurt; opossums, although unlovely, are also known to nibble on the little devils.

So pull on your gumboots, tuck in your white jeans, duct-tape your gloves to your shirt cuffs, snuggle that collar up tight — and get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!

Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.


Journal: Thursday, March 19

Richard Diebenkorn: "Girl and Three Coffee Cups" 1957

Richard Diebenkorn: “Girl and Three Coffee Cups” 1957

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
by Richard Diebenkorn

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. DO search.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.

What looks nice over naugahyde …?

Vincent van Gogh, "The Night Cafe", 1888

Some eateries need all the help they can get.Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Cafe”, 1888


At the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our local temple of culture, an odious sculpture from the generally delightful Claes Oldenburg was replaced over the holidays by a delightful sculpture from the generally odious Jeff Koons.

Oldenburg, a icon of the sixties and seventies, has always been champion of a kind of oversized, over-the-top whimsy, taking such commonplace items as badminton birdies and clothespins and blowing them up to the size of Atlas rockets: the piece at Crystal Bridges, “Alphabet/Good Humor”, is a giant popsicle composed of letters of the alphabet melting together like fatty entrails, all painted a horribly suggestive band-aid beige.

Jeff Koons, a glib former Wall Street commodities broker, cheerfully admits that he takes no part in the actual production of any of the art that bears his name — even the concepts behind his works are appropriations of existing photographs, artworks, or consumer products. The Koons work that replaced Oldenburg’s popsicle is a giant beribboned heart, a somewhat trite Christmas tree ornament blown up to epic size, made of stainless steel and given an old-gold mirror finish.

Oldenburg’s piece was clearly not meant simply as decor. Especially in a restaurant setting, its gooey flesh-toned bulbousness is a bit disturbing; we’re supposed to respond to the idea as much as the image. Koons’ heart, on the other hand, is obviously nothing but decor. Like Mila Kunis or Channing Tatum, it’s there to be looked at:  no great ideas, no deep meanings, nothing to challenge the spectator to question his or her own expectations and assumptions. Even the basic idea, that of the trivial household item grown gigantic, is simply Oldenburg’s signature concept picked up by Koons and given a high polish and an even higher price tag.

A famous bit of Picasso lore has it that he was once approached by a woman in a restaurant who asked him to create a picture for her. With his usual panache, the artist grabbed a pen and executed a quick sketch on a napkin, which he then offered to sell the woman for a considerable sum of money. Shocked, the woman exclaimed, “But it only took you five minutes to draw that!” “Madam,” Picasso replied, “it took me forty years.”

Art as restaurant decor is certainly no new idea: Paris is littered with minor masterpieces by French artists of the last two hundred years that were tendered in payment for food and liquor in places like Le Chat Noir or Café de la Rotonde; Mark Rothko’s suicide is thought to have been at least partly triggered by his horror at the thought of a crowd of “rich bastards” sitting around in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan chowing down on caviare and filet mignon under several dozen square yards of signature Rothko canvas. I myself paid a few tabs during my salad days by sketching portraits of waitresses and bartenders in Birmingham, Alabama.

The line between Art and art, between high-concept high culture and something nice to hang over the sofa, is a fine one, more of a suggestion than a barricade. Much of the work hanging in places like the Louvre, the Tate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent at least part of its history as a component of someone’s interior design scheme. After all, most of the people who buy art are not decking the halls of a museum: they’re buying something they like to look at, or that they think will be worth more some day than they’ve just paid for it, or — let’s face it — they needed to fill up a space over the sofa. Will the art of today be the Art of tomorrow? Who knows?

In art, as in politics, there are two final arbiters: money and history. Jeff Koons’ work brings in big bucks; whether it has any real significance as Art remains to be seen. Oldenburg’s floppy food and giant household items have been around for several decades now, and although they’ve lost some of their glamor as the goofiness of Pop Art has faded into the drug-addled mists of the nineteen-sixties, they still have a place in the art books, museums, and public parks of America. Arguably, Koons’ monumental balloon dogs and kitschy polyester statuary tableaux would not exist had Oldenburg not paved the way; at the same time, Oldenburg may retain some of his old-master status because of his role as precursor to more recent big-dollar snake-oil impresarios like Koons.

What will replace Koons’ “Hanging Heart” when the museum restaurant crowd gets bored with it? Since Damien Hirst is not American but British, we can assume that we won’t be treated to a pickled shark in a tank of formaldehyde or half a sheep under glass, but if history is any guide, the options are still limitless.

And that’s how it should be.