This is one of my hand-made transfer prints. It is part of a Brooklyn rooftop graffiti scene. The boy in the painting was appropriated by the artist, Chris Stain, from the photographer, Martha Cooper. Now I have appropriated it from Chris. Here I give the piece an old world, weathered charm, by transferring it onto a fine gold basecoat. For the final touch I scoured it gently with fine steel wool: I didn’t want the gold to take over from the drawings and other elements of the work.
If you are starting out in printmaking, you will find it is equally rewarding as well as frustrating. Working on intaglios, getting the lines right, distributing the ink in the right amount and in the right place may be all well and good, until you find you’ve used the wrong paper! Then you have to start all over again because the paper just refused to cooperate and help you create your masterpiece! But you learn from your mistakes. Printing is as much about the process as it is about the print. I’ve wasted many sheets of $28-$30 print paper trying to get a print right. I am still learning what works and what doesn’t. In all of this, the artist’s eye is most important. Watch Kiki Smith prove this point in the short video below.
One of my favorite living landscape painters is Lois Dodd. I first learned about her through her affiliation with Cooper Union. Now 80-years old, Dodd still delights in the ordinary. Catch her New York show if you can. It runs through April 4th.
Back in April 2013, I wrote an article that included information about the once terribly polluted Hudson River in New York State. Now the water near New York City is getting cleaner and the fish are finally returning. Now there are regular sightings of larger fish, like whales and sharks, that are following the food source. This is great news! Read about it here and also, take a look back in time at my April 2013 article, The River Road, Part Two.
Here’s that troublesome question again: How and why is some art labeled “outsider?”
What is this art and its creators outside of?
If an artist has no formal art training does that automatically make his/her art outsider art?
The phrase, outsider art, is every bit as troublesome as the term, “the other” that is often bandied about in scholarly works. As one reads Kate Withstandley’s, The Outsider Renaissance (click on the link to access the article), certain questions arise: Who determines these labels? Are these art works outsider, intuitive, not fine art? Why not simply call them art?
There is nothing “outsider” about the last three pieces below nor is there anything “insider” about the two above. The only difference between the two sets of paintings is that the first is by prominent Bay Area artist, Nathan Olivera, while the second is by what the art world labels outsider artists. None is better or worse than the other so why differentiate? I might very well have posted some of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and potteries and asked the same question with an added twist, “If you didn’t know who the artist was, would/wouldn’t you call this outsider art?”
Outsider Inside, Insider Outside
New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was at one time considered an outsider, that is, until he became a part of Warhol’s world. Basquiat, genius that he was, knew that he needed exposure and so, he actively tried to get inside Warhol’s world. Would he have become an insider artist if Warhol had excluded him? Would the art establishment, the critics, museums and galleries have taken him as seriously as they did if he had not been a part of Warhol’s crowd? Left on his own, would the art world have realized that Basquiat deserved to be noticed the way an artist like Picasso deserved to be noticed?
Mekking Monkey Face
What price did Jean-Michel Basquiat pay to move from being an outsider to an insider artist? Was this Warhol monkey face portrait, for example, part of the price he paid to become famous? In Jamaica, “mekking monkey face” is simply clowning around and making silly faces. It is the pastime of children. The name of the game notwithstanding, I have yet to see a Jamaican child mek monkey face so that (s)he actually looks like a monkey. Their clowning around has more to do with mouth and eye gestures and distortions. What’s more, I haven’t seen any child use props to mek monkey face like Basquiat and Warhol did in this photograph. Add the out-sized ears to the distorted eyes, nose and mouth and you get a transformation from human to animal.
Whose idea was it that Basquiat strike this pose? Was it his? Was it Warhol’s? Were photographer and subject in collusion? Is one being coerced by the other to make/take the photograph? For what reason did sitter and photographer create this image? Certainly this cannot be an attempt by Basquiat to be taken seriously by the art world. Noticed, maybe, but taken seriously? I doubt it. Yet another question to consider is this: Did Warhol photograph anyone else in this particular pose? If not, why? Why Jean-Michel Basquiat and not Mick Jagger, Edie Sedgwick or any of his other sitters?
This photograph is the only one I’ve seen where Warhol’s sitter strikes this pose. Why this sitter and why this pose? Is Basquiat, maybe Warhol as well, making a statement, confronting the status quo? Are they deliberately drawing attention to Basquiat’s status as an outsider times two in the art world? Whatever the case, the portrait does not sit well. (See my previous post, “Mammy and Myths: Oh Andy!” for more on Warhol and Basquiat and the making of myths.)
Note: The large Olivera painting is the property of Stanford University. You can view it in their contemporary art gallery at the Cantor Museum.
I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.
The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.
Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:
“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”
Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?
The Mississippi River on Exhibit
If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies. I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.
In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”
Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”
Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.
This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad. Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:
Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen
As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.
About ten years ago, while jogging through the Greenwood Union Cemetery near my then home in Rye, New York, I stumbled upon a little mud track leading away from the cemetery. It led to another cemetery whose perimeter included a swamp (or wetlands, depending on how you look at it), Interstate 95 (I-95), and the Greenwood Union Cemetery. Drawn in at first by the mud track and then by the sign off to the side that declared this to be a historical site, I continued on to see what turned out to be the “African Cemetery for black residents of Rye town and black civil war veterans” dating from 1860 to 1964. The place was unkempt and on one side, quite noisy: This was where the cemetery abutted I-95.
I had been jogging in Greenwood for quite some time and never before saw any sign of this second cemetery. I also never heard any of the noise from the highway when I jogged there. Greenwood is a peaceful, serene, well manicured cemetery. It has a little stream or waterway running through it, some lovely mausoleums, including a few with stained glass windows, and tombstones that tell you that some of those interred there were descendants of the voyagers on The Mayflower. The “African” cemetery was, by contrast, poorly maintained, unkempt. Still, someone had taken care to place little American flags by some of the markers. I came back over the course of several months and took many photographs. I never saw another soul in that place, whereas on the other side where white was separated from black by a stone wall, there was always life and visitors and staff maintaining the grounds.
Today when I did a Google search I was quite happy to see that others had taken notice of this special little place and are now honoring its residents. It has been over ten years since I first stumbled upon the black, colored, African cemetery. Dearest little Vernita, your tombstone with the lamb is still etched in my memory. “Poor little lamb”, it said. You who had never seen Africa, who was born on American soil, who was but a baby when you passed on and straight out of this world, lay buried in a segregated cemetery in what the North designated to be an “African” cemetery.
A Tribute to the Veterans in a Segregated Northern Cemetery
I’ve misplaced many of the photographs that I took back when I discovered the place. But here are the tombstones of three veterans plus photographs of civilian residents of black Rye: mothers, babies, daughters, sons and grandparents that somehow remained in my files.
Above is the grave marker of Joseph Thomas, a Civil War veteran of the Connecticut Twenty-Ninth Colored Regiment, Company C. A few letters written by the men of this regiment can be accessed at http://conn29th.org/stories.htm.
Below are the grave markers/tombstones of two more veterans, Charles A. Francis, Jr., and Eugene Rogers. Both are veterans of World War I.
Here lies Abram Francis and his wife Hannah. He died in 1881, aged 79 years while she died in 1895 at age 88 years. Are you related to Charles A. Francis, the World War I veteran above?
Mary E. Harris
Mary E. Harris, 1890-1949. You lived to see World Wars I and II. How many men from your family were lost to those wars? What stories can you tell? And why so close to Eugene Rogers who died just one year after you did? Did you know each other? Were you friends? Relatives?
Mary A. Nash
And Mary A. Nash, you were but 18 years old when you died in 1896. What was your life like in the short years you spent on this earth? In 1892, when you were but 14 years old, “the number of lynchings in America had peaked at 230 and continued at rates of over 100 murders per year.” (See, Vassar College’s Website, http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/prejudice.html.) Then too, the Southern states invented new measures to disenfranchise black voters, not unlike what happened all across the nation in the 2012 election campaign, Obama vs. Romney. Another damning fact about life in these here United States is that within a few months of your departure from this world, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld ‘separate but equal’, in its Plessy v. Furguson ruling. The irony of it all was that separate was anything but equal.
Little Harriet Branch, born September 9, 1905, died March 19, 1906. What struck you down during your 6th month of life? What things could you have done, would you have done, had you lived?
Mother, Grandma and Grandpa
Up against I-95
With barely any space to spare, the I-95 highway runs up close to the “African” cemetery. I don’t remember it abutting the Greenwood Union Cemetery this close up at any point of its perimeter. Irrelevant? Coincidental?