As I got on the Picadilly line east from Heathrow I had a sensation that I have either not had in a long time, or never had before, travel anxiety. I was undoubtedly excited to be in a new city, but I had never been so far away on my own. And watching the plump old brit with half his teeth sip “sugar free” cola from a Tesco bag in the flashing darkness of the London tube felt like the parallel universe I had avoided for so long.
Britain really isn’t that far a cry from my city of brotherly love. People speak english, are alarmingly proud of their city, and treat outsiders like enemies. But the most stark difference I found in London was simply that Londoners did not smile. It sounds hokey, and in many ways it is, but people were so intensely bleak, as if they were the embodiment of the endless drizzle that looms over their city. In fact, the few times I saw a couple smiling, or a crowd laughing I would quickly come to realize they were French, Spanish, or American. And perhaps it was that I spent so much of my time in London traveling alone, but that lack of smiling, that infinite melancholy; it seems to so perfectly summarize London for me, whether in its people or its streets.
Much of my time in London was spent doing what tourists do best, visiting Museums, which given the average ticket price of free, was right up my alley. Of all the things I could complain about, the Museums were downright perfect. They’re decadence is overwhelming, built as magnificent palaces for some of the most incredible works of art in the world. But for my money, and as much I adore Museums (particularly when they are free), I can’t say they ever seem to tell much about an actual city. For that I look to cemeteries.
A quick google search brought up a helpful list of cemeteries, some well known, some not so well known, but a glowing endorsement for the pseudo abandoned Abney Park Cemetery caught my eye.
Abney Park is one of the magnificent seven cemeteries of London, though unlike the others and just about every other green space in London, it appears to have no groundskeeper. It would make for a solid tourist trap being a perfect stand in for the infamous “Omen” cemetery scene where Gregory Peck has to fight off a demonic dog, but thanks to a complex and lengthy commute Abney Park is little more than jogging grounds for locals in the Pakistani and Jewish neighborhood it sits next to. Even after taking 3 trains and a bus, it took some helpful advice on the street to find the front gate, which seemed strangely bare for the victorian graveyard. The muddy paths within led me through what I can only describe as the most densely packed cemetery I’ve ever seen. Headstones and sarcophagi sat inches from each other in grids only broken by thin unmarked trails. Most graves seemed out of reach, unless you were willing to make the impressive climb over other headstones and vines first. And due to the soft and moist, English ground these tombs had slowly shifted, forcing headstones to turn crooked and at their most dramatic points, even lean against each other. As I navigated these paths I soon found right in the very center of the mossy, entangled mess was an abandoned gothic chapel, with birds fluttering in and out the steeple that rose just high enough above the trees to be seen from anywhere in the cemetery walls.
This little old chapel was out of the London one imagens when Dickens is read to them as a child. The grandeur slowly outdone by it’s own cost, with empty lead wires melting out of rose windows that once held stained glass. Old doorways filled in with cinder blocks and mortar that didn’t pretend for even an instant to be a part of a society that could afford such splendor. In back of the chapel sat an old Indian Bean tree that was planted when the cemetery was built, and despite multiple nests within it, several types of diseases and many dead limbs, was still said to have a few flowers bloom every spring. It’s thick, knotted trunk and few spindly branches were the last thing I had to see, and then I left.
But that tree was far gone as I got off the train in central London. I went to meet my friend Gabe for dinner and cheap cider at his college residence by Kensington Gardens, one of the many beautiful parks that closes at dusk. We drank and ate pasta before deciding that tonight would be a good time to try clubbing, something I was sadly determined should be part of a true London experience.
With a few friends of Gabe’s we headed to Leicester Square which was supposed to be good for clubs and bars, and came across a place called “The Zoo”. I will not give actual prices, but I will say that I cannot imagine any actual zoo making as much money as this place must of raked in that night. The atmosphere was like that of a high school dance, but with a heightened sex drive and plenty of very expensive alcohol. Despite this I met quite a few friendly people, and being as cheap as I was, happily drank half drunk beers abandoned for a busy bartender to dispose of. I feel no need to defend my dumpster diver behavior in such pricey situations. The music was pop hits from every era, played to a sloppy drunk crowd that shouted along, while trying to mingle. Though I enjoyed the night for what it was, the people I came with didn’t have such a good time and left hours before I finally stumbled out.
It was nearly 3 am when I left, and despite a tremendous underground system, subways stop running at midnight. And while the underground is pretty straight forward, the bus system which runs all night, has no maps. So a few miles from my Regents Park hostel, I started walking, looking for buses going in the general direction. On my way I took a break outside a club that had just closed and found myself in a conversation with three friends, two guys and a girl. One of the friends, an Irishmen, decided that we were all getting along so well that we should have a pint. Sadly, like nearly everything else in London, pubs close around midnight and even clubs tend to close around 3. Still, the determined Irishmen set out on a journey to find a pint, with the 3 of us in close pursuit. We went from closed pub to closed pub, occasionally finding a bouncer only to point us to another closed pub, when finally someone recommended a strip club a block away that stayed open later. At three in the morning, the rabbit hole of my night leaves little room to say no, so we paraded to a hardly marked door and walked downstairs. In the dim, red glow were two doors that, despite our strip club quickly becoming a speakeasy brothel, encouraged my drunken Irish companion to start knocking. Interrupted, angry cries from inside the doors started billowing out, and once again we found ourselves on the streets without a clue, or a pint. It had grown late enough that I bid farewell to the three friends, and two hours later, after several buses and lots of running, I managed to find myself back at the hostel with a bag of chips from Tescos.
A few days later I was more than ready to leave London. Despite some marvelous nights at pubs, and a few good adventures, the expense of the city, the unreasonable times at which things closed, and the complexity of their streets, had begun to make me a little stir crazy. My bus to Stansted airport was at 2:40 am, and I was eager to get on it and begin my journey to Rome. With all my belongings in a massive backpack I headed for the night bus which would take me to Victoria Station for my Stansted bus. After about 15 minutes of uncomfortably standing amongst a sea of drunks on the bus, one older brit asked me what I was doing with such a large bag, and after telling him where I was headed, he kindly pointed out amid chuckles that I was going to the wrong way. So I found myself back out on the streets waiting for the bus, but with no time to spare. Despite all my predictions I managed to make it to Victoria Station five minutes before 2:40, but with just the dinky map on my ticket and a total lack of knowledge by people on the street, I began frantically sprinting around reading street signs, looking at my map and asking for help.
Finally, I saw my bus a block away, and began running down the street towards it as it began to pull forward towards me. It came to a stop as I got in front of it and began yelling that I had a ticket, waving it in front of the driver, who refused to open the doors for me. After fifteen minutes of running around the most poorly marked streets in the world, I was committed to getting on my bus, and wouldn’t move. A crowd of people on the street joined me, and started yelling at the bus driver to open the doors, but still he just sat there and looked blankly at me and my mob. Several minutes later, police on motorcycles arrived, and thankfully seemed to be on my side, letting the bus driver save face by pulling around the corner. I was so thankful; the exhaustion causing euphoria, but it was quickly broken by the discovery that my bus ticket was for an entirely different bus company. The police must have felt bad enough for me, as they didn’t say anything else but just pointed me in the direction that my map showed. Luckily, I caught the next bus, and through tears I watched the rainy streets of London disappear, eating cheap candy and feeling the weight of traveling alone like that green backpack I’d carried only minutes earlier.
I had no heartfelt goodbyes for London as my plane pushed off the ground, and finally took me hundreds of miles away from that Island in the pond.
Few people outside the world of art, and even many within, couldn’t point out a Phillip Guston painting if it was sitting next to the Mona Lisa. Ofcourse this is true for most artists, but Guston isn’t most artists, his career spanned and inspired more genres than almost any other 20th century painter. At one moment he’s Paul Klee and at another he’s Diego Rivera. He can compose like Chagall, invent like De Chirico, but when the painting is finished a Guston stands entirely alone as a Guston.
I am guilty of having been unaware of Phillip Guston too. In the massive vault of art from the period of Expressionism, Kandinsky and De Kooning often steal the lime light, but I’d like to make a case for Guston.
In 1948 the painting Tormentors was completed. The piece at first reads much the way of Miro. A black background with reductive canvass carved out in thin contours to give glowing but subtle images. Bright, uneven patches of cadmium red straight from the tube, build a tumultuous foreground. In many ways, the initial read is fair stylisticly speaking, but in content Guston reaches far beyond, with imagery of Klan members that entirely rebukes the playful tones of Miro. The subjects in the painting are not treated in the grotesque way one would expect, but are rather awkward, bulbous creatures that escape our convictions and seem unaware of their own evil.
20 years later, Guston completed the painting Central Avenue. At a time when minimalism was on the tip of every tongue, Central Avenue took a very different approach. The entirely literal subject matter again focuses on Ku Klux Klan members, a recurring theme in Guston’s work, but unlike Tormentors the characters are fully painted with a roughly linear background that depicts a town in cadmium red with light blue roads and pink clouds. The Klan members sit in a car with crosses, not hiding in the darkness of Tormentors, but rather parading in a calm daytime scene. This painting is much more playful than the last, but is that much more chilling as well, and shows the subtle qualities of Guston that make his work striking without being heavy handed.
Between these two paintings, Phillip Guston brings together a breadth of different artists, while maintaining an independent voice. He’s uncompromising to fads and yet always willing to change when it benefits the painting. Guston is one of the greatly overlooked painters, and I think for the sake of contemporary art. should be heard once more.
“Chain Link Fence”
The general attitude of art today seems to be a differentiation between itself and what is deemed “commercial”. Even in the world of commercial art such as graphic design or industrial design, there is a need to distinguish the “real art”. For instance, to liken a high brow furniture manufacturers work to that of Ikea has become almost a slur, and while Ikea furniture is mass produced the Bauhaus styling is often quite appealing. Shit, I sleep in an Ikea bed every night and it rocks. In this vain, in a less commercial sense, fine arts attempts to talk about the real in very unreal terms. It would far less expensive to fly to Giverny and see Monet’s actual water lillies, but several collectors have chosen to spend 40 million pounds on a nearly blind mans idea of that scene from 150 years ago. I’m not actual cynical enough to deny the importance of paintings, and I suspect Giverny is nowhere near as beautiful as Monet gives it to us, but at a superficial level the question of why remake again and again seems of importance.
In building my chain link fence, as distant as water lillies are, this question of remaking became my thesis. As I built my fence I considered the act of creation much the same as a painting. Laborious, imperfect and ultimately a crude stand in for the real thing. Still, like a painting, the result was far more valuable than the real thing. Somehow, human craft, as faulty as it is, becomes our most remarkable signature. And while the links and welds of my segment of fence show error, the piece illustrates the impressive but ultimately sterile nature of the thousands of feet of chain link we encounter in our life. The real thing is perfect, yes, but mine is more valuable. It is the sum of my labor, my time, and my thoughts. I suffered bending every link, my back hurt from hunching over the table with an oxy-acetylene torch for hours, and in the end I had a chain link fence that couldn’t stop a toddler in a tantrum. “Chain Link Fence” is my concession to art, my conversation with the commercial, and my pleasure of creation.
The self-portrait is perhaps the most open-ended assignment one receives in art school. In sculpture in particular, the idea of the self must become entirely an abstract representation, with the exception of busts, and statuary which unfortunately are outside of my physical vocabulary. So when I approached a self-portrait I tried to think of myself in absolutes. I considered myself in terms of the physical, then the historical and finally settled on the functional. It seemed to me the idea of making a device that could make art satisfied what has become my main purpose, and for the sake of simplicity I settled on a drawing machine. In thinking about myself I realized one other function that the device would have to carry out for it to represent me, which was the capability of dying. With this in mind I built a machine consisting of two cranks, one turning two writing utensils, one turning a board that acted as a table for the utensils. However, as the cranks turned they also turned larger wheels that slowly collected nylon string pulling on a cinderblock that held a second cinderblock from falling. Over the course of turning the cranks and producing drawings on post-it notes, the piece would ultimately be destroyed. For the placement of the piece, I was attracted to an industrial space I had been in previously, both for aesthetic purposes, and because the empty shelving catered to the falling cinderblocks. In addition, I liked the vaguely industrious nature of my non-utilitarian invention, and was also interested in the machines life within the space after its demise, particularly because the industrial space itself was abandoned. After all was said and done, I left the installation with 12 completed works of art on florescent, pink, 3 inch squares. Though I feel the smashed kinetic machine to more accurately depict me, I quickly found that the jestural marks on the post-its quite beautifully seemed to depict the machine. Not that all art is a self-portrait, but our influences often stretch themselves into our work where unintended, and in the most mystic sense of this truth, my art machine seemed follow along. I set out to re-create myself in simpler terms, but in turn my creation recreated itself. And while I have feelings for the late art machine 1, it’s body of work ultimately is more interesting and peculiar than the pile of dowel rods and plywood that has taken it’s place.
Cast Wax C-Clamps
Budd Company Steel Plant, Philadelphia, PA
A site specific installation analyzing the use of numerical ordering in manufacturing settings, as well as the deterioration of industry in late 20th century America. The white, wax c-clamps hang in a luminescent abacus, ordered in the sequence 1981 to reference the period of Budd’s decline and ultimate collapse. The piece is intended to be reordered by viewers, each leaving a brief footprint to be undone by other explorers of the abandoned complex. The nature of the c-clamp echoes industry and strength juxtaposed with the weakness of wax, another reference to contemporary economic decline. Ultimately Overtime is a small memorial to the once grand Budd Company.