Mark Staff Brandl Is On To Something

I’ve been following Dr. Mark Staff Brandl for quite a while now. I particularly enjoy his Dr Great Art podcast, which has, of late, begun to feature some ideas from chapters of his forthcoming book (to be published by Bloomsbury).

Two current works in progress.

His most recent podcast episode, linked below, definitely intrigues me and syncs up with a lot of the ways I’ve been thinking over the last couple of decades. Specifically, my wheneverWHEN and An Ensign For Miyoko Ito works are borrowing significantly from the kinds of ideas Professor Brandl is elucidating. My 2019-2020 collaboration with Joel T. Dugan, Phoneme, also deals with some of this.

An Ensign For Miyoko Ito (#16). Ink on paper, 12×10 inches, 2018. Private collection.

This is how I talk about some of the motivational ideas for these series of works:

“…I seek out the compacted and the overdrawn; the enclosed and the layered; the transformed and the solidified. I look for shapes, colors, and spaces that go far beyond a simple tension between figuration and abstraction, trying instead to suggest a layered arena of observational and haptic information.

Miyoko Ito (Japanese-American, 1918-1983) – whose work has been a key influence on me over the last 20 years – was able to activate subtle surfaces with the illusion of space and an evocative sense of palpability. This is what I’m investigating: the experience of perception apart from particular, representational depiction. In my exploration, questions arise: Does flat form appear to move away from my angle of view? Will color resolve into both static surface and suggested movement? Can space and color align to reinforce both static structure and an expression of time? Might the poetics of silent, unmoving images actually produce phenomena akin to those found in dreams, memories, ecstatic sensations, and atemporal musings?”

Take a listen to the Dr Great Art podcast and see if maybe some of the things I’m saying resonate with how Dr. Brandl is thinking:

While there are many points Brandl brings up that are worth exploring (I greatly anticipate getting to read his book once it comes out), I find myself particularly drawn to the explications he makes regarding ambiguity and conceptual blending. In these areas he distills and clarifies a number of philosophers and intellectual traditions into something artists can really wrap their minds – and artworks – around.

WHENEVERwhen (Michigan), inks on paper, 10×7 inches, 2018. Collection of the Artist.

Beyond the artists he references in his text, I think that there are a few more that very strongly connect with Mark Staff Brandl’s ideas, particularly Marcelo Bonevardi, Nicholas Byrne, Diebenkorn, Vincent Fecteau, Magalie Guérin, Miyoko Ito, and Kyle Staver, among others.

It’s exciting for my own passion for these artists to dovetail with the serious scholarship that Dr. Brandl is bringing forward. I know that I’ll be incorporating concepts from his book into my teaching for years to come. I hope you’ll join me in listening to the podcast and exploring what these ideas can mean for making and experiencing artworks.

The Greatest

Chan Marshall – she who records as CAT POWER – released the album The Greatest at a peculiar time for me… then again, when isn’t it a peculiar time?

It was 2006. I had finished grad school at IU and my partner and I had traveled to Italy to tag along with the IU summer trip. I was full – having seen many masters, finished a years-long course of intensive study, and imagining myself among my constellation of heroes.

My desire to do well and be great – to be masterful, to matter, to be effective – was intense. When I heard Marshall’s opening lines to The Greatest I burst into tears. It took me months to listen to the song without welling up.

“Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars at night turned deep to dust”

“Melt me down…

Leave no trace of grace…”

“For the lead
And the dregs of my bed…”

“Lower me down…

Pin me in
Secure the grounds
For the later parade…”

Nearly fifteen years later it’s still powerful. I think Marshall saying “ONCE I wanted…” is even more poignant to me. In 2006 I resonated with the desire to BE great. But there is also the other side… the desire to HAVE BEEN great. To have wanted to be great “once” and then kind of learned and grown and gotten over it.

Easier said than done. Easier still when one has done something actually great. Worse when one has had the potential but has never been able to get there. To have been afforded so much, to have had so many chances. To have missed them.

Maybe getting older successfully is being able to say that “once I wanted” part without feeling desperate sadness. I guess I still have hope that I can do something transcendent as an artist. But we, in some sense, just do what we do. And what I have done isn’t particularly remarkable.

It’s nice to be able to surprise myself sometimes, even now.

But it’s a difficult time of endless distractions and urgent day-fillers. The days fill to weeks and weeks to months. What used to take a week now takes 18 months. Someday there won’t be 18 months left.

Never mind enjoyment or ambition. Just trying to get anything out takes just about everything.

Oh, well.

Skull of Teacups, Vectored in Triangles

Miranda Grace Makes Interiors

My eldest child, Miranda, is quite the artist (on top of being intense, defiant, powerful, passionate, and smart). Recently she’s been making these very interesting flattened interior spaces.

Miranda, the artist. Aged 10 and a half.

The drawings show an interest in categorization and organizational meaning, which are two interconnected ideas that Miranda has always been focused on. Placement and scale appear to be very important to her right now, too.

Grandma Valerie’s Tea Party
Colored pencil and ink on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches. 2020.

There is also a straightening and flattening of space in these new pieces. This is a little different for Miranda as she does understand perspective to a degree and has shown knowledge of recession of space in the past. However, these works seem to me to be more about the idea of the scene and less about naturalistic space or light.

Aunt Clarice’s Dinner Party
Colored pencil and ink on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches. 2020.

The way that forms extend unnaturally or terminate on two dimensional lines are unique aspects of these drawings. Above, see how the door extends into the floor or how the shelves stop right on the separation between the floor and the wall. These characteristics make the drawings function more as tableaux rather than structurally “correct” space depictions.

I’m interested to see how she combines the symbolic spaces of these drawings and the more expressionistic and observed spaces from her other drawings/paintings. I think that the organization and delineation of objects in her recent drawings are related to a desire for control. When she’s feeling more tense and uncertain, she wants to establish control. When she’s feeling more at ease and free her creates much more expressionistically and with fewer hard lines and forms.

I’ve taken Miranda on solo dates to museums a couple times (see most recently below) and she loves to do sketching from the master works and take in the quiet, calm spaces…

I am sure Miranda will keep growing as an artist and hone a unique way of making her experiences take shape in the world. ❤️

Halloween Portraits

I decided to make a few strange and wonderful portraits for the spoooooky Halloween time, but it ended up turning into a whole family kind of thing. So here we are…

Miranda Grace
MeiMei
FangFang
Atticus
Alison
Matt

I had a fun time manipulating these in Procreate on my iPad Pro. Hope you enjoy them – or are freaked out by them. Don’t forget, fear and anxiety can (CAN, but not always DO) produce a redemptive tension. So go out there and watch The VVitch, or Hereditary, or Mandy, or Goodnight Mommy. Embrace it, then look towards a day of All Saints.

16,071 days

This birthday weekend I wanted to step out of the COVID haze – the fog of teaching, the smog of social distance, the stink of politics, the taint of racism – to celebrate these days I’ve had.

Still from Ari Aster’s film Midsommar (2019).

16,071 days in this life of mine.

Only 16,071. Seems that there should be more… or that, at least, I should remember more of them.

1,664 days since I suffered cardiac arrest. Almost 10% (9.658%) of my entire life I’ve lived AFTER that moment.

2,301 days since my first Wakonse.

2,301 days since establishing a new foothold in Michigan – I’ve had to miss Wakonse (Conference on College Teaching) twice since 2014; in 2016 when I had the heart attack I mention above, and 2020… thanks COVID.

Slogan icon from Camp Miniwanca, where Wakonse takes place.

2,764 days since China.

2,764 days since traveling around the world to meet a daughter, touching ancient stones, letting the jade work, and seeing the Emperor’s dragons.

3,783 days since Miranda.

3,783 days since my first child was born. I’ve had more radical changes in this quarter of my life than the rest… well, maybe not; the first ten years of a life sure consist of a lot of upheaval. I suspect Miranda’s 10 years have been at least as intense to her as my ten years with her have been.

Self Portrait, 2017.

4,760 days since I started teaching at Mizzou.

4,760 days of late night lesson planning, a few really long faculty meetings, a couple dozen graduate students, and many hundreds of undergraduates. 4,760 days of learning as I went. I’m still learning, even (especially?) in this COVID era, how to be a better teacher.

5,589 days since Italy.

5,589 days since the Uffizi, Pontormo, squid, table wine, cathedrals, trains, the infamous forehead hickie, and walking 10 miles per day.

Alison atop the Duomo in Florence, Italy. May 2005.

6,295 days of marriage.

6,295 days of ups and downs and the mystery of where the road leads. In spite of it all it’s been grace and peace along the way. Mountain tops and dead ends, safe havens and strange switchbacks… I can still see the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Maine from here.

7,045 days since Ox-Bow.

7,045 days since arriving at Ox-Bow for the first time – a three month summer fellowship. Mmm…. Michigan. The transformational influences of the ancient Lake are still effective.

Me, at Ox-Bow, July 2001.

8,630 days days since I made a choice to change.

8,630 days days since decided to go to school and try to get trained as an artist. One of the best choices I ever made… I made it under a pickup truck in the snow and ice at 2:30 in the morning.

10,258 days since I was too old.

10,258 days ago I was too old to participate in the Rod and Gun Club Kids Fishing Derby at the Camden Reservoir. Seems minor, but it was a watershed moment.

12,641 days since the shuttle disaster.

12,641 days since the day in a Grove City, Pennsylvania classroom where my classmates and I watched the Shuttle Challenger blow up live on a TV in our 3rd grade classroom.

I’ve got a few more key memories from days prior to (or around) the ones above… but no solid dates. Shooting guns with Frobisher. Steaks with Palmer and Brett. Touring tornado devastation. Frozen drops of water on the picnic table in a smoking Yellowstone Park. Driving off the road into a cornfield with Chris. Sore throats with Robin. Reading Nabokov. Sweaty bread with Hoyt. Scratch-offs with Peter. Swearing Elaine.

So many. Each day more.

Photo from inside Luray Caverns, Virginia, 2016.

A Contemplation for Juneteenth, 2020

The Falls – Or: Sisyphus Carrying His Own Weight

Before you watch, read this:

A lone black man stands on a desolate mountainside. Over the course of repeated attempts to scale the height, he falls again and again, but returns to the climb in spite of his injuries. As he climbs he hears the sound of a traditional African-American work song; it rises and falls along with him. As evening closes in, the man pauses for a final attempt. The indignity of an unseen force holding him back – knocking him down – is challenged by his determination and the history (represented by the song) he carries within his body.

This performance was staged within the video game Grand Theft Auto V by Matthew Ballou in April 2020. Grand Theft Auto V is a 2013 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. All players start the game as an African-American character named Franklin Clinton. Centering a black male body as a main character in the game is significant in a variety of ways. By dislocating the only playable person of color from the criminal activity that the game encourages I decontextualize the purpose of the character and suggest other narratives for his existence.

Performed by Matthew Ballou in GTAV on an XBOX One, April-June 2020.

Featuring “Big Boy, Can’t You Move ‘Em” by Uncle Bradley Eberhard.
Florida WPA Recordings, 1940 (AFC 1940/011), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/flwpa000375/

Miyoko Ito

Miyoko Ito’s work has such intense gravity for me. In the midst of the high strangeness of our time I find solace in her works.

Six paintings are hung on white walls at eye level. The paintings contain muted and vibrant warm colors depicting abstract shapes.
Miyoko Ito: Heart of Hearts. Installation view, Artists Space, 2018. Photo: Daniel Peréz.


The only major professional goal I have left is to work on an exhibition or book about her work. It is a crime that we have dozens of books on the likes of Richter or Pollock but really only a single TINY volume on Ito – and it’s currently out of print.

Here is a review of the last major exhibition of her work: Light Effects: On Miyoko Ito’s Abstract Inventions, from The Paris Review, 2018. The most significant exhibition exploring Ito was mounted in 2012 at Veneklasen Werner in Berlin. Go here for a great selection of exhibition shots.

Miyoko Ito’s work hanging above the stairwell in the Roger Brown House, Chicago.

I first encountered Ito’s work in person at the Roger Brown House in Chicago in the fall of 1999. I spent a good deal of time roving around the Chicago area to see all the Ito’s that are available in and around the city.

One of my main teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was Barbara Rossi. Rossi is an incredibly influential artist and educator who knew Ito and impressed me with her own work and her knowledge of the contexts surrounding art making in Chicago.

In 2015 I got close to arranging an exhibition of Ito’s lithographs but could not secure proper funding and loans of works. I’ll try again sometime soon. In that process I began to correspond with Vera Klement, a contemporary of Ito and a paragon of Chicago art. Via email interviews I got some fun backstory on the life and times of Ito, Rossi, and Klement. I’d love to get the chance to explore these artists and their works again.

Gradient red and green, curved and cusped shades. A red pointed mound sits atop a pale green inverted triangle inside angular red and green rectangles.
Miyoko Ito, Island in the Sun, 1978. Oil on canvas, 38 x 33 inches.

OK, One Last Thing From 2019…

My favorite podcasts of 2019! I provide these in no particular order, but know that these are the podcasts that elicit a “I must listen ASAP once I see this in my podcatcher” response.

Click on the images to go to their sites.

TRUE CRIME:

These three are among my go-to podcasts about true crime. There is a consistent quality to these pods. They engage different parts of the world, focus on different aspects of the narrative, and provide unique access to varied levels of life experience. Casefile is perhaps the most serious, though both it and True Crime Garage showcase great research and preparation.

TCG’s end-of-the-year series on JonBenet Ramsey brought something new to that case, and made me rethink what I thought I knew. Also, their investigation of The Delphi Murders was powerful.

True Crime Garage

Casefile is – to me – the premiere Australian true crime podcast. An excellent team of researchers, evocative writing, and a perspective that highlights the real people at the center of these horrific stories make it indispensable. To see for yourself, check out the Beth Barnard story in Case 80.

Casefile

MFM doesn’t need an introduction, but make sure you’re checking out Nick Terry’s awesome animations of clips from the show.

My Favorite Murder

THAT BINGE LIFE:

I love discovering podcasts that you just HAVE to binge. You NEED TO KNOW. You NEED to follow the story. When it comes to this, I think there are a number of AMAZING podcasts out of Australia and Canada that REALLY do this well. Someone Knows Something, a podcast by Canadian award-winning filmmaker and writer David Ridgen is particularly strong (currently between seasons, but see Season 4 – from 2018 – especially).

In 2018, my favorite binge was The Australian’s pod The Teacher’s Pet, which is freaking infuriating and intense. Their effort this year, Who The Hell Is Hamish? is also very strong.

Cold
Broken Harts
88 Days
Who the Hell is Hamish?

CRIME, COMEDY, CRYPTOZOOLOGY, UFOLOGY, HIGH WEIRDNESS, UNCANNY VALLEY, ETC:

The LPOTL crew is pure joy for me. Henry, Marcus, and Ben are hilarious and irreverent, yet showcase great research and a well-crafted perspective on everything strange and uncanny. Just listen to the Spring-Heeled Jack episode (151 – Horrors of the UK) to get a feel for this essential podcast!

Last Podcast on the Left

STAR TREK NERD ALERT:

I’m not even a little embarrassed to say that Ben Harrison and Adam Pranica have the Star Trek watch through thing locked down. Their expertise in film production and great mixture of reverence and willingness to poke fun at all things Trek make this really enjoyable – and hilarious – listening. Check out Episode 132: Captain Potter (TNG-S6E7) to experience The Greatest Gen in full effect.

The Greatest Generation

THE REASONS WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS:

I listen to a bunch of political/current events/history podcasts, but these two are among the best. Robert Evans (follow him on twitter) runs Behind the Bastards. His intense journalism in war zones around the world led him to start profiling the bastards who have made the world the way it is today – from Jerry Falwell to Muammar Gaddafi. One of the most disturbing episodes was The School That Raped Everybody. You need to be in a good mental space while listening to that one. As Robert demonstrates, always keep your bricks, machetes, and bolt cutters handy.

Behind the Bastards

Knowledge Fight is such a niche thing and I’m totally confused as to why I love it so much. I mean, a podcast breaking down the insanity of Alex Jones? I think part of the interest for me is that the hosts have a funny repartee batting Jones and his stupid conspiracy theories into the ground (like that scene in Casino).

Knowledge Fight

Go Home, 2019… You’re Drunk

Dani's boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar...
Dani’s boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar…

Some years I do a year end list or two (Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011). Why not? I mean, 95% of the lists out there are lame, so why not throw my 2 cents in to the hopper?

Top Songs of 2019 (which may or may not have been released in 2019)

Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork
Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork

Here are the songs that have dominated my Spotify listening the last year… If you’d like to take a listen, click on the Spotify Playlist Link here.

  1. Timebends by Deerhunter from the album Timebends (2019)
    • A sprawling, rambling, operatic jam, this track is a phenomenal breath of fresh air. At nearly 13 minutes it has enough room to breathe and transform as it goes. It is a joy to take in.
  2. Cop Killer by John Maus from the album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of ourselves (2011)
    • I discovered this ethereal, weird song while watching Russian Doll this year. The oddly (and almost cliched) vampiric delivery of the transgressive lyrics force a detached, otherworldly vibe.
  3. Doin’ Time by Lana Del Rey from the album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
    • Lana Del Rey is phenomenal mood-maker and NFR! is a great effort. I’m drawn to many songs on the record, but this is quintessential LDR. Bartender is also a standout track. My only real low for this album is the horrible cover art; get a graphic designer, Lana.
  4. Tiberius by The Smashing Pumpkins from the album Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
    • Tiberius signaled a real return to form as the lead track on William Corgan’s reconstituted Pumpkins lineup in 2014… though I didn’t experience this album until 2019. It might as well have been recorded in 1996 for all the melodic bombast and lyrical melodrama it contains.
  5. True Dreams of Wichita by Soul Coughing from the album Ruby Vroom (1994)
    • Mike Doughty‘s Soul Coughing made some of the most unique and catchy tunes of the 90s. True Dreams of Wichita – like many of the songs Doughty has written – is loaded with imagery and visual/linguistic puns. The phrase turning paired with a sharp evocation of location and emotion is just good poetry.
  6. Pitch Or Honey by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)
    • Neko Case is nothing short of a national treasure. Outspoken (follow her on twitter [@NekoCase] for some serious fire) and totally aware of her power, Case brings intensity from the first note to the last on the Hell On album. Pitch Or Honey is the perfect song for an artist like me; the refrain “am I making pitch or honey?” is a question all creatives – indeed, all people – have to ask ourselves. I want to make sweet sustenance, not just crap to gum up the works. Neko knows.
  7. I Only Play 4 Money by The Frogs from the album Starjob (1994)
    • I was introduced to this legendary shock/lo-fi/weirdo-rock band from Milwaukee, WI in 2001 while ensconced in the woods between the town of Saugatuck, MI and Lake Michigan. It was a strange time. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this song and the number of versions where the likes of Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan sing and play on the song. Go to YouTube and just search for the track to discover these funny, chaotic iterations.

Best Shows of 2019 (that I watched in 2019, at least)

Regina King as Sister Night from HBO's Watchmen
Regina King as Sister Night from HBO’s Watchmen
  1. Watchmen – HBO (2019)*****
  2. Russian Doll – Netflix (2019)*****
  3. Schitt’s Creek – POP (2015-2019)****
  4. Dark – Netflix (2017-2019)****
  5. True Detective Season 3 – HBO (2019)****
  6. Better Call Saul – AMC (2015-2019)****
  7. Black Mirror – Channel 4 and Netflix (2011-2019)***

Watchmen is an incredible thing to see exist as art in today’s America. It’s everything you want art to be – challenging, genre-breaking, character-driven but not subservient to tropes and minor concerns. While many producers of American culture believe that they can fulfill the representation of people of color or tell formerly-non-centered stories with token characters and shallow arcs (I’m looking at you, Disney) Watchmen doubles down on history, context, and powerful performances with developed characters. The ensemble cast is top notch, but Regina King (Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan) absolutely dominate as the main characters. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and an amazing Louis Gossett Jr. anchor a group of actors – both veteran and very young – who really buy into the deep magic of the Watchmen universe in ways that give keen insights to what is happening with racism, rising nationalism, and the frayed edges of our political establishment right now… wow. All that and an alien squid shower.


Best Movies of 2019 (well, watched in 2019)

Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar
  1. Midsommar – Directed by Ari Aster (2019)
  2. The Lighthouse – Directed by Robert Eggers (2019)
  3. Mandy – Directed by Panos Cosmatos (2018)
  4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Directed by the Coen Brothers (2018)

Midsommar is a powerful film about family, death, belonging, and the social construction of meaning. The tension created between how death visits Dani’s typical American family and how it visits the cloistered, alien, cult-like community she visits in Sweden calls us to reconsider how we understand the trajectory and significance of our lives. Are these very different notions of human dignity, purpose, and value truly at odds? Might the strange, pagan ritual of Midsommar offer something altogether deeper for those who believe? Excellent, challenging film making.

Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.
Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.