Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jean-Francois Hache, Marquetry

Time for a little eye candy. After all my inane babbling in the last few posts I think it's time we heard from a Master, and Jean-Francois Hache was one of the greatest craftsmen who ever lived. These images are from a collection of small boxes that he created. I posted a more complete set here. Hache's work was highlighted in the three volume set by Pierre Ramond, Masters of Marquetry.

It's kind of crazy to think that this could ever be considered a 'craft' and not an 'art', but that's evidently the way they thought in those days. You followed in the footsteps of your father, and joined the trade like anyone else.

"The dynasty began with Noël Hache (1630-1675), the son of a master baker who chose not to enter the family business, but rather studied veneering in the workshop of a Calais master. Eventually, Noël set up his own workshop in Toulouse and, upon his death, it was taken over by his son Thomas. Thomas Hache then moved the atêlier to Grenoble. His only son, Pierre, worked with him as did his grandson, Jean-François.

Jean-François Hache (1730-1796) is probably the most famous of the Hache craftsmen. In 1756 he spent some time in Paris where he was very much influenced by the Louis XV style and particularly by the work of Jean-François Oeben. He gradually took the baton at the family workshop and around 1760 began to incorporate more simplified forms and intricate marquetry into his designs.

A strong keynote of Hache’s work is his use of bold and unusual geometric inlaid forms. The distinctive nature of these forms is accentuated by the fact that he placed them within late Louis XV rococo furniture prototypes. The interesting and highly successful tension this created makes Hache’s work unique."

I love the subtle tones, simple geometry & patina of this Hache floor
Our digital line drawing

Asked to produce a Parquet tile based upon one of Hache's designs, we re-drew the geometry (of the floor above) in the computer, then textured it using our collection of digital veneer files. Now it was ready for printing onto our custom 3/4" HDF floor tiles. Here's our rough file layed out like the Hache floor:

Here's a schematic of our 'work in progress' digital Hache floor, on modular 16" HDF tiles (needs aging)

Our (not quite finished) Hache central star quadrant, with digital 'aged patina' added for effect

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Heartbeat of the City

Excerpt from Baraka, by Ron Fricke. Music by Tortoise.

Living in New York City is a special kind of madness. Every time I walk to the Subway or along the street I can feel myself picking up the pace until I'm rushing along at the same breakneck speed as others, whether I've got somewhere to go or not. People speak of the addictive physical charge of this city, but it turns out that all cities have their own distinct and measurable speed.

London's Millennium Bridge over the Thames famously started swaying the day after it was opened to the public. As thousands of people poured across, the natural rhythm of their footsteps caused a positive feedback phenomenon where the bridge and all the pedestrians began a lock-step kind of dance.
"Known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation, the natural sway motion of people walking caused small sideways oscillations in the bridge, which in turn caused people on the bridge to sway in step, increasing the amplitude of the bridge oscillations and continually reinforcing the effect.The lateral vibration problems of the Millennium Bridge are very unusual, but not entirely unique." Wiki
Oscillating bridges are not news, but in this case it was an unforeseen response to the pedestrians themselves. The greater the number of people, the greater the amplitude of the vibrations.

Experimenters tested whether it's actually true that people live faster in big cities. Turns out it is true: Measured over the distance of 60 feet and averaged, it is possible to tell the size of a city merely by the speed that it's pedestrians walk. In other words, if you tell me how fast you walk, I can tell you not only the population of your city but the average income and lots of other facts about you. We are linked to our cities in fundamental ways, echoing their size with our pace of life.
"Observation of over 1,300 pedestrians at 10 places in Australia and England revealed that walking speed is a function of city size in that pedestrians move more quickly in big cities than in small towns." [source]

Ray Stantz: We've been experimenting with the ectoplasm we found in the subway tunnel.
Peter Venkman: Should I get spoons?

In Ghostbusters II, a toxic slime emanates from the sewers and threatens the city, but the Ghostbusters "discover that the slime reacts both to positive and negative emotions and even 'dances' to music, but suspect that it has been generated by the bad attitudes of New Yorkers." Hollywood stole my thesis.

Stephen Jay Gould informs us that "during an average lifetime, all mammals have nearly the same number of breaths and heartbeats"
"Small animals tick through life far more rapidly than large animals - their hearts work more quickly, they breathe more frequently, their pulse beats much faster. To keep themselves going, large mammals do not need to generate as much heat per unit of body weight as small animals. Tiny shrews move frenetically, eating nearly all their waking lives to keep their metabolic fire burning at the maximal rate among mammals; blue whales glide majestically, their hearts beating the slowest rhythm among active, warm-blooded creatures."
Small and large mammals are essentially similar. Their lifetimes are scaled to their life's pace, and all endure for approximately the same amount of biological time. Small mammals tick fast, burn rapidly and live for a short time; large mammals live long at a stately pace. Measured by their own internal clocks, mammals of different sizes tend to live for the same amount of time.

Elephants are known to sway to the rhythm of their own heartbeat. Believed to be a reaction to unnatural stress caused by life in captivity, their rhythmic swaying was found to be at the rate of about 28 beats per minute, the same rate as their heart. Like elephants in captivity, we live ever faster within the confines of our cities as they expand, our pace of life increasing exponentially. As Tyrell said to Roy Batty in Bladerunner, "the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

"Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly impostors."
"There have been all sorts and manner of artists, from the uncouth Richard Wagner, who gave us sublime music and was probably one of the meanest and most despicable characters that ever lived, to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who also gave us sublime music and left behind a reputation for gentleness and charm and unselfish generosity that may have been equalled but never surpassed by the saints themselves."
Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 'The Arts'

Time magazine asked Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough why he started writing a biography of Pablo Picasso but never finished it. McCullough said it was because the famous artist turned out to be boring.

Sure; he attracted a steady flow of new lovers, and made hundreds of paintings, but he didn't actually live an interesting life, said McCullough.

Boring? There are many of his jilted 'muses' who might go even further, and disagree with the title of Jonathan Richman's song, "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole." In addition to being called exactly that, I'll bet he was also occasionally called a vain-glorious egomaniac and lots of other not-so-flattering things by many, including Gertrude Stein.
"Well, some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole,
this never happened to Pablo Picasso.
He could walk down your street
and girls could not resist his stare,
and so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole."
-Jonathan Richman
It all made me question whether it's necessary to like an artist in order to like their work, or can Bad people make Good Art?

Gallery owner Rebecca Ibel once told me that the personality of an artist is completely irrelevant for her when considering the merits of their Art. I wonder if it's that easy to separate the two. It rings a tad hollow if you agree that as an aspiring artist, it's not what you do but who you know, so you'd better hone that inner social climber. It seems blindingly obvious in the wake of Art Stardom that the cult of personality is alive and well.  Good people get leeway, but being Bad gets you media attention

In the case of Picasso, his status as a heavyweight makes any quibbles about his personality sound like the sour grapes it probably is. I'd like to think that the artists whose work I enjoy reveal something fundamental of their personal nature through their creative process, and that good artists are also on some basic level good people. I'm basically holding out hope that the universe rewards goodness with success.

 If an artist has all the personality of an anal wart, shouldn't we be able to detect that just by standing in front of their Art?

I doubt if Marie de Medici's arrival actually involved nudity

Take Rubens for example. It's self-evident that his paintings speak volumes about his personality. They convey a rich personal understanding of literature and culture. And he threw naked women into pretty much every painting. Why? Because he liked them. For better or worse, his personality was intrinsically linked to his Art to the point where it's impossible to consider his Life and Work separately. If he was a real jerk, I wonder if we'd still be enjoying his paintings to this day.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if really nice, decent people can create egotistical, bloated rubbish as their art? We might roll our eyes and mutter something about "manure" in front of a piece of art, expecting the artist to be equally as pompous as their work, but they could easily be great people making an honest attempt at it.

So then who is the asshole? Me the viewer, that's who. Mr. high-and-mighty-judgmental-pants.

Ultimately though, I find it hard to believe that there is a total disconnection between the work of an artist's hand, and their personality. Otherwise, Art is just a cold intellectual pursuit. But I know that's just naive. I'm not suggesting that Art always has to be deep or monumental and all that, but there's something about slapping useless crud on a wall and calling it a 'post-consumerist comment on capitalism' that reminds me a lot of horse turds.

Maybe the Yana Indians were on to something: maybe the gods have retreated into a volcano somewhere and are killing time  playing gambling games with magic sticks, waiting for human beings to reform themselves and become 'real people' again, people the gods might want to actually associate with. The last survivor of the Yana tribe emerged from the hills of California in 1911, having lived his 49 years alone and away from civilized society. Evidently the gods are still in hiding.

Nicola Keegan, author of the critically acclaimed Swimming, told me that we "have to stay focused on excellence." That could be just words though: 'Excellence' could mean anything, and is different for everyone. In this case, she meant that we should always be true to our passion and try to do our very best work regardless of any financial or critical consideration. I found it hard to agree in practice. It's not easy to disregard that stuff when you've got bills to pay.

Making a virtue of ignorance
Perhaps Modernism has had something to do with the success of Ugly Art. The rejection of Classical dogma as a rigid code for the creation of Art was a natural progression for sure, but it has developed to an extreme now where it's  'Originality at all Costs', and that cost is often quality. Guilds and Salons were stiflingly critical on the one hand, but on the other, they were a form of quality control that worked.

With every advert extolling us to 'Just Do It,' and 'Express Yourself', arguments for Tradition and the slow acquisition of good old-fashioned Skill are drowned out in the noise of personal ego and a sense of entitlement, where we celebrate easy fame and a quick buck. We are sold the fable that each of us has an inner celebrity waiting to burst on stage and win American Idol. As Marilyn Monroe said; "we are all stars, and we demand our right to twinkle." Every talk show (and even now the Evening News) urges us to "call in and tell us what YOU think."

I'm sorry, have we even met?

Maybe the simple truth is that we shouldn't be listening to everything everybody has to say all the time, because some of those people are just not worth listening to. For me, it's simply a matter of knowing when to put the brush down and pack it in because it's just not working, and taking a walk through a Museum. There's nothing like looking at good Art to put things in perspective. Seeing how a Master resolved a certain passage in a painting is a great exercise. If nothing else, it certainly puts that ego in it's place.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Micro Sculpture: Dalton Ghetti

I've had a fascination with Miniaturist Art for years. The Chester Beatty Library's collection of Arabian miniatures in Dublin, Ireland, is truly astonishing. I find myself annoying people by yelling random expletives out loud. Art brings out my Tourette's.

There is a beautiful drawing by Prud'hon that was practically a miniature in the recent Morgan Library exhibition in New York City [yeah I know, but I couldn't snag a photo]. Not ordinarily known for whipping out the magnifying glass, there's no doubt in my mind that Prud'hon just wanted to create that 'holy shit' factor. I totally get it. Small stuff blows my head off.

Willard Wigan comes immediately to mind [you have got to watch this video] as one of the most famous miniature carvers, but there's something I love about Dalton Ghetti's work. Maybe it's because we've all played with the medium in our lives. Who hasn't enjoyed whittling a pencil into a point sharp enough to skewer fly nuts?

From Dalton M. Ghetti's website blurb:

"When Dalton was 8 years old, [his mother] taught him how to use a sewing needle to help her with simple projects like hemming and sewing buttons. At the age of 9, his parents gave him a set of metal tools for children, which he used to make his own boxes, toys and go-carts. This is also the age when he began sculpting with knives, chisels and a hammer. Ever since, he has created many objects out of all kinds of materials.

At first, he carved large objects; but in 1986, as a challenge to himself and because of his interest in small living things, like plants (moss) and insects (spiders and ants), he decided to create the smallest possible carvings that he could see with his naked eyes. One day, he picked up a working pencil and started carving it.

His idea is to bring people’s attention to small things. Small is beautiful. Most of the pencils he uses are found on the streets and sidewalks. Dalton’s work is a recycling process. He turns discarded objects into art."

Exploded Flowers

Fong Qi Wei produced these wonderful exploded view flower photographs that I find inspiring, both as images unto themselves suggestive of some grander natural order, and as abstracted elements suitable for adaptation to ornamental use.

Or, as Eugéne Grasset wrote in 1896 of his own collection of lithographic flower prints, that they "represent natural forms in their exactitude, [while] bridging the distance between form as found in nature and form conventionalized in accordance with sound traditions of art."

Contact Fong Qi Wei directly, or through his blog, to purchase prints of his flower photography.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ingres Portrait Drawings, and the 'Giraffe-neck' women of Kayan Lahwi tribe

Seeing any similarities? Know where I'm going with this post?

This is one of the most absurd examples of Ingres' distortion of the human frame, but it brings up an interesting point. Without doubt one of the all-time greatest draftsmen, Ingres nonetheless took incredible liberties with human anatomy.

I visited the Morgan Library's incredible exhibition of Old Master drawings from The Louvre recently, and was blown away by his work, of course, but also by a hand-written letter which was to my mind one of the most telling insights into the man's psyche. The writing was cramped and claustrophobic on the page, and almost illegibly small. It was easy to picture this miserable wreck hunched over the writing desk, his nose - Scrooge like - one inch from the paper. It occurred to me that that's how he must have approached his portraits too.

The guy was quite obviously a madman. By many accounts he was a miserably unhappy human being, who (for the most part) detested the "dull" subjects of his portraits, and yet he could not help becoming obsessed with the finest detail when called to draw or paint them. I wonder how much of the distortion is due to some sort of Mannerist fixation with Style, or whether it was simply because he was so focused on the tiniest and most subtle of details that the overall effect escaped him. I find it hard to believe that his twisting and stretching of the human body wasn't a conscious choice, so that begs the question; why would he want to do that?

I did a drawing of my daughter Sadie the other day (from a photo of her a couple of years back in her Snow Princess Halloween costume) and decided to compare it to one of Ingres' for a laugh. I mean, why not right? May as well aim high as not at all. Anyway, here it is...

I took the drawing I did and compared it in terms of anatomy to Ingres' drawing of Madame Thiers (below). The Thiers drawing is not even a particularly distorted one by Ingres' standards, but I was still surprised by just how 'off' the drawing was from Reality.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Portrait of Madame Thiers, 1834

It became immediately apparent that if I was to conform my daughter to the proportions of the Ingres drawing, I was going to have to chop off her head and lift it up about four inches. I ran to the kitchen to grab a knife, but then got side-tracked wondering if maybe Ingres was actually on to something. The real-world precedent of the Burmese women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe popped in my head, and I started flicking through books until I came across this image from Mary Evans.

This 1930s postcard depicts an unusual practice that continues to this day. The neck ring ornaments are single brass coils that are applied to young girls (who apparently line up for this treat) when they are around five.

It turns out that my assumption about this bizarre ritual was all wrong: I had always assumed that the metal coils served to elongate the neck.This is not true. As the child grows, the first coil is replaced with longer and weightier coils that push the collar bone down and compress the rib cage. Contrary to popular belief, then, the neck is not actually lengthened; the illusion of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.

A quick comparison to Madame Thiers, and it's evident that it's not the neck that Ingres stretched, but (like the Kayan Lahwi) it is the shoulders that he dropped. The waist line remains more or less correctly positioned anatomically, as does the position of the head. It's the clavicle that drops down to create the 'Ingres look.'

"Okay," I thought, "perhaps Ingres adheres to the same aesthetic criteria that drive this ancient practice." I didn't actually say it like that, because that's not how I speak. Probably more like "holy shit."

I tested the results on my daughter by showing her these two versions of the drawing (below). On the left, my daughter's natural shoulder line and on the right, the Ingres proportions. I was shocked that she chose the un-natural Ingres version over Reality!

The lesson for me was clear: As long as the distance between head and waist remains more-or-less true to life, you can drop the shoulders as much as you want and still have a drawing that appears correct. Dropping the shoulders may even make your portrait look more correct than the real thing.

In fact, you can draw anything at all under the sun and it doesn't even have to look correct, just as long as it's drawn really really well. Now I just have to revise the 'Draw what you see, not what you Know' dictum of the old life drawing studios, and keep practicing. 

Some more Ingres portrait sketches to finish off the post...

Mrs. Hunchback sitting atop Notre Dame

This drawing is another great example of distortion by Ingres. Look how long his fiancé's arm is, and how short her legs are! He drew her looking more like an ape than a human.

It's a loving family scene on the one hand, with old what's-her-name staring straight out at Ingres, tinkling away on the pianola (or whatever that thing is). On the other; he can't have cared for her too much since he broke off the engagement soon after this drawing, claiming that he was too distraught to return to Paris from Rome [His paintings had just received terrible reviews from the critics].

His melancholy was so troubling since his bid for Salon recognition went tits up, that he decided to hang out in Rome as a single man and leave his fiancé at the piano. What an excuse! It's the old "it's not you, it's me" eye-roller, but in this case, it's even more laughable; "it's not you, it's Paris."

Maybe he did mean to draw her like an orangutan after all.