Friday, December 12, 2014

Art I'm Looking at: San Francisco--Keith Haring: The Political Line at the De Young

Two sharply contrasting exhibits are now featured attractions at the main venues of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco--the De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. I visited both recently, starting at the De Young to see Keith Haring: The Political Line, a show  highlighting Haring's political activism. I enjoyed seeing the very large sample of work presented but kept wondering what fraction of his production might be called political. A little more context would have been helpful. Given the short period he was active (about twelve years, from 1978 to 1990) and the large number of works on display, my guess is that most of his work was politically motivated, particularly toward the end of his life, when his AIDS diagnosis spurred him and his growing fame had given him an international platform.

Motivation and message aside, what's clear from looking at this art is that Haring lived his short life at a fast pace. The work exudes energy. The zig-zag lines children use to depict lightning or electricity when they draw would not be out of place here. Garish, unmodulated hues; clashing colors set side by side; strong contrasts; angular, heavily outlined shapes; and "lines of motion" borrowed from the vocabulary of comic book artists all contribute. Influences are numerous and diverse. Mayan art, quilts, aboriginal art, graffiti art, the Nazca lines, comic books, advertising art, the chalk corpse outlines of Hollywood movies, writhing Boschian hells, and technological hells where demonic robots reign over electronic gadgets come to mind when looking at Haring's work. Yet, the work is always immediately identifiable as Haring's. This dialectical component is apparent also in the way his images operate on the level of pictographs--simple, symbolic, overtly didactic, and quickly absorbed on the one hand--yet remaining cryptic and baffling at the same time. Haring's is a language encountered in an anxiety dream; we feel we should know the language--and we recognize some of its words--but don't fully understand the meaning. The result is a lingering unease. Although there are political messages embedded in much of the work, Haring rarely gave his work titles--again leaving the viewer somewhat off balance. Without the direction provided by a title, it's often difficult to be entirely sure what Haring intended, despite his use of direct, icon-like pictorial elements (sometimes evocative of pictorial road signs or Olympic event symbols). That said, the work is not entirely without humor. There is joy in some of the dancing figures, a vitality in the glowing babies, and Andy Mouse (which does have a title) simultaneously pokes fun at Walt Disney and Andy Warhol; it made me laugh out loud (1985, private collection; detail above). A panel full of cartoon-like penis drawings from a sketchbook, many accompanied by diary-like entries indicating where the artist was when he made them, was funny too.

Haring's line is deft but un-nuanced. It sometimes leaves me cold, but I was impressed by the consistent confidence of its execution, whether in ink on paper, chalk on expired subway ad space, or in vinyl paint on a tarpaulin. I examined the works very closely. Nowhere is there any evidence of preparatory work--no sketching, no planning. Each piece appears to have been an unrehearsed improvisation, drawing on an ever-evolving vocabulary of signs and symbols, many recurring over and over again--barking dogs, crawling babies, snake-like creatures, robots, angular dancers, angels, crosses, bats, figures with holes in them, flying saucers, penises, electronic gadgets, and figures with Xs instead of brains.

The early subway drawings in the show were intriguing. These are perhaps the quintessential Haring. It was the subway drawings in chalk that earned him his first widespread recognition. They seem the most genuine expression of his gift. They were done quickly, as ephemeral performance pieces, in the platform time between connecting trains. They were done knowing the activity was technically illegal and might result in a fine (drawings on the blank panels were considered graffiti) and, like a graffiti artist, Haring made them knowing they wouldn't last, that they might be quickly covered by a new ad or wiped away. I was not alone in wondering how the examples in the show (presumably quite rare) were preserved, as they appear to be in the original metal frames that surrounded the subway advertising spaces they were made in, the whole in each case apparently lifted off the wall. Done in soft chalk, the subway drawings have an affinity with brush-and-ink calligraphy in that the artist has only one chance to get it right. Every hesitation is preserved. There is no going back to make corrections. Remarkably, there is virtually no evidence of hesitation. Perhaps our view of the subway drawings is a necessarily distorted one, based only on a few well-executed extant examples, but other work in the show suggests Haring didn't often hesitate. While some of the later work seems a little too practiced, a little too obvious in its message, a little complacent, I was generally impressed by the show.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Books I'm Reading: The Passenger Pigeon

The word "extinct" came into my consciousness as a child obsessed with dinosaurs in the early 1960s, when we had far fewer dinosaurs to think about than a child does today. The word came shrouded in a pall of utterly final doom overlaid with something giggly because it sounded like "stink," and that was associated in my childish mind with defecation. Extinction seemed absolute and infinite, and the idea of infinity was mind-boggling and dreadful in a vague way I would have been hard-pressed to articulate. Extinction. Death forever. Irretrievable loss. No living examples. The giggly component only made the idea seem more horrible, in the way that a murderous clown is horrible. As an adult, the idea of extinction has become no more fathomable or less fascinating, even if education and reading have greatly multiplied the number of animals and plants I connect with the word "extinct."

I wonder what images first come to mind when the average person hears the word today? By "average person," I mean simply non-biologists--people who do not study extinction or extinct animals. Aside from dinosaurs, I imagine the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon symbolize extinction for a large number of people. The dinosaurs loom large because they loomed so large--literally--and because the era they dominated was so long ago. The Dodo has become the icon of extinct bird species, probably because of its awkward, comical face coupled with the paradox of flightlessness in a bird; the vulnerability of flightless birds always fascinates. The Passenger Pigeon occupies a special place among extinct species, however, for a number of reasons, and Errol Fuller's book The Passenger Pigeon (Princeton University Press, 2015), published more or less on the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon's demise, is both an examination of that bird's special qualities and a memorial to its passing.

First among the reasons the passenger pigeon is special is the sheer number of them that once existed. The Passenger Pigeon is believed to have been the most numerous bird on the planet at one time--numbering in the billions, birds blotting out the sun as they moved in miles-long flocks in search of food. The descriptions of Passenger Pigeon flocks quoted in the book are in several cases familiar, but no less dramatic for that. Among these is the well-known description of an anonymous journalist that appeared in the May 20, 1871 issue of the Fond du Lac Commonwealth:

Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal number of...trains passing through covered bridges...and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight...a few feet before our faces...nearly on a level with the muzzles of our guns.... [as quoted by Fuller in The Passenger Pigeon]

And it was these guns--the incessant, rapacious hunting of the birds--along with habitat destruction, that finally led to the Passenger Pigeon's doom. The decline was rapid. Only about 75 years separate the death of the last known bird from descriptions of what appear to have been stable populations (although we will never really know where the tipping point was). By the time people realized the bird was in serious decline, efforts to reverse the trend were far too little far too late.

The case of the Passenger Pigeon is special also because it's recent and well documented. Fuller's chapter headed "The Last Captives" is particularly moving. It's accompanied by rare photographs of the last known birds--not only the most famous among them--Martha, the last of her species, lost to the world on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. We know the exact date of extinction of only a handful of other species. If the human role in the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon may be excusable to some degree by appeal to a combination of ignorance of the dynamics of extinction and the difficulty there must have been just conceiving of the disappearance of such an abundant animal, the extinction stands as a marker along the road of progress of the collective human consciousness. Before that marker, it is tempting and consoling to make excuses. We knew no better. After the well-recorded event, we can no longer plead ignorance of the human role in species extinction. And, in defining that shift, the Passenger Pigeon is again special.

Fuller's book is not an exhaustive study of the bird's biology, although a short appendix by Julian Pender Hume briefly discusses the bird's anatomy. In his introduction, Fuller himself says "This work is not intended as a textbook or a detailed monograph covering every aspect of Passenger Pigeon research and every known piece of information about the species." He refers the reader to works by William Mershon (1907), Arlie Schorger (1955), and Joel Greenberg (2014) for scholarly appraisals of the Passenger Pigeon, calling his own volume rather a celebration of the bird's existence and a reminder of the fragility of the natural world. Beautifully illustrated, and including an especially attractive section on the Passenger Pigeon in art and books, it serves that purpose well. Another very appealing offering from Princeton University Press. The front jacket illustration, reproduced above in full, is John James Audubon's depiction of a male/female Passenger Pigeon pair from his Birds of North America.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rain: Storm Rolling In (December 10, 2014)

A predicted storm has moved into the area and we've had heavy rain now for the past couple of hours. It's supposed to last all night and into the late afternoon tomorrow. So far, we've received 1.25 inches of new precipitation. I emptied the rain gauge to help ensure it doesn't overflow overnight--that would now require six more inches of rain, which seems unlikely. As of 10:00PM on the 10th, our total for the 2014-2015 rain year was 9.45 inches, well above normal, but it's early. It's not unusual to have a lot of rain in December and then to return to droughty conditions later in the season. More tomorrow.

[Update: Checking the rain gauge this morning, we have had another three inches of rain overnight. It's still coming down and moderately strong winds buffeted the house all night, but I've seen worse. As of 7:30AM, December 11, our total for the year had risen to 12.45 inches. More later.]

[Update: Twelve hours later (7:30PM on December 11) we've had another 1.65 inches, bringing the total to 14.10 inches for the rain year--now well above normal for this date, but, again, we'll have to see if this becomes part of a sustained trend or proves to be just a one-off string of storms. In any case, the rain is good. Nobody's complaining about it yet.]

[Update: In a lull now, but we had another 0.85 inches overnight on the 11th and the morning of the 12th. Total now (mid-afternoon on the 12th) stands at 14.95 inches.]

Miscellaneous: Why It's Called The Golden Gate

Driving north from San Francisco yesterday I had an opportunity to gaze at the waters between San Francisco and the Marin Headlands, just before sunset. I imagined this place was given the name "Golden Gate" because San Francisco was the gateway to the gold fields during the 19th century California Gold Rush, but I had a simultaneous feeling the name may have preceded gold fever--that this view of the straits bathed in golden light was the source of the name.

Naturally, I looked it up. According to the website of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District, it was Captain John C. Fremont who gave the strait its name, the name we now associate more closely with the bridge across the strait, but he is said to have been inspired not by the view at sunset (or yet-to-be-discovered gold), but by the potential for trade with the East that San Francisco's harbor seemed to represent. He is quoted in 1846 calling the strait "a golden gate to trade with the Orient." According to the same source, the name first appeared in print "in Fremont's Geographical Memoir, submitted to the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1948" [sic--no doubt 1848 was intended]. So, gold, meaning the potential rewards of trade, but surely this view and then the Gold Rush--shortly after Fremont spoke about trade potential--have played a role in associating San Francisco forever with gold. In any case, the name seems wholly appropriate when you see the water gilded by the sun like this, just as golden brown, dormant grasses--in summer the main feature of our natural landscape--seem justification enough for calling California The Golden State.

The bridge, at my back, was visible through light fog.

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