Friday, November 10, 2017

Miscellaneous: Things We Need Words For

A mysterious small object that creates an alarmingly loud ring as it shoots up the vacuum cleaner hose and disappears before you've had a chance to see whether it's something worth digging for in the vacuum cleaner bag innards to recover.

Speaking of useful words, a while back I came across a wonderful word for marks that look like writing but aren't writing--think of the marks in some of Cy Twombly's work, or imagine fake calligraphy. Does anyone know this word? I've been unable to remember it. It's something I'd like to recover from the vacuum cleaner bag that is my brain.

[Update: Someone has reminded me. The word I was looking for is "asemic."]

Rain: More Rain (November 10, 2017)

More rain on the night of November 9 and into the following day has added 0.30 inches of new precipitation, bringing our total so far for the 2017-2018 rain year to 2.35 inches.

Books I'm Reading: Wine, Giant Squids, and a Yellow Diamond

I normally write about the books I'm reading one at a time, but so much time has been lost by dealing with disruptions caused by the recent fires that I have three to note here in order to catch up. I've recently finished Todd Klimann's The Wild Vine (Clarkson Potter, 2010), the tale of one of North America's most interesting native grape varieties, Norton, also known as Cynthiana. Years ago, driving across the country, I stopped in the Missouri wine country where a lot of Norton is still grown and tasted Norton wines. They seemed the most familiar among the many wines I tasted on my trip made using non-vinifera grapes (Norton is believed to be Vitis aestivalis or a hybrid including a large aestivalis component). I thought the Norton wines I tried competently made and drinkable but not very exciting. Port-style wines made from Norton seemed the most successful. The book discusses Norton's history in Missouri and elsewhere, its origins, a rise to domestic prominence (and even some surprising successes overseas), and then its subsequent fall into obscurity. An interesting, if rather narrowly focused read.

I followed that with a rather different book, Richard Ellis's The Search for the Giant Squid (Penguin, 1998) a highly readable look at the rather mysterious, poorly studied, poorly understood, largest members of the squid family. Much of the book is an attempt to bring some clarity and objectivity to historical reports of giant squid from around the world--often reports of "monsters" that probably were squid. One section looks at squid biology. Another looks at the giant squid in literature and film. An entire section is devoted to known models of giant squid, mostly in museums around the world. In short, everything to know about the giant squid is here. That's a lot, but the take-away from reading the book is actually that we know very little about the biology and habits of these largest of the invertebrates.

In another switch, I then turned to reading the latest mystery from Andrew Martin, The Yellow Diamond (Faber and Faber, 2015). I'm not usually a fan of mysteries, but my mother introduced me to Martin's Jim Stringer series of mysteries a few years back and I enjoyed those very much for the good writing, the masterful evocation of period (early 1900s), and of place (various parts of England, France, and later one in India), but especially for the vividly described railroad culture in them; Jim Stringer is a detective on the railroads, formerly an engine driver. The books are steeped in the language of the railroads, which makes them both a little challenging to get into at first but rewarding. The Yellow Diamond is the first in a new series that takes place in more modern times and with a new detective, one Blake Reynolds, investigating the super rich in London. The ending leaves one wondering what's next for the main character. I suspect another Reynolds adventure is on the way--if one hasn't been published already. Reading this after the fires was a welcome escape.

While waiting out the progress of the recent fires I also read The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (Picador, 2006), the first in another series of mysteries recommended by my mother. This one features Yashim, an investigator in the late days of the Ottoman Empire. Yashim is a eunuch, which gives him access to the harem and other inner chambers of the Sultan's palace in Istanbul, usually off limits to outsiders. He has an interest in cooking, eating, solving mysteries, and—because Yashim became a eunuch  after puberty—in women. In this tale, a series of gruesome murders--linked, we learn, to the disgruntled remnants of the Sultan's Janissaries--keeps Yashim in the streets of Istanbul, in the harem, and in trouble.  Like most good mysteries, the pleasure here is as much in the atmosphere and detail Goodwin achieves as in the plot.  I'm not usually a mystery reader, but I liked this well enough that I'm curious to find out what Yashim gets up to in the next book in the series.

Music I'm Listening To: Santa Rosa and San Francisco

Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen
I've had the fun of going backstage to do photography as a volunteer for the Santa Rosa Symphony this season. I had intended to write in some detail about each of the five concerts serving as auditions for the Symphony's new conductor following the upcoming retirement of Bruno Ferrandis, but, with the fires, I've been unable to write much and many of my impressions are no longer fresh or they have been lost altogether. Two concerts have already finished. Candidates Francesco Lecce-Chong, and Mei-Ann Chen have both led the Santa Rosa Symphony in concerts designed to give audiences a sense of who they'd be if chosen to replace Ferrandis. Both Lecce-Chong and Chen seem enthusiastic and competent, but I thought Lecce-Chong a trifle nervous in his interpretation, a little rushed, a little in need of rubato to vary tempi. Chen seemed more in control of things, more self-assured, and I liked the way she seemed very cognizant of the mid-range instruments like the violas. The next audition concert will feature Andrew Grams as guest conductor with performances at the Green Music Center on December 2, 3, and 4.

Guest conductor Lecce-Chong
The first San Francisco Symphony concert I attended this season featured violin soloist Augustin Hadelich, who gave a very good performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto notable, I thought, for the articulation and the way Hadelich let the inherent romanticism of the piece shine through without exaggeration. So many performances of the piece are a bit over the top and often marred by laziness in the slurred passages. Hadelich's was a model of clarity throughout. I never got around to writing anything about the final SF Symphony performance I attended last season either, which included Joshua Bell playing Lalo's Symphony Espagnole. Bell is not among my favorite violinists. He likes very romantic music and tends to give it more romantic passion than it needs (very much unlike the Hadelich performance noted above). However, he played the piece nicely, I thought, despite a minor mishap; Bell at one point got the tip of his bow momentarily caught in his strings. Guest conductor Vasily Petrenko took the music at a rather faster pace than is usual and perhaps that kept Bell from getting carried away.

Miscellaneous: The Fires

It's been a month already since wildfires swept into Santa Rosa from the north and then began to threaten from three sides. The first night was particularly scary. The wind was extraordinary. Warm and relentless. I went to bed thinking only that the wind was strange and unsettling. A few hours later, my son wakened me, smelling smoke and saying something about fires. Later, when I told him he had roused me, he said that I had, in fact, awakened him. I have no recollection of that. Memory becomes patchy in times of stress, perhaps, because next I remember gathering a few things together to put in the car, just in case, and then standing in the street with neighbors, looking north toward Fountaingrove, into a wall of black and charcoal-colored smoke fringed with an orange glow. And then the distant, repeated popping of what people tell me was propane tanks and cars exploding. I don't remember exactly when we left, but the power was out soon after we awoke to the smell of smoke. It was some time the next morning. We filled the car with some important possessions--mostly art and family irreplaceables--and headed to my mother's house, in Sebastopol, about 10 miles to the west, three cats in tow. There was so little news at first and rumors swirling. It was surprisingly hard to get information about what was going on. Ultimately, local radio stations proved the best source of accurate news. The photo above shows the wall of smoke behind a neighbor's house. Immediately below, a firefighter from the Los Angeles area gives details of progress in fighting the blazes at a makeshift information post in front of the Coddingtown Mall Whole Foods store.

We spent a week in Sebastopol, the cats in the garage, disoriented, two of them quiet, one crying softly but incessantly. We had the luxury of being able to go back home during the day to take out more valuables. The house, although powerless and in a neighborhood largely abandoned, remained just outside the mandatory evacuation zones. We drove the second car out. Evenings were occupied by a little reading and watching the fire updates on Internet maps. The situation continued to worsen. The fires kept spreading. The air was heavy with smoke at home. The ground in Sebastopol was littered with ash. It was about five days before it became clear that the fires would be contained before they reached us.

Unsettling. An inconvenience. An anxiety-filled temporary disruption. Happily, for us the fires were not more than that. For so many others, the fires took everything in minutes. Many escaped with virtually nothing, and so I feel I have nothing to complain about. It could have been much worse. I feel particularly for my artist friends and acquaintances who lost not only their homes but their studios and years of work, which I imagine must feel almost like losing a child.

Part of me wanted the house to burn. I suppose that's a strange thing to say and perhaps easy for me to say because it's so hard to know how it would really have felt to see everything reduced to ash. But there was a part of me that kept thinking it would be liberating to lose all material possessions. It would allow a clean re-start. It would create an unequivocal demarcation line. A before and after. The Buddhists tell us that to possess nothing and to desire nothing is the true road to happiness. Perhaps they are right, but I am hopelessly attached to beautiful things. Most of what I took out of the house was art--my own and the art of others. And, as I say, it's a luxury to be able to think about these things in the abstract, without the actual shock of complete loss. We were lucky. Most of me is glad the house still stands, contents intact. Grateful to the firefighters from all over the country--and as far aways as Australia--who came to help.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Rain: New Rain November 8, 2017

We had 1.15 inches of new rain last night, the night of November 8, 2017, which also marks a month from the wildfires here, not to mention a year with the criminal, national embarrassment. That brings our total so far for the 2017-2018 rain year to 2.05 inches.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 188 (Santa Rosa)

A new collage, the first I've made since the chaos caused by the recent fires here. For those of us who did not lose everything, life is beginning to return to normal. I feel for those still sorting through the wreckage, dealing with insurance, finding a place to live, mourning the loss of possessions and, in some cases, loved ones.

Trying to move ahead, this is Untitled Collage No. 188 (Santa Rosa). October 21, 2017. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, collage. 20.1 x 20.8cm (7.9 x 8.1in). Matted to 16 x 20 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse.

For more of my collage work, visit my website at

The Cocktail Glass Collection: St. Mary's Pub, San Francisco

I've recently had reason to be in San Francisco at night more often than in the past. I'm enjoying the opportunity that's afforded to see some new neon cocktail glass signs lit. This is the sign in front of St. Mary's Pub, at 3845 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94110. The glass itself is generic, but I like the script "St. Mary's Pub."

For more, click the "Cocktail Glass Collection" label at right at the top of the page.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Art I'm Looking At: "Somewhere Else" at Blasted Art Gallery, Santa Rosa

Bill Shelley and Chris Beards have launched a new art space in the Backstreet Building, in Art Alley, in Santa Rosa's SOFA Arts District. I attended the grand opening of the new space on Friday night (November 3), not knowing what to expect from the outset and then feeling a bit baffled by the curtain closing off the space when I arrived for a look. There was no door, just the curtain. The entry was reminiscent of a curtained-off side gallery in a museum reserved for a video installation, projected film, or a piece of neon or other lighted art--and that was what I had expected to find.

When I poked my head in, I was disappointed. First, neither Bill nor Chris was in the space, and I had come in part to say hello and lend support, but I was disappointed more because the space was simply an empty room with black-painted walls onto which a series of empty white frames of varying sizes had been hung--or, I should say, a series of framed white blanks, the frames painted white as well. My heart sank. I like these people. I wanted to like what they had done, but it seemed there was nothing much to see. The show seemed a hackneyed conceptual art piece that was immediately graspable and therefore of little interest. I left almost immediately to look at some of the other studios. I found Chris (pictured above) in a hallway. I said something polite and later was able to greet Bill on a second foray into the space. I had a little wine (and they were serving some decent wine). I talked with a few of the people visiting, mostly acquaintances. I looked at the empty frames on the walls.

Before long, the framed blanks seemed not entirely white any more. They had a slight blue-green cast, as if someone had got the color balance wrong in Photoshop. I thought that a little strange.

A few minutes later, I suddenly saw that the frames and the spaces they enclosed were not white at all, nor were they a pale, slightly blue-green sort of white, but a vivid, saturated aqua, the color approximated in the photo of Chris above. Chris later told me the color is called "Poolside Blue." I was genuinely shocked. I began to doubt my own eyes, but it became increasingly clear that it was no illusion. The "paintings" were, indeed, a blue-green reminiscent of the bottom of a swimming pool. I realized something else. When I first saw them, I had expected the mounted pieces to be white. Because of that and because my eyes took some time to adjust to the darkness in the room, I had seen them as white. It was only as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness that I was able to see the color. It wasn't long before I was doubting not the color, but that I had at first been capable of not seeing the color. And so it turns out that there was much more to see and think about in that black room than I first thought. I feel a little embarrassed that I was initially so quick to give up, but, in my own defense, I went back. I kept looking.

On one level, there really isn't much to see in the room--it's just a series of uniformly colored, framed spaces on a black wall, but during the past two days I've found myself thinking about what I saw almost constantly. The installation raises many questions about how we see, how expectations can color (literally) our perception, and how two people can see identical images very differently (there were quite a few people discussing what color they were seeing and not all agreeing). I keep asking myself: what color were the "images" on the wall? The answer depends on who you ask and when you ask.

Adding a layer of complexity, the chosen color is somewhere between blue and green. The blue/green distinction is notoriously slippery in many languages. In Japanese, for example, my second language, the word ao often stands for both the English words "blue" and "green." In Japanese the sky is ao but so is a "green" traffic light. Foliage, too, is ao. Chris and Bill chose the color deliberately for that ambiguity.

And then there is the problem of photography. When I got home to look at my photographs, they were dark and had to be adjusted. But adjust them to what? What color are those framed spaces on the wall at Blasted Art Gallery? I really can't say. When I first entered the space, they looked like the image below. When I left, they looked like the image above.

I look forward to seeing what Bill and Chris get up to in the future. The current show, "Somewhere Else" will be viewable again next weekend, November 11 and November 12, between 11AM and 3PM. Congratulations to both Bill and Chris on the new space and for presenting us with an entertaining intellectual exercise.

[Update: I later read some comments Chris wrote about the installation that mentioned the recorded highway sounds playing in the background. I didn't hear any sound. I have no recollection of a "soundtrack" to the show. I imagine I was so focused on what my eyes were telling me that I completely ignored what my ears were telling me.]
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