28 November 2009

Object #1 Cruxifix Ink Cake

Here, and in the installments to follow, are objects of mystery and beauty which for one reason or the other linger on my mind.

When doing calligraphy it can be daunting sitting in front of the potential of the large sheet of white paper, and the meditative ritual of slowly grinding the ink before one writes with the infinite in front of you can be calming. The faintly sweet scent, the slight friction of the stone, the slippery wet ink pooling into a reflective black mirror.

For Object Number One I chose this Chinese ink cake in the form of the cruxifiction of Christ. A solid block of ink that ground with a little water can be reconstituted into ink. In Chinese culture the brush, ink cake, paper and ink stone are traditionally thought of as the Four Treasures of the Scholar’s Studio, (Chinese: 文房四寶pinyin: fáng sì bǎo). The ink cake (Chinese: 墨 pinyin: mò) is both a functional as well as a decorative object. The cake consists of compressed soot and animal glue used as a binder. Medicinal herbs, incense and oils which help preserve and add aroma to the ink when it is ground, are also commonly added.

The process of making ink cakes is very laborious. Soot is collected from the burning of numerous covered oil lamps. It is scraped off the lid of the lamps and mixed with the binder and aromatic ingredients and kneaded like dough for a long time. It is then pressed into a wood mold and allowed to slowly dry for weeks or months. The finished cake can then be further decorated with color or gold leaf. If properly processed and in the correct proportions the ink cake will become quite hard and resilient, lasting for centuries without fading or cracking. Besides being extremely stable and easier than liquid ink to store and transport, the ink cakes provided an opportunity to make a decorative object.
While most ink cakes were molded with decorative motifs or into auspicious shapes and some were made as commemorative objects. This example is very unusual for its surreal mix of a traditional Chinese art form with the relatively rare Western inspired subject. Christianity has an extremely long history in China, but always represented a very small minority and was generally distrusted by the court, leading one to presume this example was commissioned by a church or one of the clergy.

Object #5 Lacquer Worker's Board

“I devoted long years to learning the order and the configuration of the spots.”
-Jorge Luis Borges
from the short story The God’s Script

This is a Japanese lacquer worker's narrow wood drying board. Lacquer is the refined sap from the urushi tree (Rhus verniciflua) and is related to the sumac tree. Working on a number of similar pieces simultaneously a lacquer worker would apply the viscous liquid lacquer to craft objects which are then placed on these boards as each coat of lacquer is completed. Once the board is full it can be carried to a drying cabinet. While most boards of this type are covered with numerous drips and residual lacquer left from years of use this example has been sprayed with black, hiding all but the foot prints of the last works.

Object #4 Granite Ball

“The circle is the first, the most simple, and the most perfect figure.”

-Proclus (411-485), Greek philosopher

I found this simple, not quite perfectly spherical granite ball in Japan. It is added to a growing collection of spheres. It exact purpose is unknown and a discussion amongst friends in Japan make the most likely original purpose a shot put. While it might seem strange to imagine someone substituting stone for metal, rural areas in Japan often craft impromptu objects when official versions couldn't be had. If this seems unlikely consider the story of Robert Garrett.

Robert Garrett represented the United States in the first modern 1896 Olympics in Athens. Born to a well to do family, Garrett had been the captain of the Princeton track team. In an age before an organized Olympic committee, the Olympics were truly amateur and there was little or no support for the athletes. Almost anyone could participate, but everyone was responsible for getting themselves to the games. Garrett being wealthy not only paid for himself, but paid the cost of the transatlantic crossing for three of his team mates. While he specialized in the shot put he also participated in various jumping events. After a suggestion by a professor that he try out the discus as well, Garrett commissioned a blacksmith to make a discus based on various classical sculptures in New England museums. With this as his only guide the blacksmith made a metal discus which weighted 30 pounds. After several attempts Garrett quickly gave it up as impossible.

At the games Garrett won the gold in the shot put, as well as silver in both the high jump and long jump. Watching the discus event he discovered that the true discuses were made of wood and weighted less than 5 pounds. At the urging of others he entered the event at the spur of the moment. Having never practiced in the event Garrett spun wildly before releasing the discus. With little or no control the discus flipped end over end in the air and the first throw went foul. The other athletes and crowd enlivened by Garrett's enthusiasm and comically unconventional style cheered him on. Throw two, much to the joy of the crowd, nearly hit someone in the bleachers, but the third and final throw was fair and won him the gold metal.

In the following Olympics in Paris Garrett won two bronzes in the shot put and standing triple jump. He also participated in the discus again; all three throws hit trees.

Later in life he became a banker and a collector of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts eventually donating his collection of 10,000 pieces to the Princeton library.

I love people like Robert Garrett.

27 November 2009

Object #3 Glove Forms

The mark of the individual, that which supposedly separates us from all other beasts of this planet and the most expressive reflection of our humanity, the hand. That which all creativity, save voice, is channeled, all is manifested: here is both beautiful in its form as well as dehumanized in its purpose. One pattern of thousand that must have churned out gloves by the million in huge factories. Simultaneously a symbol of the individual and the industrial revolution.

These forms are from a large factory in Gloversville, New York, one of over 200 that one time operated in the city, and gave the city its name. Between the late 19th century and 1950 90% of all gloves sold in America were made in this small upstate town.

20 November 2009

Artists' Wall

Often more than the artist's work their work space or inspirational wall can give greater insight into the artist's thinking. The loose ends, bits and pieces with their jumbled juxtaposition often have a more virulent potency than the more finished, calculated works.

Andre Brenton's "wall" in Pompidou. A recreation of the back wall of his office. Brenton was a French writer and fundamental to the founding of the surrealist movement.

Unable to pay death taxes this wall was given as payment to the French government in lieu of cash and now resides in the Pompidou in Paris. Ironically if the estate had had enough to pay the taxes the contents of the wall would have been dispersed to the world through auction and lost as an entity in and of itself.

Andre Breton in his office.

The studio of the jeweler Kiff Slemmons.

Kiff does work which often incorporates used and abandoned objects. Pieces that are in need of her help.

The first time I visited Kiff's studio her inspiration / staging table took my breath away and gave me that very good feeling of jealously, lust and desire. Looking at her things is like sifting through the best detritus and flotsam of one's dreams. A sort of paradise of a virtual beachcomber.

A much more restrained example. A friend's table of objects; curated and carefully considered.

The recreated studio of Constantin Brancusi adjacent to the Pompidou at the Atelier Brancusi.

Friend, jeweler and artist Curtis Stiener's workspace.

This just makes me happy...
I want to pocket a couple things and bring them home to my pile of stuff.

Part of that pile.

19 November 2009


Patterns in the sand taken with a UV camera on the Oregon coast.

This summer my normal photography was changed with an amazing UV camera a friend loaned me. It is in fact just a normal point and shoot camera that has been converted to UV. It is the first time I'd seen one but apparently it involves removing the protective filter in a clean room which normally blocks UV light and replacing it with a clear filter. If your interested more can be learned about the process or camera's conversion on line. The camera I used had been converted at LifePixel.

05 November 2009

Object #2 Dissected Sphere

“Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent.”

Pythagoras. ca.560-ca.480 BC. Greek philosopher and mathematician

This amazing unfolding sphere, or dissected sphere, is an American mathematical demonstration tool used as a teaching aid. While there were numerous European manufacturers of mathematical models, American manufacturers were much less common. This example by Albert H. Kennedy (1848-1940) of Rockport, Indiana is one of the few made in America and the only manufacture who used leather to join the moving segments. Kennedy became superintendent of the Rockport schools in 1878 and produced wood mathematical instructional models for high school teachers in the 1920s. This example is one of four different models Kennedy produced, and by far the most interesting.

While European mathematical models were generally more complicated and made mainly for viewing the American examples, as typified by the Albert H. Kennedy and the more famous W. W. Ross (1834-1906) examples, were made of wood and meant to be handled and manipulated by the students.