Saturday, May 26, 2012

Measuring the Marigolds

The Fork - André Kertész

Last night, a strange thing happened here at Seat of Pants. I arrived home to a roaring gale, thankful that I'd got in the logs a couple of days ago, when the weather was borderline nice. I tossed my overnight bag on the floor, plunged into the hearth in my work clothes and lit the match. There are a lot of things about this week that beg to go up in smoke. A fire allows you to reflect. It's a window to wonder.

Lately, the longing for my first love - music - has wanted to express. I was never very good at it, I'll be the first to admit that. But, I have had moments when I've pleased myself exceptionally well by plonking away at the piano and singing a song, either of my own making or someone else's. It was easier when I had an actual piano and all I needed to do was open the lid and play. Weeks ago, I set up an old electronic keyboard and amp in breathless anticipation, but I still hadn't got the desire to play. And then, last night, I suddenly did.

After four years, even 'very rusty' would be an overstatement. I needed to choose my reawakening tune carefully. No point in setting oneself up to fail. Of the hundreds of tunes in The Real Book , I chose Inchworm. It is a sweet, simple tune by Frank Loesser, most memorable for me because it was in a favourite film of childhood, Hans Christian Andersen. And, crucially, I recalled the lyric of the refrain which goes something like this,

Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
You and your ‘rithmatic
Will probably go far
Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
Seems to me you'd stop and see
How beautiful they are

It's a children's song, a novelty. It's in The Real Book, the jazzer's manual of standard lead sheets, for a very good reason. A great many musicians have created something wondrous from this simple tune, not the least of them, John Coltrane.

And so, to my point, at last and finally. Re-imagining someone else's idea is very different from executing your own original idea. Sometimes because of, rather than despite my severe limitations as a player, I find quite a lot of 'me' goes into my musical interpretations. I think this as a good thing. Re-imagination owes the originator more than mere mimicry. It seems to me that the biggest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity in this enterprise, is to reconfigure and advance the simplest ideas while honouring their originality and integrity. My old friend Geoff Titley has achieved exactly this in his series After André Kertész.

Geoff Titley - Fork VI*

I loved this photograph immediately. It is an exquisite composition. Appreciation of it doesn't require  knowledge of the source photograph. I wasn't familiar with the Kertész picture, but once I'd looked at it, I saw that Geoff had used a very simple technique to perform a classic 'inchworm'. He had reversed the position of the fork so that the prongs point up instead of down, presenting an opposite point of view. The gloom expressed in the downturn of Kertész's fork is transformed into glee by the upturn in Geoff's. It's clean and clever. But he has done much more.

The element that makes this a great image, in my completely biased and inexpert view, is that Geoff has added something of himself, something that derives from his own time and experience. I recognise it because I share this time and experience. Growing up in the cultural blandness that was Australia in the 1960s, the black'n'white miracle of television cartoons animated our world. 'Everyone carries a shadow,' Carl Jung wrote, 'and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.' Jung considered the shadow 'the seat of creativity'.

Our childhoods were dominated by two giant shadows - the Second World War with its unfathomable human consequences and the Cold War with its incomprehensible, yet ever-present nuclear threat. If any of it could be articulated, it certainly wasn't done in the presence of young children. Because of this, we knew little of the world outside of our own domestic bubble. The space that should have been filled by knowledge was a vacuum into which only carefully prescribed learnings were injected at regulated intervals. It was interminably dull.

Cartoons were the key to unlocking our youthful imaginations in an era when Biggles and Anne of Green Gables were rendered ridiculously redundant by the destruction of most of Western Europe and a good deal of East and Southeast Asia. After this, only fantasy was going to cut it. Television cartoons had a hundred different ways of both exploiting our fears and lampooning them in a way that included children in this great, ironic joke that comprised 'the world'. Through them, we learned not to fear the unknown in the way that our parents did.

Shadows in cartoons may introduce menace and then immediately subvert it. An advancing razor-backed monster can turn out to be a mouse carrying a hairbrush or a pouncing grizzly bear just a teddy toppling forward. My first vivid recollection of the role of shadows in cartoons comes from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia. When Mickey Mouse, as the apprentice, takes an axe to the rogue broomstick he has animated to collect water, the 'murder' is represented in shadow. Perhaps Disney was a Jungian. Apparently, he and Jung did know each other.

In toontown, shadows can even assume independence and take vengeance on their caster. When you've grown up with cartoon shadows, you never take a real-life shadow for granted. Adam Elliot's film Mary and Max is steeped in this understanding, and all the more brilliant for it. Geoff's cartoonising of the shadow in his image also captures this knowing with a deftness and lightness that just makes me smile and smile. And by these small steps are marigolds measured.

*You will notice that this reproduction has a watermark. If you would like to buy an unadulterated copy of this image, go to Geoff's Website.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Double Crossed

Three weeks ago, an exciting event occurred at Larrikin's End Library - someone left a globe-trotting book! I know, I know - but this is about as thrilling as it gets in Larrikin's End. Our book, as it quickly became known, even though there were several hundred others who have a greater claim to that status, is Clare's War by Anita Burgh.

I had been vaguely aware of the physical meme that is Book Crossing, but somehow I'd imagined it as a phenomenon whose purpose is to contribute to societal uplift by distributing exhilarating free literature via creaky park bench, dodgy taxi, seedy bar, grand hotel, dauntingly vast transit exchange or camel train. And what a marvellously romantic idea that is. Think of the joy of finding Gorky Park actually in Gorky Park or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which begins in a taxi driving around Paris and ends with one doing the same in Madrid, in a taxi, in either Paris or Madrid. Speculate, if you will, upon the thrill of locating Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize winner Last Orders in a Margate pub, or any pub for that matter. Dream of discovering The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories in the foyer of any of the palatial Ritz hotels or any novel by Camus in your camel's saddlebag as you set off for Giza with all the other geezers. Only, you know you're especially blessed because you have the camel with the Camus.

What I'm saying here is that the finding of a Crosser book should make one feel a bit special. It didn't quite happen that way in Larrikin's End. Our book was delivered to us in what is known as a 'controlled release' in book-crossing vernacular. It originated in Mt Gambier, South Australia, where it appears to have become de-accessioned - unwanted in library language. Someone from a library brought it to the safe haven of another library, even handing it in at the desk rather than leaving it on a sofa or shelving it where it could at least give rise to a minor mystery. And this is how it came into my hands.

I happened to pass the library desk several moments after the exchange and a colleague said, 'oi, you're going to Melbourne tomorrow, do you want to take this book? The rule with a Crosser book is that you must register and then read the book before 're-releasing' it. I was only going for the day and half of that was going to be taken up with seeing a play. I sized it up and thought, yep, I could read it on the four-hour train trip. To add complication to dilemma, one of the librarians suggested we should start our own book. It so happened that we'd received a pile of donations and the ones that were not suitable for lending had been put on a trolley for sale. We voted and I bought the Marian Keyes novel Anybody Out There? from the trolley. This I must read either before or during my next trip to Melbourne, week after next.

Clare's War isn't the sort of book I'd normally read. It's about a rebellious, (in a ditzy rather than an heroic way), English girl who ambles off to France in the late 1930s. The inevitability of war collides with Clare's implacability as she stubbornly hangs about fretting over the safety of a husband and then a lover. Fate casts her hither and thither and her convenient facility with languages, coupled with an apparent guile that doesn't quite transcend the page, saves her from the Gestapo on more than one occasion. This disjunctive serendipity enables her to stumble, more-or-less unhindered, into taking a small, but crucial role in the French Resistance.

Although not critically satisfying, the book did fulfil its obligation to keep me occupied on a train journey that was aurally challenging in a way that Camus might not have conquered. I read most of it between Larrikin's End and Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, where I alighted to characteristically vile weather. Severe winds turned indoor refuge into a necessity. I took refuge in art galleries little and large and an extended lunch at my favourite Chinese cafe, Noodle Kingdom where I read some more of the book and, I think helpfully, splashed a little character-building soy sauce on it's flavourless pages.

I had just an hour before the play began and fifty pages to go so I sat in a comfy sofa in the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria and finished Clare's War. And that is where I left it. Setting off, I had in mind for it a more glorious fate. I was thinking I might leave it on a tram or in Chloe's Bar at the famous Young and Jackson's. But the weather was so foul I didn't feel like getting on a tram and I wasn't sure that I'd have time after the play for a drink at Y&J's (I did, thankfully). Leaving the book in this way counts as a 'wild release' even though it's not exactly a hardship for a book to be left in a public gallery. It wasn't really an adventure befitting a Crosser. And I do feel bad about that.

Think of what one could do with a Crosser book. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse could be abandoned in a lonely lighthouse, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, buried under an actual volcano, or Faulkner's As I Lay Dying passed to a funeral home. What a distraction that would be from your annoyingly inconvenient bereavement to find a travelling Faulkner. Imagine finding Zadie Smith's White Teeth in your dentist's waiting room, or The Old Curiosity Shop in an antiques store where you can't afford to buy anything but you like the musty smell. And then you go in there and the kindly proprietor tells you the book is not valuable but it is free to you. Or - and here's a tip for anyone who has a dreary B&B that they've inappropriately hyped to trap unwary international travellers - Bleak House in a really bleak house! What a redeeming consolation that might be.

Unfortunately, I wasn't going to a war, only to Melbourne. However, an exhibition about the art of the Napoleonic Era was just about to start at the NGV and Napoleon was French and did loads of warring so it seemed as close to apt as I could get in the circumstances. Clare's War was 'released in the wild'. And... three weeks later, it remains at large. My fear is it's ended up in lost property. If a book must die, surely it should go heroically. I can only hope it was taken by the sort of ne're-do-well as would take a free book and belligerently enjoy same without the slightest regard for its anxious releaser.

On my next trip to Melbourne, I'll be popping in for the Napoleon exhibition and asking after our book. And I'll be reading the Marian Keyes on the train and thinking about a more daring release for it. With a title like Anybody Out There? the possibilities are surely endless but my first instinct is to try to get it out to a space station. Chick lit in space, now there's a thought...

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The rest is waiting

Hanging's too good for him

Larrikin's End Trading Post is my favourite source of bits and pieces from which to build artworks that reflect my increasingly eccentric take on the world. But look here, some clever clogs has beaten me to it. Above is a photograph of one of a trio of framed prints I bought as a job lot for $20. It was the frames I wanted. They are quality timber frames. The prints were expertly and, I think it's fair to say, lovingly, framed by our very own Larrikin's End Art Gallery and Bait Shop. It seems a shame to pull them apart but, needs must as they say. On enquiring as to their provenance, I discovered that my good fortune in quality frame acquisition had come about because the Larrikin's End Motor Inn was upgrading its decor and, presumably, popping in some back-to-front Picassos or upside-down Rembrandts for the greater edification of the journeying public.

For yes, dear intellectual equal, we recognise this thing in a frame as Mark Rothko's Light Red Over Black (1957) - or it would be if it wasn't reclining somewhat inappropriately. The other two frames contain prints of Untitled 1950-2, both of which have been similarly horizontalised, leached of colour, imprisoned in reflective glass and diminutised so that they can occupy a blank space over a queen-sized bed in a 3-and-that's-pushing-it-star motel in rural Australia. As a cascade of ironies, this would take some beating.

I know both of these paintings well as they are in the Tate Modern in London. Light Red Over Black was the first Rothko acquired by the Tate. It was bought in 1959, establishing a long relationship between the New York artist and the London gallery which eventually led to the gift of the Seagram paintings, which is the subject of the play Red by John Logan - which, incidentally, is the real point of this post. And I'll get there in a minute. And, with any luck, I'll be able to tie it all together. Untitled 1950-2, (the one with two yellows and a violet for those of us get our untitleds a bit muddled), was gifted to the Tate in 1986 by the artist's heirs and there's a story there too, more of which a little later.

So, to the play. Yesterday, I saw the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Red starring veteran Australian stage and screen actor Colin Friels, ably assisted by stage new-comer André de Vanny. This is not going to be a review, well it is a bit, but not a full-on review as the play's only on for a few days and it's been everywhere else already. Red deals with one of the great moments in art history. Rothko, having spent years painting a series of huge canvases for the swanky new Four Seasons restaurant, pops in shortly after it opens, is horrified by the actual din of dinner, promptly gives back the money, sends some of the paintings off to the Tate and tops himself. The paintings arrive in London on the day of Rothko's death, 25th February, 1970 where they remain today, hung to Rothko's precise specifications in the famed Rothko Room. For once, this troubled man made a good decision. It was all downhill after that. And in making that decision, he undoubtedly altered the trajectory of many lives, including mine.

Red is a two-hander with Friels as Rothko and de Vanny as a fictional assistant called Ken, although the name is never stated. The business of the play is to set up the fateful decision by having Ken pose a series of ethical questions to Rothko in the form of a Socratic dialogue and, ultimately, provide the argument that triggers the decision. If Rothko hates the evil capitalists so much, how come he's prepared to take their dirty dollar, huh?

'I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room?' is the unconvincing reply.

Rothko apparently did say that. Logan quotes extensively from actual Rothko statements and does it skillfully. Ken as Rothko's conscience works well too. The young apprentice is bright and in awe but holds his ground in the mad lion's den. He withstands the bullying and haranguing. Logan manages to channel a lot of important information about Rothko's views on art through this Oedipal device without spilling over into pure didacticism, resulting in an entertaining contest that recalls Edward Albee. And it's very physical. There's a great scene where they prime a vast canvas using a fast-drying, blood-red concoction they've cooked up in a huge pot. They race each other and the liquid's restrictions combatively until the thing is saturated and then collapse on the floor, spattered and spent.

 After the play, as I queue for the toilets, I hear a woman behind tell someone, 'My sister's an artist. She paints like Rothko.' I immediately think, 'no, that's just not possible.' And then I have to think about why that is. The first clue is in the play. 'There is tragedy in every brushstroke,' Rothko says. If you have ever sat in a roomful of Rothkos, you will know this to be absolutely true.

Every ambition he ever had for his paintings is fulfilled, and then some. I think it's partly because he was Jewish and knew the meaning of tragedy through exile. It's partly because he lived in New York in the postwar period and American Abstract Expressionism soaked up all the blood and gore from German Expression and threw in the Civil War for good measure. The Americans upped the angst on even the wasteland that was Berlin. But it's mostly because he was a big, American male. There was a time when a particular kind of American man felt it his duty to answer the big questions of  life. Some of them made a decent stab at it - like Hemingway for e.g. It was a big call with a big price and they both paid it in the end.

I know I'm on shaky ground here and I don't quite understand it myself but there is an appeal in this kind of masculinity that does not exist in the gross males that sit either side of me in the theatre. I spend far more time than I should elbow-wrestling for an equitable share of the arm-rests. And what are these men thinking, taking the more central seat anyway? If I'd have been sitting next to their female companions, I very much doubt that I'd have had my toes trodden on quite so often. I know, I know. Hemingway was beastly to all of his partners. Rothko wasn't much better by all accounts. I suppose I'm thinking the unthinkable - that in the old days, at least the sexists were gentlemen. Logan has the good sense not to include any female characters in Red. He would have had to demean them and that wouldn't have been good. Rothko's art came via obsession rather than muse.

It's not that women don't do tragedy. Women depict tragedy as personal and local and even instructive. There is no greater painter of tragedy than Frida Kahlo, but her route was via narrative. Her magnificent achievement as a painter was to diarise her life in small, beautiful works that are dignified and profound, drawing on material that could so easily have read as pitiable and sentimental. I have stood in a roomful of Kahlos and, although they unquestionably carry the tragedy of a nation and infuse you with an essence of Kahlo's personal experience of it, the overwhelming sensation is one of life going on. And, I think that's exactly what Kahlo intended them to do. Whereas, Rothko wanted us to feel the full impact of what he called the 'basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on' right along with him. There's a case for seeing that sort of thing as an indulgence few, if any, women have ever been allowed. I'd agree with that, but I wouldn't be without Rothko for all the tears in China. Both points of view are essential. It's not the size of the painting that counts - it's the depth.

In the play, Rothko rages against the vulgar, arriviste market for his paintings as 'over-mantle pieces'. Something to go with the sofa. Something in orange. Made-to-measure for chrissakes! Well, what would he have made of being ousted from the Larrikin's End Motor Inn in favour of an upside-down Rembrandt, one wonders. Rothko had made arrangements prior to his dramatic death - he slit his wrists in his studio and was discovered by his real assistant - for a foundation to be established to fund education and research. He'd previously gifted some important works to his two children to ensure their financial futures but hadn't checked the fine print on his gallery contract. The foundation's trustees and his gallery ripped everyone off and his daughter Kate initiated a prolonged and ugly court case. The result was a victory for the Rothko children but, quite possibly a defeat for a father who apparently cared more for the welfare of his paintings than his actual children. These days the Rothko images are seemingly licensed without discrimination. The laughs in this saga just keep resonating.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not important that a cheap print of a Rothko painting is hung incorrectly. A print of a Rothko is as far removed from an actual Rothko as it's possible to be. It matters that a door is located in the right spot and it matters that the door opens into a place worth going to. It mattered to Rothko that his paintings be a place that people would want to go and that they would find something of themselves there.

Red begins with Rothko advancing to the fourth wall, apparently studying a painting by leaning into it. He asks his newly arrived assistant, 'what do you see?' Ken answers, 'red'. Rothko is infuriated. He always protested that his paintings were not about the relationship between colour and form. And then they start brainstorming. Red means roses, lipstick, Santa Claus, blood... and you know that, really, it is all about the form and the colour because we humans reduce to that. Humanity as we know it is a construct. 'Most of painting is thinking,' Rothko tells Ken, 'Ten per cent is putting paint onto canvas. The rest is waiting.'