Monthly Archives: October 2009

Department Events for the week of Oct. 19 (and a bit beyond)

Here’s what’s going on in the department over the next several days (as passed along by Erika Cole):

Wednesday Oct. 21st, 5-7pm, David Hall: Fine Art Department’s open house during the Chamber of Commerce mixer.
All week long: David Hall Stairwell: Exhibitions of student work completed this semester.
Donna Axton’s new CD “Out of the Blue:” On sale in the bookstore! Donna performs with this wonderful trio all around the Lake Tahoe Area. Donna produced the CD, played piano and sang, too. Her son, Matthew is also a guest artist. It’s a good one. Check it out.

And, coming up next week:
Monday, Oct. 26, 8pm, Patterson Hall: Recital featuring Piano/and voice students of Donna Axton and Brian Hess. Come to hear the wonderful sounds of SNC musicians Sally Hammel, Leah Defalco, Jessica Villalobos, Gabor Visnovits, Nate Mayer, Heather Matthes, Megan Barry, Jeanne Williams, Annamaria Jones, Drew Mason, Natalie Vegel, Mike Panici, Sabrina Bellici, Kailey Hamer, Cody Vincent, and Chelsea Lee!

Out of the Blue photo, above, taken by Joy Strotz.

More on Hockney’s Pawings

A couple days after making a post about getting my sea legs with iPhone’s Brushes app, a really good article about David Hockney’s iPhone paintings showed up in my mailbox, via the New York Review of Books. The article is also online, and I highly recommend giving it a read (although there is one piece of genuine misinformation in it: namely, that you can’t use a stylus with the app. It’s interesting info that Hockney exclusively uses his thumb to paint on the iPhone, but the pogo stylus works just fine).

One amusing detail from the article is the author’s equivocal language when it comes to describing the act of digital painting:

…Brushes, which allows the user digitally to smear, or draw, or fingerpaint (it’s not yet entirely clear what the proper verb should be for this novel activity), to create highly sophisticated full-color images directly on the device’s screen…

At first glance, I thought this was a ridiculous hangup, but in thinking it over, “Brushes” really does blur the distinction between drawing and painting. Maybe it’d make sense to hybridize the words: “dainting” or “pawing,” the latter being especially suitable for those who use their thumbs.

At any rate, the author of the article, Lawrence Weschler, displays a nice sensitivity to the technical aspects of working with the iPhone — the way the black screen can function as a looking glass, and the appeal of the screen’s self-illumination. The self-illumination makes the screen a natural for sketching in the dark, opening up possibilities for sketching at dawn or dusk (or in the dead of night). The flip side, however, is that full sunlight (which is a boon to paper or canvas) presents problems of reflection on the glass. I actually tried to make a picture of the beach at Sand Harbor one day, and found it fairly impossible to make headway against the glare on the screen.

Hockney, as usual, makes for a lively source of quotes. It’s funny that he doesn’t like the new version of Brushes, “Brushes 2” — I haven’t yet tried it out myself, but I’m kind of dying to, since it has layers, something I was really aching for in the original version. I don’t know if he’s just being cantankerous, but you have to love his explanation that he’s not actually painting on his phone: “it’s just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.”

I forgot, in my last couple postings on Brushes, to post a link to the Flickr Brushes group, which has a wide variety of art made with the app. There’s a lot of attractive work being posted there. Three participating artists whose work I’ve enjoyed are:

José Carlos Lollo

fhierro (from Madrid)

Fabric Lenny

Nick in China

Nick Geankoplis, who’s done some terrific ceramics work here at SNC, is currently in Jingdezhen China for a semester, for a study abroad program with West Virginia University. He’s keeping a blog of his studies here.

As Nick reported in an email:

WVU has a satellite campus here with their own studio, dining area and kilns which is within the campus of Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (a major Chinese University). I’m with a group of 10 North Americans from all over, undergrad and grad students. We will well be here until December 14th.

For many more pics and videos, drop in on him online.

Russell’s Show: This Weekend

The reception for Russell Dudley’s show, “Scratch Built,” is this weekend at the Silverland Gallery in Virginia City. A map is here.

The show is up till the 25th; the reception is Saturday, Oct. 17th, from 7-9. I’m not sure how deliberately mysterioso Russell’s been about the content of the show, but I don’t think I’m giving the game away by mentioning slot cars are involved. And that the reception is listed on facebook as a “sporting event.”

And the Silverland is a great space unto itself. It used to be a hospital — and Russell tells me the top floor, where the gallery is housed, used to be reserved for the “lunatics.” Plus ça change…


Back in 2008 I did a brief blog post about “The Nest,” a structure Babs Laukat put together for the New Genres class; the nest still stands, though winter (and probably other forces) have removed the light fixture and the strands of twine. Kristin has been talking to Babs about staging a performance in the Nest; earlier today, Kristin worked with Teryn Jackson, a dance student at UNR, on working out some movement for the space. Sometimes a place just calls out for an activity. Teryn was very game, playing out suggestions from Kristin, me, Babs, and Bab’s brother, Daniel. By the end she was covered in strips of bark and bits of wood; we gave her a little round of applause. Here are some pics:

Meaning Threats, and the Uses of Nonsense

Here’s an interesting article in the NY Times about the feeling of “nonsense,” and how absurdity can focus our perceptions: “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect.” To me it relates to the sorts of creative thinking and creative problem-solving that art-making encourages. It’s telling that the title of the article frames things in terms of “nonsense,” a trivializing word that’ll have to do until “countersense” or “othersense” enter the lexicon.

“Nonsense,” in the article, is shorthand for an experience that violates “all logic and expectation.” According to a recent paper by Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, when people are confronted by such an experience, they may subsequently have a heightened sense of pattern recognition. The theory is that, when there is a rupture in our sense of ordinary meaning, the brain works overtime to establish meaning in some other area. From the article:

When those [normal] patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

Proulx and Heine’s paper has the great title Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar. “Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar” is wonderful enough, but “Meaning Threat” is a phrase that should really migrate from psychological jargon to general use. It indicates something that violates the “meaning frameworks” that ordinarily keep us coherent from day to day. Some mornings, I could be convinced that Life Itself constitutes a “meaning threat” of staggering proportions.

As might be guessed from the paper’s title, for an injection of the absurd, the researchers resorted to Kafka. “Nonsense” is difficult to synthesize in a laboratory setting, but it can be well-preserved in a work of art. Twenty students were asked to read a tale adapted from Kafka’s short story “A Country Doctor” (which can be read in its unadulterated form here). The story is one of Kafka’s greatest achievements; in it, a doctor goes out one night on a hopeless errand, intending to alleviate the suffering of a very ill man laid up in a house ten miles distant, but instead, after being bombarded by various hallucinatory incidents and images, ends up naked in the bed with the patient, who only wishes for more room on his deathbed, expressing the desire to scratch the doctor’s eyes out.

This story was intended, by the researchers, to constitute a “meaning threat” in its intense absurdity. And they discovered that, after the students had been exposed to the story, they had a greater facility for uncovering patterns in cryptic letter sequences they were given to decode; that’s where the “Artificial Grammar” comes in. (Curiously, in their adaptation of the story, downloadable here, the Country Doctor becomes a Country Dentist, and the protagonist’s errand becomes one of pulling teeth rather than of diagnosing an axe-wound; as the researchers explain, “All references to death and dying were removed to distinguish affirmation following from the absurd nature of the story and affirmation following from mortality-salience meaning threats.”)

The efficacy of this dose of the absurd is predicated on the notion that absurd feelings are unpleasant ones. Proulx is quoted as saying: “We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere.” Which wasn’t my feeling on my first encounters with Kafka. Kafka made me uneasy, but the feeling of unease wasn’t offputting — in fact it was sharply pleasing. It broke my head open, in a gratifying way. I remember being amazed at the sorts of incidents and impressions Kafka was able to lay claim to, as the provenance of his fiction. There was a bracing audacity to his work. “Wait, can it be that these sorts of things really amount to a story? Can you really get away with this?’ And of course he could — but not without inventing new territories for fiction itself.

The NY Times article, in an attempt at humor that nonetheless aggravated me, winds down like this:

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

That last sentence — “the urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of evidence” — is a neat summation of much of human history, politics and religion. But the rest of it brings up the ugly bugbear of utility that always dogs evaluations of art activity. Art activity is only judged useful if it creates some positive spillover into other, less “nonsensical,” areas of activity. If screening David Lynch or performing John Cage would improve the memorization of French, then they’d be admissible to the curriculum. No one would ever flip that equation — suggesting that we should have students memorize French because the memorization of French has the demonstrable effect of making students enjoy David Lynch and John Cage.

This sort of reductive utilitarianism is what lead Elliot Eisner, an Arts Education scholar, to warn against enthusiasm for studies that linked exposure to classical music with better performance in Math testing. Eisner argued for Art Education’s inherent value. If a Music program’s existence is tied parasitically to its functionality for Math, that’s pretty shaky ground to stand on. If researchers eventually figure out that jumping rope increases Math scores even more, your music program will be out the window: make way for the ascendency of the rope-jumpers.

If we can argue for the inherent value of Music, can we argue for the inherent value of “nonsense?” Is “nonsense,” properly understood, closer to the texture of the actual world: the world that lies beyond the screen of our habitual, stereotyped and narrow view of it? One could look at art practice, in the industrialized world in the 21st century, as a sort of machinery for producing nonsense. Restrictively defined within the framework of social utility (and using the sorts of medical metaphors ‘A Country Doctor’ might suggest), you could make the argument that it’s a practice that produces a “nonsense vaccine,” giving the social body enough hits of weakened absurdity that society is able to create its own antibodies of pattern recognition.

But contrary to that implied dichotomy between healthy and sickness, within the act of art-making itself, one gets comfortable with absurdity, with ambiguity. You don’t want to banish the nonsense, you want to dwell in it: to let multiple patterns unfurl from its invitation. If you’re comfortable and at ease with the absurd, are you as motivated to seek the solace of pattern? Art seeks pattern not just a solace, but as an ethic.

I’ll close out with a couple things: first, a thanks to Gonzalo Barr, for posting a wonderful nugget from The Times Literary Supplement to his blog; it seems that, a year after Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis was published, a Doctor Wolff wrote Kafka, pleading that he explain the story (which famously opens with a man waking up in his bed, and finding himself transformed into a giant insect):

Sir, — You have made me unhappy. I purchased your Metamorphosis and gifted it to my cousin, but she could not make sense of the story. My cousin gave it to her mother: she could not explain it. Her mother gave it to another cousin, but she could not explain it either. And now they have written to me, the supposed doctor in the family. But I am at a loss. Sir! I spent months fighting the Russians in the trenches without batting an eyelash. I won’t stand idle while my reputation among my cousins goes to the devil. Only you can come to my aid. You must, since you cooked up this stew in the first place. So tell me please what my cousin ought to think of the Metamorphosis.

I’m sure he never got a sufficient answer, but it’s interesting to think that while this doctor was puzzling over the symbols and signs in the Metamorphosis, perhaps he was also doing a better job at diagnosing his patients.

And here’s the first part of an animation based on “A Country Doctor,” directed by Koji Yamamura. I think it’s a worthy interpretation. Click on through to youtube to see the other two parts.

iPhone Brushes: Sketches and Trials

This summer, I made a short blog post about the iPhone app “Brushes,” which David Hockney was using to make morning sketches, and which Jorge Colombo had used to paint a cover for the New Yorker (the New Yorker’s website keeps a blog titled “Finger Painting” where Colombo continues to post his iPhone paintings). Since then, I got an iPhone, mostly because I was sick of suffering a barely-functioning cell phone for the past year or so — and partly because I wanted to try “brushes” out for myself.

These are my first few attempts — painting with my finger on the screen. I found it really hard to control — I’m used to drawing with a pencil, not fingerpainting. I tried using thin lines for the pic of my cat, trying to build little nests out of my scribbling — then trying to go for some blending effects with wider brushes for the face below. I didn’t mind the smeary look of the face, but the lack of control was getting frustrating. There are folks who can make amazing Brushes paintings with their fingers — youtube has a bunch of clips — but I ain’t one of them.

At that point, I decided to spring for a stylus, and ended up getting a Pogo Stylus. That was a lot more comfortable to use — it felt more like drawing. It’s funny that using a stick feels like a more intimate and controlled experience than using my fingers, but there you have it. Sometimes the “extensions of man” really do supersede your actual appendages.

Finally, in the Reno airport, things started to click. I had a few faces to pick from, and enough time to worry them into something. You can actually export quicktime movies of your drawing process — below are movies of two airport faces. The first was quick & loose, the second one I sketched out in the airport, then finished on the flight — it took me the better part of a trip to San Diego. You can see me figure out the guy needs an ear at the last second. With some judicious editing, you could actually do a William Kentridge-style animation right on your iPhone.



I’ve also been enjoying the camera on the phone. I like that it’s so susceptible to motion — you can get some nice washy effects from it if you train yourself have have an unsteady hand.