Sunday, May 19, 2019

And now for something completely different!

OK, let's slip back into travelogue mode, with a bit of art sprinkled in...
Who wants to read about heavy gender-related issues anyway, jeez!

We have now completed 2 out of the 3 days here at the Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival... and it's a trip. Some of the art is great, the culture of the festival is super weird, and as Vegas has a few tricks up its sleeve as well...

Let's jump in.

We are staying at the Plaza Hotel and Casino. They have a hot tub, and one of their buildings has huge murals on the sides by Faile and Shepard Fairey. The one above is by Faile. 

Before we even arrived at the festival, we made a little field trip to the Las Vegas Strip, mostly to see Marco Cochrane's Bliss Dance. It's really lovely - and the story behind it and the other two sculptures in the series is interesting.

Upon arriving at the site of the festival, one is struck by the scale. It's a big venue - a motor speedway. This photo was taken from high up in the grandstands...

After setting up the Hand of Man we took a walk around to look at some big art. A few pieces stood out for me. This is probably my favorite piece... called Anima, by Daniel Popper.

My other favorite piece is not really a "sculpture" in the sense of being a standalone piece by a single artist, but it is rather the large scenic elements of the main stage. When I first saw these I thought they were some sort of hard materials, but they are actually inflatables - fabric creations filled with compressed air (low pressure, fed continuously by large fans). Funny enough, there are major and obvious similarities between these pieces - both feature female heads with hands (heads and hands, my favorites) and both depict blissful expressions with closed eyes. Both show essentially non-human characters; Anima is made of wood and plants while the scenic stage faces are clearly robots.

Here is another one of the stages. The big rectangular elements at the sides are 40-foot shipping containers standing on-end - everything here is big. I find these stages quite interesting, and emblematic of this strange DJ-centric culture, insofar as they are these huge attention-grabbing constructions with video screens and lighting and fire elements and at the center is this tiny little stage with an even tinier little famous person (the DJ). It seems as if these stages, with their hugeness and grandiosity, are made to compensate for the absence of a traditional rock band with multiple musicians (and therefor multiple points of focus). The kids need something to look at, and that something is epically enormous video screens. And by their very scale, these stages reinforce the concept of DJ-as-superstar.

And then... oh god... the gates open. 160,000 people per day flood in. The boys are all wearing board-shorts and the girls are all wearing fetish underwear. 

Yes, boys and girls. Not that many men or women here.

I find the culture genuinely strange. The attendees flock from one stage to another, mesmerized in front of the huge video screens, bouncing their bodies endlessly to the oontz oontz oontz of very repetitive music that has no instruments, no narrative, and minimal lyrics. I'm trying to be non-judgmental here... but I just don't really get it.

Another thing they do is stand in really long lines to take their picture in front of scenic elements which are made... to be places to take your picture. The line of people waiting to take their photo in front of this EDC "billboard" was about 200 long. "Hey look, Instagram... I'm at EDC!"

But, OK... it's not all so incomprehensible. There is a bar where all the bartenders are "little people," called the MiniBar. The drinks are really small. That's pretty good. 

We spend a lot of time at catering.

It's a very entertaining place to be, and not only because the food is plentiful and healthy and delicious. The mix of people at catering is really great... it feels like the backstage of an old Hollywood movie. You've got firemen and policemen and stage personnel with all their safety gear and dancing girls and artists and and and... (These pictures are not particularly great... sorry about that... I was taking them surreptitiously! But take a close look at the cast of characters in these... You can see why we are usually here when we are not smashing cars with heavy machinery) 

The festival runs from 7 in the evening until 5 in the morning... and everything looks different at night!

Space Girls (??)

and the main stage...

and Anima...

The Hand of Man is pretty photogenic, but that being said it's always a challenge to get a really good picture of it...  Photo above by Cedar Goebel

I think this one above is pretty damn good. In the background is "Night at the Climb In," or "The Car-B-Cue" from last year's Burning Man.

The wreckage left by the Hand is often entertaining. This is part of a sticker on one of the cars. 

And... EDC at night, also taken from the grandstands. 

Signing off, from the city of Lost Wages

(If, for some reason, you do find the topic of beauty and its role in society to be an interesting one, HERE is a great video. It's not heavy; in fact it's narrated by John Cleese and it's quite light and funny, while also being super informative. I recommend it.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

It must be difficult...

(So I've just finished proof-reading this post and now I am adding this preface. This post is sloppy. The ideas are all over the place. I guess that's just how it is.)


So now I'm in Las Vegas, Nevada for another Hand of Man gig. What a strange place.

When I was living in New York City in my early 20's I had an ongoing joke with some friends that there was a warehouse somewhere where all the beautiful women were kept. They were brought out only briefly for advertising campaigns or photo and film shoots. Or maybe... I realize 30 years later... maybe they were kept in that warehouse for their own protection...

In contrast to my political rant of a few weeks ago, this post will be more about questions than answers...  When it comes to politics, I know that I am right (but doesn't everybody "know" that they are right?), but when it comes to gender politics, I'm just a question asker, a student.

This coming weekend, while I am running the Hand of Man at one of the largest music festivals in the entire world in Las Vegas, Christina and I will also have several sculptures set up at one of the smallest, at a music venue in Taos. For the event in Taos I brought out several old sculptures, but I also wanted to do a little something that was new. In the spirit of strong and empowered women I decided to pose two store mannequins next to two of my old robots, each mannequin playing the role of Amazon robot trainer, or robot overlord. The Amazons were to hold the robots on leashes, making clear their position of power. And, borrowing from the aesthetic lineage of Wonder Woman while also sexing it up a bit, I sewed minimalist bras and skirts and wrist cuffs for them.

(Bras are difficult, but sewing this stuff was really fun)

I set up all the sculptures on Monday of this week, and the robots and their Amazon overlords were among the first I set up. During the brief few hours they were set up, Christina and I heard a bewildering array of bizarre and off-color comments about them. Most of these comments were fundamentally misogynist, one comment was downright creepy, and another was even directed at Christina.

I removed the mannequins on Monday evening and by Tuesday morning I'd decided that I would not be reinstalling them for the festival. The robots will have no trainers.

Somehow these paragons of female beauty opened the doors to some very weird corners of the people who sauntered by - doors which are usually kept closed by the pressures of socialization and good manners and common sense - and this has really gotten me thinking...

In 1974, acclaimed Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović performed Rhythm 0, a performance in which she stood still for six hours amongst a public audience while they were invited to "perform acts" upon her with a group of 72 objects laid out on a table. The objects included honey, a feather, razor blades, and a gun with a single bullet. In that time she was written on, her clothes were cut from her body, her skin was cut with razor blades, her body was subjected to minor sexual indignities, and the loaded gun was held to her head by one member of the audience. Another person intervened and wrestled the gun away. When the six hours were over and Marina finally moved -finally acted like a person again, the audience scrambled away... unable to face her. 

Marina Abramović is, not coincidentally (to my discussion, anyway), a beautiful woman, and was arguably even more beautiful 45 years ago in 1974.

What if the performer of this courageous act had been a man?
Would the male body be treated with such disrespect?
What if it had been an unattractive woman? Or a black man?
(I think that among other things, Abramović's experiment proved that people are cowardly animals.)

Beautiful women are like unicorns - they are rare (Although they are less rare in certain places such as, ironically, New York City, where I proposed the warehouse theory. And another point; if you only looked at advertising, you would think natural beauties were everywhere. But the reality on the streets is different.)
They are like polar bears - they are the canvas onto which we project all sorts of hopes, fears, and hyperbole.
And the conventional wisdom is that beautiful people are treated better than others, but I think beauty can also bring out the ugly side of people... like Trump, or the internet.

Why is this?
Why is beauty so charged, so potent, so divisive?

One answer, at least insofar as the negative effects that beauty have on women, seems to be that beauty is held up as an (unattainable?) ideal to which all women should aspire, and those who do not meet conventional definitions of beauty are somehow considered less valid, or less worthy. This is a problem no matter which way you look at it, and when magnified through the prism of social media can become a life-threatening danger. One in eight UK adults consider killing themselves over body-image issues.

And on a certain level all of this must be seen as driven by men's desire for beauty, and women's desire to be desired. No wonder women fear other more beautiful women. 
The male gaze dominates advertising, guaranteeing that beautiful women are ubiquitous in ads. Advertising fuels insecurity. Insecurity fuels fear and resentment.

But why does beauty bring out such base impulses in men?
I don't really know; all I can do is guess. 
Beauty can make people possessive. When we see something beautiful, we want it. (Haha.. cultivate non-attachment... to beauty!)
When we can't have what we want, we get angry. Or maybe abusive.
When we see something we can't control, we get fearful. When we get fearful we get controlling, or violent. I think that on a deep level many men have a deep fear of women, because they (we) can't control them. Some men try. Some women submit. I feel sorry for all of them.
William Moulton Marston would probably postulate that this fear also derives from a dim awareness of women's innate power, and I might agree with that. Maybe men also fear their own inability to control themselves.
Men can achieve amazing things in many areas of life (and of course the same can be said of women.. but my point here is about men) such as science or law or medicine, and yet can be reduced to animalistic idiots by women. Melvil Dewey invented the Dewey Decimal System, the sophisticated library organization system still in use today across much of the world, and yet he was so unable to control himself around women that he was eventually forced out of the American Library Association!

(I've made reference several times on this blog to the fact that there was one idea that I had for an image which caused me to jump into learning to oil paint, and this theme of men being reduced to animals by beauty runs hard through that image. One day I will get it painted.)

One very old definition of beauty is "that which pleases the eye." But how can you experience the pleasure of the eye when beauty makes you want to self-harm, or makes you angry, or makes you want to possess it? I have this idea that beauty is something that everyone can and should enjoy, if only the heavy emotion around it could be eliminated. It's somehow tied, in my head, to the simplicity of the way the ancient Greeks elevated the idea of beauty, and celebrated youthfulness. Of course they didn't have social media or advertising, and I can imagine that older women felt jealous and old or ugly men felt desire and frustration even in ancient Greece, but my sense is that beauty was culturally celebrated in a more honest and simple way back then. And if that is correct, I think they had the right idea. I think that if all those complicated emotions could be removed from the perception of beauty - emotions which are at least in some small way products of our modern civilization (insofar as they are related to the possessiveness and acquisitiveness endemic to capitalism, and the negative effects of pervasive advertising), then men and women alike could perceive the beauty of a young and well-made man or woman with the same sort of sublime pleasure that comes from viewing a sunset, or a perfect seashell. 

Well that would have been a great way to end the post, but I do want to add one more thing.

Las Vegas is a tremendous culture shock compared to Taos in so many ways, but one clear difference is the pervasiveness of images of beautiful women here. In fact it extends beyond just images - sex and sexiness is woven into the fabric of this place. Waitresses wear miniskirts, half-naked showgirls pose on sidewalks with passersby, and the place does not want for strip clubs. 

The obvious question is: Is this progress?

I guess on some level I am just trying to process the thing with the mannequins in Taos. Taos is progressive in some ways, but not in every way; it's still a small town in rural America.
I had an interesting (though short) conversation with our friend Claire, who is here from Barcelona helping with the Hand of Man. She asked me why I was into Wonder Woman. I tried to formulate an answer around the challenges of understanding the subtleties and overlaps and boundaries between empowerment and sexiness, and she made the excellent point that a woman who is beautiful/sexy must also be empowered in order to not be perceived as an object or a victim. Beauty combined with vulnerability is asking for trouble.
And so, back to Las Vegas: Is this progress? A place like this is obviously much more accustomed to seeing strong and sexy women (and images of them) and so I don't think a pair of mannequins dressed like Amazons would necessarily elicit the same weird responses, but on the other hand the line between empowered agent and vulnerable object is thin and subtle and there must also be a very seedy underbelly to the gender interplay here. 
An offhand and not-well-supported idea I've had (which might well be wrong) is that in more developed and cosmopolitan places like NYC or certain urban centers in Europe, beautiful and strong women might be more integrated into the culture, more accepted, less at-risk. 

Who knows. Some people are just raised wrong. And that happens everywhere. 

It must be difficult to be a woman.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


I knew that the first three weeks of May were going to be a whirlwind, and they're not even halfway over.

In truth it started earlier than May. In the last few weeks of April I tried to paint while also preparing the Hand of Man for its big month: May. I made a few repairs and improvements, notably installing an extra hydraulic cylinder on the wrist so it can pick up cars better (all the better to drop them with, my dear!).

About 10 days ago, the shows began; at that time I loaded the Hand onto a semi-truck bound for Bentonville, Arkansas. I then flew to Arkansas and installed it at the Scott Family Amazeum, an interactive children's museum. 

And then I did something I've never done before; I flew home... leaving it in the care of strangers! OK, well they are a bunch of nice and competent people who run the museum and its maker-space-like shop, and... they're not strangers anymore. I went home for a week while the Amazeum folks ran the Hand every day for a week-and-a-half, and then I flew back to Arkansas on the day before yesterday and yesterday morning we dismantled the Hand and put it back onto its pallets for its homeward journey later today. 

When it returns to New Mexico, it will sit on my land for about 5 days before I then load it onto another semi-truck bound for Las Vegas, Nevada, where I will run it at a giant corporate music festival called Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC). This is a 3-day event which has operational hours of 5pm to 5am (or 17:00 to 05:00 for you European folks!). I might be too old for that! Haha, we'll see. 

And during the same weekend that I am running the Hand at EDC, Christina and I will also have several sculptures installed at a great-sounding music festival happening in our hometown of Taos (called Monolith on the Mesa, being run by our friend Dano Sancho.) I have to install those sculptures before I leave for Vegas, which means they will be fully installed for several days before... and then several days after... the Monolith Festival. I would have loved to attend Monolith, because I think it will be fun, but everything happened all at once this year, and I guess that's how it is sometimes. 

On top of all that, I have a paying fabrication job in the shop that I'm trying to bang out in the spaces in between all this travel, which frankly isn't easy.

When it rains, it pours.

Bentonville Arkansas turns out to be a unexpectedly interesting place. When I first booked this show I thought... "Arkansas... ho-hum... it's gonna be boring." But North-West Arkansas, or NWA as they call it, is not boring. Bentonville is the home of Walmart, and the billionaire heirs and heiresses of Walmart's founder Sam Walton still live here. The entire town seems touched in one way or another by the Walton family fortune. The town is clean and well-taken care of, the culinary options are pretty damn good, and there is a truly world-class art museum here (more on that in a second), which all makes sense when you realize that Bentonville has the highest per-capita population of millionaires of any area in the entire USA. Amazing, but true (or at least that's what someone at the Amazeum told me.)

So it turns out that one of Sam Walton's heirs, his daughter Alice Walton, likes art. Well what do you do if you like art and you're a billionaire? You buy a lot of it. And then what do you do? You could stuff it all into your own home(s), or put it into storage, or... you could spend a few hundred million dollars on an art museum. Alice Walton has spent about $317 million of her own money to build the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, with an additional $800 million coming from the Walton Family Foundation. It's truly a beautiful and world-class museum, sitting in the middle of a town of 40,000 people in Arkansas. (Click the link above for some pictures of the place)

There's an awkward tension, if you think about it, between the daily reality of an average Walmart store, with it's underpaid workers and shitty products from China and its under-educated clientele (yes these are grotesque stereotypes, but relax... I shop there too sometimes) on the one hand, and this high-culture "bomb" that Alice Walton has dropped in the middle of Arkansas. When you consider that the museum entrance is free, and that the Walton Family Foundation is also doing a lot of other good things for the people of NWA, Alice Walton starts to look like some sort of inverted Robin Hood (instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, she is stealing from the poor and giving to Bentonville). Anyway it was very interesting to see farmers and other sorts of people who you would never imagine walking into an art museum strolling through Crystal Bridges. But it's free, and its in their town, so why not?

Here are a few of the pieces that I personally liked at the museum...

It turns out that Crystal Bridges isn't the only art-trick up Bentonville's sleeve. Another worthwhile destination is 21C, which is an interesting cross pollination between a hotel and a contemporary art gallery. The art here is considerably more cutting-edge than at Crystal Bridges, and is all privately owned by... you guessed it... some really rich people! At some point they had purchased too much art for their own home, so they opened this place. There are apparently eight locations around the South. By putting the art in a hotel which also features a popular restaurant, they too are exposing a slice of the populace to contemporary art who might otherwise never see it. If you're going to buy up all the good art, it's at least nice to share it. So... good job, all you obscenely rich people!

The show at 21C is called "The Future is Female" and here is some of the work...

(This one is my favorite piece in Bentonville)

And here are two more pieces I like, photographed from books...

Speaking of the female future, I continue to be interested in William Moulton Marston and his pop-culture creation, Wonder Woman. At this point I've watched the film version of his life as well as read a biography (and I can tell you that the film version portrays him very kindly.) The guy had some pretty wacky theories and somehow managed to live with three women simultaneously (which would take a lot of skill.. or charisma.. or something!), and he created this ultra-strong and ultra-feminist character who has stood the test of time for almost 80 years. His wacky theories include ideas that all human interactions are moderated by either domination or submission, that the world will be at peace when we all learn to enjoy submission, that women are stronger than men in part because they are better at submission, that women must teach men this skill, and that sexual power is one of the aspects of female superiority (sound familiar?). He was a psychologist during the early days of psychology. I think he would be laughed out of the professional world of psychology if he were alive today... and that's almost what happened to him back then too; before inventing Wonder Woman he was regarded as a self-aggrandizing quack and was professionally a quasi-failure. I think it would be interesting to look into HIS psychology, which I haven't seen anyone really do yet. It must be all about his mother...

Ironically I missed by two days the closing date of a special exhibition at Crystal Bridges focusing on the art world's reactions to Wonder Woman and SuperMan. There was an entire shelf of Wonder Woman books at their gift store...

With all this travel and work on my sculptures, I've not had time to paint. The last time I was in the painting studio was almost two weeks ago. At that time I had the following thoughts about my progress:
If you want to look at painting in an extremely reductivist way, it's about 1) mixing the right colors and 2) putting those colors in the right places. I'm doing OK with #2 in that equation, but not so great with #1. I've read that most of your time as a painter is spent at the palette, mixing colors... and I thought I'd been spending enough time there, but I'm clearly not. My skin tones are all over the place, and not very convincing. 

Her hand is too green, her face too red, and her skin tones are too dark overall... although to some degree I think this is a problem with my printer printing too dark (I'm printing parts of the source image for color matching.) And the sky is too blue, although that doesn't bother me.

Oh well, one of these days I will get back to it.

Funny enough, the big sculptures feel like my "job" right now, taking me away from what I want to be doing.. which is painting. 
I could have worse problems.

Oh and I discovered a painter I like, called Thomas Hart Benton. His subject matter doesn't do THAT much for me, but I love his technique.

OK... off to the Walmart Museum before I get on a plane!