Category Archives: Letters

The humanities

New York — Ides of April Edition, 2010

Sun shapes on stairway

“Are you an artist too man?”

The question came innocently enough. That was James, our erstwhile bartender, after learning that I once knew Carri Skoczek, yesterday at Clem’s.

“Was, I was an artist.”

“What you mean, ‘was’? You don’t just stop being an artist. Maybe you aren’t making any art, but if you’re an artist, you’re an artist.”

“I was a lighting designer,” I told him. “You can’t just pick that up and do it anywhere, you know. You need a stage, and performers, and lights, and…”

“Ooh, I get it. Yeah, you kinda need a lotta help to get that done, doncha.”

“Yeah, you need a lot of help. I make art that needs a lot of help, so I don’t make art anymore.”

“That sucks, man. Shit.”

Okay, that was yesterday, and doesn’t really belong in today’s gazette, but it’s here for a reason. To whit: today we went to the American Museum of Folk Art. This lovely little institution, tucked in next to MoMA and The Modern, hosts one of the nicest collections of naïve, folk and self-taught art around, and although they have precious little space to show it in, they do so in a loving yet erudite manner.

When I look at this kind of art, I find myself always pondering the question of motivation, drive, inspiration… This seems inadequate to my point. Let’s try this; when someone grows up and goes to art school and starts to make art and exhibit it, or perform or what have you, it seems that there is a path, a trajectory, that gets them there. The motivation and drive are clear. For the self taught, the naïve, there is no such path. These are just normal work-a-day people who feel some compulsion to, at the end of a long day laboring over a plow or a broom or a stove, they decide to pick up a paint brush, embroidery needle, or what have you, and start making art.

I never “made art” in the sense of making a durable thing – painting, print, etc. – which one could take away from the experience and hang on a wall. I made art which was of its very nature ephemeral, transient, fleeting. My art was formal, in that it sprang from formalized structures and norms, it followed rules, to some extent, and it had a place in history in so far as it was informed by those who came before me, and was crafted with the tools and instruments available to me in my time. The naïve artist, on the contrary, is working out of time. Their work is singular and apart. Or, at least to my uneducated and impressionable eyes, it seems so.

It was thus that I gazed upon the self-made personal art collection of Henry Darger, on display at AMFA, which shows over 80 pieces of this significant 20th century self-taught artist’s own works which had hung on the walls of his tiny hovel in Chicago for the 40 years he lived there. It is a departure of a show for this museum, which holds the largest collection of Darger’s work in the world. I am used to coming here and being confronted with rooms of his mural sized hallucinatory fantastical ramblings, paint and tracery works, filling the whole of one or two floors of the museum. Not today, now it is these small, 16” x 20” average, pieces. Why? I wonder. What led this man, who worked 10 hour days in Catholic hospitals, sweeping and mopping, to then return home and write 4, four, 15,000 page epics about his fantasy world, backed by thousands and thousands of paintings?

Anyway, I don’t mean to dwell on this anymore than I already have. I just wanted to share that I realize that there are many reasons people make art. I know that people will probably chide me about this post, like, “Duh? Don’t you get it man, people want to make art!?!?” Yes, I get that. It is just the scale, sometimes, which causes me to ponder this. I guess. Whatever.

I can’t make my art, or I gave up on doing so, in the face of the challenges I faced. These people, these people whose work fills AMFA, likely never even felt that challenge, they just knew they wanted to make art, and they did so. They likely would have regarded me and said, “Huh? What of it, get off yer arse and express yourself!” The thing is that I do, of course. I express myself, now, in words rather than stage paintings. I use the tools of metaphor and simile instead of lekos and fresnels. I use a word processor instead of a light palette. I still make art, I guess, but I paint my pictures in words rather than those fields of light and shadow and color and smoke.


Runaway Vampires

Pawn just read this over at the Gray Lady:

Kristen Stewart, the 19-year-old co-star of the “Twilight” blockbusters, plays a New Orleans stripper in “Welcome to the Rileys,” which also stars James Gandolfini as a damaged businessman. Mr. Cooper noted that Ms. Stewart also has a noncompetition entry: in “The Runaways,” directed by Floria Sigismondi, Ms. Stewart plays a young Joan Jett.
Sundance, With a New Leader, Hones Its Indy Edge –

Pawn has a warm place in his heart for Ms Jett.  Not only for her great contributions to Rock and Roll music, but for her stand up performance back in Iowa during the 2004 Presidential campaign.  As I journaled then…

Jeneane Garofalo is in town, as is Joan Jett. They are doing a show, kind of an Iowa Perfect Storm USO show to thank and bolster the Dean faithful. Seems that just one floor up is a meeting of the Young Republican’s Caucus Organizing Committee. You have to ask yourself if the facility scheduler had thought this through or not. Anyway, once the YRs find out that the Dean people are downstairs they take a vote of the organizing committee and have a unanimous vote of seven yeas (I’m not making this up, the head of the organizing committee boasted about it on TV) to go down to the Dean rally and do what they can to disrupt it!

Jeneane Garofalo addresses the crowd (photo courtesy

This is unreal, these guys have taken compassionate conservatism to a whole new level! They head down to the rally, armed with Bush/Cheney campaign signs (so there is no doubt who to blame…) and start trying to inspire a melee. The Dean folks simply block the B/C signs with their own, not a tough task given the numbers involved. There is a large contingent of Planned Parenthood folks and “Stand Up for Choice” there as well, which further skews the balance of power.

No one is taking the bait, however, no one is rising to fight, nor do anything other than try to block the B/C signs. Then, Joan Jett starts to play the National Anthem. This is apparently too much patriotism for the YRs and much like the effect of Slim Whitman music on the Martians in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, their heads simply start to explode.

Well, okay, not exactly, but it’s almost the same thing. One of the more compassionate conservatives decides to give Ms Jett a really good shove, while she is playing. Our portly protector of family values seemed to have misjudged his target, however, as Joan (about one third this guys size, and more than twice his age) shrugs off his shove and then comes back swinging. She manages to land a few good ones before Dean people separate the two.

Joan Jett immediately after the altercation (photo courtesy

This is all captured by several TV cameras, including that of Joe Jensen, the guy who trained us on Friday. This is a lead story on all of the local news. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Okay then, the gloves are off in the Republican camp at least.

I haven’t rushed out to see the Twilight films, but I can’t wait to see Miss Stewart in The Runaways.

Losing Face{book}


Pawn recently withdrew from the social networking site Facebook following a year and a half involvement.  Friends, and “friends” will doubtless ask why (and indeed, some already have).  The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple answer is that I don’t like what the use of the site did to how I interact with people.  While “social” networking sites bring a lot of promise, they also present many pitfalls.  And these benefits and drawbacks have as much to do with you, the user, as with their own inherent dynamics.  This blog, and the mailing list which preceded it, going back five years now, is itself a sort of social network.  For while it is primarily a forum for me to express my thoughts, etc., it also permits a back and forth, a dialogue, and has even included direct, primary posts by others.  In addition to my personal rants or other writings, I have often featured links to articles and stories elsewhere which thought worthy of attention, posted photographs, music clips, etc.  In other words a lot of what one can do at Facebook, but without the large community surrounding it.

That community, however, can be a both a blessing and a curse.  Facebook, and sites like it (i.e. LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.) provide extensive tools to build community in ways we have never seen before.  This is a godsend for organizers from local grass roots up to presidential campaigns, but works equally well for fear mongers as prophets, for hate groups as for charities.  My very first girlfriend tracked me down via LinkedIn after nearly thirty years, to share memories and catch up on two lives now very separate.  So, too, former lovers have tracked me down whom I would rather not have so done.

Therein lies one of the problems with a media which is at once both public and private.  Anyone who has spent any time at all on social networking sites has seen a friend or friends mistakenly post in a public way what was intended to be a private message.  I actually made it somewhat of a personal mission to help educate people about how to use Facebook with security and privacy in mind.  Just as one can rekindle old connections, so one must cope with the ramifications of doing so, in both the public and private realms.  An old schoolmate wants to be your friend, and has become friends with many people whom you actually have kept up with since those old days.  If you don’t become friends are you being rude?  What will your other former classmates think of your standoffishness?  It’s the old peer pressure writ large and on the Internet.

Then there is the odd dynamic of “meeting” new people, a friend of a friend or just someone with common cause, say another member of a local political group.  They share your view, or a common link, and in the anonymous and yet connected world of social networking it is perfectly natural to “friend” each other.  In a real world setting there is much more context for such a situation.  A mutual friend can offer either a direct introduction or a muted aside, encouraging or discouraging such a friendship, or in the context of a local political meeting or other event, one may infer more about the other from the goings on.

Not so in the cyber world.  I was friended by a couple of people following a comment I made on the fan page for a long-defunct local punk band.  in 1981 I had done several shows with this band, and had gotten to know some of them quite well.  Following my comment, a few recollections from that era, I received friend requests from these two, one male one female, who were fans of the band and the nightclub where I had managed back then.  Turns out they both used to come there as underage gate crashers whose youth was well hidden by the combination of fake IDs and the heavy makeup and hair dye prevalent in that crowd.  I kept them as “friends” more because they posted interesting links to artworks, but never really interacted with them.

Interaction on social networking sites is another area of potential problems.  The forum provided on such sites can often serve to magnify the tendencies already present when in a group.  Pawn, believe it or not, was a class clown in his youth.  One standout characteristic of a class clown is the tendency to speak first and consider later.  This is bad enough in real life, where the words one utters are heard by a room full of people.  Put it on the Internet, and the potential for regret or embarrassment multiplies.  This is further compounded where one cannot remove, un-say or delete ones utterances.  Just such a situation developed for me in the recent past.

In making what was intended to be a witty, sarcastic comment to an acquaintance’s post, instead I managed to offend them.  My bungled wit came across, even to my own eyes, as mean and rude — and ill considered.  There being no way to retract the comment, no way to unring that bell, it instead hung in the air.  There are examples galore of ill considered public utterances abounding on the Internet, from sites like Overheard in New York to Texts From Last Night, and new terms in the public lexicon, such as Drunk Dialing and TMI.  In the cyber world, when you screw up, it is never just a room full of people who know, or may know.

So, what happened in this situation?  The offended party “unfriended” me, a term which has no real world equivalent.  Perhaps that’s because in the real world when we no longer wish to associate with someone we simply stop doing so.  Now, true enough, anyone who has been stalked can tell you that it is not necessarily so simple (this I know), but by and large if we no longer wish to know what so-and-so is up to, we stop asking, calling, visiting, etc. and our spheres of experience will disengage.  Not so on-line, where we must actively sever the link.  What can be accomplished passively in-life requires active intervention in on-line.

In the world of Facebook, such an action is silent.  It is not like calling someone up and saying “We’re not friends anymore!” but rather you click a button and that person silently and without their direct knowledge is no longer your friend.  They may never know that this has happened, until they try to reach out to you and find you no longer in their list.  Or they go to a, formerly, mutual friend’s page and see you appear not in the list of mutual friends, but in the list of all friends.  This quiet rebuff is all that is needed to lower the boom of disapproval.

That is how I found that I had been unfriended, and it brought home to me just how absurdly this new media (for that is what it is, ultimately, is media) has wound itself into our lives in ways that are as destructive as they are constructive.  I was temporarily crushed to see that I had lost a friend, yes, but then reflected on the fact that I have only ever met this person a few times, have no history with them, and only really knew them on-line.  The lingering feeling, however, is the shame I felt at my embarrassing comment.  Much like that I still feel for a bad joke told too loudly at a public event over twenty years ago.

But more, I had allowed my interactions with this new media become so central to how I interacted with people I truly do know, love and relate to in-life and not just on-line.  I recognize my peevishness when someone wouldn’t react on-line to things I had posted, or when they failed to keep up their on-line counterpoint to their in-life reality.  And I realized that it was just too easy to pretend that since I was present in my friends lives on-line that I was present in-life, when, in fact, I was absent there.

Thanksgiving is in two days time, and soon after I will begin to make and send my holiday greeting cards.  This, too, is an act of make-believe social interaction, this annual ritual of pretending that we are still connected to all of our aunts and uncles, old schoolmates and neighbors.  I long ago switched to printing out address labels rather than hand addressing, but I still take the time to scrawl a line or two into each card, lending an air of authenticity to this otherwise artificial intercourse.  I will make an effort, this year, to be more present in that process, to be more personal in those wishes, to be more thoughtful as I lick those stamps.

Will I ever return to Facebook?  For now I cannot say.  Every year I make my own Christmas cards, using images I compose or photograph or cull from family archives.  I post those on Facebook, as well.  I am not sure I’ll update it this year.  We’ll see.

Me and D – A Work In Progress

Harvest moon

Harvest moon

The maps of our childhood are the maps we most easily forget, or so it seems to me, looking back.

When I was a kid I ran through the gulleys and ravines of Lake Park as though it were my own back yard, which it very nearly was. My best friend D and I knew those woods like the backs of our hands and we spent almost every afternoon there after school. My home was five blocks from the park, D’s was two. The amount of trouble that two young boys could get into in that park, without their parents ever knowing, was manifest.

A full moon in October, a Hunter’s Moon, meant forts made from great mounds of fallen leaves, reinforced with strategically placed tree limbs. While our friends might be attending Hallow e’en parties to which we were not invited, we were busy devising new strategies for conquering the world, or defending our Emperor’s hold upon it.

My father raised rose bushes, right at the front of our yard, hard up by the sidewalk. In autumn the leaves from the mountain ash in the yard, along with those from the silver maple on the verge, piled high behind the windbreak that the rose bushes provided. Behind that natural Maginot line we would build our forts, year after year. They were durable affairs, reinforced with fallen branches and cardboard boxes from Diet-Rite Cola or Friskies Cat Food or what have you. We would lay in repose with our clakety-clack toy rifles and Cub Scout canteens, ready for whichever invaders may try to lay waste to our hamlet.

One year D pilfered a pair of walkie-talkies from his older brother, Dan. We talked to each other in our fort as though we were but part of legion. The rest of the platoon were just around the corner, ready to aid us at a moment’s notice. We were both pacifists, I’ll have you know, but we were too young to realize that that meant we weren’t supposed to wield weapons. You know how confused things can be at that age.

I was still trying to sort out my feelings about Alfreda Leiderböhm kissing me at Carrie’s Hallow e’en party when D and I were torn apart by the exigencies of school and family and life. As an adult I have seen films about the Nazi era in France in which families are torn asunder and they never fail to make me think of how my leaving Mr. C’s 8th grade classroom ultimately spelled the fatal turning point in D and my relationship. I went through high school in the next 3 years, while D slogged along, according to plan, and graduated high school about the same time I was dropping out of college.

Life was so simple back then. It may be a prosaic pronouncement, but it is also quite true that the world we face as 13 year old boys is nothing compared to what we will face the next time we have a chance to assess our self worth and place in the world, which may not come around until we’re 21 or 35. My epiphany came at 13, when my father passed away. D’s father took me under his wing and tried to fill a gaping hole in my life (something I didn’t realize for years) while, simultaneously, D’s parent’s marriage was falling apart.

When D ran away from home, a couple of years later, I didn’t really understand his complaint. He had two parents, after all, and they seemed nice enough to me. I lost a father to death and a mother to perpetual mourning, so what, exactly, was his beef?

Neglect, that was his beef. I only understand that now, with a wealth of history behind me.

Walk in the moonlight across empty roofs
Relish the moonlight’s embrace
sing the song of the sun to his face
fall down the drainpipe to the road
trip on the gutter
do as you’re told

Dance in the midnight, waltz in the dark
while others lay sleeping, serenade the park
have a mad affair, a tawdry rendezvous
long after twilight, a real lark
sing your song
mouth your words
pass silently abroad

We didn’t ever have words like those. We wrote, though, thoughtless little boy larks of prose which we would submit to our teachers as joint works of fiction. In fifth grade that was enough to win over our teacher. She could care less that we collaborated on our work, that she got only half as much work as we were supposed to turn in – it was of such high quality, and consistently so – that she graded us as though we had turned in two full, long assignments.

London 2009 – Epilogue – Rose Garden : Coda :

Flying high above the western coast of Ireland seems as good a time as any to start to write the epilogue of my most recent pilgrimage to London; Succour to the soul.

In music a coda is a little slice of notes, typically central to a main or secondary thematic element, which you are informed will return, come back, later in the piece. The double dots, the colons, at each end of the phrase, warn the musician of this fact so that when the time comes she will know where to return. In the software world this is called a loop, a subroutine, a goto. A little bookmark which allows the interpreter or compiler to keep track of the various nested functions and operations which all play into the symphony, the programme, the life upon which the guiding hand of fate has fallen at this moment.

My life of late has been replete, resplendent with coda in all form. The rose garden, for the purposes of this essay, shall be our outermost coda. In programming terms it is our “main loop.” An “Object Oriented” programmer would refer to this as the “event loop.” (and aren’t we all a little object oriented these days?). In musical terms it is our over-arcing theme. Then there is the magical East End, its currents run strong in this musical programme which has accompanied my life these past four weeks; a life lived within the confines of that tempo of weeks; discrete units of life upon which the fates have chosen to act, separating each part and portion of my life from the next, so better to orchestrate the melodies and harmonies, the building crescendo and the diminishing decrescendo, which comprise our souvenir symphony in four movements this past month.

There are those galleries, theatres, neighbourhoods and parks to which I return, again and again, in little loop-de-loop flourishes within the greater piece, little musical cul-de-sac; programmatic tight loops which allow for some minor variable to be recalculated or some sum to be tallied. These are the elements which make the life interesting not just for the subject (or is it object) but for those who choose to look over the virtual shoulder and pour over the digital entrails left in documentary form upon the ether which now constitute such a large portion of our record.

But are there not some other, more subterranean coda? Have we not my return, again and again to the East End, site of my father’s upbringing? My incessant desire to revisit his formation, his formative era to find his epoch. Isn’t there, too, the repeated loop-de-loop of my own little operas, my own cycles of being. There are so many little loops and coda here that to draw a map wouldn’t we end up with the tracings upon my soul of so many curlicues we would have the psychic equivalent of a Dryden Goodwin photo?

Whilst one is within the score of this souvenir symphony, within the source code of this peripatetic programme, one quickly loses the perspective necessary to perceive the tight little nests or sprawling cloverleaf interchanges of cause and counter force, of motivation and reaction, of intent and sentiment which all either choreograph or dance to the music of the month gone by.

I, as the sole soul to have experienced this little portion of “reality” am left now, at the altitude of 30 thousand feet, to look back down through the mists and clouds of memory to the patchwork fragments left behind in act, deed and word, and try to reassemble and reassess what really happened over the past four weeks. More important, however, than what really happened is the question, thus far unasked, what does it mean?

There is, of course, much meaning within these coda, these loops, these cul-de-sac. The tea leaves, the rose petals, the leavings behind through which we must dredge. The rose garden, then, has many constructors, initiators, events, notes. We started our little trek in London with a visit to the rose garden, X and I. We marvelled in the rich blooms gracing that May Day, and admired even those bushes still in bud and not in bloom. In our repeat, A and I on that penultimate evening in London, visited a rose garden which was at once the same and different. Yes the bushes were the same, they were the same ones which captivated my father as a child and as a young man, for that matter, but the blooms were different, nearly four weeks later. We, I, saw two little snap shots in time as the swooping of this souvenir symphony took us around once again to the same garden but displaced enough along the time line, the Z axis, as to see an entirely different visual feast. To dine, as A might have it, on a different flavour of visual food.

The dance within that rose garden, the parrying and dodging, was not that too just another repeat, another coda? There is little in our modern lives which is truly new, so many variations on the themes that are our lives. Add a new ingredient, a new foil or foible, and we have a new circumstance but is it truly a new reality?

Nearly twenty years ago I penned a reflection on reflection. I documented my tendency to document. My “Letter to the reader” set forth my observation that my incessant observation of my own life, for the purposes of later writing it down, had lead to what I dubbed “Documentary Living.” Was I not now, in reflecting on that reflection, simply adding a new coda to the coda? Creating what in software parlance is called an infinite loop? Is this the classical snake eating its own tail, and will surely lead to no good end…or no end??? Or is this merely recursion, recursive – to write over…or to overwrite???

X was the original reader of that particular letter; X with whom I visited the rose garden on day 1. I discussed it on day 24 with A, who was intrigued by the epistemology of my record, and then returned to that same (or was it different) rose garden with her on day 27. Did I close a loop or create an echo, a reflection? I then wrote about that visit to the rose garden with A, thus creating another loop or another reflection? Has an error condition arisen? Must I abend? Is a reboot necessary? Or have I simply imposed a Fibonacci series upon the equation, turning the endless loop into a spiral? A golden section?

These currents are treacherous, are they not. In 1927 a young Alec Bernstein, whilst swimming in the waters off Dover was caught in treacherous currents and nearly swept out to sea. 82 years later his son returned to that place and while staying clear of the waters was caught in the currents of air and nearly blown off the pedestrian pier. Returning to London those spirals of fate, those echoes of history, those reflections and reverberations through the timeline continued into the galleries of Whitechapel where a young Alec had played as a boy, and learnt as a young man, surrounded by one of the most turbulent eras in art history as the modern age was born just down the street and to the right. What was the future for him is treated in historical retrospect for me. He looked forward and I look back along the same skein of historical yarn, each knot along that invisible thread representing for him a future possibility and for me an historical certainty.

“The theme of the trip seems to keep returning to migrations, minglings and explorations.” wrote X on Day 20, then stateside, upon reading another entry in the continual diary. Indeed, yet another set of loops and coda, as I migrate back, again, to my birthplace, and back to the rose garden, and back to the Up Market and back to mingling with new friends and new surrounds, old stomping grounds become newly familiar avenues as I explore those streets and mews that Alec once explored. I retell stories of family lore to a new audience, but are the stories made new when heard by new ears?

Last year the trip to London began with a painful memory, a memory with which I had lived for over thirty years without ever speaking or writing about, and not just writing about it but publishing it in a forum where it could be read by anyone. It ended with a frightening dream on my final night in the Big Smoke, which left me moving through the flight home like a zombie until I wrote it all out in the air over Nova Scotia and posted it, as I always do, to that great psychotherapist in the ether, my blog. Thus revealed, naked to the world, I hoped to cleanse myself of whatever guilt I felt over the emotions which had laid buried for so long.

This year, as the final day approached, I felt a building trepidation of that particular coda; I did not want to relive the psychic torment of that dream and the draining effect of writing it all down. That cathartic coup-de-gras never did come. I slept well last night. So was I free of the demons which led last year to such a painful disruption, a jarring of the snow globe, a skip in the record of my souvenir symphony? No, for in the absence of that loop, that coda, I was left to examine all those loops and coda still remaining. It is the exception, so it would seem, which proves the rule.

Batteries wane, and so do I. I shall set this aside, then, and put the computer back under the seat in front of me. When I am home again (another loop?) I will extract this little piece of the owners manual of my life and once again put it on display for you, the reader, to ponder, in yet another letter. Another coda. Another loop. But I do regress…

London 2009 – Day 21/22 – Remainders

“Hey, no new entry?  You slacker!” “Even though people aren’t writing comments, they are reading the blog and enthusing over how beautifully you write and how witty and smart you are. I assure them they are quite mistaken.”

Yes, even from across the pond, X has kept up her bitter commentary :-). Here, then, is a catchup instalment to bring things back in line.

Yesterday was mostly a work day for me, the morning at least. My friend L came to town around 14:30, on a visit to see her brother, who lives in Kensington. We’ll be hanging around a fair bit, too. After getting waylaid on her way from Paddington to Kings Cross by an ambitious but misdirected cabbie, she was glad to go marketing with me at Borough Market. L loves sea salts, and is on a first name basis with a Frenchman down at market who brings the stuff over by the tonne. Great joyous sounds erupted when she spotted him, and quite a bit of money later we had 4 big tubs of differently doctored sea salt and a great slab of herbed butter.

That butter will go nicely with our spinach ciabatta and rye cottage tin loaves. The bread vendor was also selling this stuff:

He claimed it is Fonzerelli bread, in honour of Milwaukee’s own Home Town Hero, The Fonz. “You know Henry Winkler, He is from Milwaukee. He’s here now, up in Cambridge, signing his books. He was here, took picture with my bread!” Okay, we get it, you’re a fan. Oh look, isn’t that Potsie over there (hurry, run).

Also high on L’s list is balsamic sauce, a vinegar based concoction with loads of spices and flavours mixed in. Quite good on salads, breads, fruits, veggies, meats…pretty much anything one puts in one’s mouth. She loaded up on that, too. Won’t she have fun with her duty claim form. We also pick up several marinated lamb chops and other fixings, as well as strange French sausage blends. Now with the steel reinforced over the shoulder carry-bag compressing my 6′- 1″ frame down to something approaching 5′-6″, we headed back to the apartment to have dinner before L heads to her brother’s place.

Dinner was boffo, along with a couple of gimlets consumed during the preparation thereof, but in order to keep L from simply dropping into slumber following her flight, we opted for a nice walk about Bloomsbury. Off we went to Russell Square and thence the British Museum. Here are some snaps:

The British Museum was open(!), which we were surprised at, as it was almost 8:00 pm when we got there. We ducked in to enjoy a visit to the mostly empty exhibit galleries. Remember this, if the museum offers evening hours, take advantage of them! Here are some more snaps from us mugging (with the) exhibits

Back home, then, by way of Lord John Russell public house, where I enjoyed some Balvenie scotch and L opted for some ale and lager:

With L packed off to her brother’s for the next few days I returned to the business of business, this morning, and then ambled off to Leicester Square to find out what I would be entertained by this evening. War Horse was the winner of the silent auction for my attention, and a tenth row seat in stalls will put me in a pretty good place to watch this well received and well reviewed drama making extensive use of elaborate life-sized horse puppets. Here is a video of the action:

That sorted, I then proceeded to go in search of a still life with cheese toastie and discarded cocktail table:

Compliments of Delish Cafe:

I was on the march for the Phonica record store and their public exhibit to celebrate the first 50 years of Island Records, one of the top British record labels. It was an expansive exhibit of album art and other paraphernalia, but not very good exhibitry. There was a dearth of explanatory text, and what there was was in odd places and a bit dense. Here are some snaps. More in the gallery, of course.

After dropping a bunch of cash on Island anthologies I traipsed off toward Mayfair to take in a couple of photography exhibits; Helmut Newton at Hamiltons Gallery and Diane Arbus at Timothy Taylor Gallery. Lucky for me they are right next door to each other on Carlos Place. Right next door geographically, but miles apart in artistic sensability. Hamilton, in my experience, tends towards photography from the fashion world, and Helmut Newton presents that sensability but while almost all his pieces feature nudes, they all possess a tension and power imbalance which sap them of whatever eroticism they may otherwise have had (at least in my eyes). For the second time this trip I am left cold by what Hamiltons offer.

Next door at Timothy Taylor we find a truly original master in Diane Arbus. This is a refreshing exhibit of her work, sixty prints dating from 1957 to 1971 and including sideshow performers, regular people in New York, Nudist camps, and even a nude, pregnant, self portrait. It was well curated, and featured several additional catalogues to browse. There were many pieces in the exhibit which have not been shown in the UK before, which should make this a well attended show.

Arbus is always sensitive to her subjects, and her tenderness comes through even when unapologetic, “I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” What a contrast to the harsh sexual power struggles staged by Newton in his works next door. Perhaps the future will bring me back to Carlos Place, more likely for Timothy Taylor than Hamiltons.

Now down to Tate Britain, unfortunately on the verge of two new exhibits, so a little light. I shant well on it, then, but instead report on what must be the 13th or 14th day of the now seemingly permanent protest, in Parliament Square, by Tamil and Sri Lankan expats and supporters. Even though the Sri Lankan government has finally declared victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists in what is most assuredly a humanitarian disaster of a scale we will not appreciate until and unless some independent group, such as Amnesty International, Oxfam or the UN/HCR are able to get in and check things out, these protesters who have snarled traffic and run up huge policing costs show no signs of backing down.

Unfortunately, in the biggest disaster of the trip so far, I was heavily jostled into a railing whilst trying to cross into the square for a closer look, and tore a ruinous gash into my favourite black linen jacket. I couldn’t tell you whether it were a Tendentious Tamil or a Stroppy Sri Lankan, but whoever wot did it, the jacket is rubbish now, it is.

My wings clipped, as it were, I took some more documentary snaps and slumped back home to get ready for tonight’s show.

Oh, and booked a single in stalls for tomorrow night’s Donmar Warehouse production of A Doll’s House in a new adaptation, staring Gillian Anderson and Christopher Eccelston.


London 2009 – Day 19 – Artless in Whitechapel

In which Pawn finds some faith, views lots of art, and uncovers a whole new set of questions, all within the realms of Whitechapel an Southwark. Humbled and newly considered, he shutters in and tries to cure his head.

Pawn’s new friend Anne has thoughtfully furnished a list of East End art gallery recommendations which promise to pull Pawn back to the East and his father’s old stomping grounds. Previous visits to London have consisted of little time in the East End, other than theatre outings to Hackney, and last year’s stumble through Stepney (and Whitechapel, Bethnel, Bethnel Green, Stepney Green, Limehouse, Mile End…) was more a journey of familial rediscovery than a romp through the most vibrant arts community in Europe. Thanks to Anne’s able guide, I intend to change that this time around.

Since most of the private galleries are shut Tuesdays, today lead to the recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery. Whitechapel was the progenitor, the original gallery of 20th century art, opened in 1901, and its 1914 exhibit on 20th century works set the bar for all contemporary art museums to follow. It has had various face lifts over the years, most recently in 1985. This last refinish saw the gallery closed for a few years while it was completely revamped. The results are breathtaking. The gallery spaces are large and airy, with plenty of natural light and a high state of finish.

The exhibits in right now are quite broad and diverse. Isa Genzken: Open Sesame examines the works of this sculptor over the past 40 years. Goshka Macuga: The Bloomberg Commssion explores the intersection of political, social and cultural spheres, specifically in re: Guernica. British Council Collection: Great Early Buys shows off some of the important early acquisitions of this important cultural force. The Whitechapel Boys traces the history and early works of the driving force behind the arts scene in Whitechapel of the beginning of the 20th century.

Let’s look a little bit at each. Isa Genzken had a prolific career, and has certainly had an impact on other arts over the years. Some of her works show a vital curiosity about space and massing which is almost more architectural than sculptura:

I found it interesting more for its historical import than as art. I must confess a certain ambivalence towards much in 20th century art, which begs the question, you may well say, why am I celebrating a contemporary arts gallery? Because it is still very important in the greater scheme, and while there is much I am ambivalent about, and much which leaves me cold, there is also much which I find engaging, vital and inspired. In the case of Genzken, I am able to enjoy some of it, some informs me, and some just doesn’t get there. Onward.

Goshka Macuga has used the Blomberg Commission to create in Gallery 2 (until April 2010) a combination art exhibit, educational forum and library, all dedicated to the famous Picasso piece, Guernica. While not showing the actual Picasso creation (which was displayed at Whitechapel back in 1939) it does proudly feature a 1955 tapestry rendition created by Jacqueline de la Baume Düurrbach (with Picasso’s coöperation) at the far end of the gallery space. This tapestry has hung in the United Nations press gallery for the past 24 years. Nearer to the door one finds a film on the violence of war. Inattentive visitors may not notice that as they sit to watch this their feet rest upon a hand woven rug which is itself a map of the staging of military material in and around the Iraqi theatre of operations.

Opposite the film is a bronze bust of Colin Powell, done by Macuga in a Cubist style. The bust captures that moment, now of profound embarrassment to Powell, where, during the 2003 run-up to the US lead invasion of Iraq, Powell addressed the United Nation to make the case for war. In this frozen moment Powell is holding up the famous “vial of nerve agent” which he assured us Saddam Hussein was manufacturing in the notoriously missing mobile chemical facilities. This is a fascinating piece in its examination of the lowest point in the much celebrated career of a dedicated public servant. Macuga does have a reverence for Powell, and it comes through in her tender treatment of him.

The centre of the gallery is a large round display table in which are displayed various artifacts of Guernica, the importance it played in the Spanish Civil War, and in the rallying of public sentiment against Fascism in the years before World War II. The history of Whitechapel Gallery, Picasso and Guernica are also explored through old correspondence related to efforts to bring the piece back to Whitechapel after its important showing in 1939.

British Council Collection: Great Early Buys invites a series of guest curators to comb through the over 8000 items in this largest of collections of 20th century British art to select those pieces which they feel reflect the best in the early acquisitions. Prominent in this exhibit, the first of five to be displayed over the next 12 months and curated by Michael Craig-Martin, are works by David Hockney, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Lucian Freud, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and Gilbert & George.

This is one of those exhibits which just must be seen. This is one of the great collections cleaning out the larder and showing works which otherwise have no home. The British Council Collection have no regular home, and serves primarily as a lender to other galleries and museums across the globe. To have this collection thrown wide open via that gallery which was founded on appreciation of 20th century work is fitting indeed.

I may have to come back before the last exhibition has closed to see what one of the other guest curators come up with. Five stars!

Lastly come the Whitechapel Boys. This exhibit honours those artists who rose up out of the Jewish diaspora who settled in the East End in the late 19th century and lead the foundation of British Modernism. We are speaking here of David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertier, Jacob Kramer, Clare Winston, Stephen Winston and Alfred Wolmark, amongst others. This is not a very broad exhibit, showing maybe one or two pieces by each of these. There are also a handfull of display cases showing notes, doodles, studies and publications.

The exhibit shows us how this group, many of them either first or second generation immigrants who had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of the era which had swept Eastern and Central Europe (and which lead to the immigration to this very neighbourhood by Pawn’s own ancestors) developed a new vernacular for the 20th century right as the institutions which would foster that art and inculcate it began to rise in their midst. Indeed this exhibit has the feel of a celebration of life of a favourite friend of Whitechapel Gallery. We see how this group came to prominence along side the gallery’s own emergence as an important force in this new art.

I would call special attention to Clare Winston’s (Clara Birnberg) 1910 Art Deco masterpiece Attack which offers a vivid and piercing rendition of the violence of war which would make a fitting companion to Guenica. Also, Jacob Kramer’s 1919 Day of Atonement represents an important introduction of the visual vocabulary of traditional Jewish artwork into the modern vernacular. To have these pieces on display together is brilliant.

As I took leave of this gallery, I found it had a profound affect on me. I have never really thought about my father’s taste in art, or his interest in it. My relationship to him revolved around our peculiar shared interests in building things, making systems work, understanding the insides of machines, electronics, computers. I never knew him to have any deep appreciation of art, though to think he did not seems absurd, in retrospect. He grew up surrounded by this new modernism, but still fully immersed in the traditional arts of his people and his home.

This new question burns still in my soul, I have a new curiosity I must find some way to satisfy. Perhaps some other family member (most likely older sister) will hold some keys to this. Hmm.

A further stroll though the neighbourhood around Whitechapel Gallery freshened my mind and lifted my spirit from the must and violence of the old wartime art. Then hopped the tube over to Mansion House station and a stroll across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. May as well overdose, don’t you think?

In keeping with my general fecklessness, I managed to just miss the Rodchenko and Popova exhibit: Defining Constructivism. In fine form, it closed two days ago. Oh well, last year is was Duchamp and Man Ray I had just missed, and this time it is their contemporaries, Rodchenko and Popova. No fuss, there is plenty to see here, and I was particularly interested in seeing Roni Horn: aka Roni Horn open through next week. At least I made it to this one!

Roni Horn uses a variety of media and styles to explore the lines between self and surroundings, that porous border region between who we are, what we are and where we are. She likes to tease the edges of what she calls androgyny in which she means not just the traditional definition of that which is neither male nor female. No, she means that which is more generally neither one thing or another. An example is Asphere, which appears at first glance to be a simple metal sphere until, on closer inspection, we see it is in fact slightly un-spherical. Horn, The exhibit guide informs us, says “Asphere is an homage to androgyny…It gives the experience of something initially familiar, but the more time spent with it, the less familiar it becomes. I think of it as a self portrait.”

As this post is already so dreadfully long, so was my art viewing experience. I did find much more to like in the Horn exhibit. Her photo series, in particular, held my attention. Cabinet 2001 a series of 36 prints of a clown in bandages, for example, or Pi, a set of 45 images displayed on the four walls of a single gallery, and draw the eye around from one to the next with a consistent horizon through all images even though these are a mixture of landscapes, portraits, bird’s nests and other images.

Lastly I must mention You are the Weather, 1994-95.

This is a series of 100 photographs of the same model gazing directly into the camera while in a series of pools all over Iceland in all sort of weather. We see changes in the expression and demeanour of the model as we meet her gaze time and time again. As Horn explains, these changes in demeanour, reflecting the weather conditions of each shoot, put us in the place of the weather – by meeting our gaze it appears that the model is reacting to us, thus You are the Weather. It is a well made and well presented piece.

Before leaving Tate Modern for a night resting up and home, I took a spin through the rest of the regular and changing exhibits. I won’t detail them all hear but I will say that I may have reached the end of my patience with Cubism. Tate Modern have a wonderful collection of Picasso and it was a pleasure to see so many of them. Along with these are Madigliori, Klee, Kandinski, etc. etc. etc. I love them all, but gallery after gallery of Cubism, good and bad, is just too much (yes, I know, those aren’t all Cubism, I’m just saying I like the bulk of the collection). Especially when they are simply crawling with students from Holland, France and Germany all sitting on the floor or slinging around their rucksacks or slouching around corners to snog – and scribbling in notebooks the whole time.

The winds continued today, unabated, and with them my allergies have been exacerbated. Tomorrow they are due to die down, which will be a relief. “I hope the wind dies down. Its very trying.” wrote Anne yesterday. I couldn’t agree more. One thing about the winds here which are quite different from the US is that, as England is essentially an island, high winds mean rapid changes in barometric pressure and humidity conditions. So, the day can go from bright, dry and sunny to pouring rain in a heartbeat. And back again. This happens on and off all day long, so you must have your brolley handy, or just accept that you will get wet.

Oh; yesterday was a work day, with only a brief visit to Hyde park for a walkabout by the Serpentine and the Long Water (see gallery here) and a visit to the Serpentine Gallery for film works by Luke Fowler and other exhibits. Not much that really moved me.

All for now,


London 2009 – Day 17 – Pawn’s Fortune

As I strolled into Petticoat Lane Market today I was approached by a well dressed man wearing a cobalt blue turban and a dark brown suit.  He wore a full, thick, lush beard, and had penetrating brown eyes.  He bore them into mine, and said:

You are a very lucky man
Next month will be very good for you
You will become famous in your field
You are a mastermind
You have one story in your head
Write the book.

I thanked him and walked on, a little bewildered but feeling generally compliant.

London 2009 – Day 13 – Cheese Toastie Memories

Hurtled back in time to his days as a young lad, learning at his father’s elbow, Pawn is given to reminiscences, all due to the power of a simple cheese toastie. J knows not what she has unleashed with her seemingly simple edict…

Eat a cheese toasty for me. I’m not kidding.
J, in a recent message


One finds, when traveling, that friends will often make seemingly simple, banal or odd requests. “Bring me back a…” [insert obscure object of desire here]. “You must take a picture of…” [insert obvious snapshot locale here]. “Please, oh please, you have to…” [insert impossibly touristy act here]. When J made her request, however, I was a little surprised, and immediately started a little trip down memory lane…

My father was sort of a stranger to us kids on most workdays, until well after dinner. He would be gone well before we were off to school; his presence in the breakfast kitchen mostly confined to making and decanting coffee with the seemingly ancient Melitta. The filters he would pull from a large square box, and carefully fold into quarters, then pop out, into a cone. I marvelled at the topographic implications of this act every time I saw it. He may butter our toast, or threaten to spread his marmalade on it (Yuck! To my young pallet) before applying a suitable slathering of jelly, for me, or jam for my elder sister.

But then he would be gone, and mom would step in to fill out the breakfast routine for the five of us kids, before sending us off to school. My friends, many of them at least, had the added rituals of bag lunches being prepared (before the school lunch program started, about the fifth grade for me) but we lived close enough to school that we were expected to make the trip home and back every lunch hour.

At night dad would get home in time for the evening news, and then it was supper time. My parents would eat in the dining room, where they would talk about their mutual scientific pursuits, what colleagues were up to, and various other impenetrable topics. When one of us children had done something particularly good, or excelled at school or chores, we would get to eat in the dining room, too, where we would try to act as though we understood what was being discussed (my big sister would no doubt claim otherwise), while the rest of the wolf pack ate in the kitchen. This separation of parents and children at dinner time, weekday dinner time, was a core dynamic in our household. It is a large part of what made a holiday dinner so different – it wasn’t just different dishes, or a fancier table cloth, it was our presence all at table together, which made for a holiday meal.

After dinner would come homework and projects and all those little pieces of busy-ness and work which make the life of a young and growing family tick. My father liked to make things from kits. He made our hi-fi, television, harpsichord, grandmother clock, etc. He would buy no end of tools and equipment and justify it by what he would save by hand-crafting our Christmas gifts (I still covet my younger brother’s red and black wooden steam roller). I would hang around and “help” dad with the kit projects. He was rigorous about following every step and instruction and it drove me batty, but to have the time with him made it worthwhile. Though, to be perfectly honest with you, I still, to this day, bridle at following instructions.

This came through in our other big projects, my model making and the train table. I got into making models – cars, planes, war machines, etc. – when I was quite young, and in my father’s eyes that meant that he had to help me. I couldn’t be expected to complete one of these things on my own, and I will grant that this was often borne out in fact when I tried. It was on one of these instances, when I had decided to make an aeroplane model by myself, that dad walked into the kitchen (almost all projects were assembled on the kitchen table, which necessitated that all washing up be completed first). When he saw what I was doing, and I remember this quite clearly to this day, he looked, for just a moment, crestfallen. He quickly regained composure, and asked me what I was up to, and I felt guilty, like I had betrayed him. I ended up asking him for his help, and after playing a little hard to get he eventually assumed his seat at table and got down to the hard work of fixing everything I had mucked up and then progressing, step by careful step, through the instructions. It was at times like this that he would then break the tension by uttering a single, simple term, his term of endearment for me. He would call me “Revere Ware,” or more typically “Copper Bottom.”

Dad was Cockney, and though little of his English heritage showed through (he was a dedicated assimilationist) but the Cockney have a grand tradition of rhyming slang; of constructing new terms through a process of rhyming and contrasting, recombining, etc. My nickname started with my given name, Nicholas. This sounded to dad like “Nickel Ass” which to his Cockney mind could easily be shifted to “Copper Bottom” which was what a Revere Ware pot had, so that’s how you get from Nicholas to Revere Ware.

The train table process was the same as the models. I would have been perfectly happy with a bunch of track and cars and rearranging it all every now and then; add some curves here and there, some switches, etc. Dad, however, took one look at the Kalambach train book I brought home one day, and all he saw was verisimilitude. Next thing I knew we were building a 4′ x 8′ train layout with realistic hills, streets, a pond and bridge, trestles, mines, etc. It was epic, and just never seemed to end. To be honest, it never really did. I lost interest after a few years, and then after dad passed away, when I was 13, nothing more happened with it. Much the same fate for the harpsichord.

Weekends, however, were a different story. On weekends dad would make us breakfast, and often make us lunch as well. He would eat dinner in the kitchen with us, “Eating with the animals,” as he would put it. He had only a fairly limited repertoire of dishes. He could make all sorts of holiday treats: puddings and cookies and bars and such. Or jams and marmalades, etc. But breakfast? That would be soft boiled eggs and soldiers, pancakes or waffles (alternating Sundays). Lunch? The casual sandwich, of course, and then my favourite: grilled cheese. Out would come the griddle, an open and close affair with reversible griddle plates, one side for pancakes and the other for waffles.

A proper grilled cheese, or cheese toastie, starts with some soft bread, butter (though dad used margarine, may he rest in peace) and cheese. Dad would use cheddar or Colby. My more adult tastes have drifted to combinations like Gruyère with white cheddar. You start by buttering one side of each slice of bread, these will be the sides against the griddle plates. You place the first slice butter-side up on the cutting board, and then the next slice butter-side down on top of that. Then, on top of each of these little stacks, you place the sliced cheese. I think that it is better to use more thin slices than fewer thick ones, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, enough of recipes. Dad’s great contribution to modern sandwich making was the day that he brought his natural gifts of Cockney lateral thinking to the business of sandwich making. We had had a breakfast of waffles that Sunday morning, and for whatever reason – the washing up hadn’t been done or he just had an intuitive flash – whatever it was, the result was that he decided to make the usual cheese toasties with the waffle side of the griddles rather than the flat side. Thus was born the wafflewich and sandwich history would never be the same again.

I have loved and enjoyed the wafflewich ever since that pivotal day, and it has been important to my life. The first meal I made for my prospective wife was wafflewiches (“What wine should I bring?” she asked. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.) and I have served them to friends at parties and sporting events.

So, to dad, a toast to the humble cheese toastie. I may venture into any number of restaurants, pubs or food stands here in London, but nowhere will I find anything as good as dad made that one Sunday so long ago, when he used the wrong side of the griddle and made one giant step for cheese toastie kind.

[Editor’s note: Pay no attention to the modern poseurs who would have you believe that a wafflewich is a sandwich made with two waffles, rather than bread.  The original and only true wafflewich is made only as described herein.]

London 2009 – Day 11 – White Stiffs of Dover

Travel brings Pawn back to an apocryphal place and event in his family lore. X is dragged along for the ride. Much hiking transpires, in gale force winds. Children die, seemingly by the dozens, and the audience applauds. Ovations lead to encores, dogs are tired, and drinks are consumed. A busy day, all around.

“Obtuse enough to be cryptic or cryptic enough to be obtuse?” These are the Pawn’s true muttered musings on the above introduction. But every word is true. Off to Dover on the train at the crack of 10 am., to retrace the near drowning of Pawn’s five year old father-to-be on a family outing (back in 1928). Pulled out to sea from Dover’s stony shore by an undertow yet returned to the bosom of his family to thrive, without ever again entering a body of water larger or deeper than a bathtub.

Arrive in Dover with the fantasy of a side trip by bus to Canterbury, innocent pilgrims that we are. Takes a half hour to even find the Tourist Information stand and are directly merrily off for a wee hike to Dover Castle.

“O, you’ll be there on foot before the bus would even arrive,” we’re assured by a sadist somehow (terms of her probation?) assigned to help visitors. Battling high winds, a map like something from The Da Vinci Code, steep and treacherous steps, and my incessant whining [Pawn: and Wheezing] we scale the heights of the mountain, ready to defeat the German invasion, or at least find the restaurant.

This is a massive fortress, one of the first structures is a lighthouse built by the Romans,

and added to and improved over the millennia until it became a pivotal coastal base in World War II to spot and destroy German ships and planes. There are cannon, trebuchet (siege engines), anti-aircraft guns, narrow slit windows in towers for archers, moats: the state of military art over the centuries. Tourists were staggering like drunks from site to sight along the cliff edges, buffeted by winds that would have ruffled Winston Churchill. I envied those tottering about with canes; at least they had more stability than I enjoyed.

We made our retreat without a tour of the tunnels used in WWII to the disgust and amazement of the guard at a gate and made our way – wind mysteriously again in our faces – back to the town centre and thence to the Promanade. We pass a sculpture of two swimmers on granite blocks

on the shoreline – the point at which the Channel swimmers traditionally take the plunge for France; as the Rick Steves’ guidebook in our flat said, “Allow nine hours”. –X

Dover was dramatic and wonderful, and very very very windy. You cannot even understand this wind, and its effect, unless you were to experience it. After clamouring up to Dover Castle and its fortifications and instalments, we descended back down to the beach. I was determined to go as far as possible out on the sea wall so as to get some good shots of the cliffs:

I cannot even begin to describe how lashing the wind was. I have spent enough time sailing the Great Lakes to say that the wind was easily 20 knots, gusting to 30 or more. It was unbelievable enough to try to walk along the jetty, but to then try to take a photograph with a 400mm lens? Forget it. That any of them came out at all is truly amazing to me.

After three and a half hours of walking around in these conditions we are toast, and were quite glad to get back to the train station. Our train back to London was delayed, and with travel conditions we were late enough that we were glad that our evening show was so close to Charing Cross Station. We quite literally walked out of the station, around a corner, and into the New Players Theatre/Bar/Restaurant. Dinner was nice enough, and then into the show: Tiger Lillies – The Songs of Shockheaded Peter & Other Gory Verses. How to explain the Tiger Lillies?

They are a post-modern Burlesque Cabaret act heavily inspired by the Berlin cabarets of the years between the wars. The subject matter of this show are cautionary tales and songs sung to children to encourage them to behave properly:

And many more. Here are some videos of their performances:

What a wonderful way this was for us to relax from the rigours (or rigour-mortise) of the day. I picked up the live CD of this show. Back home again, and to update all of our photos, blogs, etc.  BTW, Due to memory card restrictions, many of the JPEGs you see are low res.  Full sized raw format images are available if you are interested.

As always, the entire photblog is available online here.