March 2010

Posted by Ellen

 

Toxic waste can give a body of water that certain something--a sheen, a glow. Call it art. Perhaps it's not surprising, in light of what a mess we're making of this world, that there has emerged in contemporary art a movement obsessed with discovering beauty in garbage and pollution and rusting husks littering the landscape. It has been argued that the nightmarish provenance of this beauty somehow deepens it, makes it more meaningful.

When one of my children was in elementary school, his teacher assigned a paragraph about something beautiful that they'd seen with their own eyes. My child wrote about the colors shimmering in a little puddle of gasoline in the Crown Station parking lot. The teacher was very upset; she apparently thought he was mocking her and her assignment. Really, he was just showing preternatural aesthetic sensibilities.

Posted by Ellen

 

Unlike yesterday's picture, which was also an artist's imagining of the neighborhood surrounding the Gowanus Canal superfund site in Brooklyn, today's picture just lays it out: this may not be such a great place to live. You can't even see the canal itself here--it's just beyond the dead end of the street--but you can almost smell it.

This photo, we might say, is much more realistic, or at least is truer to the ugliness associated with Gowanus that dominates the way the place is commonly experienced. One artist somehow found bright color and lively activity there; today's photographer captured the drab unpleasantness we expect to feel near the nation's newest superfund site.

Tomorrow we'll look at the work of artists who combine both impressions, sort of. It's a complicated canal.

Posted by Ellen

 

Last week, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was named a Superfund site, meaning that umpteen million dollars will be poured into cleaning up its pollution. Gowanus water  has been sludged with grease and foul-smelling nastiness for a long, long time--so long, in fact, that hardly any new buildings have been constructed in the neighborhood since the nineteenth century. 

This painting was recently submitted to the New York Times by an anonymous artist, in response to a call for works remembering the canal and its neighborhood. In this scene, the neighborhood looks bright and vibrant. "The artist's eye can find something special in this unlikely place," noted one New Yorker. "But if you've been there, you know it by the smell."

"And the noise!" observed another. "Lots of old Italian men screaming words of torment and threat into the night, muttering something about busting someone’s head off with a baseball bat."

"This reminds me of the old joke," said a third. "Guy asks, 'What's the quickest way to the Gowanus?' The answer is: 'Borrow five hundred dollars from Dominic and don't pay him back.'"

Posted by Ellen

 

These shoes are for sale in a store in the province of Songpan, Tibet.

Posted by Ellen

 

The little country store in northern Minnesota that Mom and Pop were keeping in 1937, when photographer Russell Lee happened by for the Farm Security Administration, was once a big and bustling emporium. Back in 1910, it had employed eight clerks, plus a butcher and a bookeeper. But in 1923, the nearby iron mine closed, and the Vermilion Range mining town known as Section 30 quickly became a ghost town, as weather-beaten and empty as Cripple Creek and the other more famous ghost towns out west.

When this photo was taken, the mine had been closed and the town abandoned for fifteen years. The photographer noted that the town of Section 30 was "bust." How, then, are Mom and Pop getting by? The store building is being kept up, the storekeepers are eating somehow. They look cheerful and relaxed, not at all like the haunted, haggard figures in so many Depression-era images.

I don't really know the answer. There were seasonal logging camps in the Section 30 area, but they were probably too isolated to reliably support even a little crossroads store. No new economic activity ever sprang up to replace the old mine; today, there's nothing but woods in that neck of the woods, plus some rusted old mining machinery.

Iron ore was identified in Section 30 back in the 1880s. Two groups of men tried to claim the property and mineral rights, using two different strategies to get title to the land. One group went to the nearest courthouse, in Duluth, and bought the land with "Sioux half-breed scrip"--currency issued to Indians for land transactions with the government; the men had bought the scrip from Indians who had nothing to do with the land. A second group of men filed homesteading claims on the land and built houses there to prove up their claims. The two groups sued one another, and to pay for the lawsuits, they had to bring in extra partners, including an ex-congressman. The competing claims dragged through the courts until 1902, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Indian-scrip group (which included the ex-congressman); the homesteaders' claim was invalidated because homesteaders are not allowed to sign contracts conveying partial ownership of the land until their claims are proven up, even though such contracts had been necessary in order to defend the claims in court.

The mine turned out to be even richer than anticipated; the motherlode was just eight feet below the surface. Active mining began in 1903, and the town of Section 30 filled up overnight. Twenty years later, the boom went bust, yet fifteen years into the bust, here are Mom and Pop making a living and a life, somehow, in Section 30.

 

Posted by Ellen

 

We've seen the work of Avram Dumitrescu before--his tiny chicken, his staring steer--but this painting is different. Here, in "Front Street Books," he shows a scene that is arguably unremarkable: a woman is settled into an armchair in a bookstore, with a cat curled up on a rug near the magazine shelves. What I like about this painting is that the bookstore is in Texas--rural west Texas, in fact, in the tiny town of Alpine. Paintings of Texas are supposed to show cowboy boots and pickup trucks and longhorn skulls in the sun, next to broken-down oil derricks. Avram's painted a little of that, and seeing as how he's a foreigner transplanted into west Texas, we might forgive him for painting a lot of that.

But here he's showing us a mild-mannered bookstore scene in Texas, and it's every bit as real, as true, as all the redneck stuff. I'm thinking that Republicans would fume: This scene doesn't show the real Texas. But what can I say? Texas is a big, messy, complicated place, and those Republicans are just wrong, as always. 

The cat's name is Frisky-Sweets. Avram notes that she posed for him "very reluctantly."

Posted by Ellen

 

Spring is roaring in; by tomorrow, we'll already have daylight saving time. Did we just dream it, all that winter stuff?

As dreams go, this one was spectacular. Here is Sixth Street NW in Washington after one of those snow events, with the National Gallery of Art in the background.

Posted by Ellen

 

With this picture and tomorrow's, Good Morning is turning the page on winter. The groundhog and the calendar and even the weather may say differently, but the groundhog and the calendar and even the weather do not control this here Good Morning thing, so . . . Goodbye, winter.

Last month, when the depth of the snow in Reading, Pennsylvania, could be measure in cubits or furlongs or some such, many people dug their cars out and then tried to reserve the parking spots they'd dug by setting chairs in them. This is probably an inherited cultural practice; if you are born into a family that believes in claiming parking spaces with chairs, then that's what you will grow up to do. It makes good sense to you, practical sense and also moral sense. You did the work of digging the spot clear; why should somebody else who didn't shovel a single flake get to take advantage of your hard work and park their car there?

But there are also people who believe that parking spaces on a public street are public and can't be claimed by any one person. No matter what the weather, it's first come, first served at the curbside. These people may be in the minority, but they also believe their approach is rational and morally superior--and often, as in this picture, they have the city government on their side. In Reading and many other places, the city came along and took all the chairs away. This practice has the effect of inspiring people, grudgingly, to shovel out additional parking spaces as needed.

In Portland, we don't have this kind of problem. The city bans parking the night after a big snowfall, and the plows quickly scrape almost all the streets clean, curb to curb. This solution would never work in places like Reading, where there may not be enough driveways to hold cars during a street parking ban and where there surely aren't enough plows to clear the streets promptly.

So next winter, a lot of people will feel strongly that they need to do that chair thing again. But meanwhile, I'm calling it spring. Goodbye, chairs.

Posted by Ellen

A shaft of sunlight has slipped between a couple of skyscrapers to illuminate this woman's walk across King Street in Toronto.