Rooster Feathers

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[“I’ve Got It.” Latest New Yorker cover by Cristoph Niemann.]

Below are excerpts from Françoise Mouly’s interview with artist Christoph Niemann.

I became obsessed with drawing trees when I was a teen-ager. I took the same approach as I did when learning to draw the human body—trying to understand the structure, the weight, the proportions. But I always got lost in the details, and the results didn’t look convincing. Trees are much too complex to follow rules; each is unique, especially in the summer, and I’ve made my peace with that.

Niemann’s sketchbooks often depict trees in various degrees of abstraction.

I do keep looking to see how the masters solved trees. (I recommend Matisse, Félix Vallotton, and Wayne Thiebaud.) But I admit the most important lesson came from watching the TV host Bob Ross: if you want to draw trees, you have to loosen up and be in a good mood.

… I try to find a sweet spot, where an image that’s technically an abstract composition of shape and color is somehow legible to a viewer. The recognition doesn’t flow so much from deciphering clues as it does from tapping into unconscious visual memory. This process is hard to get right, harder to pull off than traditional representation or conceptual drawing. But I constantly show my work around and ask a single question: What do you see?

(Françoise Mouly, “Christoph Niemann’s ‘I’ve Got It,’”, 7-26-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Praise Be!

Sister Gertrude Morgan’s “Jesus Is My Air Plane,” circa 1970. Estate of Sister Gertrude Morgan.

“Jesus Is My Air Plane”: When a great title meets its maker.

A big, juicy exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts turns an embracing eye on Black artists in the American South.

(Holland Cotter, “Art Meets Its Soundtrack Deep in ‘The Dirty South,’” NYTimes, 7-15-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved.

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Jane Kaufman

Ms. Kaufman’s later work, like this embroidered piece from 2010, dealt with religious and social divisions. She was unable to find a gallery that would show it. Jan Albert.

The savory quotation that leaps from this obituary of artist Jane Kaufman (1938 – 2021) is from Holland Cotter’s review of a 2008 retrospective at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y.

“It’s funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, hypnotic,” Holland Cotter wrote in his review of that show in The Times. The Pattern and Decoration movement, he wrote, was the last genuine art movement of the 20th century, with “weight enough to bring down the great Western Minimalist wall for a while and bring the rest of the world in.”

Trained in the art programs of New York University and Hunter College, Kaufman made a sharp turn from abstract painting in the 1970s. It made her prominent in the Pattern and Decoration Movement.

She began stitching and gluing her work, using decorative materials like bugle beads, metallic thread and feathers, and employing the embroidery and sewing skills she had been taught by her Russian grandmother. By the end of the decade, she was making first luminescent screens and wall hangings, then intricate quilts based on traditional American patterns. In celebrating the so-called women’s work of sewing and crafting, she was performing a radical act, thumbing her nose at the dominant art movement of the era.

Ms. Kaufman was, a colleague said, “a wonderful artist who tirelessly worked to break down the conventions of ‘craft vs fine art.’” Jan Albert.

(Lately, as I re-read the Quixote, I find myself tilting at pugilistic rhetoric in favor of a gentler style of discourse. Is an artist necessarily “thumbing nose” at — i.e., despising — one direction when he or she opts for another?)

The last word in this appreciation is a considered affirmation by curator Anna Katz:

“It was a risk for Jane to make decorative art,” Ms. Katz added. “The term ‘decorative’ was a career killer. It still is. I think her attitude at the time was, this wasn’t the boldest thing she could do; it was the most necessary.”

(Penelope Green, “Jane Kaufman, Artist Who Celebrated Women’s Work, Dies at 83,” NYTimes, 7-15-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Pausing to Remark

A former associate stumbled upon this blog recently and wrote to me. She had read some older posts in which I challenged certain language practice encountered in published articles.

It’s true I experimented for a time with adopting the persona of grammar nerd here, but moved beyond it. The audience for such matters is vanishingly small, which is okay. I have other passions to natter about.

What lingers with me is my colleague’s remark that she almost didn’t reach out to me from fear that I might be pesky or judgmental. She expressed in so many words a marked aversion to rubbing up against anything resembling an inquisitive or meddling grammarian. It’s pertinent that this person is a brilliant professional writer herself, and a teacher of writing. Any remark of mine about her practice would be otiose and impertinent.

I’m afraid that too much online discourse is rebarbative, leading people (and perhaps my colleague, who referred to my “web log”) to assume that what poses as criticism or critique in the cyber commons will have a belittling aspect to it, if not drip with disdain or worse. I emphatically eschew that course in spirit and, I hope, in practice.

What keeps intriguing me is where language that strays from certain norms can become obscure or cause confusion. A lucid, well-developed article in The Guardian quotes the following statement about retributive punishment:

“What seems to happen is that people come across an action they disapprove of; they have a high desire to blame or punish; so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over their own actions] that would be required to justify blaming them.”

The main clause has a plural subject “people.” The consecutive clause starting “so they attribute” introduces a singular nonspecific object “the perpetrator.” Subsequent references to the object avoid assigning it a gender by making it plural: “over their own actions” and “blaming them.” The reader is put to the extra work of realizing that the antecedent is “perpetrator” and not “people.”

A century ago it would read: “… so they attribute to the perpetrator the degree of control [over his own actions] that would be required to justify blaming him.” Choice of the masculine pronoun, of course, was an arbitrary convention.

I don’t contend that the usage in The Guardian article is somehow deplorable; only that, from a clinical perspective, it shows how extra-lingual pressures can move language in directions that are away from, not towards, clarity.

(Oliver Burkeman, “The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion,”, 4-27-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘Art Has Many Mansions’

[New Yorker caption] “Laura Battiferri,” by Bronzino, circa 1560. Art work © Musei Civici Fiorentini / Museo di Palazzo Vecchio.

The NYTimes, as well, has sumptuous reportage on this exhibit of Medici-sponsored artworks. The portraits have a preternatural technical brilliance that’s otherworldly. “Laura Battiferri,” fingering her legible volume of Petrarch, is a creature contrived from mannerist lunacy.

An interesting wrinkle in Peter Schejeldahl’s review is that he concludes by urging the reader to “head just down the hall” to look at the work of “bohemian demiurge” Alice Neel (1900 – 1984). I’ve seen her painting elsewhere, and indeed it’s blessedly rich with oxygen.

It’s remarkable how an artist long classed as an eccentric outlier has come to seem an Old Master for present sensibilities… A frisson of nakedness infuses even her clothed subjects, whose resilience consists in being fully and, therefore, by Neel’s reckoning, lovably human… Now return to the Medici and imagine their fainting fits, were they exposed to Neel’s principled gaucherie. Art has many mansions. Today, the most compelling tend to the tumbledown.

(Peter Schjeldahl, “Power Players: The Medici at the Met,”, July 2021)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Moncrieff Proust

[New Yorker] Photograph by Ullstein Bild via Getty.

C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889 – 1930) published the early-twentieth-century English version of Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Adam Gopnik reviews the first full-length biography of Moncrieff by Jean Findlay, “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator.”

Findlay’s book, says Gopnik, “helps us see how someone who was not even particularly expert in the original language managed to make a great French book into a great English one.”

Moncrieff adapted Proust’s unabashed French to English sensibilities, influenced by an appreciation of Henry Jamesian allusiveness — Gopnik draws out certain affinities between the two men’s styles. What comes clear is how Moncrieff’s choices succeeded, to a degree that Joseph Conrad could think Moncrieff “a better translator than Proust was a writer.”

The article concludes with a sprightly summary:

[Moncrieff] had a thoroughly lively time in life, in that British way that is still surprising to our more earnest American minds—he has rough sex on the streets of Venice, spies for the secret service, translates his Proust and Pirandello, goes to Catholic mass, and works for the Tory party, in one big, very British, and happy entanglement of sodomy, spirituality, spying, and sociability. Far from being a Proustian acolyte perfuming the altar, he refused to be remotely pious about the great book he had brought into English literature—if anything, he seems to have generally preferred Pirandello.

(Adam Gopnik, “Why an Imperfect Version of Proust Is a Classic in English,” The New Yorker)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘This Is a Rooster’

Don Quijote’s reference to Orbaneja the Painter stuck with me fondly over the years. It’s as savory now on second reading as it was on first.

… Orbaneja el pintor de Úbeda, al cual preguntándole qué pintaba, respondió: <<Lo que saliere>>. Tal vez [Alguna vez] pintaba un gallo, de tal suerte y tan mal parecido, que era menester que con letras góticas escribiese junto a él: <<Éste es gallo>>.
(“Don Quijote,” ed. Riquer, II-3, p. 602)

My translation:

… Orbaneja, the painter from Ubeda who, upon being asked what he painted, said, “Whatever comes out.” He was once painting a rooster, in such fashion with so poor a resemblance, that he was obliged to write in gothic letters next to it, “This is a rooster.”

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Worse Than God Made Us

… Cada uno meta la mano en su pecho, y no se ponga a juzgar lo blanco por negro y lo negro por blanco; que cada uno es como Dios le hizo, y aun peor muchas veces.
(Sancho Panza, “Don Quijote,” ed. Riquer, II-4, p. 606)

Spirited translation:

… Let each person put hand on heart, and not commence judging white for black and black for white; for we’re all like God made us, and often even worse.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Corn Fusion

“Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
(Czeslaw Milosz)

I get Ian Mc
Ewan and Ewan
McGregor mixed
up why I ask
myself is it the case
that they are
entertainers should I
know what their claim is
to confounding
me pending is
the impulse
to cede to
the urge to
the itch to
the lust to
sort the matter
don’t ask me why
I’ve not had this problem
with Mangosuthu
and Atahualpa


confundo Ian Mc
Ewan con Ewan
McGregor me
pregunto por
qué es que son
ellos entretenedores
es que debo
saber cuál sea
su derecho a con-
fundirme pendiente
es el impulso de
cederme al
deseo de
el picazón que
incita a
las ganas de
resolver el tema
no me preguntes
por qué no he
tenido este problema
con Mangosuthu
y Atahualpa

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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