Category Archives: art

guerrilla gardening

A topic that’s making its rounds these days is the practice of guerrilla gardening.

It can take different forms, but what’s being talked about most are “seed bombing” and stealthily taking over neglected public spaces.

Richard Reynolds in London has just released a book, On Guerrilla Gardening, and that’s causing a lot of the buzz. The hiply “criminal” nature of what he’s doing has given Reynolds a certain aura. Even Adidas is trying to tap into it with a proposal for an advertising campaign. Think of the “edgy” caché that Shepard Fairey developed with his “Obey” campaign of guerrilla-applied posters featuring Andre the Giant. In addition to now doing signage for the Obama campaign, Fairey has taken that celebrity and channeled into an art and marketing career. Reynolds is poised to do something similar.

In addition to London the practice is happening all over: Berlin, New York, Long Beach in California–lots of places. In Long Beach, for instance, someone recently named in an article only as “Scott” has been beautifying neglected traffic medians by planting them with attractive landscaping. What’s really to his credit is that he weeds and otherwise maintains the spaces, and he’s been doing this for ten years, more than twice as long as Reynolds.

In the same article, Ramon Arevalo, Superintendent of Grounds Maintenance for Long Beach, has said that he has no problem with “Scott’s” illegal activity. “If you want to do this, my advice is to contact myself or the council person. We want to partner with people who care about where they live.”

That sounds like the seed bomb for a whole new program cities could develop. Why not partner people who want to grow living things with governments in possession of butt-ugly patches of untended land?

Here in San Diego there are several beautification programs in and around the city where artists are invited to decorate the mundane electrical utitility boxes that populate street corners and front yards. Hundreds of boxes have sported interesting new paintjobs as a result. Why not do something similar with those dead zones spread throughout most cities by getting people to participate in beautifying their surroundings by planting gardens in neglected spaces?

And–here’s a radical idea–why not pay them something to do it?!

niagaras of the east and west

Earlier I posted a couple of my tourist pictures of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, the “Niagara of the West.” I’ve just begun to scan and print the negatives of the large-format work from the trip. Here are three from the falls:

Viewpoint at Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho:Viewpoint, Shoshone Falls, Idaho

Shoshone Falls Park:Shoshone Falls Park, Snake RIver, Idaho

Parking Lot at Shoshone Falls Park:Parking Lot, Shoshone Falls Park, Idaho

Interestingly, in the pile of newspapers John had saved for me from while I was away, was a book review in the L.A. Times of Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara. Interestingly too, in browsing for the book on the web I noticed that it has two different subtitles: “Beauty, Power and Lies,” as well as the more provocative “How Industry, Commerce and Art Conspire to Sell (Out) a Natural Wonder.”

I’d lamented that the Niagara of the West had been despoiled and exploited to an unseemly theme-parkness, and in this long quote in the review Strand has similar things to say about the Niagara of the East:

Manicured, repaired, landscaped and artificailly lit, dangerous overhangs dynamited off and water flow managed to suit the tourist schedule, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength. In fact, they are a study in self-delusion: we visit them to encounter something real, then observe them through fake Indian tales, audio tours and IMAX films… We hold them up as an example of unconquerable nature even as we applaud the daredevil’s and power-brokers who conquer them. And we congratulate ourselves for preserving nature’s beauty in an ecosystem that, beneath its shimmering emerald surface, reflects our own ugly ability to destroy. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to the ways America falsifies its relationship to nature, reshaping its contours, redirecting its force, claiming to submit to its will while imposing our own on it.

Reviewer Tim Rutter, as much as he likes a lot of what Strand has to say, ends up finding the writing of the book to be tiring and frustrating. In that most post-modern technique now turning into cliche, the author’s process of writing the book plays a starring role in the book. When well done it can still be interesting, but in this example Rutter didn’t think that it was. Take that pronouncement under advisement, but it still sounds like the book is a worthwhile read.

an artist in the garden: Manny Farber

Manny Farber, one of San Diego’s treasured local artists, had a new exhibition at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla (actually just a neighborhood of San Diego, but don’t tell that to the La Jollans). The title of the show is “Drawing Across Time,” and features works on paper Farber executed in the garden of the home that he shares with fellow artist Patricia Patterson.

Manny Farber Drawing Across Time image

Manny Farber Drawing Across Time image

Manny Farber Drawing Across Time image
Manny Farber. Drawing Across Time (details). Mixed media on paper, 9 7/8 x 22 3/8 inches.

Lively diagonals animate the horizontal-panoramic-format mixed-media works, and space swirls around with the garden viewed simultaneously from different vantage points. His earlier work, such as the one below, share a similar sense of space, but being closer to drawing than painting, the work is freer, looser and more immediate. And of course be sure to add two and a half decades of thoughtful development to the equation.

Manny Farber: Sam's Bunch 1980-81
Manny Farber. Sam’s Bunch, 1980-81. Oil on canvas, 43.7 x 52.2 in.

Unfortunately, the exhibition closed yesterday, on June 14, but the Quint Gallery site has a generous sampling of the work online.

more about golf: virtual and in pictures

In South Korea 200,000 golfers a day are discovering that they don’t need golf courses to play the game anymore. The New York Times site ran a video piece on how virtual-reality golf is taking the golf world by storm. Take a look:

Virtual golf image

It’s golf–more or less–but with no unnecessary water use, herbicides or pesticides!

Artist Skeet McAuley did an artist’s residency with the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego in 2000. During that time he did a photographic series on golf courses in this area. Conceptually one of the things he was interested in was the total fake-ness of courses in relation to nature. In fact the title of the exhibition that came out of the residency was “The Garden of Golf.”

Skeet McCauley golf image

Skeet McAuley. The Meadows Del Mar Golf Course 4th Fairway, San Diego, California, 2000, Fujichrome print, 32 X 88 in. [ source ]

The resulting works were large, conventionally beautiful landscapes shot on golf courses. “Nature” has been rendered green and friendly, pretty and harmless. The images point out the way golf courses insidiously homogenize the natural world into a pre-ordered set of expectations of what nature should look like. In this world, there’s no room for snakes or tigers, weeds or brown patches of earth.

In this fiction of nature, going to a golf course becomes a virtual experience of the real world. It’s merely an approximation. At some level you may think you’re interacting with nature, but it ends up being as faked an experience as the Korean golfers and their golf simulation facilities.

gardens as social spaces

A little while back I wrote about the Critical Mass photography awards. One of the “Top 50” photographers, Lucas Forest Foglia, had a series based on a community garden and the people who interact there.

Left: Lukas Forest Foglia: Savuth Watering [ source ]

The Great American Garden shares undertones with the Great American anything: competition, excess and individualism. Just look at all the battles for the greenest lawn that the Scott’s fertilizer people perpetuate in their ads that are about to start saturating the airwaves.

But community gardens allow something else to happen. They’re shared spaces and meeting places where people of differing backgrounds and cultures interact.

Foglia’s photos look at the varied people who work plots of land in a community garden in Providence, Rhode Island, and they celebrate the intersections that develop there. It’s a nice body of work and definitely worth a look.


Left: Lukas Forest Foglia: Lessons, 2005 [ source ]

extreme "bonsai"

Here’s a project that I’ve been thinking about doing for a while, something that I see combines classical bonsai, European topiary traditions, and 60s minimalist art. About a month ago I finally took those thoughts out into the garden. It’s so much a work in progress at this point, but I think you can see where it’s headed.

This is the front:
front view of orchard

And here it is from a slight angle:
sliced orchard view

The “finished” piece is similar to a bonsai grove in most respects, except than I’ve taken a slice out of the center of it. Conceptually I see this closely related to my Destructive Testing photographs, one of which I’ve posted here. And just as the photographs obsess a bit about the human-culture dynamic and issues of control, I see this piece as dealing with similar issues, only in living form.

I started with some sheet steel that I welded into this sculpture/pot (top view):

bonsai pot

Angle view:

bonsai pot alternate view

Then I used standard bonsai techniques to root- and top-prune seven Japanese boxwood plants, and then planted them in a casual orchard formation. Several clumps of elfin thyme complete the composition.

Similar to bonsai, I see this as a multi-year commitment. I intend to pinch the growths frequently to encourage finer branch structure, the quality bonsai people call “ramification.” I want the thyme to fill in more, and I plan to eventually thin the canopy so that you can better see the structure of the “trees.” With time the container will weather to a nicely variegated patina of oxidized steel, and the leaves will diminish in size to heighten the sensation of miniaturization.

Though elevated to a supreme level of “naturalness,” bonsai is heavily about control. People look at the little plants, and quickly see that there’s a human presence under the surface of what they’re viewing. The aims of the art, however, combine the miniaturization with an effort to make the plants even more “natural” than they really are–if that’s possible–and to create a sense of perfect balance and harmony.

The aims of classical European topiary are radically different from bonsai’s. But when people view the shaping, sculpting and meticulous pruning that are so much a part of topiary, they also register that these are all acts of imposing human desires on the natural world.

Whenever this piece is exhibited I’ll do a meticulous trimming of the slice that’s been taken out of the center so that the slicing of the rectangle into two portions is mirrored in the planting above.

Will this combination of an elevated naturalism from bonsai with the blatant geometry of the pot and the shearing and shaping from topiary make the viewer think a bit about how their actions relate to the natural world? I hope so.

I’ll post more in this series once they get to a point worth sharing…

more ancestral vegetables

One of the things I like to do in art museums is to look at the fruits, flowers and vegetables in still life paintings from a couple or more centuries back. Often I recognize exactly what the plant life is, but other times I see things that look like no plants I’ve seen or food I’ve eaten.

When I was cleaning off my desk at work the other day I ran across an exhibition brochure of Spanish still lifes that one of my coworkers had picked up on her last trip to Barcelona. The show featured work by the like of Goya, Zurabán, and Juan Fernández “El Labrador.” The painting in the brochure that caught my eye was by Jaun Sánchez Cotán, a painter who created one of my favorite series of still life works.

Cotan Still Life
Jaun Sánchez Cotán. Still Life of Game, Vegetables, and Fuit, 1602. Oil on canvas. Prado Museum.

In the painting, in addition to the game, there are lemons and apples that look absolutely recognizable, like what you’d find at a farmer’s market today, though the apples–a beautiful gold with a rosy-red blush–look smaller than the modern hybrids today. The root vegetables look like parsnips, and something else a bit whiter, like today’s daikon radishes. But I doubt daikon would have been a hot seller in 1600s Spain.

The stick to the left with stuff attached to it–What are those? Squab? I can’t make it out clearly in a little two-by-three-inch brochure reproduction. But it’s the massive, gracefully curved veggie to the right that dominates the painting and steals the show. It’s to my eyes a cardoon, an edible thistle very similar to artichokes, though not a variety you see in stores much these days.

There’s a good description of cardoon in the Anioleka Vegetable Seeds Co. listing:

For culinary use, unlike the artichoke where the flower heads are eaten, with Cardoon, it is the thick leaf bases, hearts and roots which are utilized for food and harvested in the early spring to early summer months. Cardoon can be used in soups, stews and salads and has a slightly spicy, celery-like flavor similiar to Artichoke hearts.

Much of Cardoon’s lack of popularity is due to the fact that like the artichoke, a tremendous amount of space is required to grow them. Cardoon can grow up to 7 feet in height and is very evasive [i.e., invasive] in most climates. Care should be taken to remove the flower heads of the plant before they produce seeds, for Cardoon can agressively naturalize throughout your property.

In addition to naturalizing throughout your property, this plant can take do lots of damage to your local ecosystem. You run across large stands of artichoke thistle in the local Southern California canyons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually cardoons loosed from gardens or agriculture. Go ahead and grow them, but grow them responsibly.

But back to the Sánchez Cotán painting. All the beautifully rendered fruits and veggies and game occupy this dramatic space that looks something like a black cupboard or windowsill, but also something that looks like a dark infinite void. Because of this amazing space and ambiguity it looks decidedly modern and fresh to my eyes. And the vibration back and forth of the once-live subjects with the dark dark darkness conjures up notions of life and death, and the fragility of existence–all that without the cheap theatrics of skulls that often appear in paintings like this. This is vanitas painting at its best.

The painter uses this background in several other works, including my absolute favorite one of the series, a painting that so happens to be in the collection of my local art museum:

sanchez cotan painting
Jaun Sánchez Cotán. Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602. Oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.

I can’t tell you how much I love this painting. A good forty percent of the surface is black. Absolute, utter black. The fruits and vegetables begin in the light, and draw your eye as you follow along the graceful curve from the lively quince, to the extravagantly ruffled cabbage, to the sensual melon sliced open with a slice taken out for you to savor with your eyes, and finally to the final vegetable, a cucumber that curves gently but insistently towards the back, towards the enveloping blackness, a blackness that makes itself felt every bit as much as any of the fruits and vegetables.

Quinces and cabbages today look pretty much like what’s in the painting. There are so many melons out there that it’s hard to keep track, but it looks like an ancestor to the French heirloom sold today as Charentais. And the green, lumpy cucumber–It’s totally recognizable, though it looks closer to gherkins or the Asian varieties than the smooth, plastic-surfaced cukes that you see in the stores most of the time.

Interesting vegetables, for sure, and what an amazing painting!

wolfgang laib: a different sort of botanical art

The first time I encountered work by Wolfgang Laib I almost walked past it. The piece consisted of several uniformly-sized sulphur-yellow piles of some substance, each only a very few inches high.

laib pollen work

Some artwork you look at and you get immediately. Others don’t click until you read the label for some sort of clarification that can turn into one of those OMG aha moments. Turns out the little yellow piles were made of pollen that the artist had collected.

The piles were small, but anyone who grows plants knows that coming up with that quantity of pollen would take days, weeks, maybe longer, and bespoke a certain kind of focus (or utter obsessiveness). It’s an artwork that highlights the importance of the work’s materials as well as the processes and lifestyle the artist needs to commit to in order to make the work.

The Five Mountains Not to Climb On (Die fünf unbesteigbaren Berge), 1984. Hazelnut pollen, height: approximately 2 3/4 inches [ source ]

Left: The cover of the catalog, Wolfgang Laib Eine Retrospektive.

Another room in that exhibit I attended had one of his stunning squares, also made of pollen, laid out on the ground. Minimalism has strongly influenced how subsequent artists approach what they do, and making uniform piles or geometric shapes of something can verge on cliché. But the edges of the pile were a little soft, with the pollen defying staying exactly within the margins of the square, and the softened edges made the square seemed to dematerialize and float, like the rectangles in Rothko’s paintings.

Assertive in color but intensely fragile in nature, the work showed a reverence by the artist to his materials. But at the same time it required a respect from the viewer to at least not do something as blunderingly insensitive as to walk through the artwork. Unfortunately, before that La Jolla exhibition closed, someone had done just that.


Sunday I went down to San Diego’s annual Artwalk streetfair down by the cool waterfront in the Little Italy neighborhood.

This has been a seriously bipolar spring, alternating chilly periods with intensely hot ones. This weekend was one of the hot ones, and people were milling about slowly, checking out the stalls of art. But almost everyone seemed to be more interested in the stands offering cold drinks.

I talked to one of my photographer friends down there who had a double booth and has been pretty successful there in years past. “People are mostly looking this time,” she said.

I guess I was one of the lookers too, for the most part. After getting my fill of the art, the one sight that really caught my eye was this jacaranda tree in bloom over an orange backhoe near where I’d parked my scooter:

jacaranda in bloom over backhoe

I don’t see eye-to-eye with Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, but this is one thing we agree on. It’s his favorite tree, and one of mine. It’s Jacaranda mimosifolia, a South American native that’s well adapted to areas without much in the way of frost. The leaves are ferny and delicate and the plant’s pretty well behaved in the U.S. (It’s considered an invasive pest, however, in South Africa and Queensland, Australia.) In the spring it turns into this, an explosion of purple flowers that rain down on cars and sidewalks below. Messy as all get out but a pretty exultant mess! Yet another plant that’s too big for my yard…

calla lily displacement

Here’s a recently reworked piece, Calla Lily Displacement, from the Destructive Testing photo series I started ten years ago:

Calla Lily Displacement

Believe it or not this work sprang from a discomfort I had with the documentary photo tradition, where the photographer is often considered an invisible presence, and where photography is a neutral and even benign tool with which to view of the world.

Destructive Testing is a group of still life images documenting various gently destructive acts against botanical material. In these actions, I was interested in questioning that neutrality by pointing out the presence of the photographer. At the same time I wanted the image to still be a beautiful one, something that balanced the destructiveness with qualities we expect from images we want to have around us.

(And yes, I wanted to do a calla lily picture that wasn’t like the tens of thousands of them that have already been done…)