March 2009 Archives

Random Reading

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Sometimes, when I am looking for a new book to read, I will head over to Project Gutenberg's author index, pick a letter at random, and browse. Sometimes I will run across an author I've been meaning to read, or a lesser known work by an author I enjoy.

Portrait of Elsie de WolfeNot too long ago I was browsing the letter W when I came across The House in Good Taste by Elsie de Wolfe. I was excited to find this work by the woman credited as the first interior designer in the U.S., and even more excited when I discovered that some of the ebook formats included the original book's black-and-white photos.

I loaded the Project Gutenberg ebook onto my Sony PRS-505 Reader and settled down to read. My expectation was that the prose would be whimsical and eccentric and I was not disappointed on that count. De Wolfe's 1913 text begins with a passionate endorsement of a burgeoning decorating spirit in the U.S.:

I know of nothing more significant than the awakening of men and women throughout our country to the desire to improve their houses. Call it what you will--awakening, development, American Renaissance--it is a most startling and promising condition of affairs.

I loved trying to imagine this time in history that de Wolfe was describing, when a wave of interest in interior design washes across America, bringing optimism to the land.

The House in Good Taste was intended to be used as a practical handbook, with its guiding principles being "Suitability, Simplicity and Proportion." De Wolfe uses her own grand living quarters as decorating examples throughout the book and frequently mentions--without explanation--a Miss Marbury, who shares her household. De Wolfe's biographers and society gossip columnists of the period identified Miss Elizabeth Marbury as the decorator's lesbian lover.

I often found myself persuaded by de Wolfe's strongly worded opinions on interior design. When I started the book, I held no real opinion about--to use one example--brass beds. But after reading de Wolfe's scathing remarks about brass bed frames ("For the last ten years there has been a dreadful epidemic of brass beds") I've reconsidered the matter and I agree with her they are, to borrow her words, vulgar and ostentatious.

But de Wolfe's dislike for brass beds is as nothing compared to her feelings for nineteenth century black walnut furniture, which she assures "will never be coveted by collectors, unless someone should build a museum for the freakish objects of home furnishing" and "will never be surpassed in ugliness and bad taste." After reading that, I had to go look up mid-Victorian black walnut furniture on eBay. It is incredibly hideous.

When it comes to thinks she likes, de Wolfe is big on the use of trellis work indoors. There is an entire chapter devoted to the subject, called "The Art of Trelliage." The photo reproduced below, taken from the ebook, shows de Wolfe's own "judicious use of trellis." It is an interior motif for which she became famous.
A room covered with trelliswork

Attractions of Conceptual Art

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I've long had an attraction to conceptual art without fully understanding what it is that draws me to it. So when I saw that a local art gallery, Cardwell Jimmerson, was putting on a show called "San Diego and the Origins of Conceptual Art in California," I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore my reactions to this form of art.

According to the Tate Online Glossary, the term conceptual art "came into use in the late 1960s to describe a wide range of types of art that no longer took the form of a conventional art object." That broad definition encompasses happenings and other event-based works, installations and unconventional art objects.

Once inside Cardwell Jimmerson, the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I found many types of art on display, including video, audio, photography and mixed media. I was drawn to the displays that combined words and imagery, such as "The Double Articulation of Disneyland," a combination of 36 captioned black-and-white photos documenting a trip to Disneyland, which were displayed along with 36 typescript pages of philosopher Louis Marin's essay "Disneyland: A Degenerate Utopia."

Disneyland's Main St. crowded with peopleThe photos show artist Fred Lonidier on a trip to Disneyland with friends. The focus of their trip was to document corporate presence at Disneyland and the ways that corporate messages were deployed throughout the attractions. For example, in the photo shown here of Main Street, U.S.A., the artist muses "Corporate possession of public myths must be natural to this public."

The Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend was interested in "North American Waitress" by Martha Rosler, from the "Know Your Servant Series #1." This work consisted of images of waitresses in typical uniforms along with printed instructions and training information on how waitresses should act. The photography in "North American Waitress" and "The Double Articulation of Disneyland" dated these pieces, yet the underlying "concept" of these works was remarkably relevant to the present.

Another work that seemed especially timely was Phel Steinmetz's "Oil, Profit, Control" from 1973. This hardbound book contained original photography of abandoned gas stations and related imagery from the 70s oil crisis, along with clippings documenting the oil companies' manipulation of the markets for their own profit.

Seeing this show made me realize that I like conceptual art that has a political aspect to it. The definition of conceptual art that I found at ArtLex emphasizes the political and especially noncommercial leanings of the movement: "Art that is intended to convey an idea or a concept to the perceiver, rejecting the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting or a sculpture as a precious commodity."

However, resisting commercialism doesn't necessarily mean giving up on beauty, or on the art object itself. I was deeply impressed by the display of "Book of Lagoons," by ecological artists Helen and Newton Harrison. This awesome work on the life of lagoons represents to me what a concept or an idea looks like as a developed art form. You can find links to large .pdfs containing the complete "Book of Lagoons" here.

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