Archive for the ‘art’ category


February 19, 2010

My first short post on this blog was titled “As a luddite…”, but visiting the steampunk temporary exhibit at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science  has made me reconsider my Luddite position (aesthetically as well as functionally – as my use of a blog indicates, of course, I have my uses for techology, but before now, I rarely found it appealing in itself). In a short article in the broadsheet for the exhibit, which opened in October and closes this week, Brian Catling from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford notes, “Steampunk rewrites technology without the aid of electricity or nuclear power. It gives its sermons and tells its tales in an ornate courtly language that has never been mass-produced or suffered the humiliation of being simplified by plasticity.” Catling’s article is called “Steampunk: A Calibration of Longing.”

“Pachydermos,” gas mask – Tom Banwell

It is plastic-ness above all things that I dislike about technology. While I sometimes fear that the internet is giving me ADD, taking up too much of my time that could be spent with people in the flesh, etc., it’s more often than not the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of modernity that really get to me. I am more shallow than I’d like to think?

I’m not a huge fan of lab science, or of the celebration of hard steel and churning gears. In, say, Atlas Shrugged (which will certainly get a post when I’ve finish reading it), these elements creep me out aesthetically as well as morally. But I really like the aesthetics of steampunk. There’s enough old-ness and history in it to counteract the new-ness. It’s personable and dirty. Catling writes that in steampunk, “the mechanical is given a new status that elevates it beyond slavish function.”

I thought this guy’s bio was especially cool:

though I’m maybe less excited about his pieces than some of the others in the exhibit:

The blurbs of several artists in the exhibit stated that they had always had the steampunk aesthetic – the future imagined from the past – but hadn’t realized that it was a distinct subculture with a name.

That is, in part, because steampunk is a pretty new movement. While it got its name in the 80s as a more nostalgic relative of cyberpunk, recently it has been gathering…steam. It is principally a literary genre, but it also surfaces in other forms, like the The Wild Wild West TV show from the 60’s, before steampunk had its name, and the movie remake, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book and its movie, and (again) in Sherlock Holmes. These are not stunning specimens of quality cinema, etc., but then again steampunk in general doesn’t take itself too seriously, and maybe that is refreshing in itself.

Steampunk goggles, “Squid Attack” – Dr Grymm

Looking at these goggles and other wonders in the exhibit, one little boy, probably about six years old, said to his mother, “So this is what was meant to happen?”

Electric Skull – Amanda Scrivener/Professor Maelstromme

His Dark Materials is apparently considered to be steampunk or steampunk-inspired, with its zeppelins, clockwork, etc. So is the computer game Myst.

Most of the artists in the exhibit have unusual pseudonyms: Datamancer, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich, Doctor Grymm, Mad Uncle Cliff, Professor Maelstromme, Herr Doktor. It seems there is a certain sort of person who creates steampunk art.

Arachne Mechanica – Thomas Willeford

Many current – would they be “steampunks”? – cite Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and the like as inspiration. I am and especially used to be a fan of those authors myself, and maybe I have a little steampunk in me: here’s a mechanical fish I drew my freshman year in high school – long before I knew about steampunk:

I don’t think my fish would actually work, but that’s ok: Catling points out that mystery of function can be one of the most appealing aspects of a piece of steampunk art.

Incidentally,  when I was in London a few weeks ago, before I went to this exhibit, I bought myself a quite steampunky pocketwatch for just £9.

The long chain lets me wear it around my neck rather than in my pocket. I’m a little embarrassed to actually take it out and look at it in public – even around my neck, it is, so obviously, a pocketwatch – and I can’t tell if this embarrassment will get better or worse when I return to the US.

The issue of what constitutes steampunk music is apparently hotly debated. One group often classified as steampunk is Rasputina. Observe the steampunky wooden-gear-contraption at work around the middle of the video:

I liked that one, I think.

This one, not so much:

It reminded me of what I really don’t like about technology. Also, I swear the little boy near the end is Spoilsbury Toast Boy.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit were also quite creepy, sometimes in a fun way and sometimes not. For example, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s “Complete Mechanical Womb”:

Less ambiguously than cyberpunk, steampunk seems to delight in what is to me often disturbingly mechanical. And the delight is for the mechanics itself, rather than for any sort of dystopian message, though I can’t help but see a mechanical womb as dystopian. I like a good creepy image, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in a steampunk world, or at least not in Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s.

…and now my laptop’s hard drive is apparently fried, reminding me of why actually I do hate technology. Now come barren days of work in Hertford College Grad Centre’s stark, modern, fluorescent computer room, without the pretty view out of my room’s two windows:

back when it was snowy here…

and without a pretty steampunk keyboard:

Ergonomic Keyboard – Datamancer

to keep me aesthetically satisfied.


Some art from last semester

February 11, 2010

As a visual arts minor, I’m expected to do independent work as well as class work. Here’s some of both. (The colors in the photos look better in my Windows Photo Gallery than on WordPress for some reason.)

I had an about hundred fifty square foot white box of studio space all to myself – all VIS minors and majors get their own studios on the fourth floor of the art building, where only we and faculty are allowed to go!

Justine's art
One of my first drawings from fall semester

We had an assignment in my drawing class to do a self-portrait each week on an unconventional surface. This was my first:

A sort of greenman-woman. It lived as a pet on the desk the my carrel that went along with the studio.

Just before Halloween, our student center had a Jack-o’-lantern-carving party. I still had to do my self-portrait for the week.

We had an assignment to do a self-portrait on a different unconventional surface each week. Our student center had a Jack-o'-lantern-carving party and I had an idea.

A light-bulb went on in my head – literally. We’re not allowed to keep candles in our rooms, so the organizers of the event provided all pumpkin-carvers with electric candles.


I left the pumpkin in my carrel over fall break, and when I returned, as I had hoped, it had shriveled and sagged:

It continued to shrivel – a nice reminder of mortality and, since it was a self-portrait, maybe a sped-up version of my own aging process (though I hope that one side of my face will not cave in so soon before the other). As it aged, its expression seemed to convey increasingly disillusioned feelings toward the admittedly bleak and bizarre world around it. I don’t think it approved of the rest of my art in my studio, at which it had to look every day:

I did this one directly on the studio wall, making it impermanent, but in an appropriate way - it was about topography - the California topography I miss when I'm away - and the assimilation/naturalization of its inhabitants (Irish and Chinese railroad workers in particular), and eliminating the distinctions between the organic and the inorganic, and civilization patterns, and maps, and lots of of other things I could go on about, or maybe about nothing to begin with. It's easy for me to give things meaning as they go along - maybe not a terrible philosophy.

Through the semester, I found that I can produce “abstract”-looking art as long as it doesn’t seem abstract to me. I needed to find some story for it, and as long as I had that, I generally didn’t feel the sinking feeling of futility that some abstract art (the work of suprematists and minimalists, for example) makes me feel.

The one I’m working on above was better in the in-process photos than it is now because the fixative kind of dulled down the pastel.

This one was not-abstract for me on the micro-scale because I included various designs from my mind, sketches of things around me, and other tidbits; and on the macro-scale because I saw the spiral as the “sweep of history” (the good thing about art is that it can’t be cheesy in quite the same way as phrases like the “sweep of history” can be). Treating it as a historical spiral, I worked on it from the initial, primeval center to the modern outer rim. As I went along, things got bigger and brighter, but less dirty and fun.

The problem with it now, post-fixative, is that because the pastel on the black part is most faded, the sweep of history is too clear and unambigious. Pre-Hegelian even. The antitheses, which I had intentionally included in the form of the lines running outward from the center, perpendicular to the lines of the spiral, are too weak to help yield any sort of synthesis, as is the “dust of the ages” that I’d made sure to place between the spiral’s coils and under the contrary lines. I’m especially sad around the perpendicular lines, though. I tried this semester to force myself out of my “natural” way of doing art – making everything “swirly,” as people always describe my art. I don’t want such a weak non-concept as “swirly” to be the chief characteristic of my art. So I tried adding a little more rigor; where my impulse is to make everything go with the flow, I instead put lines directly orthogonal to my impulse, and to the existing lines. But now…

The problems of memory, documentation, and preservation – history again.

Below is another example of an assignment (we had to create an entirely abstract drawing) where, after hours of struggling, I finally forced myself to go against my Art Nouveau-ish instincts to make everything swirly and organic – everything amenable to everything else – and to create forms that were solid, geometrical, and hard-edged.

I don’t like the result very much in some ways, but I feel connected with it in another way – I respect it for being, I’ve been told and I think I can tell, well done. It’s just well done in a style I don’t much like. But it has a decent sense of composition and space, objectively, or as objectively as art goes, I think. That’s what the art faculty thought. It helped give me artistic backbone, I think, certainly in creating space – the problem with naturalizing and assimilating everything to everything else, as I did in my wall-piece above, is that the impulse is to not put anything harshly divergent on top of something else. Even when working in my natural, nonconfrontational style, I do enjoy contrast, but it usually occurs through the slow darkening of one area until it has reached an appropriate level of intensity, or through the filling up of a blank space. Suddenly (though after careful consideration) covering up a large part of the paper with white gesso, as I did in this drawing, was refreshing.

A drawing more in my “natural” style – the style both more natural to me and more organic:

Inspired by a picture-filled book about the Anglo-Saxons I'm reading for one of my Oxford courses

More to come on my site-specific art-ing from the fall, in addition, maybe, to some non site-specific stragglers, some non-art catching up from the fall, and Oxford.