Monday, 27 July 2009

Postcard of the Night No. 2, Hollywood, California

This card shows the second Brown Derby Restaurant, which opened on Valentine’s Day 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street Hollywood. Although it lacks the architectural extravagance of its hat-shaped forebear it attracted a more illustrious clientele from the nearby movie aristocracy. The architecture is Spanish Colonial and the famous hat has been distilled into a roof mounted neon sign. The shadows of night produce a flattering image of mystery and promise and conceal the visual clutter to be seen in the daytime image below.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Leslie Ragan, Visions of Stainless Steel

In the 1930’s Leslie Ragan designed some wonderfully expressive posters for the New York Central Railroad and proved himself a master in the art of portraying the energy and power of the steam locomotive at work. To see some examples, please follow this link. After the war he was employed by the Budd Company of Philadelphia as regular illustrator for their magazine advertising. Working for Budd was a step down in terms of subject matter from the sublime super-powered steam locos of the New York Central to the modest world of commuter trains and suburban highway developments. Today’s images all show stainless steel bodied trains in the landscape in all seasons. As others have observed, Ragan was a master-interpreter of cloudscapes producing almost hallucinatory visions in which vast scoops of apricot and peach ice-cream float through the heavens. In a future posting we will explore the Ragan vision of suburbia.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Apathy and Indifference

What a relief! National Art Hate Week is over and we can all go back to art indifference, which requires much less effort. So, welcome to National Art Apathy Week. Join us in celebrating British indifference to the visual arts. Let the frenzied queues outside the palaces of culture fall silent and disperse. Avoid the company of artists. Boycott your neighbourhood gallerist and buy no art for a week. Desert the Plinth. To inertia and beyond.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Art & Industry

This image is from the first decade of the last century. It shows the vast industrial complex created by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) at Schenectady and comes from a time when the success of a business could be measured by the volume of atmospheric pollution. More than thirty smokestacks are actively discharging black smoke into the upper air. Mass production of steam locomotives was a brutal and thunderous affair of hammering, forging, welding, smelting and riveting. Colossal quantities of minerals and fossil fuels were consumed in the process. The two-point perspective rendering is designed to convey a sense of scale and permanence. Built for eternity, production ceased in 1969 and most of the workshops no longer exist.

In the era of the Linen Postcard a new factory aesthetic emerged. Prefigured by Charles Sheeler in his paintings of the Ford plant at River Rouge (Classic Landscape, 1931), clean geometric lines and simplicity of form began to predominate. The Quaker Oats factory presents an idealised vision of this aesthetic with maximum glazing and repetition of forms. The Dixie Cup factory offers an even simpler profile with not a smokestack in sight. The giant Dixie Cup perched on the roof is a nice vernacular touch. This reductive process persists to the present to the point where most industrial production has been shifted off-shore to the Far East and China where it is completely invisible to those of us in the West who buy the products.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Chicago Bound

Contrasting visions of the world existing below the streets of Chicago. The first is an idealised image of an anti-septic subway station interior. All imperfections are airbrushed away into oblivion in the linen postcard universe. Chicago’s subway sections date from the Forties and Fifties and are pictured here in pristine condition. The minimalist aesthetic of Donald Judd is pre-figured here. The second is a sinister image of the Illinois Tunnel Company network that carried freight underneath the downtown streets through tunnels that look as if they’ve been hewn from the rock by slave labour. The improvised electrical wiring adds to the sense of disquiet. The story is that the tunnels were originally conceived to carry telephone cables and the operator installed a narrow gauge rail network in secret. From 1906 to 1959 these miniature freight trains trundled round the city delivering goods that were brought to the surface via purpose-built elevators. In the 1960s the empty tunnels were prepared for use as fall-out shelters and in 1968 it is said that the Sheriff of Cook County was all for using them to lock up the radical riff-raff intent on disrupting the Democratic Convention. In the event the police did a very efficient job of bludgeoning and tear-gassing the demonstrators into submission thus denying us the spectacle of Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman et al being cast into the subterranean gloom.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Chamonix – the Movie

Marvellous card where all sorts of narratives intersect and combine to create a fascinating image. Ladies of good breeding enjoy sublime and commanding views over Mont Blanc as if it had been constructed exclusively for their personal enjoyment. The figures are rigidly posed on the edge of a precipice and regard the Alpine spectacle with fixed stares. There’s a quasi-scientific air to the enterprise as if the recording of vital data is in progress. The horse is an enigmatic intruder in the care of an exotically uniformed groom. There are two vacant chairs and a decanter on the table. We could be looking at the opening scene of a Visconti film, the camera will pull back and in a fluid motion reveal an imposing Gothic sanatorium on the hillside from which a procession of figures advance bearing hampers of food, musical instruments and cases of chilled wines. Cut to a close-up of Burt Lancaster who watches the proceedings through binoculars from a vantage point high above on a remote mountain pass. He removes the cigar from his lips, an evil grin spreads across his suntanned features and he aims a well-directed jet of saliva towards the boots of the man standing next to him.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Art World

Great news for professional iconoclasts – National Art Hate Week is upon us. The first of what we must hope will be many such events. Perhaps in time there’ll be a telethon in which Terry Wogan can tearfully appeal on behalf of those whose lives have been ruined by exposure to art. The trick is to make the most sophisticated list of artists to despise to reflect well on the person doing the hating. There’s an over-dependence on the use of the name of Tracey Emin who despite her gradual evolution into pantomime dame and national treasure remains an all too accessible object of loathing. This really needs some thought and a list of potential candidates.

Francis Bacon
Michael Craig-Martin
Terry Frost
Cindy Sherman
Arthur Rackham
Henri Fantin-Latour
Richard Prince
Rolf Harris
Donald Judd
Wyndham Lewis
Martin Creed
Grant Wood
Barbara Hepworth
Clifford Still
Agnes Martin

Fifteen candidates from which to choose, some of whom are over qualified and others who are embarrassingly inoffensive. In the end the decision goes to the following. Terry Frost, for cheerfully repeating himself for decades and for an indecent display of energy in old age. Fantin-Latour, for his pompous group portraits of self-regarding Parisian artists, poets and intellectuals. And Cindy Sherman, for being Cindy Sherman ad nauseam. I do believe I’m getting into the spirit of this thing.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Postcard of the Night No. 1, Canton, Illinois

Phosphorescent globes of celestial proportions recede in perspective and lead us towards an open pavilion or bandstand. A brick paved path lined with trees and simple bench seating is bathed in soft light. In the distance, through the trees some buildings and storefronts can be seen. Mist hangs in the summer night. In the foreground stands an enigmatic trio of impassive forms. Jones Park has never looked more mysterious. The stage is set and what happens next may not be nice. A lost key, a discarded glove, the sound of approaching footsteps, a barking dog and a muffled scream; all part of the hidden tragedy in the secret postcard universe. This night belongs to Edward Hopper, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur and John Alton, masters of nocturnal poetry.