Friday, April 30, 2010

Gilding the Lily

Attended the Mark Ryden opening last night at Paul Kasmin. My own personal layman's take on the show is probably neither compelling nor different from what you'll read elsewhere, but since I am a river to my people, here you go...

I really do love the luminous effect that you see in a Mark Ryden painting: a soft, ravishing glow seems to come from everything, and the perverse confectionery palette brings to mind the kind of colors Matthew Barney uses in his Cremaster series. (Pastel color palettes have become a pervy kind of shorthand, haven't they?)

Where I get hung up with Mark Ryden's work (perhaps unfairly, since his work isn't meant to be about big ideas) is the subject matter: how he paints is far more interesting than what he paints. The obvious, fantastical aspects of his work are fun, but beyond the initial impact, they don't sustain my interest. Of course, the shallow kitsch value of his subjects is part of the point, and using a set amount of motifs over and over is a kind of brand-building, which makes perfect sense from a business angle. I'm not saying this is a calculated move on Mr. Ryden's part, but cultivating a limited suite of motifs has served him well: the opening last night was mobbed by throngs of baby doll girls, sausage dresses, and people covered in plastic steaks. But that's what Pop Surrealism is about: despite whatever shortcomings the genre may have, there's an admirable openness and participation. Everyone was having a good time dressing up and milling about. Seems like the real art was on the backs of the fans, not the walls--and good for them, I say. Can't imagine the same sort of thing happening at a Sol LeWitt retrospective.

All that being said, I do wonder what the result would be if Mr. Ryden decided to make the everyday strange rather than vice versa. I suppose that's why I'm more of a John Currin fan: I like how he applies his grotesque, satirical virtuosity to subjects that reflect daily life--which is already weird and compelling.

Whimsical Convergences, Part II

My investigations at the Mark Ryden opening in New York this evening unearthed yet more evidence of the world's inexorable drift towards total and utter whimsification. As you can see in the photo above, the coincidences have amassed into an iron sphere of fact. This is no longer a whimsical convergence, my friends: this is a whimsical singularity.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Forest Oasis

Juniper moss on Pincushion Moss

Juniper moss growing on pincushion moss.

First Morels of the Season

This Monday, I trekked into the fresh green curtain of forest to hunt morels with my friend Laura, who really seems to have a knack for finding the little devils. This is a very modest batch, but it's still early and you really don't need much for risotto. Tasty little things. Fellow mushroomers, be warned: some people will get an upset stomach from mixing morels and alcohol, especially when eating black morels. I have never seen black morels in my hunting grounds, just gray and yellow morels. Still, it's best to be cautious until you know what your body can tolerate. Bon apetit!

Kimiko Yoshida

Poet Nada Gordon recently posted on her Facebook page about the artist Kimiko Yoshida, whose self-portraits are very beautiful and intriguing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On Mount Vernon

Threshing Barn

This week, I had the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon, Washington's great estate.

Family lore has it that we were once Cohee Virginia farmers (a couple of whom may have served under Washington himself), so I always indulge in a moment of false nostalgia when visiting the lush, rolling hills of this state. I will say that whenever I visit this part of the country, I do start to notice people who share my own features or general cast of face. One also begins to detect a shift not only in the social texture (it's such a pleasure to dust off and flex my "pleases" and "thank yous"), but also in the texture and velocity of speech: the twangs always bring to mind childhood memories of my older relations, all of whom are gone now.

Everything is in full bloom in Virginia at the moment, possibly as much as three weeks ahead of the plants in New Jersey. Driving south in mid-Spring is a kind of time travel. Enjoy it while you can.

My primary interest in places like Mt Vernon is how the people related to the natural settings that sustained and defined them. I've always been fascinated with how people use living things around them to enhance their pleasures and comforts, and Mount Vernon abounds in such examples--some of which are having a rebirth, and feel rather timely. Fruit trees are everywhere, espaliered and cordoned to bear more fruit per branch than they otherwise might. These fruit trees were originally trained onto rail fences that have long since rotted away, and now serve as living fences, themselves. Small branches are woven into animal pens, or stuck vertically into the ground to serve as pea trellises. There's a deft grace to such things that I cannot resist. Equally pleasurable are the conversations with, say, a woodsman on why a tulip tree's wood grain is too twisted to make good rails for fences, or perhaps with a blacksmith about the differences between blueberry iron and bog iron, and why one oxidizes faster than the other. The hours fly swiftly for me, but the minutes must surely drag on for anyone else within earshot.

As spectacular as the grounds are, I've always found Washington's house to be something of a letdown. Like John Bartram's wonderful house, it's something of an architectural oddity, with its spidery windows and delicate cuppola, which gives it a crisp silhouette. As much as I love Washington's Georgian-style orangery/greenhouse, the Old Man's house gives the impression of an eighteenth-century McMansion. The grandiose setting and the sprawling layout is part of why this may be the case, but what really gives one this distinct impression is this: the skin of the house is not stone or brick, but wood carved into stone brick form, covered in an early kind of white stucco veneer. I've never come across this feature in any other building dating to this period, and from what I can tell, it seems to be a singular example (this is the part where this rank amateur is avalanched with other examples). While I marvel at the novelty of such an unusual architectural feature, I'm more apt to imagine it on a home owned by a brash, brilliant striver like Hamilton. Such an anxious gesture seems beneath a man of Washington's stature. One would imagine him favoring something dignified and understated like plain Flemish bond brick or white clapboard: materials befitting an American Cincinnatus. Maybe this provides us with a rare insight into the private Washington? One is tempted to wax French and liken the house's grand, brittle facade to Washington's false teeth, epaulets, and wigs--but a hard smack cures one of such notions.

To be sure, Washington's house epitomizes a suite of eminently American traits, but for my money, Jefferson's Monticello is far more tasteful and inviting. Monticello is not merely a curiosity, but a gem: it's modest in scale, considered in its proportions, nestled in its landscape, and every nook displays an eclectic charm and inventiveness. If Mount Vernon is a vulgar McMansion, Monticello is more akin to that truly elegant American innovation, the Craftsman bungalow. When comparing the two houses, it's clear that most Americans today tend to follow Washington's lead in such matters, rather than Jefferson's. Both are quintessentially American, but given my druthers, I prefer the American qualities expressed in Monticello.

One last impression: the visitor's center and gift shop, with its Washington bobbleheads and refrigerator magnets in the shape of the Founding Father's false teeth, is every bit as hilarious as it is horrific: its vulgarity and color is fitting, and a place should be made for it, even in our most revered civic shrines. It's who we are. However, my own flip attitude towards this commercialized Pop-Washngtoniana has its limits. At the risk of seeming like an overly reverent, earnest prig, I found it sad watching the ball-capped throngs crowding into the noisy exhibit-cum-themepark ride that trivializes Washington's life with videos and cheap movie soundtrack violin sweeps, while the adjacent museum with its incredible artifacts and its air of quiet dignity barely had a single soul in it.

A fork in the path has been presented, and for good or ill, the way forward seems to have been chosen. For the moment, we are afforded the luxury of a choice, but who knows how much longer we have until we're all in line for Washington's 3D Virtual Cherry Tree Log Flume.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Day at the Races

Opening day at Chester Downs for a day of gin and tonics, sunshine, and sulky racing. If "Hickory Louie" didn't hang back in the third race's final turn, I'd still have a house. And a wife. So much for my lucky Pegasus cufflinks.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Whimsical Convergences

Is it me, or are things taking a decidedly Whimsical turn these days? I present to you the following evidence, sent to me by my army of spies:

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Well, that was fun. Are there any other recent developments for which I can brazenly take undue credit?

(Oh, by the way: I'm sorry for all the air travel disruptions.)

Blessed are the Dogwood

Dogwood Bloom

Our old, large dogwood tree has simply outdone itself this year: for almost two weeks now, it has been so heavy with huge, white blooms that it lights up the entire neighborhood. Some of these blooms are over five inches in diameter. So let us all pause to salute the genus Cornus, and all the wonderful permutations thereof. Hail, dogwood!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Hunt is Nigh

Beech Forest

I'm off to my mushroom hunting grounds tomorrow, for I have a strong hunch that this warm, rainy night may herald the start of wild morel season. Morels have an earthy but delicate flavor with a creamy texture. Lovely on asparagus risotto with shallots and a pinch of thyme.

Happy hunting, my friends.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Rare Sight

Dr. Emile DeVito, Manager of Science and Stewardship and Director of Conservation Biology with the NJ Conservation Foundation, was also doing his Swamp Pink surveys this week. Emile is one of the most passionate and tenacious defenders of native Pine Barrens plants and animals I know. In this video, we see what may be one of the largest populations of Swamp Pink in existence, flourishing in ideal conditions. Knowing Emile, I can't help but smile when I view this, because I can tell he's just over the moon.

My thanks to conservationist and photographer Michael Hogan for sending this link to me.

Fine gents, both. Proud to know them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Unexpected Treasure

Southern Twayblade

I'm sorry to bore you all with tiresome prattle about my botanizing treks; you'll soon have relief in the form of interviews with wonderful, interesting people.

(Have to say I'm fairly banged up from this week's brier-laced travels: spent most of these past two days in a waist-deep swamp whose quicksand bottom sucked you in up to your knees.)

Just thought I'd share this little gem with you: during my rare plant survey for the US Fish & Wildlife Service (I'm just a volunteer), I came across a few of these rare lovelies. They are Southern Twayblade (Listera australis), a tiny orchid that blooms this time of year. The one pictured here couldn't have been taller than four inches. As you can imagine, they can be very hard to spot, so I was delighted to find some. Their purplish maroon colors are very fetching against the vibrant moss.

If you should ever happen to encounter this endangered plant, please keep the location to yourself: they are vulnerable to poaching.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Price, Beauty?

Swamp Pink

This is the time of year when the rare and endangered Swamp Pink (Helonias bullata) is in full flower. I monitor a population of these plants for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and today I performed the first part of my annual survey: it takes two full days to cover the area because the plants live in a dense, wet terrain that is very difficult to traverse. In order to penetrate this swamp, one must enter via kayak, then venture in on foot until the water reaches one's chest.

Scores of huge, brier-laden trees felled by this past winter's storms blanketed the streams, obscuring last year's paths to such a degree that even experienced bushwhackers familiar with the area find themselves disoriented. These hardwood swamps are so absurdly rich in life that it can be hard to tell the animate from the inanimate: while hacking through the low, suffocating canopy of briers and branches today, I inadvertently stepped on a large rock that proceeded to hiss at me and claw into the creek.

A bitter irony greeted me at the end of this exhausting day: after finding over 170 Swamp Pinks on today's field survey, I returned home to find the Helonias in my bog garden had been ripped to shreds by a squirrel.

It's not every day one encounters a rodent who appreciates Greek tragedy.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper

Ran into a slew of these dapper little fellows tonight. Also known as Hyla crucifer, they're the culprits responsible for the scintillating wall of noise you country mice have been hearing during the evenings. The call is absolutely earsplitting when one gets close to them. Pretty little things. Lovely medley of sienna, orange, cream, and russet, aren't they?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music of the Spheres

The solar system as a vast music box. Lovely.

Life as a Gentleman Caller


I've been thinking of adding a feature to this new journal: interviews with interesting people. Is there anyone in particular you'd care me to call upon?