Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Oakland’s painted gnomes get some national press

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Oakland’s painted gnomes, which I wrote about in March, were mentioned in a column on “DIY Urbanism” in the October issue of Governing magazine, accompanied by a photo I took of one of the little dudes:

The full column (sans photo, I’m sad to say) can be read at Governing’s website.

The Painted Gnomes of Oakland

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Miniature paintings of gnomes have been appearing at the base of telephone poles on the sidewalks of Oakland, east of Lake Merritt:

There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of these crude but adorable little artworks, none of them taller than about 6 inches. They began their occupation a few months ago, but seem to have been reproducing at a rapid rate lately, or maybe I’ve just become more used to looking for them.

I noted a few years ago that an unexpected bit of music can brighten a day, if we can shake ourselves out of our stupor enough to listen for it. Street art, at its best, can make us stop short with a childlike delight that the familiar world contains something fresh and new.

These whimsical gnomes offer yet another occasion for pointing out how much we miss if all our transit time is spent inside a car, separated from the sights and sounds of the cityscape—not to mention other people—by a barrier of steel and glass, and largely unaware of anything except the road directly in front of our windshield. Even for pedestrians, though, these works of guerrilla art are easy to miss, being so small and low and placed at junctions so commonplace that we never think to look there. I probably walked by some of these many times before I realized they were there. (I rely on my dog to notify me of anything interesting less than a foot off the ground, but her formidable nose never alerted me to these paintings. Bad dog!)

I have no idea whose brainchild these are, but people interested in seeing them can find them lining various streets east of Lake Merritt, on the low hills between East 18th Street and MacArthur Boulevard. There may well be others farther afield, but the neighborhoods between Park Blvd and the lake happen to be where I do most of my walking. I could list some of the specific streets where these fellows reside, but that would spoil it; a lot of the fun is in the finding.

I originally set out to photograph every gnome I came upon, but soon gave up on that goal when I realized how many there were. I collected these and a handful of other photos in an album on Google+.

Tile Style

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

For some reason I’ve been taking a lot of photos of tilework lately. Continuing to mine that vein, I took some pictures of mosaic murals in jingletown today:

While many of the murals in this cluster are mosaics, there are some painted murals too. I’ve posted shots of some of the other murals (along with those above) to a set at Flickr.

Sun Rays

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Sun Rays

Bike to Work Day. Or, Boat to Artwork Day

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Bike to work day was last Thursday. Since I bike to work all the time anyway, I have to seek out other ways to mark the day. (I suppose I could borrow a car and drive to work, but that would defeat the point.) Last year I took an extremely circuitous route to work in order to visit the festivities at city hall and some of the other “energizer stations” around town. (I’m a sucker for free food and coffee.) This year, I should have volunteered at one of the BTWD events, but I didn’t have my act together enough to sign up, so instead I decided to take advantage of the free ferry rides across the bay to San Francisco. (Okay, I’m a sucker for free anything.)


Many of the people with bikes on the ferry seemed to be people like me, who would normally take BART across the bay at less than half the price, but who were taking advantage of the chance to get a free scenic trip in the fresh air instead.

I rode around the city for a while admiring all the nice new bike infrastructure since the last time I was there just a few weeks ago, such as the on-street bike racks on Valencia Street and the green-painted, separated bike lanes on Market Street. I then stopped by the San Francisco MoMA to look in on some old friends. I only took a few photos there (photos from an earlier trip to SFMoMA are here), and for some reason I was on a windows and bars kick this time:

Prison Wall

(Come to think of it, I have felt somewhat imprisoned by circumstances lately…)


The Passage of Time and the Failure of Memory

Friday, September 11th, 2009

This painting by Gerhard Richter is my favorite piece of 9/11-related art or literature; in fact, it might be the only piece of 9/11-related art or literature that I’ve ever actually liked:

September 11 by Gerhard Richter

I first came across it in The Atlantic about 2 years ago, and it resonates with my own changing perspective on September 11th as the years have passed. I was fortunate not to know anyone personally who perished in the World Trade Center towers, but (like millions of other people who lived in New York at the time) I was powerfully affected, perhaps traumatized in some small way, and I felt the effects for many months—indeed, on the first anniversary I felt compelled to write a short essay and email it out to some friends. It was one of the more mawkish things I’m ever likely to write, but apparently it touched a nerve, because the next thing I knew I got a request from a stranger in New Jersey asking if he could share it with his high school students in class. (How much easier that all would have been if I had had a blog back then!)

What a difference eight years makes. If you had asked me in late 2001, when the smell of smoke drifted up the Hudson to my apartment and soldiers with machine guns stood guard at my local subway station, or in late 2002, when I wrote that essay, I think I would have told you that the events of 9/11 had forever altered the way I viewed the world. I suppose that they did, strictly speaking, but I don’t think I would have predicted how quickly other events (wars, elections, tsunamis, droughts, recessions, whatever) would overtake 9/11 at the forefront of my consciousness, and how quickly memories of that period would fade. Sure, I still think about 9/11 sometimes, and occasionally I even feel a momentary twinge of panic when I hear a plane close overhead, but for the most part, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have settled in among a lot of other horrific geopolitical/historical events in my mind, with little special prominence except that they happened to occur in my city and my country (and that the tragedy of those lost lives was compounded by the tragedies of the wars that have followed).

For me, Richter’s painting of the iconic smoking towers captures that phenonemon well. A mere eight years after a period when I was almost obsessed by the events of 9/11 (or am I misremembering that too?), it now all feels like a fuzzy memory. The passage of time, and the failures of memory, have a way of distorting and obscuring the past so much that it is almost unrecognizable. It sounds odd, maybe even ghoulish, to suggest that I feel a kind of nostalgia for such a traumatic period when so many people were experiencing such intense grief, but when I look at the painting, it evokes a yearning to reverse the distortions of the image—that is, to reverse the very passage of time that has allowed most people to “move on” more quickly than anyone expected. A somewhat similar (albeit less tragic) feeling of loss hits me when I look at another piece of art showing a very different iconic image—Warhol’s large National Velvet, which hangs at SFMoMA. It shows the young Elizabeth Taylor, the very picture of beauty and vigor and innocence, literally fading before our eyes, as Warhol manically tries to stop time by furiously reproducing the image over and over and over. Or at least that’s how it always seems to me when I stand in front of it, and it is surprisingly poignant.

All this naturally makes me wonder which of my current feelings and convictions will dramatically alter with the passage of time. I generally approve of taking “the long view” when it comes to current events, because it’s far too easy to become consumed by the fleeting minutiae of the moment, but the danger of the long view is that if your view is too long, then it’s hard to really care about the present. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out in rebuttal to more laissez-faire economists who argued that the economy would work itself out fine on its own in the long run, “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Who knows, maybe in the long run my feelings about the Richter and Warhol works will change too—I guess I’ll have to revisit them in eight years to see how I feel then.

Live and on Tape: Art at Awaken Cafe

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Some of you know my friend Pablo Manga. Some of you know the Awaken Cafe and gallery on 14th Street in downtown Oakland. Some of you may know both, and some of you may know neither. Whichever category you fall into, you should check out a show of Pablo’s recent work at Awaken this month, with an opening reception during “First Friday” festivities on September 4th.

Mare Serenitatis by Pablo MangaThe show will feature the “Linescapes” series produced in the last few years, which is something of a departure from Pablo’s earlier work. While adhesive tape is still his material of choice, and while not-quite-parallel lines are still in abundance, “Linescapes” dispenses with the vivid colors of his earlier pieces in favor of much more muted hues. I love the older work, whose bright colors delight one immediately, but in an odd way, the stark and minimalist newer work ends up offering a richer experience for the viewer—the subtle tones force you to take a closer look, and another closer look, and it is in those closer looks that the nuances of the work more fully reveal themselves.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it; you can see for yourselves when you stop by the show. The reception, which will have wine, hors d’oeuvres and music, begins at 5 pm on Friday, Sept. 4th. If you can’t make the reception, the show will be up through the end of September 30th. (Go for the art, and stay for the coffee! Or vice versa!) You can check out more of Pablo’s work at his website and see the reception’s event listing at Facebook here.

Have Art, Will Travel

Monday, August 17th, 2009

A couple of leftover photos that didn’t seem to fit with yesterday’s post, so they get a post of their own:

Transcend Poesia

Special Delivery

Art in the Afternoon

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

…the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

— John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

I was in that other city across the bay this afternoon, so I stopped in to SF MoMA to see the Robert Frank show before it closes later this month. While I was there, I saw the new roof garden, and checked in on some old favorites in their permanent collection. (I was happy to find that they had a lot more of their Joseph Cornell collection on display than usual, including several works that I don’t remember ever seeing before, even in the big retrospective a year or two ago.)

I didn’t take many photos of the art itself (why bother when there are much better images of most of them all over the web?), but I did have some fun fooling around with the camera in the galleries, and the resulting shots ended up with a theme of their own.

People, watching:






Self-Portrait in a Convex Brancusi (with apologies to Parmigianino and Ashbery):

Self-Portrait in a Convex Brancusi

Painting San Francisco

Monday, July 20th, 2009

This is sort of cool. I had to go out to the old Naval Air Station in Alameda again a few days ago (photos from previous visits are here and here), and I took some photos looking across the bay to San Francisco. Unfortunately, they didn’t come out very well, in part because some kind of distortion was introduced into the images. I don’t know what caused it—possibly something I did wrong (I’m still learning how to use the camera properly), or maybe the effects of the heat rising from the old runway where I was standing in the hot sun, or maybe…

Anyway, for whatever reason, the images aren’t very clear, but when I was looking at them in full resolution, trying to understand why they didn’t come out as well as I had hoped, I noticed that the distortion actually produced a pretty nice “painterly” effect, almost as if they weren’t photographs at all, but rather oil paintings done in a slightly impressionist style. I didn’t edit or manipulate them intentionally to create this effect—this is how they came straight out of the camera (I did crop them, so these are just small pieces of the full images).

Telegraph Hill

That’s the Bay Bridge with Telegraph Hill (topped by Coit Tower) behind it. Here’s another one (from a different original image) of downtown SF:


If anyone happens to know what might have caused this particular kind of distortion, I’d be curious to hear an explanation. I checked some other photos that I shot from the same location with the same camera (and similar settings) a few months ago, and while they aren’t necessarily any crisper, they don’t remind me of painted landscapes the way that these do.

Where Wile E. Coyote Buys His Fire Extinguishers

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Acme Fire Extinguisher Co.

This is on Fruitvale Avenue, near the BART station. I’m not the only person who likes this sign: a local artist made a painting of it as part of a whole series on Oakland signage.

Out-Hipstering the Hipsters

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

If you’ve set foot in an American city in the past few decades, then you are probably familiar with hipster T-shirts. They might be regular old T-shirts, but instead of having earnest logos such as “Dysart’s Truck Stop, Bangor, ME,” they have ironic logos such as “Dysart’s Truck Stop, Bangor, ME.” The sensibility is what makes the difference: If a working class guy in his 50’s in Milwaukee is wearing a “Pabst Blue Ribbon” T-shirt, then it’s probably not a hipster tee. When a guy in his 20’s on a fixie in Portland wears a “Pabst Blue Ribbon” T-shirt, then you can be sure that it is a hipster tee.

Unironic shirts donned with ironic intent are only one kind of hipster tee. Another variety are ironic shirts donned with ironic intent. When Seinfeld was the big Thursday night NBC sitcom in the 1990’s, Vandelay Industries T-shirts were born (“Importing/Exporting — Fine Latex Goods”). Now that The Office is the big Thursday night NBC sitcom, Dunder Mifflin and Schrute Beet Farm shirts are worn with pride from the Mission to Bushwick. With shirts such as these, one gets to wallow in corporate consumer culture while simultaneously showing one’s cool detachment from corporate consumer culture: hipster heaven!

I’m not a serious connoisseur of hipster tees, so I won’t try to explain the full taxonomy here, and I know that I’m lumping a lot of disparate styles under the rubric “hipster tees,” but I’m sure you know the sort of shirts I’m talking about. Many hipster T-shirts have a cool or funky design on them, or a clever phrase, or some combination of the two. As long as it is worn with an appropriate level of ironic distance, any T-shirt can be a hipster tee.

Ceci n'est pas une pipeI was thinking the other day about what a quintessential hipster tee might consist of. Since many have a combination of word and image, and often a self-referential element that subverts the entire premise of putting a design on a T-shirt, this train of thought carried me to Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,”  with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).

Magritte, like a lot of the surrealists, was something of a protohipster (an ur-hipster? a hipst-ur?). Nothing is meant to be taken entirely seriously, the work tends to undermine itself in one way or another, and if you don’t like it…well, that just proves that you’re not in the know. If something is not said or done in earnest, then earnest objections to it tend to look silly (cf. David Denby).

Just as media critics ask, “Who’s watching the watchdogs?” and the movie ads ask, “Who’s watching the watchers,” I naturally asked myself, “Who’s ironizing the ironists?” Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, so I have given notice at my job and have founded a T-shirt company that will try to out-hip the hipsters (probably a futile aspiration, I know). I’ve tried to come up with something for everyone, starting with the basics: (more…)