I enjoy taking photos, but I only find satisfaction from printed photographs on occasion. I find the idea of presenting my own photos fraught with pitfalls. So I’ve turned to books for help.

Roland BarthesCamera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (translated by Richard Howard {Hill and Wang, 1981}) is a primer in the study of photographs and semiotics. It’s also a good starting point because it’s Barthes’ personal investigation of the photograph, written in the first-person and in the present-tense. He begins with his understanding of the photograph and concludes with an examination of the role of photographs in his grieving process for his late mother.

James Elkins, though, has criticized Barthes for taking too sentimental an approach to photographic theory. Elkins’ books include:

Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction
Master Narratives and Their Discontents
What Happened to Art Criticism?
Why Art Cannot be Taught
On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them

These polemical titles may seem off-putting, but I admire Elkins’ rigor and multi-disciplinary scholarship. I’ve taken a crack at his latest book, “Six Stories from the End of Representation: Images in Painting, Photography, Astronomy, Microscopy, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000” (Stanford University Press, 2008) and it’s quite good. He reviews principles in modernism and postmodernism, such as a historical and Kantian definition of the sublime, in contrast to the “overused” Romantic notion. He also identifies artistic strategies in modernism and postmodernism, including “The Ladder,” with which an artist descends into darkness, leaving behind the clarity of illusionistic representation. Lower rungs of the ladder include the strategies of the blur and darkness.

Elkins’ writing is methodical and exact, so one can understand why he is so critical of vagaries in art. He writes about some art that uses darkness and blurring:

The problem is that as it stands, much of the work is mediocre. The critical literature follows this lead, providing impressionistic commentaries on belatedness, the loss of memory, the affection for clumsiness, faint melancholy, the embrace of meaninglessness, obsolescence, the departure of the aura, sophisticated evasions, missing objects, ineffective repressions, loss of space, loss of language, hopelessness.

He’s right. The “loss of memory” is overused to justify decrepitude as a visual style. And so much of the stylized, narrative drawing around the Bay Area (you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout–those screenprints of telephone poles!) is romanticism masked as cultivated urbanity, and touches on similar vagaries — melancholy, obsolescence, the affection for clumsiness.

Most compelling, though, is Elkins’ methodological approach of trying to bridge the humanities with the sciences. Far from the other vague art cliché, “nature versus technology,” Elkins has the chops to execute a rigorous study of astronomy, miscroscopy, particle physics and quantum mechanics. Having recently studied astronomy for the Binary Pair project, I’m looking forward to delving into this chapter.

Research, Values

Odds and Ends

r+d‘s got a new look, as do my Web sites for my art and design practices.

The past few weeks have flown by. Election euphoria gave way to economic meltdown despair, which vies for attention alongside holiday shopping and business as usual. Keeping one’s head above water as an artist seems not so bad when everyone else has been thrown into instability.

What I’ve been up to:

An art review. Forthcoming.

Reading about photography, and feeling out of sorts. From Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida:

What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said; “myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” which is light, divided, disperse; like a bottle-imp, “myself” doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar: if only Photography could give me a neutral , anatomical body, a body which signifies nothing!

Sketch comparing the gap between material and ineffable as described by Daniel Spoerri and Roland Barthes

Sketch comparing the gap between material and ineffable as described by Daniel Spoerri and Roland Barthes

I was surprised to learn that the phrase “Camera lucida” is Latin for “lit room.” In a camera obscura, a room with a pinhole displays an image, functioning like the cameras we know today. But in a camera lucida — a drawing tool comprised of a mirror and a semi-silvered (or two-way) mirror — the lit room is the scene for not just an image, but for the artist, drawing substrate and subject. This emphasis on context — on the whole picture — resonates with my work, which has become less about discrete objects and more about the viewers’ engagement with the object in the gallery (another lit room, a space for viewing — a lucid camera of the mind?).

Claude glasses, thanks to Elizabeth Mooney‘s recent show at McCaig Welles Rosenthal

Consume; think again. This financial crisis/recession/whatever sucks. But I think a period of consolidation is not bad if it takes American hubris down a notch, and forces consumers to shift towards simpler, less toxic, more meaningful lifestyles. It seems to me that American consumers were in denial about the difference between what we want, need, and are entitled to (as are the auto industry giants — and see where that got them).

Like the Rolling Stones song goes: You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.

Consume with care. Ironically, Christmas muzak pervades but social institutions are likely to suffer this year due to the economic slowdown. As David Brooks pointed out on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer today, during recessions, memberships to social institutions fall. The tenor of the news suggests that consumers owe it to retailers to keep shopping as usual and to help major corporations stay afloat. I disagree. I’m trying to do my part by doing my holiday shopping at non-profits, alternative art spaces and local art sales.

There’s a gazillion ‘What to give’ lists out there, showing off precocious lamps and gratuitous gadgetry, but here’s a list of for arts-minded locals:

Lots of alternative art spaces are having holiday fairs and sales — here’s a sample:
Blankspace Gallery
Compound Gallery
Rowan Morrison Gallery
Richmond Art Center
The Lab
Root Division


Memberships to cutting-edge art organizations.
Basic memberships start at $35-65; get a full year of free or discounted admission to gallery exhibitions and/or performances, film screenings, talks… e.g.,
Southern Exposure
Kearny Street Workshop
Intersection for the Arts
Headlands Center for the Arts
Recipient uninterested in art, you argue? Luckily, there are museums and organizations specializing in craft, design, photography, cartoons, cars, you name it!

Tickets to the opera or ballet.
(SF city arts budgets would be halved under Supe. Peskin’s budget proposal, warns SFGate. Boo Peskin! Yeah for Obama (read the Obama-Biden arts platform [PDF]) and Michael Chabon (read his postamble to the platform)!)

Not sure what seats to purchase? The SF Ballet offers gift certificates in increments of $25.

Single tickets for the SF Opera, which will feature Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess next summer, start at $16-18.