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Monday, November 12, 2012

Postcard from Ahmedabad

I did not go to India. And it looks like it will take me a while to get there. So we rely on the kindness of our friends to tell us of their adventures. My friend Janette Gross and I worked together at ELS Architecture and Urban Design for several years in the 1990s. Now retired, she focuses on textiles, weaving, and travel. She just returned from India and sent me a few photos of her visit to Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. I asked her for more.

Not surprisingly, the line to Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management goes back to Le Corbusier. But it goes through an Indian architect who is not well known in this country, Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (1927–2010). B.V. Doshi, who makes a guest appearance in Nathaniel Kahn’s film My Architect, and is the subject of his own documentary, worked closely with Le Corbusier on Chandigarh.

Doshi respected Le Corbusier but knew that his modernist forms did not really respond to India as a place. When offered the commission for the Indian Institute of Management, Doshi persuaded the powers to hire Kahn as “consulting architect.” Doshi probably knew that Kahn could design a building that would bring ideas from America (Harvard Business School, to be precise) and would be sensitive to India’s harsh climate, bountiful landscape, and labor-intensive building traditions, while at the same time reaching beyond its time or place. Kahn’s design began in 1962 and was constantly revised until completion in 1974.

Janette’s snapshots from October show a place that could have been built before the practice of architecture even existed. In a story recounted in Carter Wiseman’s biography, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style, Doshi told Kahn that portions of the project resembled an Indian temple from the 15th century. Kahn’s mature work was reaching toward the eternal.

Q: Why did you go to India?

A: I went on a Slow Fiber Tour with artist/textile expert Yoshiko Wada, who’s based in Berkeley.

Q: How did you know about Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management?

A: Yoshiko lived in India for a while and became very familiar with the architectural gems in Ahmedabad. Although our focus was textiles, she included the Indian Institute of Management, the National Institute of Design (where we spent one night, had dinner with two of the directors, toured the campus, and looked at the students’ work), an underground art gallery designed by B.V. Doshi on the campus of the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology University, and a restored historical home in an old section of the city. We were also scheduled to visit a private Le Corbusier home, but the owner was ill and couldn’t receive us.

Q: Can you describe your feelings moving through the IIM?

A: The IIM campus was a bit of a shock at first. I was surprised by the brick. My limited experience with Kahn made me expect concrete. It was also so big and open and clean, which was drastically different from the crowded, gritty, chaotic hustle and bustle of Ahmedabad. We visited on a Sunday, so there weren’t many students or activities. But as we moved through the campus, many of us realized that we were feeling calmer and could breathe easier. It is definitely an oasis from the city. The buildings are well maintained and the landscaping is lovely. The light could change the buildings so drastically. When the sun was not shining on a building, it appeared dreary and very institutional. But when the sun shone through the portholes or down a corridor, the building was completely changed. The angles and shadows made everything warmer and come alive.

Q: Did you go on a tour?

A: We did not take a tour and had only a short amount of time to run through, snapping as many photos as we could at every amazing corner we turned! It would have been wonderful to have had someone walk through with us to educate us. As it was, we just took it in without any explanation.

Q: Did it feel like boxes within boxes?

A: I didn’t feel that so much. But I definitely noticed how the massiveness of the buildings was tempered by all the cutouts to the outside, some low at eye level and others high up opening up to the trees. I did wonder how different it would be without the lush plantings and trees. I was also intrigued by all the odd angles. Some were very puzzling—why were they there? They didn’t appear to be for aesthetics or light play or views. Like a narrow opening that seemed to be a light well, cutting through all the floors. But there appeared to be doors opening into it, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would open the door and walk into this narrow, dark shaft. It became clear that you probably had to go inside the rooms to understand it, and we were not able to do that.

Q: Did anybody who worked or studied there tell you what they thought of the building?

A: That would have been great, if we’d had the opportunity. Especially in the student housing, which looked very dreary from the outside. As I mentioned, it was a Sunday, so it was pretty quiet. There also were guards in the lecture hall building, and they wouldn’t let us enter a particular hallway while a lecture or meeting was in session.

Q: What was it like to stay overnight in the dorms designed by B.V. Doshi at the Institute for Design?

A: I believe the rooms we stayed in were for visiting faculty. Our room had two beds, a closet, a desk, a bathroom, and windows on both sides. Each floor had two bedrooms, I believe, as well as a kitchen, a small common eating area, and a living room. At night we had food brought in, which was dished out in the kitchen and eaten in the living room while we chatted with two of the faculty.

Institute of Design by B.V. Doshi

All photos by Janette Gross.

Other Resources

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Country Was Saved. Now It’s Time for a Revolution.

courtesy www.barackobama.com
The country was saved. Barely. From our vantage point in the liberal Bay Area, it is difficult to understand how half the country could vote for someone who, as I have said before, was basically a brown shirt in a rep tie. Or, at least, was advocating extreme right-wing madness. Sometimes it seems so complicated that I turn off and go back to listening to Leonard Cohen. Let’s go live on a Greek Island with a mistress of one kind or another for a while.

But basically it is the end of the hegemonic order and the unchecked power of the one percent. Citizens United meant that rich folks without values could run around doing whatever they wanted. That is, until a bloody revolution stopped it all. But that is not the preferred outcome. Almost every country with any kind of economic strength has a jumbled-up combination of socialism and capitalism. The question is, how much does the government check greed, and how? Large countries that said they embraced socialism, like China and the USSR, didn’t. And when they embraced capitalism, it became government-sanctioned thievery. Most of Europe has embraced socialism and allows capitalism to flourish as long as the basic needs of the citizens are met. Of course, that is no longer true in the US; the standard of living in several countries is better than ours. (Not that ours should be the best.)

We are confronted with a radically changing demographic. The era of the white man is almost over. Although minorities of all kinds are still oppressed by the right and the religions that cater to the right, the long arc of justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about will happen. But the few straight white men who control the levers of capitalism are not going to give up without a fight. These few people outspent the Democrats and told lies and more lies in every possible media channel they could think of. There are reports that they tried to disrupt the voting process. The outcome of this election is so important because the Supreme Court will change its makeup in the next four years, and now the new justices will say no to the wreckage that the one percent has caused in the financial and oil industries.

courtesy www.ownieu.owni.fr 

But there are two tracks. There is the political track and the in-the-streets track. The Republicans will still control the House and will keep taking their kind of bribes. This is why we voted for Obama and will be in the streets in the coming years. We will see precious little happen in the political realm, because the Republicans and their corporations will pour their resources into resisting humane progress at every turn. And that’s why Occupy will be back. Next time it won’t be quite as ragtag and stinky. It will be slightly less democratic and slightly more organized. And it will push Wall Street into the gutter. When oil is no longer the blood of the economy and bankers are accountable, we can rebuild a country that is based on human dignity and the idea of service. It can’t happen under a Republican administration. What remains to be seen is whether it can happen under a Democratic one. As the political scientist Jodi Dean said the other day, it only takes ten percent of the population to start a revolution. So, ten to one it is. Good odds, even if the one percent has most of the money.

courtesy www.latimesphoto.files.wordpress.com

Friday, September 28, 2012

God or Gardening - Part 2

An interview with Graham Cousins

This is the second half of an interview with Graham Cousins that took place in the summer of 2011 in a wild garden in Provence during a family vacation.

Platycodon Grandiflorum the balloon flower in late August

Q: What are some of the recent changes in the garden?

A: Around the house I’ve had all the paving relaid to a higher standard. In the front, the garden was changed from a box parterre to a grid of five standard trees and a shape of cobbles and gravel inspired by an art deco shawl from the 1920s. Behind the house, I’ve replaced shrubs and pruned some of the plants to improve their shape and to cast shadows onto the walls. I am fascinated by how the Chinese make use of shadows by casting them on walls from shrubs, as a sort of art form in itself.

Behind the house, there’s an area we call the Green Wood, which incorporated a greenhouse and a chicken run. They are both gone, and the whole area is now integrated into one picture. And the ground now undulates and is covered with woodchip. Green, well-shaped shrubs come out from the background. We took out the shale path. All of this will make it a bit easier to maintain. I’ve worked hard to prune the most beautiful old tree we have, which somebody told me was probably about 200 years old, until I feel it’s like a living piece of sculpture.

Two hundred year old apple tree
The front courtyard in early autumn

At the end of the avenue, or the main axis from the house to Gilmorton Church, we’ve cleared the bottoms of the two sentinel fastigiate poplar trees. We’ve cleared the lower parts of the trunks of side branches. So now the picture of the landscape is framed by two verticals and then hedges coming down asymmetrically: the picture is of a curvy edge and then these two great verticals in the middle.

Next to that is a hedge which sweeps down to a very low level, from about eight or nine feet high at one end to two or three feet at the other. It forms a semicircle about 10 yards long. On the other side, the hedge forms a great sort of organic shape.

And behind this semicircle of hornbeam hedge is a small cornfield meadow, filled at the moment with summer flowers, cornflowers, poppies, and such things. Very ephemeral, but because it’s all enclosed by green, it looks like a jewel box in the middle of all the green.

Around the corner, there is a tiny perennial meadow there with grasses in it. I’ve reshaped a series of box balls into various organic shapes. Behind that, I’ve trimmed the bottom of the laurels to show their interesting trunks. The shape of the box in front of them is concave; the shape of those above is convex. So those are two layers. And then the third layer is trees in their natural shape.

The rose garden has been replaced with large, interesting shrubs and herbaceous plants. The overriding effect by this time of year is of green foliage: interesting, beautiful green foliage and a few dots of red, some single roses. A lot of greenery and then a few brilliant dots. This is very much inspired by Geoffrey Bawa’s description of his own garden in Sri Lanka.

Q: Over the years, there have been a few sculptures in the garden.

A: The most important elements are my brother’s carvings, of which there are a number in the garden, but there are other odds and ends, as well. They were more formal focal points earlier, but now they tend to be things you discover.

Q: So if people like Lutyens and Jekyll were initial inspirations or influences, who were the later ones as you moved to a less formal garden design?

A: The classic gardens of Japan. I have also been very fascinated by the Belgian designer, Jacques Wirtz. I think those would be two of the most important influences.

Q: Have there been very many people that you’ve carried on a dialogue with about the garden or the garden design? Or has it mostly been a kind of internal dialogue?

A: Mostly internal. I have a number of friends that I talk to, of course. Grant Pitches, Ruth Chivers, and you. I talk to my son James about the garden. He is the only one of our four children to have spent a significant part of this childhood in this house. I find he has some really perceptive things to say about the garden. He never liked the garden when he lived in it, but I think he’s come to see how interesting it is.

Q: So on the nuts and bolts side of things, is the garden irrigated?

A: No. We do occasionally water some things, but on the whole, I try to have plants that won’t need to be irrigated. When plants are newly planted, they often need to be watered. But I don’t normally plant plants that need to be watered once they’re established. Most of what you might call structural plantings, like hedges and barriers, are native plants. Hornbeam, yew, this sort of thing. And box. I don’t restrict myself to English native plants, but the most important plants in the ground are native.

Q: Do you have very much machinery? You must have a mower.

A: A mower, yes. Not much machinery. I’ve taken to clipping the hedges by hand. ’If they’re a nice shape, then it’s more interesting to clip a bit. So I do five minutes a day here and there, rather than having one big clip as I used to with a power tool.

Q: Is anyone else helping you?

A: Jenny helps me. We have a friend who comes and washes all the white birch trunks once a year. Very occasionally if there’s something heavy to be done, I might ring James and say, “Could you give me a hand, because I can’t move this by myself?” But mostly Jenny and me.

Q: How did the garden change your personality as you grew older?

A: I don’t know about that. What I do think is that as you grow older, you get more perceptive. You perceive your surroundings better. If I say to people my age, “Look at the beautiful light coming through these oak leaves and the laurel leaves,” they tend to respond to that more than young people. Young people are too busy having sex and all that to be bothered with what color leaves are.

Sunlight shining through Katsura leaves

’Although’ I remember as a child being absolutely besotted by the fields and the flowers and the hedgerows and things like that. ’I don’t think gardening has changed my personality. But of course, it teaches you optimism and patience, doesn’t it? Two cardinal virtues. And it does make you more intensely aware of the beauty of natural things.

We haven’t touched on this at all, but one of the fundamental things in gardening is the contrast between the natural and the manmade. There’s no such thing as a straight line in nature, is there? Whereas manmade things are based on geometry, usually. And there’s something very satisfying with the contrast between, for example, the shape of a tree trunk and the straight line of a wall, or a building, or a window frame.

A garden is a kind of three-dimensional sculpture really, isn’t it? Any wishes I have to sculpt are channeled into my tree and shrub pruning, which to me is the most satisfying part of the process of gardening.

I often think when sculptors have a block of marble and they have to start chopping into it, that must be terrifying stuff, mustn’t it? Well, it’s really in a way the same with sculpting trees, particularly, because you have to make decisions about taking branches off. And if you get it wrong, it might be 10 years before that branch ever comes back.

I’ve started doing it to other people’s gardens, as well, now. I’ve become a sort of sculptor for others. But I don’t get paid.

Q: Can you talk about the satisfaction you get from doing this work?

A: If one comes out in the garden in the morning and there it is, all right or nearly all right, that is supremely satisfying. I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m always happier out of doors. I love it that we’re sitting here under this oak tree in this lovely Provençal garden. I love this garden. It’s really good. It’s ragged and needs a bit of care, but it’s a lovely place. And I’ve discovered that even in the worst winter days in Britain—and they can be pretty grim, gray, wet sort of days— if I put a lot of clothes on and go outside, I immediately feel better. I’m a person who needs to be outdoors.

Spring meadow flowers, horned violets and welsh poppies

Graham's garden is described in a previous post A Garden in Leicestershire. All photographs in this interview were taken in that garden, and are reprinted courtesy of Graham Cousins.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

God or Gardening - Part 1

An interview with Graham Cousins

During a family vacation to Provence in the Summer of 2011, Graham Cousins and I sat down in the shade to talk about gardens and life.

Q: Where was your first garden?

A: My mother gave us little bits of garden at home in Rugby and we grew things like radishes. But apart from those, my first garden was in Brighton Avenue in Leicester. Some of my earliest memories are of natural landscapes. We lived on the edge of Rugby in an area that had been newly built in the 1930s. When the Second World War began, the government stopped all building. So there were partially built houses near us, and these became an adventure playground for us boys. Between the concrete and the bricks and things that had been left, nature began to take over. To this day I can remember my mother loving to grow pansies, violas, and other flowers. I was fascinated to discover wild ones growing between bricks on those abandoned building sites.

I remember my mother taking us on walks through the Wye Valley, a particularly beautiful part of Britain, and saying, “Do you know there are flowers that have squares on them like a checkerboard on a chessboard?” And I thought, “She’s making this up. This can’t be true.” It is true, in fact. My mother got me interested in flowers and natural landscapes.

Q: When did you realize it was more than a hobby?

A: I think it was in the late 1970s, when I was in my 40s. Yes. Very often people get gardening at that sort of age. They say people either get God or gardening in their later years.

Q: Is there an early built influence you can recall?

A: Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire. It’s a National Trust property now. It was made by an American, actually; an American who was born in France and who became a naturalized British citizen. Hidcote Manor opened my eyes up to possibilities. I remember being particularly fascinated by two things. One was the fact that the garden was divided into rooms; rooms where the walls were hedges. This was important in two ways. First of all, because it gave shelter from the turbulent English climate, so there was a sense of peacefulness in these little compartments. And also because it enabled different, distinct color and flower schemes in each of these compartments. But the whole thing was welded together by long vistas between the compartments, out onto the wider landscape. This was the first time I had the sense of greatness in gardens.

Another thing which, very early on, affected the way I garden was Beth Chatto’s The Dry Garden. She made me aware of the connection between natural plants, communities, and gardens.

I think the first good garden we had was in what was called Woodville Gardens. We had a new house with an empty garden, not a large garden and in the suburbs. But I remember making a square pond with a natural stone edge and putting up two hedges and having, perhaps, a slight glimpse of Hidcote in this suburban garden. I remember thinking, “This is quite good, but I need more. I must be in the countryside, and I must have more space.” And that’s why we moved to Walton eventually, in December 1981.

Q: It has been completely reinvented. It wasn’t really much of a garden when you got there, was it?

A: Not at all. I would say it was like a rural shantytown; there were eight corrugated iron buildings dotted around. It had been a sort of smallholding, but the man who owned it was also a self-employed builder. It took us about two years to clear away all these sheds. And at one stage I think we became the major dealers in secondhand corrugated iron sheeting in South Leicestershire; we had incredible quantities of tin sheets. There was a little orchard on one side with all apple and pear trees. And there were a couple of other good old trees, but that was about it.

Q: What was your first concept for the garden?

A: I was very much enthralled to Lutyens and Jekyll and the Arts and Crafts tradition of gardening. I drew out a rough plan on a piece of graph paper, which showed a straight line between what was then our living room window and a church about two miles distant across the fields, and made that the main vista. This led to difficulties later on, because the vista was not quite parallel to the line of the house as it began to edge out towards the fields.

Micro meadow in early summer
Gingko leaves in autumn
Asarum Europaeum thrives in woodland 

Q: Did you feel like there was a first phase to the garden?

A: It was a geometric layout with a vista and garden rooms. I wanted garden rooms like those at Hidcote. I was in a huge hurry and tremendously ignorant. I planted lots of Leyland cypresses in lines to make rooms. But, of course, Leyland cypresses are hugely vigorous trees. I planted well over 100 of these things, and they would have been quite impossible to control long term. So the first phase looked good, but I couldn’t control them. I had to dig them all out again and replace them with hornbeams, a native English tree which makes a good hedge. The pond was originally a rectangle. It’s now a circle, but I’d like to change it again.

Q: When it was rectangular, was there a hedge around the pond?

A: Yes, and also raised beds. The soil from the excavation, which I dug by hand, was used to make the beds. But since the soil was light, sandy loam, to have raised beds was an absurd thing, because everything drained away so quickly already. I made so many mistakes. In a way, that made it all harder for me, but in another way, it meant I learned a lot of practical lessons over the years, because I had only myself to answer to. Once I realized I had made a mistake, I was willing to put it right.

Q: And so then what came next?

A: I wanted less geometry. And I became much more interested in the shape of trees and shrubs, which has become one of my overriding interests. I wanted there to be more interesting subtle vistas. Glimpses, that’s it. I wanted there to be glimpses. As you progressed around the garden, you could look up in different directions and see interesting shapes and light effects.

Q: When did you get rid of the idea of flowerbeds?

A: As I mentioned, in the early days I was very much enthralled with the Lutyens-Jekyll pattern, which was maximum formality of layout and minimum formality of planting. I thought what you needed was hedges and then informal layouts of plants with lots of flower color. In those days, I used to have variegated plants, purple-leafed plants, and gold-leafed plants, none of which I have now. I realized that I was spending more and more time in the one area of the garden where all the leaves were green. And I also noticed that when people came into this section, they would breathe in deeply and say, “Ah, this is wonderful.” And I don’t think they really knew why it seemed so wonderful to them, but there’s a magic to green leaves, which all these colored-leafed plants take away. They break the enchantment. If you put in colored-leafed plants, the garden may be very smart, like a florist’s shop, perhaps, very eye-catching, but it won’t have the magic. Green leaves are, for our part of the world anyway, the natural leaf color. Also, it gives a unity to the garden if the base color is green.

And I remember I was right down to a couple of trees in the field hedge, poplars with variegated leaves, and a garden writer said, “Graham would never plant colored-leafed plants next to the countryside.” The day after reading that article, I got the tree surgeon in to cut them down quickly. So that was the end of it. Now it’s all green.

Q: But there are still some moments of color with wildflowers?

A: There are flowers in the garden. Flowers are important, actually, as markers of time. If a garden doesn’t mark the seasons, then it will lack a fundamental dimension. So many gardeners deny the passage of the seasons. It’s a sort of greed. They want to have flowers all the year around and flowers that last for months on end. They celebrate certain kinds of hybrid roses. This is received wisdom in the horticultural community. But I think flowers should mark the seasons and be ephemeral and fleeting.

I suppose this idea came from my visit to Japan, when we saw the cherry blossoms in bloom. The more I studied the Japanese garden, the more I recognized how Japanese gardening is based on the seasons. After the spring flowers, we have the greenery of summer and then the reds, yellows, and golds of autumn. And then the bare branches in winters, snow on the branches, and then the buds again, and so the year’s cycle is completed.

Q: It seems like what you’ve been advocating is a garden that also feels very much a part of its place. In other words, your garden isn’t something you’d see here in Provence.

A: No. It’s a garden that belongs to the British Midlands.

Q: How do you see gardening in relationship to other artistic endeavors? You share it by opening it during those mostly summer months. Do you perceive it as an artistic endeavor?

A: Gardening is an art and a lot of gardening is bad art. What’s unique about gardening as an art form is that it’s some sort of cooperation between man and nature, where man is never entirely in charge. And this is part of its fascination, I suppose.

I feel that gardens should be based on natural cycles and on ecological principles. In other words, you shouldn’t try to grow plants that would be suited to the top of a mountain if you live in Midland England. You should understand principles of ecology. A woodland has a canopy, a shrub layer, and a ground cover, a floor. And each one has typical species which occupy those sections of the ecosystem.

The ecosystem and the natural rhythms are fascinating, because you have everything from trees that might last 1,000 years to flowers that might last only a few weeks. There are complicated series of cycles going on in gardens, and this is part of the art of gardening: to incorporate these things into your artistic effort.

Q: Is this related to why it doesn’t really concern you that gardens are, in some way, fundamentally temporary?

A: I don’t worry about that. Gardening is a process, and you can try to record it with photographs or paintings, but there are some things that are almost impossible to record. I’ve learned recently, for example, that the shine on lustrous leaves is impossible to photograph, or so a professional photographer told me.

As we sit here under this tree, the wind is moving the branches. And then there is scent. There are so many different elements to gardens that are transitory and impossible to capture. With gardening, you’re always looking forward. It’s always going to be better next year. It will never be perfect, of course, but it’s always going to be better.

Perennial meadow flowers in July

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Vote McGovern

A few days ago, I watched the 2005 documentary One Bright Shining Moment about George McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972. I was 13 turning 14 at the time and was excited about the possibility of a liberal antiwar candidate being elected president. I later heard a story that when New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael woke up the morning after the landslide victory for Nixon, she couldn’t believe it. She didn’t know a single person who voted for Nixon. That’s how I felt.

I pasted a bumper sticker for McGovern/Shriver on my mother’s pristine Rambler. (She made me clean it off after the election, of course.) My father took us to a rally at Richmond High School, where we got to see the vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver in person. And I handed out literature at the local market where we lived. I still believe now what I believed then. George McGovern wanted to turn this country towards compassion and away from greed and violence. His dramatic loss will be understood as a turning point in history. Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself, and the line of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes will be seen as having let it choke itself to death. McGovern might have stopped this juggernaut.

George McGovern visits Cesar Chavez
in the hospital

The documentary itself is too long. As much as I love Gore Vidal, he becomes pedantic. But the film tells an important moment in American history that is worth understanding.

Barack Obama is not like George McGovern. For one thing, he got elected! He is master of a much better organized and well-fueled machine. His vice president is an old hand, who talks too much, but doesn’t suffer the stigma of mental illness that Tom Eagleton—McGovern’s first choice for vice president—did. In the age of Citizens United, Obama has to play to the corporate kingpins, as much as he may not like them. He advocates for an endless expansion of an economy that seems based on waste and pointless consumerism. He has not closed Guantanamo Bay, and apparently innocent people are still dying there. And then there are the drones. But he has tried to institute some kind of healthcare system that will help the middle class and the poor. He has come out for equal rights for gay people. When Ruth Ginsburg and other older Supreme Court justices retire, he will nominate justices who are not hateful or stupid. Whatever objections those on the left may have, we must reelect him. Romney and the Republicans have moved so far right that they will try to repeal civil rights and focus on what the last several Republicans have focused on—redistribution of the wealth to the one percent, using war as an excuse and oil as the catalyst. While this might speed what I see as an inevitable revolution, it will be bloody, and many innocent people will die. Make no mistake, Republicans are (light) brown shirts in white shirts and rep ties.

Even as we support Obama, we must continue to protest capitalism’s excesses. The Occupy movement showed that discontent is real and rising. I think that the violence that a few of the Occupy protestors exhibited was not so much revolutionary fervor as it was mental illness. The democratic nature of the movement and its willingness to feed anyone attracted a number of homeless and mentally ill people who had nowhere else to go. Another surprise gift to the left from the antigovernment, antitax, pro-rich Republicans. Eliminate services for the mentally ill, and be sure they go help the pro-democratic demonstrators!

Richard Serra's print is part of a group of prints
 by Gemini GEL artists to raise money for Obama.

The truth is, Republicans actually love socialism. They see government as a source of funding for the private sector. As long as the spigot flows money upward, they have what they want. What we learned from Reagan was that “trickle down” really means “flow up.” Nobody loves government subsidy, aka corporate welfare, as much as the Republicans.

At this juncture, there are at least two related questions facing the country. First, can we tax the rich enough to provide a balance to their excesses, and will they retaliate? The type of police action we saw less than a mile from our home here in Oakland, Romney’s off-shore tax havens, and Apple’s hideous manufacturing practices in China (as I type this on a Mac) are all ways the one percent can react to challenges to their hegemony. Second, can this country begin to see that endless pursuit of profit is killing us? Profit in and of itself is just an updated version of trading beads. This intense focus on profit over service is an environmental and political disaster.

I wonder if there is a relationship between the growth of excess profit and the expansion of extremist brands of several faiths? Is this because so many people lack basic necessities, or because people are angry that what little they have will be taken from them? Talk about false prophets (see the late Christopher Hitchens on that!).

We may not see the end of capitalism in my lifetime. But we could see people begin to turn towards compassion and service as more important than profit. That was what George McGovern promised. And deep down, I think that is what Obama also wants.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Garden in Leicestershire

Graham Cousins went house-hunting with a spade. He and his wife Jenny decided to sell their comfortable suburban house on the outskirts of Leicester because its modest garden did not afford them the scope to fulfill his childhood dream of some acreage with a view. In 1981 they drove up an unpaved and impossibly narrow drive in Walton, Leicestershire, and found a wildly overgrown acre + of land, with a little brick bungalow. Undeterred that the house was hardly large enough, Graham strode determinedly around the property, turned the dirt in several locations, and with a satisfied smile, pronounced this their new home.

Even though Graham was Director of Leicester University’s bookstore operation and there was one child still at home, the Cousins family found time to turn a forgotten refuse yard (Orchards is the property’s official name, after the grove of fruit trees along the eastern property line) into one of rural England’s treasured but hidden private gardens. In the now expanded brick cottage and in the garage (which doubled as a dining room during construction) there are fascinating series of photos documenting the stunning developments over the years. Among the family portraits is a large photo of Graham standing next to British TV personality Roy Lancaster, commemorating a peak moment in the family history, the garden’s appearance on national TV. (Ask Graham about the inquisitive cows that almost ruined the shoot.)

Graham in his garden

Orchards is not a sentimental garden; there is no irrigation system, and plants must survive without artificial support. In keeping with this ruggedness (which encourages native plants to flourish) Graham ripped out the trellises because he felt they were an unnatural crutch for the roses; the roses that remain have adjusted and are wilder and stronger.

Thousands of Japanese, Dutch, German, and British tourists have seen the garden. Even so, for so public a garden it is a very private place. Walton is a small village, and there is no parking for tour buses, so most visitors arrive in their own vehicles, parking across the street and walking up the now paved drive, aware that they are entering a singular and mysterious vision.

The garden gate

Let Yourself Go
From the beginning, instinct is the best guide. There is no single entrance to the garden, and there is no single route; everything is designed to encourage wandering. For example, through the weathered brick arch, the inviting overlook at the far end beckons, where there are benches and a hint of the landscape beyond. But on the way there is a large reflecting pond, and the sight of a sequestered Asian tea house that is worthy of investigation. However, a bank of unusually sensuous Ponytail grass (Stipa tenuissima) dotted with field poppies (papaver rhoeas) and rose campion (lychnis coronaria), comes into view, and the visitor’s purpose is again interrupted. By this casual and subtle system of invitation and redirection, the garden can never be experienced the same way twice.

Green, How I Love You, Green (Lorca 1899-1936)
On the left side of the garden, a grand and ancient apple tree (200 years old? older?) casts a magnificent shadow, the centerpiece of a stunning display of different shades of green; in fact, green is the only leaf color here. Graham’s affinity for the exuberance of Spain, where he traveled extensively in his youth before settling back in his native Midlands, combines with his English passion for understatement, in a subdued tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca’s favorite color. Astutely avoiding artificial leaf colors, he forces the eye to differentiate among so many ostensibly monochromatic tones; dark greens become more deeply verdant, lighter greens seem more yellow.

The end of "The Avenue" in winter

Borrowed Views
The gravel overlook commands a view across the Leicestershire fields to the village of Gilmorton. A perceptive eye will see that the spire of All Saints Church is one anchor point of the garden’s main axis, and that the other is the bed in the master bedroom! Here Graham capitalizes on the garden’s location; the borrowed vista implies that the land is much bigger, that the cows and the fields are all part of a larger picture.

The pond in winter

Lie Back and Relax
The wildest and least explored area is the Orchard itself. Graham lets the ground cover of native meadow grasses overgrow here, to the delight of the neighborhood cats who hunt through the dense overgrowth. On a lazy summer day naptime can be spent in a hammock slung between the pear, apple and plum trees.

In Season and Out of Season
Graham believes that gardening (and garden-viewing) should be a year-round delight, and to that end the natural life-cycles of the plantings are respected and coordinated so that the garden is worth exploring throughout the year.

Rooms for the Imagination
Another borrowed view is the pool. At first glance its size feels out of scale with the rest of the garden; the expanse of water seems to dwarf the ring of grass around it. Yet it is a serene oculus that brings the sky more intensely into the garden; the clouds, birds, and tree-tops are all mirrored on the surface, accentuating the depth and height that connects the life of the garden with the life of the air and the vistas of the world beyond.

This post was co-authored with Paul Crabtree.

A future post will include an interview with Graham Cousins about his philosophy of gardening.

For more information please visit http://www.grahamsgreens.com/

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Isca Greenfield-Sanders

Isca Greenfield-Sanders

Recently I interviewed the artist Isca Greenfield-Sanders when she visited Paulson Bott Press to make a new series of prints. You can find that interview here: http://www.paulsonbottpress.com/about/oktp/oktp_greenfield1.pdf
We continued to talk about the source for her images. Her foray into abstract imagery based on the same process is especially interesting. Foregrounding a cast-off of a cast-off. Several layers of reality to think about…

Wading I (Blue)
Mixed Media Oil on Canvas, 2011
70 x 70 inches
Courtesy iscags.com

Q: When you find images on eBay, you don't know what you're getting, do you?

A: No, I buy thousand-lot slides. It takes days to go through a collection. I have a light table and a set of projectors. I wear gloves and a mask, because often these things are dirty and gross. They belong to smokers. So I go through them, scan the ones I want, and rebag them.

Q: Do you throw out the ones that you aren’t going to use?

A: I have a junk shop in my neighborhood that I supply with a lot of slides.

Q: Do you sometimes get into a painting and then decide the imagery doesn’t work at all? Do you scrap it?

A: Occasionally, I think an image will have more life than it ends up having. I was trained in watercolor first. So I can make anything into what I think of as a pretty decent watercolor/colored pencil image. From that point, some things can become oil paintings, but that then is subject to the enlargement process, and some things don't enlarge well. They are wonderful small. I'm surprised occasionally when I think something is going to end up being an oil painting and then it just never gets that far.

Q: And you just don't know in advance? You just have to work it out?

A: Yeah. Sometimes you have to try it in a different way. So sometimes it can be a large watercolor, but it can't be a large oil painting, or sometimes it works as an oil, but just a small oil.

Q: I just love the blue in the print “Mountain Stream.” What color was it in the slide?

A: The slide had lost a lot of its magenta. It had turned a sickly green.

Mountain Stream, 2012
21 x 21 inches
Courtesy paulsonbottpress.com

Q: So there was no color relationship to the original slide?

A: I did multiple watercolor studies of this image. That mountain has been purple, black, gray.

Q: With the blue, you fall into it. I heard you mention abstract. Tell me more about that.

A: Yes. Part of my “Light Leak” series was a subset called "Film Edge" images. They are literally from the end of the roll of film.

If the subject of my work is in part the medium of photography—as, obviously, seen through the eyes of a painter—these are just physically the film that no image was captured on. But the celluloid itself is just so beautiful and had such strong landscape connotations. Sometimes I have rotated it for horizon purposes.

They are simple, nonfigurative landscape pieces. They will be done in yellow and purple, which is a nod to the fragility of film, because when it goes bad, it predictably goes in those two ways.

Film Edge (Yellow Tree, Pink Sky)
Mixed Media Oil on Canvas, 2011
28 x 28 inches
Courtesy iscags.com

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I am working on some cave paintings. Any time there's a phrase that the general non-art-world public understands and that pertains to the act of making art, like a cave painting—your plumber would know what a cave painting is—that is of extreme appeal to me.

Q: The accessibility?

A: Just the phrase, yes. I have made some paintings of figures emerging from a cave. They're completely in silhouette and seen from within the cave looking towards the mouth. So you're seeing the mouth of the cave and then the figures in silhouette and against a forest.

Q: Where did they come from?

A: They are slides from 1967. I don’t know where they are from in terms of location.

Q: Taken from within a cave?

A: This one was in a cave; for the other two I added the cave.

Q: The black is powerful.

A: It's Mars Black. It has my grid in it. My paintings are a sutured-together paper collage beneath that's sealed and then painted atop.

Q: So that's visible?

A: Yeah, there's a gridded black atmosphere in that. I let them dry for almost a year, and then they are varnished. So they're very rich, want-to-lick-it black, like maple syrup or molasses.

For more information:

Cave Painting
Mixed Media Oil on Canvas, 2011
42 x 42 inches
Courtesy iscags.com

Monday, July 30, 2012

Another Postcard from the Southland

We went down to LA last weekend to see our friend Jessica’s play reading at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. One of the great things about LA is the 99-seat house. Equity actors are allowed to perform in non-union theaters if they are less than 100 seats. There must be hundreds of these theaters in LA. You can see great plays and great actors in an intimate setting at very little cost. Jessica’s play is about a place very familiar to Paul and me. Thankfully, only one of the characters is really close to reality, and she is no longer living. One of the actors was O-lan Jones, who would be familiar to Magic Theatre audiences. She was a real standout. We were relieved not to see ourselves in any of the characters!

The playwright outside the theater

We stayed downtown at Checkers, which was once a posh hotel. I think it was like a sister to Campton Place in SF. It has been kept on life support by big chains and is now a Hilton. But the beds are good, and I love sitting in the rooftop hot tub and looking at the highrise towers above me. 

View from the jacuzzi

One of the weird LA mashups was driving out to Monterey Park and going to a Chinese restaurant in a mall where all the businesses are Chinese. There are few English signs, and they are usually misspelled. The best part was that the architecture was High Taco Bell. Really the most hideous fake Mission Revival (which is kind of fake even when it’s good) highlighted by neon. This topped off (or bottomed off?) by a surface parking lot and two-level subterranean parking garage that brought to mind that splendid kids’ puzzle Rush Hour. Once we got upstairs, there was a band on the other side of the screen playing for a wedding. A wedding attended by maybe a dozen people. That said, the duck was quite good.

We got to chat with Charlie Schroeder, whose new book, Man of War, sounds hilarious.

The screenwriter blows out his candles

We were in China celebrating our buddy Ian’s birthday. While we are name-dropping, we have to mention that Ian’s movie The Oranges, starring Hugh Laurie, comes out October 5. Welcome to New Jersey.

Our good buddy Johnny took us to the farmers market on Ivar in Hollywood on Sunday. It’s huge! A real town square. One of our favorite bookstores of all time, Hennessey & Ingalls, has a branch in a little retail center that was repurposed from some kind of warehouse. And of course we got to see the rear end of Crossroads of the World, another great LA mashup! Funky fantastic.

The Ivar Theater along the farmers market

The market

The rear end of crossroads of the world

Back downtown, we wandered around a bit and were pleased to see so many people living in converted office buildings. There is still a paucity of good restaurants and food emporiums, but there is no lack of dog walkers—always a sure sign of gentrification. Certain pockets are still just empty, and other pockets are still scary. Pershing Square is really bad. Legorreta’s bold colors don’t do much for the homeless.

Pershing Square

Union Station

We took the subway to Union Station, which was packed. It is the first time I ever saw it full of people, just as it is supposed to be. The ticket area was closed off, and Paul and I thought it would make a great setting for “The Ghost Train.” The old Harvey House restaurant is still empty, just like it was when my buddy Kristina first showed it to me in the late 1970s. Apparently, it is leased out for special events and photo shoots. The tile floor is divine. Here is a blog post about the space. http://laplaces.blogspot.com/2010/02/union-station-harvey-house.html

CA Union Station - the old Harvey House Restaurant

Across the street from Union Station is Olvera Street, the perfect alley of cheap crap. Despite the hideous trinkets, I love the scale. This time, we wandered into the Avila Adobe, which gives a sense of how LA’s earliest Spanish settlers lived. I especially enjoyed the scale of the courtyard.

Avila Adobe

Although Frank Gehry has been overexposed, his Disney Concert Hall is still beautiful, at least on two sides. The Chandler and the Mark Taper Forum brought people back downtown in the 1960s, and the Disney Concert Hall extended that possibility into the new century. Just down the street, Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art never quite achieved the same level of significance. After the expensive, postmodern, mostly subterranean showpiece was completed, most folk said they preferred the Temporary Contemporary, a former police car warehouse reshaped by Frank Gehry. That was where most of the fun took place.

Disney Concert Hall

Temporary Contemporary

My favorite show in the Temporary (now known as the Geffen Contemporary, although most members still call it the Temporary) was the one in 1989 about the Case Study Houses called “Blueprints for Modern Living,” curated by Elizabeth Smith. As I have written before, I think this show was the catalyst for reexamining midcentury modernism. It sure brought Julius Shulman out of his Soriano lair in the Hollywood Hills. The staff used the space beautifully, rebuilding two Case Study Houses and the living room of the Eames House (not quite the re-creation we saw recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but cool nonetheless). At MOCA up the hill, I count a wonderful Ad Reinhardt show and a Robert Irwin retrospective in the 1990s as two of my favorites. MOCA started life as the museum that artists supported. Back then, LACMA was kind of fuddy duddy.

Blueprints for Modern Living:
History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses
by Elizabeth A. T. Smith

So it’s sad to see MOCA in such trouble. There was an enormous show called “The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol,” and while I really liked the Mark Bradford and Tauba Auerbach canvases, I really can’t be bothered with the Andy Warhols. He is one artist who really suffers from overexposure. Rather like Salvador Dali. Director Jeffrey Deitch appears to be favoring a kind of safe avant garde. And some folks feel that he has made a Faustian bargain with tract house mogul Eli Broad. The prediction is that Broad will eventually take over MOCA and fold it into his own Broad Museum (with a new building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro under construction now).

The Broad

Over at the County Museum, director Michael Govan was willing to disagree with the mighty mogul, and after his namesake building was finished, Broad picked up his marbles and moved downtown. Strangely enough, this seems to have served the County Museum well. They are much freer to pursue all kinds of different avenues and have now become the preferred museum for artists. Although it was the Temporary that put on the Michael Heizer show in its early days, it is the County Museum that got the rock.

Levitated mass by Michael Heizer

In the last year, the County Museum exhibit “Living in a Modern Way” bookended the Case Study House show from 20 plus years ago. And their reconstruction of Ed Kienholz’s “Five Car Stud” was one of the most disturbing and wonderful pieces to be seen in recent LA history.

Although I didn’t care for the “Abstraction after Warhol” show, I was relieved to see the Rothkos from the Panza collection front and center in their show of masterworks from the collection. I remember when these were shown at the Temporary and how they were barely lit. They just hummed. Count Giuseppe Panza’s gift must have been one of hope. Hope that this new museum would forge a brave new way in art. Maybe it will again one day.