I've been experimenting with making cut-and-paste collages from my own illustrations, scrambling them in order to find new shapes or meanings. Music usually keeps me company while I do this, and one of the most delightful songs to do so last year was Boy Pablo's "Everytime." The music video is a delight, sun-dappled friends playing together on a dock in Norway. As the guitars swell and ring, you can almost feel the brisk of the afternoon by the water and the joy shared by all the musicians. Unexpected and effervescent, I highly recommend giving it a listen.
At NewFilmmakers LA earlier this month, I was honored to share the screen with director Ellie Wen's Single Mother Only Daughter, a lovingly-crafted portrait of her relationship with her mother. Stitching new connections between analog memories culled from her collection of home movies, diaries and childhood photographs, Wen traces the synchronous orbits of two lives circling closer together with age. As the film navigates through a collage of VHS footage chronicling birthday parties, ballet recitals and impromptu Mother/Daughter karaoke performances, their bond is strengthened by the film’s aural foundation; A recorded phone conversation between the two. Auspiciously, Wen's husband, Greg Katz began filming her end of the line one evening, capturing her moments of realization & revelation with their shared past that would’ve otherwise remained in the dark.
Naturally, I find a kinship with Wen's work, as much of my directorial efforts are traced along similar lines of connecting the past with the present, and the web of dreams/memories that form between its many points. Both my latest film, The Duel and Single Mother Only Daughter attempt to reconcile childhood mysteries with a waking adult life that refuses to shake them free, perhaps motivated by a duty to forgive or better understand their parents. Film is one of the rare art forms in that respect, as it grants the artist the tools to fold time in on itself to form new strength in re-examining the power of memories and the role they continue to play in shaping their lives. For Wen, Single Mother Only Daughter is a beautiful effort in striving for that new understanding.
Last night I spilled some watercolor and inadvertently created a new state named "Ticonderoga," after the No. 2 Ticonderoga-brand pencil that rested against my desktop lamp. It's a brave new world, and its robust fishing economy is generously fed by three lakes that lap against its magenta shores: Lake Eugene to the north, and Lakes Dixon and Avery, which hug its southern border. Its capital, Moto City, is famous for its wild-caught Cadmium sandwiches, which can be enjoyed along the boardwalks during the Moto Music Festival come mid-November. Cooled by the balmy winds sweeping off Lake Avery at autumn's end, its boardwalks can be heard clattering with the shoes of college kids, some hand in hand, considering the wide expanse of ocean that rolls into the horizon. Last year when Aimee Mann played, the sound of her guitar seemed to skip across the surface of the water like a polished stone, similar to the one Casey, a student home from Cape Cobra, smoothed in her left hand. "u home for txgiving?" texted Brian, her (ex) co-worker from the office supply store she worked at freshman year before she transferred schools. She put her phone back in her pocket. Talking to Brian was like pulling on a loose thread, not unlike the one that swung from the back of her olive green sweater. She knew better than to reply, not wanting for handfuls of loose yarn and quick goodbyes in the morning of his studio apartment. Probably the same one he had since the last time she saw him. "I Can't Help You Anymore" began to play down the pier. Looks like Aimee was invited back this year. This song always reminded her of closing the office supply store late at night after her boss had left, when she could play whatever she wanted and sing as loud as she possibly could. Some nights she would scream and try to shake the stacks of 28 lb. carbon white like leaves. Her pocket vibrated. Probably Brian. Again. As the band continued to play, Casey turned to face the water and rubbed the stone in her left hand, warming it up, waiting for the right moment to let it go. If it wasn't for her mother trying to reach her, she'd throw her phone instead, and wait for it to skip or sink.
Sometimes, time should escape you.
Fine-grained memories about friends cling to me, like sugar on the end of my fingertip. Tiny white dots form a small pattern that speaks to a larger system, an innate mechanism that helps defines their character. For director Jordan Kim, it was his attention to detail. "I spent way too much time on this," he bashfully admitted, opening up a window on his computer in 2004. I was looking at a poster for Bicentennial Man 2, Kim's harder-edged sequel to the wholesome Chris Columbus film featuring Robin Williams as a robot Pinocchio. Adding an intricate, gold cybernetic visor to his face and draping him in a trench coat while an oppressive, Gibsonesque megalopolis in coral pink towered over this new, hardened detective incarnation of the former cyborg butler, Kim confessed to me he should’ve spent his evenings in a more constructive way. Yet, whether it was goofing around or getting down to the business of directing, his impishly subversive dedication to calibrating each element of his vision applied to both the frivolous and more cinematic of pursuits.
Whether it’s his hauntingly beautiful and playful homage to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu in his Vimeo Staff Picked music video for Toro y Moi, or the cackle of live that vibrates through each magical sidewalk crack in Clara, Kim is still just as fastidiously attending to his craft as he was when I first met him at San Francisco State University almost fourteen years ago. Clara is a deceptively innocent fairy tale full of big bad man-children in wolves' clothing, envious magic spells and jaded princesses of Silverlake locked away in the shadows of their condos. The film hums with softness and humor though, stimulated by a glowing performance from Hannah Kasulka as the timid, titular witch, brimming with hysterical coiled menace that springs loose in hilarious bursts along her winding journey through the banal enchantment of a Los Angeles-esque city dream. I won’t spoil the plot, describing it would be nearly as fruitless as describing the details of Kim’s Bicentennial Man 2 poster again. Just watch this. Pour yourself a hot cup of tea and absorb the patterns that form. There’s magic in them too.
Visit Jordan Kim and see more his work on Vimeo. And be sure to catch his nimble editing work on Portlandia.
This past summer at the Marfa Film Festival, I had the honor to the share the screen with this film. Jay Hollinsworth's "The Art of Emptiness," its namesake taken from the song by Torrejón, follows a retired president in Texas who has taken up oil painting. Cleverly using subtle gradient shifts and trembling line work, the film binds together a string of vibrating static shots that betray the bucolic scenery with their sense of unease.
Gathered inside the Crowley Theater, its tin roof trembling against an angry thunderstorm, the audience absorbed the plaintive guitar of the song and the retired president's eyes tightening at the unease of the task before him; What to make of a blank canvas? While raindrops scattered like needles above me, I was thankful for the company of Jay's film, even though it couldn't keep away the storm.
A wonderful night of films and making new friends at an outdoor screening in Reseda, presented by NewFilmmakers Los Angeles. None of us were ready for this picture, and Drew's shirt commands the frame. Special thanks to Executive Director Larry Laboe and to the hard-working staff of NFMLA, who set up the event, braving record temperatures that afternoon and a city-wide power outage. Unreal! I can't speak for all the filmmakers pictured above, but I deeply appreciated it, and I think the row of smiles speaks volumes.
Last weekend, I was made a guest of Limited Engagement for a jaunty discussion of the craft of storytelling with writer/host Jared Duran. The Phoenix-based arts & culture podcast focuses on engaging with artists of all types, from music & the performing arts to visual art and writing. It was a delight to speak with Jared about my latest film, The Duel, and join his roster of fantastic previous guests. Tip: If you're looking for something intellectually stimulating to keep you company while you work, I highly recommend checking out the Limited Engagment archives for a fantastic collection of other artists discussing their processes and compulsions. (My choice of words)
I was honored to provide artwork to Vidiots Foundation and Film Powered for their screening of Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown at The Theatre at Ace Hotel DTLA last week. Jen McGowan, founder of Film Powered, describes her organization as: "...a skill-sharing site for professional women in the entertainment industry created to increase the skills & contacts of women in the industry, strengthening our community." Together with teachers and guest speakers, Film Powered provides energetic spaces to share ideas, sharpen skills and discuss important films that raise the profile of working women in Hollywood.
I've been a long-time admirer of Hardwicke's work, particularly the clarity of Thirteen (2003), a semi-autobiographical portrait of "Tracy" (Evan Rachel Wood), a 13-year-old girl struggling to find her mooring amidst the snares of peer pressure and rudderless adults in Los Angeles. Lords of Dogtown, her kinetic portrait of LA skateboarding culture in the early 1970s, was the film that brought together the women of Film Powered and Vidiots, and reminded me of the importance of community engagement through art, and its greatest gift it can bestow those who participate: empowerment.
This week, if you can, I encourage you to find a public space where such stories are being shared with those who value their places in our society. Live music, comedy, theatre, film, spoken word, wherever you can find voices expressing themselves, seek them out. Stories are fragile things when left alone, but they're strengthened by those who gather and listen, and more still, by those brave enough to share them.
Thomas Demand is known for making photographs of three-dimensional models that look like real images of rooms and other spaces. Art critic Michael Kimmelman writes of his work: "the reconstructions were meant to be close to, but never perfectly realistic, so that the gap between truth and fiction would always subtly show."
Special thanks to my friend Alexandra for sharing his work with me on one of our computers at work when it wasn't being used as a cash register.
I've just found my new Internet fascination for the next few weeks.
"20/20" By Sean David Christensen. (2017) Mixed media; Contact case with two Bausch + Lomb Ultra (TM) contact lenses with MoistureSeal (TM) technology, magenta and neon green Avery dot labels with pen letters, sarcasm, construction paper.
August 12th, 2016. Amy Masters is making a burger. On Wednesday, she thought about cutting the meat with a five-horsepower, 24" industrial bandsaw, but because of all of the steel belts inside, she decided against it. Too dangerous. Later that week, in the Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Masters carves out the soft middle of the meat with X-Acto knifes instead, then drills holes through it and bolts it to one of the 16-foot pieces of bread that stands nine feet tall on the corner of 824 Chestnut Street. Masters bends a three-foot tube of onion, while the lettuce dries in the sun. The green, BEHR latex paint would dry quicker that way. When completed, Amy Masters' burger, "Northside Road Side," will measure 200 feet in surface area, constructed of recycled tires, rags, sheets of plywood, 2x4s, plastic bowls & dead flowers. Each one of its six-inch long sesame seeds catches the light and the attention of motorists heading down Chestnut St. towards the highway. Maybe they'll take a picture, or pose with the enormous snack. It's unexpected. It's fun. And that's how you get people to stop.
"I'm from Kansas and I used to go to roadside attractions all the time," Masters recalls. "They're huge in the midwest, cause that's how you get people to stop." After completing her Masters in Fine Arts with a concentration in Fiber from Arizona State University in 2013, Masters began a series of public sculptures that evoked that sense of "the stop," the acceptance and participation of art in a natural environment. "The reason why I started making roadsides was because of Gatlinburg, TN," Masters continues. "I was making these objects and placing them in a gallery, and there's something about the white cube that's not quite what I wanted my work to be; That's not where I see it actually existing. You had to actually direct people to engage your work. Whereas you take it outside, or you take it out of the context of the white cube, it kinda just happens on its own. Especially public art."
Outside Tennessee, Masters invested further in this concept of public sculptures as sources of engagement and fun for those who participated. Whether it was a five hole mini-golf course in Raleigh, North Carolina or a 70x30-foot rag rug in Gatlinburg, these projects dismantled the lofty ideals of the gallery in exchange for those that were closer to the ground. More communal. "I don't look at art as this elitist thing that people can't share," says Masters. "I like to create work that people can understand and people would like to actually help me create. I wanted to go beyond the idea of it being art and really push the engagement and push the play and roadside attractions do that."
The space to create this next attraction was provided by Neu Kirche and Fallow Grounds for Sculpture, an annual public art residency program in Pittsburgh that focuses on transforming vacant lots in economically challenged areas into one month-long artist studios. 824 Chestnut Street would be become Masters' studio, in the neighborhood of Northside, less than a mile from Interstate 279, an eight-lane highway spur that divides Allegheny County. "If you walk across the street over the highway, it's world's nicer. You can tell that its been in a slow decline," Masters describes. "One side has all the restaurants, all the industry, and the other side is just houses falling down, essentially." Making her way through its jagged arrangement of empty lots and freckled brick buildings, Amy Masters walked through Northside, her new home for the next month, thinking about what to build.
"I was trying to get a handle of what I actually wanted to make," Masters recalls. "Because I do that when I actually start to create. I try to become part of the community in some capacity, in order to make work that actually fits with them." What fit, was Northside Sandwich Week, a ten-day competition for local restaurants in the area to vie for the title of "Sandwich King." And yes, there's a crown. It's plastic. "Full garb." Masters confirms. "It's great, and it was such a funny event. There was a sixth grade band that played, you put a name on a card and slip it in a box, and by the end, they tally and that's how you get to be the Sandwich King." It was at this event in the summer of 2016 when the idea of building a giant sandwich, a burger, began to take hold in Masters' imagination. "There was something about it that struck me, you could see the civic pride in this event and I was always going to have an element of that in the work - and just through conversations with my roommate, it became one of those things: Why isn't it a sandwich?"
Over the next month, Masters and her team of artists and builders, some of them neighbors from the community, constructed the giant burger to the amused bewilderment of onlookers. "I remember this one woman," Masters recalls, "She was kind of gruff, and she walked by and she asked, 'What is that? What are you making?' And I said, 'I'm making a sandwich.' Simple. And then she said, 'You're making a sandwich?' And then she put her head back and she just started laughing." Outside of the white cube of traditional museum spaces, Masters' sculpture was free of artifice. Approachable. "I was just there, building. And because I was outside from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every single day, they saw me and I became a neighbor, essentially. I think it's important when you create works like that to become part of the neighborhood, because that's their home. I couldn't imagine not wanting to meet them. It was more about people coming up and sitting with me and sharing their stories."
"Northside Road Side" was completed on August 26th, 2016, and stands today in Pittsburgh. Masters allowed the community to rename it as many times as they pleased, with nicknames such as "The World's Largest Hamburger," "The Giant Cheeseburger," and "Sammich." There are no ticket-takers or record of who comes to visit. No gift shop. Its legacy is captured in pictures on people's phones and barber shop chats between neighbors. "Have you stuck your head through it yet?" If you pose just right, by sticking your head inside one of the structure's four portholes, it looks as if you're being eaten by this creation. People become a part of it. At the center of America's fascination with roadside attractions, is the desire to become one with the exhibit, the experience. To become art. Mimicking the tiny arms of the 100-ton T-Rex in Cabazon, CA with their friends, or hugging their great-grandfather inside "Big Brutus," the world's second-largest steam shovel near West Mineral, KS. "I went all the time," says Masters. "Generations of photos of our family have been to Big Brutus. We still go. I mean, every time I go home, I still go. It's a big part of our family."
On someone's phone right now, next to the pictures of their cousin's high-school graduation or a mirror they liked in a model home, might be a picture of them pretending to be eaten by a giant hamburger in Northside, Pennsylvania. A 16-foot tall hamburger that has now become part of their generations of photos, of their history. Perhaps they drove past it with a friend from college after getting lost trying to get back onto Interstate 279. Perhaps they both looked at each other, after realizing what it was, and the meat was made of recycled tires. "Let's take a picture," one of them would suggest. Because it's unexpected. Because it looks like fun. Because I'd like to remember I was here with you.
That's how you get people to stop.
"Road Trip" by Rozalina Burkova
Now that the holiday detritus has finally settled after the slow rain of confetti that was December, the first week of January has come like a great broom to sweep it all to the side to make room for new work to be done in this new year of ours.
One such new piece of work is the image above. I was fortunate to be asked by Vidiots Foundation of Santa Monica to create their end-of-the-year postcard as a way of thanking their donors to their successful Indiegogo campaign. Initiated to raise funds for their efforts to promote the cinematic arts through preservation, education and community engagement through public screenings, I felt a strong connection to their mission. I was raised on VHS, and the memories I have of watching tapes with my family still warms my heart when I think about it.
I normally don't celebrate the New Year. I didn't really feel the need for it this time around, added to fact that the construct of time seems more and more arbitrary to me the older I get. Or maybe I'm just grumpy because I have a little bit of a cold right now. But staring at this mirrorball VHS tape suspended above a sherbet sunset in colored pencil, I find myself reflecting on 2016, and how thankful I was to have family & friends to get my through it. On Christmas Eve, my mom, sister, brother-in-law & I all watched Scrooged. And although it wasn't on VHS like last time, this time, we were together.
As we head into this new year of ours, and if I may offer one piece of unsolicited advice that hopefully won't sound too cloying, it's this: Focus on creating as much happiness as you can for yourself and those you love. Don't base your idea happiness or success on someone else's life. That's their journey, sacred to only them. You'll never follow the same path they do, and you'll never end up being them in the end anyway. Most importantly, they'll never be you. There will never be another you, so be the best version of you that you can be. If you're not where you want to be, then start moving and keep it up. Each step forward counts, regardless of the size.
Happy new year.