Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Last week there was a geosciences convention at the Moscone Center, a large conference center just a block from Crown Point Press. Among the conferees was a geophysicist who, in 2002, had been on the same trip to the North Pole by Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker as Kathan Brown. (The trip would later inspired Kathan’s lovely, eponymous book, published by Crown Point in 2004.) Since he knew Kathan, the geophysicist stopped by to say hello and to see our current exhibition, which includes prints by John Chiara. I was here at the front desk when he emerged from the gallery, waving his arms and talking a mile a minute. He was so excited he’d gotten completely disoriented, and forgotten which way the exit was! While I retrieved his bags and jacket for him, he followed me through the office telling me what he’d loved so much about the work.

John Chiara, 24th at Carolina (left variation), 2006. Photogravure on gampi paper chine colle. Paper size: 32-3/4 x 27-3/4"; image size: 23-1/2 x 19-3/4". Edition 15. Printed by Dena Schuckit.

“It’s a sycamore tree,” the geophysicist said, referring to the foreground of Chiara’s beautiful San Francisco landscapes. The scientist knew a lot about sycamore trees. Did you know that the word sycamore doesn’t refer to a specific tree, but is just a general word that refers to a type of tree? That there is in fact a sycamore that grows figs? That the first British-designed helicopter to successfully fly was called the Bristol Sycamore? He told me that in their natural habitats sycamores require a lot of water, and so often grow in the rich soil near rivers, streams or lakes. I supposed this made Chiara’s chosen tree particularly strong, as it stands far from an underground water source, on the top of Potrero Hill.

This reminded him of another, stronger sycamore. “Do you know about the fake sycamore in Central Park, in New York?” he asked. A fake sycamore? “Sure, I used to walk by it on my way to work,” he said. “It was made out of steel. It was beautiful. But the ends of its branches tapered off into points, and looking up at it, I always half-expected a squirrel to jump into it and get skewered.”

The tree’s name was Bluff. It was constructed by the artist Roxy Paine and commissioned by the New York Public Art Fund in 2002. The website for Bluff reads, "Roxy Paine's Bluff was a fifty-foot high tree made of brilliantly stainless steel. Bluff's heavy industrial plates formed a two-foot-wide trunk that supported more than 5000 pounds of cantilevered branches, welded together from 24 different diameters of steel pipes and rods. Its gleaming frame remained unchanged as its environment shifted from winter into spring. By announcing its grand manmade artifice rather than attempting to blend in with the surrounding real plants and trees, Bluff was a cunning reminder that Central Park is itself an artificial sanctuary, a product of city planners as much as Mother Nature."

I recently moved to a neighborhood 5 miles from Crown Point Press, San Francisco’s Sunset district. Most days, I bike to work through Golden Gate Park, a spacious, lush public park born in the 1860’s in response to New York’s Central Park, which was also taking shape at that time. Blue Gum Eucalyptus was imported from Australia and planted alongside native Monterey Pines and Monterey Cypresses to thicken the 60,000 tree forest that holds together the California sand dunes underfoot. To keep it alive and thriving, processed and recycled water, called effluent, is pumped in from the city’s sewage treatment plant. The park is such a beautiful success that John McClaren, the proud gardener who saw its construction through to completion, lived in Golden Gate until he was 90 years old. McClaren died just a decade before the introduction of artificial detergents in the 1950’s would cause billowing piles of foam to form on the creeks that connected its artificial lakes. The foam blew onto the paths and roads of the park, blocking traffic and killing wildlife. Talk about an “artificial sanctuary” — the toxic overflow must have been more like a sanctuary of the artificial.

Tom Marioni, New Growth, 2006. Color drypoint with flat bite etching. Paper size: 22 x 20-1/2"; image size: 13 x 12-1/2". Edition 20. Printed by Dena Schuckit.

Learning about the construction of the park made me think of the Crown Point gallery itself as a kind of 'sanctuary of the artificial.' Here we have two artists, John Chiara and Tom Marioni, who have each created their own series of conceptual 'landscapes'. Critic Thomas McEvilly has written of Marioni's works that they "demystify, diminish, and bring down to earth the solemnity of the sublime." Because the artists have created what they depict (Chiara moved his hand in front of the lens of his camera to get the exposure he wanted; for New Growth, pictured at left, Marioni accumulated visceral dig after dig in his copper plate), their landscapes, though artificial, are more human than landscape itself.

- Rachel Lyon

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Notes on John Cage

"What I'm proposing to myself and to other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before. So that you're not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before."
- John Cage, 1992

A couple of days ago, I was selling books and sitting in the audience of an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kathan was on a panel speaking about John Cage, and afterward there was a concert of his Sonatas and Interludes. As Crown Point and John Cage enthusiasts alike might know, Cage did a series of etchings here at Crown Point Press between 1980 and 1992. His time here was the catalyst for Kathan Brown's book, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind. "The book is in three parts," the press release for this publication reads. "The first is a text written from Brown's own experience. In it, she often uses Cage's words to describe particular works, and she reflects upon how the art can be used in the world. The second is a detailed section that illustrates 'scores' that Cage created for his printers, and explains his use of what he called 'chance operations' in making his work. The third section of the book is pictorial. Cage told Brown that the purpose of art is 'to sober and quiet the mind, so that it is in accord with what happens.'"

GLOBAL VILLAGE 1-36, 1989. Aquatint, roulette and drypoint on smoked paper. 38-1/2 x 26-1/2", on Roma Fabriano Brown paper. Edition: 15. Printed by Crown Point Press.
I thought, since I was at this event, I'd record some of the notes that I took during hour-long series of Cage's musical musings, performed by the remarkable pianist (and Cage specialist) Julie Steinberg on a prepared piano that had bolts, screws and stones, as well as dry-erasers and other objects attached to its strings. I haven't edited much, just thrown down most of what I wrote, in the hopes you enjoy them. As always, feel free to comment - discussion is the root of invention!

1. Human beings need structure.

2. The challenge to the pianist is to try and find the plot in these plotless segments. Cage's widom (in part) was to divide the plotnessness he came upon through chance operations into segments that are at least small enough to be digestible (at most, pure enough to be intelligible).

3. For the [same] sake of clarity, he often repeats a phrase more than once. This is an improvisation trick I also learned from Steve Mackey, who used to tell his improv students (myself included), "when in doubt, do it again," a musical version of the pep talk pointer and 13th Magical Secret, "Own It." Repetition makes sense, in both senses of 'make.'

4. Once in a while an old, familiar form shows up, too, by accident. An example: the weird, little musical formulation that sounds like the bit in the score for "The Wizard of Oz" that belongs to Glinda floating down in her bubble. But reference is certainly not enough, and repetition is only half the battle - it is Cage's organization of these snippets (and the wells of empathy in Steinberg's performance that lend them plot/emotive structure) that keeps the rapt audience rapt. Cage organizes his musical phrases like stones in a Zen garden: each rock is just a rock, devoid of meaning - it is one's own movement amid them that lends them power.

5. It's a question of memory. My own thoughts tend to cycle - a genetic, maybe, or cultural, a sex-linked, nurtured, common, or God-given quirk, who knows. Whatever the reason, while I listen to Cage I find my go-to way of listening is insufficient. Traditional Western music, (take Beethoven for example, or Sufjan Stevens) is constructed for the neurotic. While listening, you can put your mind on temporary auto-pilot, go back to any one element, and be satisfied that it is meant to be a part of the whole: whatever has happened was necessary to bring about whatever is happening now. In Cage's work, though, the music is organized in a totally egalitarian way, that renders this kind of jumping back and forth between memory and immediacy meaningless. I get the unsettling yet somehow deeply comforting feeling that whatever has happened could have been anything else. Although there's no epiphany, like in a great symphony or a really satisfying song, there is something very much like peace.

- Rachel Lyon