4.24.2007

Highlights from the Collection (part 3)

I am not a philatelist. Rather, this is another in the ongoing series of incidental favorites, ripped from storage and thrown on the web. Attractive sets of vintage US stamps from the 1960s and early 70s. Compare this handsome sampling with the current, ethically and aesthetically questionable "Hershey's" kiss postage.

Notable: the zip code guy; the quaint, almost folksy, "Mail Early in the Day" announcement at top; and the jarring use of the word "crippled" in the set second from bottom. My favorite: the 100th anniversary of Canada (1867-1967) at bottom, simple, abstract and bracing.

4.18.2007

"consanguineity": notes

I realize I have no tag or label for this post. Light research based on passing thoughts? Odd "thought clusters"? It was a passage from an article in last week's New Yorker about language and a remote Amazonian tribe that got me thinking about today's note cluster:
"'Besides,' Gordon said, 'if there was some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you'd see it in the hairlines, facial features, motor ability.'
Aside from the stunningly un-PC articulation of "Appalachian inbreeding" what struck me was the noting of hairlines. Hairlines? I tried doing a little googling about inbreeding and physical characteristics but didn't come up with much about hairlines. Jawlines, though, is another matter. The Hapsburg jaw, as classically manifested in Phillip IV of Spain, at top, is "mandibular prognathism" or severe lantern jaw and underbite. The Hapsburg dynasty was rife with this and other unfortunate conditions, with Phillip's son Charles II apparently reaching the apotheosis of inbreeding.
The effluent of generations of close intra-family marriage (his father and mother were uncle and niece), Charles was impotent, mentally deficient, and unable to chew properly.
...
The famous Goya portrait of the Spanish royal family of 1800 is an excruciatingly unidealized representation of mental sluggishness
, close marriage, political commentary and the just plain fugly.
...
I then revisited old cyber-research haunts at the fascinating and not-as-creepy-as-it-sounds
Eugenics Archive (where the next image down is from). The Archive has a terrific educational site that's admirably thorough, beautifully cross-referenced and simply well-done (a quick guide to themes here). A description of the Archive from their site:
Eugenics was, quite literally, an effort to breed better human beings – by encouraging the reproduction of people with "good" genes and discouraging those with "bad" genes. Eugenicists effectively lobbied for social legislation to keep racial and ethnic groups separate, to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and to sterilize people considered "genetically unfit." Elements of the American eugenics movement were models for the Nazis, whose radical adaptation of eugenics culminated in the Holocaust.We now invite you to experience the unfiltered story of American eugenics – primarily through materials from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the center of American eugenics research from 1910-1940.... It is important to remind yourself that the vast majority of eugenics work has been completely discredited. In the final analysis, the eugenic description of human life reflected political and social prejudices, rather than scientific facts.
I'd found the Archive when doing a search about a book I'd read of: "The Jukes; a Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity," by Richard Dugdale. First published in 1877, it was a study of the lineage of a certain (NY State) family perceived to be mired exclusively in prostitution, thievery and indigence, through several generations. The story continues:
A.H. Estabrook, of the Eugenics Record Office, resurveyed the Jukes (1915) and the Ishmaelites [another pseudonymous family] (1923), and found continued evidence of hereditary feebleminedness and other dysgenic traits. The Jukes and Ishmaelites joined the Kallikaks and Nams as examples of eugenical family studies that were widely taught to social workers and college students during the 1920s and 1930s.
The Archive has riveting field photos, case notes and truly mind-boggling commentary. It also documents Estabrook's other book, "Mongrel Virginians." Enough said.
...
Lastly, I was moved to rediscover the work of Shelby Lee Adams
whose photograph of the Napier family, "The Hog Killing" (1990), is shown above. He was born into Appalachia-- Hazard, Kentucky-- and gradually, over 30 years, became known for documenting it on film. I have a book of Adams' work and find it fascinating, but difficult, viewing.
He states:
I have not shied away from what and who has been presented to me. Only an insider could share in this world and I've worked with that knowledge all along. Indeed understanding my place within this culture has been part of my motivation. ...In my opinion this mountain culture should be applauded. Many examples of my work illustrate tolerance of others, resiliency, and acceptance with dignity of conditions others would abhor.

4.12.2007

Scalamandre: a brief tour, or, My Determined Effort

About four years ago I visited the Breakers, the Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, RI. It was explained that in restoring the building several elaborate fabrics and wallpapers had to be recreated from original 100+year-old damaged remnants. Scalamandre, a name I was vaguely familiar with, had undertaken analysis of fiber content, color and patterning and then reproduced these fine specimens of Gilded Age excess. With a little research I discovered that company excelled at small-run bespoke fabrics and high-end hand-screened wallcoverings of up to sixteen colors. Most importantly, the 75-year-old concern that had created custom silks for the White House, fringe for Big Bird, and tassels for the Old Merchant’s House museum was also responsible for the brilliantly zany zebra wallpaper* in the Red Sauce Italian landmark, Gino’s of Lexington Avenue. And at the time (this was late 2003) they were taking shipments of sticky, raw silk to finished dyed and woven fabric all under one roof—in a mill in Long Island City. I was astounded. Someone still did this? In New York City, no less?
I then made a determined effort to get a look inside the place…
Long Island City**, a former industrial center, home to stapler factories, printing plants and shellac distributors, is now in the process of being radically transformed. At the time of my visit, the Scalamandre mill was probably among the last light industrial holdouts.

I found it on a non-descript and fairly bleak street: a relatively small 19th-century brick building with strangely beautiful skylit spaces and worn plank floors.

It was an idiosyncratic manufactory mixing pedal-powered wooden looms, Eisenhower-era machinery, handwork, and modern computer-run technology. I was fortunate to get a quick tour of the mill that day, learning a little about warps, swifts and loom cards in the process. Very shortly thereafter Scalamandre announced they were moving out-of-state, and selling the building.
I later read they were having a kind of fire sale—a dream flea market of antiquated bits and pieces, fabrics and trimmings, emptying the place of its arcane and –to the outsider—inscrutable devices. I was so emotional about that building (true)—I couldn’t even bring myself to go.


An important part of Scalamandre’s work is historical research and reproduction. In an on site studio in that mill they analyzed samples soiled by coal and wood smoke, faded by sunlight, or brittle with age. Probing hidden seams for color and poring over contemporary publications for design documentation they resuscitated vibrant color schemes and completely reconstituted complex repeating patterns. I loved the notion of forensic design technology, a sort of CSI: Decorative Arts Unit.
... ...
*The paper shows up, charmingly, in The Royal Tenenbaums, and, rather less interestingly, in Kate Spade’s bathroom.
**The 7 train’s elevated path through LIC into Queens, with its magni´Čücent sight lines to Midtown Manhattan, is rather exciting and should probably be landmarked.

Images from top: the view from the 7 train; "the Old Mill"; hand-screening wallpaper, with the zebras in the background; swatches, and spools set up for weaving
stripes; looms; some of the afore-mentioned Eisenhower-era machinery: a dying vat; quality inspection; patriotic passementerie; antique spinner, and spool boxes; classic zebra wallpaper at Gino's from the New York Times

4.09.2007

recognized in passing

I came across this striking photo, top, taken by Lewis Hine in 1912, on the sentimental, sweet and sharply addictive Shorpy: the 100-year-old photo blog. I immediately recognized the balconied building and the small, much older gabled house at the corner at left, which remain today on Elizabeth Street at Houston. I went and took the update just yesterday.

I love the ragged density of the 95 year old image. The balcony (which is really a fire escape) serves as repository for all manner of domestic detritus: barrels, a child's rocking chair, a bird cage, and a cascade of laundry. The scene is chaotic and, paradoxically, alive. That little gabled building at the corner has been the restaurant Cafe Colonial now for several years. I've had several glasses of wine there... The tall corner tenement at extreme left mystified me for several moments. Then I realized that the entire block is no longer-- that is the middle of Houston Street.

In a successful ploy to avoid doing work, I've spent time coloring in part of the image. I've been considering how to best experiment with this: How do antique streetscapes, in all their foreignness, change once the sepia is turned into a more recognizable approximation of reality. How much more "accessible"can they become?

4.02.2007

writer's block, mental torpor and Ed Kienholz

I'm stumbling over myself for quite a while, unable to compose a coherent post. A death in the family (and the long illness that led up to it) has, I think, really eaten away at my concentration. "Eaten away at" is not the right sense, more dissolved, mixed with and diluted. What was never really sharp-eyed or crystalline to begin with is now more of... a colloidal suspension. Little granules of thoughts and ideas, diffused and suspended in a sluggish mental matrix. How apt it is then that I've finally rediscovered Ed Kienholz, the master of polyurethane resin. His work is like opening someone's memory closet, an illicit, stolen view of thoughts suspended and things coated and gelled. Reified inertia.

For the longest time I couldn't recall his name, all I could remember was the immense impression this piece, Sollie 17, above, made on me, X-years ago at the Whitney. Then, just the other day, the name somehow came back--Kienholz, Ed Kienholz (not Kurzwiel, not Ed Gein) --and with that, the recollection of several other of his insistently disturbing pieces. Fantastical ugly things that are, to me, mesmerizing– a brash and experientially bullying version of Cornell.
I love the materials list for this particular piece:
wood, plexiglass, furniture, sink, lights, photographs, plaster casts, pots, pans, books, cans, boxes, three pairs of underwear, linoleum, leather, wool, cotton, sound track, glass, metal, paint, polyester resin, paper, metal coffee can, sand, and cigarette butts
And then there's this description of kienholz at artnet.com: "George Segal's pristine white sculptures after an evening of intense carousing with Charles Bukowski."

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