Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slowing Alcatraz Down

Alcatraz is full of myths. Some true, some false. The park service has done a good job of underplaying the dramatic potential and introducing some interpretation, but not too much. Even so, the voices of birds on the ferry’s loudspeakers, the audio phones, the introductory materials, and the large crowds make it difficult to experience this solemn place as more than a quick trip between Fisherman’s Wharf and the highbrow shopping emporium at the Ferry Building. Is it possible to slow this experience down?

Ai Weiwei’s show “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” is probably not going to mean a great deal to first-time visitors looking for Al Capone’s cell, the hospital room where Birdman of Alcatraz stayed, or the answer to how a trio of prisoners escaped through the ventilation system. But for return visitors, Ai Weiwei’s installation offers a chance to interact with several different kinds of spaces and experience a deeper insight into the meaning of freedom.

The New Industries Building has not been open to the public previously. This factory structure offers vistas of the bay and the Golden Gate, which the prison blocks do not. Prisoners had only endless days in tiny cells, so factory work offered variety to an otherwise monotonous routine. Above the prisoners was a gun gallery with armed guards ready to shoot if a whistle’s shrill was heard from the factory floor. In this spare building, the artist has created three large-scale but very different works.

With Wind, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

With Wind is the first piece after the beautiful uphill walk from the ferry dock. Wind, a force that cools you in the heat, also makes a kite soar in the sky. The beautifully detailed dragon is not frightening, nor is it alive—like any prisoner, it is waiting for an unseen force. A viewer can look at the beautifully detailed structure and painting, but I found myself concentrating on the sharp contrast with the ugly peeling workplace where prisoners and their guards toiled, counting days to release of one kind or another. Another view of this cloth serpentine-like form can be seen from the upstairs gun gallery. This narrow space, barely wide enough for two to pass, was filled with sunlight on the day I visited but felt unbearably claustrophobic. I couldn’t focus on the work again until I left the building. It is no mistake that Ai Weiwei chose a dragon kite, a stereotypical Chinese icon, to begin his complex and enormous multimedia essay on freedom.

Trace, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

In the next room, Trace portrays over 170 faces of political prisoners and exiles using plastic LEGO bricks. Foregrounding something as serious as the injustice of governments (democratic as well totalitarian) acting against their own citizens in the medium of children’s toys seems like an odd juxtaposition. Each pop portrait looks like a pixilated heat scan, not far from abstraction—perhaps inspired a little by Warhol silk screens or distant cameras? What remains is just a bright trace of the individual. At first, it’s tempting to look for the more famous names, the late Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Chelsea Manning, and of course, Edward Snowden. But like the LEGOs themselves, these are points of access. And then I was overwhelmed by the enormity of all these human beings suffering for advocating freedom and justice. Thankfully, the @Large website has biographies of each person so their memories are not left on the factory floor.

Refraction, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann

Interestingly, the most physically beautiful and complex piece in the installation, Refraction, can only be seen from a distance in the lower gun gallery. After being immersed in viewing the kite and walking around (although not on) the LEGO tiles, seeing this sculpture—wings made of metal panels from Tibetan solar cookers—serves as a reminder that art, like freedom itself, is not guaranteed. You can barely experience the most beautiful form in the island, a wing too heavy for flight. Freedom is never certain.

After the claustrophobia of the gun galleries, being outside with vistas of the bay—which prisoners rarely saw—is restorative. A further walk leads up to the door of the main cellblock, where you enter as prisoners did and are faced immediately with the same series of completely open showers that they saw. The associations with the final solution, though not intentional, are obvious.

Blossom, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann

photo: Kenneth Caldwell

photo: Kenneth Caldwell

Up the stairs are the hospital and psychiatric observation rooms, which are usually closed to the public. In the sinks, tubs, and toilets of the hospital, the artist has inserted precisely measured groups of porcelain flowers. At a distance, they appear to be bunched-up paper, some kind of waste. On closer inspection, they reminded me of kitschy trinkets that tourists might find in Chinatown a few miles away. Weiwei entitled these groupings Blossom. The longer you look at them, the more they turn into groups of pure white blossoms, white like the porcelain containers they rest in. They are monochromatic, a commentary perhaps on a colorless life behind bars. Yet they are also a contrast to that life because they are so delicate, so fragile within the stolid vitrines of fluid waste inside an oppressive monolith. One color, many layers.

Ilumination, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

Nearby, in the psychiatric observation rooms, I felt another sudden urge to get out as fast as possible. But I was drawn in by an almost hypnotic chanting of Tibetan monks and Hopi Indians. This piece, entitled Illumination, reinforces the well-known link from Chinese dissidents to Tibet. But few people are aware that Hopis were imprisoned on Alcatraz in the 19th century when they wouldn’t let their children attend U.S. government schools. I was also reminded of the Native American occupation of the island for nearly two years in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Stay Tuned, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

Back downstairs and over to A Block, which was not renovated when the military prison became a federal penitentiary. The cells were later used by prisoners for typing up their correspondence and for storage. Here, the artist has turned each cell on the ground level into a space commemorating a well-known political prisoner. Stay Tuned encourages the visitor to sit on a simple stool in the small cell and listen to some kind of text or song created by prisoners such as Russia’s Pussy Riot, Chilean poet and musician Victor Jara, Tibetan singer Lolo, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their voices reach across oceans, years, and concrete walls. With so little “art,” this installation finally causes you to just sit and feel the tiny enclosure that is a prison cell.

Yours Truly, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann
photo: Kenneth Caldwell

Exhausted from the walking and contemplating, you end up in the former cafeteria wondering, what can one person do in the face of all this oppression? Instead of predictable organic snacks on beautifully made, locally sourced wood tables that you might expect in the Bay Area, there are pens for you to write a note on a pre-addressed postcard with images of the countries where today’s political prisoners are being held. Yours Truly is a tidy conclusion to the show, but it does serve to remind us that one person can make a difference and help free people. Each of our voices helped Ai Weiwei get released from prison so he could, with help from hundreds of people, make these pieces of art. We hope that one day he and the other prisoners will be able to physically stand with us. As Edward Snowden has shown us, preserving freedom takes a lot of thinking and a lot of action. But one person can make a difference.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Back to Work: Design Still Gives Me Hope

Pioneer Place

The return from our three-week holiday in France and the United Kingdom has been more disorienting than usual. First, we had to give up wine at lunch! Then we gave up wine on school nights. Being self-employed means I can’t travel without internet access at each hotel, house, or apartment we stay in. So we never really get away from the tumult.

Before we left for Europe, the battle for Gaza upset me tremendously. While it is pretty clear to me who is occupying whom, it still means civilian deaths on all sides. It’s hard to see a peaceful resolution, given the violence. Trying to make sense of the conflict practically requires a degree in Mideast history.

We returned home to the tragic news about Bay Area resident Robin Williams, who was universally adored. It seems that everybody here has a story about meeting him, seeing him live, or working with him. Although his politics were always left, he volunteered to perform for U.S. troops overseas. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the politics of a specific conflict, he empathized with the situation the soldiers found themselves in. They didn’t start the stupid wars; they need support. Of course, they need it when they get home, too, but that’s another story. It is strange how ubiquitous Williams was, and yet none of us knew him or the depth of his struggles. Let’s remember his lesson: compassion.

Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000

The Gas Company

Museum of the African Diaspora

The images from Ferguson are connected to the historic oppression of African American males by largely white male forces. This is old news to black folks, but maybe this time white folks will get it too. I remember years ago attending a reading at Black Oak Books with Walter Mosley. An audience member asked innocently, if naively, whether indeed the situation in America wasn’t better for African Americans than it used to be? And Mosely said something like, “No. Every night in America, a black man is beaten by a white police officer.” Not only has the systemic mistreatment of African Americans been pointed out, we are also seeing how our police have become militarized. Another outcome of the Military Industrial Security Corporate Complex that the Republicans built in the wake of 9/11. The enemy has been misidentified.

1984 Los Angeles Olympics

And then yesterday, in the design industry where many of my friends work, the death of Deborah Sussman, the noted graphic designer. She was 83, though that was hard to believe. She was a protégé of the Eameses and grew to become a brilliant designer in her own right. Her graphics for the Joseph Magnin stores illuminated my childhood and adolescence. What she could do with mall architecture! During the 1990s, she used to come to the ELS office to work on retail projects, and the whole place felt a surge when that little lady came up the stairs. Those spectacles! Her work for the 1984 Olympics not only branded the Olympics, but it also helped rebrand Los Angeles. Although her work was temporary and largely based on color, it had a permanent effect. Los Angeles became a leading global city after the Olympics. Amazing what a bit of colored paper can do. Looking at Sussman’s work cheers me up and helps me get back to work, which means sharing the work!

Deborah Sussman
Photo by Laure Joliet for the NY Times

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Postcard from Tucson

Tucson remains the strangest of cities. Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, majestic mountain ranges, pockets of charming neighborhoods, and the most hideous of American boulevards. On this trip, we were encouraged because downtown Tucson is buzzing. The Hotel Congress and the Rialto Theatre have long anchored one side of downtown. There was a good restaurant in the old train station and a few other decent eateries scattered around, but it didn’t seem to hold together.

Hotel Congress from Connect coworking space

Inside the Connect coworking space (CoConnect)
in the Rialto Building (designed by FORSArchitecture)

But now with the new housing complexes (which are rather bland) and several well-designed new restaurants (many created by our pals Miguel and Sonya at FORSarchitecture + interiors), there is a new vibrancy downtown. There was even a pop-up shop outside the FORS office. Folks are out at night despite it being summer and the University not being in session. A handsome large coworking space upstairs at the Rialto just opened. Rather like New York or San Francisco.

While downtown, we stopped in at a party for the magazine Edible Baja Arizona, which comes out six times a year. The publication is beautifully produced and celebrates the emerging food culture near the border. It includes recipes, reviews, and interviews. Weirdly enough, it’s free. We found out about Whiskey Del Bac, which is being produced right in Tucson. Worth a sip! The new Sun Link streetcar will connect downtown to the university. Hopefully, this will mean fewer cars for students. If only the entire town had rail service. I know, one step at a time.

The Arizona Inn remains largely unchanged. They no longer bring a glass of water when you sit down at the pool. That was a nice touch. We miss the free breakfast that used to happen in the summer too, but we still enjoy the free afternoon ice cream, although I wish they served it up a bit earlier than five o’clock.

Arizona Inn

Shortly after we arrived, there was a monsoon, which cooled things down, brought up the humidity, and also brought out that beautiful desert creosote smell. My second cousin, Carolyn Burns, came to visit for a day with her new husband, Raed Haddad. Carolyn met him in Phoenix just after she signed up for a year of teaching in Egypt. Despite this obstacle, their relationship flourished, and they married when she returned to Arizona. Raed hails from Amman, Jordan, and it was fascinating to hear the stories about his homeland and family. For many years, Raed wanted to come to the United States because of educational and career opportunities, and the University of Arizona was one of the only universities here that responded to his inquiries. Although he is a well-paid engineer at Intel, he drove an Uber car for a few months because he wanted to understand the business model. We look forward to seeing them again when they venture out to California at Christmas.

On July 4, we visited Miguel’s sister Anna and climbed up on the roof of her William Wilde–designed midcentury house. We watched the fireworks and, most interestingly, some kind of laser-light show on the Santa Catalina Mountains. A big family BBQ is the best way to celebrate Independence Day.

Pool at Anna's house
Celebrating the 4th

We also drove up to Mount Lemmon, which we had never done before. The hoodoos on the drive were exceptional, as were the views. The town of Summerhaven, at the top, was destroyed by a fire in 2003, but the settlement that has been rebuilt is forgettable. Because of rain, we didn’t go for a hike.

Hodoos on the road to Mount Lemmon

The great discovery this trip was the work of architect Juan Wørner y Bas. He was one of the favored architects of local developers John and Helen Murphey. They found him when they stayed at his Continental Hilton in Mexico City. (Torn down in 1985 after the earthquake). His work in Tucson might be considered critical regionalism in that he combined modernist ideas with the local vernacular, or colonial vernacular. He loved introducing statues into the mix, sometimes atop his buildings! His annex to Josias Joesler’s quaint Broadway Village shopping center is an eclectic masterpiece. Butt-glazed windows, tiled arches, and ceramic statuettes atop the columns. What’s not to love? I just hope it doesn’t get renovated out of existence.

Broadway Village Plaza Annex
by Juan Worner y Bas

One of his best works is the fountain at the entrance to Catalina Foothills Estates No. 7, which reminds me of Barragán’s work. Apparently the water blew all over hell and gone and they turned it off. It feels like a modernist cactus marker. He also designed two condo developments near Campbell and Sunrise. One of them even has plaster longhorns decorating the wall next to the pool. Next to the pool is a koi pond, and in the distance, a view of the Catalinas. Might be a good spot to read books in my retirement.

Catalina Foothills Neighborhood entry fountain
by Juan Worner y Bas

Koi pond and plaster long horns
at Juan Worner y Bas designed condo.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Welcome to Frazierville: Part Two

Q: So much of your work is about distillation. And even though you’ve distilled it really far, there are multiple meanings to be found in the simplest of illustrations. Are they always intended, or are they sometimes a surprise because of your long history of doing this? Do you end up putting in layers even if you don’t know you are?

CF: I may very well do that. I never try to draw a picture of the exact thing.

Q: It’s an idea?

CF: It’s not necessarily an idea. I try to bring an idea to it. There are only a dozen or so repeating messages in corporate business anyway. My job is to symbolize a lot of those things, but leave enough room that everybody can see a little something in there. If it doesn’t communicate a central idea, then you’re getting into that fine art territory again. But I have a job to communicate some central message. The fun is in a lot of those nuances. Why do I draw buckets so much? Why do I draw hoses? I don’t really know. It’s just that some of those articles are the most fundamental tools that everybody understands. We understand how a bucket works. It’s a vessel that holds something. It’s got a handle. If you turn it sideways, something comes out. It’s that simple. It’s a great device for storytelling.

Occasionally, an art director will send me a sketch of something they want me to draw. They have usually studied my work so it looks something like what I might do. But because I didn’t go through the process of solving the problem, I can’t get behind doing the drawing. It’s not ego, it’s ownership of the story and why it’s the right answer to the problem. I have to go through that myself to evaluate whether it will be a good illustration or not. It’s not just a drawing problem. I get as much fun out of the sketching as I do finishing it. So much of my work is based on past work, it’s more than just using the same symbols. Clients have to understand that I want to bring them something they’ve never thought of. I tell them, “I live in this world. I’ve been drawing this for 20 years.”

I’m looking for something that I’ve never seen before, that I really want to draw. It’s just like—a guy who wrote an article on me, he called it Frazierville.

Q: What are those binders over there?

CF: The wall of binders are sketches. They are supposed to be chronological. I return to them from time to time. There are different levels of sketches. There are the real rough ones, and then I ultimately tighten up. Sometimes a drawing will be presented a few times to different clients. It’ll get rejected, and I’ll recycle it.

Q: Just like an architect. What is that image?

CF: It never got it produced. No client ever accepted it. I finished it myself. I do a lot of second rights licensing; I’ll sell something after the fact.

Q: How did they find that?

CF: I have a website, but sometimes a client will come to me and say, “Do you have anything that you’ve done that fits this message? We don’t want to pay for you to do a new one. We want to buy second rights to an illustration.” I also have lots of original illustrations that have never been licensed.

You just want to live in this world and try to improve it. And when I say “improve it,” for me it’s about finding essential elements and—“truths” isn’t quite the right word—but possibilities. It’s only until I’ve drawn something like, say, water a number of times that I get very familiar with it, and I get comfortable with it, and comfortable with rendering it a particular way.

Q: So sometimes you’re doing the practice without knowing the outcome, because you have faith in the process? The client didn’t go for it, but it’s a great idea, so you decide to take it to a level of completion so it advances what you’re doing in the world, even though you may never be paid.

CF: Exactly.

Q: It seems almost Buddhist. I wanted to talk about technology and the production of your work. You withdrew from graphic design about the time it became really automated.

CF: Yeah. We were finishing all the work on computers. Since then it’s only gotten easier. The problem today is everybody’s a graphic designer.

Q: But how do you physically make these illustrations? I see the first part—the first rough sketch—and then you refine it. Then what happens?

CF: Okay, I’m going to show you how primitive my methods are. I draw with a pen, and I draw with the same pen, and I have forever. Although I switched from a Pilot pen to a Micron about six years ago, and I love these Microns. And I draw really small. Part of that is because I can get a lot of things on a paper. I can draw very quickly.

One of the things about solving problems, whether you’re a designer or an illustrator, is you have got to keep yourself from getting frustrated. The hardest part of our job is when we start to feel a sense of failing. When we’re in the process of solving the problem, you’re going, “This is not fucking working. I am shit. I am the worst designer in the world. Oh no, my career is over.”

Q: As in, “Are they going to take back the car, the house?

CF: You cannot let that happen. You have to work quickly and be able to abandon something that is shit and go on. You just to keep drawing and don’t judge it. Do that later. I’ll judge it in an hour. I’ll judge it tomorrow. I’m not going to judge it right now. Just keep drawing little ideas, because that morning-after test is always better than that moment. The name of the game is to invest as little as possible in ideas so it doesn’t hurt that bad when you toss them. But you’ve got to keep moving, which keeps you from stopping, and sitting there, and going, “Is this shit?”

When I started in design at that first job in Palo Alto, my boss had this thing over his desk that said, “You can’t polish a horse turd.” I’ll never forget that. All the work you put into it is not really going to improve it if it’s just not a fundamentally good idea. I’m always looking for an idea that’s worth spending time on, and I’ve learned to see that with a doodle. I could tell you almost by describing it to you.

Now, the other reason to work small is that compositionally I’ve resolved a lot of the issues already. I’ve already built in scale. As you start to draw something big, it’s hard for you to see all those relationships that well. So that starts to also define a vocabulary. Because it’s so small, I’m not going to put many details in it. It’s not interesting to me. Next, I cut this the illustration out of Amberlith—a masking film used originally for silkscreening. Then I scan it. All I need is an orthochromatic form. Because I’m going to color it in the computer.

Q: Where do you still get Amberlith?

CF: It comes in a sheet. I just found the last roll of it in America.

Q: What are you going to do when this material runs out?

CF: I’ll retire. The last roll I got is 30 feet, so I’ve got plenty—I’m good.

Q: You use old and new technologies.

CF: People think I build these illustrations in Adobe Illustrator. I do sometimes, usually not.

Q: God, you must be mad.

CF: What happens is it creates its own vocabulary. I want you to look at it and go, “This was made by hand.” I want happy accidents. I’m interested in that little bit of character that takes place. The other element to this is that it forces me to edit my level of detail. These characters don’t have eyes because they’re too friggin’ small to draw! I don’t want you to care about him that much.

Q: Technology has also changed who you do work for. There are fewer print publications. I hear it’s stabilized somewhat, but it certainly has been on a downward trajectory. There are probably fewer annual reports. How has that affected you?

CF: It used to be when we’d write a contract, it would be for print, and they’d say, “And maybe some additional web usage.” It’s the other way around now. It’s web usage, and maybe a little print.

Q: Do clients hire you for digital projects?

CF: Yes. Ultimately everything will be on a digital platform.

Q: Are there days when there isn’t an assignment and there are ideas that you want to explore?

CF: Of course, that’s the only way to bear those times.

Q: Are you being pulled towards noncommissioned work?

CF: I am being pulled towards trying to create projects for myself. You’re going to back me into this artist thing, I know.

Q: I usually end where I start.

CF: Part of it is trying to invent some things that I can sell. I don’t want to change my style. But I do have some more ideas, and so I’m always trying things in my sketchbooks. I got called to jury duty, and I was doing these “opposite” silhouettes waiting for jury duty. As you know, I have this other venue—children’s books. That’s where I jump to when I’m not doing a commissioned assignment, because I always have a book that’s supposed to be getting done—or I’m developing.

Q: What have you worked on recently?

CF: I did a large design/illustration project for Goodwill, which involved designing their fleet of 50 trucks for the Bay Area. Did a logo for a fine knife maker named Wilburn Forge. I’m wrapping up a new kid’s book about these animals that are contagiously grumpy on the bus. Kind of like riding Muni I suppose, or any other bus in America. It’s full of good lessons for kids and parents and maybe a few laughs on the way.

Oh, and I’m designing a book titled Sketchy that catalogs a lot of my sketches over the past 15 years that will parallel a show of sketches and process at the Savannah School of Art and Design this fall. It's a collaboration with Mohawk Fine Papers and Xerox. It's almost 200 pages and 30 different covers! I’m in the throes of finishing production on both due out in a few weeks. I better get back to work.


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