Tag Archives: books

Literary Art, Puns, And Bookmarks

Continuing my interview with Robin Blum, founder of In My Book® — the bookmark and greeting cards in one

Happy Ending In My Book Bookmark & Greeting Card

How do you go about getting the art for the bookmarks and cards?

I am fortunate to work with illustrator (and Brooklyn neighbor) Meredith Hamilton. I found her on a wonderful listing of artists for hire called The I Spot. I love the New Yorker-y style of her pen and ink illustrations and feel that they are perfectly suited to the slightly irreverant nature of the cards.

How do you select the images? How tied to literary themes — and puns — are they?

There are presently fifteen styles of In My Book. When we first worked together in 1999, I gave the text of the greetings to Meredith and we brainstormed what type of images would work. In My Book, you’re a classic ended up with marble busts of distinguished and scholarly types, reading books of course; you’re a mystery clearly called for one of the great wonders of world (Stonehenge) and you’re some dish was teamed up with a red-hot mamma having fun cooking up a storm. More styles are presently in the works and will be available in Spring of 2012.

Are there any designs that seem most popular? Any trends in terms of the art, or it is mainly a matter of book genres?

The most popular styles are the ones that seem to suit the greatest number of people. Who wouldn’t be flattered by the notion of being ‘rare’ or ‘a classic’?? Publishers Weekly says: “Multi-tasking as both bookmark and greeting card…illustrated with charming pen-and-ink drawings by artist Meredith Hamilton, these sentimental greetings make endearing enclosures especially when the present is a book.”

How often do you add new designs? And when you add new ones, do you discontinue any older ones?

The line began with twelve styles in 2000 and added three more styles in 2003. Next year three additional styles will be added, so there will be a total of eighteen styles. Although obviously some sell better than others, I have chosen not to discontinue the older ones. This is different than most greeting card companies who base their inventory on sales; I tend to think that book readers are more or less traditional and that “you’re a character”, “you’re a hero”, “you’re the last word” will never go out of style.

I think so too, Robin.

The cards have sold for $3.95 (including envelope) since the company started in 2000; buy them now and get a jump on holiday gift giving –and the upcoming price increase in 2012!

Review: The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photograph

The Painted Backdrop By Jim Linderman

Have you ever thought about the painted backgrounds in antique and vintage photographs?

No?

Well, you aren’t alone.

Until I read The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography, by Jim Linderman (with an essay by Kate Bloomquist), I hadn’t either.

In fact, the story of and between 19th century painters and American photography really has never been told — or, I should say, “hasn’t been explored” until Linderman came along and looked into it via his collection of antique tintype photographs.

Considering virtually every one of the millions upon millions of tintype photographs taken indoors from 1850 to 1920, (and a good number of the few taken outside) had a painted backdrop, it is remarkable  no one has ever written a book about them. This is even more remarkable given the importance of the background in motion pictures today. As entire films are produced by computer, the role of the actor has been reduced to standing before an empty screen mouthing words only later to be placed in a digital backdrop which never existed and never will. In a way, the early painted drops used by primitive tintype photographers of the late 19th century an unreal environment in a prescient manner; the thread connecting them to big-screen computer generated hyper-worlds is real but seldom considered.

He even dares to ask the question, “Could this be because photographers, even then, were so determined to prove THEY were doing the art and not the painter they relegated to the background?”

Antique Tintype Backdrop Being Painted

The author / collector states: “This is an art book about painting and photography (or vice-versa) and how they met in a certain time and place.”   Ever since the camera arrived, the debate about the merits of photography as an art form has raged (admittedly Ansel Adams helped sway a lot of people that it is), and this book and its 75 antique tintype images certainly is part of that debate. It also raises the question about whether or not the painted backdrops used behind the people in the photographs are art, folk art, or ephemera from the photographic industry.  But  it’s that last part, “how they met in a certain time and place,” which really gets to the core of things, the thrilling things, for me.  That’s where we get to the historical cultural contexts.

The book gives a brief historical overview of photography set in the context of culture, art and commerce. There’s a near ode to daguerreotypes and a rather sneering look at ambrotypes before we settle in to accept the (lowly fragile) tintypes as having won the hearts of the masses. While tintypes lack the gleam of their forerunners, the thin tintype’s popularity mirrors how the West was won: Easy, inexpensive, mobility.  The ease of mailing tintypes not only aligns with the power of rail road transportation, but in fact, photo studios sprung up near or at nearly every train station.

Two Antique Tintypes With Same Painted Backdrops

However, Linderman doesn’t end his considerations of the development of photography there; his (rather opinionated) narrative briefly covers paper prints, the Polaroid, and digital photos too. If you find the author judgmental, he is. But his thoughts are historically and culturally sane; and when it comes to art, we all have our preferences — or at least we ought to.

In many ways, Linderman’s brief text is more glorious than the many antique images he shares. For, agree or disagree with the author’s thoughts and opinions, you are rather forced to form your own thoughts and opinions. But none of us are really left with conclusions — at least those we haven’t, in part, jumped to.  As Linderman states, there’s just too little documentation, research and investigation, into what happened to painters when the camera came along — into the subject of photographic backdrops themselves — to reach any real conclusions.

The book raises more questions, really, than it answers. At least for me. But in that most excellent of ways which rather than being too light of a snack, leaving me unsatisfied, this book whets my appetite, makes me want more, leaves me with something to chew on… Technology, commerce, art, and culture collide at a crossroads, supposed “forward progress” exposing values, leaving the role of art and artists themselves as question marks… Not at all unlike the digital situation of today.

Tintype Of Painter Working On Photographic Backdrop

The very fact that we haven’t really put any effort into exploring “what happened” is a testament to how little we value photography, art, and artists, I suppose. Yet art, and more than a few artists, have managed to survive.

Collections and books like this preserve what was — not just for us all to see and enjoy, but to force us to look at what happened and to examine for ourselves just what is all involved in such technological advances and shifts in “style.”

The Keratin Creatures Of Rachel Betty Case

Watching Oddities, I fell in love with the “human ivory” artwork of Rachel Betty Case.

“Human ivory” is what Case calls human fingernails, toenails, and pet nail clippings. I can appreciate her desire to want to prettify such mundane things, but when I hear “ivory” I think of carving and what Case does is extremely intricate assembly work, layering and sculpting our discarded keratin pieces into fantastic little creatures…

On the episode of Oddities where Case appeared, store staff member Ryan was creep-ed out by the works. (I find it strange, since he plays with skeletons; but maybe it’s just a girl thing, not to freak over nail clippings, what with our love of mani-pedis and all?) Apparently Ryan’s not the only one loathe to touch the artist’s work though because Case began encasing her tiny keratin sculptures in resin; much like those retro Lucite bug rings and such.

On the show, Case said each resin piece takes about a week to make.  Given how long resin can take to set, it makes me wonder how long it takes her to assemble each keratin critter?

Once I visited the artist’s website, I was particularly smitten with her placing the Human Ivory works inside altered art books.

Fascinatingly beautiful.

The Dollypop Guild

Paul Richmond (whose upcoming exhibit, Cheesecake, will be opening in June at the Center on Halsted in Chicago) explores the path of his own identity and sexuality in his paintings.

Prints and original paintings available at Etsy — and there’s a book of his works, with text, titled Ins & Outs: A Collection. (Via A Slip of a Girl.)

Is Art In Your DNA?

Over at The Emerging Times, Michael Ferrare has written The ‘Picture Painting’ Gene, an article on Thomas Harrison’s book, Instinct:

In the book Instinct, Thomas Harrison describes many ways to leverage who you are (using your DNA) to promote success in business and in life. Of the many natural genes he mentions, one gene that may be hidden inside of you is the “Picture Painting” gene—a natural desire or way to create an evolving picture of yourself.

While Harrison, a corporate CEO, has written the book to explore the connections between DNA and entrepreneurial success, the author’s message is that “no matter who you are, there are learned success secrets you can put in place to compensate for what you inherited in ‘your’ genetic lottery.” According to the author, it’s a matter of “inborn traits that have to be ‘switched on’ to create the personalized winning scenario that’s right for you.”

Simply put, it’s a matter of visualization; the old sports dealio, where you see the basketball going in the hoop. Or, for those who fear they are talentless but wish for greater ability to create, you unlock the talent within your DNA by seeing your future as a more creative type or a successful artist (which surely is entrepreneurial).

Surely most of us could use a little more faith in our creative abilities. And if entrepreneurialism is an art, or some sort of talent, certainly other arts and talents can be so unlocked.

Ferrare, in his post, uses an example of a friend who uses the “picture painting” to leave a corporate ad agency for a more creative career in writing — and sums up the trickiest part of the process, post visualization techniques:

When you share your picture with a friend, get ready for a comment like “Hold on, don’t get ahead of yourself.” Don’t let their comments, or cynicism diminish your vision. Instead, remember that that’s the point—getting ahead of yourself.

I’m imagining that perhaps it’s best to paint a picture of your friends and family being supportive of your picture-painted-perfect future before you share it.

Image Credits: via Amazon.

What’s Kitsch?

In order to discuss the meaning of kitsch, you first need to know it’s definition. So I grabbed my copy of Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles (with contributions by John McHale, Karl Pawek, Ludwig Giesz, Lotte H. Eisner, Ugo Volli, Vittorio Gregotti, and Aleksa Celebonovic; and essays by Hermann Broch and Clement Greenberg). In the book kitsch is defined as follows:

The word kitsch could derive etymologically from the English ‘sketch’ or, according to the other opinions, from the German verb ‘verkitschen (‘to make cheap’). According to Giesz (Ludwig Giesz: ‘Phanomenologie des Kitsches’ …1960) which is without doubt the most complete work on the subject, the word kitsch could approximately be said to mean ‘artistic rubbish.’

However, “artistic rubbish” is as “I know it when I see it” as porn is. To simply define something as “bad” without considering the pure subjectivity involved is nearly nonsensical.

While Dorfles et all go on at great length about how they arrive at the wrinkling of their noses, the definitions are less than satisfactory — especially as they point to a real case of monetary snobbery.

For example, posters of the great art classics are considered to be kitsch. Translation: Unless you can afford an actual Rembrandt or other Master, your taste, however classy, will be defined as bad and kitsch by virtue of simply having a thin wallet.

In fact, Dorfles really, really, not only dislikes copies or reproductions of any sort, but is not exactly happy with any sort of consumerism (he would hate today’s art museum gift shops). Nor does he limit himself only to the visual arts; along with film literature and music are judged, their medium and means of consumer acts equally under attack.

Dorfles is not an complete idiot, however; he senses the reader’s potential ire:

If anyone is not satisfied with our choice and finds some of the images artistic which we will present as pseudo-artistic, un-artistic, too bad! To us at least it will mean that our reader is really a ‘kitsch-man’ of the first water; and that the psychological test has worked properly.

What Dorfles (and anyone else who uses insulting as a judgmental intimidation tactic) fails to recognize here in such a confirmed stance of absolutes, is that a kitsch-woman of the first water (me!) will find his awareness of discord and dispute wins him no favor intellectually. The gloves are now off. Any potential shield of ignorance leaves him standing naked before me, facing a battle to the inevitable intellectual death.

If all this seems to imply that Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste is a book to avoid, please do not misunderstand. I love a good book I can sink my teeth into — even if that means I’m growling when I do it. (And I’ll likely visit this book often for argumental posts.)

But if Dorfles brings us closer to a true understanding of what kitsch really is, it is purely by accident.

This book was published in 1969 — and contains essays written up to three decades earlier. Viewed with the benefit of time, or hindsight, I find a great contextual definition of kitsch. Or maybe I should say, a definition of kitsch as a defensive reaction to the preservation of Art.

Some love this book for opening “your eyes to the avalanche of junk that makes up popular culture” and others loath it for failing to recognize the “the signifigance of the narrowing gap between high and low art,” but both sides miss the real point. Defining art as high-brow or low-brow, dismissing popular culture and ourselves as collectively low-brow, isn’t just an over-simplification; it’s a poor assessment.

Art as a form of human expression is not a static thing. It changes. Like everything else. Even removing the individual voices and processes of the creators, artworks are offered to a public which changes. Not only did we once love Rubenesque women, but Ruben himself; now, meh, not-so-much for either of them. What we value, and how we value it, changes. The conversations we have, the issues we explore, change. And, perhaps most dramatically, the ability to produce, show, and critique art has changed.

If low-barrier equals low-entry equals low-brow is the math being used, people need to reconsider. The converse certainly does not hold true. And those who, like Dorfles does with machines, blame technology for the copious amounts of kitsch ought to remember the battles for freedom of access for all. And the remarkable artworks we’ve had, strides taken, as a result.

I don’t want to be equally guilty of passing judgment on those who are quick to condemn popular culture, kitsch, etc., but the very people who “feel overwhelmed by the tasteless tides of popular culture” are not only, as they whine, so afflicted by it, but they are employing it. It’s obvious they are digging such pop culture adventures as publishing sans gatekeeper with a big spoon. Self-publishing their high-brow opinions is a low-brow, kitsch activity.

But back to the book.

Contextually, this book of essays stands as a defense against Modernism and those art movements after it which reject tradition. It’s the defensive posturing of an establishment wishing to retain authority, to rally the museums, galleys, and wealthy who must guard the integrity of Art. It’s not that these people have better taste with which to form the definitions and standards of Art, or even the right to do so; but they do have a reason to try. For you see, what they truly hope to guard so zealously are their investments in it.

But you can’t insulate your investments in art. Art is part of a living, breathing, culture which, as stated, changes. As the cultural values change, so do the monetary values of art. Not always in the art investor’s favor.

And no desperate debates designed to keep the established art status quo can thwart it.

So, the definition of kitsch…

On one hand, kitsch is purely subjective in the sense that each of us knows it when we see it and we ascribe different attributes to it. “Bad,” “atrocious,” “so bad it’s grand,” “funny,” “too funny,” “cheap,” etc. Which is why kitsch rather defies a classification. (What pleases or amuses one, insults another).

But kitsch, as it is often used in the art world, often has quite a different distinction. I see it as more than a slur, but an actual means to limit and control the art market, if not the art world.

Image credits: As all images are scanned from Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles. Presented in order placed in the post, with author comments, if any.

Vintage ad, found on page 177: “An example of facile and grotesque copyfitting in this attempt to identify the inimitable blue of a painting by Cezanne with the blue of a man’s sportshirt.”

Film still, found on page 195: “The depiction of a famous painter on the screen is painful even in the hands of a director with taste. Vincente Minnelli’s film about van Gogh, Lust For Life (1956).”

Mona Lisa “kitsch,” found on page 21: “10. The Mona Lisa myth appears once more against the tiles of a shower. 11. A spectacles-case”