Jerry Seinfeld / Theodoor Rombouts

If you’re looking at this right now and understand what this means, then congratulations! You know how to read English. We read blogs, books, menus, but we read a lot more than text. We read facial expressions, we “read the room” when we get the vibe that no one wants to hear our stupid jokes, and we read art. “Reading” a painting, like an old scene painting, comes from iconography, aka “image-writing,” or the practice of using images to communicate specific ideas. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are filled with objects that imply religious morals and economic status.  These are the kinds of paintings that we closely associate with “still life,” like paintings of floral arrangements or images of skulls and melting candles, which are easy to look at but difficult to read.

When you’re walking through a collection as large as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there comes a point when you breeze through a gallery without pausing on an individual piece. I think sometimes people assume that I take a careful look at every single piece and I have to admit that is not true. I’m mentioning this now because the piece that I am focusing on this week was one that I would always pass by. Take a look at it, can you blame me?

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Theodoor Rombouts, “The Lute Player,” c. 1620, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by author)

You should blame me! Look at this dude: the expression, the feather hat, the hands! This painting is called The Lute Player and it was made around 1620 by an artist named Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637). Rombouts was a Dutch painter known for his Caravaggesque style. “Caravaggesque” refers to painting in the style of Caravaggio, who painted expressively with chiaroscuro, or use of light and dark. The Caravaggesque style in Lute Player comes out in the model’s face; the light on his face causes stark shadows around his eye and defines his cheekbones, which accents his stern expression. The musician has this focused look because he is tuning his lute, which is a notoriously difficult instrument to tune. Surrounding the lute on the table is a music book, a stein, and a pipe.

In these old Dutch paintings, it is important to read the objects like we read text because they are imbued with meaning. When looking at history paintings or these paintings from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, each object in the work stands for something else and together form one message. If you didn’t study art history then you might miss their meaning, so I’d love to spell it out for you! A lute is a symbol of harmony, a pipe a symbol of male sexuality, and beer a symbol of merrymaking or inebriation. Thus a painting of an instrument being tuned surrounded by objects of happiness and romance creates an image of a musician devoted to love and harmony.

I would understand if Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t the first thing that came to mind after looking at Lute Player, but I could not get the combination of these two things out of my head after watching “Jerry Before Seinfeld” then having a close look at that painting. Seinfeld’s new special on Netflix is his love letter to stand-up comedy. He performed at The Comic Strip in New York, which is where he first started his career in the 1970s. The special is pure nostalgia. He retells his first joke he ever wrote, which details the plight of left-handed people and how “left” has negative associations. “You go to a party, nobody’s there. Where did everybody go? They left.” A solid first joke for a person who will become one of the most recognized names in comedy. But according to Seinfeld, he didn’t care about becoming famous or successful, he just loved comedy.

In the Renaissance the lute was the instrument of kings and queens but also heard by common people in pubs or in the streets, so it was played by the elites and also common citizens. This speaks to this specific performance by Jerry Seinfeld; he is back in the Comic Strip, sort of “uncool” Manhattan, where him and other no-name comics would go and perform. Comedy is a kind of “low” art where fart jokes fly, but it can also lead to international recognition and sold-out shows in world-class performance halls. Seinfeld’s stand-up at the Comic Strip is conflating these two worlds where an esteemed comic is getting back to his roots, showing that he is still the guy who did odd jobs and lived in a 15-ft studio apartment at heart.

Not only does Seinfeld use this special to show his story and his love for comedy with words, he uses iconographic clues to let us into his life as well. There was a point in the show where an audience member raised his hand, Seinfeld kindly said “yes sir,” and the gentleman asked about the bookends that were at the back of the stage. On the stage at the Comic Strip Seinfeld had placed a small shelf with books on top of a piano held up with Superman bookends. The man asked if they were always there and Seinfeld replied, “No I put them there. Those are mine. That’s a Superman. You know I love Superman…” and goes on to describe the figurine of baby Kal-El on Krypton getting on a rocket and landing in Kansas and his new parents finding who is now baby Superman, which are the figurines on the second bookend. The books in between, Seinfeld admits, “are a prop. They’re fake books…this is show business. I don’t actually live here.” But this small piece of imagery, like a pipe or a stein sitting on a table, communicates an entire childhood.

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Screenshot of “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” Netflix

Seinfeld grew up comfortably and with no drama, he admits. He ate sugary cereals, chased the ice cream truck, was dragged around by his parents on errands, and lived out basically any other middle-class suburban experience one can think of. The only difference is that he used the banality of an easy adolescence to form his sense of humor, where later in life he’ll be able to make me laugh with five minutes about how socks escape the dryer during laundry. Thus the details of Seinfeld’s childhood that he describes in bits throughout the special are perfectly encapsulated in something as hokey and silly as novelty bookends. He was just a kid who never wanted to become an adult.

Seinfeld’s childhood dream was to be in comedy. He didn’t care about money or fame, he just wanted to make people laugh. And all of that came down to how much time he was given: “Minutes. Comedians think in minutes. How many minutes do they want? How many minutes do you have? How many minutes did you do? Anytime I wrote something that worked, I saved it in this accordion folder. Every single thing. And this is it, from 1975 until this morning.” The camera pans out during this quote to hundred of pieces of paper filling a street. If these representing how many minutes of material Seinfeld has, he could talk for days.

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Screenshot of “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” Netflix

Art cherishes time; many objects inside of museums are protected and researched because they survived centuries. Let’s say you’re reading this post at your desk (pretend you have a desk): what’s on the table around you? Maybe a lamp or pens or a picture frame. Each has a function and meaning that will outlive you and even change. If someone painted your portrait at that table right now I wonder what we could “read” about you.

Lute players were often joked about for taking a very long time to tune their instrument. From the stern expression of The Lute Player’s portrait we might say that he is carefully tuning because he waiting for the perfect sound. For Seinfeld and his accordion folder surrounding him, we aren’t just being shown how much time in comedic material he has, but how he has carefully honed his craft. Seinfeld isn’t writing these jokes because he is “Seinfeld,” he’s writing them because he loves it. He’s searching for a laugh, which for him, is the perfect sound.

DeRay Davis / Face Vessels

It is said that the first portrait was created by a Corinthian Maiden, who traced an outline of her lover’s silhouette onto a wall before he left to go abroad. She could not bear to be without her man, so she preserved his image in his absence. If this is when the first drawing was created, then portraits are about love and loss, about a reconciliation between presence and absence. And it’s really damn romantic. But let’s cut to thousands of years later, beyond paintings and sculptures of the human form and to the practice of photography. We have moved light years beyond the trace of our lover’s face to a photograph of their literal face, an exactitude unmatched by other media. The aura and prestige of portraiture became a science, where an image of a person is not about their beauty, but about their look.

Physiognomy, or the pseudo-scientific practice of using physical traits as proof of one’s character, existed prior to photography’s invention. But it was not nearly as structured a practice until photography, and Sir Francis Galton, made it a standard procedure. Galton created composite photographs of multiple subjects to blend their features into one image. Dozens of photographs of people with similar facial features would be lined up and compared in order to claim that because people had a similar feature they were from the same place geographically. Beyond identifying different ethnic groups, Galton hoped to use these photos to find specific looks for criminals, i.e “a burglar looks like this.” His research ultimately proved that there are no specific physical traits attached to any crimes, but we still invest time and interest in this sort of thinking. Racial profiling is an off-the-record security practice. Crime blotters, for example, are giving descriptions of physical characteristics of individuals who have allegedly committed crimes. When it is all said and done, descriptions such as “white, male, approximately six feet tall,” and the like do not narrow the search field down too much. We still use physiognomic language to describe people, especially ones we do not like. Have you ever heard someone call another person “creepy” looking? Now what does a “creep” look like, not attractive? Okay what does an “attractive” person look like? I’ll stop because that’s annoying and I think I have made my point.

DeRay Davis does necessarily not want us to profile people, he just wants us to have awareness. In his new special on Netflix “How to Act Black,” he shares his experiences growing up in Chicago. He and his friends would “play” guns before they actually had guns. He believes that gun laws should only be designed to keep guns away from bad people. Black, brown, or white isn’t a signifier of a bad person, we all just need to be aware of when something is a little bit off. 

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Still from “DeRay Davis: How to Act Black,” 2017.

Davis admits that we all profile people, but profiling isn’t productive. We just need to be aware:

Look at a crazy motherfucker and know that he’s crazy. We can’t do that. We don’t want to be profiled. Black people hate being profiled. We’re profiled, and we don’t want to be profiled. We think everything’s because we’re black…Or racism. Everything’s racism or ISIS. No, no. Motherfuckers are just crazy. I don’t give a damn about racism. It doesn’t affect me, personally. People keep saying “Racism’s back” like racism left…We’ve been racist. Everybody’s racist. Some of you black people are racist…There’s jobs black people still don’t trust black people with…isn’t that crazy?…Pull up to the club, there’s a black valet driver. *groans* ‘I’m gonna park it myself, Leroy.’ ‘Leroy? My name ain’t no goddamn Leroy.’ ‘You look like a Leroy.’ Black people don’t trust black people that look like a black person they didn’t trust…’You look like my cousin. He be robbing and stealing. It’s in your face. Nothing against you’…But we need to profile the shit that’s fucked up. I like to call it the ‘shit-uations.’ We need to profile people that really separate shit. These murdering motherfuckers…I get it “Black Lives Matter” I’m here. I get it 2,000 percent. All lives matter, I hear you. Nobody wants to die. But, goddammit, awareness matters. Go back to being aware.

He uses real examples of mass shooting tragedies in the US, like the Charleston church shooting and the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, but also describes imaginative scenarios that allow us to laugh without the twinge of reality. Kick somebody out of your pool party if they have a fur coat on, they don’t need to be wearing that. Stay away from the man see-sawing on the playground who is somehow see-sawing with himself. Basically, stay away from “crazy.”

So we know to stay away from people if they are acting in a suspicious manner, but how do we know when to stay away from things? Don’t touch leaves of threes because it might be poison ivy, oh and don’t eat yellow snow! And sure, don’t touch a hot stove and keep children away from pointy objects. Sometimes, though, it is not a matter of keeping ourselves away from bad things, but keeping bad things away from us.

If you have ever seen a gallery of ceramics in a museum, especially in the Southeastern US, you have probably seen a jug that looks like this:

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“Face Vessel,” c. 1860-1870, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Philadelphia Museum of Art, philamuseum.org).

This face jug contains molded glazed stoneware combined with unglazed earthenware to give distinct facial characteristics: wide eyes with a slight grin. Looking at this, it’s difficult to discern the kind of face I am looking at. Is he happy? Am I suppose to smile with him, or am I afraid? It is the kind of face that brings awareness, that makes you pause for seemingly no particular reason. I cannot tell if the “Face Vessel” wants to keep away from me or if I am supposed to keep away from it. And what do you know, the answer is both.

Growing up in North Carolina, I was always told that these jugs were invented in the Appalachians, designed to scare children away from jugs that have moonshine in them. Then when I was in the American Art wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I see that these “Face Jugs” are described as most likely being produced by an enslaved potter in the South. Because I am who I am I searched the internet for a clear answer on the development of these face jugs, and of course there isn’t one, but it is widely believed that the first vessels like the one above were made by enslaved Africans, then later in the early twentieth century Appalachian southerners adopted this style for water and moonshine vessels.

The purpose and functions of these vessels, while not precise, give us insight into the way that African Americans were thinking about their loved ones. Many Africans, who had traditions in ancestor worship, were shipped to the Caribbean to be acclimated and there they adopted voodoo traditions. After some time in the states, slaves adopted Christianity as a religion as well. Thus, the combination of ancestor worship, voodoo, and Christianity led to a unique design in honoring the dead. They could not have gravestones, so they used face jugs that contained familiar features to mark the locations of their deceased. Not only this, but their faces were exaggerated and scary to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. 

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“Devil Face Jug,” Design attributed to David P. Brown of Brown Pottery, NC, c. 1923-1926, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Philadelphia Museum of Art, philamuseum.org).

These jugs clearly have a combination of purposes, but they all resonate in the image of a group of people responding to their particular stake in life, creating a distinct facial image that builds upon their African identity to honor and protect their roots. So looking at these jugs, I see a double-edged sword to profiling: I see a group of persecuted people using the tools of physiognomy to assert and honor their identity, but I also see the afterlife of these multivalent objects roped into a genre that became “ugly.” Maybe this happened because people don’t trust people that look like people they don’t trust, right? So the faces and the jugs kept evolving into purely “ugly face jugs,” and white potters created jugs that even more exaggerated and even more grotesque later on in the early twentieth century. The jugs used to store moonshine, like this “Devil Face Jug,” became uglier to ward off children from its contents. Because no one should be drinking anything that is coming from the Devil. You should at least be aware of that. 

Lynne Koplitz / Louise Lawler

How has Lynne Koplitz been a stand-up comedian for decades and just now have her first one-hour special? With Koplitz’s first special occurring in her late 40’s, watching her show feels like your fun aunt just walked into the family reunion. “Hormonal Beast” begins with Koplitz emerging from backstage dressed in a sequin party dress into an equally chic apartment straight of the 1960s: mini bars, high chairs, circular shag rugs, and for some reason giant fans lining the sides of the stage. As she settles in she says “I feel like Barbie years later, after she sold the Dream House and she’s living in her loft. She found out that Ken is gay and she’s alright. Now she likes to be called Barbara. She let herself go a little bit.”

Koplitz is this image the entire show. She is a confident middle-aged woman who wants to impart her wisdom onto the world, giving us the run-down on everything from the three things men want (food, for women to shut the f*ck up, and sex) and how to turn the tables on a rapist.  Despite the binary she creates through epitomized gender roles, she’s going to keep you smiling for an hour straight because she is still describing relatable situations. Many of us have an unpredictable parent, especially if one of them is hormonal. Lynne describes the “Cold Cut Fiasco of 1985,” where her mother threw bologna all over the kitchen crying that her children treated her like cheap meat because they would eat all of the turkey before anything else. While she describes witnessing this event with childhood confusion, as a woman who is now the same age as her mother, she understands how small issues can build into tornado-level intensity. As real as these situations feel in the moment, you’re left cackling at the thought of a father protecting his children in the tub waiting out the mom-tornado of no-turkey rage.

I know that I do not have archives of these pieces to reference comparing stand-up comics to artists, but so far my work has taken larger funny quotes and brought it together with an artistic idea. I can’t do that this time with “Hormonal Beast.” This isn’t because Lynne Koplitz doesn’t have anything worth quoting, she is definitely a funny person, but because I became most enthralled in the image she created rather than the intricacies of her language. She says she is completely comfortable in her “Barbie turned Barbara” scenario, and this comes out in her explanation of why she likes not having children. She says, “I’m not a mom. I have nice things instead of children.” Koplitz said a woman came up to her after a show and said that she would feel selfish if she was in her 40’s and didn’t have children. Koplitz replies, “Sometimes I do feel selfish. Then I wake up at noon and look at all my nice shit.” I love this. She doesn’t take care of tiny people, rather she takes care of her stuff, which in turn is taking care of herself.

We all associate our things with ourselves, that is why we all care about what kinds of clothes we buy and take forever to pick out duvet covers and all kinds of tedious crap. When people look at our stuff they try and figure out who we are from material clues. When we look at art we see it as an extension of the artist and search their biography for clues to an image’s meaning. Take Andy Warhol, for example. You can look at his “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series on display at the Museum of Modern Art and think about the repetitiveness of the series and the uniformity that comes with marketing and advertising. Then you can consider how he would eat the same lunch, a can of Campbell’s soup, every day with his mother for twenty years; the series may become less about seriality and more about the sentimentality of this experience, the end product being a testament to these kinds of rituals. So we can look at our friend/family/stranger’s stuff and learn about who they are, we can look at artwork in a museum and learn about who the artist is, but what if artwork is displayed in someone’s house? Then there is just a calamity of person/artwork/artist/place and nothing makes sense and identities explode! Or we can calm down and think this through. Louise Lawler has.

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Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” (1962) Museum of Modern Art (photo by Wally Gobetz)

Louise Lawler (b. 1947) is an American photographer whose work “Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” (1984) is on display in Gallery 178 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This photograph exemplifies a large portion of her practice photographing artwork in collectors’ homes, galleries, archives, and museums. She concerns herself with the image of artwork rather than the actual artwork itself. In “Living Room Corner,” the viewer is given a view into what feels like a small corner of a family’s home. A Robert Delaunay painting hangs on the wall behind a television and a Roy Lichtenstein lampstand.

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Louise Lawler, “Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” (1984), Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Marcus Bunyan, who took a better photo than me)

So what is this work about: Lawler, the artists in the picture, or the Tremains? I would argue that the way Lawler frames the shot, intentionally panning out from the Delaunay painting to place other objects in the frame, is allowing us to take in the life of artwork and the ways that it is affected by its surroundings. In a museum, a viewer may consider the Delaunay piece’s formative qualities and the ways in which your eye follows the canvas in a circular motion. In the house, someone may compliment how well the canvas matches the lampshade. Lawler’s work allows us to see how art is a commodity. Warhol exposed the marketability of artwork through repetitive images, but Lawler is showing us how individualized pieces can be commodified as well.

Some might look at this photograph of the Tremains living room and think they are superficial, only collect art as a status symbol, and destabilize the meaning of art by using it in a decorative scheme. Or they could love Delaunay’s abstract style and wanted to commemorate him in their home. In either scenario, I hope sometimes they wake up at noon and look at all their nice shit.


“Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Gallery 178: Word, Image & Domestic Dissent. This gallery brings together six American artists who came to prominence from the 1970s to 1990s. Their work questions identity and representation in domestic spaces, the media, art, and popular culture. Featured artists include Lawler, Barbara Kruger, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, and Carrie Mae Weems.

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Marc Maron / THINGS

 

Every time I watch a stand-up comedy I wonder if it’s going to work for this thing I’m doing, and then I watched Marc Maron’s new special on Netflix and he reminded me that this just might work. “Too Real” is the rantings of a middle-aged man, and I mean that in the nicest way possible because it’s freaking hilarious. He sits on his stool, crosses his arms, and just agonizes over the future of our country and his own future as a man who doesn’t really like to do all that much. “How do you have fun? How do you guys do it? I don’t think I would have come to this show,” he explains. Watching his show, you definitely see that he a lot of interests; he name drops a lot of musicians (and even goes into an amazing bit about The Rolling Stones and their descent into old age), he plays the guitar, he is in awe of his girlfriend’s artwork, but he can’t find the mental energy for adding anything new into his life. Maron believes he is a “cultured” person but also feels like he’d rather stay home than participate in today’s culture:

There’s things I’m supposed to like. You know, I’m a smart guy, and relatively sophisticated. I’m interested in things. Like when people go like, “Do you want to go to the museum?” Inside I’m thinking like, “Ugh. No.” But, like you don’t say that. You’re like, “What’s going on down there? What’s going on?” And I don’t want to close my mind. I’ve looked at a lot of art. I like art, and I just… But I think I’ve seen enough…And also, there’s a problem I have at museums. If I go to a museum, right when I walk in, and get to the desk where you pay for the ticket, the donation, the suggested donation. Right when I’m putting money down, I’m just like: “Oh, my God, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted. I don’t know what just happened. I’m exhausted. Is there a mid-century bench that’s not part of an exhibit that I could maybe just take a little snooze on? A little nappy? I can see half a painting in that room over there, and I don’t know what it wants. I don’t know what it needs from me, and I’m tired. I’m just tired.”

As someone who is inside of a museum for the majority of her week, I can understand the way that visitors feel when walking inside the building. Maybe it’s really hot outside and they’ve been walking for hours and then they finally come inside of a dark, cold building? In that case a nap sounds amazing. So there is a physical exhaustion that comes with museum experiences, but what is more interesting to me about Maron’s stress is that he experiences a mental one as well. “I can see half a painting in that over there, and I don’t know what it wants. I don’t know what it needs from me…” Can an art object need something? It might not necessarily need something, but it will get something from you.

Objects have agency. They act and produce specific results, all the while controlling those that help it create these results. Sounds strange but it’s true. They hold things, bring other things together, and change the way that we behave. I think about this every time I carry a freakin’ coffee to work. I’m like “look at this stupid mug making me keep my arm level at a right angle so I don’t spill hot liquid all over myself” and I feel a bit silly. But the mug has a purpose and it is living this purpose.

Alfred Gell, an anthropologist, wrote a book called Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory that was posthumously printed in 1998. He argues that art objects, especially ones that are described as “decorative arts,” such as vases, textiles, etc., have historically been analyzed through a passive point of view where we think about what the object looks like and not how it is used. Think about what these objects look like inside of museums: a Greek krater, one of those huge black and orange bowls you might see that was used as a wine bowl for parties, is displayed in a glass box usually next to other kraters or fragments of other artifacts. This kind of display isn’t allowing the viewer to understand the life of that object. A krater was placed in the center of a room at symposia. They were quite heavy when filled so a servant would have to fill a smaller vessel and deliver wine to guests and return back to the krater to refill for another person. There is so much movement and life surrounding this object, but all that is usually described is the year it was made and maybe the iconography on the surface of the bowl.

I like museums, but they can really suck the life out of stuff. The most invigorating displays, to me, are ones that treat objects like the illusive things that they are. One of my favorite places to be in the Philadelphia Museum of Art right now is Gallery 228 in the South Asian galleries. This room displays an illustrated manuscript from India called Gulshan-i Ishq (Rose Garden of Love) (1743). This is a book that recounts a North Indian Hindu love story for an Islamic court in south-central India. The story is recounted as a poem and accompanied by paintings to assist the reader in following the narrative. The words and pictures in Rose Garden of Love bring the reader into a magical world where star-crossed lovers have to face a series of challenges and separations before they can live happily ever after.

 

There are two versions of this manuscript on display. The first is the “real” one, the one that sits in a glass case and has the descriptive label next to it. This is the manuscript as an object, a book with a page open to show you an image and text. Then across the gallery there is a facsimile of the manuscript with a label asking to PLEASE TOUCH. The label encourages the visitor to flip through the pages of the story, keeping in mind that the Persian Naskhi script must be read from right to left and back to front. The space for the two objects is sectioned off by the ceiling of a Persian Cubiculum, or residential complex.

So yes, you can touch an object in Gallery 228, that’s super cool, but there is something deeper happening here too. This display is allowing the object to remain an agent. It shows that this book wasn’t something that was closed and placed on a shelf; it was an object that was revered, displayed, and touched by its owners. It contains gold and leather, materials that convey wealth and therefore would want to be on display. The installation of the muqarnas (vaulted) ceiling is important as well. High ceiling are a staple of places of worship; they act as an interlocutor between an individual and the heavens. This gallery is allowing the visitor to physically engage in a space with spiritual intent: the manuscript of love that details the ways that romance between individuals involves a divine presence, and the ceiling allows one to engage more closely in this presence with your “soul” having the ability to rise above into a higher realm.

The manuscript was not a book that was picked up and carried it around. Its size shows that the reader was brought to the manuscript, and not the other way around. It is not passive in its existence, rather it has a purpose of tactile social interaction and connections. The Rose Garden of Love gathers people, it wants you to come and take a closer look. So maybe if Maron stumbled into this gallery he would understand what the manuscript needs from him, or at least go into the video gallery next door to take a little nappy.

 

Ryan Hamilton / Umbo

You know that feeling when you know something is off but you cannot figure out what it is? Like you’re looking at a friend and can’t figure out why they are different, then you look deep into their eyes and feel a love that you have never felt before…or just notice that they have a new haircut or got new glasses or something? That’s “uncanny.” Uncanny is difficult to define because it is a feeling of the indescribable, but it has been part of our vocabulary since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ernst Jentsch’s “On The Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906) defines uncanny as a “lack of orientation,” where a person who is experiencing this phenomenon is not quite familiar with their current situation. To Sigmund Freud, defining a word as an uncertainty was not sufficient, so he develops it more in his book titled “The Uncanny” in 1919. Freud brings a more abject rendering of the word, describing it as an effect of experiencing repetition where our repressed impulses bubble to the surface. His use of the German word unheimlich, or “un-home-like,” brings an image of a secret, or something that is hiding in plain sight.  

Artists explore the uncanny through slight shifts in reality. My favorite example of uncanny art is Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series (1977-1980). “Untitled Film Stills” is 69 black and white photographs of Sherman dressed as stereotypical Hollywood female characters. Every character is a person you swear you have seen before (the cheerleader, the housewife, the damsel in distress), but every woman is fiction, an image of our collective imagination. Her photographs rely on the uncanny, an image of the familiar that upon closer inspection becomes foreign.

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Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #35,” 1979 (Photo by moma.org).

Otto Umbehr, known as “Umbo,” created uncanny artwork through formal affects. I was exploring the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s photography collection online and stumbled upon a photograph by Umbo. “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I)”, is an aerial shot of a German street. The angle chosen by the artist, which is completely parallel to the street, causes the work to be unrecognizable as a street initially; the large black figures and shades of gray create what looks like a collage, different textures pieced together on a page. Look closer, and these dark figures are long shadows shooting off of a man walking on the sidewalk, a man on a bicycle, and nearby buildings. Umbo turns an easily recognized space, a street, and makes the subject its shadow.

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Umbo, “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I),” 1928 (photo by artnet.com).

When we get stuck in our routines, like our daily commute, we become numb to the details. It takes big changes for us to take a second look. Remember that weirdness we had with our surroundings after the election? Ryan Hamilton in his new Netflix stand-up “Happy Face” summed up that feeling perfectly.

I had never heard of Ryan Hamilton prior to watching his new stand-up special, and I have to say that I’m glad I know him now. “Happy Face” tells the stories of a man from a 1000 person town in Idaho now living in Hell’s Kitchen New York. Two very different places, but to him it’s a strange time to be from anywhere in the U.S. In New York, Hamilton hears people say “I don’t know who all of these Trump voters are.” Hamilton’s reply: “I’m from a town of one thousand in Idaho. I know who they are.” He then goes on to describe the day after election night in November. Here’s Hamilton’s experience:

I haven’t had a conversation in a very long time that hasn’t ended with ‘well it’s going to be interesting.’…I will never forget election day… But the next day was the strangest day of all. You went home, you slept for four fitful hours, then you woke up wide-eyed, and walked over to your window and you looked outside and went ‘well it looks okay, I guess. I guess I’m going to go out there.’ And then you left your home and that was the strangest feeling on the strangest day, wasn’t it? Just walking outside like ‘Here we go! Out into the new normal!’ Just making eye contact with people, like ‘I don’t know, I’m going to work, I guess!’

After I heard this segment I immediately thought of the uncanny. After November 8, 2016, we all felt unfamiliar in our familiar surroundings. Leaving the house and walking on the street, everything looked exactly the same but everything was different. It was like we were all looking at our streets at parallel; the extended shadows revealing the ugliness that we had denied existed. The darkness stretched out before us, we all still moved forward with this uncanny feeling, thinking “well it’s going to be interesting…”


 

Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. 2003. The uncanny. New York:          Penguin Books.

Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906).” Angelaki: Journal of the                    Theoretical Humanities 2, no. 1 (1997): 7-16.

 

 

Louis CK / Man Ray

So here’s what I think: I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one. In which case, you better get one…and hurry.

Louis CK’s “2017” starts with his standpoint on abortion and just gets more fun-loving from there! His first few minutes of this special pinpoint the reasons why women should have the right to choose: living is not that important, and women decide who lives or dies. He brings the entirety of human existence into solidarity by defining us simply as people who decided not to kill ourselves, a rather uplifting message delivered in a slew of “screw it” rhetoric.

This special came out earlier this year, but it was the first show that came to mind when I decided to write about a comedy special. Would you like to know why I picked it? I picked “2017” because it is 2017. How do I find these connections?! Look at a calendar, dummy.

CK points out how arbitrary yet astounding this number is:

The Christians won everything. A long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: What year is it? I mean, come on. What year is it according to the entire human race? And why?…It’s 2017. What is that? That’s a number. It’s not just any number. It must be a very important number. ‘Cause we’re counting to it in unison as a species.

This quote comes after he explains how he teaches his daughters about religion. All religions are equal, but the Christians are the main one. “They won big time, and a long time ago.” Christ died 2,017 years ago and we’ve all be counting “Jesus + 2, Jesus + 3, Jesus + 4…” ever since. Even stranger, before Christ’s birth, we count “Jesus – 1.” As an art history student I had to memorize dates as far back as the Woman of Willendorf from 28,000 B.C.E. Personally, writing B.C.E (Before Common Era) just causes my mind to go “Oh, the way to avoid saying Christ when we’re talking about old stuff.” Of course, I still use B.C.E. because it is a scholarly convention. I mean, who am I? You’re 75 year old archaeology professor with a bow tie and elbow patches? Go to my about page and you’ll see that I’m not that person, but wish I was wearing that kind of jacket.

Back to time. It’s something that shocks us out of bed in the morning if we hit snooze too much and its unforgiving forward movement haunts us after age 25. Time motivates us. Time destroys us. But what if we could destroy time?

Man Ray experimented with this question when he created “Object to be Destroyed.” This piece consisted of a picture of an eye attached to the weight of a metronome. A metronome keeps time for a musician; for an artist like Man Ray, it observes. Ray believed that a painter needs an audience, so in order for him to work more effectively he created Object to be Destroyed. Its unforgiving tick created a motivating artistic progression; that is, until his heart was broken by Lee Miller, his student, lover, and muse. He worshipped Miller. Honestly, I kind of worship Miller too. She lived an adventurous life that any person now would dream of, and she did it in the 1920s forward. Plus she is a prominent modern photographer who worked as a correspondent for Vogue during WWII. So when this badass woman left Ray for someone else, he replaced the eye on “Object to be Destroyed” with her eye and wrote a set of instructions:

Cut out the eye from the photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

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Man Ray, Indestructible Object, 1965 (replica of 1923 original), Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by author)

With these words, an object that kept an artist moving forward in his work pivots into a question of the longevity of love. CK hates it when people congratulate couples on being together for a significant amount of their lives. They might be together for that long, but they are not in love for that long. He created a handy equation for the phenomenon:

Love plus time minus distance equals hate. That’s just the way it goes. I’m not saying don’t do it. You should do it. It’s the best thing. It’s the best part of life, love is. But don’t be greedy and expect it to last. Don’t be amazed that a butterfly died ’cause you shot it in the face. Just fall in love, make a fucking mess. It goes shitty, you don’t realize it until too late. And then you cry a lot and move on. It’s the best part of life.

After you wind up a metronome, at say an allegro 140 beats per minute, its tempo is seemingly unflinching. Its “tick tick tick” keeps your hands moving; at first it may seem too fast, then your muscles get used to the beat and you can keep the same movement for the duration of your song. Even after you stop, the tick keeps on ticking. Even after Ray’s lover left, his heart kept on beating for her. Sure, you can smash that love with a hammer, just destroy every bit of it and walk away. That’s the Ray method. But the CK method, that’s a relationship that endures. A metronome can click away at the same tempo for seemingly forever, but in reality the wind-up eventually winds down, then all that is left is an echo stuck in our heads.


“Object to be Destroyed” was officially destroyed in 1953 by a group of anti-Dada art students at a Paris exhibition. After the incident, Ray created a series of copies of the original titled “Indestructible Object” (1964). The copy can be found in museums all around the world. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can find it in Gallery 169: Surrealism.