Archive for the ‘ekphrasis’ Category


Monday, November 16th, 2009 | Katie Sadow

A POV (point of view), sometimes called a perspective, is an important thing to have. Realistically, it’s pretty much impossible not to have one, but it’s having the right one that’s crucial, both in life and in art. Now, I’m not saying I’ve got it down; it’s actually on my mind because in recent months I’ve been struggling to find the one that works for me. The important thing is that I’m looking. You should be looking too.

Take this sculpture installation for example:











That was a 180 degree tour of (in my humble opinion) some of the coolest art on campus. These hulking slabs of solidity are right there on the grass outside Sam Fox, next to the bus stop. Take a stroll down there sometime! What I find so intriguing about this work is that your viewing experience is refreshed and renewed every time you step ~18 degrees to the left. Here’s a recap of something like my thought process circling around this mass:

“What’s going on here? Oh wait, I can see a relationship between this black squiggly one on the left and this half-sphere on the right! Now it’s even clearer! OH, but look at this new little circle on the side! Woah, zoom out and it looks like that circle is flirting with the giant squiggle-beast! Now I can see a circle festival all the way through! And here it is on the other side! And again! And here’s the squiggle-circle relationship from the opposite side!”

It sounds a little foolish when I put it down in writing, but I’m endeavoring for honesty, embarrassing though it may be. Ignoring for a moment the specific words I used, the point is that every time you view the piece from a new angle, your perspective on the whole work shifts. Maybe you like it best from the North, South, East or West. Maybe you’d like it best from the top looking down or from the bottom looking up. Maybe you don’t like it all, but you’ve got to admit that it’s interesting.

If only gaining new perspectives in life were as easy as stepping a few feet in a different direction. We obviously know that’s not the case, but perhaps we can learn something from the simplicity of perspective acquisition in this particular case, even if it’s only that new perspectives breed new thought. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our own lives, especially within the hallowed halls of a prestigious university; we’re all guilty of this at some point. We’re also constantly being reminded to step outside ourselves and broaden our world view, but how often do we heed such sage advice? Just in case you haven’t heard it in a while, here is your daily (weekly, monthly, yearly) reminder to zoom out, rotate 180 degrees clockwise or counter, try to get a little perspective. It’ll do you some good.

distinctions; the truly solely aesthetic; god

Friday, October 9th, 2009 | Dennis Sweeney

Let’s talk about distinctions. Black and white. Good and evil. X and y. Binaries. Dichotomies.

Picture 142

Humans love distinctions. That’s why this picture (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, summer 2009) is so awesome. Humans like to see things as either one thing or the other—in this photo, either the stark black form of bodies and trees or the light sunset gradient that highlights it all.

That’s why humans make things like racism, which want to ignore the complexity of the world in order to fashion hard and fast distinctions between different kinds of people. The difference between racism and this photograph is that in the photograph, hard and fast distinctions actually allow you to see things more clearly. See how fine are the needles on the tree. See the strands of hair coming from under the standing figure’s hat. By metaphorically black-and-white perception, we actually recognize more the complexity of the image’s objects. By sacrificing the complexities of their color, we gain an understanding of their outlines.

Is there a corresponding benefit to racism? No. Because objects in this photograph are in fact distinct from their background. “Races” are not in fact distinct from one another. But obliquely, we reject Foucault: there is a subject. Heavy sunset sunlight highlights him. Eyes testify.


And then there are some things—very few, but some—that make absolutely no utilitarian or moral even logical sense, but that seem to have been placed somewhere for one of those reasons and to have become objects that one can conceptualize only—only only only, to the real exclusion of all but—aesthetically.

A rusted grate with a motor and a fan in a baking pan. Mold, plants growing in the pan. This haphazard installation’s aesthetic use has long outlasted its original purpose. One of the many things that makes one want to believe in god.

As does:


Sort of. I believe that’s a statue of a large Jesus embracing a petite Mary holding a smaller and younger Jesus. And I believe my co-blogger and I found it just sitting, one day, on that small street just south of the Loop. And I believe it makes a shadow of a giant-foreheaded, toothy monster.

It’s as if it were planned by some Christian-hating jesting internet-ite. “Ha ha! The statue will make a shadow of a monster!” But no. I just photographed the thing and its shadow, suddenly, was like that. Such weird serendipity—finding things you didn’t know you were looking for, and weren’t—makes you believe there is a god.

That is the aesthetic. Beauty is in the things that don’t mean to be beautiful but could never be anything but: the natural world’s distinctions; the broken rusted machine with the grate with the mold in the pan; the accidentally ironic and thereby profoundly affecting kitsch Jesus.

simulacra and simulation (of simulation of simulation of simulation…)

Thursday, September 24th, 2009 | Dennis Sweeney

Katie’s question about whether the wire versions of human frames or the actual people looking at them better represent the human form intrigues me. For a quite other form of art that approaches this problem, check out the recent video of students’ reactions to Wash. U.’s ranking as number four university in “Quality of Life.” The concept of the videocamera has pretty much made everybody, following Baudrillard‘s exaggeration of Jameson‘s “image world,” representations of themselves. Sincerity dies.

Does art, like Katie’s wire people, do the same thing? Might it have this kind of deleterious function, causing people to wear makeup and work out and keep their elbows off the table and, more harmfully, to project an insincere image of themselves, so that they can be like Michelangelo’s David or (if they’re weird) Matisse’s dancers?

Certainly, all our actions are planned and projected. Ok. But maybe certain art makes us too aware of that projection. We begin to have to represent the representation of ourselves—to project our projection. Does art make us deleteriously more conscious and remove us another step from whatever internal truth we’ve got??

Secondly, Katie is wrong about art being art as long as it works for somebody.


I think this bulletin board is artful. Full of bright colors juxtaposed with wood grain and stone, full of the symmetry of randomness, bottom heavy and tossed by the wind. And certainly there’s art that is random, that uses chance and more or less forgets the artist (e.g. the current Kemper art exhibit) but it is still declared by an artist as art. The definition of art (I propose) is that more than one person thinks it is artful. Art is a social contract. (My favorite kind is the (not-)art  that only I appreciate—that’s kind of what I meant last year in a sort of controversial article when I said that maybe some stuff in nature is more beautiful than “art.”)

A few more notes concern mainly how typeface can make or break (mostly break) a design concept.


The juxtaposition of the archaic-looking gargoyles and trim with the really precisely cut and almost kitschy “DUNCKER HALL” type (in perhaps the Comic Sans of ALL CAPS classic-ish fonts) is another articulation (this time in inanimate objects) of the simulcra of which our world has begun to be composed. The thing almost pulls off its imitation of “old” and “historied,” but the tiny serifs on the ends of its “R” and “L”s betray its inauthenticity.


And, this banner sucks. It’s mostly the type. It gets the job done (i.e. you can read it), but in my opinion when as a designer you have a full color 25-foot long canvas to work with, you not only make a cool cut-out of a football player, but you take more than 60 seconds to choose the font that you use. I’m not good enough to know the name of that font, but I’m good enough to know that it’s goofy as hell—i.e. it’s bankrupt, converted by overuse into an image of itself, another function of Jameson’s image world, Baudrillard’s hyperreality.

It’s our duty as designers to find a font that is new and cool and does not succumb to self-representation. It’s our duty to, metaphorically and literally, avoid Comic Sans. (Remember how Cato declared at the end of every speech, “Carthage must be destroyed”? Maybe this should be my eternal battle call. “Comic Sans delenda est!”)


Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Katie Sadow

1. shrewdness as demonstrated by being skilled in deception.
2. the quality of being crafty

Sheesh! You’d think Meriam-Webster would make some allusion to the craft we’re talking about here. Anyway…

…unmoved by Sarah Giannoblile’s abstract paint daubing, I nevertheless give her hearty props for the hand-craftiness that my tie-wearing co-writer admires. Personally, I found this work a little more intriguing:


photo 4

Now, I’m not saying I want to wear either of these frocks to Saturday night’s big party; I’m not even saying I want to wear them in the winter to combat the bitter cold; I’m actually not saying that I’d ever want to wear either of them; I am, however, saying that they are far-out. Perhaps springing from the loins of a textileophile (yes, I coined it, and it refers to one who is tremendously fond of textiles, see francophile) makes me more likely to appreciate weird coats at an art fair, but even if your mother didn’t spend her weekends shoulder-deep in giant vats of dye you can still absorb some of the objective coolness of these garments. They are super hand-crafted, they are completely unique, and depending on your style they might be exceptionally fashionable (although, maybe not). In case they did strike your fancy, they are made by Candiss Cole, and in case you wondered, Shibori is very “in” these days.

On another note and in a different medium, I was also particularly struck by Michael Gard’s metal sculptures:

photo 3

photo 2

I wish I’d taken better photos of them, but in the first one I think it’s worth asking whether human form is better expressed through the floating/hanging sculptures or the folks walking past them.

I’m generally not a big fan of sculpture, but something about these mesh, flying figures was really very striking. I was reminded simultaneously of Matisse and Degas (respectively):

The Dance I

The Dance II

dancers in the classroom
Dancers in the Classroom

ballet dancers on the stage
Ballet Dancers on the Stage

It seems worth noting that one of (if not the) most vital distinction(s) between the first two paintings (Matisse) and the second two (Degas) is the degree of – as Dennis might say – kitschy imperfection. I’ve heard a lot of negative things said about the pair of Dance paintings, and that’s possibly because they’re not very good and possibly because I’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd, but I can state with certainty that external criticisms aside, I love them both. However, I also love just about every Degas dancer work I’ve ever seen. So what does that mean?

On one hand we have art that’s raw, passionate, almost abstract, almost carnal; on the other hand we’ve got fine-grained, detailed, reality-bound depiction. Who are we to say that one trumps another because it looks more hand-made? Who is anyone to make comparisons across categories wider than any ocean we’ve yet encountered? I don’t mean to fixate on Dennis in this outcry; I’m talking to art critics worldwide, past, and present; I’m talking to everyone, including myself. The inherent beauty/uniqueness/value of art is that it is all subject to opinion. Critics can bash The Dance all they like, and can print Degas’ immortalizations of now dead ballerinas on tote bags, and we can argue over all the complexities of what makes art art and what makes good art good (and trust me, we will) until the sun goes down or until the apocalypse comes, but art will be art in all its value and glory as long as there are artists making it and somebody – anybody – appreciating it.

Just one person is enough.


Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Dennis Sweeney

Trubious (opposite of dubious) comment on the fire hydrant. Here’s another e.g. of the same concept, on the streets in Clayton, MO:


And yet another, on South Grand in St. Louis:


Sadow and I had the conversation, though, that in her mind the same old point applies to every one of these artistic conversions of utilitarian everyday pieces: uniformly, they transcend functionality and make the useful pretty or, even, beautiful.

I, on the other hand, want to stop and take a picture of every one of these: I conceptualize them in terms of difference. I struggled, though, to think of a way to refute her brain’s understanding of these as all essentially the same. The only thing I can find to make sense of it as this: aesthetics by definition (especially here) transcend functionality; they cannot be fully understood in terms of their “function” as prettifying the banal. Insofar as we understand categories in terms of function, we cannot categorize art. The very virtue of painting these electrical boxes is that they, in being painted, become singular, uncategorizable, for their lack of functionality.

But here’s another thing that makes these examples particularly cool: they’re hand-crafted, and they retain imperfection. Hand craft makes the kitschy sincere; it makes the ridiculous artful; it makes art amateurish, where it’s allowed to transcend the usual irony of professional art by not being engaged in all its fraught discourses. An awesome piece in Meshuggah Coffee House on the Loop:


Can you read that? It’s for the “Bob Dylan Discussion Group.” Here it is in context:


The hand-crafted element—the artistic signature or signification of the amateur—adds something quite apart from simple aesthetic value. As does the presence of type, especially in this piece. I think that aesthetic value, the pure visual pleasingness of a work of art, is what allows you to say, “that is beautiful.” The presence of hand-craft, though, as well as other signifiers like type, are what allow you to say, “I love that,” in perhaps a very real way.

At the St. Louis Art Fair this weekend, I couldn’t figure out why, in the midst of a number of well-made, probably visually pleasing items, I found myself moved only by the work of artist Sarah Giannobile, like this:


It’s not just because it’s visually pleasing (bright colors, distinct forms, conflict within an overarching theme) but because its hand-craft is so manifest. Maybe I pigenhole myself as a product of the same geist that welcomed in abstract expressionism by saying so. But I find that work like this, one can not only see, but love as well.

Re: form/content + fire safety

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009 | Katie Sadow

1. Re: form/content

At the risk of sounding petulant and obnoxiously contradictory, I’ll very briefly mention that although I agree with DJ Sweeney on most points about the Peter Great Fireplace, on one in particular I’ll have to disagree. That is “The fireplace itself—though great in size–actually loses its ability to become great in legacy because of the awkwardness of the physical design of its nameplate.”

I hope (and believe, to a certain extent) that the legacy of this fireplace, awkward though its nameplate may be, will be solidified and (if you’ll pardon the pun) greatened by that same silliness. The plaque is a conversation piece in itself, and I’d like to think that it will only add to the memorability of the entity it names. Okay, enough on that.

2. Fire Safety

Feast your eyes on this:
photo 2

Sweet, isn’t it? How would you feel if I told you that you could go see that masterpiece live and up close? I hope you’d feel wonderful, because it’s the truth! This fire hydrant and a slew of others like it are on display (and fully functional, I assume) right here in your city. Hop in/on your preferred mode of transportation and head over to Manchester (around the intersection with Vandeventer) and take a stroll. The streets are lined with these comical and cheerful hydrants, serving as a reminder that just because something is practical and functional doesn’t mean it needs to be dull and unappealing. I’d wager quite a lot that this splash of color on metal will stop a fire equally as well as its red or yellow relative, but it also makes passerby smile.

Plus, I’d be much less likely to park in front of this little guy than his monochrome cousins, which is great for the municipality, and will probably save me a ticket or two. Everybody wins!

Also, just in case you wondered who you were dealing with here, check out my co-blogger with our fire-stopping friend:


Saturday, September 5th, 2009 | Dennis Sweeney



Recognize this?


How about in context?

Though I hugely appreciate that the nameplate on this fireplace subverts the normative “name part of Wash. U. after you AND your wife so it doesn’t seem vain” and “name part of Wash. U. after someone less significant than you and say it’s donated for THEM” stuff-naming paradigms, the thing is also demonstrative of the fact that form can’t be separated from content (well known by most of the initiated) and the claim that most humans sans design training or an aesthetic mentality entirely miss this fact (a more novel claim).

I.e., whoever commissioned this nameplate—was it Peter himself? his adoring wife years after his death? a wealthy English professor commemorating a fictional character?—made the common mistake of thinking that everyone else knew what s/he was thinking. But they don’t. The question becomes, in the lack of indicative formatting: is this the “Peter Great Fireplace”? The “Great Fireplace” named in memory of Peter? Is the fireplace simply name “Peter” and captioned?

The fireplace itself—though great in size–actually loses its ability to become great in legacy because of the awkwardness of the physical design of its nameplate. People will hesitate to call it the “Great Fireplace” for fear of slighting Peter. But “Peter Great Fireplace” sounds so misguided. People therefore hesitate to name it in speech and in print, however consciously Wash. U. tries to give the investor his/her money’s worth. The “Great Fireplace” becomes a solely visual icon, and fails to establish for itself a succint and stable linguistic concept.

The secondary moral is that a design fault of which form/content mutual destruction is an example can have effects far beyond the merely aesthetic. The Wash. U. community loses a name for a primary structure in a primary building. Peter’s legacy is relegated to the musings of the lone kid who purposefully pays attention to deviant design. Barack Obama wins the presidency by way of superb branding (that’s how everyone else wins—why shouldn’t he?).

On a personal note, I like the ambiguity of the nameplate. It’s literary: no easy solutions. I like to believe that the dedicator meant it that way.

Re: ekphrasis

Monday, August 31st, 2009 | Katie Sadow

Purple flowers not
All violets should be called
Research oft yields truth

In the hopes of starting this visuo-literary journey on the best foot possible, I thought it prudent to mention that the purple flowers growing on the chain link fence are – to the best of my knowledge – not actually violets. They are lovely, however, and if my horticultural knowledge was as well developed as my knowledge of say, baking, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (please, look it up!), I’d definitely share their proper name.

As for “the squalor of modern life (if you will)”, Mr. Sweeney, I won’t. Modern life is an exemplification of many things: resource misuse, overzealous politicians, satellite television, and the Apple takeover (cause for celebration!), to name a few. On the other hand, if you asked me where to find squalor, I’d probably point you many hundreds of years into the past to the Dark Ages. Any life in which technicolored vines grow on rusty metal fences is not one I would call squalid (“foul and repulsive, as from lack of care or cleanliness; neglected and filthy,” likely from the Latin squalere, “be rough or dirty”). Perhaps this fence is lacking in care, and very possibly it is tremendously unclean, but it is eye candy nonetheless. This flowered fence is modern life: an unlikely marriage of man and nature. And it’s probably worth noting that when this fence has rusted into a pile of oxidized metal flakes and is blown about the alleyway by a passing wind, those purple flowers or some descendent of those purple flowers will likely still be around. Chew on that for a while, if you will.

I’m also not sure that this blog is around because “Seeing takes effort.” Actually, I’m pretty sure that seeing takes very little effort; if one is not blind and one has one’s eyes open, one basically can’t help but see. I’d say that noticing takes a bit more effort, though. Appreciating takes a handful more still. That’s certainly why I’m around. If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you can see. But you might not notice the natural phenomena growing next to the dumpster behind your apartment, and you might not notice the fluttering flags of your university peeking around the trees at Forest Park, and you might not appreciate how tremendously inspiring it is that beauty can trump practicality in the unlikeliest of places.

If some of that sounds intriguing, however, or
if you’re a noticing/appreciating connoisseur and you’d like some company, or
if you think that the discussion/bickering of (sometimes) semi-pretentious university students over the world around them sounds like dessert,
feel free to stick around.


Thursday, August 27th, 2009 | Dennis Sweeney

ekphrasis: “the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and ‘speak’ respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.”

This is a blog about the visual.


It is a blog about violets on a chain link fence.  About the color and light that can infuse the squalor of modern life (if you will). About the cage, and about its adornments.

The visual is not merely decorative. Optical aesthetics embody the most potent natural art there is; and we all know that art functions as a way to reformulate subjectivity, to enhance our understanding of the world, to allow us to categorize the categorizable and acknowledge the un-. By seeing (literally seeing) the art in everyday life, we become again and again better human beings.

Seeing takes effort. That’s why this blog is here.

Of course, I’m not the only one who likes art, the visual. One Katie Sadow does the same. She might feel differently. And in order to level the playingfield, to harness the prodigiousness, she holds the other mouse in the blog relationship. Perhaps she is more sensible than I. Perhaps not.


Brookings Hall, here (it’s tiny tiny), peaks over a ridge, framed by a blue sky, Forest Park trees, and an early sunset. If Washington University knew this shot existed, I feel they’d take it, with million megapixel cameras and a clear conscience. That’s quite all right, perhaps, for most of us.

But the kid standing there who suddenly realizes that he can see his school a mile away among this giant oasis thrives on the absence of such a capturing. Its previous presence in an ArtSci viewbook would disqualify the scene; the idyllic would be commodified; the discovery of the image would bear the smear of its earlier misuse.

Allow us to not smear our images; to allow the moment of discovery to remain fresh. Ekphrasis, we hope, is nonperishable. Might it forever renew our souls.