“Billions and billions of stars.” Carl Sagan’s awestruck if indeterminate census of the universe became a comic catchphrase in the wake of his 1980s PBS series Cosmos. Johnny Carson would intone the line, exaggerating the astrophysicist’s sing-songish repetition of billions and we’d laugh. Not because Sagan’s estimate was so low (estimates currently put the figure at between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion), but in part because the mere idea of billions of suns and consequent solar systems like our own is a patently impossible notion to comprehend. Contemplating god (as a bearded chap on a throne or some vague organizing “force) is water off a duck compared to the mental rearrangements required by the proposition that everyone alive and who has ever lived amounts to nothing more than a mote of cosmic dust. Now that’s hilarious.
Albert Mobilio is a poet, critic, and an editor at Hyperallergic. He is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant, MacDowell Fellowship, Whiting Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing. His work has appeared in Harper’s, Black Clock, Bomb, Cabinet, Hambone, Open City, and Tin House. Books of poetry include Bendable Siege, The Geographics, Me with Animal Towering, Touch Wood, and most recently Same Faces. Games and Stunts, a book of fiction, was published in 2017 by Black Square Editions. He is an associate professor of literary studies at the New School’s Eugene Lang College and a former editor at Bookforum.
Beast in Show: William Hawkins and the Animal Spirit
On almost every painting by William Hawkins you will find his birthdate and place of birth (“William L. H. Hawkins Born K.Y. July 27, 1895” or some variant thereof) prominently marked in bold strokes across the bottom or along the side of the image. In some pieces, the signature’s display is ample and vigorous enough to vie with the subject matter for the viewer’s attention. The self-taught African American artist who lived most of his life in Columbus, Ohio, and whose work came to the attention of gallerists and collections in the mid-80s, felt no need to be shy about his authorship or his Kentucky origins. Vibrantly declamatory, the lettering is of a piece with Hawkins’ depiction of his subjects — animals (real and fantastical) and buildings: beasts and bricks alike appear as if shot through with electric current propelling them outside the frame.
Single Point Perspective: Luigi Ghirri’s Sunsets Stripped
You walk to the end of the pier, drive to the canyon’s edge, or stroll down to the beach. Shading your eyes, you peer out across the water or valley to watch the bright disc slide like a gold coin into the horizon’s slot. Appreciative murmurs are heard as the sky darkens. Another end of day.
Single Point Perspective: California Dreamin’
On my first visit to California in 1978, I didn’t bring a jacket. It was summer and I expected Beach Blanket Bingo weather — big sunny skies and breezes that barely ruffled the palm trees. That I was San Francisco-bound and held this notion not only testified to my ignorance about the state’s meteorology but it’s North-South cultural divide as well. I ended up shivering on Stinson Beach watching surfers in wet suits; not a single bikini in sight, let alone Annette Funicello.
Go with the Slow: Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors”
Behind a curtain in the darkened gallery space at Luhring Augustine nine screens, each equipped with its own speaker have been arranged into two somewhat discreet areas. Eight of the screens feature the image of a single musician — a guitarist, pianist, banjo player, cellist, and so forth — and one screen offers a view of the porch of a large house where other instrumentalists, singers and assorted folks have gathered. Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation titled “The Visitors” documents in a single take the 64-minute-long performance of one song.
Popeye, Dopplegängers, and the Sea: Four New Books of Poetry
Unless treating established (even better if dead) authors presented in “collected” volumes, reviewers and editors at mainstream publications tend to shy away from covering contemporary work. Hence this occasional series of comments and speculations about more or less recently published volumes of poetry.
Automatic Transmission: Drawing Surrealism
Surreal. It’s one of those words like insane or awesome that’s taken a beating from aggressive misuse. I’ve heard the term applied to both a bus driver wearing a funny hat and the sight of the second plane hitting the tower. “It was so surreal,” that long e sung out like an animal’s cry of distress, is one of the more commonplace characterizations of any even vaguely untypical experience. The show currently at the Morgan Library and Museum, Drawing Surrealism, affords an opportunity to get reacquainted with the ideas and art behind the now overly familiar adjective.
Dot Matrix: You’re Finally on the Map
This is what we look like. You, me, and everybody else in North America: one dot each. 341, 817, 095 dots.
What Didn’t You Do in the War, Daddy? Chickenhawks and a Few Good Books
Last week Mitt Romney reached deep into the Republican bag of stock postures to attack President Obama as weak in matters of defense and foreign policy. The macho posturing by chickenhawk Republicans (Romney, Rove, Cheney, Bush, Kristol, Gingrich and many others avoided Vietnam if not military service altogether) is an all-too-familiar and, unfortunately, effective right-wing tactic.
Single Point Perspective: Weegee’s Balancing Act
Weegee, the New York tabloid photographer, who documented street life in the “naked city” in the 1930s and 40s, had an eye for the asymmetrical. His principle subject was public mayhem: the crime and criminals that enacted their traumatic narratives in public.
Some Sentences to Relax With
As I sometimes — or quite a lot of the time — find myself disposed to avoid the demands of work and household, my favorite dodge is perusing much read books for those “juicy” parts that I’ve doted over for years. Samuel Beckett’s Murphy is just the right book for this kind of time wasting: It’s a novel about an indolent, hapless, emotionally paralyzed man. He’s a loner, out of step with the world, torn between desire for his mistress and the wish to sink further in a self-involved fantasy world. The eponymous un-hero Murphy (he really can’t be called an anti-hero as his chief aspiration — a catatonic state achieved by rocking in his rocking chair — barely qualifies as anti-anything) is securely held by what Blake called “mind forg’d manacles.”
What do we see when we look at art? What do we want to see? Answers come readily and are various: we seek beauty; enlightenment; pleasure; escape from ourselves; insight into those same selves.