Plastic Soup & Creative Re-Use With A Critical Purpose

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Ocean Sole turns reclaimed flip-flops into colourful, hand-made animal toys and sculptures. Tonnes of flip-flops wash up on the east African coast every year.
Photograph: Courtesy of Ocean Sole/Plastic Soup

PlasticSoupAnd speaking of plastics, a new book has come to our attention thanks to the Guardian, and thanks to Island Books for the explanation of the book:

Plastics have transformed every aspect of our lives. Yet the very properties that make them attractive—they are cheap to make, light, and durable—spell disaster when trash makes its way into the environment. Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution is a beautifully-illustrated survey of the plastics clogging our seas, their impacts on wildlife and people around the world, and inspirational initiatives designed to tackle the problem.

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Peter Smith made this floating work, World of Litter, in 2012.
Photograph: Courtesy of Jos van Zetten/Plastic Soup

In Plastic Soup, Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Plastic Soup Foundation reveals the scope of the issue: plastic trash now lurks on every corner of the planet. With striking photography and graphics, Plastic Soup brings this challenge to brilliant life for readers. Yet it also sends a message of hope; although the scale of the problem is massive, so is the dedication of activists working to check it. Plastic Soup highlights a diverse array of projects to curb plastic waste and raise awareness, from plastic-free grocery stores to innovative laws and art installations.

According to some estimates, if we continue on our current path, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. Created to inform and inspire readers, Plastic Soup is a critical tool in the fight to reverse this trend.

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Washed Ashore makes larger-than-life sculptures of marine animals, like this parrotfish, to make people aware of plastic pollution.
Photograph: WashedAshore.org/Plastic Soup

A Warm Welcome To Birding’s Newer Adherents

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Caleb Hunt (left) and Tony Croasdale at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. In a city known for its punk underground and avian history, the friends have found an overlap that celebrates both niches. Photo: Mark Makela

I do not have a tattoo. If I did, it may be that a bird would adorn my arm. Our efforts to promote the joys of birdwatching combined with the conservation benefits that come from increased concern for bird habitat all suggest that I would be susceptible. I came of age during the emergence of punk rock, so the possibilities are there:

Welcome to Birdpunk: A Subculture of a Subculture

Punk has always been about embracing different forms of expression. Meet the people who are putting birding on that spectrum.

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A trio of vultures serve as badges of Croasdale’s birding obsession. Photos: Mark Makela

It’s the evening golden hour at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. A whirlwind of swallows swims through the soft light, chasing midges into a frenzy. Nearby on a platform a handful of birders scans the dimming sky, exposed to the marsh and its blood-thirsty elements.

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A trio of vultures. Photo: Mark Makela

In plain T-shirts and khakis, the group blends into the woods-y backdrop—with two exceptions. Caleb Hunt, a bookkeeper for an adult-entertainment boutique, rocks a Philly Punx tank top with a fanged, horned Benjamin Franklin splashed across the front. Next to her, Tony Croasdale, the leader of today’s walk, sports an aviary of skin art. A Swallow-tailed Kite, Belted Kingfisher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Scarlet Tanager, and three types of vultures bedeck his legs, collarbone, and arms.

Croasdale’s tattoos pay homage to two of his biggest life passions: birding and punk rocking. He plunged into the first as a kid when his father took him to Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park to learn about kingfishers. Continue reading

Stories Without End – The Grandmother Project

The Ogelthorpe University Museum of Art is one of the gems of the Atlanta area, for good reason. Not only does the museum have its own well curated collections, it receives visiting collections that are timely and powerful.

Tara Rice‘s Grandmother Project photographic series highlights the historically matriarchal influence within African cultures, coinciding with the project based in Senegal “promoting health, well-being and rights of women and children in developing countries through grandmother-inclusive and intergenerational programs that build on communities’ cultural values and resources.”

The photo series dovetails perfectly with the female centric collection of sculptures and masks in the sister exhibit, Stories Without an End.

Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection

January 18 – April 21, 2018

The exhibition Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection includes a selection of 50 classically carved wooden sculptures and masks drawn from the collection of Dileep and Martha Mehta.

The exhibition represents art from more than 25 ethnic groups spanning 12 countries. These objects are gathered into thematic groups including women in governance, maternity, idealized beauty, and female ancestors.

OUMA members Dileep and Martha Mehta are collectors of African and Asian arts. Their African art collection, including objects in this exhibit, has greatly benefited from diligent sourcing by and wise counsel of African Art dealers Tamba Kaba and Sanoussi Kalle.

This exhibition was developed by Elizabeth H. Peterson, OUMA director, and organized by Amanda Hellman, PhD, curator of African art, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

Stories Without an End was inspired in part by the work of the Grandmother Project (GMP) an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a Senegalese NGO with representatives throughout the USA and abroad. GMP, with headquarters in Senegal, works with elders in West African villages to fight the maltreatment of young girls. This includes bettering maternal and child nutrition, reproductive health, and marriage standards. The exhibition title is inspired by the GMP initiative “stories without an ending,” which is a tool used to facilitate communication via the elders. For more about the Grandmother Project please visit www.grandmotherproject.org.

The Grandmother Project: Photographs by Tara Rice

January 18 – April 21, 2019

The Grandmother Project (GMP) develops community approaches that promote positive and sustained improvements in the lives of girls, children, women, and families by building on existing cultural and community values, roles and assets in southern Senegal. Continue reading

Butterflies From Another Perspective

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Forest mother-of-pearl
‘It was a painstaking process, holding my breath and sitting perfectly still every time I pressed the shutter release. It seemed to take forever’

Time for a break from the regular news. Here are some visual reminders of why we care for nature, and why we protect it. Thanks to the Guardian for bringing this photographer’s unique technique to our attention in the photo feature titled The butterfly effect: wings in extreme close-up – in pictures:

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Detail of a Malay lacewing butterfly. Photograph: Jake Mosher

Thanks to that feature, I wandered into this commercial project, valorizing the beauty of butterflies, that I can recommend as worth a look:

METAMORPHOSIS

*** Featured in the Royal Photographic Society’s Journal, and also in The Guardian. Please take a look at their photo gallery display here.***

Limited edition, 1 of 1 pieces. When one sells, it will not be reprinted in any size, ever. This is your chance to own collectible, one-of-a-kind pieces of art the likes of which the world has never seen before.

These images are the composition of hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of 4:1 macro photographs of butterfly and moth wings. There is no artificial color, imported designs, or any “drawn” artifacts. This is art and photography intertwined, and these images are only available here. This work has been recognized as entirely unique to me. Continue reading

Elephants By The Sea

100 life-size lantana replicas of wild elephants will travel across three continents spreading the message of peaceful coexistence with nature.

The beautiful herd of Asian Elephants calmly drinking from this watering hole poses no threat to any onlooker. They’re actually sculptures made from the invasive lantana, introduced to the Indian subcontinent as an ornamental shrub by the British. The harmless looking plant is a scourge to native flora, animals and people of the regions where it’s taken over, as it literally poisons its surroundings so nothing else can survive there, destroying the natural biodiversity of the area.

30 of these extraordinary, life-sized works of art have been on display in Kerala, at Kochi’s South Beach, coinciding with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The outdoor exhibit, entitled Co-Exist: Matriarchs for a Whole Earth, is on display for only until the end of February, after which it will travel to Bangalore and New Delhi. In 2020, the elephant models will be taken to England where they will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Parks, both in London. In 2021, they will travel by truck across the USA, where they will finally be auctioned, the proceeds of which will go to preservation of wild animals.

The project is a collaboration between multiple organizations, designers and indigenous community artisans. Members of the Ashoka Trust Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE) devised a way to safely craft with lantana as a raw material and support for the making and display of lantana elephants is through the NGOs Elephant Family, The Real Elephant Collective (TREC), and The Shola Trust.

Fort Kochi To Have 100 ‘Lantana’ Elephants. And Here’s Why You Need To See Them

Highlighting the cause of nature and wildlife conservation at a global scale, the Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

On February 7, if you are wandering around the popular South Beach in Fort Kochi, you are sure to come across a magnificent herd of 100 Asian elephants.

If you are wondering about the possibility of such a huge congregation of these beings at one place, let us break the news.

These are beautifully sculpted life-size elephants that have been made by tribal artisans from Thorapalli in Gudalur using Lantana camara or Lantana, a toxic invasive weed.

Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

“Our vision is to bring Asia’s elephants and the issues they face out of India and the shadow cast by the African ivory crisis. With Asian elephants numbering only a tenth of their African counterparts, the importance of this unique migration cannot be underplayed. The survival of a species is at stake,” says Ruth Ganesh, principal trustee and the creative force of Elephant Family.

She had conceptualised the Lantana herd along with Shubhra Nayar of TREC. Modelled on real elephants from the Gudalur-Pandalur region, in its bid to raise awareness and funds for the conservation of Asian elephants, this unique project is also clearing the harmful Lantana from the Nilgiri forests while providing livelihoods to about 70 artisans from the Paniya, Bettakurumba and Soliga communities.

With their inherent knowledge of wild elephants and their exceptional crafting skills with Lantana, these artisans are bringing life to the elephant forms, while earning a dignified income. The elephants are designed by Shubhra Nayar and Tariq T of TREC, with Subhash Gautam overseeing the process. Continue reading

The Art of Inclusivity

 

A visitor takes a close look at “Missing Route 4,” a hand-stitched embroidery by Bapi Das.Credit Atul Loke for The New York Times

The history of our work in Kerala, and specifically in Kochi, has long been intertwined with Art, and how the surrounding community interacts with it. Biennales, by nature, often blur the line between street art and gallery space, as multi-dimensional and multi-media installations begin to appear on walls, pop-up spaces, cavernous warehouse buildings, and classic museum halls.

Now in it’s 4th edition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, has grown continually in both the breadth of the artists involved, and the depth of its work toward community outreach. This sense of inclusivity extends to gender equality, a longstanding issue that India as a country has battled with;  the curator and more than half of the artists are female.

As with the previous editions, the installations are thought provoking and moving, at times asking viewers to acknowledge and honor the difficult history of a colonial past.

In India, Building Bridges Between Life and Art

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia’s biggest art show, uses interactive exhibits and live performances to help Indians connect with contemporary art.

KOCHI, India — Clad in a simple striped shirt and the white mundu of the city’s fishmongers, Bashir stood out from the well-heeled throng at the warehouse galleries and tree-filled courtyards on the first day of India’s biggest contemporary art show, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Bashir, a fishwrapper who works nearby, visited the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on opening day because entry was free. He lingered over the photographs, including these photo essays by Chandan Gomes, a Delhi photographer. Credit: Atul Loke for The New York Times

Keeping to himself, he moved from room to room, stopping to study moody landscapes by the Delhi photographer Chandan Gomes that were paired with imaginary scenes drawn by a girl who died at age 12.

“I don’t understand the inner meaning of the art,” said Bashir, who uses one name and makes a living wrapping and delivering fish. “I just like to see beautiful things.”

Bashir’s willingness to engage with the artwork, no matter how challenging, was a victory for the show’s organizers. The southern state of Kerala, and India as a whole, have very few public venues to see art. So the organizers of the biennale, which runs until March 29, strove to create an event that would appeal to everyone — from untutored day laborers to veteran museum curators.

“We are making a cultural festival,” said Bose Krishnamachari, a painter from Kerala who co-founded the show eight years ago. “We have tried to penetrate to the people’s minds so that they feel that it is their biennale.”…

Continue reading

Birds, Beacons Of Good Fortune

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Necklace, designed by Tone Vigeland (Norwegian, born 1938)

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Book, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers: suivie de celle des toucans et des barbus (Natural History of Birds of Paradise and Rollers: Followed by that of Toucans and Barbets), Volume 2; 1806; Written by François Levaillant (French, 1753–1824); Illustrated by Jacques Barraband (French, 1767–1809); Smithsonian Libraries, QL674.L65 1806

An exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt comes to my attention thanks to Dylan Kerr, whose essay The Mandarin Duck and Avian Art at the Cooper Hewitt makes an interesting link between the choices Rebeca Mendez made as a curator and a recent unusual bird sighting in New York City:

For the past several weeks, New Yorkers have been abuzz over a mysterious visitor. A mandarin duck, an intricately colored waterfowl native to East Asia, has taken up residence alongside the mallards in the Central Park Pond, drawing crowds and inspiring memes, dog costumes, and a Twitter account (bio: “I’m not from around here”). Pundits have argued that the frenzy betrays a desire for good news. But perhaps, the Mexico City-born designer Rebeca Méndez suggested the other day, something deeper is at play. “In our own normal life, we have patterns that we are so used to.

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Sidewall; 1905–13; Manufactured by Zuber & Cie (Rixheim, Alsace, France); Block-printed on paper; Gift of James J. Rorimer, 1950-111-10

My immediate reaction is yes. We are bombarded with more negative information more quickly, more constantly than ever in my lifetime. We need relief, and nothing like an exotic bird coming to town to bring it:

When something”—an anatine interloper, say—“comes in and breaks that, it’s incredibly exciting,” she said. “The world suddenly collapses—it’s like a wormhole from far-east Asia to Manhattan.”

Méndez recently curated an exhibition of avian art at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, across the street from the Park. It’s part of the “Selects” series, in which the museum invites a guest to put together a show from objects in its collection. Continue reading

Animals In A New Light

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Jill Greenberg, Glare, Glare, 2005, Ultrachrome ink on hot press paper, 106.7 x 127 cm / 42 x 50 in, Private collection.

9780714876818-780-1.jpgIt has been a long year since our last links to Phaidon. Following yesterday’s essay this seems an appropriate moment to renew our attention to beautiful books, this one about animals (click the image of the book to go to the source).

Don’t look too closely at this Diana Monkey – you might unnerve yourself. Captured by photographer Jill Greenberg and appearing in our book Animal: Exploring the Zoological World, with its defiant yet nervous hazel-eyed gaze, today’s Astonishing Animal stirs an uncanny sense of self in the viewer.

Greenberg’s hyperrealist style – the monkey’s white and grey fur is lit so that each single strand appears in high definition – captures incredibly emotive images of animals showing emotions and involved in gestures previously thought to be the reserve solely of humans. This portrait is one of seventy-five Greenberg has published covering thirty different primates, including species such as apes, chimpanzees, macaques, mandrils and marmosets.

Japan, Paper & Tradition

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Washi paper at the store Ozu Washi in Tokyo. Credit Courtesy of Ozu Washi

Thanks to Nikil Saval for asking, and to the New York Times for publishing his answer to this question:

Why Is Japan Still So Attached to Paper?

Washi is to the Japanese something like what wine is to the French — a national obsession and point of pride.

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The architect Shigeru Ban’s emergency shelters are made mostly of paper.CreditBrent Boardman/courtesy of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF)

ONE OF THE CLICHÉS of modernity — but a cliché we nonetheless have to live through — is that new forms of technology make us nostalgic for prior ones and the eras they connote. When smartphones emerged, they brought the internet into spaces that were once free of them, so that a poorly functioning flip phone now inspires a hint of wistfulness. The pileup of digitized music since the emergence of the MP3 has prompted a retreat, however niche and ultimately minor, into the world of vinyl records and even tapes. The ransacking of the physical texture of the world — books, newspapers, retail stores, maps — has been so enormous and sudden that it becomes possible to see what we are losing and no longer regard the onrushing future as progress.

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Japan’s centuries-long fascination with traditional papermaking means there’s still a robust analog culture in a country known for its embrace of the modern. Credit Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Set Design by Arielle Casale and Maxwell Sorensen. Altered images: Daj/Getty Images; Bernard Allum/Getty Images. Origami: Beth Johnson. Photographer’s assistant: Jonah Rosenberg

Because of the sheer accumulated weight of its past, and the velocity of its rush into the future, Japan offers these contradictions and anxieties of modernity in particular abundance. Japan was geographically isolated for centuries, so the time between the country’s opening — thanks to the gunboat diplomacy of American warships’ arrival in 1853 — and the postwar miracle of reconstruction produced a linear and especially propulsive narrative of an agrarian society becoming one defined by urban futurism. The contrast (and conflict) between ancient and modern is the primary tension in Japan’s modern literary and filmic traditions: rural families experiencing the shock of the city in Yasujiro Ozu’s films of the ’40s and ’50s, or Noh drama in the novels of the Showa-era writer Fumiko Enchi. Everything, from the perfervidness of the country’s electronic manufacturing, the proliferation of its pop culture, the aggressiveness of its building booms — even as a three-decade-long economic decline strips these characteristics of their sheen — seems to serve as a reminder that throughout the postwar era, Japan was a byword for the future. Continue reading

On A Lighter Patrimonial Note

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“Cabinet of Curiosities” by Frans Francken the Younger, circa 1620-25. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

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Exhibition view of “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures.” © KHM-Museumsverband.

Yesterday’s post about pre-history sleuthing coincided with my reading about this new exhibition. In our home we have a cabinet of curiosities. I also tend to like Wes Anderson films. So I had to learn more.

What is a spitzmaus, how might one have gotten mummified, and who put it in a coffin? More to the point, when and where might I see such a thing? Will it be worth the journey?

The review of this exhibition has more of a fashion review feel to it, especially with the headline photo (below, at the start of the review) and mention of celebrities in the early paragraphs. It almost made me bypass the story. But credit to Cody Delistraty for letting Mustafah Abdulaziz’s excellent photos from the exhibition speak prominently throughout the rest of his review. There are a couple of one minute videos that make clear the answers to the latter two questions:

 

The one above has a fleeting sense of Wes Anderson to it, whereas the one below is straightforward curator-speak:

 

 

But still, what is a spitzmaus?

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Wes Anderson with his partner, the author and designer Juman Malouf, at the opening of the exhibition they curated. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

Wes Anderson, Curator? The Filmmaker Gives It a Try

Mr. Anderson and his partner, Juman Malouf, were given free rein in Austria’s largest museum. But you can’t make an exhibition as you would a movie, our critic writes.

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The exhibition “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures” was put together from objects in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s largest. Credit Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

VIENNA — Wes Anderson looked tired. The filmmaker was wearing a red blazer and a striped tie, standing beneath the elaborate 19th-century cupola of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. His partner, the author and designer Juman Malouf, was by his side.

Dozens of friends — the actors Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman; the filmmaker Jake Paltrow; and a pair of lesser-known Coppolas among them — stood around him. Photographers jostled for angles.

It wasn’t a movie premiere, but the exhibition opening for “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures,” which Mr. Anderson and Ms. Malouf curated, certainly had the air of one.

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Malouf were asked to put the show together from objects in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s largest. When Mr. Anderson stepped up to the microphone on Monday to address the guests, it was with the weariness of someone who had gone to battle and come back changed. Continue reading

A Forager’s Guide To Making Natural Ink

Ink1Since 2011, foraging has been a favored topic here. We have occasionally featured stories with reference to natural colorants, mainly about their various possible uses, and even an exhibition where you could learn more; but not until now have we seen a book like this. It looks like it will be a perfect addition to any of our numerous coffee tables, suited to brighten up even the rainiest afternoon. Click on any image to go to the website for the book. Thanks to Jason Logan for its authorship, and to Amy Goldwasser for bringing it to our attention in the New Yorker:

Ink Foraging in Central Park

The founder of the Toronto Ink Company leads a group of pigment enthusiasts on a hunt for acorns, berries, beer caps, and other ingredients.

Ink2.jpgOn a recent drizzly Tuesday morning, a small group of ink enthusiasts—already rain-slicked, under umbrellas and ponchos—stood on Gapstow Bridge, in Central Park, admiring a brilliant-pink pokeweed bush. The Park was the first stop on a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink. Their guide, Jason Logan, the founder of the Toronto Ink Company, was in town for the launch of his book, “Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking.” At a reading in the West Village, he had asked the audience if anyone wanted to go foraging. The city offers some attractive ingredients: acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.

Ink3.jpgLogan, who is forty-six, became interested in ink about twenty years ago, when he was living in New York, working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines. He’d burned through a bottle of black-walnut ink, which he’d bought at Pearl Paint, on Canal Street. When he returned for more, the ink was gone. “Then I found black walnuts on my way to work one morning and realized it was easy to make my own deep, rich, delicious ink,” he said.

On the bridge, Logan addressed the foragers, four women of varying ages. He has curly gray hair and was wearing a windbreaker in almost the same hue. “I’m kind of in love with gray,” he said. “It’s interesting for me, too, in terms of ink. Gray is ashes suspended in water.” Logan speaks like a laid-back chemist, using words like “petrichor,” the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. He carried a backpack filled with ink pots and collection bags.

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“That is so bright!” Julia Norton, an artist who teaches a pigment class, said, examining the pokeweed’s fuchsia stems.

“It’s so beautiful it’s hard to believe it just grows like this,” Logan said. “Pokeberry ink was most famously used by Civil War soldiers to write love notes.” Continue reading

Color Conservation

The hues in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic. Photograph by Jason Fulford for The New Yorker

Color is such a constant in our lives that it seems odd to consider any need for it’s conservation. How it exists in nature, how we humans perceive it, and how we’ve use the technology of the time to preserve it, has been relevant for tens of thousands of years. The Forbes Collection archives in the Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum highlights the work of it’s founder, Edward Waldo Forbes, for whom “pigment hunting and gathering was not just a matter of creating an archive of lost or languishing color. It was about the union of art and science.”

Treasures from the Color Archive

The historic pigments in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic

How blue can it get? How deep can it be? Some years ago, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, I thought I’d hit on the ultimate blue, displayed on the gallery floor. Yves Klein, who died at thirty-four, was obsessed with purging color of any external associations. Gestural abstraction, he felt, was clotted with sentimental extraneousness. But, in search of chromatic purity, Klein realized that even the purest pigments’ intensity dulled when combined with a binder such as oil, egg, or acrylic. In 1960, he commissioned a synthetic binder that would resist the absorption of light waves, delivering maximum reflectiveness. Until that day in Bilbao, I’d thought Klein a bit of a monomaniacal bore, but Klein International Blue, as he named the pigment—rolled out flat or pimpled, with saturated sponges embedded in the paint surface—turned my eyeballs inside out, rods and cones jiving with joy. This is it, I thought. It can’t get any bluer.

Until YInMn came along: the fortuitous product of an experiment in the materials chemistry lab at Oregon State University in 2009. Intending to discover something useful for the electronics industry, Mas Subramanian and his team heated together oxides of manganese, yttrium, and indium at two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. What emerged was a new inorganic pigment, one that absorbed red and green light waves, leaving as reflected light the bluest blue to date. Subramanian sent a sample to the Forbes Collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, at Harvard University, where it sits with twenty-five hundred other specimens that document the history of our craving for color.

Among the other blues on the Forbes’s shelves is Egyptian Blue, a modern approximation of the first synthetic pigment, engineered five millennia ago, probably from the rare mineral cuprorivaite, a soft mid-blue used for the decoration of royal tomb sculpture and the wall paintings of temples. Later, blues strong enough to render sea and sky were made from weathered copper-carbonate azurite—crystalline bright but sometimes darkening in an oil binder. In 1271, Marco Polo saw lapis lazuli quarried from a mountain at Badakhshan, in what is now Afghanistan. Laboriously prepared by removing impure specks of glinting iron pyrite, it became ultramarine—as expensive, ounce for ounce, as gold, and so precious that it was initially reserved for depictions of the costume of the Virgin. In addition to these, the Forbes Collection has a poor man’s blue—smalt made from crushed cobalt containing potassium glass, which weakens, eventually, to a thin greeny-brown gray.

The Forbes Collection owes its existence to a belief in the interdependence of art and science, but it is also an exhaustive archive of cultural passion. A display features Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96 per cent of light, and has to be grown on surfaces as a crop of microscopic nanorods. In 2016, the sculptor Anish Kapoor saw the pigment’s potential for collapsing light, turning any surface into what appears to be a fathomless black hole, and he acquired the exclusive rights to it. An outcry from artists, who objected to the copyright, prompted the Massachusetts manufacturer NanoLab to release Singularity Black, created as part of the company’s ongoing research with nasa, to the public, and the artist Stuart Semple to make the World’s Pinkest Pink available to any online buyer willing to declare himself “not Anish Kapoor.” But Kapoor obtained a sample of the pink pigment, and used it to coat his middle digit, which he photographed and posted online for Semple.

Narayan Khandekar, the head of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, takes pleasure in such skirmishes, secure in the knowledge that he presides over something weightier: a priceless resource for understanding how works of art are made, and how they should be preserved. The Department of Conservation and Technical Research was founded, in 1928, by Edward Waldo Forbes, the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944. Today, the Forbes’s vast library of color and its technical laboratories are housed in the museum’s steel-and-filtered-glass rebuild, designed by Renzo Piano. Rows of pigments in tubes, jars, and bowls are visible through the doors of floor-to-ceiling cabinets. Khandekar had the winning idea of displaying them as if unspooled from a color wheel: reds at one end, blues at the other. There are the products of nineteenth-century chemical innovation—viridian green, cadmium orange, and the chrome yellow with which van Gogh was infatuated but which, over time, has begun to darken his sunflowers. But at the heart of the Forbes Collection are the natural pigments that were the staples of painters’ inventories before chemically synthesized paints replaced the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive. Continue reading

Plastics Conservation Science

Dr. Odile Madden, of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, holding a piece of degrading plastic for use in trying out new methods of preservation. Credit Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The irony of the need to conserve aging national treasures or works of art configured from plastics and other petroleum-based materials in the time of the “Pacific Vortex” and other plastic-created environmental disasters is difficult to miss. It never would have occurred to any of us that a field called “Plastics Conservation Science” has any need to exist.

And yet, it does…

These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart.

Museum conservators are racing to figure out how to preserve modern artworks and historical objects that are disintegrating.

The custodians of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum saw it coming. A marvel of human engineering, the suit is made of 21 layers of various plastics: nylon, neoprene, Mylar, Dacron, Kapton and Teflon.

The rubbery neoprene layer would pose the biggest problem. Although invisible, buried deep between the other layers, the suit’s caretakers knew the neoprene would harden and become brittle with age, eventually making the suit stiff as a board. In January 2006, the Armstrong suit, a national treasure, was taken off display and stored to slow the degradation.

Of an estimated 8,300 million metric tons of plastic produced to date, roughly 60 percent is floating in the oceans or stuffed in landfills. Most of us want that plastic to disappear. But in museums, where objects are meant to last forever, plastics are failing the test of time.

“It breaks your heart,” said Malcolm Collum, chief conservator at the museum. The Armstrong suit’s deterioration was arrested in time. But in other spacesuits that are pieces of astronautical history, the neoprene became so brittle that it shattered into little pieces inside the layers, their rattling a brutal reminder of material failure.

Art is not spared either, as Georgina Rayner, a conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums, showed at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Boston this month.

Claes Oldenburg’s “False Food Selection,” a wooden box containing plastic models of foods like eggs and bacon, a banana and an oatmeal cookie, now appears to be rotting. The egg whites are yellowing, while the banana has completely deflated.

In museums, the problem is becoming more apparent, Dr. Rayner said in an interview: “Plastics are reaching the end of their lifetimes kind of now.”

Of all materials, plastics are proving to be one of the most challenging for conservators. “I find plastics very frustrating,” said Mr. Collum. Because of the material’s unpredictability and the huge variation in forms of deterioration, he said, “it’s just a completely different world.”

Continue reading

If You Happen to be In New York: Baya, Pablo & Henri

Femmes attablées (Women at table), 1947. Gouache on board, 19 1⁄2 x 25 7⁄16 in. (49.5 x 64.6 cm). Collection of Adrien Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

How is it possible that we’re just learning of this autodidactic painter who inspired two of the 20th Century’s greatest painters now? If you’re lucky enough to be in New York through the end of March, get yourself to the NYU Grey Art Gallery and bask in color, especially during the current snowy days!

Baya: Woman of Algiers is the first North American exhibition of works by the self-taught Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine (1931–1998). Known as Baya, she was born in Bordj el-Kiffan and orphaned at age five. Encouraged by her adoptive French mother to pursue art, she began as an adolescent to paint gouaches and make ceramics. Her work was soon discovered by fabled gallerist Aimé Maeght who, along with André Breton, organized an exhibition in Paris in 1947. Baya’s colorful depictions of women, rhythmic patterns, and bright palette drew the attention of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, with whom she later collaborated in the renowned Madoura pottery studio in Vallauris. Celebrated in both Algeria and France, Baya has yet to gain international recognition. Woman of Algiersreexamines Baya’s career within contemporary, Surrealist, “outsider,” and Maghreb post-colonial art contexts.  The exhibition features works drawn from the Maeght Family Collection, Paris, as well as several Madoura ceramics by Picasso and a video by London-based French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira. Baya is curated by Natasha Boas and will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by  Boas, André Breton, Assia Djebar, and Menna Ekram.

Crafting History With Wood

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The elaborately detailed Bingham secretary enjoyed pride of place at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford until it was determined to be a forgery. Credit John Banks

The principle of the matter, depending on how you look at it, makes this story interesting. The idea that a person can craft new wood into historical storylines so compellingly that experts cannot detect the recency of the crafting? Wow. Fooling a buyer into paying a premium for the historical significance? Uh, no. Thanks to John Banks for this sleuth story:

The Civil War memorial secretary was widely embraced as a folk art treasure. Fashioned from walnut, maple and oak, it was said to have been created circa 1876 to honor John Bingham, a Union infantryman who had fallen at Antietam.

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A detail of the secretary, with the barnyard-bone lettering. CreditJohn Banks

Profusely adorned, it featured a music box that played “Yankee Doodle” and it was accompanied by a letter from a Bingham descendant, describing the significance of the piece to the family.“I was astonished by it,” said Wes Cowan, an auctioneer and dealer who examined the secretary at the Winter Antiques Show in New York in 2015.

The owner, Allan Katz, had bought it months earlier from a Massachusetts dealer for an undisclosed price, and was now trying to sell it for $375,000.

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John Bingham, left, and his brother Wells, Union soldiers from East Haddam, Conn. Credit via, Military and Historical Image Bank

“Clearly,” Mr. Katz, a Connecticut antiques dealer, said in a video filmed at the show, “we are hoping that it might go to an institution, because it really would be wonderful to share this with the public on a day-to-day basis.”

So it was gratifying, Mr. Katz said in an interview, when the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford purchased the work and gave it prominent display. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In Mexico City

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A jar of dye and some red yarn colored by cochineal, part of the Mexico City show. Credit Marco Ugarte/Associated Press

Colors used in dyes and paints in earlier centuries came from various organic and inorganic sources, and this particular red comes from an insect. An exhibit with this “Mexican red,” highlighting the relationship between nature’s sources, artists and their patrons, strikes us as as good a reason as any to curate a show:

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Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles, Third Version” (end of September 1889), which uses cochineal. The artist likened the color to the “red of wine.” Credit Musée d’Orsay, Paris

MEXICO CITY — Along with silver and gold, the first ships that sailed from the New World after the Spanish Conquest carried another treasure: a natural dye that produced a red so intense that European artists quickly embraced it as their own.

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“Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin” (1889), by Gauguin, is on display in “Mexican Red,” though its use of cochineal has not been confirmed. Credit Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

The trade in this dye reaped vast riches for the Spanish crown and supplied the crimson palette that would color the sacred and secular art of Europe for more than three centuries.

An exhibition that runs through Feb. 4 at this city’s Palace of Fine Arts, “Mexican Red, the Cochineal in Art,” traces the journey of the color from the highlands of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica to Europe. There, it became increasingly associated with the projection of power in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cochineal fell into decline in the 19th century, as synthetic dyes were introduced, but was sought out later by the Impressionists. Continue reading

Amaranth’s Allies: Art, Academia & Activism

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New School students and faculty repotting seedlings on campus in preparation for the exhibition.

Search on the three words “seeds of change” on this platform and you will find dozens of stories dealing with topics like botanical hazard initiatives or innovative approaches to flora conservation and/or climate change and some of the radical plans made to prepare for it that we have linked to over the years. Type the same three words into your favorite search engine and the topics are much more diverse. The three words are also the name of an evolving exhibition, and the subject of an article that mixes art, academia and activism:

A Seed Artist Germinates History

An exhibition using plants brought to New York in ships’ ballast illuminates the city’s hidden past using stinging nettle, milk thistle and amaranth. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York City

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The British visionary Samuel Palmer drew “Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park,” ca. 1828, using pen and ink, graphite, and watercolor. Thaw Collection; The Morgan Library & Museum

We try not to judge a book by its cover, but if the sample above is any indication this looks like a show worth visiting:

Five Centuries of Drawings at the Morgan

From a study of drapery by a German artist circa 1480 to an Ellsworth Kelly collage from 1976, the collection is almost unbearably excellent.

The almost unbearably excellent show “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection” begins with a love story. In 1954, the dealer Eugene Thaw—the son of a heating contractor and a high-school teacher, from Washington Heights—had a prescient assistant who suggested that he start buying art for himself. Continue reading

Faces, Places & Dignified Conversation

Thanks to Kurt Anderson for bringing this to our attention with this conversation (you need to listen to the interview to have a jolting recollection of dignified conversation, which hopefully serves as a perfect preview for the film), blurbed on Studio 360’s landing page at Slate under the title Sugar Mouth with this simple sentence:

Artists Agnès Varda and JR were born 55 years apart but have a lot in common—and they made a lovely film, Faces Places.

The PRI landing page for this episode is more informative, showing the host with the guests as well as plenty of relevant links and images: Continue reading

Birds + Artists + Spraypaint = Audubon Murals

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A swallow-tailed kite and 12 other birds painted by Lunar New Year.

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Tricolored Heron by Federico Massa a.k.a. iena cruz. Photo: Mila Tenaglia

Murals with birds always capture our attention; we cannot resist linking to such initiatives when they are cleverly conceived, elegantly executed, and perfectly placed. Enjoy this epic series, a fitting tribute to the National Audubon Society:

Where Birds Meet Art . . . After Dark

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Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The Audubon Mural Project is a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler & Gallery to create murals of climate-threatened birds throughout John James Audubon’s old Harlem‐based neighborhood in New York City. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist and is energized by Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Report, which reveals at least half of all North American birds are threatened by a warming climate. The project commissions artists to paint murals of each of the report’s 314 species, and has been widely covered in the media, including most recently by The New York Times.

Thanks to the Editorial Board of the New York Times for reminding us of this:

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Louise Jones, with her husband, Gabe, working on a mural of an evening grosbeak. Credit Photographs by Karsten Moran for The New York Times

In his final years, John James Audubon, the celebrated 19th-century painter of bird life, lived in rustic uptown Manhattan in a house by the Hudson where some of his final paintings were of urban rats that caught his eye. Continue reading