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This is my fanatical face

O, The Pilgrims! They dipped their brains in Vermeer yellow and dotted them with gaping Picasso eyes and fortified them with flying buttresses. Seeking rebirth, they sailed across the Atlantic to the neon mosaic of Manhattan and played among its multicolored tesserae. They learned to inhabit the uninhabitable thicket of a Pollock and love the unlovable toilet of Duchamp.

A pilgrim isn’t a pilgrim with rooted feet, and so they sought out a new frontier. It was an artless place, a wasteland of lost people who could hardly feel the earthquake of New York and would never stand on the unshakeable marble of Europe.

To travel to this Northwest and spread the Word was a matter of moral obligation–and destiny.

If you don’t believe that this story could be conveyed in a single glance, you don’t know my art history teacher. I went to her office to discuss the latest interpretation of “Fountain” and the conversation eventually swung around to my blog.

“I adventure around Eugene and write about art,” I explained. She fixed me with the puzzled, pitying look of an enlightened art missionary.

“But, really, what is there to see?” she said. “I lived in New York for eight years. There’s nothing in Eugene.”

She really and truly said this, in her adorable European accent. It was a bit of a punch to the face but it wasn’t a shock. I was three weeks into my arts reporting class, which leans heavily on “The New York Times Reader: Arts and Culture.” The book is a brilliant collection of arts pieces but the introduction (and everything else written by editor Don McLeese) reads like propaganda.

The New York times gives critics more space and it takes their work more seriously than any other general-interest news organization in the country (if not the world).

Something about the smug little note at the end really does it. Don McLeese, I pronounce you the king of parenthetical snobbery…

Other cities may approach New York’s significance in various arts (we’ll give the movies to Hollywood), but no publication rivals The Times as the epicenter of arts and culture criticism, most broadly defined.

He’ll give the West Coast the Transformers franchise, but we’d better keep our grubby hands off everything else.

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Christie’s

I’m being mean, but that’s only because love hurts. I fell hard for New York last December when I accompanied my Dad on a business trip there. While he worked, I wandered the streets in a giant grey coat, sipping lattes and listening to “Empire State of Mind” over and over.

New York’s buildings are so big that everything looks small afterward. Its art is so great that nothing will ever compare. It feels like the news, like culture, like the center of the world. That’s what I thought after one week, so you really can’t blame Don McLeese. His eyes have been filled with skyscrapers for years.

To leave New York and return to a small city in the Pacific Northwest was a heartbreaker. The affair continued from afar with a subscription to the New Yorker, but I knew I’d never be complete until I lived there.

Over the next few months, I transformed into something worse than a snobby New Yorker. I was a snobby New Yorker wannabe, willfully blinding myself to all but the most romantic notions of the Big Apple. By the time I’d hung a framed photo of the Empire State Building on my wall, I was vaguely aware that I might be getting duped. The Mad Men had me good.

After a long, lonely winter I started applying for NYC museum internships for next year. As Don McLeese will tell you many, many times, any aspiring arts writer must live in New York. Did I say “applying” just then? Actually, all of the deadlines had passed. I was forced to broaden my scope to the nowhere of everywhere else.

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Memory, all alone in the moooonlight

That’s how I landed an internship at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM. When I started telling people about it I got two reactions.

Nearly everyone: “What’s in Santa Fe? Cacti?”

One person: “Santa Fe? That has, like, the third largest art market in the country.”

This offhand comment made me incredibly excited. I mentioned it later to the head of the O’Keeffe program.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I think it’s actually the second largest.”

If Santa Fe can’t decide whether it’s second or third, then there’s probably at least one other burgeoning arts center out there that isn’t really sure either. Maybe there are dozens of places that thrive even in the shadow of the all-important NYC.

Santa Fe is now a few weeks away, and I’m thinking of asking my art history teacher on a blog adventure.

“Come explore Eugene with me,” I’ll say. “It’s either the 2nd, or 3rd, or 172nd largest art market in the country.”

She’ll roll her eyes and I’ll smile. Welcome to the Wild West, prof. Grab your shotgun cuz we’re going art huntin’!

P.S. Coming up: Mark Rothko! You’re going to love it… or love to hate it.

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What. The. Fudge.

Those are (approximately) the words that accompanied the three Kodak moments above. It’s not often that you understand something less as you get closer to it, except for maybe that one museum in Seattle.

Eventually, I remembered that someone in one of my classes had mentioned an on-campus carnival. She’d failed to note that entering said event would involve passing under the buns of a hairy man doing a squat. It all looked very freaky, so of course I had to return…

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…In the night.

Carnivals are so bland and flat in the day, but at night everything glows and tilts and swirls. It’s hard to tell if the world is about to tip over or you are.

The event turned out to be a giant promotion for Adult Swim, the cable network that has nothing to do with swimming or adults. I was disappointed, as analyzing artvertising almost always feels like selling out. Then I was distracted by this:

Yes, that is a unicorn helmet on the girl’s head. No, you didn’t see the same stunt in the trailer for Project X. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the sequel, though. In one corner, a drunk dude with a unicorn helmet. In the other, a high dude in a zorb ball. Who will win the duel?

I realized that I wouldn’t be reviewing the art of carnivals that night, but the art of a carefully targeted marketing stunt. The targets? Teenage boys who think they’re 20-something frat boys, and 20-something frat boys who think they’re teens.

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Unicorn Man and “Breathe if you’re horny” jellyfish (???)

The carnival world of Adult Swim is populated by a horde of bizarre cartoon characters. I’m sure they all have names, but we can just talk about them as a group. Let’s call them the Bad House Guests.

Any house guest stinks after three days, but the Bad House Guests clearly come pre-musked. They’re the kind of people who show up and claim to be friends with one of your roomies, but change the subject when you ask which. They dominate the television and watch The Real World repeats. They eat your Cheetos and leave orange streaks on your drinking glasses. They wet the couch.

Could you imagine letting one of these things stay in your home? Now imagine claiming the “Breathe if you’re horny” jellyfish as your hero, your role model. What does Unicorn Man (who appears to be about 40) say to his perma-adolescent viewers?

“Neigh. I’m an immortal unicorn. Want to play Grand Theft Auto, like, forever?”

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A rather large group of people had gathered for the carnival. They looked like they were in the end stages of a rave (dazed, crazed, spent and wet), but they were valiantly trying to win crappy Adult Swim merchandise in various carnival games.

All of the games were harbingers of the emotional spiral ensured by the couch-wetting lifestyle. There was “Baby vs. Man” (the inner struggle), “Toilet Bowel” (the post-Cheetos physical battle), and a game where you have to climb into the mouth of a giant cat:

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(Maybe this represents the discontented girlfriend?)

So perhaps this whole Adult Swim thing is actually a giant public service announcement.

“Don’t go down this path!” it says. “It will lead to bald loneliness!”

All of the warnings seemed very clear to me, but everyone else was having too much fun to catch them. Maybe I’m just a spoilsport, or a snob. Maybe I’m judging a TV network by an inflataman’s weird crotch bulge.

Or maybe I’m right. Take note, youngsters.

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This is Fred.

Fred spent the hours of 3 to 7 pm yesterday dancing in the drizzle along Coburg Road in a Statue of Liberty costume. The 26-year-old Eugenean is going to “tax school,” but in the meantime he’s stuck on the lowest rung at Liberty Tax.

Some might be discouraged by this, but not Fred. I spotted the enthusiastic gent on a drive, and was so impressed by his dancing and sign twirling that I had to get an interview. I caught him right at the end of his shift but still bubbling with energy.

Here’s Fred on life, liberty and the art of marketing:

Fred is clearly one of those people who puts his heart into everything he does. He’s been complimented by a fire dancer for his sign twirling, and was scouted off the street by Papa John’s for another sign holding job.

“Do you consider your job art?” I asked him.

“Well it depends,” he said. “You get a lot of sign shakers and sign wavers that are just like…” He gave an unenthusiastic smile and thumbs up to a passing car.

I think it’s fair to say that Fred elevates his job to an art. Along with Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, he said that Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges all influence his moves. Something tells me Fred’s on his way to being someone else’s dance idol. Or possibly the president of Liberty Tax. Watch out world!

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Mannerist mannequin (can you see it?), American Apparel

In my first year of college, I joined the staff of a short-lived campus newspaper called the Weekly Enema. I’ve never trumpeted this achievement on a resume, but at the time I was happy to be publishing somewhere, even if my articles were squeezed between the sex advice column and the poop dispatch.

One of my first assignments at the Enema was to parody hipster life from the perspective of a hipster. Hipsterdom is genetically shackled to post-post-irony, which is to say that any joke about it is as stretched as the elastic on a vintage flower headband. Based on that zinger, you can imagine how the article turned out.

The piece’s climax was a visit to the American Apparel on 13th street, where my hipster self idolized the shiny white mannequins and aspired to enter the “crushing tsunami of generic sameness” of hoodie fashion.

Fast forward to senior year, long after the Enema flushed away.

This Friday’s art history lecture was on Mannerism, which is apparently pretty difficult to define. My teacher’s description was full of buzz phrases like “It’s the Stylish Style” and “It’s, you know, scherzo.” He spent a lot of time on a slide of Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, which shows a space alien-style Virgin clutching her Voldebaby Christ.

I took a peek at Wikipedia for clarification, and learned that, “The definition of Mannerism, and the phases within it, continues to be the subject of debate among art historians.” Great.

My teacher finally (somewhat) pinned it down:

Mannerism is the willful distortion of figure and space for aesthetic or spiritual effect.

So to understand is to revel in confusion? This was all sounding très hipster.

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On my run that afternoon, Mannerism kept bugging me. When I can’t grasp something inside the ivory tower of art history, I usually take it to the streets. Where was Mannerism’s real-world parallel?

Then I passed American Apparel. There hung three photocopies of alien Madonna’s long, pale body dressed in different shades of cardigans and stockings. The figures were perfectly twisted into the extreme contrapossto of Mannerist works like Raphael’s Galatea. Was this a coincidence, or some sort of post-post-ironic reference?

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Either way, reconnecting with my old Enema friends helped me understand Mannerism through the lens of modern advertising. The Mannerists verged away from the High Renaissance obsession with accurate scientific depiction, warping their figures in the pursuit of “superhuman” beauty, as my teacher would say. Magazines and ads do the same thing in our post-post-modern world, albeit with a very neo-Mannerist tool called Photoshop.

As I stood in American Apparel and took these shots, I wondered if the horde of shoppers realized how abstracted the slender white goddesses towering around them were. Do they aspire to be these freakish beings? Based on American Apparel’s ads, maybe so.

Not to worry: my moment of cultural awareness was soon replaced by post-cultural awareness. I wrote that Enema article in the aughts. When will American Apparel hoodies go out of style? I thought ironically. Cuz, you know, they’re actually so out that they’re back in.

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Forever 21, Disco balls

I was in Valley River Center today waiting for the next showing of Hugo to start when I realized it’s the busiest shopping day of the year. It was quite a blissful experience to drift through the crowds of Black Friday shoppers without the intention of buying anything. I was some sort of superhero or god, exempt from the toils of the common man. My eyes could turn away from the “30% OFF” signs and focus on art……

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……..

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…or something like it.

I scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering if anyone else knew that a giant string of elf puke seemed to be hanging over our heads. Was there any level of awareness that a tacky disco ball was dangling by a thin polyester thread, just waiting to fall and crush the Hickory Farms booth?

All I saw were blank stares, which made me even more nervous and desperate. Was there any good art to be found? Surely Macy’s would have something spectacular.

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Macy’s, Crab-infested tree

Alas, no.

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While I was taking a picture of this abstract decoration that seems to be re-enforcing America’s obsession with weight loss (it’s never too early to start selling post-holiday resolution jeans), the attendant at the jewelry counter broke the general zombie vibe and talked to me.

“Do you like that?” she asked, staring up at the decoration as though she’d never seen it before.

“No,” I said. “Do you know of any other awful decorations around here?”

“Well, there’s Forever 21,” she said, giving a look to another sales associate, who nodded solemnly. “There’s always one mannequin doing something totally nast.”

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Forever 21, hoochie mannequin

….And that’s an experience you can get year-round.

Anyway, I’m calling for change. Big, consequential, capitalized Change of the Obama (of 2008) variety. Join this Facebook group I just passionately created called TEAR DOWN TACKY MALL DECORATIONS and viva la revolucion!

P.S. Next time you’re at the mall, spit on some fake flowers and also go see Hugo. It’s really pretty great.

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See’s Candies hollow milk chocolate turkey

Just before Thanksgiving dinner starts each year, my mother dashes around placing chocolate turkeys next to every plate. It’s a small enough tradition that I usually forget about it until a sweet sentinel is suddenly sitting before me, watching over my mashed potatoes while it awaits its fate.

This year, I spent a large portion of dinner wondering how See’s Candies designed the chocolate turkey wrapper. Lest you accuse me of ignoring my dear family, consider that they spent a large portion of dinner chastising a feisty canine we’re dog sitting. Don’t trust people when they say their dog is well-behaved, especially when they have a deadline to get outta town.

How do you design a flat piece of foil to wrap around a 3-D object and make it look like a cute little turkey? Maybe it has to do with computer programs or something, but I like to imagine Charles See sitting in his 1920’s chocolate shop, wrapping hundreds of turkeys with different drafts of the foil sheet. That year, Charles and Florence had a whole flock of defective chocolate turkeys on their Thanksgiving table.

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After dinner, I carefully peeled off my turkey’s wrapper and smoothed it out like a treasure map. The flattened foil showed a laced together double image, like some sort of crude cubist composition.

It also reminded me a bit of Rubin’s Vase, the optical illusion that shows two faces. if only the turkey’s breast formed a clever image that could only been seen when flattened.

“You ask too much!” says Charles. “Just shed up and eat yer chocolate.”

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Matthew Knight Arena

For the first time ever in Eugene, I was feeling dwarfed by a building. The corridors around Matt Knight Arena are just so big, and its inner bowl leans out at a precarious angle that lends the whole scene an unsettling kinetic energy. Stalk-straight outer pillars cradle the tilting inner walls with a massive, palpable inertia.

It reminds me of the bizarrely curved pillars, floors and ceiling of the Pantheon, which was built that way to trick the eye into seeing the temple as perfect from afar. Okay, maybe comparing Matt Court to a Greek architectural marvel is a bit of a stretch, but you have to take what you can get in a town of ugly mod buildings.

I was in the arena to see the UO women’s basketball game, or at least that’s what the lady who scanned my ID card at the door seemed to think. She showed me a map of the seating, which I completely ignored.

“Is there any art in here?” I asked.

“Well, there are these photographs,” she said, pointing to enormous billboards featuring basketball players that hang from the outer walls. “But there’s nothing like a sculpture or anything.”

I was hugely disappointed. Here was the temple, but where were the statues glorifying its gods?

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On the other side of the stadium, about a mile away, I found them… in the windows of the gift shop. You might scoff, but I was joyfully surprised by my discovery. I don’t know what I expected to find, but I certainly didn’t think I’d bump into mannequins that might as well have been passed down from the souvenir shops of ancient Greece.

Their skin was white as Mediterranean marble, but it was the statues’ expressions that really made the Greek connection. Here was the perfect example of ethos, the ancient Greek artist’s exploration of the mind. Whether they’re standing stoically or hanging in the middle of a running stride, the figures stare thoughtfully at their reflections in the glass, lost in their own worlds. It was enough to remind me of the Kritios boy.

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And then there’s this Atlas figure whose muscles tense as he loses himself in a deep analysis of his basketball. Can you see a little bit of Hermes and Dionysus?

It was more than I ever could have asked for from Matt Court, but I do wish I’d seen a little more pathos– expressions of emotional struggle or suffering- in some of the statues’ faces. As I exited the arena, I found a curious inscription on the wall that put an enticing crack in the carefully crafted, godly image of the UO athlete.

“WE ARE TALL FIRE, WE ARE DAISY DUCKS, WE ARE THE PIT CREW AND KAMIKAZE KIDS, WE ARE DERANGED IDIOTS, WE ARE SLIM, THE LONE RANGERS AND THE BULLDOGS, WE ARE FOUNDERS, WE ARE A TRIBE THAT BLEEDS GREEN AND YELLOW,” it read.

No wonder these figures have lots of deep thoughts to think- what an identity crisis!