Classic trilobite: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

[Originally posted September 21st, 2008.  Hat tip to Jeska Corena for quoting the post.]

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:



Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.
I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".





But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?


No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.


And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).


Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.


Ponder it slowly.


Be unafraid to find it shallow.


Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"


Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.


And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.


[Comments on original post here.]
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New Painting: The Last Refuge

At ScienceOnline'09, a few minutes after arriving and meeting Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News (and Miriam and Southern Fried and Karen James - I was barely there two minutes and all these cool bloggers were talking out loud), Kevin pitched an idea for a painting he wanted to give as a gift.

He found the occasion, and commissioned the painting. He also came up with a great title: The Last Refuge.

I should have a "making of" up over the next couple of days. In the meantime, head over to Deep Sea News and see the emotional and personal investment Kevin has wrapped up in the gesture of giving art in awe of science.

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I felt like I was taking a real chance with the halo and beams of light.
But it was so
Symbolist, and so perfect for finding creatures long
thought gone, huddled in the dark around stygian heat...

Ethics of blogging university papers?

Ever since Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock wondered where all the good art historian blogs are, I've thought about sharing some of my own interpretations and analysis of art history.

Some papers I wrote in university may make for some interesting discussion and hopefully illumination; but is it ethical? I can remember the university held onto copies of the students' work so they could check future papers against plagiarism, but is there some ownership over these papers by the universities?

I put the question to Twitter last night, and thereby to Facebook. Tweet:
Anyone know an ethical reason not to use my old university essays as blog posts? Property of the university or my brain?

So far, I've received about a dozen responses, most clearly of the opinion that my brain owns the words, and as cautioned, to be sure to include citations. I thought I'd open the discussion up here on the blog for longer comments than 140 characters allow.

And if I do start posting portions or a series based on older essays - anyone interested in representations of the mysterious centres of thought in fin-de-siecle Symbolist painting?

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Art Monday: tangling some blue

Last week I was tagged by Mike of Tangled Up In Blue Guy with a blogging meme. So can I out-blue the Blue Guy?

Here are the rules:
  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. Post the rules on your blog.
  3. Write six random arbitrary things about yourself.
  4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
  5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.
Keeping a blue theme in mind, I'm going to change the rules a bit. I'll talk about my associations with colour, and things I often teach about pigments. Here we go.

Phthalocyanine Blue: Throughout university, this blue appealed to me. It has a green undertone which made it feel dirtier and more like a blue you'd encounter in a mysterious forest. Painting pale flesh tones was daunting early on, so I'd paint them in blue tones. Gradually I warmed up to greens with naples yellow, and then red with naples yellow. But blue was a safe place to start, so far removed from human pigment.

French Ultramarine: I'm going to say this out loud on the internet, and it's a scandal. I'm more nervous about admitting this to Mike than announcing to the world I'm an atheist. I hope we will still be friends. Mike's blog is named Tangled Up in Blue Guy after a song by Bob Dylan. I can't stand Bob Dylan. Oh, I'm not ashamed of this. Bob Dylan drives me nuts. No redeeming value to his music to my ears. This shouldn't be a surprise with what I've mentioned about music in the past. Mike, do I still have a free pass to comment on your blog? Or has it been revoked?

Mauve (blue shade): The Symbolist era of painting in the "Mauve 1890's" is the era I feel the strongest affinity to, though it is almost the antithesis of what I paint. Much of the fin-de-siecle angst was about harkening back to an earlier period of art, literature and myth. Fear of modernisation and industrialisation drive much of the subjects of art at this time. The Impressionist movement was largely ignored by artists I see as heroes, such as Redon, Deville, Moreau, and (my favourite) Khnopff. Instead they painted Salome with the head of John the Baptist, sphinxes and chimaeras, tombs and beautiful Mannerist-style bodies. I love the Symbolist aesthetic, but I am an artist in awe of science when it comes to my subject matter.

Indanthrene Blue: When walking my dog in a wooded park, sometimes we'd stop and I'd lie on my black and stare up at a deep blue autumn sky. And just try to absorb all - that - blue. Beautiful scattered light blue.

Cobalt Rose: Cobalt is an expensive, mildly toxic, strong tinting, long-lasting (we're talking centuries) blue pigment. And it reminds me of Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, there are a type of goblin called kobolds. And the pigment is named after them, for the difficulty of mining it and for its poisonous nature.

Cerulean Blue: Go to an art gallery, and take a look at the religious paintings. (Go ahead, you can be an atheist and think they're beautiful, it's fine. Think of the talented humans who created them and be in awe.) You may notice that the virgin Mary is often wearing bright blue. No doubt some twisty theological logic may explain this. There's also a simpler economic reason.

Blues described as 'caeruleum' were quite expensive in medieval and Renaissance times. A patron would send the artist to the apothecary to purchase a certain amount of expensive pigments to pridefully show-off their piety. Who to paint in expensive colours? The most important person in the painting would be Jesus Christ. But he was mainly depicted as an infant or semi-nude in crucifixtio
n scenes.

So the expensive paint would adorn Jesus's mother, Mary. So you know. Praise blue.

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Time to meme-tag. I tag Bond's Blog, Of Two Minds, Laelaps, The Darkened Face of Heaven, Eastern Blot, and The Evilutionary Biologist.

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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.
Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

Artwork Mondays: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:

Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.

I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".



But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?

No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.

And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).

Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.

Ponder it slowly.

Be unafraid to find it shallow.

Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"

Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.

And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.

- - -
All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Please visit my blog, gallery and reproduction store.

Artwork Mondays: Trilobite Souls Ascending

In keeping with last week's Symbolist-inspired Artwork Monday, (and due to an exciting and pressing illustration for someone I admire), here is another drawing from many moons ago, slightly post-university.

Trilobite Souls Ascending

Again like last week, a confused muddle.

The trilobites each have one glowing human eye and eyelid floating above their wee heads. The eye is rolled upward, half-under the eyelid in Symbolist-era shorthand for "gazing inward". Being in a half-awake, half-alive state was big for Symbolists, though I'm sure the opium and absinthe had nothing to do with it, it was simply dismay at industrialisation and a sense of macabre romance.
Sadly, these are not very scientifically accurate. Please Marek, don't throw any pointy odontopleurida at me. They prickle. I was young and naive when I drew this. Everyone please feel free to have a look at some other trilobites I've worked on by clicking on this handy link rrrrright---> here.

Next week: something a little more current. (Oh...oh...current! Like the water in this drawing? Like trilobites are old? KnowwhutImean? 'Ey? )

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Artwork Mondays: Salome + the Head of Extinction

For this Artwork Monday, I'd like to show an older concept drawing from the heady university days I spent enthralled with Symbolist Art.

For a while I played with compositional elements from works and themes of favoured by the Symbolists and other mopey fin-de-siecle proto-goth artists, and attempted to add a pantheon of science-based creations. Lord Extinction was one such attempt, I wanted a monstrous figure who ate species and D.N.A. and in my second post here on The Flying Trilobite, I showed his first drawing, also seen here in miniature, in Lord Extinction Yawns, (right).

I drew the Lord Extinction character again, this time aiming to mimic the popular Salome-and-head-of-John-the-Baptist theme. Here is Salome + the Head of Extinction.

Okay, deep breath. I am actually showing this one online.

I look back on this piece as a major muddle. It had one of the figures of the Candle-Women that appear in my work every so often in the role of Salome. I attempted a bit of gothy clothing with the fishnets, a a strange (in my head, witchy) crescent moon sickle. There's a little trilobite helping her out for revenge, perhaps for its brethren that escaped Extinction's maw in the previous drawing. The Candle-Women originally started out as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) statues, and evolved into candle-headed enigmas.

This was in a confused stage of my life, coming out of non-organised, egotistical Pagan-ish beliefs, and re-focusing on the scientific past that had enamoured me as a child.

I'm showing this piece because for me, the confusion is all there. Extinct creatures. Original characters from my imagination. Muddled religion and paganism. An artwork style of the past that I desperately tried to inject with originality. Gothy fashion just standing there irrelevantly. Ahh, university!

For me like many people, it was a time of figuring myself out. I'd like to think that journey hasn't ended, and in another 10 years, will I look back at a simple drawing and see so many echoes of my past exposed in graphite?

I thought the line work was pretty decent, though it may not survive jpeg compression. Recently I revamped the Dimetrodon-Sphinx from the corner of Lord Extinction Yawns; perhaps Lord Extinction will one day rear his magnificently ugly head as well.

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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.

Artwork Mondays: Revamping the Past

The poll is closed, and so I will be posting artwork now every Monday. (And for the couple of people who voted for bunnies, over the next few weeks, I'll have something special for you. Wink, wink!)

The artwork I post on Mondays will likely be a mix of sketches, past artwork revisited, and new works-in-progress. Time can lend new dimensions to pieces, and this is something worth discussing as well. Perhaps we can do a critique now and again, where I step aside for some initial comments from you, the viewers.

To start the artsy Mondays off, I thought I'd revamp an older drawing. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll share some updates on this piece of art. Here's the original drawing, a detail from my 1997 drawing, Lord Extinction Yawns:
I've tinted it blue here, but it's actually plain ol' graphite of the HB persuasion.

Back in 1997, I was in University studying Fine Art and was drawn more and more to the fin-de-siecle, The Symbolist period of the 1890's. To give an idea of that period to people unfamiliar with it (but by no means a thorough explanation), the Symbolists were the artists still in love with the past. While the Impressionists made great strides in optics and colour, innovating new ways to paint, the Symbolists clung to classical and Renaissance ideals. Symbolist work was often very realistic, and illustrated incidents from classical Greek and Roman mythology and Biblical stories. A general feeling was the the Symbolists were afraid of the end of their century, and of the dawning Industrialism heading into the last century of the millennium.

Their fear of the future was not what fascinated me, although I often wondered if all the "x-treme" sports in the late 1990's were tied to a similar feeling of being afraid of tomorrow. In particular all the peculiar beasts such as the Sphinx-Muse in Fernand Khnopff's brilliant The Caress fascinated me. Here were images from the old myths, newly informed by realistic illustrations of cheetahs, anemones, and New World parrots. Part-human, part-other creatures have drawn the eye since artists first started synthesizing the beasts.

Post-university, I still find a major portion of my work influenced by depicting part-humans with something earlier from Earth's biodiversity-parade. Why not the Permian? The Cambrian? How will we see ourselves anew, in the light of beasts we have no historical symbols invested into?

The woman above is a Sphinx, but not part-human, part-lion. At the time I modelled her after a dimetrodon instead of a lion. An apex predator fittingly older than the Sphinx itself.

And so I thought I'd see where I am, just over ten years' removed from that drawing. Here is a preliminary sketch of the new drawing I will produce in my spare time over the next few Artwork Mondays:

Hmm. This pose is a little too side-on, although I'm fond of the shoulder. Perhaps I'll have our Dimetrodon-Sphinx looking over her shoulder at us. Dark and predatory.

This sketch is out of my head, with a look at a photo to get the back and shoulder right. To begin, I'll use some photo reference, a model, and my trusty .3mm mechanical pencil. Trusty being a relative term; I love the .3mm, but it always jams like a reluctant hyperdrive when I need it for the delicate stuff.

I'm not sure where this piece will lead. Painting? Coloured-drawing? Love the concept, dislike the execution? Hate it and find it derivative? Please voice your opinion, throw tomatoes or inflate my ego by leaving comments. And thank you once again for those who voted in the poll.

Welcome to The Flying Trilobite's Artwork Mondays!
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Trilobite Tree

I have always loved drawing trees, mainly leafless as in winter, with their ever-shrinking sizes of branch. A few times in the past, I have used a tree to outline a silhouette. I drew this trilobite shape in the branches as a challenge to myself when I was inaugerating a new Moleskine sketchbook I had bought.

It is loosely based on Elrathia, as many of my drawings are. I have some affection for that species. I think they look the most recognisable and iconic, if you will, of the trilobite types. I also have a wee one inset in a ring my wife gave me one Valentine's Day. I always try and remember to draw 13 pleurae, though in this tree, those were blown off in a windstorm.
(That's my story...they blew right off-panel, so don't bother looking. The branches crushed someone's SUV, too.)

The moon is an enrolled trilobite, as the head evokes that crescent shape, and because I love it, there is an eye in the knot of the tree, a Symbolist influence. I drew this with an HB .3mm lead and copious use of a kneadable eraser, since they don't leave those annoying eraser bits. The mushroom is not there to suggest anything, it's just for atmosphere, much like the grass. (Hmmm...that last statement didn't come out too well.) Years ago, in my University days, one of my fellow students kept insisting I had to be taking drugs to come up with my imagery. I hadn't, and still don't (I don't even drink alcohol, I just have lots of coffee) and since then this has been a personal badge of honour. My artwork may look like I'm on drugs, but I'm getting by on my own ideas and hard work.