Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Jamie Wyeth doesn't have a clue what it's like not to be immersed in art. He grew up in the studio of his father, Andrew Wyeth, one of the artists whose work defined 20th century American art, which itself lay in the shadow of another legendary studio, that of his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth. Even so, the credit for his own artistic stature belongs to him alone. Of course his famous family made possible his early professional success, but even as a teenager his technical skills were immense, and to the most casual observer it's obvious that his work is the result of a lifetime of serious toil.

So it was a privilege for me to attend last night's opening of his new exhibition, “Seven Deadly Sins,” where he dressed up that tired old Catholic concept in gull's garb. Living in coastal Maine, Wyeth has drawn and painted gulls all his life, and it shows. Each piece (the exhibition consists entirely of gull portraiture in mixed media) is drafted and painted with supreme confidence. Seven of them form the base of the show—each one representing one of the famed sins: Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Sloth, Greed and Pride. These are painted on handmade paper and floated upon a slightly larger sheet painted with fluorescent lobster-trap buoy paints, effectively rimming each image with a harsh suggestion of hellfire. Seven more gull portraits complement the show, and a large corrugated cardboard piece, Inferno, anchors the whole in place.
In a formal discussion with curator Michael Komanecky last night, Wyeth spoke of the conception of his idea, watching gulls and imagining these medieval principles reflected in their behavior. He described them as “nasty” birds, saying, “they're not doves!” (Of course, doves are not doves, either.) This is where my problems with the exhibition lay, and I couldn't help regard it with the eyes of a naturalist along with those of an artist. The anachronistic list of seven sins is a silly and useless tool for humans, not to mention other vertebrates. Gandhi updated the list with his own, more sophisticated version:

-Wealth without Work
-Pleasure without Conscience
-Science without Humanity
-Knowledge without Character
-Politics without Principle
-Commerce without Morality
-Worship without Sacrifice

Better for people, but try to characterize these principles using gull portraits.

There's a long tradition in western thought, beginning with the expulsion from paradise, that nature is something base, to be overcome--that we should yearn for a system where “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” As the “War on Terrorism” creates an international terrorist movement, this “red in tooth and claw” view of a corrupt natural world is corrupting the natural world, and by overlaying his beautiful exhibition with this philosophically lightweight theme, Wyeth undermined the whole to a regrettable degree. Of course, none of the seven sins are sinful in themselves*, only in certain contexts, and the only way to find “sin” outside of human culture is by such lowest-common-denominator reduction.

That said, the paintings are wonderful, and should be seen. The show runs through May 22nd at the Salt Salt Lake Art Center. Admission is free, and a decent, reasonably-priced catalog of the show is available.

*(well, maybe greed)
upper: GREED (2008) by Jamie Wyeth, mixed media on handmade paper 34.5" x 24.5"
lower: photo of Michael Komanecky and Jamie Wyeth by CPBvK

Friday, January 22, 2010


Here's my last time-lapse clip for a while. This one's a vertically-oriented diptych. Each panel depicts a different viewpoint of the same event, and illustrates some of the common evasive strategies employed by frogs. The Brilliant Forest Frog (Rana warszewitschii) inhabits rain forests from Honduras to Panama. When resting upon leaf litter, its drab dorsal colors are cryptic, but bright yellow spots on its thighs flash when it leaps, and a glimpse of its brilliant underside is even more likely to startle and confuse a predator. Upon disappearing beneath the water's surface, it usually follows a wild, zig-zag course, ending up some distance from where the naïve viewer might anticipate. This painting's antagonist, the Agami Heron (Agamia agami), ranges through most of Tropical America, but does not occur in great numbers anywhere and is infrequently seen. Long of neck and short of leg, it haunts streams within heavy forests and feeds upon small fish and amphibians. Incidental subjects in this painting include a water strider (Gerris sp.), damsel fly naiads (family Coenagrinionidae) and a White-necked Puffbird (Notharchus macrorhynchus).

Monday, January 18, 2010


I've never been much for handing petitions around; in general it's not a very effective way of solving problems. I'm making an exception today, though.

I've blogged more than once about the herbicide Atrazine, 80 million pounds of which are applied in the US each year. It is the commonest chemical pollutant in ground and surface water, where it can persist for over fifteen years. A powerful endocrine disruptor, it feminizes and sterilizes frogs and other wildlife and reduces immune function. It has been shown to cause prostate and breast cancer in laboratory rodents, and studies suggest it poses similar threats to humans. In the US, Atrazine is mostly used on corn, less than 2% of which is used for human consumption. Most studies have shown Atrazine to increase corn yields by 0-2%.
The EPA is currently reviewing their policies on Atrazine. The last such review, in 2003, included over 50 closed-door meetings with Syngenta, Atrazine's manufacturer. Please take a moment to click this link, read and sign this petition to join with US farmers calling on EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to hold a fair and open review that represents the interests of American farmers and families – not Syngenta.
illustration: RIPARIAN RASHOMON--AGAMI HERON & BRILLIANT FOREST FROG (2009) acrylic diptych 15" x 20"; 15" x 20"

Here's the whole series of holiday cards I started back in '89. It's all over now -- from here on out I'll have to depend on Hallmark.