CatSynth Pic: Cat Playing the Organ

Cat playing organ

Cat playing the organ [Walters, W. 438, 15th c.].  Posted by Damien Kempf on Twitter and spotted by astute reader @endlessscribe.

The image comes from a 15th century prayer book in the collection of the Walters Museum based in Baltimore.  From the museum’s digital library:

This late fifteenth-century Prayer Book was made for the Use of Rome and illuminated by followers of Willem Vrelant of Bruges. The manuscript was probably created for the couple depicted in two full-page miniatures (fols. 13v and 103r). The representation of the bride in the full-page miniatures, as well as references to her in suppliant prayers, indicates that the manuscript was commissioned primarily for the bride’s use. Further evidence of this is the prominence of women throughout the illuminations and drolleries, from one who was caught in adultery being brought before Christ, to Veronica extending her veil to Christ as he carries the cross. The decorative aspects of the manuscript stray from the typical border designs of this time period, focusing more on illusionistic Ghent-Bruges’ illumination (post-1475) and less on the Vrelant acanthus-floral borders. Among the number of full-page miniatures, fol. 229v stands out as an exceptional example of an imitation of a late fifteenth-century panel painting.

Interestingly, I did not see the cat among the includes samples.



APAture 2017 Book Arts Showcase

Today we look back at last weekend’s APAture Book Arts Showcase, hosted by Kearny Street Workshop. You can see a bit of the event, and three of the artists, in our companion video on CatSynth TV.

In the video, we see a reading by featured artist Innosanto Nagara of his recent book A Night at the Planetarium, which introduces readers to the culture and history of Indonesia, and one particularly intense night under Indonesian military rule (while “the general” is clearly Suharto, he is not mentioned by name). It is partly a memoir of the author at a young age and relates the story of a crackdown on his father’s dissident plays. Nagara is although the author of the award-winning and quite delightful A is for Activist (we love the black cat on the cover).

Innosanto Nagara books

“Book Arts” covers quite a lot of territory in terms of discipline and media. There are formal, published books like Nagara’s, but also other print media like self-published zines. Mixed Rice Zines is the ongoing project of Jess Wu-O, and features voices that are often underrepresented, such as queer voices in the Asian American and mixed-race communities. One edition Queer Azn Musicians particularly spoke to me as a queer musician of South Asian descent.

The zines are self-published, as were many of the other pieces featured in the show. Bridge Ho presented these zines featuring her photography along with words by Michelle Velasquez-Potts. The published pieces are works of art, showing semi-abstract imagery on various printed materials including vellum.

Overall, however, most of the work in the show centered around illustration. Minnie Phan presented a variety of printed illustrations, including on cards, booklets, and her comic book They Call Us Viet Kieu, written after Phan visited Vietnam in 2013. You can hear her talk a bit about the experience in our CatSynth TV episode.

Minnie Phan

Similarly, we saw a variety of illustrated printed material from Cheez Hayama including these cat cards – each one is hand drawn and slightly different – and California activity book featuring our state bird.

Cheez Hayama

More traditional “comic books” were on display as well, including the Time Fiddler by Ellis Kim. The series, told as detailed and well drawn graphic novels, follows a young woman on an adventure through time travel, space, and romance. And of course, there is a cat.

And with books and graphic novels, we come full circle with This Asian American Life by Katie Quan, featuring the everyday adventures of an Asian-American protagonist. Parts of autobiographical from Quan’s experiences, but also includes shared experiences from friends as well as entirely imagined scenes.

Katie Quan - This Asian American Life

It was a well-attended show with many artists presenting – and selling – their work. We regret not being able to visit or include everyone. Congratulations to KSW and everyone involved on a great event.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities

Healing after a major medical procedure leaves one with quite a bit of time for reading. This was the case for me in July and August. Today we look at the first of a few books I completed during that time.

Herbie HancockPossibilities is Herbie Hancock’s autobiography released in late 2014, not long after I saw him accept his lifetime achievement award at the SFJAZZ gala. Like the gala event, the book attempts to weave together the earlier (and in my opinion best) work with his continuing to be vital and creative artist. It didn’t change my over all assessment of his music – I revere what he did in the 1970s with The Headhunters and Mwandishi as close to musical perfection, but shrug at what most of what he did in the 1980s through the end of the century (with notable exceptions like Rockit).

Throughout the book, Hancock and his co-writer Lisa Dickey weave together personal life with several different aspects of music – the music itself, the engineering, the business, and relationships. It is the mixture of all of these that makes for an interesting read, especially when placed in the context of the music. Hancock’s Buddhist practice permeates the entire story. One sees how it was a beneficial force for him personality and also affected his music, particularly with the open structure of Mwandishi and then in Head Hunters and Thrust. One of the fun anecdotes here was the naming of Actual Proof, and a discussion of how the piece got its confounding rhythm. The language is detailed enough that it gives me insight into the musical process – but not so overly technical that non-musicians should be able to get something from it as well.

He also goes into great detail about his dive into music technology through synthesizers; and his collaborations with engineers to push the instruments. I of course knew the story of the Fender Rhodes entering his music via Miles Davis; and the use of the Arp Odyssey in Head Hunters. I didn’t realize just how much he was involved in customizing the instruments for his live performances, taking advantage of his own electrical-engineering background and numerous long-time collaborations. I was particularly intrigued by the story of the vocoder (a Sennheiser VSM201) and prototype “keytar” featured in Sunlight. I also have seen that some of these sounds and elements are used by critics against him as “selling out” or some such thing. Such criticisms have long bothered me because it dismisses is best work, and the work I most love. Hancock himself seems unbothered by that and focuses on his need to explore new musical styles, ideas, and technologies – like Buddhism, this a theme that keeps recurring throughout the book. After delving into deep technical and musical detail about one song or one performance, he then simply moves on to the next.

The personal details are of course part of the story, but sometimes difficult to read. There is tragedy in his family. And he struggled at various times with drugs – the candid story about his being a closeted crack user in the 1990s was unexpected. But it is primarily the music and “story of the music” where my attention settled, and where I got the most from the book. It has in a way added to my enjoyment of the music.

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

We lost another of our art heroes yesterday. Ellsworth Kelly, known for his iconic works composed of color fields, passed away.

Luna with Ellsworth Kelly book

The above photo features the catalog from his large-scale solo show at SFMOMA in 2002-2003. The exhibition was a bright spot, both aesthetically and emotionally, in an otherwise depressing period of time and made quite an impression. I kept intersecting with his work during my numerous art adventures in California. His paintings featured large color fields, sometimes combined together into a single whole, while other times separated, as in Blue Green Black Red (1996) on display as part of the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA. I had the opportunity to see a large retrospective of his prints and paintings at LACMA in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This, too, was revelatory as it showed other aspects of his work, including black-and-white pieces and connections of his abstract style to nature.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]


It is still, however, the color fields that I most instantly recognized as his.

[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

Kelly himself resisted being described as “abstract” or “minimal” or any other label that intersected with his career.  But I think this statement quoted in the New York Times obituary describes his art very well, and is a fitting conclusion.

“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”


Stefan Kirkeby, Amy Ellingson and Book Release at Gallery 16

Back in January I attended the opening for an exhibition by Stefen Kirkeby and Amy Ellingson at Gallery 16 here in San Francisco. The work of both artists focused on prints and printmaking in its various forms. The show also served as the release party for the gallery’s 16th anniversary book.

Stefan Kirkeby’s photographs have a very minimal and geometric quality, and celebrate these elements in everyday architecture and infrastructure. The prints on display also featured a variety of techniques. Particularly interesting were the series of gravures along one wall. The gravures are made using copper plates to “etch” the image onto paper. In terms of subject, each of the photographs focused on a single geometric element. Up Lift (Venice, CA 2007) featured concentric round solids, while Boxed (also from Venice, CA) featured in square inset. There were also areal views of fields with rectangular patterns, some mechanical contraptions, and in Sun stones (Japan 2008) a large stone cube on tiles that remind me of the distinctive floor of . Perhaps the most striking was Dead Center (Arizona, 2000) which distills the view (looking up from the center of a power-line tower) into a symmetric and seemingly algorithmic arrangement of straight lines.

[Stefan Kirkeby. Dead Center. Image courtesy of Gallery 16. (Click to enlarge.)]

There was also a much larger scale version of Dead Center entitled Dead Dead Center. In addition to the scale and use of a different printing technique, the image was inverted (i.e., white on black). Both versions work well, and highlight the . The power lines are a rich source for Kirkeby, who also presented a series of closeups of the wires at various angles, with evocative titles. The close-ups and high contrast makes these very abstract and bring to mind some of the minimalist and industrial-inspired paintings of early 20th century. I think part of the attraction of the pieces involving regular shapes and straight lines is that they draw ones attention to elements in the real world that have the simplicity and calm of computer-generated or machine-generated object.

Also on display were prints by Amy Ellingson. We have seen and reviewed examples of Ellingson’s work at earlier exhibitions. The pieces in this exhibition all featured the same flattened oval shape that appeared prominently in her previous work, arranged in regular 3-by-3 grids. They serve as areas of contrasting color and texture between foreground and background, and sometimes as windows of sorts.

[Amy Ellingson, Unitited #5 (2011). Image courtesy of Gallery 16.]

In Inverse Title 11, the oval shapes have a light color and bright texture in contrast to the main black field, almost like cut-out areas. In a series of larger untitled works, the shapes are more like overlays against a translucent color field with soft textures, as in Unititled #5 (shown above).

This exhibition also marked the release of Gallery 16’s 16th anniversary book These Are The People In Your Neighborhood. As part of the event, several of the artists featured in the book were on hand for a group signing.

I did of course have to get a copy, with as many signatures as I could get during my brief time at the event.

[Click images to enlarge.]

The book is a mixture of writing and images documenting the many artists and events over the gallery’s history in San Francisco. It was initially located at 1616, 16th Street (in the Poterero Hill neighborhood) before moving to its current location in SOMA. Leafing through the book one can the emphasis on print and although there is a wide variety of styles, I did see a lot of works that represent my own interest in modernist and minimal art (as exemplified by this exhibition) and urban themes such as infrastructure or graffiti/cartoons.

Under The Paw

Last week I finished reading Tom Cox’s Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man.

Both the book and his blog The Little Cat Diaries chronicle his life as a “cat man.” There is undeniably a love of cats expressed in this book, but without being overly maudlin, or overly cuddly. The more frustrating or ridiculous moments of living with cats are not hidden. There are some very funny stories, some quite familiar to anyone who has lived with a cat, and also some very poignant and sad moments, such as the story of his youthful companion Monty. Between chapters, I often flipped back to the inside cover, which featured photos of each of the cats in his life, and comparing the images to the stories. Did the image of “The Bear” fit with his narrative, for example?

As a fellow “cat man” (I suppose there is no avoiding that label when you write a site about music and cats), there is certainly a lot in common, but also quite a contrast. While Tom Cox and his wife Dee live with six cats, there is only one cat here at CatSynth. Tom moved with his cats from London back to rural and small-town England, while I recently made the transition from a smaller coastal town to downtown San Francisco. One cat man has a passion for golf, another for modern art, photography and mathematics. But music is a common theme. And black cats (the Cox household boasts three black felines).

I found myself reading Under the Paw while getting some maintenance on my car in one of the outer neighborhoods of the city. A man came in with a large but friendly dog who did what large but friendly dogs are wont to do, namely try to become best friends with everyone sitting and waiting and systematically being told that they had a “burnt out headlight that needed to be replaced.” (What are the chances that three cars in a row would all have burnt out headlights?) After the man asked if I wasn’t fond of dogs, I showed him the cover of the book I was reading. “Hmmm, Confessions of a Cat Man…”, he mused. There was no accusation in his voice, just curiosity, and it turned into brief but friendly conversation between two people on opposite sides of the “pet divide.” Actually, the conversation was mostly just my describing the book, which I highly recommend…

In the shadow of the bridge

When nothing else is happening on a quiet weekend afternoon, I will often go for a walk through our neighborhood, South of Market (SOMA) and South Beach. Our neighborhood is in many ways more like New York than the rest of San Francisco, with its old industrial buildings, dilapidated piers on the waterfront, and new condo developments. But perhaps that adds to the sense of familiarity, and of “home”, amidst the concrete.

Our walk usually begins on Townsend Street, heading east towards the waterfront. This area is dominated by AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. But while crowds head towards the stadium in the summer, we often head in the opposite direction. There is a little park at the end of Townsend along the Embarcadero, where I often see older Eastern European folks. Across the park is the cul-de-sac that marks the end of Delancy Street, a name reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Here I often stop at a small cafe – it has a large garden that can be enjoyed on its own or for the glimpses of the bay it affords.

There are some books I only seem to read when I’m out at places like this, rather than at home. One such book is The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption. I will stop and read a chapter while enjoying a coffee and the views. Though sometimes I opt for one of our free weekly papers instead. I like the idea of being contrary, reading esoteric books while a major sporting event is going on nearby. But in a large, cosmopolitan city, there are always people doing their own thing. One is never really alone.

Beyond the cafe is the southern portion of the Embarcadero, which contains glimpses of a seedy and crumbling past while being revitalized with the stadium and frenzied development.

Heading south along the Embarcadero, one approaches the Bay Bridge. Commercial buildings, as well as residential complexes, have sprung up in its shadow. I enjoy seeing these buildings fit comfortably beneath the bridge:

Some of them have appear older, more reminiscent of the 1970s or even earlier, while huge new high rises are going up all around them.

I then often turn back inward from the waterfront on Bryant Street. This is generally a wide street that crosses SOMA and the Mission District, but here it is a narrow alley between the steep approaches to the Bay Bridge and a residential block.

Again, the feeling is more of a residential section of New York, perhaps Riverdale in the Bronx, or the Upper West Side. Of course, the fact that this block interests Delancy Street adds to this impression.

Longtime residents and admirers of San Francisco often look down upon this area, but I find it a comforting place to walk and explore. Certainly, there is familiarity coming from New York, which has always defined “city” for me. And perhaps the sense that I am finally living the city life that I should have done long ago – I am finally home.

The narrow streets and tall buildings abut the hill and the approach to the bridge, with a complex array of staircases and ramps. I often find an excuse to climb at least one, such as this that connects the lower alley section of Bryant Street to the main section that begins on top of the hill.

At the top, one is amazingly close to the freeway and byzantine ramps that feed onto the bridge:

Heading back down the hill towards the west, one can take a detour through South Park, which has nothing to do with the popular cartoon. Instead, it is a small park surrounded by two-story residences that feels more like a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although it is not far from the this section of freeway we featured a few weeks ago, such things seem invisible and far away. But step outside this oasis, and one is back in the “concrete jungle” and the streets that lead home.