An Independence Day post

In addition to fireworks, barbecues and the occasional embarrassing musical tribute, Independence Day is an opportunity to reflect on living in one of the world’s most unusual countries, even as it sometimes tries to pretend that it is a normal country. The latter comes out the imagery one sees today, with celebrations and streets lined with flags, and people and places that we try to think of as representative of the term “American”. Here I look some images and ideas from my personal and family history that are part of “American” that most readers, both in the U.S. and beyond, would not usually associate with the typical 4th of July.

You likely will not see the tenement buildings of New York’s Lower East Side, where half of my ancestors, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe (primarily Austria as well as Russia) settled at the beginning of the 20th century.

My mother’s family later settled in the central part of the Bronx – richly vital neighborhoods at the time that would later be synonymous with controversial building and demolition projects (think of the Cross Bronx Expressway) and still later with urban blight and decay.

It’s even less likely that you will see the countryside of Uttar Pradesh in India, with the other half of my ancestors came from.

My father from this part of India came to study in Minnesota, and numerous other relatives have settled in various towns and suburbs arounds the U.S over the years. Indeed, the equivalent image to the New York City tenement builds for the Indian side of my family might as well be the New Jersey Turnpike, another image you are unlikely to see in today’s celebrations, but is quintessentially American.

These are the states that I can think of immediately where relatives either currently reside or did so in the recent past:

New York
New Jersey
District of Columbia (Washington, DC)

The Hawaii story is fun, actually. As it was related to me by a friend and former colleague who is from Hawai’i, he was playing with his band and a middle-aged man from New York approached them – ultimately, this led to his reciting his somewhat edgy poetry with their music in the background. It turns out that the poet is my cousin – our names are quite different, so there is no way my friend would have made the connection if I had not told him (the surprised reaction was priceless).

The family story is really a complex interplay not only of ancestral origins which get much of the attention, but of class, religious practice, geographical preferences, and the changes people experience even within a single lifetime. This complexity is another feature of American culture and history that is often hidden from our usual imagery – even the positive imagery that celebrates diversity, immigration and multiculturalism leaves out the complexity. And it is hard to think of life here without it – the idea of a homogeneous heritage in a single hometown with people who look and sound like each other seems…well, foreign.

So where does that leave things for me, now, in this story? Well, it’s complex as well. I find myself coming full circle to my Jewish ancestors in the Lower East Side – perhaps I may even live there sometime in the future. Some of my most experimental music pieces include instruments and idioms from Indian music. Some things have little to do with my ancestry, jazz which I have been returning to in the last year as a musical practice, the bits of East Asian culture I picked in both Asia and California, are all part of the mix. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I might find myself in Hawai’i sometime doing improvised music and poetry. And like others, I am figuring out how to take all of these things make something of it in what seem to be rather challenging times. In the end, there is no conclusion, on the personal, family or national narratives – and it seems appropriate that way.

Wordless Wednesday: 7643 (New York, Late Autumn)

Maira Kalman, Contemporary Jewish Museum

Today we visit another local exhibition that will be closing soon, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. In addition to seeing the exhibition itself, I also attended the opening in July.

Kalman is perhaps best known for her many covers for The New Yorker magazine, as well as her illustrated blog for The New York Times. Indeed, looking at her many illustrations on paper in the exhibit, one of the first things that comes to mind is “these look like New Yorker covers”, both in the style of the illustrations and the satire of life and people in New York.

[Maira Kalman, New York, Grand Central Station, 1999, gouache and ink on paper. 15 3/8 x 22 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.]

[Maira Kalman, Crosstown Boogie Woogie, 1995, gouache on paper, 15 3/8 x 11 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York. (Click to enlarge)]

These particular illustrations depict the life and people in New York’s transit, subways, commuter trains and such, and so have a particular resonance for me.  I did specifically recognize a few from The New Yorker, including the infamous “New Yorkistan” map, which renames various New York City neighborhoods:

[Maira Kalman, New York, Grand Central Station, 1999, gouache and ink on paper. 15 3/8 x 22 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York. (Click to enlarge)]

Many of the names in the map play on inside jokes about the stereotypical residents of boroughs or specific neighborhoods, rather than on the actual names themselves. I would have liked to see “Tribecastan”, as the name seems like it could in fact be from central Asia.

[Maira Kalman, Woman with Face Net, 2000, gouache on paper, 17 x 14 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.]

The above work, Woman with Face Net, is the iconic work from the exhibit, and on opening night many of the female staff and volunteers at the museum wore similar hair nets as a tribute. It is interesting how the image uses the combination of red and black, which for me personally is quite powerful, especially in the context of female fashion and dress.

In addition to the works on paper for publication, the exhibition presented some of Kalman’s text and installations, which feature numerous household objects. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of this set of objects with the caption in the background. It was not clear of this combination was the work of the artist herself, or of the curators.

[Installation detail. Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. (Click to enlarge)]

There were also some older pieces from her long career, including this “remix” of former U.S. Presidents with new hairstyles.

[Maira Kalman, Presidents, 1978, graphite, ink, correction fluid, and paper collage on vellum, taped to board. 12 5/8 x 11 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.]

Patriotic themes, at once both genuine and satirical, were a common theme among many of her works, and is the theme of one of her blogs at The New York Times, along with the scenes of life in New York. There are also scenes of her childhood in Israel – one image of a young girl in front of a Bauhaus building Tel Aviv was perhaps my favorite in the entire exhibition. She definitely has a soft spot for dogs, especially her dog Pete, who is presented very affectionately in many of the illustrations. Others were more abstract, still life of individual objects, or figures taken out of any environmental context. I did like this page of individual sketches that reduced many of the themes to icon form. Although her drawing style is quite different, it made me think of the William Leavitt exhibit I saw earlier this year.

[Maira Kalman, Endpaper (What Pete Ate), 2001, gouache on paper. 14 7/8 x 22 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York. (Click to enlarge)]

I also had the opportunity to attend a live discussion with Maira Kalman on the night of the opening. Above all, I recall her being quite funny – not surprising given her illustrations, but she specifically had that dry sense of humor I tend to appreciate. As a blogger, I did note how she described the medium with a bit of derision, even while she had embraced it. At the same time, she displayed a very sentimental side, when talking about her dogs, and her late husband Tibor Kalman. And her recommendations on how to pack lightly for traveling were simultaneously practical and romantic – something to keep in mind for future trips abroad.

One interesting question that arose during was whether this could be considered a “Jewish exhibition”. While not originally conceived as such, it has taken on that identity in part because of the institutions where it being presented. After leaving the CJM, it be at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, and then at the Jewish Museum in New York. There is rarely a satisfactory way to answer a question like that, whether the heritage in question is Jewish or anything else. For example, similar questions arose for Stella Zhang’s 0 Viewpoint about whether it was “Chinese art”.

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) will still be open at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until October 26.

Bruckner Interchange

Traveling between my family's home in Westchester and the major airports in Queens often requires passing through the massive Bruckner Interchange. This rather impressive interchange in the Bronx connects the Hutchinson River Parkway (aka “the Hutch”), the infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway (I-95 and I-295), the Bruckner Expressway (I-278 and I-95) and I-678 (The Van Wyck Expressway) to JFK Airport.

One does not usually associate New York with massive freeways like those here in California – but remember that New York is the largest city in the U.S. and the traffic has to go somewhere. Much if it is carried on large aging freeways in the outer boroughs, such as the Bronx.

There isn't really much of a “statement” here – I just think large highway interchanges are cool. However, I do recommend for those interested reading up on the rather harsh history of highways in New York, most notably the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the never built Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Thoughts on animal-abuse tragedy in Tampa…and police shooting in New York

At about the same time I found that last article on cats from Lebanon in Ohio, I came across this horrific story of animal cruelty from Tampa. One of the victims is in the photo to the right. The details of this case are pretty bad, and many of this forum's cat-loving readers would do best not to read the original articles. As for me, once I find out about something like this I feel compelled to “bear witness” painful as it may be, read follow-up reports and hope that some sort of justice or good comes out of it.
Indeed, one of my main motivations for posting is to expose the sick excuse for a human who allegedly committed these acts of cruelty. Apparently, he just doesn't like cats and was mad that they would sometimes climb onto his car. As a cat lover, it is hard to comprehend the level of anger/hatred he must have felt towards them, but even so there is no excuse for his cruel executions of these helpless creatures :(. He has confessed to the killings, and has been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty, carrying a maximum five-year sentence. I will respect the justice system and not pass sentence on him myself, though many participants in a local online forum have their own creative punishments in mind. It is somewhat satisfying to see a unified front of anger and revulsion, with not one person coming to his defense.

Apparently, this guy took shots at a police helicopter not so long before this incident. That's pretty serious, one wonders why he wasn't already in jail. Indeed, why didn't he end up riddled with bullets? Certainly, that would have saved the cats whose lives seem more worthwhile. But it also raises some interesting questions in light of the recent police shooting in New York – I was actually still in New York for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when it happened. The cases are of course quite different, but nonetheless I think they are worth comparing. In one situation we have 50 shots fired at three unarmed men who apparently struck an undercover police van – one of the men was killed, on the day of his wedding. In the other case, we have a man very openly taking shots at a police helicopter, and not only escaping the incident unhurt but free to kill three cats days later. Is it just the different locations and circumstances? Is it that black men are invariably more likely to be treated as threats and shot than sick white trash with a known record of cruelty and violience?

I intend to follow both of these cases to see what happens…