Art & Politics: An Introduction

Periodically, things go the rounds on social media, promising to break up the monotony of our dinners, or bad dates, or, now, our political postings, with art and music! Because who doesn’t want to see art and music in their timeline, amirite?! I mean, how could I argue with this? Art is beautiful! I have a degree in art history! I love early modern and colonial literature because the visual is so important!

But I can totally argue with it. Part of it, of course, is just that I’m a fighter, apparently, and arm myself with facts and data and critical theories to tilt at the windmills of bad and misleading information. (I often feel rather a lot like this and this, to be frank.) But the other part? It’s quite simple, actually: this is a bullshit theory. The arts are always political. Continue reading


Cornbread 4 Eva: Graffiti, Part II

In honor of less-than-stellar days, here is some stellar street art.

graffiti: cornbread 4 eva, with a crown.
Cornbread 4 Eva on Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I’m going to assume the above is cornbread for ever, rather than cornbread for my middle name, although clearly one can never be sure—perhaps Eva really likes cornbread! This is one of my all-time favorite whacko pieces of graffiti; I got the image fairly early in my tenure in Chambana, though it may still be on the building. I’d like to think that it was some performer in a moment of high hilarity (or perhaps excess alcohol!), providing us all with sufficient entertainment to make it through another round of exhaustion and overwork. Cornbread 4 eva!

Kilroy was here!
Kilroy was here! Somehere in Urbana.

Kilroy’s here! I think I’ve seen him all over, but I’m pretty sure this iteration of our national trickster lives somewhere in downtown Urbana, just as delightfully tricksey as ever he was.

an ink eye, UIUC campus
The eye is watching. UIUC campus.

The eye is close kin to IT’S CHALK, which was not written in chalk, and which I presented in Part I. I occasionally wonder if it’s the same person—I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the same not-chalk—but this person probably was more concerned with surveillance (maybe? I’m really not sure?), while CHALKer was just goofin’ around.

white swirly design on a sign post
swirly things on a signpost! UIUC

The signposts in Chambana—probably in every college town, everywhere, if Hyde Park is any indication—are a canvas for local street artists, taggers, and drunk people. Some of what gets tagged isn’t really worth remembering, but some, like this random design, really is.

stenciled bear with one round eye and one star eye on a no parking sign
Stencil Bear and No Parking

Like signposts, No Parking signs are great for tagging. This one is, I’m pretty sure, a stencil (look at the edges), decorating a NO PARKING sign. I love this kind of decoration. Facilities probably doesn’t.

smileyface on the back of a sign in the UIUC area
🙂 on the back of a sign in Urbana

🙂 Check the back of a sign the next time you’re in a college town—it might have a stencil, or a sticker, or a political slogan (there are a lot of those)…or it might be smiling at you!

Person made out of pins on a cork board.
Pin person on a pin board in a hallway

The pin person isn’t quite street art, and it isn’t graffiti, but it is hallway art, which, I think, must be close kin to the transitory nature of so much street art. Pin guy lived, for a while, on one of our corkboards in the Foreign Language Building, the fabulously ugly building which was my home away from home for the four years I spent in Urbana. Little things like PinPerson really made FLB home, the sort of place where a (dis)placed student could feel safe. Everyone decorated FLB, from posters to bumperstickers to PinPeople. There may forever be new generations of students living in its unhallowed halls, but that, at least, will remain the same.

TOY written on WORKERS sign.
Watch out for toy workers! Urbana, Illinois

Is this art? Probably not really? But I don’t care! It’s amazing! TOY WORKERS injected a whole lot of humor into my summer the year it appeared.

Butterflies on a piller between science buildings, Urbana
Between the science buildings.

Sometime while I wasn’t around—which wouldn’t, in truth, have been difficult—someone stenciled the pillars between two science buildings with butterflies. Lots and lots and lots of butterflies. I’m not, of course, entirely sure what they meant to do with them, but I loved them then, and I love them now. It’s a startling and joyous thing to stumble across, while rushing to work and to class and then home again, jiggity-jog.

TEMPO written on a signpost in Hyde Park, University of Chicago campus
TEMPO, Hyde Park

I feel like TEMPO is profoundly Hyde Park graffiti, although I suppose it could just as easily have been found on a building near Krannert. But here’s (down) tempo for you, on the back of a sign.

Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign shows an eggplant bassist, Urbana, Illinois
Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign, Urbana, Illinois.

This isn’t quite what we usually consider street art—it’s a business sign, the one formerly attached to the Red Herring in Urbana—but it really is street art, too: it’s a part of the urban art scene, for the time that it is there. Alas, it’s been painted over now; I don’t like the new sign half as much as I like this eggplant bassist.

Red Herring sign with leaves, vegetables, and eggplant bassist, Urbana, IL. Pre-2015.
The Red Herring sign, pre-2015. Urbana, Illinois.

For reference, here’s the full sign. It was a gem, I tell you, and I mourn that it is gone.

And that’s it for Part II—though there will definitely be more. 🙂




Glories of Graffiti (part the first)

This summer has been an intense one for me, filled with changes and with new prospects as well as unrelenting streams of (often bad) news, spiced by a record-smashing, barrier-breaking Olympics (with some unbelievably sexist coverage of female athletes, because of course). It’s been, perhaps, a little much sometimes–and so I’ve delved back into my treasure trove of graffiti , and done a shoddy job of curating some of my favorites.

Mostly they’re bright. Or funny. Or vulgar. Or all of the above. And, occasionally, it’s actually rather sweet.

Words, Words, Words

EGAD! in Pittsburgh.

This is a pretty terrible photo, and, alas, I don’t have PhotoShop, so it will remain lousy for a bit. Nonetheless, it is EGAD!, from a mailbox on a hill in a lovely Pittsburgh neighborhood. It is about as simple as one can possibly get, and I love it so much. There’s something really hilarious about writing EGAD! as one’s tag, I think–especially with such a marvelous typeface. You do you, tagger of EGAD!s.

A dumpster, Urbana. 2015.

I have no idea if the “GO…LIKE NOW” dumpster still lives behind the Foreign Language Building and the Smith Memorial Auditorium in Urbana, on the University of Illinois campus; it did, however, live there pretty much the entire time that I did. (I last saw it when last I was in town, in August of 2015.) It’s a giant, rusty, and generally full dumpster: nothing special there. But the graffiti, much of which appears to have been stenciled (“zen” is definitely freehand, “rest” might be as well), took time and care and makes it unique. It’s very much a part of my grad school memories: and here is the dumpster I walked past every day, y’all!

Outside Illini Union, Champaign, Illinois. 2015.

It’s chalk, man. Except it definitely wasn’t written with chalk, which makes it even funnier. (I guess I don’t ask for much, but I always found it hilarious.)

if it is to be women's bathroom graffitiWP_20150601_14_42_35_Pro
Women’s bathroom, Foreign Language Building, Urbana, Illinois.

This is pretty much quintessential women’s bathroom graffiti. Maybe it says something good about us, that our graffiti is so often, uh, positive? (I mean, this is super hackneyed and corny, but still.) Several stalls also bear long communal love letters to unknown girls who’ve written about the tragedies of their lives, ranging from desperate loneliness to academic issues. (It’s incredible, what folks write, usually in sharpie, on the walls of a toilet stall.) The responses are almost always sweet, and kind; some are religious, most are not, but almost all are attempting to buck up that unknown girl, and give her a reason to stick around a while. I guess I’ll choose to see that as something good about us.


Colors and Flowers and Faces

Above. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.
Below. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.

I don’t even know what this is, but these faces! How can anyone not be delighted to see them? I am ever so grateful to whatever anonymous street artist decided to make Mathews a whole lot happier with their art.

On the “dead mall,” Urbana, Illinois. July 2015.

I have no idea what the above is. A piece of toast with a face? A contemporary Lascaux? Whatever it is, it’s a pretty great splash of color on the back of a mall whose future is, now, uncertain.

Lighthouse in Waukegan Harbor. Waukegan, Illinois.

The blast of aqua and turquoise here–seen on Christmas Day, 2015, because obviously this is the time to walk out into Lake Michigan to see a lighthouse–is only a tiny piece of the graffiti lining the walkway and limning the lighthouse itself. The graffiti is, as befits Waukegan (where, according to the U.S. Census, 54.2 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home), bi- or tri-lingual, largely Spanish, English, and Spanglish. This piece probably says something, but I haven’t a clue; I just like the colors.

Near Illini Union, Urbana, Illinois. Summer 2015.

I guess the flowers above are graffiti. I don’t really know. In an oasis of concrete and construction they stand out, delicate and beautiful and believable: a small splash of beauty in the midst of chaos.

Urbana, Illinois (I think).

I think this guy hangs at Krannert Center, although I don’t remember for sure. I still wonder if “WF” is someone’s initials or if it’s a semi-polite version of the semi-polite WTF acronym. It’s on a campus, so I figure it could be pretty much anything.

Carved into Café Tables (in Urbana)

Café, Urbana, Illinois

think the above platitude lives–or maybe lived–carved into a table at the Espresso Royale at Goodwin and Oregon, just across the street from the magnificent Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It’s

Café. Urbana, Illinois

Likely also at Espresso

Espresso Royale, Goodwin and Oregon, Urbana

This one is definitely a matter of opinion (me, I loved them all)–but it’s also definitely hilarious.

Café, Urbana, Illinois

Terribly sad robot here is terribly sad, alas. 😦 I think it’s also from ’12…although that may have been put there to throw us all for a loop. This one is also likely from the same table as ESPRESSO TRUMPS PARADISO, above…but, since I’m not positive, I’ll leave it sans location.

Café, Urbana

Same table, same location. This coffee shop is right across the street from the performing arts center, and right in the midst of a large science sector. The graffiti reflects, as it were, both cultures. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I felt so at home there.

Café, Urbana, Illinois

I love this one so much. I wonder who carved the first bit into the table: did they mean it? (I mean, I assume they weren’t being sarcastic?) Did they hope to spread the good word by way of graffiti on a café table in a science quad? And who was the second person? I fancy they were a scientist, or an engineer, but they may have been an actor, or a musician, or a computer scientist, or a mathematician. (It is also pretty reminiscent of the good old vulgar graffiti of Pompeii, discussed by PompeianaOrbilatthe Telegraph,  Mental Floss, and The Heavy, among other places.) We’ve always been gleefully vulgar in our illicit writing (and etching and drawing), apparently.

Freight Trains: Or, Coming Eventually

My area is heavily frequented by freight trains, hauling their cargo to and from and through Chicago, itself dotted with depots and piers: husky, broad-shouldered brawler of a city that it is, heavy freight trains fit right in. The neighborhood in which I grew up, as well as the suburb in which I currently live, are both fortunate enough to have overpasses, so any train-watching we do is entirely voluntary. However, most of the ‘hoods around us, from South Shore to Thornton, South Holland to Chatham, aren’t as fortunate. And, since I frequent those neighborhoods (and towns) as well, I do a lot of involuntary train-watching, too. Literally the only high point of involuntary freight train watching? It’s the graffiti, helpfully added by unknown street artists to brighten our gray freight-train filled days.

And so, one of these days, when I’ve collected enough, there will be a post of transit-related graffiti, and it will likely center on trains.

Cats! or, International Cat Day, 2016

It’s International Cat Day! Which is, in my book, a very important sort of day. It’s also a pretty great excuse for something a bit lighter than average current events: a celebration of the cat, in (public domain) art and in gif. It’s also a pretty great time to point out that cats are, in the words of this headline, the “unsung heroes of mental health” care. Here’s to cats!

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1887 oil on canvas, Julie Manet with CatWikimedia Commons.

Julie Manet looks like a pretty serious kid–she probably was, given her family’s occasionally convoluted histories and ill health–but she’s also got a good buddy there, in her friendly Cat. Julie’s probably idealized, and perhaps Cat is as well–but as a lifelong cat lady, I’d know that cat’s body language anywhere. It’s purring right now, through layers of oil on canvas.


Mary Cassatt’s 1908 Sara Holding a CatWikimedia Commons.

I’m pretty sure the cat above is actually a kitten: it has that unformed, unfinished, slightly mad look of nearly every kitten I’ve ever known, looking in its way as much a baby as Sara herself. It also looks pretty interested in something just over there, but it isn’t quite sure it wants to spring yet. Sara holds it pretty well, after all.

Plate #101 from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views from EdoWikimedia Commons.

Cat at window: it doesn’t matter where cat is looking, or what the landscape is like, or even if it’s an indoor/outdoor cat–every cat hangs out and looks out the window at the world full of (edible, right?) creatures. (It’s also worth noting that Japanese prints are a wealth of amazing, and loving, cat depictions; unfortunately, I couldn’t find that many in readily accessible public domain format, and, given the fragility and instability of prints as a medium, they are rarely on display at museums.)

Su Hanchen’s Children Playing on a Winter Day, from Wikimedia Commons.

The hanging scroll above–that of two little people playing with their little cat–is from the 12th Century; it dates to the Song Dynasty, and Wikimedia Commons suggests it may originally have belonged to the Royal Family. Whomever commissioned it, however, the artist caught both the kids and their kitten well, and they’ve come through the centuries as lively little creatures, intent on their game.

John White Alexander’s The Green Dress, c. late 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Whomever the lady in the green dress is, she’s clearly taking time out from her busy social whirl to hang out with her cat, who is chasing dust motes and smushing its face up against her. When she heads back out she’ll be covered in black hair, but, somehow, I doubt she cares: the purring and the affection will have more than made up for it, and, going by her dress, she likely has maids to brush cat hair off anyway. (Unless it’s on all the furniture, too.)


Chat Noir

Steinlen’s Tournée du Chat Noir de Rodolphe Salis, 1896 poster. Flickr image by Paul James.

Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, unlike most of the artists featured here, was perhaps an early graphic designer; the commanding cat of Rudolphe Salis’ Chat Noir is an excellent piece of advertising, one which has long outlived the space for which it was designed. And how could it not? That cat is magnificent: a cat’s cat, here to lord it over us all.

There are really too many amazing medieval cats from which to choose: they are, basically, the best, as evidenced by this tragically small sampling of marginal and otherwise medieval cats. (Marginal, in this case, means marginalia, not unimportant. They are indeed on the margins of manuscripts, but that’s about their only connection to “marginal.”) They even walked all over their peoples’ work, just like they do now. Also just like cat people now, cat people then were indulgent and owned by their beasts, as evidenced by Pangur Bán, whose human was a ninth-century Irish monk. (For even more amazing cats from Medieval manuscripts, check out the cats on the amazing and fabulous Discarding Images tumblr. (Definitely check out this monkey hugging a cat, in both medieval and contemporary versions.)

From Buzzfeed.

Medieval cats are a pretty great transition from Serious Art Cats to gif cats. Like medieval marginalia cats, gif cats are a mix of absurd, hilarious, and catlike: the cat above, busy killing the paper emerging from that dastardly printer, is definitely catlike. (It’s also a pretty good reaction gif.)

also from some Buzzfeed article.

Happy International Cat Day!

Leap Day! 2016: An Inelegant Hodgepodge

It’s Leap Day! We’ve had our “extra” day of February, which started like a lamb (almost) and ended rather like a lion, even though it isn’t quite March yet. But why on earth do we have an extra day? I’m going to leave that to the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has also tweeted about it. Leap Year is extra weird, since, as The Telegraph explains, it actually doesn’t happen every four years, as it didn’t happen in, say, 1900, or in 2000. The Georgian calendar is just too fancy for that, or something.

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For a Few More Days: Art from the Viceroyalty of Peru

The Art Institute’s incredible exhibit “A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire” will end its run on February 28, 2016–just a few days from now. I talk a lot about Latin American history; I’ve even talked about José Gil de Castro, free man of color, who painted the tale of the wars of independence. And, now that its course has been almost run, I’ll finally write about this exhibit.


Image of Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Male Donor. 18th century Cuzco School painting by an unidentified artist. Image by Darren and Brad of Flickr.

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The First Snow of the Year (and Winter as Art at the AIC)

About damn time, if you ask me. Gif from Buzzfeed.

It’s snowing! It’s the first snow of the year, and, though it’s hardly enough to go skiing, it’s enough to coat the world in fresh white, making it pristine and lacy and lovely. We do exist, you see, even here: we winter-lovers, for whom the first snow should really be a holiday, we who take winter vacations only to the north, for the skiing, and the skating. My parents put me on a pair of the tiniest cross-country skis you’ve ever seen (or not seen) when I was around two; I have no more memory of learning to ski than I have of learning to walk. Around the same time my late grandmother, tiny and fierce, strapped tiny skates onto my little boots and held my hands as I learned to skate on the pond on the family farm near Wisconsin Rapids, and ever since–well, likely even before–winter has been a time of warm family memories and pristine beauty for me.

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