Jul 252017


And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation 6:8

Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses—another work of art that has been with me almost my entire life, a print of which also has hung on a wall for some fifteen years, and I can’t remember when or where I first saw it. My best guess is in the library of elementary school, high up in childhood memory, among other paintings on the walls surrounding the low shelves that held books within reach of our hands and hearts and minds, appropriate for the course our lives were supposed to follow.

The blueness of the horses did not strike me as strange but rather was a given supported by the mass of their collective surge and the energy of the overall composition, their motion made significant by their self-possession, the color itself part of some larger motion I did not question and wouldn’t have grasped if explained. But what I took from it then, I think, is that there could be power in reflection and composure.

And the painting has survived the process of school, its ideas of itself, its upward gradations; and the rising flood of images that followed on screens and in popular print; and, when I studied art in college, the outline taught that put art on an ascending conveyor belt of movements. There is no such thing as progress in art or any permanence in our ideas and distractions.

Events from the last years and changes in my life and recent reading, however, have unsettled the painting and made me question its place now over my hearth.

Marc painted The Large Blue Horses in 1911, for many a time of alienation from and revolt against rapid industrial growth in Germany and the materialist Wilhelmine society it brought, when Nietzsche’s appeals for a return to Dionysian passions flourished, when crisis in the Balkans increased in pitch and European instabilities made global war seem inevitable, a war which many others found attractive, a world whose vast web of motives and intrigues most of us have forgotten, if we ever learned it.

What I’m supposed to say is that Marc was a German Expressionist, who looked not at the facts and impressions of people and nature and society but at subjective realities beneath the surface, at undercurrents of self and culture, and, hopefully, at something beyond and higher. The animals he painted represented human states and a desire to return to uncorrupted nature, nature expressed in ideal landscape. Marc created his own color symbolism, and blue stood for the male principle, serious and spiritual.

All these terms are as intriguing as they are slippery, ultimately meaningless.

Of course the painting is sexual, but that slant obscures as much as it makes clear.

But there is no escaping the sensuous, sinuous, swelling flesh of the horses or the suggestive pull of their movement or the tension of the contrasting colors. The rhythm of their bodies continues into and complements that of the hills and sky, positing larger context. The horses’ blue, a color that optically recedes, is placed in front, while the distant hills are painted the forward red, this atmospheric reversal closing foreground and background and increasing the break from expectations, moving us from the nature we think we know.

Horses themselves give pause—such large animals that are not predators, that possess great strength yet are graceful and reserved. A horse without a rider lifts the burden of possession and use, opening up possibilities and raising questions. With their bowed heads Marc’s blue horses submit to the rhythm and yet push against, parting the distended white trees that divide the canvas.

In 1913, the world closer to war, Marc painted The Tower of Blue Horses, where there are four blue horses now, vertical and rising, open-eyed and agitated, their flesh taking on the angles of Cubism.

A few months later, war still closer, in Fate of the Animals the horses, frenzied and in peril, turn green, blue mixed with yellow, which, Marc tells us, “cannot still the brutality of red,”

in a picture that takes animals and landscape to the point of annihilation by the slashing diagonal lines, red flames, that dominate the canvas and set the fractured composition. An irony here—the painting was actually damaged in a fire and Paul Klee only partially restored the area on the right.

Fate of the Animals recalls Picasso’s Guernica, another painting of wholesale destruction and disruptive composition, his response to Franco’s request to bomb the town, Germany’s tuneup for the next world war. Both have since stood as pictures of the horrors of war in general, of civilization on the brink.

Marc also shows the influence of the dynamism of Futurism, though with inverted intent; Picasso continues his cubist experiments in his synthetic phase, with clearer representation in his angled shapes. These maneuvers are not advances, however, but adjustments to match the subject. But the breakup and rearrangement of parts does not create chaos but rather gives coherence to disorder, and with coherence, the terror of beauty.

Most have taken the bull as the source of the massacre, representing fascist brutality, and the horse stands for the slain innocents, their agony and death. The bull alone is passive, however, with a stilled face that is hard to read, and Picasso used the figure for other representations, including of himself. Guernica is direct in its images and but ambiguous in its meanings, leaving unanswered questions. The bull also leads us to the Minotaur and the labyrinth of mythical meaning. Still, there is the overpowering sense of revulsion at something we have done to ourselves.

But in Fate of the Animals the source of destruction is external, coming from some unseen force above, beyond our agency, entering the canvas in the flames at the upper left and rebounding and continuing their destructive course across the picture plane. It is, in fact, a picture of apocalypse. Frederick Levine, in The Apocalyptic Vision, makes a convincing case, explaining how Marc drew cataclysm from Wagner, from Nordic myth. The long column that slants left against the flames is Yggdrasil, the eternal ash, which shelters the four willowy deer on the right, who alone will survive to start a new race. Apocalypse is not just inevitable, it is desired.

We know that everything can be destroyed if the germination of a spiritual race does not endure the test of the greed and impurity of the masses. We struggle for pure ideas, for a world in which pure ideas can be thought and can be expressed without becoming impure.

Marc saw the war as the coming apocalypse and volunteered early, before conscription. It was something he had to witness and endure. But the imagined glory of the past that others wanted restored was what he wished to see destroyed. Like them, he had no idea what was to follow.

The combat of the infantrymen which I witnessed yesterday was incredibly hideous, more horrifying than anything I have ever seen. I was totally shaken last night. The courage with which they advance, and the indifference, indeed, the enthusiasm for death and for wounds has something mystical about it. Naturally, it is a mood of reconciliation, the clarification of something that was previously uncertain.

Purity is a trap, a dead end, and this is pathology. Marc, who was given to bouts of depression, has surrendered to his mood and in self-immolation projected it into unnamed abstraction. Spiritual shell shock here as well, as the pathology of the self meets the pathology of the world in a landscape of death and shattered mirrors.

And the apocalypse of Fate is what The Large Blue Horses leads up to, what stirs the trio in their lowered gaze above my mantle. Reading Levine forced reexamination of the painting and led me in downward spiral. My living room deadened in its plane and turned into a no man’s land, a grayness spreading to lifeless winter trees outside my windows, to lifeless streets, and lifelessness beyond, endlessly. Everywhere I went I saw entrenched lives and, on faces, in reports from around the world, the signs of dissolution and breakage. I avoided looking at the painting, then started avoiding the room. I long debated taking it down, not finding resolve.

Nietzsche’s descent into madness, legend goes, began with the sight of a beaten horse.

But psychology is sterile reduction. And to reject myth as superstition is to deny its power and persistence. Some notion of apocalypse has been with us a long time. It may be one of our earliest formations. In Dürer’s gorgeous woodcut the four horses unleashed in Revelation take the riders who scourge the land, necessary preparation for a new heaven and new earth. Destruction precedes renewal—or is it merely the underside of our highest, purist aspirations?

It is impossible to recreate the confusion of thought and emotion of Marc’s time and get a fix, but it is just as impossible to gain footing now in a world certain only of itself, not going anywhere at breakneck speed, where wars are fought by others and victims most often are others and apocalypse has become a casual diversion in movies and video games.

Too often when we read biography into art we only read ourselves. What I most became aware of looking at the Blue Horses was myself, a depression that came from within and radiated out. The signs of breakage were still there outside my windows, however. They are still there. They have always been there. If I hadn’t noticed them before it was because I wasn’t looking.

And I don’t know if a glance towards apocalypse isn’t what drew me to the painting over fifty years ago.

Only by risking everything do we know what anything is worth.


We risk everything because we do not know what else to do.

I have no idea which is true, if either.

I only know the old man will always be with us.

And that if I take the Blue Horses down I will be lost.

Slowly, cautiously, I have returned to their coiling, inward gaze. Color has returned to the room, slowly, cautiously, and leaves have returned to trees, and grasses return to barren fields and softly fill furrows and cover mounds though from which chunks of old concrete still protrude, though a grayish mist lingers over all.

March 4, 1916, near Verdun, Lieutenant Franz Marc rode a chestnut bay out on a reconnaissance mission and did not return. He was killed by shrapnel, French or German, no one knew. Another irony. The world is littered with ironies.

Gary Garvin


Jun 212017

Dizziness is a psychophysiological state tied to confusion and the mental processes of understanding, with a possible ontological component, if it makes sense to talk about ontology. There are many variations. You have just come to grasp a basic principle, a unity that breaks down barriers between the disparate things before you, and can see it, in the totality of its relevance, racing endlessly to comprehend them. Or you see the unity, but it careens off the walls of all the things it does not comprehend and scatters everywhere beyond them, while the things it does pervade dissolve into endless nothing. Or you only see the principle but sense no walls at all, only the outlines of what you think is there, the boundless extension of their empty possibilities. Or see the mesh of possibilities in things, but not the principle that might align them, only the chance of a principle, ever endless in its evasion. Or see neither the principle nor possible connections, only endless endlessness.

In each there is the same feeling, similar to that of physical dizziness, like an irritation in the ears, a tickling of equilibrium, and it is difficult to tell whether the sensation is one of rising or falling. In each also come feelings of doubt and confidence, of anxiety and elation, but it is not clear that the dread doesn’t belong to the confidence, the transport to the doubt. With these feelings, another emotion impossible to name, diffuse yet more intense, and with its movement, a stillness, a white mist spreading in a blinding sun—

From my essay “Autumn Rhythm” Conjunctions Online, 2015

See also “Perspective”

Gary Garvin

Mar 312017

Architecture, we forget at our peril, is inherently violent. It invariably subtracts from the range of available possibilities, especially the perennially attractive option of building nothing at all. In this sense, construction sites are crime scenes. Memories, landscapes, slices of sky, beloved vistas and old neighborhoods are violated even when buildings of distinction take their place. Perhaps the most architecture can do is convert aggression into desire, its primitive twin.

Herbert Muschamp, NY Times

… the past is not merely a quarry of forms to which we are welcome; it is the vast repository of collective memory that ought to illuminate our borrowings. And architecture is not the carefree manipulation of form; it cannot be practiced without consequences.

Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

Trumpitecture does not know timing. It does not know its own era but clings to easy symbols of might. Perhaps they had a time, but that time has long passed. In contrast to the best known early victor in the tallest building race, the Empire State Building, Trumpitecture leaves little as a treasure for posterity, a monument to its own era, or an icon for a city. Trumpitecture leaves a legacy for one thing: Trump.

Doug Staker, Dezeen

“Just for the record, I had nothing to do with this sign.”

The architect of another Trump tower, on its front sign, from Staker again.

Gary Garvin

Mar 272017


We…advocate that melancholia be positioned as a distinct, identifiable and specifically treatable affective syndrome in the DSM-5 classification.

Melancholic patients respond better to broad-action tricyclic anti­depressants than to narrow-action antidepressants (e.g., serotonin uptake inhibitors). They respond well to ECT. In comparison to those with nonmelancholic mood disorders, melancholic patients rarely respond to placebos, psychotherapies, or social interventions.

from “Issues for DSM-5: Whither Melancholia?”
The American Journal of Psychiatry

Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I draws from the theory of humors that goes back to classical times, where states of body and mind were determined by four essential fluids. It once was the basis of medical practice and found widespread cultural representation. Balance of the four brought health, but that was an ideal that we could not always maintain, or that not all of us could not find, or, in Christian times, a perfection none of us could reach at all since and because of the Fall of Man. A predominance of one in excess led to pathology, but in lesser amounts set phases we all went through or determined different personality types among us. I regret loss of this system, as it gave us variety and cut us some slack. Moody was something we could be. Today our vast catalog of mental aberration depends solely upon the empty term “normal” that is defined only by what it is not, that denotes a state that is a balance of nothing. Yet we stray from it at our peril.

Black bile was the fluid of melancholy, which brought lethargy and stinginess. The melancholic was the most dreaded of the four personality types, as surfeit could lead to insanity and even death. Its representations, a grim miser clenching his purse, an indolent woman asleep at her spinning wheel, were sedative expressions that suppressed that fear. And intrigue—madness and death have always had that pull on us. Dürer’s figure, however, is not a common person but a winged angel, intensely alert and deep in thought, surrounded by the elements and tools of creation. Dürer has given us a picture of the artist, and in her face we see the power of her potential. But the tools lie scattered at her feet, untouched. She is grounded, locked in thought, does not fly, does not create, while in the background a comet flares and a bat cries terror. The dread has been released in a scene of darkness and disorder. I’ve had a print on a wall for decades, and every now and then I look at her for inspiration. She does not look back. This is as it should be.

Perhaps her block and the disarray show the broil and fruitless mulling that precede creation. But according to Erwin Panofsky, in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, from which I take my material, that work will never come:

Hers is the inertia of a being which renounces what it could reach because it cannot reach for what it longs.

The artist is limited to the visible, what can be shown, what can be represented, and is removed from higher thought that might transcend, from the light of divine understanding, always beyond us.

But Dürer’s stalled angel also gives us one of the most compelling images of the artist we have. A picture that shows failure to create is a complete creation itself, consummate and marvelous in its workmanship, its expression. The midnight figure is bright in contrasts, the whites of her eyes against her somber face, the luminous folds of her robe against a darkened space. A scene of inactivity is charged with dynamic, in the energy of her arched wings, the push from the outlines of the many shapes, in the spiraling line of composition that runs from the eyes of the bat through the eyes of the putto, of the angel, of the sullen dog.

There is no contradiction in any of this, as there are no contradictions in art. Nor is there irony, as we see exactly what we should expect. We are shaped by our conflicts and contradictions, our reaches, our misses, and our doubts: these give us life. And the failure to represent the divine visibly points all the more to its invisible presence. It is our balanced, symmetrical representations and our clear resolutions into action that are ironic because they always fall short of our desires, of our projections, and they touch a different kind of madness.

The engraving is built on a correspondence of symbols based on theology, philosophy, and common understanding that connected the universe from the material to the celestial, that ran deep in Dürer’s culture. The four humors “were supposed to be coessential with the four elements, the four winds (or directions of space), the four seasons, the four times of day, and the four phases of life.” His angel, holding a compass, beneath instruments of measurement, echoes a prior woodcut “Typus Geometriae,” a woman representing geometry, the study that in the Renaissance was the foundation for creating art and understanding the structure of the world. Saturn, the original creator, inspired geometry as well as fueled imagination with furor melancholicus. The dog and bat were his. I won’t develop all the sources and connections, however, because I’d only repeat what Panofsky has so thoroughly and beautifully written. Also we know today none of the assumptions and correspondences are true.

But what we know is false now wasn’t true then, yet still we have Melencolia I, who still holds us captive. There’s a paradox here that needs to be sounded. If we reject the divine, and we have, we need to replace it with something else. Our lives, like our art, depend upon how much we can draw from within and reach without.


I will leave the magic square and the devices for measuring weight, time, and space hanging on the wall and ignore them. Mathematics, like our logic, we now know talks only to itself. They will also serve as reminders to deflect a world that cannot tolerate imprecision or imperfection, or indulges them too much.


I will keep the tools on the floor because I still have dreams of constructing and peopling homes and cities and worlds. But I will add a jackhammer and wrecking ball to test their strength, or demolish the facile abstractions that now surround us or any I might create.


The bat stays where he is, soaring above a leaden sea, who will scream my every waking minute to help me maintain vigilance, see terror overlooked, or induce it when I fall complacent.


I will get a dog, lean, clenched, and perpetually morose, and have him lie at my feet to anchor my flights.


And I will ponder my next project, moved by what is not there, what might be, what always never will be. Or let my amanuensis putto scribble away idly while I brood in dark brilliance and do nothing.

Gary Garvin

Mar 162017


And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

from Hart Crane, “To Brooklyn Bridge”

A routine is a repetition that both breaks the day and places us in it, giving our lives the appearance of structure, of order. A bridge is a repetition of structural elements that orders a way beyond our routines, to thoughts of other things, or that appearance.

I have a routine where after the morning’s work I walk to the St. Johns Bridge and down to the Willamette River. If I miss a day my life feels incomplete. I live across the street from the playground of an elementary school and leave late morning to avoid the shouts and shrieks of the kids at recess, an inseparable mix of joy and chaos, though sometimes I take their noise with me. By that time I’m fatigued anyway, and bogged down in some unresolved disorder. I leave thinking the walk will provide inspiration, that I will return with fresh insight and rejuvenated resolve.

From the east entrance


I descend a side street


down to Cathedral Park, beneath the bridge, where north Portlanders run their dogs, fly drones, and get married.


Then, after following a long viaduct of approach,


I reach a small floating pier, beneath the span, and walk to its end, my terminus,


where I take a break—I have a bit of a climb back.

And I stand and look out on the river, and free my mind, and wait to see what comes, from without, from within.


Designed by David Steinman, an engineer of considerable reputation, the bridge was the result of local initiative and remains a source of civic pride and identity. Boosters staged vaudeville acts throughout Multnomah County to promote funding; images have since multiplied across St. Johns, on the banner of the neighborhood newspaper, on storefronts, on posted bills and t-shirts. Construction started a month before the Crash of ’29.

Yet while it set several records when built, the St. Johns Bridge is not well known and pales before more recent structures that move us to greater awe. Really, there was no compelling need to build it and it serves no large purpose now. The plan then was to connect the small industrial communities of Linnton and St. Johns, some five miles north of downtown Portland. Today it joins no major freeways on either side. But that is what I like about it, a modesty that encourages intimacy, that it is not especially useful, that it is largely there for itself, that it is distant from the noise of our wonder.

The east anchorage expresses its mass in a squat concrete structure, the energy of its function in steeply curved posts and buttresses, this function formalized in a compressed stance embellished with abstract emblems and stabilized and capped with cornice work,


the energy released in the ascent of the cables to the towers, the cables carrying a tension hard to imagine,


the tension easing into the sweeping curves of the cables that hold the deck. The suspense of anchorage discharges in the process of suspension. The bridge entire, in the arcade of concrete piers, the latticework of trusses supporting the road deck, the network of thin cables holding the deck from above, scarcely visible, in the division of bracing within the towers—is a complex orchestration of compression and tension brought together into a whole that is graceful, effortless, seemingly weightless, almost ethereal. To me, with my limited knowledge of engineering, such a feat isn’t possible and the bridge is simply marvelous. My spirits lift every time I see it.


The bridge was built at a time when the ruling esthetic demanded an honesty of structure, a welding of form to function, and Steinman spoke to the integrity of his design. But another desire, another wish, competed with utility, the American technological sublime, which complemented then supplanted the natural sublime once found in the American landscape. John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge carried the spirit, and Steinman, like Hart Crane, grew up in proximity and professed his close attachment, its influence.

Then there is the other spirit. The gothic arch, once used to elevate belief and bring in light, provides the motif played throughout, in the concrete piers and components of the towers, arches of varying width, height, and pitch. According to Steinman the pointed arch added contrapuntal tension to the rhythm of the suspending cables, but the structure he called “a prayer in steel” also brought past associations and higher thoughts. Today, maybe only nostalgia, and fading questions.


I’ve had a touch of vertigo the times I have walked across, however. That used not to bother me. Yet it’s two hundred feet down, and when I look out from the deck I feel the downward temptation. There is this about bridges as well, that they move us to the edge, to another launching point. In the movie Pay It Forward a woman climbs on its railing to make the leap but is saved by a recovering drug addict who walks by and talks her down.


Still, the bridge is always there, a point of continuity and stability, an anchor of connection and communication with, yet also of structural separation from, with, from nature that surrounds, its variations through the seasons, with, from the ambiguous, overcast moods of Portland weather that call for some kind of brightness, with my shifting thoughts, from the fog of my moods.


But only this is certain one day to the next: our structures are just structures, our function is undefined.


I wait at the end of the pier until I realize I am waiting. Nothing ever comes, in fact I put my work aside and let it drift. But I always get this release, this revelation: I am free and I am alive, and I don’t have answers to anything.

Gary Garvin

Feb 272017

Working Title/Artist: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)Department: Modern and Contemporary ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 11Working Date: 1950 Digital Photo File Name: DT1407.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 2/13/14 Image blurry especially along left edge

What is needed is a chart, a plan, a set of rules. Or at least a dance chart to tell us where to put one foot after the other…



We all want to believe that a light shines on us individually and makes us each protagonists in life’s contests. Plot restores our faith in action and makes our lives seem real. It is a way to order events and give them direction in the stories we tell about ourselves, to take us from beginnings to endings, to chart our paths in the world. A mistake, a flaw, a motive separates us from the baseline of the world, causing tension that rises over time and propels the plot and increases our distance from the world until a point is reached beyond which the strain can go no further, the climax, which is followed by an unwinding that returns us to the world, a falling into one kind of resolution or another.

Plot depends not just on our understanding of who we are and what makes us tick, but also on the way the world works, or the way we think it works, and what moves it. But more than that. Plot can also be built on an idea, an understanding, a projection of who we can be, should be, what matters, how our lives should begin and end, what is beyond us. Plot implies perspective.



A horizon is set towards which lines that define space converge, theoretically at infinity. A central point on the horizon, the eye point, marks the spot and determines the overall cast. It’s a device for creating the appearance of depth in two-dimensional pictures that look like something, a way of establishing relationships, consistent and proportional, between up and down, here and there, anywhere in the frame.

But more than an appearance, a metaphor. There’s a figure in the figure. Not just a way of relating parts, of ordering space consistently and proportionally, but also a vehicle for notions of consistency and proportion. Not just an orderly picture, but a picture of order. Not just deep space, but a schema for the concept of depth. Since the eye point lies at an infinite distance, we are given a container for all the world. And since we can see that point and all it determines, we have the means to comprehend it. Perspective implies perspective, a framework that holds the world we see, a world where we see each other and are seen, where we have a place, where everything fits, a world governed by whatever it is that exists between and beyond us and holds all things together.


In his fresco The School of Athens, Raphael set the Greek philosophers in a volume of Renaissance architecture. At the center stand Plato and Aristotle, representatives of ideal forms beyond and their particular manifestations here on earth, these two surrounded by the others in animated talk and gestures, their disputation contained by and aligned within the receding vaults determined by lines of perspective, those lines leading in the distance to soft clouds and open blue sky, their focal point placed behind the two commanding figures.


In Leonardo’s The Last Supper, the vanishing point, God’s eye, is directly behind Christ’s head, which sets the perspective that frames the chamber and aligns what he lays before his agitated disciples. In the distance, mysterious blue hills and the fading light.

In both a box is constructed that proposes, contains, and opens up, each holding and balancing turmoil and reason, spirit and the body, each setting a trajectory that tells a story about disorder and resolution, fall and redemption, each plotting a course for our life on earth and a life everlasting.

Supply and demand:


A graph that tells a story and paints a picture, where desire and assertion find happy intersection in the world.

Perspective, concerns:


The place we have in the order of things may not be the place we want. Perspective space was also used to sound the depths of hell. Or, in the works of Piranesi, set ruins of antiquity in deserted landscapes or create vast, dark prisons, intricate and seemingly endless.


It is hard to stare down the throat of infinity very long.

There are no absolutes.

Corot, Cézanne, cubism, etc.

Supply and demand, concerns:


Jack Levine, The Feast of Pure Reason.









From my essay “Autumn Rhythm,” Conjunctions. Income graph via Mother Jones.

Gary Garvin

Feb 242017

. . . beginning in 1984, many of the men there were recruited by a California flower-grower who needed workers for his farm, in Somis, an hour north of Los Angeles. The Zapotecs were taken by train to Tijuana and smuggled to Somis, and there they were enslaved: held in a compound in perpetual debt, frightened into submission by warnings about the Border Patrol, and forced to work sixteen hours a day. Some of the men eventually sought help. In 1990, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted the grower on charges of slavery.

William Langewiesche, speaking of Zapotecs from the mountain village of Santa Ana Yareni, Mexico, in “Invisible Men,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1998. More on the story and trial here. Some of the workers fled to a ravine in San Diego County where they became squatters, illegally, out of sight, hence the title.

I taught the essay to my comp classes in Silicon Valley over the years, telling students how it reminded me of and added insight to Diego Rivera’s painting The Flower Carrier, 1935, above. We saw afresh the burden. Recent events bring further illumination, more colors and contrasts.

Really, it is gorgeous what is being envisioned now in this country, simple and direct in its formal symmetry, bright in its assumptions, beautiful and impossibly light in its composition, in its solution to the tensions it proposes to ease.

There are all kinds of walls and all kinds of invisible men. We’ll want to follow not only what the proposed wall to the south will keep out, but also what it will contain and allow to blossom. So much that has been hidden behind walls will be revealed; other invisible men will come to light.

Gary Garvin

Feb 222017


So I go to the Warhol show at the Portland Art Museum. Memories pop—the term is apt—pop through the layers, fresh and flat. It’s the ’60s. Marilyn, Mao, JFK, Jackie, 20 kinds of that soup, including, of course, tomato:


Liza, Ali, Mick, Birmingham, the hammer and the sickle, a pointed gun, and the chair:


Seeing all the Warhols on the walls is like looking, way back when, at the layout room, early stages, of a magazine that will never go to press, never go to press because there isn’t one, a press. Which I guess is kind of the point, if there is a point. Maybe.


Richard Avedon made a portrait of the Warhol Factory, which was shown at a retrospective at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, fairly large and a going concern at the time. This is a huge photograph, life-size or more. Click to enlarge. I worked at the museum while a grad student and did a good bit of the lighting for the show, including this one. I spent hours on a rolling scaffold, hanging, adjusting the floods and spots, making sure the faces and bodies came out, evening the white space and removing pools. Avedon and crew were there, advising, helping out.

A Berkeley regular, Abe Lincoln we called him—he had the beard, defiled the portrait by spraying iodine on Warhol’s face, taking moral offense or something. Who knows. I lived with four others two houses down from where Patricia Hearst was kidnapped, though I never saw the bullet holes. A year before I worked at The Daily Cal and was there the night the Jonestown mass suicide story broke, in Guyana. Reports came in over the AP wire machine in fragments that made no sense, the body count kept rising as the night wore on. The summer before that, my first in Berkeley, a scene for a made-for-tv movie of the Hearst abduction was being shot in Ho Chi Minh Park, a few blocks away from our house. Extras stood around in designer t-shirts. This one won’t be put to bed, either. It’s the late ’70s.


I think the working title for the movie was Get Patty but it changed when the movie aired, which quickly fell into oblivion.


I took one of my housemates, E—, an undergrad, to opening night of the show. I had to. She was weaned on Vogue and grew up looking at Avedon’s fashion shots. Berkeley via LA via New York, quite sharp, quite sharp looking, not a princess, not easy to pin down and I won’t try. Not my age, not my league, I wasn’t her speed, but I liked her and we got along. She was our entry to the music, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the others—more memories but these don’t pop but sizzle, but fall into stupor—we are Devo, we’ve been on tenterhooks ending in dirty looks, fade away and radiate, I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire, I wanna be sedated, get pissed, destroy. We were waiting for the end of the world.

Half of San Francisco was there, dressed to impress in all the different ways San Francisco knew how. The museum was packed, literally packed. All the galleries were mobbed and we couldn’t move. The heat from the lights, from each other, melted our edges, our anticipation. E— and I got stalled before Avedon’s pensive Marilyn it seemed forever.


Avedon, really a gracious, humble man, threw the staff a dinner. Once more I took E—. While we ate he went around with a Polaroid, taking candid shots. But he kept missing our table, so I flagged him and asked if he would get E— and he immediately complied. E— froze, then broke into an exotic pose, hands and elbows thrown into the air.

When Avedon returned with the developed picture, she took it, stood, touched his arm—this memory breaks through the layers now, through the noise—and kisses him on the mouth.

Gary Garvin

Jan 202017


Michelle Kuo in “The Shining,” Artforum, cites Siegfried Kracauer who tells us that the artist’s “tasks multiply in proportion to the world’s loss of reality.” Our sense of reality has been stretched to the limit this past year:

The power of the visual has ascended to ever-greater heights, even in a world of invisible networks of control, of flexible and tentacular streams of surveillance, biopower, and microregulation. But at the same time, the top-down dissemination of information via mass culture in the twentieth century has been hyperdiversified, splintered. Today, we confront the spectral atomization of disinformation throughout the dark reaches of the internet, the most esoteric voices flowing like microscopic particles into the lifeblood of the media apparatus. Technological networks can amplify these bits and flows—exponentially, monstrously, radically. And the most effective vehicle for these streams is the image: the appearance of truth, or of might.

Kuo accordingly offers this solution:

Just as other disciplines have, art must think the unthinkable. Art must counter image with image—constructing pictures but also precipitating their undoing, their disruption, their unmooring. Just as Trump’s image seems to usher forth a world of risk, a state of chaotic volatility, art has long fomented the contingent, the unprecedented. Like spectacle, art seduces, frightens, incites, deranges; it glows.

Her proposal needs debate. The essay, however, is a must read for anyone who wants to look ahead. The full text can be found here.

The image above, via rogerebert.com, is a still from the movie version of 1984, with Richard Burton in the role of O’Brien.

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

Orwell’s simple contradictions have been surpassed, his ironies shattered.

Gary Garvin

Dec 182016


Then in a flowry valley set him down
On a green bank, and set before him spred
A table of Celestial Food, Divine,
Ambrosial, Fruits fetcht from the tree of life,
And from the fount of life Ambrosial drink,
That soon refresh’d him wearied, and repair’d
What hunger, if aught hunger had impair’d,
Or thirst, and as he fed, Angelic Quires
Sung Heavenly Anthems of his victory
Over temptation and the Tempter proud. 

Image by the Gefen Team, via designboom:

Tel Aviv-based creative agency gefen team has come up with a series of limited-edition bottles that can snap a picture of you while you sip your soft drink … gefen team’s vision for the coca-cola selfie bottle brings the brand closer to a generation of younger buyers, who would undoubtedly enjoy selfie-taking while they sip. users were able to seamlessly upload the pictures to their phone or computer for easy social media sharing across their own, and the company’s platforms.

Text for Paradise Regained from The John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth College.

See also: Paradise Lost

Gary Garvin

Nov 242016


The scale of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton is enormous. The sphere alone has a diameter of 500 feet. Cypress trees, symbols of mourning, circle the monument on three levels, tightly spaced. A cenotaph is a monument honoring a person whose remains lie elsewhere.

Boullée was the son of an architect, a brilliant student who went on to teach and become a first-class member of Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris. It is late eighteenth century. Neoclassicism was in full bloom and ideas of the Enlightenment were in the air.

Holes are cut in the exterior to simulate inside the points of light of stars in the universe, the interior otherwise black:


At night a central hanging light illumines:


O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self.

Boullée says about his monument in a treatise.

The cenotaph rests on a solid foundation, a belief in reason and basic truths and the truth of basic forms, in an orderly fitting together of parts, the power of architecture to reform. It was never built, however, because practically it was unfeasible. Boullée was a visionary.

The French Revolution was around the corner.

Postmodernists took a liking, for a while.


Almost no one was there the day we went, so we had it to ourselves. We climbed the broad stairs and entered through a round opening, large yet still dwarfed by the sphere. Then we walked through a long tunnel that took us to the interior, to the center, where rested the empty sarcophagus. We glanced at the sarcophagus, then looked up at the stars.

Newtonian physics still works well enough for us, day to day. Of course the universe is expanding, of course it is made of stuff we only somewhat understand, but we were content to see it fixed on the ceiling and we spent the rest of the day enveloping ourselves in ourselves and each other, reaching out into a space that seemed endless.

Night, when the light went on, we were blinded.

Gary Garvin

Nov 172016


Haste hither Eve, and worth thy sight behold
Eastward among those Trees, what glorious shape
Comes this way moving


Ah, why should all mankind
For one mans fault thus guiltless be condemn’d,
If guiltless?


But from mee what can proceed,
But all corrupt, both Mind and Will deprav’d,
Not to do onely, but to will the same
With me?


Either to disinthrone the King of Heav’n
We warr, if Warr be best, or to regain
Our own right lost: him to unthrone we then
May hope when everlasting Fate shall yeild
To fickle Chance, and Chaos judge the strife


High in the midst exalted as a God
Th’ Apostate in his Sun-bright Chariot sate
Idol of Majesty Divine, enclos’d
With Flaming Cherubim, and golden Shields


So under fierie Cope together rush’d
Both Battels maine, with ruinous assault
And inextinguishable rage; all Heav’n
Resounded, and had Earth bin then, all Earth
Had to her Center shook.


The rest in imitation to like Armes
Betook them, and the neighbouring Hills uptore;
So Hills amid the Air encounterd Hills
Hurl’d to and fro with jaculation dire,
That under ground, they fought in dismal shade;
Infernal noise; Warr seem’d a civil Game
To this uproar; horrid confusion heapt
Upon confusion rose: and now all Heav’n
Had gone to wrack, with ruin overspred


Go then thou Mightiest in thy Fathers might,
Ascend my Chariot, guide the rapid Wheeles
That shake Heav’ns basis, bring forth all my Warr,
My Bow and Thunder, my Almightie Arms
Gird on, and Sword upon thy puissant Thigh;
Pursue these sons of Darkness, drive them out
From all Heav’ns bounds into the utter Deep:
There let them learn, as likes them, to despise
God and Messiah his anointed King.


. . . a noble stroke he lifted high,
Which hung not, but so swift with tempest fell
On the proud Crest of Satan, that no sight,
Nor motion of swift thought, less could his Shield
Such ruin intercept: ten paces huge
He back recoild; the tenth on bended knee


Hence then, and evil go with thee along
Thy ofspring, to the place of evil, Hell,
Thou and thy wicked crew; there mingle broiles,
Ere this avenging Sword begin thy doome,
Or som more sudden vengeance wing’d from God
Precipitate thee with augmented paine.


(Paradise Lost text via The John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth College. All pictures by the author from the 6th Annual Pattie’s Cruise In, a car show and street festival in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. Special thanks to the guys at NWA Blue Collar Wrestling.)

(— Gary Garvin)

Nov 132016

Working Title/Artist: The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull)Department: Am. Paintings / SculptureCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1871 Digital Photo File Name: DT86.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 06/08/15

Max Schmitt and his reflection have been with me some sixty years, almost my entire life. I first saw him as a child, browsing through the only art book we had on the shelves, Modern American Painting, by Peyton Boswell, Jr., published in 1939. My mother’s influence, but perhaps my father’s. Schmitt gazed towards but not directly at me, with a look that wasn’t recognition or identification yet which made contact and left an opening I haven’t yet closed. With the opening, a proposition that I couldn’t understand then but may have felt, or maybe just a simple statement I still don’t wish to refute. I bought a print some fifteen years ago and he has been on a wall as I’ve moved around the last years, a protracted season of dislocation.


The painting is Thomas Eakins’s The Champion Single Sculls, also known as Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, completed in 1871. Click the image above for full enlargement. Schmitt, a friend of the painter, was Philadelphia’s single-scull champion several years. Rowing was popular then, and he was a well-known and well-loved figure in amateur sports across the nation, forgotten now. But I did not know that until much later, nor does Eakins show crowds teeming on the shores cheering him on at the height of victory as he crosses the finish line. He doesn’t even show him demonstrating his strength and skill executing a hard pull on the oars in tense, charged exertion. Rather he presents him dressed in casual gear during a practice session on a crisp autumn day, by himself, in a nearly deserted scene made luminous by a clarifying late-afternoon sun. Schmitt has just made a turn on the Schuylkill River and now relaxes, the wakes from his scull and oars leaving broad trailing curves that take us into the painting and set its composition, giving it its energy. To me, for so many years, he was only a man named Schmitt and he was just there, resting above the still water, looking out, balancing the oars in one hand, which more and more I realize is a marvelous feat.

Working Title/Artist: The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull)Department: Am. Paintings / SculptureCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1871 Digital Photo File Name: DT86.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 06/08/15

The bridges are rendered in sharp, accurate perspective—Eakins was a master of the technique—but other painters had already begun to flatten space and dismantle it, taking art in rapid acceleration on an unknown path. And we see on the horizon the developing technology of the time, the train about to cross one bridge, a steam boat to pass under, this when our technology was taking off, with it, our mounting wonder.


Nor does Eakins show influence of the Impressionists, who had already begun exploring the transience of light and stating the primacy of paint, of colors. Above, Claude Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère, painted in 1869.


There is no evidence Eakins even visited the Salon des Refusés, and he had his chance. He was in Paris at the time, studying under Jean-Léon Gérôme, an academic painter who enjoyed considerable popular and critical success, for example with his Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar! We Who Are about to Die Salute You).

Eakins has done nothing to alter the esthetic course of art or change our perceptions. He presents the world as solid, and academic rigor anchors his work. Yet the painting is alive, in the shimmering blur of brush along the shore, the erratic reach of the trees, the brisk scrape of clouds above. It succeeds at what makes any work endure, working within a form and giving it life and expression. I have never tired of looking. Each time it is fresh and vital.

He does make a break, however, and it comes from his subject matter, which was rejected by the official salons of Paris and shocked established Philadelphia. He has given us a common man not posing but relaxing in informal clothes, performing an everyday behavior without ceremony, without appropriation of past claims and pretense, in an ordinary place without hierarchy of space or institution. We have begun to look at ourselves and it is liberating.


Perhaps Schmitt is looking at someone on the shore, perhaps he is taken in a thought, or perhaps he is deflecting one. There’s a severity in his face and he seems to scowl, but he’s only frowning in the glare of the sun. His look did not put me off as a boy and must have instilled this note back then, that whoever, wherever we are, whatever we hope to be, we need to maintain vigilance, skepticism, and a measure of reserve.

Really, Eakins doesn’t give us much to identify him as an individual, but his portrait is made in the whole landscape, of which he is a part but where he keeps his separation. There is light. And there is transcendence, but where it takes us is back to exactly what we see, the clouds, the trees, the brush, the trailing curves in the river, and Max Schmitt resting above still water, looking out, balancing oars in one hand.

I have looked at the painting several times this past week, for confirmation, or reassurance, or to restore a definition, and I realize how the painting has always stood for me, that it shows me what it means to be American, vigorous and assertive yet relaxed and open, and free of historical encumbrance; self-assured but not self-possessed and not afraid.

Failing that, it is a picture of what it means to be alive, to be oneself by oneself, and not be alone.

There’s a kind of idealism in realism, or can be, a belief that the simple fact of our existence is worth stating and preserving.

Gary Garvin

Nov 032016


Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. 

The cities in Italo Calvino’s novel are metaphors for cities. And for our experiences, alone and together, within the walls we construct around ourselves, walls being metaphors themselves. And are metaphors for other metaphors. And for much else our walls cannot contain, what escapes our most rigorous designs, what exists within, beneath, and above the surface of our intentions. As Marco Polo tells us,

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Karina Puente, an architect and urbanist based in Lima, Peru, who has worked on plans for the Lima of the future, has also begun illustrating each of Calvino’s 55 cities. The drawings capture much from the text, but they also have a magic of their own. Her progress can be found at her site here, and you can learn more about Karina and the project in this interview at Kindle.

Above, Isaura, the city of a thousand wells, whose borders are determined by a subterranean lake beneath, its design by all that is needed to extract the water.

Consequently two forms of religion exist in Isaura. The city’s gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells,

And live in all the other apparatus and construction that brings the water to the top. It is a city “that moves entirely upward.”


Tamara is a city of signs:

You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something—who knows what?—has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star.

The city explains itself in these signs. Yet:

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.


Anastasia has concentric canals and much in it streets that captures our senses and feeds our desires.

The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.

However for those who work to give shape to these desires

your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form

And we end being Anastasia’s slaves.

As for Kublai Khan, as for all of us, the narrator tells us,

In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.

Gary Garvin

Oct 302016


Davidson College is a small school in Davidson, North Carolina, part of suburban Charlotte now but years ago a crossroads town that quickly trailed off into the country. You could see a French professor get his hair cut next to a farmer. All the barbers in town were black, and by convention for many years they served blacks only after hours. But they had a thriving business, which they wanted to protect. One or two years of ROTC was mandatory back then, not an uncommon practice. Also there was a war going on, so even after the requirement was dropped many students still enrolled in ROTC. They all had to get haircuts, and a haircut, like much else then, was simple. Keep it short and straight. It was students who protested the policy and finally got the barbers to change, though not without a fight.

When I attended, however, the Vietnam War was winding down. We let our hair grow. Our basketball team wasn’t very good, but they probably had the longest hair in the NCAA. At least they beat Harvard. The barbers were having a hard time and could be seen standing idly in empty shops.

One day, impossibly maned, I paused at one and debated. Christmas break was coming up and I would soon be going home. I started to turn away when a black hand grabbed me.

“Where you going?” the barber asked.

“I guess I’m going to get a haircut,” I said.

And I did.

I didn’t know what I wanted or what to tell him and he didn’t know what to do with me, but something was managed. He was a good guy, who had kids.

“You are the all-American boy,” he said when he finished and spun me around to look at myself in the mirror.

My philosophy professor said I looked like Prince Valiant, the one in the comics.

Gary Garvin

Oct 272016


Milan Kundera begins The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by telling the story of the pictures above:

In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.

I had a Czech student decades ago who told me the story of how her mother, a schoolgirl at the time, again in Prague, I think, performed this act of historical revision. Her teacher instructed the class to open their books, pull out their pencils, and erase one of the men. Except by mistake she told them to erase Gottwald, not Clementis. So they had to go back and erase Clementis as well. Then no one was on the podium. There wasn’t even a hat.

My student was bright and beautiful, as her mother must have been.

Gary Garvin

Oct 172016


Fiction is a construction that arranges space and has a structure that defines spatial relationships. As such it is a kind of architecture, but its structure, especially in our more challenging, more exploratory fictions cannot be pictured as the simple pyramid Freytag gave us years ago. Matteo Pericoli, architect, author, and illustrator, has students explore these relationships and make them visible in models they build in his Laboratory of Literary Architecture, a workshop he has taught around the world. As he says:

In any real architectural project, there are ideas that need to be designed and conveyed, a supporting structure, sequences of spaces, surprises and suspensions, hierarchies of space and function, and so on. In creative writing, many of the challenges seem to be similar. For example, how should different strands of narrative be intertwined? How can chronology be rearranged in a plot sequence? How is tension expressed? What do certain narrative sequences and omissions convey or mean? How do characters connect?

And he cites Alice Munro, from her Selected Stories:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Above, Katherine Treppendahl’s model of Joyce’s Ulysses.

This model represents my interpretation of the structural relationships within James Joyce’s Ulysses. While the novel occurs over the course of just one day, the text is lengthy, rich and exhaustive. The central story is that of salesman wandering Dublin. But revolving around and within that story are thousands of others—both internal stories developed within the novel and allusions to stories external to the text. The primary external text is, of course, Homer’s Odyssey, and the chapters and characters in Joyce’s novel reflect scenes and characters from Homer’s story. I developed an architectural language for translating multiple aspects of the structure of the novel. This language takes into account the progression from realism to abstraction in the text, the shifting roles of and intersections between key characters, the passage of time, the interior stylistic parallels, and the reader’s journey through the text.

Her full analysis of the model is extensive and can be found at her site here.


W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, by Joss Lake in collaboration with Stephanie Jones.

The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room … The darkness of the tall and narrow space is broken by clusters of light bulbs. The constellations of lights are not comforting; they too are disconcerting … These light bulbs are the core of the novel, the details that Sebald, and his narrator, use to recover the past.


Amy Hempel’s essentially plotless story “The Harvest” derives its motion and containment elsewhere. Ytav Bouhsira, Barbara Clinton, Silvia Jost, Eithne Reynolds created this solution.

The different planes of understanding cause discomfort for the reader. So compelling was the story that reading it was likened to being on a fast train and unable to get off.

We developed models to better reflect our understanding of what the structure of the story would look like and to give the story its spatial form. What emerged were models with airy layers, corners and angles. Through discussion, we realized that we were more comfortable with a form that shows that the author tries by different planes to adjust the story again and again.

While our structure is layered, these layers to not overlap. Rather than giving the reader more information, they show a different attempt of place-making. They have connection and are built one upon the other. There are no pillars or stairs that hold the building together. The space and the structure are the same.

What makes our building inhabitable is that the ground and roof are speaking the same material language. They create a system that allows the narrative to work. The different layers connect with the roof at just one single point–which reflects the moment in the narration where the author talks to us directly in the text and disrupts the narration.

The models are interesting in their own right and take on a life of their own. They could serve as starting points for other fictions.

All text from his site, all pictures © Matteo Pericoli, with his generous permission. More pictures of these models and other models can be found there. Matteo also, along with Giuseppe Franco, has begun a series of Literary Architecture projects in The Paris Review Daily that can be found here.

I had to try my own, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


The first thought is to make a winding corridor into density and darkness. But really the stalled trip up the river only provides an intensification of what we see in glimpses at the beginning. The plot does not develop anything we haven’t seen before and resolves nothing. It is not a novel of action, but of Marlow’s discovery and perception.

My model, like the novel, rests on water. Marlow tells his story while on the Thames waiting for the tide, makes his trip on a river, and the novel ends with the narrator’s gaze on “the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.” Instead of a plot line my model takes its structure from a rational grid of streets the color of blood. Rising from the grid a crystalline city, or a section of one. The novel shows us almost nothing of Africa or its people. What we most see instead, and what I show, is the western imposition and exploitation. As Marlow tells us, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” and it was the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs who commissioned him to write the report on which he later scrawled “Exterminate all the brutes!”


“The meaning of an episode,” the narrator tells us of Marlow’s story, “was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz throws “a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts.” My model captures this glow in reflected lights, but instead of the sought transcendence we have transparency of motive. There is no green in the model. I rejected Conrad’s notion that darkness was inherent in nature. We largely see nature in the novel as an obstruction or source for plunder. The darkness in the heart of Africa comes from ourselves, our contradictions, our corrupt projections.

Gary Garvin

Sep 222016


I recently relocated to the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and have been trying to get my bearings. “Gritty” St. Johns, as Portlanders say, or “up-and-coming” St. Johns, as Realtors tell us, was once an independent city built on its port and a few industries. It was incorporated into Portland a century ago. The other day I walked by a display, pictured above, in the windows of a store that had just closed. Free verse, public art—Sharon Helgerson tells her story and St. Johns’. Age 79, she is third generation St. Johns and a former Longshoreman, once a member of ILWU Local 8.







Nolan Calisch and Nina Montenegro joined to put her words up, part of People’s Homes, a collaborative art project. The store is across the street from James John Grade School, where Sharon began attendance in 1942.

The other morning I searched online to see what I else I could find about Sharon and ran across this casual picture she took in 1968:

bobby-kennedy-st-johnsVia the St. Johns Heritage Association.

Bobby Kennedy, campaigning in Portland, made an appearance in St. Johns after their May parade, just a block away from the school, the store with the sign, and the place where I now live. Ethel and John Glenn were there as well. Two weeks later Bobby was shot.

The coming elections are in mind, and I’ve been thinking about ways to repair the break in time and the rent in our social fabric, as well as imagine what words I might put in a public window some day, without success.

Gary Garvin