Category Archives: Art

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Scrimshaw – Antique Whale’s Tooth Art

Of all Americana ephemera, the nautical realm is probably the one i find most fascinating – and whale tooth engravings, known as scrimshaw, are a perfect example of why. Intricately crafted and delicate, yet impossible to separate from the manly act of butchering the largest animals on the planet, scrimshaw retains and encapsulates everything that makes a glorified life at sea an inviting one.

The employment of whale teeth originally emerged in the form of tools that sailors would forge from the excess bones of the whales they harvested, and emerged as an art form secondarily when sailors would carve designs in their spare time in the early 1800s. Unfortunately, this act created a market for whale teeth, and in consequence, the harvesting of whales specifically for their teeth, (just like elephants and the market for their tusks of ivory). Sperm whales were hunted until their species nearly collapsed, and today, scrimshaw is a form of contraband. Nonetheless, antique scrimshaw is an amazing slice of American whaling heritage.

Here are some of my favorites:

More info and pictures can be found here.

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Documenting the Untamed West: The Genius of Edward Curtis

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It’s rare when one can regard a photograph and instantly know its creator. It’s even rarer to regard a photograph that sends chills up your spine as it transports you to the scene and time in which it was taken.

The work of Edward Curtis falls into both categories.

The son of a Civil War vet, Curtis was born February 16, 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin. He began shooting with a homemade camera, before his family moved to Seattle in 1887 where Curtis started his career. While in Seattle, he photographed the daughter of Chief Sealth, Princess Angeline, and various scenes of the developing Western landscape. In 1906, J.P Morgan commissioned Curtis to shoot what would become the highwater mark of his career, a series on the North American Indian.

I won’t belabor the points of his life much more, as you can just check out his wikipedia entry here, (and I highly recommend doing so, as he led a fascinating life), but the photos below are a few of my favorites from his archive at the Library of Congress, which consists of of more than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints made from Curtis’s original glass negatives.

Teddy Roosevelt said of Curtis, “In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. …because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do.”

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SAPE: Congolese Cult of Sartorialism

The “SAPE” (La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes élégantes) is easily one of the oddest stylistic movements in existence today. Predicated on the elegant Parisian lifestyle that saturated the Congo in the early twentieth century, the sapeurs aim (and succeed) to dress as impeccably as humanly possible. To me, the panoply of haute couture clashing with the indigent physical background is what makes these guys so interesting.

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Photos via ZoneZero.

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Stuck Inside a Mobile: Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Group and Its Design Impact

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Granted, I’ve always been a big fan of Bauhaus design. But that fact, somewhat ironically, explains why I love the Memphis Group designers so much. Like the trajectory of all stylistic movements there is tension and release, but the Memphis Group pulled farther in the opposite direction than almost any reactionary movement of the 20th century. Where dominant artists and intellectuals swooned over sleek, disaffected, learned artistic value (read: Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy), the Memphis Group did the polar opposite; steeping their work in overly-saturated tones, wry and witty design – and form that took a frontseat and tossed function out the back window.

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Industrialist designer Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) is the godsfather of the movement, which was coined after a night of boozing and listening to Dylan’s “Stuck Inside a Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in 1981. Later that year, the group published a book, “Memphis: New International Style” to advertise the movement. On a rainy night in October 1982, over 3,000 people stood in line outside a loft in Chelsea, hoping to squeeze into an already brimming showroom. The event was Memphis at Midnight, the United States’ first look at the intrepid furniture that was by then sweeping the international art world. At its high the group counted among its members Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuromata, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, and journalist Barbara Radice. By 1988, the group was on its deathbed, but its impact continues to reverberate throughout the design world, (such as, in the SS ’10 Collection by Chris Benz!), and kind of lives on in my VHS copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985).

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