Sunday, October 31, 2010


Mabel Watson Payne shares a moment of private hilarity with her mother.

Exploding Phone

This recent stencil, discovered on a Mission sidewalk in San Francisco, represents one more manifestation of contemporary life that I probably do not understand. It seems to offer evidence for the existence of at least a few bright young artist-type stencil-spraying Mission hipsters who are hostile to expensive hand-held electronic gadgetry. Yet I see them in their hundreds every day blithely inhabiting the neighborhood and I never see a single one who is not glued to an iPhone. Maybe the hostile ones only come out at night, after I am asleep, to spray their iconoclastic visual messages.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


It was very early on a damp Saturday morning when I carried the laundry down these somewhat spooky stairs at Spencer Alley in San Francisco.

Outside, I passed the steeple of the German Lutheran Church (scaffolded all around) and remembered what it looked like in the sunshine a couple of days ago when the scaffolding first went up.

But on Saturday morning the sun had become altogether a stranger. I had heard rain falling during the night. The air was still heavy with drizzle and the streets were empty.

Someone was trying to sleep on the wet pavement under the shrine of the Mater Dolorosa built into the adobe wall of Mission Dolores graveyard.

Inside the niche near the feet of the statue a few candles burned. The offering ledge held white gladioli. And there was a banana on the base of the plinth for the homeless person.

When I went back later to get my clothes out of the driers, other people were beginning to venture outdoors.

The blue blanket and its owner had disappeared, but the banana remained behind.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook

Conceptual artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook works and teaches in Thailand. For the Two Planets series Rasdjarmrearnsook made photographs and videos of Thai farmers on their home ground confronted by massively framed masterpieces of 19th century French art.

In an interview here Rasdjarmrearnsook explained the intention behind the project: I am currently working with traditional sculpture and painting which will be videoed. I want to make and film a masterpiece; but a masterpiece for Thai farmers. No-one talks about Thai farmer’s values. Here I will use video not to register the so-called real but as a vehicle for expressing something like fantasy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tea Party

My boyfriend thinks these people will soon be rounding up the San Francisco queers and cattle-prodding them into camps behind barbed wire.

I say, "What? Those fat fools?"

"After the barbed wire comes extermination," he cogently argues. "History repeats itself."

"All they're worried about is where their next Double Whopper is coming from," I say.

"Don't put this up on the internet," he warns. "You'll get on their hit list."

"Oh, I'm so scared."

"You should take this seriously."

"I can't. I'm sorry."

Image source is here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


St. Cyriacus is shown above, enduring a typically unpleasant form of martyrdom. Reputedly, he was the bishop of the Roman city of Ancona in the 4th century.

I just finished reading a book about his namesake, Cyriacus of Ancona, who lived a millennium later in the early 15th century – To Wake the Dead : a Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology by Marina Belozerskaya. In the 1430s and 40s when Cyriacus was exploring around the eastern Mediterranean in search of Greek and Roman ruins, nobody else was very much interested. The Renaissance had just about started up in Florence under Cosimo di Medici, but Rome was still an impoverished medieval village where ancient marble monuments were regularly dismantled to be reused as building material.

In 1444 Cyriacus made this drawing of the Parthenon (it was largely intact at that time and didn't reach its present skeletal condition until the Venetians bombed it 250 years later). Belozerskaya says that no European for a thousand years before Cyriacus had found the Parthenon worth mentioning in writing at all.

The story of Cyriacus makes sad reading. Many of the monuments and treasures he rediscovered in Greece and Turkey no longer exist, destroyed (between his time and ours) as often by thieves and souvenir hunters as by ordinary pillagers. Even in Rome the Popes continued to strip Roman buildings for raw materials or knock them down to make wider streets right up to the 18th century. The cross-cut saw seen at top splitting St. Cyriacus down the middle makes an appropriate emblem for the noble futility embodied in the life of Cyriacus of Ancona.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Strict Form


In 1953, Mary and Bill adopted John,
Five, and his biological half-brother, Leslie,
Three, via Catholic Social Services. Kathy,
Three, followed four years later. Paul
Made his surprise debut in 1960; Danny
Was born in 1962, followed by love-child Lisa.

As far as Danny knows, no one abused Lisa.
Mary and Bill always said that John
Was badly beaten while in foster care. Danny
Recalls that the mother of John and Leslie
Was a drug-addicted teen from the Haight; Paul
Corroborates. Things were always hard for Kathy.

Kathy's mother left twenty-month old Kathy
On a stoop. Yet when Mary gave birth to Lisa,
Lost her right breast, and ate her Nembutal, Paul
and Danny and Lisa turned to Kathy, not to John –
And certainly not to quiet, freckle-faced Leslie,
Who would rape Kathy the next July. Danny

Recalls how Kathy mothered little Danny
and Lisa and Paul; how an angry Kathy
(Given name: "Mary") once got greasy Leslie
To look up from his Harley by screaming, "Lisa
Is mine!" Bill didn't get it. Wasn't it John
The reformatory expelled? Paul

Said lucky John had climbed its steeple. Lucky Paul –
Too young to go to Vietnam! And lucky Danny,
Who would watch dishonorably discharged John
Eat salted octopus from a purple can. And lucky Kathy –
Her boyfriend out-butterflied Mark Spitz. And lucky Lisa
On Mary's knee, beside the vodka. But poor Leslie,

Bill said, at last, to Mary, poor dumbshit Leslie,
Discharged, too – in shackles – at the Alameda. Paul
and Mary and Danny and Kathy and Lisa
Sat in the Marquis to sing, "Welcome home!" Danny
Dove into the no-space between Leslie and Kathy.
Paul said, "I have a machete." Leslie asked, "Where's John?"

Danny begged Leslie for Viet coins and bills
While Mary and Kathy mumbled ten "Hail Marys"
And Paul told Lisa, "Popes say rosaries in the john."

Daniel Bosch

from the TLS (that repository of good taste)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Economic Geography

When I was a young college boy I took a class in Economic Geography – which had the double advantage of fulfilling a science requirement and not involving math. To my great surprise, concepts from that class still regularly occur to me, especially when I see urban buildings falling into ruins.

These Midwestern examples (which I discovered here) look far more likely to be demolished than saved – simply because they are wrong for the time and the place where they find themselves, even though they were exactly right for the time and the place when they were built. They have not moved, but the world around them has.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Madame Camus

On Inhabiting an Orange

All our roads go nowhere.
Maps are curled
To keep the pavement definitely
On the world.

All our footsteps, set to make
Metric advance,
Lapse into arcs in deference
To circumstance.

All our journeys nearing Space
Skirt it with care,
Shying at the distances
Present in air.

Blithely travel-stained and worn,
Erect and sure,
All our travels go forth,
Making down the roads of Earth
Endless detour.

– Josephine Miles (source: Poetry)

The orange portrait at top came into existence in 1869. Edgar Degas painted it in the image of his good friend, Madame Camus. Also in 1869 he painted the same woman just turning away from her piano keyboard, and that one is called Madame Camus at the Piano. Sometimes the orange one is called Madame Camus, sometimes it is called Evening, and sometimes it is called Madame Camus (Evening). The American industrialist Chester Dale and his wife Maud bequeathed the orange Degas to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1962. As far as anyone knows neither one of them had ever read the 1934 poem by Josephine Miles that is indisputably and inextricably linked (in my mind) with this painting. I knew Josephine Miles in the 1970s as an elderly professor at UC Berkeley. She was by that time virtually immobilized by rheumatoid arthritis yet still writing vigorously and surrounded by ardent student admirers.

Madame Camus at the Piano is in the Bührle Collection in Zurich. It was stolen by the Nazis from Alphonse Kann's house near Paris, despite the fact that the Nazis disapproved of Impressionism. What they did in France when they stole modern paintings was to trade them to French dealers for Old Master paintings that they considered fit to be sent back to Germany. Then the French dealers sold the modern masterpieces to other buyers and everybody made a killing – except of course for the Jewish victims of the original thefts. In this way, Madame Camus at the Piano was sold on to the Swiss arms manufacturer Emil Georg Bührle (1890-1956). After the war Herr Bührle refused to surrender his large collection of looted art until lawsuits forced him to do so. In 1949 Madame Camus at the Piano made her way back to France and was restored to Alphonse Kann's heirs. Oddly enough they chose to sell it straight back to Emil Bührle – who must have genuinely loved the painting, since he bought it twice – so that is how it comes to be in Switzerland today.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rosebud Pajamas

The streets were loud in honor of the San Francisco Giants who won the game tonight that allows them to go to the World Series.

Mabel Watson Payne is thoroughly accustomed to noisy streets outside her urban windows and paid no special attention to the Giants commotion.

She enjoyed an ordinary evening, spent mainly in exercising a growing curiosity about her surroundings.

All of us with chances to share the space she inhabits know enough to be grateful for the tender patience of her gaze.

And grateful for the incomparable sight of Mabel Watson Payne in her rosebud pajamas.

At diaper-changing time, shortly after these pictures were taken, she consented to converse for several minutes in her own magical language, brought over with her from the parallel universe where babies originate.