Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Category: Random Stuff (page 1 of 7)

Talking to the awesome Robert Engman

Engman and work

By far the most impactful and memorable class I took in university was a figure drawing class I took freshman year. It was great spending  six hours a week trying to figure out the human form, but what was really amazing about the course was the professor, Robert Engman.

Robert was actually a sculptor, but apparently he was unhappy with some of the foundational abilities of his students, so set up a figure drawing class loosely modeled on how he had learned to draw at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t care if you were an MFA student, a BFA, or just a random undergraduate from any other school, he just liked mentoring and helping young people learn to see better (which is, after all, the true foundation of art).

Engman4

In between drawing sessions, Robert would talk. And talk and talk and talk — about pretty much anything. Art, life, yoga, his military service in WWII, the New York art scene of the 1960s. He was one of the least pretentious and most accomplished people I’ve ever met. He could be incredibly demanding, but at the same time he was also always kind and thoughtful*.

Which is why I was so happy to discover that someone has posted an extended interview with Robert from his home studio just outside of Philadelphia. Robert is 89 years old now (and the interview was done a couple of years ago), but his soft voice and eclectic thoughts are just like I remember from when I studied with him, nearly 30 years ago.

Engman-sculpt

In addition to Robert’s incredible range of brilliant insights about life, I also loved his approach to art. In particular, I love how his concept of what is important about art revolved around the artist, not the audience or the critic. He would say things like:

“When you go to a museum and you see an array of finished, so-called important works of art, that doesn’t have much to do with what they’re really about. But if you start to paint yourself, now you find out how closely you locate what painters ultimately come to when they start to invent things of their own.

“There’s a whole world of common human experiences, things we share together, and we can talk about it and have ideas. But there’s one thing that takes place in us that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that’s the connection those things have through us.

“I’ve made I-don’t-know-how-many pieces of art, but I’m the only one who knows what that is. You can show them the things, but that doesn’t tell them what that is.”

Or:

“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.”

And I loved how comfortable he was with commercialism. He used to talk about how the “proper” size for an artwork was the minimum you needed to explore an idea. Big works which were big for no reason were basically pretentious nonsense. However, he was also aware that artists need to eat, so if you took your minimalist idea and blew it up huge to make some money, that was totally all right. As Robert used to say:

“Two-thirds art, one-third paying the rent is fine. One-third art and two-thirds paying the rent is fine, too. As long as it all isn’t just to pay the rent.”

Triune

Which is good advice, considering his “Triune” sculpture, near Philadelphia City Hall, is pretty frickin’ huge.

Anyhow, if you have the time, take a listen. I hope you’ll find him as fascinating, brilliant, and wonderful as I do.

—————

*Note: This is 2017, when all our idols are revealed have feet of clay. So if Robert turns out to be a Balrog in human form or something similarly terrible, apologies in advance.

 

Comics (and scifi?) come of age in 2017

Legion

Okay, superheroes and science-fiction media franchises have been big business for around a decade now. So many superhero movies are getting released all the time, I know we’re getting sick of it all. But having just finished watching the Legion TV series, I think it’s safe to say the genre has really taken a major step forward, at least in terms in TV and the movies — at last, superhero media are becoming templates for telling all types of stories, light, serious, mainstream, and weird, like the comic books that inspired them.

When it comes to TV and movies, so much of superhero storytelling has long seemed, well, just bad. Even as a 7-year-old, watching the original Superman movie, the concept of spinning the planet Earth backwards to reverse time seemed pretty sketchy. Hollywood’s approach to superheroes, like scifi or fantasy in general, wasn’t very smart or respectful of the genre … and certainly not very good as scifi or fantasy.

But then in 2000 came the first X-Man movie, and its relative quality was a big surprise, followed by X-Men 2 and the first Spider-Man movies. Nevertheless, in terms of sophistication, tone, etc., most comics book movies and sci-fi movies were decades behind the mainstream culture (let alone the cutting edge) in writing and drawing.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were a big step forward and got all sorts of praise; but, really, they were mostly just updating the superhero movie to about the point of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns miniseries (which came out in 1986!). Yes, they were progress, but still 25 years or so behind the comics (and then the Superman V. Batman movie went right back to that same well for more ideas).

Batman Superman

And even Nolan’s “serious” movies like Inception and Interstellar were pretty sketchy in terms of sci-fi — “the power of love” helping the hero cut through space-time to save the day? In 2014? Really?

Anyhow, so Marvel begins to kick butt once they took over their own production with the first Iron Man movie. People were generally pretty impressed and the film got lots of great reviews, peaking with the Avengers, but people soon grew tired with the noisy, meaninglessness of it all.

But it looks like Marvel was keeping an eye out on popular opinion, and took steps to stay ahead of the curve. And rather than doing so by emphasizing special effects and bombast, they’ve instead chosen to focus more on finding interesting voices to tell those stories. Choosing oddballs like James Gunn (who came from Troma Studios) and Scott Derrickson (who did a Hellraiser movie) was a sign of a new set of priorities.

This year, that approach to superheroes really got a lot more interesting, with the much-praised Logan movie, and now with the Legion TV series.

I really loved Legion in particular  because I so vividly remember reading those Chris Claremont-Bill Sienkiewicz issues of New Mutants that inspired the TV show. Back in the mid-1980s, coming across art like Sienkiewicz in mainstream comics was really mind-blowing. Collages, mixed media, and furious scribbles of jagged ink defined Sienkiewicz’s art, and I went crazy for it.

BS-NewMutants

Combining those classic comics with Noah Hawley (Fargo) was a masterstroke. As Bill Simmons said of the 30 For 30 documentary series he devised for ESPN: If you hire brilliant people, get out of the way and let them be brilliant.

BS-NM-David

To be honest, I was a bit ambivalent after the opening episode of Legion. I thought it was a bit precious, like it was trying too hard. I was worried that once the story got going, it was going to revert into something more traditionally superhero-y, with cheap, TV-level special effects. Was I ever wrong. Throughout the first season of Legion, the storytelling remained vibrant and creative, based on the characters rather than mindless action.

Factor in other good examples, like Arrival (a decent, if flawed, attempt to bringing Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” to the big screen) and perhaps Blade Runner 2049, and it is looking like this is a very good time to be a fan of scifi movies.

large_Arrival-Poster-2016

Of course, there will still be plenty of dumb scifi and superheroes coming our way. 95% of everything is junk, as the saying goes. But it is nice to think that the best stuff is getting better, really pushing the boundaries of TV and film — even if it took a generation for those media to catch up to the comics.

Getting closer…

Sorry for the extended radio silence. A new job and the usual life stuff makes it harder to find the time to say much worthwhile. However, that could be changing soon.

First up: Pop Goes Korea update. Yes, I’m actually making progress. In fact, there’s just one more chapter to update – unfortunately, it’s the music chapter, which definitely is going to require the biggest update. But that’s okay. It’s all pretty fun stuff to write about. Oh, and I’m hoping to add a couple of Q&As, just to add some other people’s thoughts and experiences to my overview of the Korean entertainment and media scene.

Of course, even when the writing and editing is done, I’m going to have to figure out e-book publishing on all those online stores (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). That might take a bit of figuring out. But hopefully it won’t take too much longer.

In other writing news, my publisher tells me that my new novel is supposed to be ready and in the world in June. So that’s pretty exciting, too. I was lucky enough to meet the cover artist, Eric Belisle, in Tokyo a few weeks ago, and in addition to being a fun and fascinating guy, Eric also came up with a couple of fun changes to the cover based on our chat. I’ve seen an early version and I’m pretty happy with it.

So, it looks like the next few months could be fun and productive for me. I hope you enjoy the results!

Picture this

Okay, so the revamp of Pop Goes Korea is taking a lot longer than I anticipated. Sorry about that. But I will try to have the new edition up as an e-book before too long, so people needing it for this semester at university will have time to read.

On the plus side, one reason it is going slow is because I am happy with the new material and all the good feedback I’ve gotten from people. It’s been a pretty crazy 8-9 years for Korean pop culture since the book was published, and there’s a lot to cover.

In the meantime, here are some more fun pics from around Seoul. A nice sunset from up high in Myeongdong.

myeongdong-sunset-170105

And a shot from down on the streets below (well, Euljiro, but later that same night).

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

I used to live right here in Donggyo-dong, back when this park was a train track. I remember the day they pulled up the tracks and started digging down to build the airport express line. It took forever for the city to finish the train line, and then for years this land was just derelict. But now, it is quite a nice park.

donggyo-dong-park

Here is an image from Sangil-dong, where developers are tearing down nearly all the old apartment blocks. Coming soon, towering apartments, 25 stories high or more.

sangil-teardown-2017

And here’s a fun one from a nearby forest, when the air cleared up and it was a nice 10 degree day in January.

Sangil-forest-Jan2017

2016 is winding down

Another year is nearly done, and once again I find my life strangely in flux. There’s a new job about to begin in January — in a totally new part of town I’ve never really hung out in before. I think it is a really good-looking job, but I will miss working in the old, run-down Euljiro part of town. It had a lot of ramshackle beauty.

Euljiro3ga-night

Meanwhile, I’m still at work on POP GOES KOREA, 2nd Edition. So much has gone on with Korea’s entertainment scene since the first edition, revising it is turning into a bigger task than I envisioned back in October. But I’m still hoping to get it done in time for the start of the next semester’s classes (for students who might need it as a resource).

Oh, because the weather is so cold at the moment, here are a couple of photos of Okinawa from a recent trip there. Sunny, warm Okinawa…

Okinawa1

Come on in, enjoy the nice warm water. But btw, here is a small list of the local critters that might maim or kill you…

Okinawa2

Oh, but here’s something from the sea that we killed first. Justice!

Okinawa4

 

Talking music on the radio

My good friend Shawn left Korea last year after seven years there, most of that spent immersed in the local indie music scene. Since moving to Hamilton, Ontario (that would be Canada), he’s had a weekly radio show about Korean indie music on McMaster University radio, CFMU.

As I am currently visiting family nearby, Shawn invited me to join him on last week’s show. It was good fun. For an hour, I shared some of my favorite Korean music, and we chatted a bit about music things. You can listen to the results on Mixcloud. (I also briefly wrote about it over on the Korea Gig Guide).

 

Not a bad weekend …

Friday, the brutal month-long heatwave finally broke, as temperatures dropped into the 20s and nearly all the pollution just disappeared. The result was some of the best weather I can recall in Seoul in ages. Just great for sitting outside or having a picnic or whatever. And Sunday night—bonus—a rainbow.

Misari - Saturday morning

 

Gangdong Sunset

 

Gangdong Rainbow

 

Tim Duncan retires!

Duncan

Sad to hear Tim Duncan is retiring. While there have been plenty of more explosive or exciting players in the NBA, there has never been any player I respected more.

Duncan-Robinson

I mean, take a look at his stats, especially the per-36 numbers and the Advanced — they barely budged for 20 years. Just excellent right up until the end.

TD5

Warm weather in Korea

After the smog of April and before the hot and miserable weather comes, we are in the middle of some pretty nice weather. Here are some random pics of life in Seoul that I’ve encountered lately.

First of all, the green view from where I live.

Apart - May

It wasn’t so long ago it looked like this:

Gangdong-snow4

Down by the Cheonggyecheon, lots of people were taking photos and fixated on something. What? Why?

Cheonggyecheon1

Ah, some kind of heron, hanging out in the stream.

Cheonggyecheon - bird

And I recently went up to the Shilla Hotel, for the first time in ages. Got lucky with a great moon and some moody clouds.

Shilla hotel night - april

Last snow of the winter?

It seems like most years in Korea, you get that one last big snowfall in late February or early March. And once again, the weather obliged.

Gangdong-late-snow3

Gangdong-late-snow

Gangdong-late-snow2

And an hour later:

Gangdong-snow4

 

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