Plants, Stone, California Landscapes



Before Thanksgiving I took a brief trip through the southwest, including visits to several sites with cliff dwellings. Bandelier National Monument was the first, and my first time seeing cliff dwellings. A lot of fun. I was perhaps expecting the buildings to be a little more intact than they were, but it’s a great place and I loved going up into the cavates, the little caves that had been carved into the cliffside. Climbing up the ladders and crouching to go through the openings took me back to that feeling when I first saw illustrations and read about them as a kid.

I hadn’t researched Bandelier ahead of time and I was expecting tighter stonework but it’s actually pretty crude. The joints are huge and the rock, a volcanic tuff, is only roughly shaped. A lot of the stones are stacked one on one and the walls are only the width of a single stone laid lengthwise, probably the two biggest taboos of stonework. Chaco Canyon, about a hundred miles away, has higher quality rock and much better craftsmanship. But, to be fair, Bandelier’s walls were originally covered with stucco; visiting stonemasons wouldn’t have seen these pecadilloes and spatially the structures are quite wonderful. The park service website has an animation of what the long house might have looked like, worth checking out.

Along with the long house, the pueblo had a cluster of buildings out a little ways from the cliffs. Landscape architecture training has taught me to make my shapes clean and identifiable, to use circles and ovals rather than flattening the curves, but I like how this form looks. It reminds me of a seed or a shell, and it’s interesting how the curve is made out of roughly rectangular rooms, layered together. The park service has a page with lots of great information about the structure.

But what I loved most about the site is the way the cliff shows the traces of the buildings that used to be built up against it, the holes carved into the cliff for the vigas and the notches where wall stones were keyed into the cliff. The pattern of notches is very evocative, somewhat like pin scars from a rock climb but also like something from the land art tradition. Vestiges laden with meaning; I feel like there must be a word for that but I can’t think of it.

Bandelier isn’t on the list of national monuments under review by the secretary of the interior, but it was demoralizing to read about the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante a week after visiting five wonderful national monuments. Anita and I went to Grand Staircase about ten years ago, and Bear’s Ears has some of the same kinds of cliff dwellings I admired so much during this recent trip. I was one of the millions of people who wrote to oppose the reduction of the monuments, but now I’m not sure what else to do, except hope the lawsuit is successful or donate to the organizations signed onto it. Patagonia and Access Fund are two of the organizations supporting the lawsuit.

Why I am Not a Painter

‘I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.’
Frank O’Hara

This poem by Frank O’Hara is my favorite description of the creative process. I love the way the irreverent tone and seemingly arbitrary decision making belies a seriousness of purpose. I’ve also thought that O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, what he called his ‘I do this, I do that poems’, with their casual accumulation of meaning were one of the great antecedents of blogging.

I thought of this poem recently because a project began with an orange-colored wall as the origin for a design, but somehow by the time everything was done the wall was olive green. Probably too literal a connection to the poem, but it gave me all sorts of amusement. I even wanted to include sardines in the design but realized of course it was too much.

Mitla Stone Mosaics

Along with Monte Alban, I visited Mitla, another Zapotec site but from a later period and with a much different feel. The ruins are in the middle of a town, which makes for a strange juxtaposition, the second stories of several houses peaking over one of the walls and the town’s catholic church incorporating a couple of the old walls into its construction. I wandered onto the site before I even realized it, and at first glance it didn’t seem dramatic. But then I saw the stone mosaic panels and I was completely enchanted. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

The mosaics are wonderful, made with hundreds of individual stones fit together into repeating patterns, like brick diaperwork but with hand cut stone. I’ve read that the panels are based on weaving patterns. Though I think that theory is to some extent just speculation, it certainly seems plausible, and it’s fascinating to think of these as stone textiles and the masons as weavers. I’ve done a little bit of stone fretwork like this, and I am blown away that people did this a thousand years ago using just stone-bladed tools and maybe some form of abrasion.

The stone framing around the mosaic panels is quite sophisticated as well. The walls are three or four feet thick, and the panels are inset and laid as a veneer, with corniced stone courses overhanging them. It’s a more refined form of the detailing at Monte Alban, with a skill level that is obviously much higher, but also a stone that is easier to work as well. The stone is trachyte, a volcanic rock that is soft and relatively easy to work. The blocks have admirably crisp edges, though they are not standardized; virtually every course has an odd-dimensioned ‘closer’ stone to resolve the variations in the stones. Some of the courses are battered at the bases of the wall, and many of the stones are slightly trapezoidal instead of perfectly rectangular. Individual stones vary from fifteen-foot-long lintels and massive cylindrical columns that must weigh over ten tons to pieces the size of a finger.

The recessed stones in the mosaics were covered by red stucco when the site was occupied. Traces are visible if you click the photos to see them larger.

There are about 150 different panels. I didn’t take a photo of every single one, but quite a few of them are below. Read the rest of this entry »

Monte Albán Stone

On my Oaxaca trip I went to Monte Albán, a Zapotec archeological site just outside of Oaxaca City. It’s one of the best ruins that I’ve visited, wonderfully sited on a ridge with views of the surrounding valley, though the air was depressingly smoggy when I visited. I’ve read a bit on the history of the site, but for the most part I just admire it as a stonemason and designer. The thousand plus years of builders did a terrific job, with a beautiful layout and detailing.

Virtually everything on the site is laid out orthogonally except this one building with a strange pentagonal shape in the main plaza’s central cluster. It’s sometimes called the ‘Observatory’ because it’s believed to be aligned with a a star cluster. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the shape and alignment add an element of mystery. It felt like the masterstroke of the site.

The stonework is beautiful, with coursed, rectangular stone and crazy-patterned, irregular stone often combined in the same wall, sometimes with carved stelae as well. There are several kinds of corners: plumb, battered, lazy, and corniced; and three kinds of vertical surfaces: plumb and battered walls, and the angle made by the steps to the buildings. It’s great how they all combine; there’s enough repetition to give it cohesion but enough contrast to make it interesting.

That’s a beautiful corner detail no matter what century you build it in.

Some of the mortar joints have pebbles in the mud, probably for practical reasons but also creating a nice ornamental effect.

I’m note sure if these stelae are original; a lot of the stelae were moved inside to the site’s museum for protection and replaced by replica, and that’s not the original mortar around these ones. The stelae are subtle but quite nice, worth clicking on to see them larger. Photos of stelae inside the museum are below the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jorge Yazpik Miscellany

This is a selection of Jorge Yazpik’s work that was on display inside the museum, an interesting mix with a progression from sculptures to architectural models. I won’t say much about them, which is apparently what he prefers. He doesn’t give titles or explanations or even call out his materials, and in videos talking about his work (in Spanish), he talks about letting people interpret the works however they want, letting them see without predisposition. He says when you listen to music, no one tells you how to listen. So, I guess, just have a listen, take a look. Read the rest of this entry »

Jorge Yázpik Basalt Sculptures

While I was in Oaxaca, I got a chance to see an exhibition of sculptures by Jorge Yázpik at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. I’m not sure how well known he is, but he’s at the top of my list. He does abstract sculpture in several mediums — stone, wood, metal, some kind of polycarbonate — and I’ll show some of the work that was on exhibit inside the museum, but in this post I want to focus on his large basalts that were outside in the plaza. Really interesting, a little hit or miss, but the ones that hit are terrific.

With this one, from a couple of angles it doesn’t look like he has done much to the stone. But then from another angle you can see he carved out the entire heart of the stone, enough that you can climb inside it. I’ve possibly seen something like this in other media, but I can’t think of another sculpture that lets you climb inside a single monolithic stone. People loved posing for photos inside it.

But the one that got me is this one here. It’s not terribly striking at first glance, a dark, vaguely heart-shaped chunk of basalt, roughly the same form that came out of the quarry. But that’s not the sculpture per se, it’s more like the mould for the sculpture.

The sculpture is the void he has carved out, the negative space he made within the stone. In the photo it has a graphic quality, but in person the void is really strong, really three dimensional. He could cast a bronze of it, but he doesn’t need to, it casts the form in your mind.

It does the same thing from the other side. The outer form is a little more compelling from this angle, rising to a prow, but again it’s the negative space that’s the subject, this time with sort of a jack-o-lantern smile. I also like how the stone is wedged with a chunk of rock from the floor of the workshop, seemingly chosen without much care but important enough to be packed with the sculpture and shipped from Mexico City.

I don’t know of anyone else who is this effective at creating negative space within a stone.

This vertical one is also great. It’s more about the overall form, sort of an abstract version of a moai.

The close up has a beautiful geometry, both the polished interior and the natural skin of the stone.

One more is below. Read the rest of this entry »