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Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century

Friday, February 5th, 2010

The heart of Leonie Sandercock’s Cosmopolis II lies in its subtitle, Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century. The mongrel nature the author considers is the accelerated multiculturalism of cities due to what some are considering an “Age of Migration.” While Sandercock suggests there are four ways in which cities are being socially and culturally reshaped, an argument may be made that the main focus of the book could be distilled to one of them primarily–international migration–with a lesser, but equally important emphasis on all forms of minority integration. Cosmopolis II addresses the age of migration by deconstructing the planning process and offering a reconstruction that co-opts modernism’s visionary nature and enthusiasm while adhering to a postmodernism acceptance of many narratives.

Planning needs to be deconstructed when faced with heightened flows of migration. Unlike large flows in the past, which were fairly homogeneous and amongst a handful of countries, the new ones are multinational creating an unprecedented plurality in many urban landscapes. In Europe, open border agreements fostered by the EU have facilitated a drastic change in the ethnic make-up of many countries. In some cases, this demographic shift is occurring in a time frame so short, that standard planning practices can’t accurately address the sweeping changes in neighborhoods, let alone in entire cities. Despite increase attention on its southern border, the United States continues to see high levels of immigration of both documented and undocumented individuals. Once across the border, however, the new arrivals are either dispersing to increasingly nontraditional locations of residence or concentrating at levels that have heretofore been unseen helping to create what are now urban areas just north of the border. Additionally, continued political strife in African and Middle Eastern countries is supplying a steady stream of the dispossessed that, if not forced into a new urban experience in an unfamiliar city, are creating vast refugee camps in their own right.

This time of a hypermobile global population demands an equally flexible planning process. The rapid and exceedingly dense multicultural change in cities requires a planning that breaks free of the rational measures effective at developing infrastructure. The speed of change and randomness of migration flows demands way more flexibility than a comprehensive procedure, which starts and stops on a dime and may take years to complete. Sandercock observes that the dense multiculturalism has created neighborhoods, cities, and countries that may contain multiple publics. And while Sandercock offers a “Radical Postmodern Planning Practice” paradigm that relies heavily on the communicative nature of those that have come before her such as John Friedmann and John Forrester, the resulting paradigm suggestion is not as revolutionary as the way in which she deconstructs the planning process to get there.

The most striking feature of Cosmopolis II is the consideration of “story.” In order to deal with multiculturalism, she first deconstructs that to determine its exact meaning. She finds that the new multicultural societies are collections of diverse peoples with a common bond not based on race, religion, or ethnicity, but on a shared commitment to a political community. Unlike the popular and homogenized history of Industrial-era United States immigration, these new communities are not static and will not eventually become “melting pots.” In order to deeply understand this community, it is important for planning to be political, and the planner to understand the history, customs, and desires of each immigrant community that makes up the larger whole. The planner needs to understand their “story.”

The author then argues that to understand the story of someone else, a planner must understand the stories created by planning and the ones excluded by it. She states, “In order to imagine the future differently, we need to start with history, with a reconsideration of the stories we tell ourselves about planning’s role in the modern and postmodern city,” adding, “If we want to work towards a politics of inclusion, then we had better have a good understanding of the exclusionary effects of planning’s past practices.” With that, the author then briefly examines how the history of planning has systematically excluded the stories of women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, and African Americans from the history of planning. This exclusion implying that until planners understand these “planning insurgencies” to be of equal value as the myriad of paradigms discussed in planning education programs across the country, the possibility of planning being able to address single neighborhoods with a myriad of marginalized voices is not high.

After focusing the lens of story on where planning has been, Sandercock then operates on a meta level and presents case studies, or as she intimates earlier in the book, what could function as stories imparting wisdom from elders to those in search of knowledge. These provide the reader with the only semblance of practical procedural knowledge. And, while effective in that role, it is emblematic of a critique that may be leveled at the book. As a planning tome, the focus rests squarely on the community building social side of the issue at hand. Discussion of the physical is nascent at best, and the consideration of any quantitative perspective is entirely absent. Granted, the theoretical analysis is so detailed that strands of the physical or quantitative are not hard to see. For example, when considering the author’s train of thought concerning dense multicultural neighborhoods, an immediate thought for cultural geographers may be, how does the neighborhood provide for multiple houses of worship? This is a topic the book touches on briefly. The statistical nature of the immigration flows are not detailed, but the general nature of the flows is easily enough understood through the book’s discourse on the subject.

Sandercock examines what works and what does not, then utilizes story to consider the future. In detailing the varying ways stories can be used in planning–as catalyst for change, speculation on the future, tool for mediation, non-verbal representation, etc.–the author furthers the concept that communication is a necessary tool in understanding the “other.” This understanding is crucial when one of the common responses by both immigrant and native is to fear each other. In a dense multicultural neighborhood, that fear is subject to dangerous economies of scope and scale.

As stated previously, Cosmopolis II does not offer an especially groundbreaking planning paradigm in response to the new age of migration. Sandercock’s “Radical Postmodern Planning Practice” paradigm functions as a subtle tweak to what has been presented by other theorists who did not have the opportunity to present discourse in a time when the nature of migration has radically transformed in speed and scope. The book may be critiqued for having too narrow a focus in terms of planning, relying on concerns of community without substantial, or any, consideration of the physical or quantitative. Some may also find the sheer density of the information and a narrative that is occasionally tangential to be a distraction to the author’s substantial vision. Incidentally, this is a critique easily levied against another sprawling work published in 2003 that had significant impact on the discipline of geography, Connell and Gibson’s Soundtracks–indication that perhaps, it is a critique worth having.

Regardless, Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century is an indispensable addition to the library of planning theory. It is easy to dismiss globalization as a theoretical construct spatially removed and homogeneous in nature. In reality, globalization means that the local is becoming more heterogeneous. Sandercock’s critical examination of planning theory’s history of exclusion is a bold and welcome statement in a world where the global is next door. Her use of story is equally bold and welcome for an understanding of planning theory’s future of inclusion.

Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.

The City Represented in Music

Monday, August 17th, 2009


The study of popular music representing the urban landscape is still a fledgling area in the discipline of geography. As the world continues to urbanize, however, more artists are writing and recording albums that serve as aural extensions of the cities in which they live. In the past few years, there have been three albums fitting this description that continue to see heavy rotation in our household while we cook, clean, or more often than not, study…

The Desaparecidos: Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek): If there were a genre of “Urban Planning Rock,” this album would be the sole entry. On the macro level, Read Music/Speak Spanish is an incendiary analysis of America’s pre-recession crass consumerism and suburban sprawl, while on a micro level the album details the explosive westward growth of Omaha. From the physical packaging itself – an amusingly detailed send-up of a City of Omaha planning report complete with a vellum cover of tract housing superimposed over cornfields – to the songs, the album is the audio equivalent of a pitched battle between the sprawling exurban growth of west Omaha and the more urban east Omaha. The band was an all-star cast of Saddle Creek regulars fronted by Conor Oberst. Despite the folksy pedigree of Oberst and his Bright Eyes legacy, Read Music/Speak Spanish finds the band outwardly intense with the music as heavy and abrasive as the lyrical content is aggressive and biting. The resulting sentiment after the last song ends is that the kids are not alright and are going to mobilize and vote against you until you embrace more sustainable planning initiatives.

Zvuki Mu: Zvuki Mu (Opal/Warner Bros.) In order to record an album for his great, but now defunct Opal label, Brian Eno flew to Moscow in the late 80’s to produce Zvuki Mu. In doing so, he captured a sound that is wholly unlike most modern rock music. Disjointed musical references and time structures appear side-by-side on the project: ambient-skronk guitar, hotel lounge keyboards, strings, atmospheric synthesizers, near-military drumming patterns, disco beats, etc… The key to appreciating this song construction is to understand how time itself can be manipulated in urban environments. In New York City, socio-economic forces have bred the concept of a “New York Minute,” while in Communist-era Moscow, the absence of almost all personal control over one’s future provided for a more laissez-faire reaction to time. It was not unusual, Eno noted, for a musician to schedule a meeting on a Tuesday, but not show up until Saturday without much concern. He opined, when one has little control over the outcome of the future, the present is a much more fluid and a less structured concept. Along with Moscow’s plodding present-tense and seemingly non-existent future, a limited accessibility to popular music recordings left artists with a juxtaposition of influences from differing decades and genres. This serves to further confuse the sense of time on the album. Was this a hippie collective left-over from the 60’s playing Sun Ra and Zappa inspired psychedelic rock songs? Was this recorded in a 70’s underground Moscow discothèque, then slickly remixed in the 80’s?  From the first song to the last, Zvuki Mu instantaneously transports the listener to a Moscow that encased its citizens in magnificently crumbling architecture and denied them access to a fully realized temporal structure. Despite this oppression, the members of Zvuki Mu still manage to create an insightful and personal document of their lives, passions, and longings in a city seemingly lost in time.

Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1 & 3 (Palm) This is the sound of modern Tijuana, Mexico. Although many north of the border may still think of the city as an unsavory border town, Tijuana is in fact a large and dynamic city with a healthy arts scene and an economy thoroughly intertwined with that of the United States. The Nortec Collective is a small group of DJ’s and producers representing a much larger artistic movement in Tijuana encompassing graphic designers, fine artists, architects, and filmmakers – not unlike the Reykjavik, Iceland scene in the early 90’s that spawned the similarly aesthetically complete Gus Gus. The Nortec Collective’s sound fuses the booming tuba notes, pumping accordions, nylon stringed guitar flourishes, and hyperkinetic snare rolls of traditional Norteño with modern bass-heavy, groove-oriented electronic soundscapes and beats. The resulting effect gives the listener a brief glimpse into the dichotomy of growing-up in a border city where one could hear Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk tracks waft through the airways from San Diego while the extended family dances to Cumbia in the backyard.

Okay, I’ve told you about what’s been playing in our household, now it’s your turn. Feel free to use the comments section to post about your favorite album that evokes an urban landscape.

Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.

TINGA (With mixtape)

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

dsc02729Meet ILBOUDO Tinga Abraham.  He lives in Burkina Faso which is a country in West Africa. Shortly after this photo was taken he proceeded to do a very convincing George W. Bush impersonation.  When I first met him he was introduced to me as Abraham, so that is what I called him for almost a year.  One day I was thinking about what I called him and it occurred to me that anytime anybody else addressed him they called him Tinga.  So one dark November night I phoned him to talk to him about this.  Through the static, echo and delay he explained to me that Tinga is his given name and Abraham is his “Christian” name.  He often will introduce himself as Abraham to foreigners because it is easier for them to pronounce and remember, but that he would prefer it if I were to call him Tinga.  That is what his friends and family call him.

I first met Tinga when he and another man named Paul came to see my wife and I in the small town of Boura, Burkina Faso where we were helping some friends of ours get ready to move back home to Canada.  They wanted to tell us about the school that they had started and were working in.  Tinga was very different from the other Burkinabe men that we had met up to that point.  He was soft spoken, awkward and had a honest humility about him.

Shortly after that meeting we decided we would move to their town of Leo and help them teach in their school.  We worked closely with Tinga and quickly became very good friends.  Underneath his shy awkwardness, we discovered, lived a very passionate and caring man.  His love for educating children and helping others became very clear.  He never asked for much more than, “how can I help?”  In his evenings he taught French to adults, on Sundays he hosted the region’s only weekly English radio program, and met with a group of local intellectuals to practice speaking English together.  Whenever I was with him going somewhere specific it would take twice as long because  so many people wanted to greet him.  He also likes to be photographed in newly purchased clothes.

In Tinga’s native tongue his name means “land.”  Which to me is very appropriate.  He is a man of his land and of his country.  He loves to talk about the politics of his land and remember the glory days of Thomas Sankara: West Africa’s Che Guevera.  He loves to show his land off to me.  He has arranged meetings with village chiefs, taken me to get my haircut, brought me to a man who would iron my clothes and teach me his language, shown me ancient historical sites, and introduced me to the social ritual of “african tea” drinking just because he wanted me to experience his country.  In return I introduced him to swimming pools, wrapping paper, chicken sandwiches, and The Three Amigos (it’s easy to see who got the better end of that deal). He is proud of where he lives and what his countrymen produce.  That is why it was not surprising to me that when my wife and I came back to Canada we began to receive packages in the mail from Tinga with mix CDs and VCDs of Burkinabe artists and musicians.  I would like to share one of the more recent collections with you via the AKRADIO (click on the AKRADIO link at the top of www.asthmatickitty.com)  Here is the track list:

1. tintin by Meguerito

2. avec plaisir by Meguerito                            

3. Bitioulou by Solo Dja Kabako                    

4. Minata by Bamogo de Nobré                     

5. warba by Bamogo Jean Claude                  

6. Celine  by Yoni                                           

7. zambèla by Idack Bassavé                          

8. Tanga sèga by Issouf Compaoré                          

9. Bissongo by Bilgo                                           

10. Wend Konta by Bilgo

11. pende by Tall Mourataga                          

12. amicha by Théo Blaise


While you are listening to this Tinga is deep into starting a new school in a town called Sapouy.  He has named this school The Great Provider Academy and has already built a small office building and a chicken coop on the land that the village elders have set aside for the school.  Tinga’s vision for the Great Provider Academy is to provide the children in this region with an education based on the national curriculum augmented with practical training in various applicable trades as well as a solid spiritual foundation that they can use to help provide for themselves and their families in the future.  Even if some students are forced to end their education early they will have acquired some valuable skills that they would not have received at any other school in the region.

We are organizing a fundraiser for the school in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on June 27th, 2009.  If you or someone you know would like to help out in anyway you can email me at jonathan@intransitcentre.info.

Here is a photo of Tinga with Asthmatic Kitty recording artist Hermas Zopoula and my wife Heather!


Jonathan Dueck now lives in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. The home that he shares with his wife Heather and the wonderful Pritchard family is on a large hill from which he can see a Super Wal-Mart. Try to find him at www.intransitcentre.info

Cryptacize is ALIVE! Decipher that code, yo!

Thursday, June 5th, 2008
Photo by Sarah Cass

Photo by Sarah Cass

Yes, of course I revel in the busy ambition of songwriters who seek to challenge themselves to endless boundaries, to jump fences, to scale large mountains. But what is the effort all about? Cryptacize yield to no such ambitions. They make music that is refreshingly coherent, stewed with deliberate melodies, a refinement of instrumentation, no excess, nothing wasted, nothing lost. Their new record “Dig That Treasure” offends many of my own musical impulses, the over-achieving bigger-is-better-shock-and-awe approach. Obviously I’m not offended, but rather in complete admiration of the band’s minimalist gorgeousness. These songs are not trifles, but rather cryptic haiku poems that expand toward a vast cosmic significance. But one doesn’t have to be a cartographer to appreciate these songs. Their surfaces shimmer to the ear, like magic crystals hanging in the windowsill.

Chris Cohen’s guitar shakes off all the fashionable amplifiers and effects pedals of his previous band Deerhoof. Nedelle Torrisi’s voice carries the uncomplicated clarity of a 1950s movie musical, shimmering to a soft vibrato, triggering a beauty that is as bold as it is matter-of-fact. No shock and awe needed here. Texturally, the songs present comic tragedies of everyday life. The Cosmic Sing Along. Playing the Evil Role in a Movie. False Pretenses. Dig That Treasure, i.e. mine for your greatest pleasures, or keep looking, or don’t give up! One never quite knows if the setting is a living room or a space station. And then there’s the loving 1960s pop sensuality, high school infatuation, boy crazy, dreams of true love, or other operatic propulsions escalading into open exclamations of “oh no!” The sweetness of each melody is never quite safe. It is like some chirpy Broadway musical prophesying the end of civilization. Somehow these sentiments entrench easily around other abstract, philosophical topics about heaven on earth, pocket change, or human fear. Lyrics here can be excerpted for an obtuse self-help calendar. “Every note is an unfinished song.”  “No one really knows me.” “No amount of power could ever replace the way he said my name.” To listen to Cryptacize is to embark on the act of digging great treasures. Patience and fortitude pays off in great golden swathes of fortune.

Sometimes I worry that the ever-increasing trend toward excessive innovation has pushed the art and music world into a slapstick exhibition of dog breeding, generating increasingly newer, more contemporary fashions: gothic folk, for one. Or Afro-beat Ivy League pop. Maybe this only reflects the inevitable merging of all cultures, in which art slowly becomes a least common denominator for the interchange of multiple civilizations coming together in one song. I don’t mind the intermarrying of ideas. This is the natural sequence of events. We are all better for it; it is fundamentally American. But sometimes the effort of innovation itself is just empty exertion, unspirited and unreal, bearing bad fruit. Cryptacize, of course, shirks all such ambition and seeks instead to “know thyself.” The record speaks of something much more present, in a careful tone, with the considerate enumeration of an enlightened monk who, after spending countless hours in isolation, in prayer, in thought, in meditation, decides instead to leave the monastery to play jazz guitar at Bibbi’s Bar and Grill on Main Street. Yes, of course, I’d go to that show.

Lynn Aldrich

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

"Starting Over (Neo-Atlantis)

Lynn Aldrich’s work has an immediate appeal. Her colorful collections of plastic parts and shiny aluminum play a cartoon note against the seriously innovative designs that they inhabit. Familiar elements are treated in unexpected ways, and the titling of the work gives room for its maker’s deft sense of wordplay.


Found objects, especially mass-produced items, can be used ironically by contemporary artists with the flip of a wrist. The social discourse connected to industrial commerce and plastic proliferation is familiar to today’s art audience. So when an artist uses vacuum cleaners or blow-up toys or shiny colorful pills as subject matter, we know that the statement is likely to be wryly cynical—a critique of modern life-as-lived through the display of some of the banal objects that surround us. Within this ongoing dialogue, it is refreshing to see an artist like Lynn Aldrich using “dumb” materials in a transcendent way. A sensitive and ingenious construction of cleaning tools in Aldrich’s piece “Starting Over (Neo_Atlantis)” rivals Brian Jungen’s complex re-working of shoes into tribal masks. The tangle of rainspout in “Quench” and the cluster of garden hoses in “Rogue” are almost animate in their aping of organic movement.

Like the work of other sculptresses, like Tara Donovan and Sarah Sze, Aldrich’s humble materials take on poetic new life as they are gathered and stitched and clumped into new forms. Their original functions are important to the final read—gutters flush, hoses gush, sponges scrub. But it is also important to see their transformation. The title of Lynn Aldrich’s most recent show, “All Nature Sings,” attests to the both playful and earnest desire to allow the most mundane objects to become singers, and, perhaps, to turn on its head the conception of “nature” as anything untouched by man.


Gala Bent is a mother-artist-teacher living in Seattle who enjoys, among other things, this thought: between thesis and antithesis arcs the ever-loving synthesis. www.galabent.com

Stuart Snoddy

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

I was first introduced to Stuart Snoddy’s work when a friend of mine excitedly told me about a post-it note portrait of one of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster persona he had seen at a gallery opening in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Fountain Square. Now Indianapolis is a great art city, but it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to work that is simultaneously progressive and strategically humorous. Progressive risk taking work often falls into the trap of having to put on airs of self-importance, perhaps because it doesn’t take much to be considered progressive in a rather safe art environment and this tone of seriousness is an attempt to reassure the viewer that this is still art. It is not the art community that isn’t progressive, but the art buying community. The other often misstep is the inverse; work that overstates the humor resorting to silliness as an escape clause in the event that someone hurl an accusation that the work is taking itself too seriously. You can’t win. So when I heard about a post-it note portrait referencing the Crememaster cycle, I needed tomeet the artist.

Further insight into the character of Stuart Snoddy was made evident when I requested an artist statement from him for the currentexhibition in the Unusual Animals Project Space. The artist statement started with an Oscar Wilde quote: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible,not the invisible." Immediately two seemingly unrelated theories of art came to mind. The attitude of this statement calls to mind the bold color and beauty aesthetic of the work discussed in Dave Hickey’s book Air Guitar , while the execution in Snoddy’s work reminds me of a fluxus/conceptual art inspired minimalism. These two schools are now cordially commingling.

Other phrases and words jumped out at me in Snoddy’s artist statement:wonderment, amusement, daily, malleability and investigation. His work makes me think of captured movement, reflection, and a dialog between viewer and viewed object that leaves an ever mutating residueof natural phenomena. The materials are imprinted with a memory and history of movement through the room. This is art that with the barest of means is a reminder to our interaction with the world outside of the gallery. This isn’t really art about form or function,yet the forms are functions and the functions are forms.

Michael Kaufmann: If I could be so bold as to label your artwork I would use some of the same words I used to describe Cindy Hinant’s work though you two areworking in total different areas. I called Cindy’s work Post-minimalist whimsy. I think I would refer to your work aswhimsical kinetic post-minimalism. How does that title fit on for size?

Stuart Snoddy: That seems pretty accurate when describing my recent works. The problem is that I rarely operate in the same manner for too long. So next month that description might fail to properly describe what I am doing.

MK: Is the economy of materials important to your work (i.e. thread and tinfoil)?

SS: Yes. I just can’t imagine a situation where this would not be the case. I bring a big box of materials into the studio and go from there. Today I might work with foil and string, but tomorrow I might work with LCD screens or paint. In every instance the economy of the materials I choose will effect my decision making process.

MK: What artists or traditions inspire you? What non-art world things inspire you?

SS: I am inspired in a very broad way by contemporary art surveys. I feel a tremendous pressure to conform aesthetically to the work represented in these volumes. These books are my connection to art. It’s difficult for me to identify any non-art influences on my work, other than simple phenomena. I usually catch myself trying to imitate or emulate art in an attempt to cultivate a sense of authority or sincerity.

MK: Has Indianapolis had an effect on your work and if so how?

SS: Definitely. Here in the Midwest, the (Art)world comes to me in the form of reproductions. If I want to “experience” a Peter Doig painting or a Gabriel Orozco sculpture, I open a book. Looking at art inevitably becomes a two-dimensional experience regardless of the medium. But this is the way I experience art in Indianapolis, and I can’t help but think that this paper-thin perspective seasons my work in some way.

MK: Would you consider yourself a part of any tradition or movement?

SS: I really can’t say that I think about it too often. If you would have asked me last year I would have identified myself as a kitsch maker.

MK: How would you respond if someone accused you of laziness?

SS: Perhaps I am lazy. Should I regiment or qualify the success of something by the amount of time or “effort” that I put into it? I don’t know how that works. Is there a scale?

MK: In your artists statement you say "My goal as an "artist" is to discover and share this amusement."? First I want to ask you aboutyour use of quotations around the word artist. Do you have anaversion to the word? Do you question its validity or superiority?

SS: I operate in the realm of imitation. I copy the look of art. I think this would traditionally be defined as kitsch. I wouldn’t be totally adverse to someone labeling me an artist, it’s just not something I can honestly self apply. I don’t feel it’s absolutely necessary to know what I am.

MK: Secondly, in regards to this statement, your goal to discover and share amusement reminds me of Alan Kaprow who was very interested inart as non-competitive gaming as a means to engage himself and others with each other and their surroundings. What amuses you about the world? And another loaded question, what is to be gained by sharing this amusement?

SS: I always chuckle at the little pieces of phenomena that are dancing all around. Sometimes it takes a good friend to point them out though. Other than pure amusement, the benefit from sharing would come in the form of experiential knowledge.

MK: Your work seems to exist outside of the usual gallery measurements of value, yet you are selling prints. How does the purchase and sale of artwork challenge or support your art?

SS: Capitalism will always be an immovable boulder that one must climb. The real challenge is figuring out how to scale it. I must find a way of operating in a manner that makes sense financially, without sacrificing content for commerce.

MK: Thanks for your time and thoughts. Hopefully these were thought evoking. Feel free to add any non-related comments.

SS: Thank you. I just want to add that more info can be found here; www.stuartsnoddy.blogspot.com

Robert Hardgrave

Thursday, January 24th, 2008


Robert Hardgrave’s very name is ironic. His paintings spill over with life, and the lines between plant and animal and human are loose, abstracted into a riot of graceful color and line. “A lot of my work is about reincarnation,” he says, and refers to his own kidney transplant. He doesn’t know who the donor was, but “he’s still living, in a way,” he says, as he points to his own body.


The exuberance of a Robert Hardgrave painting is the first element I confront when standing next to one. His compositions bristle and bulge in an over-packed swirl; one thing leads to another, and the longer I linger, the quieter they become. Much like looking at a bustling city street, or lush woods in summer, the first effect of multiplicity gets honed down by a quality of attention. People-watch or seed-examine, and you’re able to understand more of the full picture. So, too, to slow down into a Hardgrave painting is to discover his irrepressible enthusiasm for nested forms and enfolded pattern; calligraphy, graffiti, folk design, comic books and plant-life. Lines are painted with agile confidence that can only come from an awful lot of practice and the joy of the process.

Because illness and recovery have been significant turning points for Hardgrave’s practice as an artist, in subject matter, but also sheer pragmatics (when he was ill, he didn’t have the energy to complete enormous complicated canvases)—he almost apologetically admits that it seems like all of his paintings hang from one event. But when, on a recent studio visit, we talked about the big-picture themes of life, death, fecundity and resilience, he nodded emphatically. Robert Hardgrave makes visible the tension between the awe and terror of living life in a body—something we all can understand when confronted with the body’s fragility or impressed by its elasticity. And he also touches on questions whose answers remain elusive—are we fully contained in our bodies? Where do we begin or end?


f you’re in the Pacific Northwest US, see some of Robert’s paintings through the month of February at Lawrimore Project, Seattle. His site is here.

A video interview:

Gala Bent is a mother-artist-teacher living in Seattle who enjoys, among other things, this thought: between thesis and antithesis arcs the ever-loving synthesis. www.galabent.com