The Lonely City

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 12.35.06 PM

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Every now and then I read a book that so wholly absorbs me I want to share it with everyone with whom I think it might connect. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is one of those books. Part memoir, part art history, and part criticism, The Lonely City chronicles Laing’s experience living in New York after moving there from London to live with a lover who subsequently abandons her. A writer and critic, Laing trains her lens on the art that moved her most deeply, the paintings, photographs, videos and stories that comforted and pricked during her lonely stint in New York.


“Almost the only thing I found consoling was watching music videos on YouTube, curled on the sofa with my headphones on, listening again and again to the same voices finding the register for their distress . . . It was during this period that I first came across Klaus Nomi, mutant chantant, who made an art of being an alien, like no one else on earth . . . The film I liked best was of his very first appearance, at Irving Plaza on 15th Street in 1978, performing at a night called New Wave Vaudeville.  He appears on stage in a see-through plastic cape, with wings painted around his eyes.  A science-fiction figure, gender indeterminate, he opens his mouth and out comes ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’, my heart opens to your voice.”


Dishy and deeply researched, Laing opens each chapter with a personal anecdote that blossoms into an essay about a particular artist’s work, explaining how and why she connected with it, and making it newly relevant to contemporary viewers awash in digital culture.


“Warhol is often thought of as being completely subsumed by the glossy carapace of his own celebrity, of having successfully transformed himself into an instantly recognizable avatar . . . But one of the interesting things about his work, once you stop to look, is the way the real, vulnerable, human self remains stubbornly visible, exerting its own submerged pressure, its own mute appeal to the viewer.”


If ever a book called out for hypertext, it’s this one.  Containing just a few images, mainly photographed portraits of the artists she writes about: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Klaus Nomi, and a still from a documentary about Josh Harris’ project, We Live in Public, each chapter bubbles with alluring descriptions of visual art, the people who made it and their happenings.



By blending anecdotes with insights and thoughtful writing about art, The Lonely City challenges the creepy paradox of the internet, the way it simultaneously isolates and connects, in a way that feels personal rather than analytical.  While Laing cites several other excellent, recent books about how devices are changing culture, like Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Lonely City doesn’t follow their lead.  It’s not a warning bolstered by cognitive science.  Nor does it offer advice. But rather the author offers her vulnerability, her experience feeling lonely in a connected-all-the-time culture, as a gift to the reader in a fascinating read that places art and people rather than science and data at its center.


A Little Chaos

. . . is happening in the garden this week.


Spring chives, April 2016

A post-snow flush of green pushing its way up and out.


Lavender, just greening, April 2016


Enjoy garden design?  Check out A Little Chaos directed by Alan Rickman.  It’s the only costume drama I can think of with a plot that turns on the idiosyncratic placement of a single pot. Middling performances by some terrific actors and a fascinating performance by Rickman.  Beautiful shots of formal and informal gardens in various stages of completion.


It’s Done When It’s Good

“It’s not good when it’s done, it’s done when it’s good,” said Tool guitarist, Adam Jones, in this interview with Rolling Stone last November.   Tool hasn’t put out a new album since 2006.


As someone months into a new project I thought would be be done by now, but that just isn’t yet, I can relate. Perfectionism?  Maybe.  But I prefer to think of it as meaningful restraint.  Jones and Tool are under a lot of pressure from fans to produce their next work.  But I’m glad they’re holding back.  Because by waiting until the work meets their standards they’re saying that their art matters.

A new song from Tool?

To Feel Like the Art Has Chosen You


My favorite kind of musical experience is to feel afterward that your heart is filled up and transformed, like it is pumping a whole new kind of blood in your veins.  This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like the art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness.

– Carrie Brownstein


Hunger Makes Me a Modern Gril, Carrie Brownstein

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein

Drawing to Think (Tapestry Recap for Visual Artists)

Here are a few tidbits from Tapestry, a conference for people engaged in data storytelling/the art of making data comprehensible by presenting it in ways people can relate to. Participants at this year’s event, which took place at the historic and creepy, but lovely Stanley (The Shining) Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, were a mix of data people, designers, journalists and academics. I went because science communication has popped up as a theme in One Mans’ Land (working title), a documentary I am making.  To my delight, most of the presentations had a strong, visual focus.


“Doodler and designer,” Catherine Madden talking about her favorite drawing app, Paper, at Tapestry, Estes Park, Colorado, March 2016

Drawing to Think

Two presenters, designer Catherine Madden and comics author/artist Nick Sousanis, put drawing at the center of their presentations.  Both raised drawing up as way to deepen your understanding of an idea, organize complex thoughts, and open yourself to new connections. The type of drawing they both demonstrated is more sketchy and imaginative than the life drawing you may remember from your art education.  As someone who’s already using a sketchy flavor of mind-mappy writing to organize big projects, I’m excited to see what can change by inviting more images onto the page.


When to Get Feedback?

Here’s another juicy advice-nugget from designer Catherine Madden.  When seeking feedback, get it early in the process before you’ve added details to your work.  In her experience, “If you build a polished prototype you open yourself to criticism, but if you build a rough prototype, people see the potential.”  Financial Times editor Alan Smith was on the same page.  “Exchange ideas early.  Show your work to people early and often.  This is why interdisciplinary teams work so well.”  For visual artists in the fine arts, the issues about when, why and from whom to solicit feedback on your work are different.  But one of the things I love about high tech culture is this open, collaborative mindset that stems from a sincere desire to get to clarity, to get to the good stuff quickly, by cycling through crap ideas at a rapid pace.


Tapestry conferees milling around in front of the Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, March 2016

Learning More

Have I whetted your data visualization appetite?  If so, check out NYU professor Enrico Bertini’s podcast, Data Stories for more.  Also, if you are a creative person with a technical bent interested in adding a new skill to your set, or know a young, creative person for whom a career in data visualization sounds like a good fit, check out Tableau.  My outsiders’ ears heard the buzz.  Tableau developers are enjoying a moment of demand.


Weird evergreen garden, Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, March 2016



Catherine Madden’s Visual Thinking course on Skillshare

An award winning example of data journalism, Killing the Colorado by ProPublica

Paper app by Fiftythree

Rethink World Hunger, an effective presentation of data by an advocacy group

Visual Hackathon

HelpMeViz, data visualization community

Are You Secretly Afraid of Data?

Rethink Media,  a non-profit focused on building communications capacities of nonprofits

The Unflattening, a comics dissertation by Nick Sousanis


“Think about giving the best thing possible and it will return back to you.

– Enrico Bertini, NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Tufty grass

Tufty grass

Can anyone identify this orangey species of tufty grass for me?


Tufty grass

It grows in Boulder and is curlier and a little softer looking than the other grass that surrounds it.


Tufty Grass

Here it is again with some friends.

Working in Series

A series is a set of individual artworks connected by a theme. A series can be short and immediate (all the monotypes made in a single day). Or it can unfold over a period of years. Either way, working in series is a way to go deep.


A handful of pieces from One-Hundred Flowers.  When I work in series I’m working with ambition and thinking about scale.


The simplest way for an artist new to working in series to get going on one is to choose a single format – a single canvas size, or size and color of paper – and stick with it and see what happens.  The more limits you set, the more interesting the results you get will be.


Learning the Rules

There are as many ways to set limits and work in series as there are artists. I start with an image in my mind’s eye and go through a process I call learning the rules where I teach myself how to make it through trial and error. Like a memory of a dream, the mind’s-eye-image morphs as I add details in an attempt to pin it down. That is OK. I am working to join the imagined with the real at this point.  Some give and take is fine.


Work in progress: red branchy leaves with slight overlap, wax emulsion on paper, ©Laura Tyler


Work in progress: red branchy leaves, lots of overlap, wax emulsion on paper, ©Laura Tyler 

In the two test images above I’m asking questions about overlap. Which degree of overlap moves the image closer to the one in my mind’s eye?  Is overlap relevant to what I’m trying to do?  Once I have an answer I can make a rule/set a limit about overlap. (I know this sounds deliberate but in practice the process feels intuitive.)  Moving forward, I can keep limits or break them. But I absolutely enjoy being able to articulate them.  Limits enable consistency.  And on another level, they help me understand what my work is about.


What LImits Mean

The thing that excites me about limits, and part of what I hinted at in Art Practice vs. Play, is how the process, or practice, of setting limits is meaningful. Each limit you choose provides a glimpse into your interests, and into what you value as an artist. As the limits you choose for your work accumulate, what they signal becomes more compellingly specific. If you’re working intuitively (as I do with mind’s-eye-images) then setting limits is a way to bring the unconscious to light. And finally, by setting limits for your work, you are making your values visible.  Your viewers may not be able to articulate what they are, but if you’ve thought about it, you will be able to.  This will deepen what you understand about your work.  And it will help you talk about it.