Archive for May, 2010


Secret of Kells

May 28, 2010

SeSecret of Kellscret of Kells, playing now at the Regent Square Theater, is the story of Brendan, a boy who lives with an order of monks and learns the art of illumination, the decorating of manuscripts, from a master illuminator who has come to Kells after his monastery in Iona was destroyed. The Abbott of Kells has decided to devote his monks’ lives to building a defensive wall and thus protecting the village from Viking invaders. Fearing the dangers that exist in the forest beyond the wall, the Abbott forbids Brendan ever to leave. However, when the master illuminator comes to the village bearing the unfinished book of Iona, he takes Brendan on as an apprentice, having him venture into the woods to find berries that can be made into ink. In the forest, Brendan meets mythical creatures, such as a forest nymph and a snake-god. He finds himself on a quest to save the Book of Iona, later to become the Book of Kells, from the Barbarians.

Religion is a kludge, a combination of myths and gods and stories that have melded together as people have intermarried, conquered one another, and read each other’s books. Secret of Kells takes place in old Ireland at a time when the myths and styles of Paganism were thinly overlaid by Christianity. It was a time of uncertainty and cultural upheaval in which religion and myth formed the backbone of thought. People attempted to make sense of the world, but were limited in their access to knowledge. As one character laments, “There’s nothing in this life but mist, and we’re only here for a short time.”

Through visuals and symbolism, the film explores the merging of two religions. The Abbott admonishes against all things Pagan, but Brendan finds himself facing the old gods, working at times with them and at times against them. He then incorporates their likenesses into his art, further fusing the old religion with the new one.

syncretismThe Book of Kells itself was created around the year 800 by monks. The text of the book is the Bible, but the images are Celtic designs imbued with Christian symbols. The movie accurately portrays what is known of the book’s creation and near destruction by Vikings. Much of the history of the book is unknown, with a variety of theories existing about it origins and makers. It seems to have originated in Iona and been brought to Kells after Iona was devastated.

The book, and thus the movie, contains images of snakes knotted around themselves. The snake is an old Celtic image, a symbol of a god. When St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes, he was actually ridding it of Pagans. Now, the Pagans did not leave the island, but rather converted to Christianity. However, in the process of conversion, they took with them into Christianity their stories, myths, celebrations, and images. The Book of Kells contains snakes for the same reason that Christmas involves Christmas trees and Easter involves an Easter bunny. Religions accumulate images and tales and weave them into a coherent narrative. Secret of Kells is a visualization of this process of syncretism. This is most notable in the scene where Brendan must steal the eye of a serpent to use as a lens to properly visualize and produce his art in fine detail. Taking the eye of the snake symbolizes hemming in and destroying the old god but retaining its perspective. Only through the eye of the old religion could he make his art.

The film contains the Old English ethos of good versus evil embodied as light versus darkness. The Celtic aesthetic of bright greens and florid loops, the soft colors and fractal swirls surrounding Brendan and his ilk, are set against the harsh hues and solid lines of the Vikings. It is a visually striking film showing a quest for enlightenment amidst the threat of barbarism.

serpent god


Shifting Panoramas: by Elizabeth Mooney at the PCA

May 24, 2010

I hate to admit this, but I should be honest. I come from the suburbs. I’m not even from the pastoral, semi-wild Western Pennsylvania suburbs, but the New England suburbs. It’s the type of place with hyper-green grass, where nature is out beyond the window, or between the lattices of the screen porch, or behind a strip mall parking lot, visible but remote.

Elizabeth Mooney’s Shifting Panoramas, on display at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts until June 13th, has two major themes. One is the speed and energy of a landscape; the other is the effect of the medium of perception on the viewer. The speed is apparent in her paintings, done on wood panels, which contain collections of lines and figures evoking super-colored grasses, trees, hectic spaces, and hints of meadows and skies behind the mix. Everything is active and moving, almost-but-not-quite-overstimulating. There are chunks of hard color interspersed with with patches of blending. The paintings contrast our pixelated with our natural view.

Shifting Panorama

The effect of the medium is present primarily in the two kinetic installations. One is a reflective ball surrounded by a picket fence. When you look into the ball you see yourself fenced in by something lovely but suffocating, which represents exactly how it feels to be in the suburbs.

Another perspective-changing mechanism is and upside down orange traffic cone retooled to be a kaleidoscope. Through it you see a portion of a landscape spinning, repeatedly and fragmentedly reflected.

Mooney’s images are fast and yet distant, showing the landscape with great energy and vim, but always keeping it slightly away from us, seen not directly, but through a medium.

Shifting Panoramas is currently on display at Gallery 6 in the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.


5 Easy Pieces

May 17, 2010

Five Easy Pieces, which will be playing at the Regent Square Theater from Monday, May 17th through Thursday May 20th, is a film in which a young Jack Nicholson, in his typical fashion, plays a character who is miserable and takes his angst out on other people, somehow convincing them to accept it. He is just Ok enough of a guy to get away with it.

The movie takes place in the 1970’s, a time where the world is predominantly shades of orange and brown, and everything looks as though it tastes like Lipton Tea.  People have names like Elton, Twinky, Rayette, and Spicer. Waitresses wear cute one-piece peach colored collared dresses. The classier girls wear crocheted dresses.

Waitress car ride

Bobby (Jack Nicholson) is a musical prodigy who has given up the piano in favor of working on an oil rig and hanging around the sort of women who numbly chew gum with open mouths.  The point his girlfriend rightly makes about him is that he is “never satisfied.’ The movie starts by showing scenes form Bobby’s life, including drinking whiskey on the commute to work, overreacting to his girlfriend’s lack of bowling skills, and fraternization with a dipsy, curly-haired, squealy woman.  He is unhappy, yet reveling in his unhappiness.

About halfway through the movie, Bobby goes to his family’s home on a Puget Sound island to see his ailing father. There he falls in love with a woman who is more sophisticated than he is accustomed to. However, he is still able to win her over by knocking all the perfumes off her dresser, screaming at her, and slamming her door. Apparently, violent behavior was considered seductive in the 1970’s.

Jack Nicholson Pugent Sound Young Jack Nicholson

The most striking moment in the film is at a dinner party at his family’s house. An obnoxious, cold, pedantic woman is talking about aggression. She treats Bobby’s girlfriend not as a person, but as an example that typifies a class. Bobby gets upset and defends his girlfriend’s honor (for once). It is only at this scene that we can understand why he left his family and a life of social preeminence. It is because he would have to be pleasant to such bombastic egotists. He prefers the directness, sincerity, and humility of people who don’t think that they know everything.

One of the most important aspects of intelligence is the ability to recognize bullshit. This is an aspect that Bobby has in abundance. It causes him to suffer, to alienate people, and it thwarts his ambitions, but it also allows him to do and say whatever he wants, regardless of the repercussions.


Recall: by Ben Hernstrom and Frank Ferraro at the PCA

May 11, 2010


My memory works as follows: I collect a series of experiences and feelings, what I could essentially call data. This data rumbles around in my head until my brain finds a meaningful pattern. Once that pattern is recognized, I form an abstraction, a theory, or a system, and then all the data vanishes from my mind. The problem with this method is, when asked how I arrived at a conclusion, I have no occurrences nor string of logical reasoning to support my view.

In Recall, Hernstrom and Ferraro collect all the pieces that make up the abstraction, playing them on a loop simultaneously on 3 screens that wrap around a room. Alone, each image is a visual memory, a scene of a woman sleeping, a snowy tree, missing tiles on a bathroom floor, streetlights passing rhythmically as seen through a car window. But together these scenes enable the viewer to form an abstraction, to articulate the mood and aesthetic of the year represented without losing the information that allowed that abstraction to emerge.

Recall is currently on display in Gallery 7 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It will remain there until June 13th.


Faculty Profile: Mark Perrott

May 3, 2010

Mark Perrott, an adjunct faculty member at Filmmakers, has developed several series of photographs, each years in the making. We spoke to him about three of those series: tattoos, roygbiv, and modern ruins.

Perrott was driving home one day when he passed a tattoo parlor called Island Avenue Tattoo in McKees Rocks. This was in 1975, when tattoos were “way outside the mainstream culture, “ when they were for “motorcycle guys, convicts, and fallen women.”

“I was always intrigued, and one day got the courage up to stop the car and go in. In back was Nick Bubash bent over a barber chair. Every wall had artwork, posters, postcards, every kind of cultural debris. I fell in love.” Perrott talked to Nick for all of 15 minutes, and was then invited to come into the parlor anytime to photograph his clients. So Perrott came back that Saturday and set up shop in the back of the parlor. He stayed all day, and anytime a person finished getting tattooed, he made a portrait.

Perrott’s photos were always of the subject. The tattoos were never the central focus, and in many of the photographs the tattoo is not visible in its entirety. With the portrait he captures “the powerful process of transformation, that change from terrified to making a pubic announcement that you’ve completely changed.” He shot all the photographs naturally, never giving the subjects any direction. “I love how they spiritually and emotionally organize themselves. I just shut up and waited and wanted to see what came from that moment. The subjects sat with me for 15 minutes, then they were back in the wind.”


“I love all the people, most of all the ones who come in with a friend.” The friend holds your hand while your getting a tattoo, and becomes an important part of the ritual. “I encouraged my subjects to bring the friend to take the picture. I loved that relationship, how they organized themselves in an affectionate way to make a portrait.”

Perrott went to Nick’s on Saturdays for over a year. Then he asked himself, “where else in the country is this happening?” He went to West Virginia, Ohio, New York and New Jersey. He connected with tattoo artists and went to a variety of shops from 1979 to 1980. Around this time the notion of tattoo and the cultural significance of tattoo were changing. “It was a renaissance of tattoo.” Perrott went to conventions with 30+ tattoo artists. At conventions, “people strut and parade and carry on.” The vulnerability, terror and power were leaving tattoo. He set up a booth at conventions and made hundreds of portraits. This continued for 2 or 3 years. In 1983, he showed some of his prints to Jack Lane, the director of the Museum of Art, and had a show at the museum.

He traveled around the country to Seattle, New York City, LA, San Francisco. A culture of celebrity tattooists was developing, and he set out to meet the artists that were most searched out by clients.

All told he worked on the project for 20 years, and took thousands of portraits, all shot with the same camera and similar lighting strategies. “That first day at Nick’s set the pattern.”

“In 1979 it was a rite of passage.” For a 17 year-old male, it was “a powerful way of joining a tribe. He was now marked, and could never go back to the old tribe. People came to Nick to memorialize an important event. In the same way a photo memorializes a graduation or a wedding, tattoo has the same power.”

But tattooing has changed since 1979. “Tattoo has lost its outsideness completely.” At Nick’s, people were getting their first tattoo. “But once they’ve covered most of their exterior, the next tattoo doesn’t have the same effect. When I first started, who knew about tattoos? They were not cool, not mainstream. Athletes never got tattoos.”

The project changed over the years as he found fewer and fewer first times tattooers. He went to tattoo conventions, and found people “so thoroughly beyond their first tattoo. They would display, parade.” He discovered that he had chronicled the history of the tattoo renaissance.

“At the end of my tattoo adventures, piercing showed up as another layer. By 1990 piercing was at tattoo conventions, as was suddenly brightly colored hair.”

“I went through a time when I decided: everything you never wanted to do, you should try doing.” For Mark Perrott, that meant making color photographs. “Roygbiv was an anomaly. “ He had never made noncommercial color photos before, and hasn’t since. “Color was never part of my interest, it’s too complicated. Nothing about color says ‘use me.’ The only color that intrigued me was the folks outside the Beehive on Carson. In the spring they came out, showed up with that brilliant, outrageous, striking hair.”


“I did 100 or so roygbivs. I went on the road, went to Club Laga in Oakland.” On Saturday nights on the dance floor, there were always willing subjects. With the permission of the owner, he set up shop, took kids one by one and photographed them. These portraits Perrott printed up huge, 6 feet by 6 feet. ‘Those heads have to be big!” He even made the head of Emily 12×12 feet. “Emily had blue hair with magenta streaks. She’s teaching school now. But my wife saw her smoking a cigarette outside an art store, and she told her to come to the studio.“

Perrott has a third set of photographs called Modern Ruins. “Living in Pittsburgh, Modern Ruins started in a little coffee shop. I was reading the paper and saw an article about Jones and Laughlin steel. They were demolishing the steel mill. It seemed important to make a record of it before it was gone.”


“Pittsburgh was steel and steel was Pittsburgh. We were the muscle that made steel, big things for big cities, big buildings, big wars. That’s gone now.” In order to make a record of the mill and its demise, he snuck into the steel mill every Sunday and photographed all day. “There’s something fascinating about seeing a place dissected. Every week something was missing, and a new view materialized. It was intriguing, like dissecting a corpse.”

So Perrott spent a year of Sundays in the old steel mill, and Saturdays at Nick’s. “Tattoo was a Saturday event. People got paid, had time off, went to Nick’s.”

To see samples of these collections, as well as many other works of Mark Perrott, visit his website at