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Monday, September 17, 2018

A Tale of Two Terminals

Grand Central Station--designed (and redesigned) for busy.
"It's like Grand Central Station around here." That's a phrase my mother sometimes used when friends or relatives came calling or during other stressful moments when it seemed to her that the whole world had invaded our otherwise quiet, small-town home. I know for a fact she never passed through the famed New York City landmark and probably had only the vaguest idea of what it looked like. I know I certainly didn't. In all likelihood she knew only that it was a very hectic busy place. I was a senior, about to graduate from high school before I ever laid eyes on the early 20th-century Beaux-Arts architectural masterpiece trying to impart the same graceful French stylings of the Orsay Train Station in Paris  (now a museum), to the rapidly expanding transportation needs of a modern, bustling, hectic, busy city. That was 1963. I was quite unaware of the fact that New York City's other major rail hub, nearby Penn Station, was about to give up its structural "life" in what would become an historic, landmark case of greed and architectural desecration. The controversy resulting from the demolition of Penn Station was the catalyst for New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission which would, just a few years later, save Grand Central Station from a similar fate.
Penn Station main concourse, circa 1956.
Both terminals were architectural relics of a bygone era of grand palaces and hotels almost before they were built. Grand Central Station began rising from the huge mass of limestone bedrock undergirding the Manhattan "concrete jungle" in 1903. The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroad all came together on 42nd Street to facilitate rail traffic in and out of the city. The present-day building, designed by Bradford Gilbert, was erected to replace the former Grand Central Depot (below-upper image), built on the site in 1871. No one protested when it was torn down. By today's standards, and even those of the time, it was one of the ugliest buildings in city.
The old Grand Central Depot was designed for steam locomotives. Its 1903 replacement handled only electric.
From the advent of mass rail transportation during the second half of the 19th-century, architects struggled mightily to adapt antique styles to the new and demanding requirements of bringing people, and the "rolling stock" to move them about, together without disrupting the social niceties of the time. Starting in England, but equally perplexing in big cities like New York, for the most part these architects and engineers failed miserably as the concentrated as much (or more) on style than they did function. Grand Central and Penn Station terminals were among the monolithic battlegrounds where this conflict can best be seen. Penn Station died in this war. Grand Central Station suffered numerous architectural "wounds."

In that both stations had much of their "guts" underground, the massive excavations needed to construct the all-important passenger platforms could only have been accomplished through the arrival of the William Otis steam shovel in 1839.
Most of the station's 49 acres is underground. Beside the Metro North trains, you can get subway trains 4, 5 to the Bronx or Brooklyn, the 6 train north to the Bronx, the 7 train to Queens, or S train to Times Square (I always take a cab). There's also a special underground line, which is no longer used nor available for public view, from Grand Central to the Waldorf Astoria. This was so that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not be seen by the public as he traveled to and from the hotel and was helped in and out of the train due to his physical disabilities.

By the early years of the 20th-century, the automobile had come to dictate the layout, if not the facade, of Grand Central Station as much as the unseen "electric trains" below.
For the rest of us, there are several entrances to Grand Central Station. From the east, you pass through a market filled with fresh loaves of bread, cheese, jams, caviar, fruits and vegetables arrayed like fine jewelry. From Vanderbilt Avenue on the west side, there are restaurants and shops. The north entrance may seem the least interesting, but has some of the finest restaurants in New York. However, the best way to enter the station is from 42nd Street, where you'll see the old Pan Am Building (now the home of MetLife) rising behind the station like a backdrop (below).

The 42nd Street (at Park Avenue) entrance to Grand Central Station today.
The four-faced clock can be
read from any angle.
Above the main entrance is the Tiffany clock surrounded by Roman gods. There you'll pass through heavy oak and glass doors into a room that houses the photography and art exhibitions whenever they are held. Just beyond that, the main terminal with its ceiling, vaulted, and exalted, painted with the constel-lations of the zodiac (below). The old ticket windows are still there along the wall along with the four-faced clock (right) above the information booth. Across the way are the numbered entrances for the tracks for the trains heading out of town.

The ceiling of the Grand Central Station main concourse featuring the art of Paul César Helleu.
The original Penn Station, designed by the Beaux Arts architects McKim, Mead & White, opened in 1910. It was one of New York's grandest structures. In this day and age, it's hard to believe the Pennsylvania Railroad got away with demolishing this Neo-classical white beauty. If they needed a big parcel of land, why didn’t they tear down the Port Authority Bus Terminal instead? Few would have protested that. Penn Station’s destruction subsequently ushered in an era of historic preservation. The building was demolished in October of 1963 to create the current facility. The ensuing controversy helped fuel the preservation movement in New York and the passage of the Landmarks Law in 1965.
New York City's Penn Station was named for the Pennsylvania Railroad, it's builder and original tenant.
About ten block and 55 years now
separate the two transportation
landmarks. A tail of two terminals
unites them.
Penn Station occupied an eight-acre plot bounded east and west by Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and north and south by 31st and 33rd Streets in Mid-Town Manhattan. The original Pennsylvania Station head house (for passengers) and train shed (for trains) were considered a masterpiece of the Neo-Classical style and one of the great arch-itectural works of New York City. Penn Station maintained its arch-itectural grandeur until World War II, when rail usage started to decline. In the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Rail-road sold the air rights to the prop-erty and downsized the railroad sta-tion. The above ground head house and train shed of the station were demolished and replaced by Madi-son Square Garden and Pennsyl-vania Plaza between 1963 and 1969. Today, the site is also occu-pied by a hotel and an office build-ing. Below ground, the concourses and waiting areas were heavily renovated during this time. However, the platforms at the station's lowest level were not significantly modified, and evidence of the original station still exists at platform level.
New York City's Penn Station today (or what's left of it).
"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can archi-tecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
--"Farewell to Penn Station,"
New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Lace Sculpture

Agnes Herczeg's twigs and thread
Over the past century or so Modern Art has often been propelled forward by what we've come to call "mixed media." Picasso comes to mind first and foremost for his introduction of extraneous materials such as newsprint, wallpaper, fibers, and other manmade items into his paintings. I also recall his famous bull's head made from a metal bicycle seat with bicycle handlebars welded to the rounded part to form horns. As photography freed art from the demands of representing real life in a realistic manner, artists embraced "art for art's sake" or simply art about art. From then on virtually any material and any technical craftsmanship such items demanded became acceptable when used in a creative manner to impart the artist's vision or message. Some such works fall under the heading of "conceptual art" in which the message dominates the work itself. Such work often raises the question, is it art or is it not?
None of Agnes Herczeg's dainty masterpieces bear a title.
Hungarian artist Agnes Herczeg would probably take offense at labeling her exquisite little creations (top) and the piece above as mixed media. They are, in fact, a happy marriage of tatting (lace making) embroidery, even macramé with the simplest, yet carefully chosen support of wood in its natural forms. Only now, in examining the photos of Herczeg's work did I realize than not one of her pieces bears a title (at least insofar as I've been able to determine). That makes her art difficult to discuss on an individual basis. She apparently considers that each piece speaks for itself, or perhaps invites the viewer into the creative process by adding titles themselves. In my case here, I'll take the first option and leave the latter to those seeing Herczeg's work for the first time.

"Gazing into Infinity."
Herczeg combines delicate lace art with branches of found wood to create scenes depicting the contemplative beauty of human-ity. This is not art for art's sake. The intricate portraits showcase women as they recline, sleep, and gaze as if into infinity. The wood serves as an anchor for their activities, a place where the characters rest their bodies, or the floor on which they stand. Herczeg also uses it as a striking visual contrast--the looseness of the lace and the solidity of the wood are at odds, but become harmonious when linked together.

At times, Agnes Herczeg's works take on a fairly abstract appearance.

Herczeg’s lace sculptures are created using traditional techniques. She has extensively stud-ied the crafts of embroidery and lace-making, from needle lace to macramé. She incorporates a variety of these stitches into each composition. This proves to be a meticulous, detail-oriented endeav-or. Lace-making is an extremely time consuming occupation, taking several days just to complete even a small piece.
A sculptural delicacy.
Because the lace art is so tedious, it’s vital that Herczeg has a well-thought plan for how to execute the work. “Design is a significant part of the creative process,” she explains, “ because I have to think through not only the visual appearance of the work but its overall structure and the order of the individual steps.” Despite the rigidity of her process, Herczeg's pieces reflect freedom and even spontaneity as the threads drape from the wood.



Monday, September 3, 2018

Panda Art

Panda Bear by Abstractmusiq (a Deviant Art pseudonym).
In line with my consistently popular series of articles having to do with individual wild animals and their frequent use as subject content even among artists not specializing in wildlife art, I began to ponder which animal I might highlight next. I quickly came to the conclusion that I'd already done those which were the most popular. I was down to consider snake art. You'd be amazed at what I found, both frightening and really quite beautiful (in their own way). However snakes have a bad public relations problem, so instead I decided on pandas, which seem to have the opposite problem--too popular for their own good--"aww, how cute." You'd be surprised at what I found here too; most such art being so cute as to be trite.

A Chinese Red Panda by an indecipherable artist.
As you probably know, I tend to steer clear of the cute, cartoonish, or logo-looking "clip art." Very often that's why such animal art appears trite. Instead, I look for art which stands apart from the rest, even in the crowded field of "cute and cuddly." Abstractmusiq's Panda Bear (top) is a good ex-ample, despite the totally generic title. Marion Voicu (left) and the artist who created the eye-catching red panda (above) chose the lesser-known branch of the panda family tree which is not just smaller in size, but more importantly, more colorful.

Red Panda by
Marian Voicu
Photo of a Quinling Panda.
For those who might be wondering at this point if the red panda is more raccoon than bear, you're not alone. For decades geneticists have pondered the same question. They do, indeed look more like raccoons than panda bears and were once thought to be more related to skunks, weasels, and raccoons than bears. They're about the size of a common housecat. However, more recent exam-ination indicates they have a genetic family of their own which split from the Giant Panda family some two to three million years ago. A comparison of their ranges (below) suggests they're not prone to "family reunions." While the red panda bears only a slight resemblance to the more popular Giant Panda, there is, in fact, a third branch of the Panda family, the Quinling Panda (above, left). They're about the same size and have similar markings of the Giant Panda, except their fur colors are a shade of light brown and a sort of dirty white. They're relatively rare in the wild and apparently even more so where artists are concerned. It's a fur color combination artists appear not to care much for. I could find few (if any) paintings of this creature.

Pandas do not adjust well to extreme temperatures. Also, being relatively solitary (especially the red panda) their numbers and natural habitat have shrunk in recent years.

The panda and its favorite
meal. They devour pro-
digious quantities of bam-
boo, but can only digest
the leaves.
Inasmuch as the Giant Panda has become something of a symbol for the Chinese govern-ment, art, and other Sino organizations, perhaps we should give precedence to the manner in which Chinese artists have rendered this cuddly big guy (right).

Like all bears, pandas can
also be ferocious.

Despite what virtually all artists (Chinese or otherwise) depict, not all pandas are cute and cuddly. While primarily herbivores, when attacked, or protecting her young, the Giant Panda can make itself a force to be reckoned with (above, left). So if you should encounter one in the wild, ask politely to share its bamboo, and watch where you step; some 90% of what a panda eats is almost immediately passed through its digestive system (they can't digest cellulose). Pollyanna Pickering's pandas (below) seem in the sharing mood. Notice that her watercolor is painted over a subtle background texture of Chinese characters.
"Please pass the bamboo, mom," as seen by the recently deceased British artist, Pollyanna Pickering.

For those wishing to paint their first panda, the chart below features simplified pandas in virtually every possible pose. In painting them yourself, try for the unusual, avoiding a cartoonish rendering. God knows there are plenty of those on the internet; just cut and paste. Like all animals, pandas lend them-selves well to watercolors. See if you can do as well as Arti Chauhan (right).
Pansy the Panda
Arti Chauhan
Dancing pandas anyone?
And for the "aww, how cute" crowd, check out the baby red pandas below.

Monday, August 27, 2018

1920s Art

Artist John Held Jr. perfectly captured the awkward frivolity
of both the era of the 1920s as well as its art.
Virtually every decade in art has its own peculiar stereotype. Some have to do with a prevailing style popular at the time. Some are marked by the important social issues or news events (such as decades strewn with wars). Fortunately, there were no major conflicts during the 1920s to harden the art of that era. In fact, quite the opposite; this period reveled in the desperately optimistic hope for an unending peace following the "war to end all wars." It was an era blind to the fact that a forced peace was sprouting the seeds for yet another world war more terrible than the first. No, instead, two elements came together to form our enduring image on the art of the 1920s, an Art Deco-flavored transition to Modernism and a hopeful optimism that the good (though somewhat decadent) times would go on and on forever...or at least the foreseeable future. As it turned, out the foreseeable future was dismally short, lasting a little less time than the decade itself.
Never was there a greater contrasts in the art of two decades.
One might hesitate to consider the 1930s documentary photos of Dorothea Lange (above, right) as art. However, one might also make a case that images of the Charleston dance craze (above, left) were far from high art as well. Yet the two accurately depict radically opposing eras separated by just a few months...a few years at best. I could go on and on contrasting these two eras but I've already covered the art of the 1930s, while that of the 1920s, in its simplicity and superficiality, needs a more comprehensive look.

Cloth hats, cropped locks, and straight vertical lines were "in."
Art Deco for women?
No art is more superficial than that of the fashion designer, particularly in designing for women. Not that men's fashions don't exhibit a certain air for flair, but nothing like the frocks and locks (and in the case of the 1920s, hats) which festoon the fairer sex. If the female fashions of the 1920s seem to have a decided similarity to those of the 1930s, it's no accident. During the Depression decade, even fashion conscious ladies often found that updating their wardrobe to the new, more "tailored" look of the somewhat more conservative decade to be a luxury they could little afford. Poverty and art have long been considered antithetical.

Though the Vitaphone sound-on-
disk recording system was
considered a huge technical
breakthrough at the time,

far less than half of The Jazz
Singer featured sound.
Considering the cultural and social upheavals of the 1920s, one of the greatest reflections to be found during most art eras--motion pictures--was surprisingly dim. Moviemaking became a corporate industry. Money was the dominant factor, not art. Most movies from most of this decade were short, unimag-inative, formulaic, and at best, forgettable. There were exceptions, such as Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin, but even among these, few were made in the U.S. and even those were more entertainment than art. They were, that is, until October 6, 1927, when Warner Brothers' producer, Darryl Zanuck, debuted the company's "Supreme Triumph," The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jol-son, as a fine Jewish lad who embraced the "sinful," avant-garde, jazz of his time. While the film was mostly silent, it did contained sequences of prerecorded synchronized music and dialogue, something movie audi-ences had never heard before. Considered a fad at the time, the movie's most memorable line, "You ain't heard nothing yet," was nothing if not prophetic.

Having "invented" it, then wrung Cubism dry, Picasso morphed it into a Synthetic Cubism as seen in his 3 Musicians from 1921, before discarding the style entirely for a new classism represented by his
Woman in White from 1923.
In reviewing what I've written regarding previous art eras, I came to realize that I have "doted" on the fine art of painting. Though painting was a vibrant artform in the 1920s, I think I can best express the diversity of the era by highlighting the contrasts between just two --Pablo Picasso and Thomas Hart Benton. One made tremendous international strides as he searched his soul and bent his style to his varied themes. The other remained only a region force to be reckoned with, his style and content remaining virtually unchanged over the course of his entire career. Though Picasso was notorious for almost randomly changing his style of painting, the contrasts between the two paintings above, spanning a mere two years of the decade, is little short of remarkable.

Self-portrait With Rita (his wife), 1922, Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton was, as they say, "no Picasso," nor did he try to be. Picasso was Spanish/French. Benton was an American--a Missourian. His father was a Congressman, his grandfather, for whom he was named, was a five-term senator from that state. Though Benton studied in Paris for a time, his somewhat lyrical realism was firmly established by the 1920s. And though the scope of his work rivaled that of Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, his style was all his own, and would remain so until his death in 1975 at the age of 86. Picasso led the international art world into Modernism. Americans in the 1920s were not ready for Picasso nor his radical, even whimsical, stylistic gyrations. Neither was Benton; yet both men neatly reflected the nationalism and nature of the painter's art during this period of cultural upheavals.

Chrysler Building, William Van Alen, architect.
If painters were beset by a myriad of competing styles, the same was not the case as to the architect's art. Having long-since discarded the decorative niceties of Art Nouveau, architecture during the 1920s had but one dominant style--Art Deco. In fact, so pronounced was this transitional movement between Classicism and Modernism, in one manifestation or another, it permeated much of the stylistic elements of virtually every artform of the time. William Van Alen's and Walter Chrysler's Art Deco "race into space" (The Chrysler Building, above) was to stoke the latter's ego. Their efforts saw the construction of the tallest skyscraper in the world, completed in 1930. However, just eleven months later, its 77 floors were superseded by over 400-feet in height. The 102-story Empire State Building, just twelve blocks away, held "World's Tallest Building" honors for the next 41 years.

Domestic architecture eschewed the streamline Art Deco in favor of yet another "revival," this one referred to as Colonial Revival.
The Colonial Revival style (above-top), which was only slightly reminiscent of colonial architecture. Rather, it was economical, compact, and practical for the nation's first (but rapidly-expanding) suburbs. The two-story houses, frequently built just a few feet apart, offered large front porches for escaping the summer heat and socializing with close neighbors. Often the space between such homes offered barely enough width for a driveway to a garage in back for the Model T (I grew up in one such abode). For the ambitious, yet frugal do-it-yourselfer, such houses (above, slightly simplified and later heavily remodeled) could be purchased as a package from a catalog. The Craftsman Style building materials, right down to the front doorknob, could then be delivered by railroad to the proud new homeowner's local community.

Inspired perhaps by the "Gatsby" look, Art Deco furniture and interiors were often stark, simple in design, and maybe just a little too stiff, uncomfortable, and formal looking.
For the more upscale home of the 1920s, whose owner could afford the services of an interior "decorator," though the exterior might exhibit traces of the colonial past, inside the rooms and new furniture (above) swung to the prevailing Art Deco stylings. As compared to the fuss of Art Nouveau and the real fussiness of earlier Victorian interiors, Art Deco offered a clean, hopeful, modern look Americans saw as an optimistic future.

From an artistic or aesthetic point of view, auto design
progressed little in the 1920s.
And finally, during many decades one can trace art and design tastes through the "art" of automobile design (especially in the Post-WW II era). However, during the 1920s, though the automobile rapidly changed virtually every aspect of human endeavor, the auto designer's art changed little. The emphasis was on reliability, convenience, and price rather than chrome (then reserved only for radiator housings) or the art of streamlining, and tail fins. Henry Ford, at the beginning of the decade, dictated that the buyer could choose any color so long as it was black (an enamel which dried quickly on his assembly line). He treated his famed "Model T" as an everlasting design ideal, and nearly ran his fledgling company into the ground by his obstinacy. Only as the 1924 upstart, Chevrolet, began to gain popularity (and market-share) did Ford bring forth his "Model A" and a somewhat more colorful palette for the buyer to peruse. Only Chrysler made any effort to blend the prevailing Art Deco influences into the design of the company's slightly "jazzy" output. For some arts and artists, the "roaring 20s" was, indeed, a rousing cheer for a newfound peace and prosperity. For others, it could best be described as a contented purr.

Though Norman Rockwell designed
his first Post cover in 1916, it was
during the rambunctious 1920s
that his art first became the social
icon we recall today.


Monday, August 20, 2018

James Earley

About as ugly as it gets--Jesus Christ, James Earley
Artists have long been addicted to beauty. For many, if not most, painters as they choose a subject, beauty may well be the first and foremost consideration. There have long been exceptions, of course--Gericault's Raft of the Medusa comes to mind. Gericault, though, was a history painter, one of many who have explored the darker (dare we say ugly) side of human existence. Ugly is not a common theme in art, especially as applies to portrait artists (not intentionally, at least). If the truth be told, most artist tend to err on the side of flattering their subjects, human or otherwise, adding a touch of beauty here and there at the expense of verisimilitude. The tendency helps sell the art and feed the wife and kids.

Mary is a homeless girl living on the streets of New York.
By traditional standards, the British painter, James Earley, deliberately paints ugliness. Notice, I didn't say ugly paintings. Ugliness, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and despite his often unpleasant subject matter, as in his Jesus Christ (top) there is also a strangely touching beauty inherent in many of the images of homeless street people he produces. Mary (above) strikes many emotions in seeing it. The artist added only two things to the painting, the first being a slogan on the back of her jacket which reads “You were supposed to Love Me.” The second is a barely visible jug on the floor that is labelled “Anointing”. This nearly “invisible” jug gives the painting a completely different meaning as a modern parallel to Mary Magdalene and the anointing of Jesus Christ.

Shadows, 2018, James Earley
James Earley Self-portrait
James Earley is a British contemporary painter currently living in France. He is renowned for his emotional portraiture, in which he depicts individuals who have been through trauma and exist on a emotional knife edge. Earley favors oil paints for their flexibility, allowing him to mix his paints on the canvas rather than on a palette. While his style is principally realistic, he adds many elements to create the desired emotional response in the viewer. He does not focus on art as an aesthetic object, but instead sees art as a way to express his personal emotions. The painting, Shadows (above) demonstrates the fragility and danger of the situation--a man sleeping, peaceful yet only inches away from a busy road. Earley accentuates the contradiction with the litter bin, which seems to suggest the man as litter. In many ways the homeless are seen as untidy litter. These contradictions spin around the painting yet come together in the shadows Earley has exaggerated with a deep purple. Shadows are the contrast, the contradiction to our physical form, the problem that prevents a cure to be found on the homeless issue. It is only when we see the homeless as people and not shadows that we can take the first steps in helping them.

La Vie Est Belle, 2017, James Earley
La Vie est Belle
(above) is an oil painting of a homeless mother and daughter on the streets of Nice, France. The title translates to English as Life Is Beautiful. The artist met them in 2016 just days after a terrorist attack. The atmosphere was volatile and seemed to come to a crescendo at meeting these two people. I particularly wanted to paint this due to all the contradictions, the mother and daughter begging against a back ground of expensive clothes shops with slogans such as “life is beautiful”. The mother's sign, as nearly as I can translate the broken French reads: "Good day Please, a small pece pure monye I 2, be thank you."

Homeless Man, Carcassonne,
James Earley
Born in 1972, Earley began as a traditional portrait artist. However, in 2015 the work of James Earley took a radical turn with his powerful, emotional studies of homeless people, victims of war, and religious martyrs. This work took him to another level in the art world as he was nominated by The BP award, The Royal Institute of Oil Painters and The Royal Institute Of Portrait Painters culminating in his work being displayed at the iconic Mall Gallery in the heart of London. Since then, James Earley has emerged as one of the foremost pioneers of figurative painting in Britain today, a fact all the more remarkable since he is a self-taught artist. He has had an affinity for the homeless since childhood. Earley has often been urged by others to change his subject matter, producing paintings that would look nice on someone's wall. He counters such advice by insisting that when someone purchases one of his paintings, they are purchasing a bit of the artist as well, the canvas simply being an emotional battleground.

Earley first met the homeless man (right) in Toulouse, France, in 2014. You can see the artist's reflection on the window of the painting as he was taking one of several photos. There is sadness in his eyes, coupled with a certain noble dignity marked by his tiny tattoos and the stark contrast of the brickwork. Much the same effect can be seen in He Is Silent Now (below), of Aaron, a homeless man living on the streets of London. Earley's work makes us painfully aware that homelessness is not limited by gender, by age, nation-ality, mental condition, or any other of the common stereotypes we tend to invent. Sadly, it seems to be universal.

Toulouse Homeless Man, 2015, James Earley.

Stop and Cross (2017) is of a homeless man in Limoux, in the south of France.
The man and his best friend, his dog, seem to have the same expression, of despair and fear, yet there is a feeling that together they are strong and they have not given up. The artist added a reference to the disciple Matthew who described in the Bible his views on homelessness. The chapter and verse reference can be seen embroidered in the coat of the homeless man. He also added a crucifix which can be seen on the mat where the dog sits.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Gardens on Wheels

Enjoy the Fall, Tanaka Landscaping Co.
From the people who may well have originally invented and exported to the West the whole concept of "less is more;" from the culture which gave us miniature trees they call Bonsai; from the artists who may have been the first to embrace Minimalist landscapes; we are now gifted with yet another new art form--portable landscapes. The Japanese have done it again, creating works of the landscapers' art in the back of their tiny Kei-tara utility trucks. It's an artform so new Japan seems to be the only place in the world it can be found. Such art is admittedly, not yet widespread (even in Japan), but it comes with its own design competition, and each year seems to grow more and more popular with the Japanese public. The Kei Truck Garden Contest is an annual event sponsored by the Japan Federation of Landscape Contractors. The new artform combines the centuries-old Japanese knack for compact, highly structured gardening, with the modern-day "need for speed."

Autumn Falls, a Kei truck garden with its own pond (and a few fish), by landscaping contractor Inui Zouen.
The Kei Truck, is a tiny, but practical, vehicle that originated in Japan. (These days it’s also widely built and used throughout Asia and other parts of the world.) In Japan you’ll often see them used at construction sites and agriculture industries inasmuch as they can maneuver through that country's small side streets and easily park in spaces hardly bigger than that of a motor scooter. And in a more recent turn of events, apparently they’re also used as a canvas for gardening contests. The truck bed is a mere 54 inches wide by 79 inches long (about the size of a standard double bed).

Takahashi Landscape Construction created this garden that feels like a secret place.
The contest comes with stringent rules--it must include a Kei Truck. That's it, inventive creativity rules. You want to include a working waterfall? Sure, why not. You like fish? How about an aquarium running the length of the truck bed? Each year, participants are raising the bar for the following years. Here, it is possible to see beautiful landscapes with an aquarium or admire exquisite Bonsai trees of all sizes. In the U.S., the closest similar competition would be the floats of the Rose Bowl Parade--not quite the same.

1. Garden with a Coffee Table and Bench created by landscaping   
    contractor Fukuharu Zouen.
2. Bamboo Waterfall, Matsuda Zouen, a traditional rock garden.
3. Bamboo Water Well.
4. Both interior and exterior gardens grace the beds of Japanese Kei
    trucks...sometimes, both at the same time.
At the opening of the 21st-century, superficial impressions of Japan still fostered a nagging schizophrenic image combining the polar characteristics of elegant refinement and those of economic prowess. As the Mimalist artists in the U.S. and elsewhere discovered, there are pitfalls to oversimplification. A visual comparison of Kei truck gardens and the monstrous (in size, if not design) Rose Bowl floats, demonstrate the results provided by a century of scholarship, (both Japanese and Western). They provide ample evidence of a Japanese heritage of visual expression that is as both utterly complex and yet varied as the wider culture that produced them. 

Most Kei truck gardens are intended for viewing from only two sides
--left or right, and rear.
Just as the aesthetics are complex, the competition is high, making it difficult, even for Japanese art experts to decide who is the winner. In this contest, judges score each landscape based on three criteria. They look at the planned expression of the landscape; how the landscape design was executed; and the overall environment presented in the garden. Although there is only one winner, all landscapes in Kei Truck Garden Contest are glamorous and beautiful.

a large bonsai takes center stage in this piece,
by Kansai Uek

It all begins here...