The Importance of Small Moments

The New Art Examiner just published my review of the exhibition, Nares: Moves, which is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October. The text to the article is below, and the images here are mine. See the online article for the higher-quality images provided by the museum for press-use.

With this article I am now a contributing editor with the New Art Examiner. It’s a small moment maybe, but a really nice one!


20190612_104546.jpgThe new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, featuring the work of Jamie Nares (formerly James), is an intriguing retrospective covering five decades work by an experimental, playful, curious and inventive artist. It also marks the first MAM exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Dr. Marcelle Polednik.

In the accompanying catalogue introduction, Polednik defines the challenge of presenting a retrospective of Nares’ work. “These objects,” she writes, “have little to suggest that they are the works of a single artist, much less that they are connected to a sequential biographical or art historical narrative.” Her solution is to present the works, not in strict chronological order, but rather in thematic sections.

Polednik’s curatorial approach emphasizes three concepts–gesture, time, and movement—which are interwoven throughout nine sections of the exhibition. These nine “chapters” are also explored in an accompanying catalogue and a gallery guide. Additional programming—film screenings, a dance performance and discussions with the artist, collector Julian Schnabel, and musical collaborator Thurston Moore–will expand upon the gallery experience.

Embedding the display within such rich programming and publications is an important choice for this material, as there is not much explanatory text within the gallery. It is helpful, for example, to more fully understand the impact of defining personal experiences, such as the artist’s youthful move to New York City in the 1970s. Details about unusual methods and materials are also informative and lead to a fuller appreciation of the works. The deeper dive not only provides more opportunity to grapple with the complexity of this work, but also provides strong reinforcement of the exhibition’s premise, that the lines of exploration threading through Nares’ long career are consistent across surprisingly varied media.

The exhibition’s organizational scheme is successful in demonstrating visual and conceptual relationships between works in disparate media from different periods of the artist’s life.

The introductory room, which also serves as the exhibit’s conclusion, presents a pair of works: the 2008 video, Riding with Michaux, and an untitled high-speed drawing from 2014. Although not far separated in time, the works intersect in multiple ways. The video’s imagery of sunlight on water has visual similarities to the linear forms of the untitled drawing but, more importantly, they share process. A relationship is made here between the artist filming with a camera on a moving train, and the artist holding a brush to a rotating sheet of paper. Motion, not only in the visual field, but as part of the making, is central to the artist’s practice.

Film and video have a strong presence throughout the galleries. From early works like Giotto Circle #1 or Game, shot in TriBeCa of 1970s New York, to Element #1 (2009) and a series of Portraits (2016), Nares’ long-standing passion for moving images is clearly evident. The subjects may seem at first unrelated—the artist drawing a circle on a wall, small hand movements, a heavy ball swinging over an empty street, the slow eruption of bubbling mixture—but all have important elements in common.

Pendulum (1976), with its groaning sound and almost dizzying, hazardous motion, explores the movement of an object through an eerily empty urban space. In the luminous Street (2011), made with a high-speed camera, scenes of now-occupied city streets have been slowed to a glacial pace. The camera, instead of focusing on moving objects, is here itself in motion, driven along city blocks, capturing unstaged images of people, the details of Manhattan daily life, made graceful and dramatic via slowed
motion. Both works chart time and movement to very different ends. Nares’ innovative use of a high-speed camera is only one example of the artist’s intellectual curiosity.

The monumental paintings presented in the exhibition fully display the artist’s capacity for invention. Nares has created luscious works with various strokes: thick and lumbering, made from tiny glass beads, thermoplastic “paint,” and a street-marking machine; or the single stroke paintings, delicate and graceful, made with elaborate, homemade brushes and, at times, interference pigments. At first glance, they bear no relation to each other—heavy, textured, black and white or gorgeous, delicate, ribbons of color–yet all refract light, suggest motion, and basically disrupt the expected experience of looking.

The show’s most recent works are a series of large-scale images with gold leaf. Originating as rubbings of cut-stone street surfaces in the artist’s old New York neighborhood of Tribeca, the works incorporate both a technological interest—with Evolon, a non-woven, high-tech microfiber paper—and a social acknowledgement unusual for this artist. The stone surfaces are described as having been cut by immigrant labor in the city’s early days. When thermoplastic street markings become abstract paintings, and 19th-century street stone is transformed into shimmering gold, the artist is not only an inventor but also earns the title of alchemist.

It is clear that Nares has been grappling with movement for a long time. A note from a sketchbook captures the artist’s interest in a playful way:

things in motion; motion in things

The phrase provides an opportunity for exchange, a back and forth, a circular form that is mirrored in the intentionally circular path within the gallery. The exhibition ends where it begins: with a video and a drawing, both exploring motion and time, with directness and grace. Nares celebrates small moments in her work, transforming simple gestures into fascinating experiences worthy of our time and consideration.

Giotto Circle #4 (2019)
Giotto Circle #4 (2019)

Nares: Moves is on view from June 14 to October 6, 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

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Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

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It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Fair Rosalind

Rosalind is always better when she is disguised as Ganymede. The recent closing night of APT’s production of As You Like It proved it once again as Melisa Pereyra’s ease and charm stretched all the way through the pouring rain to reach even the ushers seated in the last row.

I love this play. It is not the I die, you die, we all die experience of Hamlet or other of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Instead, this play has bad poetry plucked from trees; banter between fools, shepherds, and melancholy philosophers; beautiful language, songs, and famous lines; a cross-dressing heroine; and a convenient wrap-up at the end.

When Rosalind sheds her feminine garb and appears as Ganymede, she/he just has so much damn fun. Ganymede is all experiment and exploration. He tests and prods, feeling what is possible. He is the very force of creation; he is the edge, the gray area, the liminal place where inventiveness resides. But he is, at the same time, Rosalind. It is really she (in disguise) who is the explorer, the mad scientist, the inventor, the instigator. And I love her for it.

The Path
Carol Pylant, The Path (oil on aluminum)

As You Like It rests easily in works by the Wisconsin and Chicago-area painter, Carol Pylant. Her courtyards are so still, populated only occasionally by stray dogs or peacocks. The spaces are quiet, with stone flooring and archways, plastered walls, signs of age but of indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. But these spaces, so beautifully rendered in mind-boggling detail, open onto disparate landscapes of green forests and wooded paths, sunlight and trees, overgrown but inviting. Rosalind waits against the stone wall in the spare courtyard, but Ganymede runs off into the distant woods, his feet nimble among the roots and uneven paths.

Artigas Spring
Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (oil on linen)

The boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free, is so clearly represented in this work but cannot be neatly comprehended. The paintings are unsettling because of this very disconnect: the spaces don’t match. The constructed courtyards that open to unstructured wilderness are too close, too accessible. In their very realism the paintings proclaim their place in the imaginary, as when the audience lets itself believe that Rosalind could ever be taken as Ganymede. The painting is its own referent; the play’s the thing.

Before the End
Carol Pylant, Before the End (oil on aluminum)

But sound is also the thing, especially when it’s Jason Moran playing piano at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. There’s piano, and then there are the sounds that Mr. Moran creates. The rumbling, so quiet at first, building slowly until it fills my head, forcing out any other thought, requiring, demanding, clear, sole focus on the sound itself. Sound that split the world of piano into two: what I had known before, and what I understood after. The former was the constructed world, the courtyard where Rosalind sits attired in her courtly manners, suspended in time, waiting. The latter is possibility: the overgrown, tangled woods where Ganymede freely uncovers love of all kinds.

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Jason Moran: Celebrating Willie Pickens & Muhal Richard Abrams. Logan Center Performance Hall, September 30, 2018.

Soothing balm for difficult days? Maybe, but the music, the paintings, and the play all embody the quintessential dichotomy of court and green world, the opposition between constrained manner and unfettered potential. Luckily for viewers and listeners, there is a space where characters shed expected behaviors and take on new identities, where music is released into sound, where buildings open into wilderness, offering up a celebration of creativity and imagination, the joy of discovery, the release of constraints, and the pleasure of making something new.

(Update: Carol Pylant’s work will be featured in an exhibition during spring 2019 at Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. A publication, Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings, 2009-2019, will accompany the show, featuring essays by me and Buzz SpectorDetails will be shared about the catalogue and the exhibition as soon as they are available!).

Represent

My project from last fall, in conjunction with planning for some upcoming exhibitions, is making me think more about abstraction and representation: if these terms are useful and where they are relevant. Complicated words, they each have multiple layers and definitions that vary by context.

Chloë Bass has considered abstraction, wondering if it is a privilege, but concluding instead that it is essential for bringing people together. This approach is relevant, not only to my exhibition of Dan Ramirez’ work, but it speaks to many other recent exhibitions that focus on or unearth or explore the work of artists of color working in abstract, minimalist, or non-representational visual styles. How are these approaches interpreted by museums?

That is, of course, if there is actually any work by artists of color in the museum to be interpreted. It seems that some museums have finally caught on to the imbalance of their collections. But what will they do with the work once it has been purchased and accessioned? Will it go into storage with the other 92-98% of the collection? Will it stay there for 20 years without being researched or interpreted?

(When I say “interpret,” I mean display. When a museum displays a work of art it is interpreted: selected, installed with other works within a larger scheme or organizational structure, lit and labeled, accessible during open hours, for an admission fee or not, under electronic or human surveillance, climate controlled, documented, stanchioned, managed by museum etiquette like do not touch or no flash photography please, hash-tagged, pictured on posters and greeting cards in the shop, nicknamed, examined, and seen by hopefully very many people. Adding text in the form of a label or a docent tour or a curator talk or an audio file or a web exhibition is an additional layer of interpretation. The museum identifies the work with artist, title, date, medium, and credit line, which is interpretation. If you don’t agree, have you ever asked an artist about the date when a work was completed, the title of a work, or whether they used graphite or pencil? The answers that make it onto the label are interpretation).

Rashid Johnson has talked about how representation of the Black body has offered a way into museum spaces for Black artists. (I would say this goes for Latinx artists too. Figurative work by artists of color is easier for white curators because it is clearly identifiable as culturally-specific. Maybe images of cholos, madonnas, or sharecroppers are easier for marketing teams, too?) But what about artists who do not work in representational modes? If Sam Gilliam’s detachment of canvas from stretcher can be understood within a history of protest–in Johnson’s words, as “emancipation”–is this dichotomy, representational and abstract, useful at all?

Such limited terms obscure similarities and suggests a non-existent conflict. For example, when artists are interested in perception, in creating work that unsettles our understanding of what we see, is there only one path available? Is it either, or? Of course not. Both Dan Ramirez and Faisal Abdu’Allah make art work that questions how we make sense of what we see, and their work and practices could not be more different.

Ramirez’s approach is unapologetic. He is not interested in discussing his latinidad, damn it, he is applying paint to canvas or graphite to wood, and thinking about our ability to understand the world. He plays perceptual games using geometry and light, surface and depth. The play is deeply connected to philosophical pursuits, along with his considerations of belief and doubt. His work makes you question what you see.

Abdu-Allah’s approach is figurative and community-based; he uses photography, printmaking, weaving, and other media to represent gatherings of people. FauHaus and Visage were collaborative projects, developed in partnership with groups of students. But his objects also refer to groups of people: a gold barber’s chair standing in for the important sociality of the barber shop.

His two Last Supper tapestries picture groups of people also, but what is represented is not easily read. The iconography has been mixed up—the typical Eurocentric Christian Last Supper is transformed here with women and Muslims, or contemporary dress and a display of weapons. Not only is the imagery changed, but the medium has undergone an alchemical transformation from photograph to Jacquard tapestry, playing again with the Eurocentrism of the title. These works make you question what you see.

If the display of Ramirez’ Aletheia: Scribe’s Reveal was a dramatic statement about the artist’s career and aesthetic vision, Duppy Conquerer is Faisal’s own coming out. Using imagery that is forthright and insistent, this is a loud and clear assertion of himself as an independent artist within an international art world. With a nod to his Jamaican heritage and an I-don’t-have-time-for-your-shit stance, in black clothing and mask, he is a story-teller and magician, mentor and scholar. He represents. And yet, with photograph transformed into tapestry, individual into icon, the work makes you question what you see.

Perception is a tricky thing. Michelle M. Wright calls this interaction between work and viewer the “physics of Blackness”:

In any given moment, when the spectator engages a work of art, different valences of Blackness may formulate, expand, or multiply, qualitatively and quantitatively. What is Black art? That may very well depend on the time and the space of the moment.

So, how do museums interpret the work of Black or Latinx artists? Representation and abstraction are complex terms that indicate what happens when the viewer is engaged. What is it that you think you see? That’s the question.

 

Anatomy, Art, and Other Things

It’s been over 20 years since I was an office temp the second time around, in San Francisco, trying to stay employed between graduate degrees. I worked in an academic department at UCSF, a fledgling art historian adrift at a medical school. Whenever possible I would take long lunches and flee to the library, eating on the plaza that was dramatically perched on the edge of a hill above the city. There was also refuge to be found in the rare books room where I squeaked out time to look at 19th century artist’s anatomies in the collection.

A few years ago I found myself again looking at historical anatomies, this time in Wisconsin. My job had stagnated and I was yet again casting about, trying to imagine what other work I could pursue. Artist’s anatomies are apparently my touchstone, a place I return to, like a prodigal daughter, when I find myself at a dead end in other pursuits. They are where I go looking for reassurance, back to square one, in search of intellectual re-ignition. Why anatomies? Maybe because they are the traditional building blocks, along with drawing, in 19th-century American and European academic art. Maybe, having studied the work of Thomas Eakins, I was never able to adequately resolve for myself the exaggerated importance of (or intensity of focus on) anatomy within his artistic process and teaching. Maybe it’s just because the works are visually engaging, intellectually challenging, gorgeous, difficult, and just really complicated.

Artistic anatomy surfaced for me again last week, unexpected but welcome, during the unveiling of the parade of Buckys around town. This fundraiser involved the work of lots of artists, and has met with mixed reviews–some cheerleading and others attempting to put it all into perspective. In the midst of perhaps more impactful happenings in the city, I took advantage of a particularly gorgeous spring morning and attended the presentation of a rather unusual incarnation, Visible Bucky, by Phil Salamone.

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Phil Salamone, Visible Bucky (back view)

Phil is an academically trained artist. With the help of Sarah Gerg, he spent about 450 hours painting this sculpture. It’s completely thrilling to see an artist have so much fun using traditional methods. Placing the work in front of Science Hall is an especially important nod to history, as the building was the former home of the UW-Madison Department of Anatomy.

Visible Bucky makes me think of Jason Freeny’s work, as both of these artists are referencing European artistic anatomy traditions in their pop-culture creations.

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Jason Freeny, Spongebob Anatomy (on display at the Safety-Kleen Gallery One, Elgin Community College, 2015).

There are many artists who have been delving into the rich visual culture of anatomy studies. For some contemporary examples, see Street Anatomy. Founded by Vanessa Ruiz, this website is an amazing resource for contemporary anatomical expressions.

The anatomized Bucky reminded me of my explorations of the incredible anatomy materials that are available in the Kohler Art, Special Collections, and Ebling Historical libraries right here on the UW-Madison campus. Occupying an intriguing intersection of art and science, the following works are occasionally on display, but all are accessible with an appointment in the gems that are the campus library collections (19th century onward, there are much more from earlier periods too) :

These large format plates display an écorché figure, not in an anatomist’s theater or on a dissection table like in earlier texts, but posed in a landscape. Produced posthumously, a memento mori to the author appears at the figure’s feet, along with a cityscape (Florence?) on the horizon. The skeleton, pictured in the same pose but without the landscape setting, has surprising details in a fleshy ear and nose.

Melding classical sculpture into idealized, composite, anatomized models, like with the head of the Belvedere Apollo, these large, intricately illustrated pages make an explicit connection between anatomical studies and the history of art. The frontispiece includes a funny little scene below a bust of Minerva/Athena: in a group of naked men (putti?) performing a dissection, one of the figures holds his nose. Some things never change.

  • Piedad Bonnett (1951-current), Libro de anatomía (Bogotá, Colombia : Alonso Garcés Ediciones, Marcela Caldas Editora y Ediciones Arte Dos Gráfico, 2006).

In a small book of poems enhanced with anatomically-inspired images, blood and bone, muscle fiber and tissue convey a fragile intimacy in contrast to the musky, corporeal references of the written word.

An invocation of scientific visual culture, Baskin’s portfolio references the fascination and underlying horror of anatomical dissection. With angels of death, cadavers with dark open recesses, and bony appendages wrapped and unraveling, these drawings present a powerful, beautiful, and disturbing homage to the traditions of imaging anatomy.

After thinking again about these works, I wonder if maybe Visible Bucky is actually a hybrid. As a badger he might be related to the horses that were studied by artists and scientists in early photography:

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Or comparative anatomy, like the mare Josephine, represented in a bronze cast of a écorché, originally modeled in plaster, from the studio of Thomas Eakins:

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  • Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 – 1916), Écorché: Relief of a Horse (Josephine)modeled ca. 1882; cast 1979. Bronze with brown patina mounted on wooden plaque, 23 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gift of Sue Kessler Feld, Class of 1969, and Stuart P. Feld, 2010.53.

Visible Bucky, standing in front of Science Hall, brings me back again to the beginning, to Eakins’ Philadelphia studio and his lifelong obsession with dissection and anatomy. The imagery is persistent, it runs through academic art and contemporary painting, Sponge-Bob and poetry, grad school and work life. It reflects a desire to understand how things function–the mechanisms and the operations below the surface–and it underlies considerations of the ideal and the real, in the visual world and in lived experience.

Anatomy is a metaphor for me, for where it all begins (the intellectual journey at least), but it’s actually where it all ends, too. In our physicality, in our bodies, where is our humanity located? What is the connection between the system and the intellect? If we can fully comprehend the functions, can we actually create wonder?

Bucky is a powerful presence. On that bright sunny morning a few days ago, I did not expect a painted badger to ignite a spark. And now he is feeding a flame. Go Bucky.

 

Looking Back to Michael Kenna and the Rouge Plant

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Back in 2001 I worked on an exhibition for the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern. I was a curatorial assistant at the time, tasked with helping the exhibition curator, who happened to be the chair of the architecture department and a transplant from England. He did not own a car, which was a serious cause for suspicion in a place like Michigan, home of the Big 3 auto makers.

My job turned out to be mostly driving the curator into Detroit for research visits. In the days before social media and smart phones, I navigated through an unfamiliar city trying to listen as the curator spun out his ideas for the exhibition. At the Kahn firm’s office we unrolled architectural plans and opened tubes of blueprints that were stored in hot closets under stairwells next to mechanical rooms. We visited the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at the Rivera murals and learning from the curators about the slim chance we had of borrowing from Mexican collections for the exhibition. We drove around looking for Kahn and Ford buildings: the General Motors and Fisher buildings, Highland Park.

The exhibition presented some technical quandries—how best to display large architectural drawings? There were logistical challenges—we had to abandon hope of including a painting by Frida Kahlo, as the loan negotiations would have been too complex and time consuming. But we were able to incorporate some gorgeous Sheeler photos, drawings, and paintings, some Lozowick prints, and some of Michael Kenna’s Rouge photographs.

Because of the work I had done for the exhibition–and maybe to make up for the unexpected driving services—I had a short essay included in the exhibition catalogue, my first published curatorial essay. I chose to write on Kenna’s images of the Rouge Plant, as they are beautiful, mysterious, and striking.

It is exciting to see that these works have been recently revived. They are the subject of a new book, Michael Kenna: Rouge, by my old boss at UMMA, now director at the Princeton Art Museum, James Steward. Princeton has the entire series of 120 gelatin silver photographs that Michael Kenna shot at the Rouge. They are on display RIGHT NOW, but if, like me you can’t get to NJ anytime soon, you can get a preview of the entire series of these small, powerful, wonderous images on their website. Check it out.

Now I just need to figure out how to get ahold of the new book…