Clay Ellis: Weaners, Culls and Divvies

I have known Clay Ellis for years.  Clay and his wife Michelle are what I miss most about living in Alberta.  Their hospitality, their generosity, their grace.  His work, somewhere in a zone of his own between painting, sculpture, and video, abstract and concrete, conceptual and figurative art, conjures up a sense of time and a spirit of place like little else I know.  We have had many drunken conversations about Picasso, country music and the meaning of it all over the years, and I look forward to many more.  He is one of Canada’s greatest living artists.  These are some shots from his most recent exhibition at the stunning new Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.  

The text is from the gallery website.  The photographs were taken by Rob Ganzeveld.


Clay Ellis: Weaners, Culls and Divvies

January 17, 2014 – April 6, 2014

Art Gallery of Grande Prairie (Alberta, Canada)


Born and raised on a ranch in Southern Alberta, Clay Ellis explores his connection with the landscape, referring to images, the temperament and gestures of his past.

“I think that the focus behind this exhibition is equal parts of reflecting on the experiences of growing up on the ranch, considering the reality of no longer being a part of it, and pondering what the land means to the individuals that currently live on the property.”


The transformation of the ranch itself, from homestead to ranching company, marked by the restructuring of out-buildings, the parceling of land, and the move towards automation, has happened in only a few generations.

For most operations, it is no longer necessary or practical to house a workforce, a shift that replaced hired hands and displaced extraneous family members. Usable tack turned to relic, and family members became guests to a property that had once been their home.


It is from the perspective of guest that Ellis makes his observations. While the works are informed by the changing perspectives of land use and ranching practices from one generation to the next, it has been his yearly visits over a 45 year period that have allowed him to see changes to the landscape that may escape those embedded in the rigors of the day to day.

Ellis neither condones nor prescribes ideology but rather suggests that to assess change we must first see it.




“Art has much more important things to do than change the world”–Clay Ellis, in one of those aforementioned conversations.

Talking Czech surrealism, chlebíčky with the author of Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century

I am very pleased to see that a recent interview I did with Lisette Allen for the Prague-based English-language website on my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century has now been published.  Anybody interested in how I got into Czech history in the first place, where I would go if I had just one day to spend in Prague, and such, can find the full interview (along with some nice images) here.


Surreal love in Prague


I am delighted that my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: a Surrealist History is the subject of the lead review in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, along with Thomas Ort’s Art And Life In Modernist Prague: Karel Čapek and his generation, 1911–1938.  In her long review essay “Surreal love in Prague” Marci Shore writes:

Sayer’s book is a pleasure to read, luscious in a sultry kind of way… Sayer meanders voyeuristically into the affairs between Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská, Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka, Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, and tarries alongside the ménage à trois of Éluard, Gala, and Max Ernst. The Vogue model turned photographer Lee Miller makes an appearance, as do the singer Jarmila Novotná, the architect Le Corbusier, the “little girl conductor” Vítěslava Kaprálová, and the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The axis is Prague–Paris, but we detour to Vienna for Expressionism, Berlin for Dada, the Moravian town of Zlín for the Bata shoe factory.

While Sayer lingers at length among Surrealist erotica, he disapproves of the Surrealists’ “propensity to parlay the sordid into the sublime”.  Prague itself – krásná Praha, zlatá Praha (beautiful Prague, golden Prague) – has long been eroticized, but Sayer finds the city’s sexualization tawdry. For him, Prague is the laboratory where Éluard’s belief that “everything is transmutable into everything” is confirmed. “This little mother has claws”, as Kafka wrote of his own city. The fairy-tale picture of the castle overlooking the river conceals the necrophiliac and the sadomasochistic, and images of the pre-modern grotesque flicker across Sayer’s Surrealist narrative … If for Benjamin Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, for Sayer Prague was the capital of the twentieth: “Prague is a less glittering capital for a century, to be sure, than la ville-lumière, but then it was a very much darker century”.

Thank you Professor Shore for a very generous review!  I am also really pleased that the TLS chose to illustrate “Surreal love in Prague” with Toyen’s painting “At the Château Lacoste” (below) and to use one of Karel Teige’s surrealist collages for the magazine cover (above).

The full text of Marci Shore’s review can be found here.



1.  The acrid smell of burning books


2.  What’s Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada’s Science Libraries?


I’ll refrain from drawing any Nazi parallels, since apparently that offends people.

Albums of the Year (Getting Old)


This year I seem to have been buying a lot of old stuff, much of it on vinyl, filling in gaps.  Stuff newly discovered like Arc Angels (1992), stuff long forgotten, like how good Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves (1974) was, reissues like (for the first time on vinyl) the Mountain Goats’ inimitable All Hail West Texas (2002).  Jason Isbell’s Live in Alabama just missed the cut because it was issued in November 2012 though I only discovered it this year.  I’ve listened to it a lot.

But of albums first released (though not always recorded) in 2013, here’s my top ten:

1.  Caitlin Rose, The Stand-in

Saw her for the second time in April at the Ruby Lounge in Manchester.  Lovely, clean, clear voice.  Great live performer.  Smart songs, more 50s/60s retro-pop than alt or any other kind of country, Nashville’s hippest.  This album has given me so much pleasure this year, mostly while cooking.

2.  Jason Isbell, Southeastern

Saw him at the Mohawk in Austin, a warm warm night, just a couple songs in the Pettyfest (with Amanda Shires, Ruby Amanfu, Norah Jones, Jakob Dylan, the Whigs, Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II and all).  But we drove through Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama, where he was raised, toured the Fame studios where he recorded “Cigarettes and Wine,” on the leisurely road from Atlanta to Austin.  He always could write (“Outfit,” “Decoration Day,” TVA”), it’s just he’s so grown up now.  “Elephant” is a heartbreaker.

3.  Sam Baker, Say Grace

He digs ditches in Austin.  Just discovered this self-produced album thanks to Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Country list.  You can buy it at his website from his sister-in-law.  It’s not country, it’s indescribable.  Ivory and amber, turpentine and lace.  Now I know what “a Canadian” is, in Texas.  (Hint: it’s to do with the weather.) We had one last week.  Going to see him on Sunday at the Strange Brew Cafe.

4.  Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait

Guess I’ve mellowed since Bob’s first Self Portrait album, when I thought the same as Greil Marcus (“What kind of shit is this?”).  Greil wrote the revisionist sleeve-notes for this collection of alternates and outtakes.  My partner Yoke-Sum calls this the Suburban Bob.  Some lovely touches (“Pretty Saro”), but best (on the deluxe version) is the whole 1969 Isle of White concert with the Band.  I WAS THERE.

5.  Rolling Stones, Sweet Summer Sun

In 1969, what a year, the Stones played Hyde Park.  I WAS THERE.  On the evidence of this set, they were tighter in 2013.  A fabulous performance.  Later in 1969, the Stones cut “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” at 3614 Jackson Highway, the burlap palace in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

6.  Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park

Another belated discovery from the Rolling Stone Top Ten Country list.  So many talented young songwriters out there right now.  I think I might end up liking Kacey almost as much as I do Caitlin, which is saying something.

7.  Inside Llewyn Davies (various artists)

I shouldn’t like this—Justin Timberlake and one of the saccharine Mumfords—but I do.  When Yoke-Sum streamed this on NPR I nearly fell out of my seat.  I knew most every word to most every song.  It choked me up.  The explanation is that I WAS THERE.  Not in the Village, but the Medway Folk Club, circa 1963-4, where I saw Tom Paxton sing “The last thing on my mind”—and Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack, Peggy Seeger, Bert Jansch, Ewan MacColl, and many more.  I can taste the time.  Can’t wait for the movie.

8.  Françoise Hardy, L’amour fou

If Dylan and Mick and Keith can still do it, why not Françoise?  I WAS THERE, too—thirteen and longing.  The nod to André Breton is a bonus.  We bought an original 45 of “Tous les garçons et les filles” at one of those stalls by the Seine for 15 Euros this summer.  That clean, clear voice reminds me of Caitlin Rose.

9.  Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You

A masterful artist, a catch you by the throat title song.  Guy’s wife Susanna (“L.A. Freeway”) died last year.  Unbearably sad album.

10.  Beyonce, Beyonce

Good Texas girl.  Like half the world I downloaded this on iTunes today.  ‘Nuff said.

Paolo Palladino: Why the REF is bad for the very idea of the university

Professor Paolo Palladino, whose (so far unanswered) Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor and management of Lancaster University following his exclusion from the 2014 REF was reported in my earlier post Kafkarna continues: REF gloves off at Lancaster University, has now written a long piece on the UCU RefWatch website on “Why the REF is bad for the very idea of the university.”  

This is how it ends:

“I have asked … for formal confirmation that I am not failing to meet any of my responsibilities as a member of the Department of History. I have also asked for confirmation that, in future years, the balance of my teaching, research and administration, as reflected in the workload allocation model, will not be outwith departmental norms, and that I will continue to benefit from the mechanisms within the Department of History and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to support the engagement of individual staff in academic research and bids for external funding. No formal acknowledgment or response to the request has yet been received. I have spoken to my Head of Department about this and all that he could do was to smile knowingly about the absurdity of our predicament. In the meantime, my sense is that what will happen next, and, in some sense, this is already happening within the research councils and related charities, is that interdisciplinary research will be conflated evermore with multidisciplinary research, so that collaboration between academics in different disciplines will be regarded as delivering ‘interdisciplinary’ inquiry. There are far from insignificant costs to this semantic transformation because the individual scholar thus ceases to be the site of interdisciplinary inquiry and testing of the foundations upon which each discipline rests. Exercises such as REF are deceptive because what they reward is that which is familiar and conforms to the most widely shared expectations of what counts as knowledge, not that which challenges us to think deeply about who we are and what we do. In so doing, these exercises fail to live up to the very idea of the university and its one unflinching command to each one of us, to ‘dare to think’. I leave it to you to consider what might be the long-term implications of the failure to encourage such critical reflection among those students we are called upon to prepare for the challenge of creating a more just and more humane society.”

The full article can be accessed here.

The Odious Machine

The most sensible thing I’ve read on today’s UK universities strike day:

“I am a university lecturer. I teach English. I have been struggling of late to make sense of a workplace whose principles run counter to what I believe a university should be and what it should be for: the pursuit of learning, of research and scholarship into science, into society, into culture, of dissemination of knowledge that has a direct social and political function, an understanding of the world that helps people make better lives, personally and collectively: NOT a machine for making money, NOT a business, NOT a provider of services for customers, NOT a place which comes to represent the destructive and amoral principles of neo-liberal, marketised capitalism.

My own profession has been supine for far too long. It has stood by while its own members have been disciplined under RAE and REF, have been turned into entrepreneurs whose time is taken up with (increasingly futile) grant bids, who have been pacified and made grateful for a declining share in the fruits of their own productivity; who fought nowhere near hard enough against student loans, and their increase to £9000 a year; who fail to make common cause with their own student body and the administrative and support staff who enable their working lives.”

Read more here.

Thanks to Mark Jackson for bringing this excellent blog to my notice.  We need more like that.

Footnote.  Only after posting this did I realize that the blog’s author is a colleague at Lancaster University, albeit in a different department.  A curious coincidence.

Not about the REF

Sorry y’all, this one is about me.  Very pleased that Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century has made the Financial Times Books of the Year.


REF Deadline Day: All Together Now!

In today’s Guardian

Research that doesn’t belong to single subject area is deemed ‘too risky’

Academics concerned universities are excluding interdisciplinary research from the Research Excellence Framework exercise.


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