Saturday, August 22, 2015
There's a glut of comedy sketch shows on TV right now (Inside Amy, Key and Peele, Drunk History, and so on), and some of these shows are funny-haha, some funny-weird, and many are funny-not. I would have to describe the first installment of Documentary Now, the new half-hour gig on IFC cooked up by Saturday Night Live veterans Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader as a combination of all three of those categories, but what wins out in the end is definitely funny-not.
First off, I love Fred Armisen. He has a mask-like face that registers stupidity and confusion without having to move a muscle, and he deploys that plastic expression throughout most of his impressions, giving each bit of mockery he does a sort of Armisen through-line that makes it all hilariously precise and also broad enough to be slapstick. I don't think I've ever laughed harder at him that earlier this year on the premiere episode of one of his other sketch comedy shows Portlandia, which just finished up its fifth season. The premiere segment featured the back-story of the owners of Women and Women First, a feminist bookstore, and Armisen played Candace, a stodgy, judgmental, hilariously un-self-aware activist, as she was in the early 90s, a sexed-up, man-hungry, careerist tiger-lady in beautifully garish power skirt and pant outfits, prowling the halls of Big Business, just itching for a fight or a fuck. That same dim but feverish face attached to that early-90s sense of what it means to be a glass-ceiling-buster was so hilarious because it was both parody and paean, over-the-top and yet sensitive enough to give Candace a break: she's a broken, dimwitted icon, but she's a goddamn icon none-the-less.
Documentary Now's premiere episode features a sendup of Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary about Edith Beale and her daughter Edith who live in the Hamptons in a haunted house. Titled Sandy Passage, the mockumentary goes through the motions, with Hader playing the daughter and Armisen playing the mom, and at first you feel warm about it all, that the mockers are somehow enchanted by what's being mocked and we're in for great strangeness fortified by camp and homage. For about five minutes, it is all that, with Hader and Armisen riffing on all the many idiosyncrasies involved: the rotten-wood house, the raccoons, cats and possums who have taken over, the sweatpants turban, the poetic trash of lives lost in doldrums and regrets... Making fun of how the original movie looks and feels (the Maysles brothers original is a desperately sincere affair, but that only makes the camp of it exquisite and heart-breaking and kind of comforting) is easy to do of course, and fun, but not really that funny. Grey Garden's unique sensibility allows it to self-parody, thanks especially to Little Edie, who has a knowing countenance and glare every time she seems to be feeling she's being exploited. In fact, her performance in Grey Gardens is truly a performance. All the sad/creepy clothes she wears, the affectations she uses to express herself, that beautiful American flag-waving dance she does, all of that artifice, even if it is innocent and completely self-imposed, is completely controlled by her sense of decorum and ego. So mocking all of that is shooting little Edies in a barrel so to speak, and Hader does so with his usual smattering of otherworldly intonations and stares. Armisen takes on Big Edie with the same aplomb, giving us a slowed-down, stupider version, but also entering Big Edie into his personal wax-museum of freaks, right up there with Candace and the stolid Native American comedian he'd do on Weekend Update, sitting next to Anchorman Seth Meyers, who happens to be the writer and producer of Documentary Now.
Meyers, I think, is the main reason that Sandy Passage is funny-not. It's the narrative. After the initial and obligatory scene-setting and mockery, the story of Sandy Passage takes a turn into Blair Witch territory, turning the house and the ladies in it into "pure horror," both Edies suddenly turning into grocery-store-delivery-boys-killing witches. Grey Gardens definitely never wanted to go to that place Sandy Passages seems intent on going. Even while flirting with the gothic grotesqueries confronting them, the Maysles brothers were intent on both capturing the horror and the swetness. In fact both constantly intermingle.
It's just too easy to imagine Edie and Edie as malevolent forces, their story as witchy and horrible. It's a frat-boy take on something a frat-boy could never understand. Why go there? I guess for the laugh, but it's not funny, it's just dumb, in the way all lazy easy satire is: taking a situation that's sad and pathetic and layering on horror-movie kitsch only makes the show feel amateurish at best, and kind of hateful and phobic at the worst.
Edie and Edie's story is about surviving but also about caving in, about pride and sloth and lost chances and ego, but by the end of Grey Gardens there's definitely a sense that both Edies are in on the joke. In the end, watching Sandy Passage, you truly get the sense that parodying Grey Gardens, without understanding its essence and power, is the ultimate in redundancy, and even the ultimate in disrespect.
Friday, August 14, 2015
Monday night, we started with this little ensemble when looking at how to curate "The Goodwill Biennial," the next gig on deck for Thunder-Sky, Inc. It's a parody of contemporary art-survey biennials across the world, using donated paintings, sculptures, whatever given to the Ohio Valley Goodwill here in Cincinnati as the starting point of a jurying process that includes me, Bill Ross, Matt Distel, Merry Hoefle, Melanie Derrick, Emily Brandehoff, and Antonio Adams. Parodying something as pretentious and serious as a "biennial" is kind of a silly prospect of course, close to shooting million-dollar fish in a million-dollar barrel: those who pursue the biennial lifestyle of course don't give a crap, and those who don't give a crap really don't care. But still satirizing something so contrived and so integral to the way serious art business often gets done (or doesn't get done) gives us a chance to worship at the altar of Pure and Gorgeous Serendipity, as well as the sad and blurry cathedral of Musty-Smelling Ghostliness.
That's definitely the vibe when unpacking donated art: that mildew-enflamed fume, that sad sweet grandma-doesn't-live-here-anymore vapor. In fact, those delicate, precise, dreamy watercolors of 1960s suburban homes surrounded in trees and sunshine had to be unpacked from a mysterious blue suitcase filled with old sketches and photos and prints someone had stuffed into it and locked up tight and sent on its merry way. That blue suitcase mustiness was an entrance into memory, kind of like the marmalade on the cracker moment Proust went on and on and on about. Those drawings have such a tenderness, such a nostalgia, and then Matt located the centrifuge of this whole vortex by grabbing the portrait in the center from off the floor, and there she was: Nancy Kincaide, a name we all brainstormed into being. She was a realtor, a murderess, a vindictive socialite and so on. The painting itself is green and heavy and small, and Nancy's countenance both regal and also beautifully come-hither. By juxtaposing the houses with her circumspect portrait Matt intentionally created a tableau that is easily understood but vast with mystery, story after story spilling out of those dark windows, those water-color driveways.
And that's kind of what the whole show is about, dislocating kitsch from all those tossed-aside, handmade objects and finding a way to take seriously what was recently in a canvas bin inside a large warehouse in Woodlawn. Thankfully all the Goodwill staff were game, and thankfully we have some likeminded souls helping us find our way through. But the sentiment is serious, and as we juxtaposed and figured out where things went on Monday night it all became a little emotional, in the way maybe you might feel helping people escape from a prison-camp: there's an odd and kind of exhilarating freedom to reconfiguring what destiny has tried to create and sustain. This stuff was supposed to be either thrown away or tagged and put on a shelf, and here we were thinking about it, playing with it, introducing ourselves to it in a way that wasn't about anything other than making some kind of moment, or series of moments, happen. That's the ecstasy of pure aesthetics right there, taking what's trashed and forgotten and un-trashing it and remembering it in such a way that poetry and a little bliss coalesce, appear and then disappear.
Nancy Kincaide wholeheartedly agrees. Just ask her.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
When I was a thirteen, my mom used to work at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, downtown Anderson, Indiana. Some days I would ride with her to work, and spend the day downtown, usually riding a bus back to the K-Mart near where we lived and walking home from there, or waiting around and riding back with my mom after her shift. The main reason I wanted to go downtown was that across the street from the KFC where she worked was a huge Goodwill store. And especially that summer when I was thirteen, the Goodwill was an oasis. I had a weekend job at a little restaurant called the Irish Point and I'd save whatever money I made there (the elderly couple who owned Irish Point and lived above it in a small apartment paid me out of the drawer because I was too young to go on payroll) so I could spend it at the Goodwill on stuff that caught my eye. I wasn't into clothes or anything, but there were records, toys, books, knickknacks, and other crap, all of it of course used and kind of ghostly, and it was that mystery of past usage and continued afterlife that somehow made whatever I came across glow.
I discovered Velvet Underground there, as well as Joni Mitchell and an 8-track tape of a Richard Pryor concert that I played over and over. Don't forget Emerson Lake and Palmer, ELO, and Frank Zappa. In the book section, there was a dog-eared paperback by Hubert Selby Jr. called Last Exit to Brooklyn, the short stories of Tennessee Williams, all those trashy-great novels by Jacqueline Susann (starting with Valley of the Dolls and ending with The Love Machine I think), as well as John Knowles' A Separate Peace, Agatha Christie novels, and multiple copies of Catcher in the Rye. It was a random assortment of hothouse configurations: I was getting at culture by digging up buried treasures I had no idea were treasures, but just wanted to soak in whatever I could. And somehow as I listened and read I found a way to incorporate all of that stuff into my dreams and desires and the way I thought about things. It was kind of like a self-acquired education that didn't make any sense, pulled together from scraps and non-sequiturs that somehow snowballed into a sensibility, even a taste.
I was total white-trash, so I didn't have a lot of access to what culture meant, or even what ambition was. But there was a mildew elegance in those long odd mornings at Goodwill. And everything was so cheap in there I could buy a bagful of books and records and tapes for almost nothing and spend days absorbing it all.
So now I'm fifty, and flash-forward to this:
Bins of set-aside home-made art people have donated to the Cincinnati Goodwill. I came up with this idea last year: partnering with Goodwill so at Thunder-Sky, Inc. we could sponsor a parody/appropriation of the Whitney (and all those other contemporary art) Biennials. It's called of course The Goodwill Biennial, and it opens final Friday in August at the gallery. As with almost everything I try to do creatively, it's a joke and it's not.
By that I mean, the whole purpose of working with Goodwill on this project was not to take any of it seriously, and yet to completely take everything (all these hand-made paintings, sculptures, whatever else people deem not worthy of keeping) seriously, in order to find some kind of meaning/redemption in the works that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm I don't know a word or phrase for. Dreamy incoherence? The brutal glamor of art people don't want anymore? You strip away biography from the whole enterprise when you do something like this as well; suddenly these works have a blank disconnection from the planet we're living on, as if they've been beamed into this world from a place that no longer exists.
Vanessa Cornett, the very kind Goodwill rep we worked with, initially set aside the works from the mountains and mountains of donations Goodwill received daily. The only direction we gave Vanessa was that whatever she pulled should be "hand-made," not a print of color-by-number set, no shellacked jigsaw puzzles, etc. Just art. Whatever that means. Vanessa did a great job. But still we wanted to not react to the sad-sack nature inherent in each piece (Poor thing, look at you, totally forgotten, who made you? and so on), but to each pieces' strangeness. By "strangeness," I guess I mean "worth." For example this painting below Bill's holding. I'm not really sure if it will make it into the final stretch to be accepted into the Biennial (Matt Distel and Melanie Derrick, two wonderful curators in town, are helping us with the final selections in a couple weeks), but when we came across it I just knew it needed to be in contention. It has an awkwardness to it, a delicacy that seems somehow ironically ham-fisted and emotionally raw, kind of like if DeChirico got sick of taking his time. "Sick" is another adjective that might work to describe what we were looking for as well -- a fevered impatience helping the picture snap into itself. This one below truly seems finished. Every part of the picture-plane has been contended with, formulated, turned creepy. And that grayish blob that kind of looks like rope completes it all somehow, like a David Salle affectation bled of affectation.
I could go on. But that's the reason for all of this, to kick your imagination's ass by showing it something so off-kilter, not acquainted with rules and aspirations, but just some weird object hand-made and kept around the house for a little while until it has worn out its welcome.
This thing below. Cookie-Monster/amputation/shiny-frog. It's a ceramic haiku.
More ceramic haikus below. On the clay pieces we cheated a little by including this skull-mold in the mix, but come on: hearts and flowers stamped willy-nilly across a skull is just something you need in your life. And the lion holding the lamb right next to it. And there in the middle that 3-D Philip Guston gig, some cartoon but sinister janitor watching TV after work.
This painting below I don't need to go into. You get it. Instant nostalgia, the blonde hair from some early 60s daydream, the eyes staring right at you, the plush anonymous green backdrop....
And her here below: enough said.
And this basket of Martian flowers from the hospital gift-shop.
This is Vanessa Cornett from Goodwill, along with Bill.
The sign taped to the bins of art Vanessa rescued from all the other stuff donated:
The final selections Bill and I chose, over 125 pieces in three canvas pins, covered in funereal cloth.
I guess, to me, art has always been an odd connection with posterity and anonymity, a cross-section of ambition and the knowledge that whatever you do creatively isn't going to stop you from disappearing. But here are works that appear to us (in the Goodwill warehouse) without any clue as to how they were produced, who did it, why. It's just stuff to look at, dream about. Which is maybe what art is supposed to be most of the time.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
It was one of those "now and then" kinds of things. Odd enough to inspire a blog-post I guess, even though the older I get the more I try not to pay attention to the "now and then" and just keep in the now. Things feel saner that way, less philosophical, less like you are imposing "sense" on something that just doesn't make it. But this one hit me right in the face.
In 2001 or so, right when Bill and I were feeling the first excitement of helping a few really great artists with developmental disabilities get some supplies and attention. Right when we were in the thick of inspiration, we helped 3 of those artists (Kevin White, Mary Flinker and Antonio Adams) do an installed mural consisting of paintings and assemblages at Bobbie Fairfax School (a school for kids with developmental disabilities) in Cincinnati. So last Friday I had to go to Bobbie Fairfax School because Star 64, a local TV station, had donated some air-time to my "now" obsession: employing people with developmental disabilities. For segments during a movie marathon, Star 64 emcee Storm (I guess it's his real name) interviewed Chase Montgomery, a guy who works full-time in a dining hall at Miami University. He doesn't communicate verbally that well, but he and his mom and dad programmed his communication device with some great answers to questions about what it means to make a living on his own. I was there to give Chase a little support:
So anyway after the interview (which Chase totally rocked) I was walking out to my car when I stumbled onto all those paintings and assemblages we did in the Bobbie Fairfax School cafeteria in 2001 with Kevin, Mary and Antonio, and it was just one of those weird feelings that happen when you aren't really ready for it. I wasn't moved to tears or anything, but I was a little stunned because it brought 2 issues together in a sloppy but somehow meaningful way.
Back then, I was majorly focused on ensuring that Kevin and Mary and Antonio (the list grew to over 100 through the 2000s) had access to cultural/artistic possibilities, with the hope that someday they would be seen as contemporaries of other contemporary working artists. And even though we were able to establish a non-profit arts organization (Visionaries + Voices) and a small, no-nonsense art gallery (Thunder-Sky, Inc.) on that quest for equality, I'm truly not sure if this ever happened. It sure was fun and exhausting trying to make it happen though.
And then that idea of doing a lot of work but not getting it all the way right, not reaching that sense of Utopia or true equality, spills over into trying to help people with developmental disabilities access good-paying jobs, which is now my total focus, my new attempt at, for lack of a better word, Utopia. It takes even more tenacity to do this because it's not just about culture, it's also about economics, a real-world self-sufficiency, and a dialog with HR managers and business owners that isn't about charity or good feeling, as much as trying to make sure the people I'm championing this time can actually do the job, side by side, with some help, but also with the expectation that they can succeed eventually on their own. I know deep down they can. It's just finding that right combination of circumstance, personalities, and wills.
Chase can. He's proven that. And many, many others a lot of people (including me) are supporting to get and keep meaningful work in the community are too. But it's a never-ending endeavor, full of complications, failures, successes, and so on.
What is "true equality" anyway? All the way through the 2000s, and even into the 2010s, I guess I thought I knew, but the older I get the more I know I don't and possibly never will. "Knowing" is a luxury, I've discovered. "Knowing" anything. So now I try to figure out things, instead of knowing them. And I wish I would have "known" this differentiation back in the day when we were figuring out how to do V + V. Because back then I thought a program could create "true equality." That sounds really naïve. Possibly stupid, but all through those years of setting up shows and writing grant proposals and worrying and being stressed and inspired interchangeably, the through-line for me was that narrative of "once we get this up and running, these artists will be taken seriously."
So I put everything I had into establishing a program and all that entails, when maybe I should have been paying attention to what programs actually do and mean. I'm still figuring that one out. Because what happened is that by helping to build a thriving program for artists with developmental disabilities I helped establish an institution that needs to be ran and financed, and that means the most important administrative aspect of it all was (and still is) making sure you have enough staff and enough money to pay staff, and in that struggle to sustain it all you kind of lose perspective, even though you gain programmatic accomplishments.
Conversely, now, as I work toward figuring this stuff out, I'm not as invested in creating programs as much as job opportunities, and in that process of course I have to assist people to access employment-support programs that supply job coaches etc., but I don't have to feed those programs anything other than job seekers and possible job leads, incentivizing (one of those wonky words every system likes to use) actual accomplishments specific to a person's life (working and getting paid is central to a majority of people's lives, no matter who you are), as opposed to a program's life.
I hope all that makes sense. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but it keeps reeling through my mind.
And so that day as I walked out after the Star 64 interview with Chase and Storm, and I see those paintings and assemblages in the Bobbie Fairfax School cafeteria, it all kind of came together in a crystallized way that made me feel exhausted but also kind of okay. Look at that stuff we all did, I thought. Look at those good intentions. Look at that art, still there, in that empty cafeteria.
|Kevin White and Antonio Adams|
|Mary Flinker and Bill Ross|
|Antonio Adams and Kevin White|
|Antonio Adams and Kevin White|
He's basically a workaholic, a great example of a "working artist." And like the majority of his contemporaries, he has a day job at Frisch's. He's kept that gig, as a busboy, for over 13 years, and when I asked him yesterday why, he said because he likes it and he needs to keep it because of the people there, plus he has to pay his bills.
There you go.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
So why do we keep on doing Thunder-Sky, Inc.? We're 6 years in now, and sometimes it feels like a never-ending cycle of chores -- news releases and Facebook posts and nails into walls and spackle and paint and bathroom cleaner and paper-towels and buying beer and wine and pop and ice, all in the name of curating the best and weirdest and sweetest art shows we can pull together, 6 times a year. What is it now? 33 shows so far, with maybe about the same number installed in other galleries and places across the region. God knows we don't do it for the cash. Thunder-Sky, Inc. is all non-profit, all volunteer, all kind of makeshift and holy and silly and serious and sarcastic simultaneously. It's about Raymond Thunder-Sky sure, but I think what's evolved from the initial desire to keep Raymond in the mix is this:
Antonio Adams. He met Raymond the same time Bill and I did, and he was with us through the whole V+V evolution, and when we had to find an escape and a life-raft from the whole complicated V+V thing he came with us. The life-raft was that space next to N-Vision, next to the Comet, 4573 Hamilton Avenue, Northside. And in those six years Antonio has found a voice deeper and more hilarious and smarter and assured than ever before. He uses the space during the week as a studio. He calls "Artist's Meetings" to order on Saturdays, whether other artists are there or not. He creates his own sense of super-stylish chic through costume and custom, always looking forward to next year. And look at those gloves. Damn.
Last night we opened our 34th in-house gig called "History Channel: New Art from Old Art," and as usual the opening was joyous, off-kilter, clumsy, sweet, perfect. I screwed up the wall-text with using the wrong abbreviation for "Price on Request," and Bill had a cow. But despite that (or perhaps because of it) it was still hilariously what always happens: lots of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, creeds, classes, etc., hanging out, walking around, making conversation, laughing. There was a rainbow outside above the joint for a little while too, kind of like the 5:4 decision given its own God-blessed neon light. Antonio invited his mom and sister and they all showed, and he got costumed and held court awaiting their presence. Some artists from a studio in Hamilton called InsideOut, a place, like V+V, for artists with developmental disabilities, were there, totally enjoying their little bit of spotlight, and their excitement kind of got to me in the same way seeing Antonio holding court gets me. They were all excited to see their art-history-inspired art on our humble white walls. I truly loved the work. Loved Cassie Sullivan's quilted Warhol "Marilyns" and Alicia Jones' "Frida Kahlo" painting, an astute rendering of the artist as both goddess and cartoon and David Campbell's beautiful and fragile and kind of satiric take on Grant Woods' "American Gothic" sour-pusses... Hanging with the InsideOut-ers was a flashback to the days when Bill and I were pulling together gigs for the artists with disabilities we'd stumble upon doing out regular work, that sense of discovery and bliss, like art can truly matter when you let everything else go.
The other artists we've gotten to know through Thunder-Sky, Inc., some labeled, some not, were there last night too, hanging out. Marc Lambert, super-genius painter of sci-fi visions on ceiling tiles, contributed an archive of Styrofoam pharaohs and a couple ceiling-tile Sistine-Chapel fist-bumps to "History Channel," and he came to the opening with his whole extended family all dolled up and pleasant and affable. Robert McFate did a great Cincy riff on Hopper's "Nighthawks," and Emily Brandehoff came up with some great historical zingers, the best of which combines Goya and the snack-meat product Slim Jim's. It's to die for. Scott Carney merged Japanese nautical art with Peter Max. Alex Bartenberger Rothko'ed it up. Avril Thurman took on Jenny Holzer in the best teletype kind of way. Dale Jackson turned Yoko Ono's instructions from Grapefruit into gorgeous recipe cards. And Antonio took on Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Hart Benton, all in a deluxe super-Antonio manner.
It's all like that: arbitrary, heart-felt, odd, but exactly what it should be.
We're not creating anything institutional or pretentious or even practical at Thunder-Sky, Inc. We are not building it to last, because nothing really does. Just take a look at Raymond's drawings and you'll get that doom validated and made fun of. What we do at Thunder-Sky, Inc. is very momentary and slap-happy because it has to be: we only want what is authentically here, weird enough to tickle us, solidly made, simply presented, but also nutty enough to not be like anything else.
And then everybody gets together and eats potato chips. And drinks some beer and wine and pop.
Last night was such a great example of why we do it. So thanks to everybody who does it with us.
And then when we got home on CNN President Obama was singing "Amazing Grace."
Saturday, June 20, 2015
I'm not going to mention his name. Not going to call him a name either. Just what he was: young white male. What he did: walked into a church, sat among 13 or so prayer service attendees for an hour, accepting their kindness, and then shooting 9 of them dead.
One of the dead was named Sharonda Singleton, and these are her children Chris and Camryn pictured above. The picture is from a memorial service for their mother at the school where she was a coach. What Sharonda's children said at that memorial was this: "We're full of love. We already forgive him."
They were able to communicate a grace that's impossible to explain just by simply saying those eight words unflinchingly, with humility, with a detachment from the world and its furies and anguish. They weren't hiding or lying by saying those words. You could tell it was a part of who they were, who their mother willed and helped them to be. It is a moment I don't think I'll ever forget, just that snippet of news footage shining out of all of the nastiness and horror of what happened. The simplicity of their grace and mercy.
I'm not religious. But I really want to be sometimes. And I felt like this is one of those times when I can be, when I feel God for real.
The young white male has been quoted as saying the church members that night were so kind to him that he almost could not go through with his plan. But he did.
Here's a Mahatma Gandhi quote: "I know, to banish anger altogether from one's breast is a difficult task. It cannot be achieved through pure personal effort. It can be done only by God's grace."
There you go. A perfect flesh-and-blood example of God's grace. Those two beautiful kids, letting us know how foolish and horrible the world is by not being a part of it, and looking out with love and forgiveness to allow all of us a chance to witness how God is beyond understanding and yet possibly the only way to stay completely sane.
Monday, June 8, 2015
|Emily Brandehoff's take on Goya.|
|Marc Lambert's take on van Gogh.|
|Antonio Adams' take on da Vinci.|
"Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is non-carnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people." From Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.
Since starting this whole thing with Visionaries + Voices (V+V) back in the day, I always wanted to focus on the way art made by artists who are disconnected from the "restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary [...] life" is packaged and seen and thought about, and one of the best ways, at least from my POV, is to locate it right smack-dab in the middle of the restrictions. One manner of defining "outsider artists" is to assume they have no connection to art history, that narrative and thoroughfare and etiquette through which credentialed "insider artists" often enter into careers, or at least shows. In fact that definition is often celebrated by both ends of the spectrum: by outsider art enthusiasts gloating over an artist's disenfranchisement and therefore his/her "power" in that realm, and by insider art critics who dabble a little bit in outsider-art criticism when there's a big museum show featuring some of it, wherein outsiders artists are cast as heroic self-taught "geniuses," beyond the "need" for education or edification or inspiration outside of their own little screwy worlds.
In 2007, one of the first big gigs we did as V+V was "Pop Life: Outsider Artists and the Pop Idea" at the University of Cincinnati Galleries. Basically we took Andy Warhol's oeuvre and used it as a resource and confidence-builder for artists at the studio to kind of relocate themselves beyond "Outsiderland." This intervention was pretty conventional and yet kind of messed-up too, allowing participating artists a place where they were able to find a little piece of the world free of the "terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with hierarchical structures." It was a joyous thing to me to witness: all that art being birthed from the heard of Zeus/Warhol, positing Andy as an outsider in multiple incarnations (gay and working class, just to start). A review in one of the local papers stated: "Outsider art is controversial. Some theorists claim that 'pure' outsider art can only be made when the artist hasn't been exposed to art history or contemporary culture. But that belief assumes that somewhere there exists some Eden-like state, chaste and unmolested, and forgets that even things like art history and contemporary culture are arbitrary. Some might call Aboriginal art outsider art without considering the fact that Aboriginal artists have history and culture; it just doesn't look like ours." The writer tries really hard and with a lot of genuine sweetness there, but she still doesn't get it. Kudos for trying anyway. It's not about "their" history and culture "looking like ours." It's our culture and history. Period.
In 2009, we did it again at the Cincinnati Art Museum, with a show called "Matisse & Picasso: a Visionary Exploration." This one had the same strategy as "Pop Life," but we emphasized the inspirations taken on by Matisse and Picasso back when they were formulating their versions of Modernism -- as in lifting ever so lovingly from African sculptors and residents of insane asylums, etc. In flipping that script a little, we tried to figure out how artists we were supporting had a powerful place to work from, outside of being "educated" about art history. They have a claim to make. We did a little slightly saccharine but well intended video for this gig. You can check it out here: "Matisse & Picasso: A Visionary Exploration."
In our guise as Thunder-Sky, Inc. we do a lot of this kind of stuff without even trying, trying to pull together artists from all kinds of backgrounds, contexts, and hierarchies into one small but truly articulated zone -- what Bakhtin posits as the "carnival [...] a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act…" This act is making art, showing it, and celebrating it without a lot of b-s (outside of the b-s I'm generating right now of course, which is the kind of b-s I'm drawn to so there you go). But also finding meaning inside that smallness, and each show we do does what it does, hopefully accumulating some sense and significance through the process. Since starting Thunder-Sky, Inc. in 2009, we've taken on William Blake, Flannery O'Connor, Abstract Expressionism, and a few other modes of American Art and Not-Art History; we don't do this just to be smarty-pants, because we're not that inclined to impress people, just to find a way to relocate and redefine and redeploy some of the ways we treat artists (and people) based on who they happen to be.
So here comes another iteration: "History Channel: New Art from Old Art." This one opens Friday June 26, 2015, reception 6 to 10 pm, at Thunder-Sky, Inc in Northide next to NVision next to the Comet. Take a look up top to see some great carnivalizations of high-end art, tongue-in-cheek, but also lovingly made, with a strict eye toward creating something beautiful and funny to look at. The artists we asked to be a part are maybe "outsider artists," maybe not. Who cares? That distinction kind of melts away once you get over a lot of things, including the need to care too much how you're seen and how you see.
At the end of the day, as Rupaul says, "We're born naked, and the rest is drag." The quote up top by Mr. Bahktin is probably the urtext that defines Ru's whole career, and what we're trying to do most of the time too.
Raymond loved carnivals. He also loved a little drag.