Sunday, October 4, 2015

Deep in Their Roots

I take pictures with my phone of stuff I see as I go about my day.  
I don't search for beauty, and I definitely don't search for any kind of meaning when I do this.  In fact, I try very hard not to think about anything at all.  A little spasm goes off in my head, and I think:  what the hell?  The most uninteresting shit is what I'm looking for, to be honest:  the interregnums, the gaps between moments that don't really justify jpegs but still I do it, and then I look at it and post it and it's gone.  It's kind of like a form of prayer, like I'm absorbing meaning by cancelling out the pursuit of it.  And posting them on Facebook lets them come back at me as if they never were photos in the first place, just little digital burps trapped inside other nonessential information. 
If you stare at things long enough you find what you need to find, but still you won't have any idea what you've found.  These stupid pictures are evidence of that.  A solitary silver light-switch menacingly daring you to talk to it, fluorescent tubes above a urinal humming themselves to sleep, a couple of cigarette butts staring at each other longingly on a parking garage platform.  These images don't lie because they don't have to.  They just do their jobs, being meaningless and factual and then gleaming toward a poetry you can't really publish or even most of the time translate into actual poetry.  They don't need language and they really don't need you. They are pretty close to unconsciousness and yet they are fully aware of what they are, what they are supposed to be doing.  It's like that last beautiful glimmering burst of knowing something right before you forget it and it's gone forever.  
So here are some of these pictures I've taken.  I used to do the same exercise back in the day with a Polaroid camera.  And those milky-shiny pictures turn into jumping-off points for short stories, novels, poems, whatever.  Maybe some of these will spawn something else, not too sure, but they make me feel sharper somehow.  They give me a reason to contemplate without connecting to common sense.  One of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, wrote this in his journal:  "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light."
That's kind of what these photos are:  unobtrusive and homely flowers keeping the light deep down inside a network of roots and tunnels and tributaries that flow into and out of one another without anyone noticing, caring or even feeling the need to see. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

War Babies

(Bill makes a special guest appearance with some serious stuff, beautifully conveyed...)

Looking at this picture, I can't help but think what war babies we were.  To anyone else this may not be so easy too see.  We were born into a war our dad waged against our mom.  By the time this picture was taken the war was nearing it's 25 year.  With no real understanding as to why, we of course did our share of internalizing what we saw happening as being our fault some how.  At least I know I did.

I have beautiful memories of our mom of course.  She was a kind woman.  She loved to laugh.  There was peace in her silence.  She was smart and beautiful, especially in her younger days before we were born.  These memories, the sweet ones, come in fragments and to retrieve them, I must reach through the times when I would see her blackeyed, bruised, teeth knocked out, scabs on her scalp from hair being pulled out, pushing a cart in a store with no money or washing clothes in the kitchen sink by hand for us.

No amount of effort could pull her away from her life with him.  The reasoning probably too simple to consider a real reason.  She was forced to quit her job, not allowed to drive.  As isolated as we were, where would she go? Our older brothers and sister would try to get her to listen to reason, offering refuge in their tiny newly wed apartments, only managing to give $5.00 or $10.00 to buy some food...cereal suppers.

Dad only worked when he took a notion.  So living without electricity or phone or food was just the way it was.  He wasn't a drinker.  He didn't take drugs. I only saw him drunk once after a party with a company he worked for from time to time as a welder. He was sickenly sweet. My fear of him just turned to disgust.  But when he was in a rage they could last for days and sometimes weeks.  When beating on mom was not enough we got our share too.  There are of course the shooting rampages he went on from time to time, taking out our pets, our cats and dogs.  This happened more than once.  This happened more than twice. It happened...gunshots echo through the hills, broken glass, broken plates, coffee on the walls, bury the dead.

Again our older brothers and sister would take us in like war babies for a weekend or a week till things died down.  No one could really help.
One night late around 11:00, I remember grabbing up Kathy and running out the front door, barefoot down the gravel road in complete darkness.  He had started in on mom.  I heard him kicking the the kitchen door towards the back of the house.  Glass breaking...that scary yell full of pure stupid fury...I heard him say in a matter of fact voice, "I am going to kill our kids!" We ran and ran down the road across the bridge to a neighbor's house.  The police were called.  They showed up, but dad had left.  Nothing was said.  No one talked about it...forget...everything gets buried.

This summer we had a family reunion.  It was great to see the family.  Mom and dad are both long gone now.  We all have our scars, our lonely burdens.  We joke, we drink, we laugh and use whatever fragments, like this picture to realize we survived!  We have moved on.   We use our time together basicaly asking what the hell was that all about?

The world is full of war babies.  So, I'm sharing this to recognize a history that still makes me feel weird at times.  Plus I just need to say it.  And I want to forgive.  It's taken a long time, but I am now at a point in my life where I can look at this picture and be OK.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rescue Me

Steven Rosen in the newsweekly Citybeat here in town wrote a smart little article on "The Goodwill Biennial," the show that's currently up at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  (Here's a link:  Citybeat.)  He took the serious joke we worked on quite seriously, which is totally appreciated, and found that we didn't really find the "good art" that he wanted to see pulled from the bins at Goodwill:

"Banner and Ross want you to ask questions about all the pieces’ provenance when looking at the art. Banner writes in a statement that he hopes we find 'some kind of meaning/redemption in them that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm.'  But The Goodwill Biennial doesn’t have enough good art to sustain that quest for deeper meaning.  Too often you wind up being amused by what’s bad. Sometimes good bad, mind you — I found myself laughing at one painting’s bifurcated perspective of the Cincinnati riverfront. It offered a credible perspective and rendering of the urban skyline, but made a tugboat plowing through the frozen river look like small toy on a table. And there seemed to be an ocean just behind downtown."

One thing I really did not want this gig to be is an Antique Roadshow kind of thing, all those Goodwill buried treasures found, rescued, curated, appreciated.  What we selected was what was there:  stuff people donated, wanted out of their lives.  We tried to find the most erratic, eerie, interesting pieces possible, but in the end we just went with it.  And I guess that's where the striving for meaning for me comes from -- not trying to find meaning because something is "good" or "bad," but finding meaning that somehow appreciates the painting/sculpture/drawing/whatever for what it is, and finding within that discovery something that jars you out of appreciation, out of the notion that art is "good" or "bad."

The concept for this show came from witnessing Mike Kelley's one-person retrospective at MOMA PS1 in New York City in 2014.  It was confoundingly great, every inch of PS1 spaces loaded with Kelley's oeuvre, from globular sculptures made from natty stuffed-animals and afghans to incantatory recreations of planets from Superman comics and so on, as well as a whole room dedicated to small movies and photographs inspired by photographs Kelley culled from high school yearbooks from thrift-stores.  The pictures he chose to riff on vary from the unintentionally camp to the intentionally hyper-sentimental, and yet what Kelley does with them in his interpretations does not alter what they are, but somehow expands the boundaries of how they are perceived, just by paying homage to them.  One in particular was both hilarious and very boring and sad, involving a recreation of a high school Halloween party (or play or something, who knows?) in all of its completely sad-assed glory:

It's kitsch reconstructed and redefined as meaning but the meaning is not there for you to enjoy or even understand -- it's just there, staring at you, telling you this is what it is. 

Kelley's whole career was about unmasking what's there and masking what isn't with a fiercely thrift-store/punk glee that often manifested in collecting and redistributing/redefining the crap people think they don't need anymore, whether it be high-school yearbooks, dirty blankets, or even, when he was first starting out as an artists in LA, birdhouses.  In an interview in Bomb Magazine from 1991, Mike Kelley discusses his 198 debut: 

John Miller Why don’t we start by going back to the birdhouse sculptures you made for your graduate show at Cal Arts in 1978. You ended up not only having a reductive object, but the normally “heroic” process of making art was reduced to craft. Even though there may not necessarily be much material difference between art and craft, I think the distinction turns on what an audience is led to invest in a certain set of objects or a certain set of practices; and those become adequate sublimatory vehicles. So in a way, you were confounding those expectations, parodying them.

Mike Kelley Yeah, I definitely was. At the time, people would generally talk about the birdhouses as formal jokes. People wouldn't consider sublimation as an aspect of art production except in some heady, Freudian way, like, “Oh, these bad impulses are being nicely put into this object.” Instead of saying maybe it’s not so nice that these impulses are put into these objects. Maybe it’s pitiful that all these energies are pumped into a birdhouse. That’s what I realized I was going for, not some one-line joke like, “Here’s a birdhouse that’s minimalism.” Rather, here’s a structure that’s loaded with pathos, and you still don’t like it, you don’t feel sorry for it, you want to kick it. That’s what I wanted out of the thing—an artwork that you couldn’t raise, there was no way that you could make it better than it was. Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable
JM It implies a kind of dysfunction.

MK:  Yes.

In psychology, "sublimation" is often defined as a type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior.  What Kelley is saying here is that he did not want that defense mechanism to get in the way of his intentions as an artist.  He wanted people to see the birdhouses he made as the birdhouses he made, and that's kind of the way I feel about the art we chose to be in the Goodwill Biennial:  we didn't want people to think the art in the show is "good" or "bad," just what it is, so that maybe the art in the show could replace (or confound) notions of preciousness, greatness, whatever.  To harness all that abandoned art to an old artworld standby like "biennial," in which tastemakers and curators and collectors and organizations come together to define what is "good" and "bad" in contemporary art is just another way to both parody culture, and also to pay homage to the fact that the thrift-store paintings and other objects we discovered couldn't be "raised," as Kelley puts it.  There's no way you could make the art we found better than it was.  "Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable."

And to be in a little gallery filled with such uncomfortable oddness is what the show is about, purely and simply.  The title of Rosen's piece in Citybeat is, "Thunder-Sky Rescues Art from Goodwill Box."  Even the title kind of gets it wrong, to be honest.  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is not a tastemaker, God knows.  It's just a little outsider art gallery in Cincinnati that tries hard to ask questions, to find meaning in ideas, people and things that often don't get the time of day.  We're not out to celebrate what is good or bad or whatever, but just what is there, like those birdhouses, untransformed and spectacular reminders that art has a ghostly and unfathomable weirdness about it that can't be categorized, "biennial-ized," or even "rescued."  We didn't go into the whole thing as an exercise in finding greatness.  We're not about "taste," as much as we're about establishing an "atmosphere."  We went into the Goodwill looking for strangeness and an assortment of art that could not have been found anywhere else.  We found what was there, and then selected the pieces that seemed to fit together in a creepy and lovely little dance of diptychs and tableau.

And that's about it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lily of the Valley

Grandma is Lily Tomlin's gig, start to finish, and it totally reminds me of why I have always loved her so much.  She's not just funny; she's charismatically at her wit's end, an insanity glistening behind her eyes and words.  Her whole persona is kind of like an after-burn, a punch-line to a joke that's kind of funny-ha-ha but mostly funny-weird.  Lily's real that way, right on the edge of losing it, but somehow finding energy and renewal from that status.  Grandma captures her elderly punk spirit vividly, as Lily plays a lesbian/poet/grandma who in the first few minutes of the film breaks up with her younger girlfriend in a very callous manner and then takes to the shower to sob.  There's Lily for the first time, it feels like, on-screen performing a version of herself in the way she's performed all those characters over the years, Lucille and Emily and Ernestine and Judith, all of those wonderfully freaky characters she did on TV and most importantly on 70s comedy albums that totally got me through high school.   That one below, Modern Scream, especially.  I remember listening to it on my record-player at night and just getting blissed out on how Lily lovingly portrayed those people that seemed completely out of sync with the world, but here someone was making a world out of, and for, them.  And then of course there's her Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (written by her now wife Jane Wagner) that's a tour de force of empathy and magic, championing all kinds of human oddities, all of it rolled up into a sort of road movie of the mind.  In Grandma, Lily herself gets that kind of treatment, empathy revealing empathy, without a lot of chuffa (totally thanks to writer-director Paul Weitz). 
In movie roles in the past, Lily has always seemed a little uptight, at the mercy of someone else's eye, closeted, less than.  In movies like Big Business and Nine to Five, she was fantastic of course, but too-get-along, too sweet.  And even in Nashville and The Late Show, beautifully idiosyncratic late-70s movies that have great off-beat rhythms all their own, she was still not who she was, even though she was astutely acting her ass off.  And I understand of course that acting is often about not being yourself, but somehow those great characters Lily did on comedy albums and TV and on Broadway were so on-point, so damn real, that they seemed closer to who she was, even though they were often her complete opposites.  She vested in them a psychic energy, a need that made them sharpen into self portraits, not just rinky-dink puppets in sketches.
Based on a quest to get her granddaughter to the abortion-clinic on time (and with enough money to pay for it), Grandma has an effortless flow to it, unlike a lot of these kinds of indie movies.  It's actually people-pleasing, even though the characters aren't really that upstanding, and that's a total relief.  Because in it Lily is so authentically "Lily" (or at least the Lily I have in my head from loving her so long) you finally understand what kind of power she has not just as an actress, but as an icon.  And of course it's an ironic, pissed-off, hilarious, intelligent version of icon status, but still Lily plays Elle with a sense of mission and grace that burns away all the unnecessary gestures and poses.  It's her face, right there, on the big-screen, smoothed out but still completely lived in, and those glass-shard eyes, that bruised sense of still being around, knowing all the shit that's gone down.  She has a remarkable long scene in the middle of Grandma with Sam Elliott that will blow you away, and every scene with Julia Garner, who plays her granddaughter, is priceless, and so on so forth with everyone else in the film.  But it's those moments when she's thinking, by herself, that I felt the sense that there wasn't any distance between my soul and her soul, which is kind of what great acting is supposed to do. 
Toward the end of Grandma, Lily as Elle is in the backseat of a cab at night, and she just gets tickled.  She's thinking about something Violet, her partner for 30 years who passed away a year or so back, said, something funny, and that moment packs such a wallop when combined with all that Elle has gone through in the movie, you can almost hear what Violet is saying to her, just by seeing her response to it.  All that from Lily's face in the dark in the backseat.
Go see this movie and bask in it... 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The G Train

The D Train came and went earlier this summer.  It was a flop, not even making it to a million bucks at the box office.  A lot of bad reviews too.  But I watched it this weekend and kind of fell in love with its sloppy but gracious spirit, and also its low-key but still somehow jarring audacity.  At first the whole thing feels like what it looks like, a rip-off of raunchy bromance comedies like Old School or all three of The Hangovers or I Love You Man and so on, a genre of movies that skates around the "gay issue" the way Saturday Night Live skits often do , using the guy-on-guy kiss as a gross-out bit, the punch-line to masculinity deflating itself, but still somehow the bros always survive as kindred spirits, not sexual partners.
Jack Black plays Daniel Landsman, a loser who seems to be constantly calculating how he can be with the in crowd, while the in crowd is constantly calculating how to escape him.  He's heading up his 20 year high school reunion committee and no one wants to come.  Then he accidentally sees Oliver Lawless, someone he went to school with, on TV in a sun-tan-lotion commercial, and suddenly it becomes his fervent mission to get Oliver to show at the reunion, thus transforming his own life into a triumph.  At least in his head.
The setup sounds remarkably pedestrian, but the execution isn't.  Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel co-wrote and direct The D Train with a sense of John-Hughes finesse, and that sort of whimsical sadness permeates just about every scene.  And Black plays Daniel with that extrovert gumption with which he plays everything, but also shades Daniel's John-Candy-in-Planes-Trains-and-Automobiles neediness with kindness and even intelligence.  James Marsden plays Oliver with a Keith-Richards kind of solipsism, but he does so with his own version of self loathing, in that he seems to instinctively understand that he's not ever going to be Keith Richards by any stretch of the imagination.  Oliver, like Daniel, is a loser too, unable to make it in LA, and yet holding onto whatever hope he has left. 
Cue the gut-busting partying-all-night montage next, a staple of all bromantic comedies.  The D Train almost out-Hangovers the rest, going from drinks to muscle-relaxers to cocaine to mechanical-bull-riding to club after club after club, culminating in a scene that often seems like should be there in other flicks, but isn't because it is not the territory of these kinds of movies:  Oliver and Daniel kiss and then go to bed together after their frenzied all-nighter. 
It's funny and it's not. 
But it's sweet somehow when they do the nasty, and the fall-out from it, while kind of funny and kind of not as well, has a melancholy soberness to it, so that the rest of the movie after their hookup is tinged with jealousy and hurt.  Some real feelings cut through, until by the end of The D Train you start to feel connected to Daniel and Oliver in a way that transcends their bromance.  In other words, their relationship transforms pretty easily into a romance, clumsy and silly and kind of embarrassing, but thanks to Black and Marsden and the moviemakers, believable in ways that most romantic comedies, bro or otherwise, aren't. 
The D Train busts through all kinds of genre roadblocks without really making a lot of noise.  It may be a standout waiting to be rediscovered for what it actually is:  a romantic comedy about two guys who aren't gay who somehow find a moment of (for lack of a better word) love big enough to make them feel a little disconnected from the rest of their sad-sack lives.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Documentary No

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.