Sunday, May 12, 2013
In a New York Magazine article about the recent opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute's exhibit,“Punk: Chaos to Couture," Nitsuh Abebe writes:
"In music, punk remains what the critic Frank Kogan calls a “Superword”—a term whose main purpose is for people to fight over what it should mean, using it as a “flag in a bloody game of Capture the Flag.” It’s a concept like “freedom” or “the one true Church” or “real Americans”: to invoke it is to advance a vision of what it entails, and duke it out with competing visions. (Saying that real punk only lasted 100 days is a terrific example of how Superwords work.) In the 37 years since a good mass of people decided “punk” was a flag worth waving, we’ve seen countless versions of it, most at odds with one another. There’s punk that’s dissolute and nihilist, and punk that’s earnest and abstemious; punk as attitude, as economic model, as ideology, and as an ordinary subgenre of music; punk that’s funny and punk that’s humorless; Fascist punk and anti-Fascist punk; punk that sounds like 1977 and punk that can’t imagine repeating the past; you name it. If there’s any reason the stuff’s stayed in the bloodstream of rock, it’s that the idea is flexible enough to put anything into it, take anything out, and feel like you’re fighting the good fight—the word itself is mostly just permission to get into the ring."
Semantics becomes destiny in other words, and all the antics, epiphanies and realities get swamped by what we call them. "Superword" is a way to conceptualize that other weird little cultural red-headed stepchild: "outsider." Anytime I've ever been to an "outsider art" conference, fair or symposium, capturing the "outsider" flag is always of optimum importance, especially to curators and academics. It's like naming and claiming something becomes the something you're trying to name and claim, a magical alchemy that doesn't really deliver any help or insight, just fogs up the issue and makes you feel like you did something. A "superword" is just a way to give yourself a way to aggrandize what you feel, and in that "outsider" cultural void there really are no true winners. The artworld considers "outsider art" a sweet little nuisance at best, and outsiderness's representatives and apologists become predestined wannabes. They end up squabbling at the kid's table at Thanksgiving.
So why not get rid of the whole damn idea?
Because, I guess, if you don't name something, if you don't claim it as "something," then it becomes what everybody already seems to think it is: nothing. You have to figure out what an artist who doesn't have a pedigree, who does not have access to museum-ness and professionalization, but who does have talent and energy and motive -- you have to find a way to push them into the spotlight, not so you play the "capture the flag" game, but so they can prove to the world what they are made of. And that means you probably have to get rid of the superwords that are in the way, while understanding that the real game is outside of the outsider realms, outside of semantics, outside of superwords.
That's what's so great about Courttney Cooper being in a two-person show at the Cincinnati Art Museum, coming up in a couple weeks. (Thanks to Matt Distel.) I'm working on another essay about Courttney and how I met him and was the first person to introduce him to Visionaries and Voices, the art studio I, along with a bunch of other people, pulled together back in 2003 to support -- yup you guessed it -- "outsider artists," mainly those with developmental disabilities. I'm trying to do this essay without using "superwords," and without aggrandizing myself and the organization I helped cofound. I think Courttney used V+V in a way that allowed him to be above the fray and yet exactly at the center of it. He expanded his mode of operation because there was more real estate. V+V had a big table that he could stretch out on, and his repertoire grew because of it. His deeply personal and astonishing drawings of maps took on an epic scale because he had a place to go to do it that allowed him to expand, that cheered him on. (Plus V+V was just down the block for him.) This happened because he had a disability and V+V was created to help him, but I'm thinking whether or not V+V opened Courttney still would have found a way to create his art and what he needed to happen. It's because of his intense talent and drive; in other words, and these aren't super at all, Courttney is an artist not because he has a disability or because he goes to V+V or because of anything other than the fact that he himself willed himself into being one. When you place some one's spirit and talents into the realm of "superwords," it's easy to forget that. Courttney is an artist because he wants to be. He needed to be.
Above is a blurry photo of an object Antonio Adams created back in 1999. Like Courttney, Antonio is one of those "outsider" artists that can't be "superworded" to death. That little green felt pillow in the bad photo was something he made in high school, and it has a precious yet somehow intentionally/unintentionally smartassed quality. It's an exercise in punk in many ways, and it gave birth to this whole thing truly: we named the whole project of pulling together a studio for "outsider artists" The Art Thing Project (before coming up with the V+V tag for a grant proposal) based on the simple, silly, yet very intelligent little object Antonio created out of nothing except a sort of desire to conceptualize what art is. An "art thing" dislocates superwordiness. It gets rid of the clutter. All artists, outsider or insider or in between, make "art things." All artists dream up little green felt heart-shaped pillows the size of the palm of their hands, execute the production of it, and then just look at the thing, wondering why they did it, and yet rejoicing in the afterglow of doing it.
"Punk" and "outsider" coalesce in many ways. Both are cultural movements that are disorganized and yet somehow here to stay because we need concepts that counteract our complacency and snobbery. In-house arguments about meanings take away from the actual reason the concepts were created in the first place: to pull people's heads out of their asses so they can see and hear and feel incredibly new and great stuff made by people they usually see fit to ignore.
On with the show....
Sunday, May 5, 2013
|A painting by one of the people being helped by Opening Minds through Art.|
|A work by a child in Suzanne Nall's class at Parker Woods Monesourri.|
|The title-plate for William Blakes books of poems.|
On Monday I met with Professor Elizabeth Lokon, the founder of Opening Minds through Art. OMA's mission (from their website) states: "In OMA people with dementia build close relationships with trained volunteers, staff, or caregivers in small groups... to make beautiful works of art that rely on imagination, not memory."
We usually "embellish" our bimonthly shows with shows that expand on the main theme, and for the one coming up in June (opening 6/28/2013), "INNCE/EXPCE: New William-Blake-Inspired Works by Emily Brandehoff and Robert McFate," we are going to curate an ancillary exhibit featuring the collaborative works by some of the people involved in OMA, as well as works by kids from Suzanne Nall's art class at Parker Woods Montessori a few blocks down from Thunder-Sky, Inc. The idea is to juxtapose the art of "innocence and experience," and to find a sort of dreamy association among people at both ends of the "innnocence/experience" spectrum, and how what they make intermingles in uniquely poetic ways.
As I pull together this little show I want to be very careful, because as is usual with any art show that features art made by different kinds of people the territory is rife with meanings and misnomers you almost have to shake hands with prior to doing anything. Professor Lokon seemed a little anxious about the prospect of the art made by the folks in her program being exhibited next to the art of children. It somehow sends a message that we aren't taking the works seriously. We are though. Very seriously.
The main reason I want to juxtapose works by children and older people is pretty obvious: to correspond with Blake's binary, in a sort of sweet and point-blank way. But I also wanted to do this small show as a tribute to what art means and can do for people who don't consider themselves artists. The kids in Suzanne's class probably aren't thinking about their next show at the Whitney, and the folks in Opening Minds through Art are trying to find a new way to think and feel and remember that goes beyond "memory," using their imaginations as a way to supplement, or even supplant, what's missing. I love all these works because they serve a purpose beyond my seeing them. As the kids learn to manipulate materials, they fashion finished moments they can claim as their own. The older people, being supported by Opening Minds through Art because they have dementia, are relearning that same process in a collaborative way -- art as a way to reinvent who they are and who they were in order to find some peace, a space where they exist in the present, but can somehow access meanings and emotions that go beyond it.
One of the most cited quotes in William Blakes' vast repertoire of quotes is this one: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
That is what art is doing for these artists, opening up doors they did not know were there, onto self-made vistas. Their art somehow allows us to experience those moments of infinity as well.
The poems Blake wrote in "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" have that same sense of predestined beauty, of works of art made to find a place beyond "real," and yet anchored by their simplicity and grace to reality and to us as readers. In the works in both books of poetry, Blake finds epiphanies and music in the simplest of moments: a baby in a cradle, a lamb in the field, a little girl and a little boy getting lost and then getting found. These tropes have a fairy-tale glimmer but also a Bible-story resonance. You read them like lullabies, but something else is occurring within what you thought was just a song. Meanings flutter past like a bird's wings you don't see, only feel, a slight rush of wind that somehow lets you return to memories you didn't even know were there.
Blake was born on November 28, 1757 and died August 12, 1827. Most of his life he lived in obscurity, creating masterpiece after masterpiece, illustrated poems and books that spiral out of control, and yet there's never any chaos. Blake used his art to teach himself how to escape the constraints of art and society, to make something new, in much the same way the kids in Suzanne's class, and the elderly folks in Opening Minds through Art use art as a way to learn and relearn who they are and what they once were and can be. They are illustrating their lives, creating meaning with the simplest of materials, and the by-product of this search is the works we see: art with a purpose, and yet still something beautiful to behold.
Friday, May 3, 2013
"Put any of MoMA’s art in that building and it will die. And certainly contemporary art does not work there. Even granting that the Williams-Tsien facade is singular (I once compared it to a Kleenex box), the proponents of this building love it as an abstract ideal of a space for art, a platonic thing apart, a fetish," Jerry Saltz has written about the razing of the American Folk Art Museum.
Originally unveiled in 2001, the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the American Folk Museum as a sort of paean to folk art. That's probably what is killing it now. Although there is a lot of debate and hand-wringing happening about the whole incident, Saltz seems to be the spokesperson here for institutional truth: the reason the building needs to go is because it kills contemporary art. The backstory is pretty simple: MoMA bought the building in 2011, around the time the AFAM was running into major trouble as an institution. AFAM almost folded last year, but is now back to where it started in a lobby somewhere. And now MoMA wants to demolish the building in favor of more "big" space.
It's almost like a comeuppance, this tragedy, for any of us who ever had the unmitigated gall of taking something so small and insignificant as "folk art" seriously. After all, Saltz is letting us know in his piece that "folk art" is not "contemporary art." Saltz loathes Williams and Tsien's creation because it evokes the strange smallness and unnerving disjuncture that a lot of folk/outsider/visionary/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it art elicits. He does not know how to categorize something unless it is categorical, defined by tradition, and I guess great big.
Comparing the bronze, beaten, carefully obtuse facade to a "Kleenex box" and then the whole building to a "fetish" is probably the way he sees most of the art that used to be, and would have been, showcased inside the thing. Something is missing, Saltz is letting us know: size. Bigness rules. Saltz, and the MoMA and its legions, are doing Gordon-Gecko drag here. Those big MoMA works of art ("big" both literally and figuratively and historically) can't be housed within that itty-bitty Joseph-Cornell shitbox called a "folk art museum."
It's really kind of sad the disrespect not only the arcitecture is getting in this whole weird battle to destroy a "Kleenox box," but also the art that once was celebrated within it. A lot of folk artists work small, with weird, inarchivable materials, in strange and platonic ways that look dinky and silly, I'm sure, to Saltz' eye, especially when compared to actual "contemporary art."
If folk art is the Rodney Dangerfield of the artworld, then Saltz' "contemporary art" is the Donald Trump, and the Donald right now is saying, "You're fired" to art that doesn't take up a lot of space literally but that can expand in your head if you give it half a chance. Same goes for Williams and Tsien's intricate, origami-lush little building.
"You're fired, Mr. Kleenex Box."
Sunday, April 28, 2013
George Jones died this week. I got really, stupidly, tearfully emotional, just like I did when Tammy Wynette died 15 years earlier (April 6, 1998 to be exact). Both George and Tammy seem to occupy space in my head that is sacred. They are long lost relatives, ghosts from a Tennessee picnic I went to when I was a kid and I saw them laughing and eating and then singing in the middle of a campground, all glittery and rhinestoned and perfect, right next to a campfire and a swing set, belting out "Golden Ring." They were figures from hillbilly poems I've always wanted to write, bigger than life, and yet completely accessible, and the stories about them -- the apotheosis being the one where Tammy locked George's car-keys up because he was so ripped she was afraid he would get into a wreck on his way to the liquor-store, but George being the genius he was got the keys to the riding lawnmower and tried to drive that thing there only to get picked up by the cops -- were legendary but also kind of like stories you hear about neighbors or family friends.
I met George once. No shit. At the Bonanza Steakhouse in Elizabethon, Tennessee, back in 1985. I think it was summer, and his tour bus pulled into the sidelot, and all of us inside got totally excited as soon as we saw him. He was in Bermuda shorts and sandals and a short sleeved shirt and sunglasses. Some of his band members came in to the restaurant with him. I was the dishwasher that afternoon, and I had just got the dishroom cleaned up after the lunch rush, and it was only me, the manager, and the cashier there. Not another soul in the place. George came through the line and ordered a T-bone, and went out into the dining room after paying. He was a true gentleman especially to the cashier, an older lady whose husband had just passed away and whose son had Down syndrome. She always wore a lot of make-up and had her hair done weekly so it was always perfectly shaped and colored. She had a great sense of humor about her, and she was kind of loud without being abrasive. She went out, I remember, and sat a table down from George and his bandmates and she just had the best time. So did he. She was flirty by nature, and George was too. I didn't have the nerve to go up to him like that cashier did. Hell I forget her name! I was 20 years old. I'd just quit art school up in Indiana the summer before, moved down here with my mom and sister so my mom could be near her mom and sister after she found out my dad was having an affair. I felt obligated to both of them. Anyway, I knew who George was, but wasn't a big fan back then. But I did get up the nerve to get his autograph before he left. He had the smoothest and shiniest hair, shellacked and country-western perfect even with his leisurely riding-on-the-tour-bus clothes. And he laughed while he signed, I remember. He said something like, "I don't know what you're going to do with this, but here."
I lost the autograph somewhere along the way. But I remember the cashier kissed him on the cheek and he laughed harder. Then he and his entourage left. The cashier and I bussed their table, and then I went back and washed George Jones' plates and silverware.
I think that week I went to K-mart and bought his greatest hits album, and on it was a song called "Treasure of Love," which is probably one of the greatest country songs I've ever heard. It's humble and sort of epic in the way it treats all the bad shit that happens to you and still maintains some room for confidence and optimism. I've listened to that song over and over this weekend. The words just go right through me and I follow them to a place where there's a sort of sadness merged with relief, a gratitude for just being able to love somebody and to sing about it without a lot of fuss.
Here's the lyrics George wrote and then sang, the words I haven't been to escape since I first heard almost 30 years ago now:
I've got a pocket full of pennies
But a heart full of gold
Though my troubles are many
I have treasures untold
And the shack that I live in
Is a palace to me
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me
In this world there are riches
That money can't buy
Like the treasure of true love
A love that won't die
So why should I worry
What tomorrow will bring
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
Makes me a king
Though my clothes are all tattered
And I've seen better days
Know it really don't matter
For I'm rich another way
Yes, my pockets are empty
But still wealthy I'll be
With the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me
(Damn right George.)
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Top of the Lake is a Jane-Campion back-woods fever-dream that pulls together the hypnosis and dread of Deliverance with the static, beautiful creep of David Lynch at his best (not just one of his movies, but all of them in different modes and variations). Campion directed The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, among other movies, but Top of the Lake is a sprawling, crazy, pretentious and gorgeous mini-series (that first appeared on Sundance Channel, and is available On Demand and on Netflix now) that feels like a huge novel, or better yet an encyclopedia of sexual politics, abuse, power, and powerlessness.
Every scene in this thing is a composite of two forces (usually innocence versus meanness, in the guise of female and male) smelling one another out until some horrible repercussions are conjured and dramatized. All of these scenes take place in a setting that is glamorously rural, menacingly prehistoric: a haunted New Zealand so beautiful you could swear it's CGI, but then when you look closer you can almost feel it's not. Elizabeth Moss plays Robin, a police detective with enough skeletons in her closet to warrant a museum. Her face has a glum, half-crazy bluntness to it that seems to mimic the very atmosphere, and Moss' New-Zealand accent is impeccable, but even better than vocal verisimilitude is the way her acting buttresses the strangeness Campion creates. Robin is pulled into an investigation of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, whose father turns out to be a tyrant whose horrors are commonplace and petty, the signature of a tortured soul. Peter Mullan plays the son of a bitch with a menace and a mundanity that allows you to glimpse the cowardly core of his soul and somehow feel completely connected to it. He is the king of a world made up of gigantic whispering trees and ice-cold lakes the color of concussions, but he isn't comfortable with his power. He seems terrified of it. Against that dynamic, Campion gives us a camp of sadly lost ladies sleeping in box-cars next to mountains, shepherded by Holly Hunter's granny-haired ex-hippie. The women are all examples of different kinds of abuse and neglect (both self-imposed and not), and they all wander around the camp like Diane Arbus subjects in search of whatever they think will get them through life.
All of these elements combine into a sort of Henry-Darger/Nancy-Drew phantasmagoria that somehow, by the end of 9 hours of programming, becomes pure unadulterated art.
I just can't forget some of the scenes Campion has filmed, the moments that aren't really plot-related but somehow plot-inspired, or just plain inspired: the white-trash drug-dealing sons of Matt flinging plastic chairs into a majestic waterfall (all framed in a window Matt is staring out of), the yellow weeds blowing outside the box-car encampment like frayed old hair, a mute-by-choice teen-aged boy with the words "no" written on one hand, "yes" on the other pulling a kayak out of the woods and into a bitter-colored lake. It all sounds precious and a little too much, and it is, but it also feels uniquely that way, as if meant to be, not fashioned to impress. I think Campion often seemed contained and a little mannered in her other movies. In this one, she has let loose the hounds of hell, and they bark and bite in a sedatedly horrifying way. Campion's vision really benefits from that slow pace, the stare she has going. You get caught up not in the makeshift and kind of wobbly plot, but in the scenes. The scenes, in fact, kind of erase the plot as they advance it. By the end, mainly all you feel is the crawl of the wild, and a sort of awe at how terrible and sweet and nasty and gigantic the world actually is when you look at it long enough.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." Ecclesiastes 1:2
I have been making these collages on 4 X 6" notecards, using crayons, magic markers, glue-sticks, masking tape, magazines and junk-mail. I've almost made 50 of them now. As I do them I try to push everything out of my head, pursuing meaninglessness. The main reason, I think, I need and want to do something so silly and worthless is because making images and ideas that are meaningless is sort of like envisioning actuality. A realness sets in as I go through the process of it all, culling the most mundane images from junk-mail and National Enquirer and Time Magazine, cutting them out (usually quite sloppily, although Bill helps out, and his cutting is much more careful), applying it all on notecards of official size, scanning in each card, and then slipping the finished product into little plastic photo-albums for preservation.
It's all so stupid that it is beautiful, and I don't need anyone else to see what I'm doing, even though I know I'll end up posting it just for kicks, and also storage. I feel like I am connected to a strain and cult of artists who don't give a fuck. I know that sounds preciously punk, like I'm proud of such a thing, but all I'm getting at is the comfort of knowing nothing really matters. Anyone can see. Nothing really matters. To me.
And in that refrain comes a sort of peace you can only get at by understanding, as the Bible says, "Everything is meaningless!"
A lot of the time art-making and fiction-writing seem to be constructed around the rational enterprises of meaning-making, of creating objects and worlds that will be understood and consumed and spoken about as if they have broken through meaninglessness in order to give us a new way of celebrating what we already know. I guess in everything I do creatively I'm trying to do the exact opposite. I cling to the notion that nobody knows anything, and that the pursuit of knowledge makes sense with microscopes and telescopes, but cutting out pictures of Marie Osmond and deep-dish pizzas is a whole other quest. It's a quest for absurdity without a tongue in your cheek. It's a search for something beautiful that isn't.
I write short stories about people who have often given up. Hopelessness pervades most of my creative decisions, not because I'm hopeless, but because hopelessness is a part of being alive and aware of your situation, and in that hopelessness, often, is where the people I write about find a sort of recognition and sanctuary from a world that is always trying to push hope and decency down their throats without giving them the economic and social tools they need to make "hope" matter. I write about low-rent nobodies and I try to stylize their nobodiness not so that it is palatable, but so that the writing and the style replace the need for relatability. Flannery O'Connor one said, “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
That process is the process of pulling meaning away from itself, and allowing people who think they are not freaks a moment of pure beautiful nothingness, a taste of what it is to have meaninglessness intervene and win. The "depth" Flannery is talking about comes from that comeuppance, if that's what it is. Who really knows? But the collages and stories I make have that mean sense of upheaval, the bad manners and the awkward yelling of a drunk crawling into a room full of upstanding citizens about to pledge allegiance to something. And the drunk says, "Ecclesiastes Volume 1, Verse 2 motherfuckers!"
I'm not iconoclastic. Or even unruly. I just have a bull-shit detector, and it produces documents such as this:
And paragraphs such as this (from one of my short stories called "God Knows Where"):
After we leave Urgent Care, me and Misty and Shawn go to Walgreens to get Shawn’s antibiotic, which costs 124 bucks. I don’t mind, I keep saying, and Misty keeps saying she will pay me back. I also get Shawn some coloring stuff. We drive back to Misty’s place, where we find her boyfriend in the shadows, watching Survivor. The place smells like chili and old water. I carry Shawn, and Misty flicks on the light. Chuck is the boyfriend’s name, and he opens his eyes wide. He has the top of his Arby’s uniform on, and below that just underwear and tube-socks.
At the end of day I guess I'm haunted by the fact that everything is shapeless but still causes shapes. Everyone is stupid but hey we did get a man on the moon.