Monday, April 7, 2014

Jelly Beans and Diana Ross

It's been a quarter century almost since Bill and I did this show in Indianapolis at 431 Gallery.  It was called "The Fifteen Dollar Museum," and it was like a manifesto of sorts, and also an accidental action plan for the rest of our lives.  431 Gallery was a cooperative joint downtown, and when Bill and I were voted in by other members back in 1989 it was a wild feeling for me.   I was backwards and kind of kooky, as was Bill (and really using the past tense here is kind of stupid:  we still ARE kooky and backwards when you get right down to it), so we went about making art and art shows exactly the way we wanted them to be, without thinking about who would want to see them.  In this gig we sold everything we made for fifteen bucks a pop and donated all the money to a food bank.  We did this not because we were martyrs or hippies or whatever.  We were just stupid and full of energy with an intense need to make some kind of meaning happen.  We truly wanted to make authentic connections between artifice and reality, art and life, in ways we saw would allow us to be ourselves.  We were/are anomalies in many ways:  artistic, ambitious, silly, serious, working-class, rural, sarcastic, professionally unprofessional, numb-skulled and overly sensitive, etc.  All of that laced with an understanding that no matter where you live or what you do your intentions usually remain the same.  So making art and showing it in Indianapolis truly suited our mentalities, a midsized city without a lot of opportunities for young artists outside of DIY.  And all the other folks at 431 were kind of like kindred spirits.  In fact, I don't think I had ever experienced what "kindred spirits" felt like before because my oddness consigned me to the total outskirts.  In high school I was a freak among freaks, gay and "creative" and poor, haunting hallways in oversized flannel shirts and baggie jeans, hiding out in the basement when they made us go to pep rallies.  I made a few friends (including Bill) at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis when I went there for a year right after graduating high school, but I dropped out after only that one year, defeated by the fact that I didn't want to draw and paint and get graded.  I just wanted to make stuff happen.
It all worked out in the end as they say.  I wasted a lot of time in between being an art-school dropout and figuring out I needed to go back to college and get a degree in something.  In fact, I was in my second year at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis when Bill and I got into 431.  And now I realize that time was probably one of the most magical times I'll have.  It was full of hope and weirdness, stupidity and hilarity and backfired experiments and the major realization that I could make something out of myself.
We did all kinds of stupid shit at 431.  We dressed in drag and got half-naked in the basement.  I did a performance one time composed of eating jelly-beans with my head shaved singing along to Diana Ross's "Theme from Mahogany" in the gallery front window.  We played with mud and thrift-store objects and built little shrines to everyday goofiness.  I gave a reading of the first real short story I ever wrote there.  Bill painted resplendently absurd cartoons.  We made a video that had little bits and pieces of porn and loveliness in it.  Made lots of drawings and paintings and whatnot.  Sold a few.  Got to meet truly dedicated artists who were always looking a little afraid at what Bill and I were up to, but then again I think they liked us all the same.  At least I hope. 
Anyway, I just wanted to write all that down now that there's a retrospective coming up about 431 Gallery this June at the Indiana State Museum.  Bill and I are pretty settled in our existences here in Southwestern Ohio.  We are social  workers who help people with disabilities gets jobs and have lives, and we also started a studio for artists with disabilities called Visionaries and Voices, and we run a little weird gallery in town called Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Bill paints (he has work in a show in England this summer), and I write stories (a book of my stories just came out).  We really are okay people now.  And I think our tenure at 431 helped us out a lot.  It made us realize we don't have to ask permission to do what we think we ought to do.  It kind of made us braver and smarter in ways school never could. 
Thanks to everybody who hung out with us at 431 for those couple years.  It was meaningful.  It truly was.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"But the Boulder Is Gone"

Alice Munro's work is filled with landscapes that don't mean anything and yet reverberate with non-meaning and a sort of backward emotional soulfulness you can't label or justify.  They are simply the nameless centers of universes that encompass us all.  In "Chaddeleys and Flemings," one of her most expansive and yet intensively introspective stories, she turns the boulder-decorated gravesite of a one-legged nobody in rural Canada into the end of a line of thought about what we know about other people, what we remember, what we need to remember, and what truthfully ends up worthless, which happens to be most everything and then again nothing at all.  The hopelessness is the quid pro quo and is the reason you need to hope.  Her artistry collapses philosophy and makes feeling become the only compass, a feeling that is schooled and chilled by a direct connection to what is "there."  And "there" is this:  dirt, gray grass, that comatose boulder sucking in the light, allowing words to defy but never erase, words being gravel and weeds and dimly lit sky.

"But the boulder is gone," writes Munro.  "Mount Hebron is cut down for gravel, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting."

I'm always trying to figure out why I love  Munro so much.  It isn't her way with words as much as her way with getting outside of words, finding that perfect "objective correlative" that pieces together a moment that transcends metaphor and simile and theme and configures the shape behind "hope" and "despair."  It's something so secret and universal the words turn out to be usefully useless, and you come upon that image of that boulder now gone and yet as heavy as it ever was.  The tongue can't go there.  The brain can't either.  But it's all she has to work with so she finds the pulse inside the boulder, that feeling throbbing within the most uninteresting object and scenery and scenario. 

I'm almost halfway through her Selected Stories right now, reading them slowly, but also trying not to lose the impulse to skip to get to those diamond-sharp insights that happen almost every paragraph.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Effort Outweighs the Meaning

I don't know.  Art is embarrassing when it's done right, when its motives are pure and the image comes from an honest attempt to make something sincere, even sacred.  In this case George Bush's desire to signify his begrudging respect/admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Lord have mercy, that amateurish skin-tone, those blank third-grade eyes, the sad scratchy lavender background.  This is the kind of art I always respect because the effort outweighs the meaning, and truly meaning here is pretty dumb and limited to the point it becomes profound, elegant in its monster-like simplicity.  The ears have a surrealistic bent, like homosexual sea shells.  And those baggy eyes, those thin lips like an obscene peanut shell.  There's a sensual quality here, a school-boy's love-letter, a sketch done in secret.  It's a joke, and it's not.  Power and solemnity get usurped by a truly stupid intent.  You can see George getting cross-eyed trying to get it right.  Trying to make it look right.  Trying and trying, and then one sunny morning he gets it.  He comes up with this denouement, this image from a dream, this image from history. 

I would love to own this godforsaken painting.  It needs to disappear.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's Just There

So I'll be walking around places full of crap and suddenly there will be something that escapes the land of crap even though it completely embraces the land of crap.  Here's a good example.  Kroger's, in College Hill (the same place where I spotted the Black History Month Coloring Contest tableau [check out a couple blogposts below]).  The mecca of fruits and vegetables and potato chips and greeting cards and 5.99 DVDs and frozen fish-sticks and National Enquirers and Marlburo Lights and so on suddenly turns into the only art gallery in town.  Cushioned within the nest of everything is a homemade paean/poster for The Hunger Games Part 2:  Catching Fire.  It has a careful hand about it, a deluxe attention to detail, and I'm wondering who took the time to do this?  Did he/she get paid, or was it on his/her own time?  A lonely high school art student with a gorgeously overheated fantasy life, or a middle-aged guy with too much time on his hands because he lost his last job because of a DUI and now all he can get is a part-time gig bagging groceries but he's also kind of talented (etc.)?  It doesn't matter.  It's just there, and when I see it I'm happy, don't know why -- except maybe because it is a release from the world of design and packaging and the onslaught of what needs to be bought.  It has a delicacy that makes you understand what being a fan of something is.  I couldn't really ever bring myself to go see Catching Fire at the movies, but I'll probably see it on TV and burst into tears thinking of this dumb/brilliant poster.  I don't know.  That's just the way it is.   

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Last to Know


We stumbled into Orchid's, a restaurant on the ground floor of the Omni Netherlands Hotel a couple Fridays ago.  It's one of those places in downtown Cincinnati you should know about, but Bill and I are always the last to know somehow, which is the way I like it.  That way you're always amazed.  It's a 4-star restaurant with a plush art-deco interior, all smooth maroons and creams and marble and brass, and when you enter you feel both charmed and on the verge of disappearing.  It has ghostliness, a feeling that something has been lost and never replaced, but it's that very lack that makes the atmosphere plush, spilling over into your thoughts while you drink you drink and start to feel encapsulated by the presence of what used to be here and kind still is but not.  We sat at the bar and a middle-aged man played "Someone to Watch Over Me" on the guitar on a marble-ensconced stage, and it was heaven.  You want to sink into that moment, first sip, first slipping away.  It's dark, the lighting old-school elegant, frosted and  blurry so that every bottle and glass seems to glow.  You could just slide into that light, the alcohol vaporizing into your blood in that preliminary tingling, and then there you'd be again, perfectly still, satiny, like a pillow on the floor in one of the beautiful hotel-rooms above.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Kind of Party Is This?

"Dance of the Happy Shades" is one of those short stories that has a meaning and sentiment so effortlessly deep you almost have to reread it to grasp its gravity, and to remember it in all its glory.  In fact I remember reading it way back in the day, when I was trying to teach myself how to write, and I think it must have left a radioactive pellet in my brain.   Reading it again the other day felt like some kind of secret and gorgeous electro shock therapy.  I was bawling by the denouement.  That power comes from the tenacity of the voice, a chatty but sharp and almost grim evocation of a sad, sad party in which Miss Marsalles, an elderly piano teacher, shows off the students she is teaching with a sandwiches-and-punch recital in her home. 
The plot follows the day all the way through in the point of view of one of her students who isn't impressed, and whose mother seems almost disgusted by Miss Marselles' lack of cleanliness, and by the fact that she is old and unmarried and living with her sister who just had a stroke.  Miss Marselles' home, her sandwiches, her flat purple punch all contribute to a drab, melancholy atmosphere that gets somehow exonerated with the appearance of children from a "special school."  Miss Marselles visits them and teaches them at the school, and she includes them in her recital without making a big deal out of it.  But all the other mothers and children seem shocked by their sudden appearance.  And when one of them, Dolores Boyles, a "a girl as big as I am, a long-legged, rather thin and plaintive-looking girl with blonde, almost white hair," sits down and plays the piano with strange and undeniable grace, the room changes, as does the way we suddenly have access to Miss Marselles' soul.  All the peripherals disappear.  The piano teacher's life comes into focus in such a grand and succinct way we suddenly understand what it means to actually be alive without having to struggle with ego and meanness and self delusion.  We know what it means to live within a self-imposed realm of grace and kindness.  
It takes the appearance of a "freak" like Dolores Boyles to show us how to release Miss Marsalles from the category the narrator wants to consign her to.  Dolores Boyles is also released.  The representation of both in that moment has a magical matter-of-factness:  "Miss Marselles sits beside the piano and smiles at everybody in her usual way.  Her smile is not triumphant, or modest.  She does not look like a magician who is watching people's faces to see the effect of a rather original revelation -- nothing like that.  You would think, now that at the very end of her life she has found someone whom she can teach -- whom she must teach -- to play the piano, she would light up with the importance of this discovery.  But it seems that the girl's playing like this is something she always expected, and she finds it natural and satisfying; people who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one."
That's all I ever want when I try to write:  that sense of complete understanding delivered without decoration or apology, just given to us like a letter from a saner and more poetic plane of existence.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Prize for Each Age Group

Bill and I were at Kroger last night and saw this, a coloring contest table for Black History month, and it just seemed so sweet and worn-out and beautiful I had to take a photo.  It was like one of our art shows without being one and that's kind of what I want all of them to be.  We do art shows at Thunder-Sky, Inc. every other month and many times I really don't know why, except because we have to, and then that reason makes you feel kind of dumb, as if you are not in control of making art shows, it's just one of those things like concussions or bankruptcy.  And then I see a good example of what we are after every once in a while, as in this photo above:  sloppy, makeshift, but full of meaning beyond its purpose, an accidental momentary impulse to find a way to make meaning beyond what something is, and beyond the joke or the irony of trying to tell yourself what it isn't, and you're all of a sudden in this space of forgiveness and grace without having to go to church or listen to some ass-hole motivational speaker.  You are no longer judgmental or even capable of a snide comment.  You are in a state of mind that allows things to get in without the usual struggle.  I think that's what I'm always searching for when I go to art shows or when I try to make art shows.  That sense of losing your mind and your intentions and being awed.  This shit here awes me for some reason, like William Carlos Williams' little red wheelbarrow.  So much depends on this somehow.  The tableau feels unfinished, the tablecloth is terribly yellow, that Xeroxed woman's face is sad and hopeful somehow at the same time.  It's a contest so somebody's going to win something.  In fact there's a prize for each age group.  And of course there's all that black history and melancholy beige linoleum and that fluorescent sheen all grocery stores have after about 9 pm.  The loneliness of buying groceries kind of permeates the atmosphere, and here's this table of crayons abandoned but still vibrating from something I can't really articulate.  Which is good.  Not being able to articulate is the point.  That's about all you got in this world.