Friday, August 27, 2010

That's the Look, That's the Look, That's the Look of Love

This month in Aeqai, a local Cincinnati online art-criticism journal, Alan D. Pocaro writes about the latest works by Spencer Van der Zee at Malton Gallery: "While possessing no formal education in the medium, stylistically, Van der Zee has absorbed all of the conventions associated with the look of the outsider. The drawings on display include juxtaposed images, scrawling lines, doodles, snippets of text, blobs of color, ethereal narratives, and highly rendered scenes that jostle for attention on the surfaces of the support."

I guess my question is: what exactly is "the look" of "outsider art"? The way Alan D. Pocaro frames it, the look is actually just plain old Wetsern art:

"Juxtaposed images" = Surrealism and its offshoots
"Scrawling lines and doodles" = Cy Twombley
"Snippets of text" = Jenny Holzer
"Blobs of color" = take your pick of the Abstract Expressionists on that one
"Ethereal narratives" = William Blake maybe, or Andy Warhol making movies
"Highly rendered scenes ..." = Keith Haring and all that came after.

Or that whole paragraph could be used as a way to define graphic novels about superheroes who think too much, funky-fresh, overly clever/cute ads in Details magazine, or a really cool one-sheeter advertising the Ramones with special guest Blondie back in the day.

I guess what I am getting at is that by appropriating the "look" of "outsider art," you also collapse its meaning. Which from my point of view is a good thing: it takes away the special preciousness embedded in that super-sweet narrative of the naive and innocent outsider "doodling" his/her way into your heart, or that slightly scary outsider creating "highly rendered scenes" of hell or something because he/she just can't take the real world... The good old narrative Jean Dubuffet more-of-less started in 1948, when he officially established his Art Brut collection, modeled after the art collection of Dr. Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist in Germany. Dubuffet's Art Brut collection showcased works of various media, but what made them "outsider" wasn't the "look" or "materials" as much as the biography: the artists in his collection weren't pros. It was a class thing. Dubuffet loved to talk (and often scream) about the works in his collection as alternatives to the tired artwork of Western culture.

Dubuffet's outrage at Western civilization becomes a "look," right? Just another variant of "style." That's not sad at all really, because Dubuffet's initial instinct, to use the art made by unconventional artists as a metaphor for his anger at this rotten old world was kind of self-centered, even while being revolutionary. His insight opened a lot of doors for unconventional artists, but it also created a hallway they can be lead down and then unceremoniously escorted out of.

Dubuffet's Art Brut became Roger Cardinal's "outsider art," and now it has become a a "look." Hooray. But what also is just as wonderful to think about are artists not trying to capture a look, or create art from looking at art, artists who really don't want to be artists but will put up with the whole idea of being one because they truly have something to say that scratches its way out of them visciously and quietly in rooms and trailers and day programs and bus-stations all over the universe. The "outsider art" narrative collapses under the heaviness of the "aesthetic," and what arrives in its place?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I want to be there to see it.

Above: one of Spencer Van der Zee's great outsider-looking collage/drawings, on display at the Malton Gallery in Hyde Park. Cool stuff. Like Max Ernst and Fritz Lang and Cy Twombley and R. Crumb got together and played Exquisite Corpse one afternoon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jet-fueled Ping Pong

It never fails somehow. Seeing Antonio Adams' and Tony Dotson's works together always reminds me how two plus two equals five. Their works play off and with each other in so many ways it's like watching a jet-fueled ping-pong match between Green Lantern and a stick-figure King Kong on a Saturday morning cartoon while listening to Prince sing all his greatest hits, with a Happy Meal on a TV Tray in front of you. Not kitsch, but a deeply felt nostalgia. Comic and tragic and melodramatic but with a straight-edged sense of wit.

Thunder-Sky, Inc. is here at the Atlanta Folkfest through August 22, and our booth is at the back of the North Atlanta Trade Center space, but still Tony and Antonio's works seem to be humming a loud and happy tune.

We're also featuring Dale Jackson, collaborative paintings by Bill Ross and Becky Iker, and a few Kevin Whites.

Above: close-up of a wall of Tony and Antonio's smaller works & the booth itself with me sitting there checking email.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Say Goodbye

I watched The Blind Side last night on pay-per-view. It's one of those movies I wanted to see just because of its zeitgeist purity, but also dreaded seeing because of the zeitgeist subject matter: Southern upper-middle-class white family "saves" a homeless African American high school football player from the ghetto. Based on a true story no less.

But The Blind Side blindsided me. It has a big-hearted tenacity to it, and while it is completely sentimental, the sentimentality is rooted in the excitement caused by being a do-gooder even when no one asks you to. In fact, it's the last thing most people want you to do. This seems to be the drug Bullock's Leigh Anne Tuohy is on: she really digs doing the right thing especially when it mystifies and even pisses off her family and friends. Her altruism has a shock value she enjoys, and Bullock allows that renegade spirit to shine through the right-wing polish and make-up.

Bullock's stubbornness gives The Blind Side its grit. But Quinton Aaron's performance as Big Mike gives the movie its gravity. He emboldens the orphaned left-tackle with a spirit that flickers with tenderness and fury. He is comically scary at times in the movie -- pushing little girls in their swings on the Christian school playground kind of like Frankenstein -- but then there's the scene where he washes his t-shirt out in a laundromat sink and then sticks it in a dryer and sits, contemplating the quiet and the loneliness, but also somehow savoring it all too. Aaron's triumph is that he suffuses each of his scenes with that quiet, self-taught fierceness, and he produces not just a pathetic sweet figure, but a true hero.

The movie coalesces around what "heroism" is actually: Leigh Anne Tuohy's stubborn allegiance to her true feelings of generosity and kindness, and Michael Ohler's stubborn resourcefulness and intense need to succeed, even though he does not know exactly what that "success" means. Both characters' heroic natures come from their "outsiderness." That's the movie's structure: Big Mike, the ultimate outsider, in taken into the fold, but in the process Leigh Anne Tuohy begins to understand what it means to be "outside" of her own privilege and class. The journey she's taking is pretty cushy of course, and it pales in comparison to the strife and struggle involved in Big Mike's transformation from homeless orphan to college student to pro-football recruit, but still the plot of The Blind Side pivots on the connection the two of them make, and the benefits of being outside of what's normal in order to eventually find a way to be sane.

This narrative of the insider becoming the outsider in order to allow the outsider in is a direct descendant of the plot to a movie that came down the pike in 1994. Also based on a true story, and a play before it was turned into a film by Fred Schepisi and playwright John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation stars Stockard Channing as Louisa Kittregde, a Manhattan socialite who is conned by Will Smith's Paul, an African American homeless gay man who craves insider status so bad he feigns injury and risks everything to become a part of Louisa's elegant, elite universe.

Will Smith's performance in Six Degrees is both vulnerable and vengeful; a beautiful blend of resentment, envy and love registers in just about every move he makes, and those moves in turn are watched by Louisa with an intense interest and yearning. Stockard Channing's Louisa, like Bullock's Leigh Anne, is a stylish, head-strong dame who stumbles upon a new identity, and new meaning, by empathizing with someone totally outside of her realm. It's an act of imagination really, a creative exercise in which Louisa re-creates herself by finding Paul's desire within herself.

The denouement of Six Degrees occurs when Paul finally pulls one con too many and becomes a criminal outcast sought by the cops. Louisa still cannot give up on him. Like Leigh Anne Tuohy's desire to adopt Michael, Louisa must save Paul; unlike Leigh Anne she can't because the stakes are too high, and Paul is too much of an outsider to pull into her world in one piece. This creates a tragic but cathartic ending, in which Louisa is at a luncheon with her high-society tribe, and everyone is asking her to "tell the story about that boy," that really entertaining anecdote about how she and her husband almost had their throats slashed, etc. Everyone at the luncheon table stares at Louisa, wanting all the juicy details without any of the reality or meaning or cost.

Finally Louisa breaks down and turns into a prophet, wondering outloud if Paul, who was taken into custody weeks before and absorbed into the system, has killed himself, and if "the anecdote" they all want will be the only thing left of him. She lets them know how "paltry" all their lives are, and yet that was all Paul yearned for: to be like them, to live like them. At the very end of the movie she can no longer stand her own superficiality. She breaks away both from her society and her husband. She is an outsider walking the city streets.

"Outsiderness" is a concept that gets overused. You know it has become a cliche, of course, when Sarah Palin rallies the troops around it. In the world of art and art-making, it has become an even bigger cliche, a way to type and often disregard artists who don't have a pedigree or a status significant enough to allow them in. What both these movies tell us about "outsiderness" is that the outsider truly is not the main entity that needs to be "helped." Both Leigh Anne Tuohy and Louisa Kittredge are upper-class ladies who have to realize how meaningless their lives are in order to live the lives they need to. Michael and Paul, the outsiders they come across who cause their epiphanies, are survivors; they need a roof over their heads and they need someone to stick up for them, but it is obvious they have strength far beyond their predicaments. Louisa and Leigh Anne need to connect with that strength in order to shake themselves out of their complacency.

So "outsiderness" is not about the outsider. It's about the insider mainly, and how that status must always be questioned and reinvented. The grandaddy of the concept of "outsider art," Jean Dubuffet writes, "Unless one says goodbye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and an eventual extinction.”

"Outsider art" as a concept often ossifies into a trope: untrained people making untrained art. Isn't that nice? But in actuality "outsider art" and the idea of "outsiderness" is about how training and tradition and insularity often lead to extinction. An infusion of what is uncomfortable, what is true, always has to make an appearance.

In The Blind Side there's a wonderful moment when the Tuohy's are having their Christmas card picture taken. Leigh Anne asks Michael to join the photo session. His presence in the family portrait is both jarring and sincere. Leigh Anne is "outing" the whole family as a group of people unsatisfied with who they are, and willing to let the stranger share center-stage. That strangeness becomes the way out of themselves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lonely & Rainy

Images from the two artists we'll be featuring at Thunder-Sky, Inc. October 29, 2010 - December 31, 2010: "Welcome to Lonely Mountain Community Center: An Installation by Bruce Burris" & "Rainy Day: New Works by Aaron Oliver Wood" feature work by Bruce Burris, an artist from Lexington, Kentucky whose pieces have been featured at Institute 193 (Lexington KY), Braunstein/Quay Gallery (San Francisco CA), Anton Galllery (Washington DC), Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (Grand Rapids MI), and Delaware Center for Contemporary Art (Wilmington DE). Burris' installation consists of a large, room-sized bulletin-board that displays scraps and ephemera both lighthearted and freighted with meanings far beyond their function. Aaron Oliver Wood lives in Cincinnati and creates beautifully detailed, straightforward but still somehow enigmatic drawings.

Also happening at the same time in the Raymond Room (the room in Thunder-Sky, Inc. dedicated to perserving Raymond's drawings and other items): “Fables of the Deconstruction: A Decade of Raymond Thunder-Sky Influence” surveys through photos, documents, art, and video the influence Raymond Thunder-Sky’s art and life had culturally in Cincinnati and beyond, using as a starting point the first time Raymond showed his work publically in 2000 through his death in 2004 to the gallery and organization established in his name celebrating its first year of exhibitions and programming.

Photos top to bottom:

"Let's Go," Aaron Oliver Wood
"Stone Creek Series, 1," Bruce Burris
Display of Aaron Oliver Wood's drawings at Southgate House (see review below).
"Lonely Mountain Community Center Bulletin Board," Bruce Burris.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

2 + 2 = "Pretty"

"The Place You Made to Find One Another" opened last night at U-turn Art Space (2159 Central Avenue, Brighton neighborhood in Cincinnati), and runs through August 28, 2010. It's one of those shows that casts a magic spell over you. "Pretty" is a stupid word, but that's what came into my head as soon as I walked into the space. But "pretty" in a more broken and specific way -- like the "pretty" Joseph Cornell finds and worships in vacant hotel rooms, or the delicate gritty "pretty" Carson McCullers discovers in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Each piece sings a little off-key, but when you see the exhibit all in one walk-through you have the sense that "off-key" is exactly where beauty and absurdity meet, where sadness finds a place to laugh.

Eric Ruschman's work has a polished, precise tenderness to it, channeling pure feeling through a minimalist aesthetic that doesn't come off as minimal as much as carefully self-contained. This carefulness carries a lot of weight in pieces like "And Since You Can't Be a Fox in a Foxhole" and "This Is a Different Kind of Love Song," and allows you to luxuriate in what's there and what's not there. The colors evoke childhood simplcity, but the pieces themselves have a sophistication and mystery, with imagery that provides clues while also allowing you the benefit of the doubt. My favorite work by Ruschman is called "I Know, I'm Worried Too," a round wood shiny-surfaced table with cute animal knick-knacks arranged on it. What might have been a Jeff-Koons pastiche somehow becomes more of a Cornell ice-dance, a nostalgic little trip into what unnecessary objects can do to you if you look at them long enough, if you truly try to understand them.

Patricia Murphy has a more broken sense of "pretty." Her sculptures and paintings in the show feel as if they have been washed ashore, while Ruschman's pieces reached dry land via cruise-ship. In "Knot" and "Partly Because It's Easier on You," she uses abandoned boards and objects in arrangements that defy meaning while creating it. The pink knot seems to be an afterthought but also somehow predetermined, and the blank board with a yellow rectangle almost complete the puzzle, but then again it's not a puzzle we're looking at: it's more like a William Carlos Williams poem, all perfect and slight and weird. "Partly..." has that same cooked-down murmur to it, a poetry that climbs a ladder into itself. "Rush Beyond Silver Silence" seems like Murphy's answer to Ruschman's "I Know, I'm Worried Too." (It's also my favorite work by Murphy.) A left-behind nightstand with a small pillow with a ceramic bear on it, some dreamy wrinkled photos stuck to the sides of the nightstand with silver tape, "I Know" is lifted off the floor by an arrangement of naked wooden boards. As a whole, this piece has the fever of an intense memory you feel before you remember.

I kept thinking about Joseph Cornell the whole time I was at the show. Cornell said once that the shadowboxes he made, filled with nostalgic arrangements of trinkets, were poetic theaters, settings he created to transform childhood pastimes into moments that can't be lost anymore. Both Ruschman and Murphy create art in that vein; they seem to be searching for places and sensations that have somehow been lost. They are slowly recovering these scenes and feelings piece by piece.

Pictured above, top to bottom: Patricia Murphy, "Partly Because It Is Easier on You," aluminum dust, boards, broken ceramic horse. latex and spray paint. Patricia Murphy, "Knot," acrylic paint, found board, non-adhesive flagging tape. Eric Ruschman, "And Since You Can't Be a Fox in a Foxhole?" oil and enamel on MDF panel. Eric Ruschman, "This Is a Different Kind of Love Song," enamel on MDF panels.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Post-It Notes into Butterflies

Aaron Oliver Wood's drawings, featured now in the third floor gallery at the Southgate House in Newport, Ky through August 21, 2010, have a delicate yet intense quality, as if they had to be drawn in exactly the way they were drawn. They are given to us without a lot of pomp and circumstance, like Post-It Notes transforming into butterflies: they transcend their smallness by being small. Each one has a readymade aspect, like rub-on tattooes, but as well they have an old-fashioned liveliness, referencing Peter Max Day-Glo animation cells and drawings by geeky school boys of Star Wars characters. Each one has a reason to exist somehow, separate from the pack, and the way Aaron orders them on the wall on the third floor there at Southgate House really is something to see. I was reminded of Raymond Thunder-Sky's drawings, that same otherwordly but very concrete style, the smallness giving way to big feelings and thoughts. Go see Aaron's show. Aaron's work will be featured at Thunder-Sky, Inc. in a two-person show October 29, 2010 - December 31, 2010 called "Welcome to Lonely Mountain Community Center: An Installation by Bruce Burris & New Works by Aaron Oliver Wood."

Can't wait...

Above: Two works by Aaron and one by Raymond...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is one of those beautiful middlebrow adult movies that totally makes you wish you were in the world being depicted: an unpretentious fancy restaurant ran by a relaxed, red-wine-swilling and fresh-from-the-garden-heirloom-tomato-eating stud/chef, a California balcony overlooking long stretches of sunlit cacti and palm trees, a large beige master bedroom with family pictures on wood plank shelves and voluptuous pillows the size of one-bedroom-apartments. The movie drips with its own sense of comfort and authority, much like the lush Baby-Boomer romantic comedies of Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give). There's a spell that gets cast from the alignment of set-design and intention. The cast arrives and the movie's inanimate objects and human subjects combine into a bourgeoisie dreamscape where touching domestic dramas just work themselves out. And by the end everyone can feel both enlightened and self-satisfied.

Cholodenko's purpose though is a little different than Meyers'. She populates those dreamy/familiar sets with two central characters often consigned to sidekick status: lesbians. And even more rare: two happily married lesbians with two beautiful children who seem to have it all. There's always a wind-up mechanism on this kind of toy though. The perfection on display has a slight chip here and there, as in Annette Bening's Nic drinking a little too much of the aforementioned red wine and nagging just a little bit too much about her daughter Joni not writing thank-you cards, and Julianne Moore's Jules seeming a little too starry-eyed and fidgety and flighty. Not to mention the motorcycle-riding, sexy-beyond-humanly-possible sperm-donor dad getting a telephone call from Nic and Jules kids five minutes into the whole she-bang.

No matter, that perfection is built into the class-structure decor, and we're not worried about gay-bashing or ugly placards outside courtrooms telling us we're going to hell. We are invested in the atmosphere, the verisimilitude, what comes next. This is the triumph of Cholondenko's creation, as well the dividends of great acting, the pleasures you get from seeing beautiful actors act less than beautiful but still more than beautiful than beautiful is supposed to be. The lesbianism and the sperm-donor shenanigans fade into mundanity as the movie's real pulse takes over. This is a middle-of-the-road chick flick heightened by a smidgen of kink and yet also deepened because of what's truly at stake: the kids.

Josh Henderson's Laser and Mia Wasikowska's Joni are two of the most incredibly performed adolescents ever put on film. They both offer us up true portraits of normalcy, and yet they never condescend or bend into victimhood. They have two moms and a sperm-donor, and all the action and melodrama inherent in that set-up are played out in fast motion while Laser and Joni seem to exist in a slow-motion universe of going to college and pool parties and skateboarding and shooting hoops. Commonplace decency never looked so gorgeous and real: Joni and Laser are the future, God bless them, and they were created by two slightly anxious, self-involved but diligent moms, as well as a creative, sweet boy-man. That nexus gives the movie its sweetness, not its salaciousness. The fact that Laser and Joni are who they are allows the movie to be more than the sum of its parts.

The Kids Are All Right is a movie that wants us all to get over the simplifications of old-fashionned structures and anachronistic ideas while simultaneously worshipping and supporting these structures and ideas: the upper-middle-class family dramady consumes the hard-edged lesbian chic of High Art, the heroin-shooting-artists/lesbians indie movie that put Cholodenko on the map. The Kids Are All Right does not have time for heroin or art or chic, barely enough time for lesbian sex. What it does have is an big-heartedness that never veers that close to sentimentality. It gives you what want: location, location, location. And a sweet goodbye scene at the end, kind of like an updated Norman Rockwell: a blonde fragile gorgeous eighteen-year-old girl putting the sheets on the twin bed in her new dorm room, getting scared because she is finally alone, and walking outside to make sure her moms and her brother have not left yet.

So why is this on 2 + 2 = 5? Because this flick is about a focus on the family that transcends the meanness and singlemindedness inherent in "focusing on the family." Because by juxtaposing decency with what many small-minded people see as "indecency" this movie allows a new way of seeing what's right in front of your face. Guess what? If you're a good person, you're a good person. Period.