Monday, January 24, 2011

Nightmare Window-Dressing

"I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it."  Gertrude Stein

Joey Versoza's "moon in the wall, hope it don’t dissolve" at U-Turn Art Space is a nightmare reinvention of window-dressing, cold and brutal with lamps precariously positioned on the floor with paper-towel rolls and other apparatus.  There's a black-eye brewing in the shadows of the space, a flicker of violence that turns to bruise and then thought and then just absolute nothingness.  Each of the works free-floats, like items from a shipwreck surfacing through black water.  I loved the feeling of the whole thing, like spelunking through subconsciousness itself.  It's a rabbit-hole reinvented by Raymond Carver, minimal and mean and yet also starkly lyrical.  "Dear Summer" captures it all:  curtain and opened window.  Period.  That's it.  All that cold air blowing through the space, giving the sight of those prostrated living room lamps the chill they need to turn into Martians.  And then the apotheosis:  a Faulker tribute way off in a corner.  One rose in a glass vase spotlit by one of those lamps, a brittle little poem extracted from a big dark world.

Joey Versoza's "moon in the wall, hope it don't dissolve" closes this Saturday, January 28, 2011.  U-Turn 2159 Central Avenue, Cincinnati, OH. 

Magical Misery Tour

"Namaz Khaneh (House of Prayer)," Sheida Soleimani's one-woman exhibit at Semantics Gallery closing on Saturday, is a quietly unnerving, beautifully accomplished journey to the interior:  each of the photographed dioramas/shadow-boxes has its own gorgeously glum sensibility, like intensely personal poems written with the left hand then rewritten with the right, that process repeated until the scribbles become calligraphy and the mistakes turn into religion.  There's a yearning for perfection in each tableau, and yet the perfection is somehow channeled through a riveting stubbornness that deconstructs that initial desire to be perfect.  There's the obsessive, burnished carefulness of De Chirico here, plus the tidy, doll-inspired surrealism of Cornell, but there's also a rich tapestry of shadow and broken eggs, sloppily-constructed mouse furniture, an elegant decapitated fish head, a crucified baby bird, all of it enshrined somehow in the smoky afterglow of what's almost forgotten but too ferocious to disappear.  These are postcards from another world.  Thank God Soleimani went there.

Go see this show...  Last chance Saturday January 28, 2011.  Semantics:  1107 Harrison Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio...  

Monday, January 17, 2011

"The Kindness that Gazes upon Itself..."

This is a horror movie.

Kathy Lee Gifford's vanity seems to flourish when she's indulging in this charitable act:  over-thanking a boy for befriending another boy who just happens to be labeled "autistic."  She humiliates and condescends without even blinking.  The song alone makes you want to die.  She reduces kindness to ego, and shows off her "sweetness" like a gangster shows off his machine-gun.  The trick to being nice is knowing the limits of your own "niceness" and also understanding what your "niceness" means once it's let out into the real world.  Kathy Lee unleashes her "niceness" at that kid, a huge horrible parade of self-congratulatory bull-shit, wreathed in a treacly meolody. 

Kathy Lee and anybody else who thinks they really are "great people" because they do "good deeds," heed this:

"Verily the kindness that gazes upon itself in a mirror turns to stone, and a good deed that calls itself by tender names becomes the parent to a curse."  (Kahlil Gibran)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Nobody Is Retarded. Not Even You.

"Cool shit," so sayeth the asshole.

From Bill Ross, cofounder Thunder-Sky, Inc.:

I have been stewing over something that happened earlier today. When Antonio and I arrived at Thunder-Sky, a guy and his buddy were having a smoke outside the Comet. One said he liked Antonio's art supply bag and then as I pulled a painting I am working on out of the back of the van, he again commented "Man that is good! Did you do that?"

I said yes and thanks.

The guy followed up with "So are you mentally retarded?"

It kind of took the wind out of my sails, so all I could come up with as a comeback was:  "Yes I probably am."
The guy said, "Man you retards are making some cool shit."

What I should have said is: "Nobody is retarded. Not even you asshole."

The Worst of the Worst

The worst movie of 2010 is Dinner for Schmucks.  Starring Paul Rudd as Tim, an uptight/upright executive on the rise, and Steve Carell as Barry, a cipher and metaphor for all things "different" (person with a disability, self-taught artist, a guy with a bad hair-cut and goofy glasses, techy nerd/geek, etc.), the movie is a strange exercise in worthlessness.  You can feel a sort of vapid desperation coming from it, as if the people who made it really were excited about the concept but had no idea what to do with execution. 

So they place two "opposites" like Tim and Barry in kooky situations that aren't really that kooky or worth watching:  breaking into a weird-o artist's loft to confront Tim's gal pal, Barry interfering with Tim's relationships via sneaking outside his apartment, and finally in the flattest epiphany any movie has ever offered:  the dinner for schmucks.  Ths dinner is a mean-spirited exercise by the executives Tim works with to humiliate freaks these executives bring with them without letting the freaks know.  Not only does the whole premise of this dinner sound completely phony, it really is horrible watching the way the actors who play the executives have to preen and be enthused about the freaks they have to offer, as if each one is an offering to the High Class Executive Gods or something, when in reality the Dinner for Schmucks freaks are just your plain, everyday sideshow performers (a ventriloquist who sucks, a psychic who makes bird noises, a guy [not even a lady] with an extravagant beard, etc.)  The movie does not even have enough imagination to invent really freaky freaks.  If the writers and director had, the movie might have snapped into a surrealism that's both mean-spirited and takes flight, an unforced riff on Todd Browning's 1934 picture Freaks maybe, or a reinvention of the whole genre of man-boy movies (usually starring Will Ferrell) this movie seems to be the death of.

But nothing works in this thing.  It has a soullessness borne from a one-note joke that really makes no sense.  It's like the kids in Carrie grew up into big-time white-collar workers and they have evolved their antics into parlor games.  But it's not even like that either.  It's just laziness.  Bad art.  Every scene goes on too long, every gesture and moment manufactured for big laughs that never materialize.

Poor Paul Rudd.  He's been turned into a sweet-guy robot.  And Steve Carell's Barry is just a flaky, ticky non-character used to represent what all of "us" aren't:  normal sweet-guy robots like Rudd.  What's kind of even sadder is that Barry, like most other people with disabilities in movies like this, is used as a foil to provide a redemption for Mr. Sweet-Guy Robot.  He's a throwaway novelty, that crazy loser!  But God love him.

The only thing that really is worth watching:  the opening credits.  The Beatles' "Fool on a Hill" plays over beautifully photographed versions of Barry's art and pastime:  taxidermied mice in elegant poses, like a boy mouse pushing a girl mouse on a swing, etc.  These dioramas make more sense in their static precision than anything in this awful movie.

A diorama Steve Carrell presented to David Letterman when he was on promoting Dinner for Schmucks.

Seance with Art Supplies

Antonio Adams working on one of the large-scale "reinventions" of a large print of one of  Raymond Thunder-Sky's unfinished drawings.  Raymond, when walking around the city drawing deconstruction sites, would often not finish some of the drawings -- possibly because of the volume of pieces he did.  There are approximately 400 unfinished drawings in the archive. 

We're pulling together the "2 + 2 = 5: Collaborations" exhibit, opening April 29, 2011 at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  The show will feature variations on the theme of "collaboration," and how getting rid of "one author" can open up new vistas and territories to investigate.  We'll have the "Guernica" pieces Antonio Adams and the late Brian Joiner did together in 2008, a triptych of large golden panels reenacting Picasso's famous grand-guignol masterpiece, re-configuring and re-conjuring that visual feast using superhero and urban imagery.  Amazing work.  As well, Antonio is working on pieces, utilizing remnants donated  from Brian's studio.  Pamela Rhodes Myricks has written a beautiful elegy about Brian, and we'll be publishing it along with a brochure about the Antonio/Brian collaborations.  We've had large prints made of some of Raymond Thunder-Sky's unfinished works (thanks to Dan Leesman from United Electric), and David Mack, Antonio, and a few other artists are working on "finishing" them.  Thunder-Sky, Inc. co-founder Bill Ross has some collabs he did with the late Donald Henry.  The exhibit is shaping up to be about how collaboration is not just about people working on art together, but about how collaboration can be a sort of a continuation of a conversation, a seance with art supplies...

We're also going to publish a book of writings inspired by Dale Jackson's text-driven works.  Titled I Was Dreaming When I Wrote This, the book will feature color reproductions of Dale's works, side by side with the writings done by local poets and writers, including Patricia Murphy, Matt McBride and Micah Freeman.  We'll be sponsoring a reading of these works along with the opening in late April.  Matt Morris and Eric Ruschman are also going to contribute a sculptural piece.

Dale Jackson beside his work in January 2011's "Mechanics of Joy" exhibit at U-Turn Alternative Space in Brighton.

April 2011 is going to be a great month for collabs.  We're doing the "2 + 2 = 5" show, and Visionaries & Voices has a fundraiser called "Double Vision" at Memorial Hall April 22, 2011, featuring collaborative works by "established artists and V&V artists."  Which begs the question:  what is the different between Thunder-Sky, Inc. & V&V?  They were both established because of Raymond and Antonio basically.  Bill and I started supporting both Raymond and Antonio and many other self-taught artists back in 1999, and from that initial support grew V&V, a studio for artists with disabilities.  Bill and I left V&V in 2009 because it was a project we no longer needed to be a part of.  We cofounded Thunder-Sky, Inc. to underline the importance of collaboration and also to problematize/reenvision the notion of "outsider art" and programs for artists with disabilities... 

Can't wait for April!
Donald Henry and Bill Ross, "Dreamhouse," acrylic and marker on canvas, 2009.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Vonnegut's Ballerinas: Deprogramming 'Outsider Art'"

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Here's a link to a paper I've written for a conference about "outsider art" and its meanings:  "Vonnegut's Ballerinas".  Below is a synopsis of the piece...

Rosemary Garland Thomson writes in her landmark essay “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” about the way “non-disabled” people view images of people with disabilities. Thomson's “wondrous” rhetoric especially reads like a dictionary definition not only of the way people with developmental disabilities are codified and colonized by cultural norms, but also the way art made by “outsiders artists” labeled with developmental disabilities is often marketed and explained. The “wondrous rhetoric,” Thomson explains, is the oldest mode of representing disability. This classification includes “monsters and prodigies.”

“Outsider artists,” especially those labeled with developmental disabilities, often have to take a seat at the kid's table culturally speaking, with the caveat being they are “wondrous” but not quite sophisticated enough to have a seat at the “adult table.” In my paper, I use Thomson‟s “wondrous” concept, as well as a reading of Kurt Vonnegut‟s short story “Harrison Bergeron” and a brief survey of the histories of “outsider art” and people with developmental disabilities to critique the manner in which “outsider artists'" lives and art are “programmed” around anachronistic concepts of segregation and “wondrousness,” all based on concepts of “outsider art” that seem to ignore the social and historical colonization people with developmental disabilities have gone through.

I also tell my own personal story in helping to develop an arts program for "outsider artists" with developmental disabilities in Ohio, based on meeting an artist named Raymond Thunder-Sky through my job as a social worker. My initial vision in doing so was to ensure that Raymond's art would be placed side by side with the art of other artists, no labels required. Instead what happened is that I unintentionally created a trap with my good intentions: a program that segregates artists (like Raymond).

We as curators, writers, collectors, and lovers of art made by unconventional artists have to be in the business of pulling apart the clichés and categorizations that plague how these artists are viewed and relegated so that everyone can have access to art that transcends those notions. Without that help, I'm afraid, we'll be constantly reconstructing those clichés until they become the norms we intend to defeat.

Ice Melting

Shots from last night's opening for "Ice Ice Baby!  New Works by Bob Scheadler & Mike Weber," with a sound installation by Adam Maloney, and a beautiful ice-sculpture by Tom Tsuchiya.  A truly 2 + 2 = 5 experience.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nothing Easy about It

Have you ever been an "outcast"?  I have.  Multiple times.  It's a set of experiences that scar you in ways you don't discover until the next go-round, when the next mob of villagers gather together with torches to chase you up a mountainside.  It's transformative without allowing for a lot of self-reflection, and by the end of the process your whole personality has changed.  Your whole being.  But you just move on, scarred and smarter, exhausted and scared but also filled with a knowledge you could not have gotten any other way.

Emma Stone's Olive in Easy A, a talky, sweet, self-conscious movie-reinvention of John Hughes for the 21st Century, is the perfect "outcast," in that she is female, smart, sarcastic, and warm-hearted, a perfect recipe for pissing most "normal" people off for some reason.  And the movie gets a lot things right around the concept of being exiled and scorned.  First of all it's ur-text is The Scarlet Letter, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's beautiful starchy novel is used in a variety of ways to enlighten us on the sociology and psychology and artfulness of being driven out of town.  As well, the actors who support Stone, especially Patricia Clarkson as her mom and Stanley Tucci as her dad, have a nonchalant lovingness in their eyes, and the actors who play her tormentors, especially Lisa Kudrow as a whore/guidance-counselor and Amanda Bynes as Marianne, the Bible-believing bitch-leader of a group of teenaged Jesus Freaks who lead the EXPEL-THE-SLUT campaign, have a special, dry, cartoony evilness, like Jeffrey Jones' principal in Ferris Bueller's Day off.  The plot is easy and swift:  Olive lies about having sex with "George," a made-up college freshman, but her lie ignites a rumor inferno to the point that Brandon, a gay friend of hers with tormentors all his own, begs Olive to lie and say they've done it too.  To be his extra-special beard.

What sets Olive, and the movie, apart from a lot of other teen comedies trying to channel Mr. Hughes, is the joie de vivre Olive has in tormenting her tormentors:  she doesn't just lie about bumping uglies with the gay guy.  It's an all out Cirque de Soleil of teen-sex at a house-party, with the two of them yelling and moaning so all the high school kids outside the bedroom door can hear.  As Olive tells Brandon:  "I don't do anything half-assed."

Emma Stone is a star, and this movie is only the beginning I hope.  She can dish it out and take it.  She can be victimized without being a victim, kind of like Barbara Stanwyck or some other glamorous, throaty, old-school movie star.  There's a scene in which she is waiting to go to the principal's office and Marianne (who works in the principal's office) is sharpening pencils.  Stone's Olive does not let this anal-retentive display of whore-hatred go unnoticed.  In a hilariously sarcastic triumph, she "coaches" Marianne through her pencil-sharpening fit:  "Sharpening pencils are we?  That's just great.  Yes.  Keep sharpening.  Yes.  Yes."  And so on.

At that moment I knew Emma Stone is a star, and that the movie has something to say about surviving being an outcast by getting the joke but also never forgetting that the "joke" is serious as hell.  Marianne would like Olive to disappear.  Meaning:  under all the high-school farce and frenetic pacing and Olive's sweetly insouciant voice-over there's a serious tone, a life-or-death feeling in the movie.  The only way you can get through a life like Olive's, the movie is letting us know, is torment right back, and also figure out your exit strategy, or you're dead.

Olive's exit strategy goes into movie-movie brilliance, with a wonderful homage to Ferris Bueller's Beatles number in downtown Chicago.  She ends up happily ever after, thank God (you wouldn't want it any other way thanks to Stone's performance), but the movie leaves an afterburn.  It made me think about all the times I've been cast as an "outcast," and how that feeling has given me both a sense of terror dealing with people, as well as an evil sense of humor.  There's never one without the other.  I've had religious zealots pissed at me because of a novel I wrote about a child-molester, asking for my head and my job; I had hoods and even a cheerleader threaten to beat up in high school; more recently, as a co-founder of a non-profit arts organzation that supports people with developmental disabilities here in Cincinnati called Visionaries & Voices (V&V), I had some folks there unleash some vicious rumors about me because I was seen as a stubborn megalomaniac who wanted their heads.  Etcetera, etcetera.  What all this boils down to is that I've learned absolutely nothing I can actually tell you about concerning "outcast-ness."  Except there is now a density in my thoughts, a fear that hardens into a new kind of laugh, a new way to approach the world.  Stone's Olive is symbolic of this new approach:  sew a letter A on your outfit, torture those who torture you.  Don't do anything half-assed.

Raymond Thunder-Sky, the reason I helped co-found V&V, dressed up like a clown and a construction worker (a scarlet letter all his own) and walked around town drawing drawings.  There are stories of him being beaten up.  Called names.  Stories of people calling him a "John Wayne Gacy" freak.  One story about him being pushed off a city bus.  But you know what?  He was triumphant.  He did what he needed to do.  It's in his face, that look of derision and gallow's humor, that mix of innocence and the wear-and-tear of what people can do to you.  

There's nothing easy about it.