Monday, February 28, 2011

Baby Cried the Day the Circus Came to Town

"New Shrine Circus Fun Amusement Park," Raymond Thunder-Sky, marker on cardstock

"I Want to Be the One with the Most Cake," Bill Ross, acrylic on canvas

"Ringling Bro and Barnum & Bailey" poster

"Will You Say Good Things About Us?" Eric Ruschman, oil and enamel on MDF panel

"Baby cried the day the circus came to town," sings Melissa Manchester in that beautifully cheesy late-70s pop song "Don't Cry Out Loud."  And that mix of melodrama and spectacle gives the idea of "the circus" a sort of David-Lynch exoticism:  surrealism born from innocence and seediness, transient people and caged beasts.  There's a couple of exhibitions coming up this month in town that pay homage (one intentionally, one not so) to this strange spectacle and the need to contain it elegantly and painstakingly in visual art. 

"It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This: New Paintings by Eric Ruschman"  opens March 4, 2011 at Aisle Gallery (424 Findley Street 3rd Floor, Cincinnati, Ohio) and surveys the newest works by Ruschman, a Cincinnati-based artist who seems to be on a safari for storybook perfection:  shiny surfaces, frighteningly vivid colors, simple, plush imagery.  His paintings and other works imply a frozen carnival of the mind, porcelain-precious but also eerily alive.  The title of the show, as well, allows for the innocent imagery and the methodical attention to detail to combine into a narrative of leaving for some far-off adventure.  Like maybe joining the circus. 

"The Amazing American Circus Poster" at the Cincinnati Art Museum spotlights the wit and cagey intelligence behind circus posters created in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  80 posters make up the exhibit, and the richness both of imagery and composition comprise a catalog of functional elegance and dreamy nostalgia, like a beautiful scrapbook of hidden Americana.  As part of the Art Museum's Family First Saturday program, Thunder-Sky, Inc. co founder Bill Ross will be talking about his colorful, animal-centric works, which are bizarre, twitchy great grandchildren to the straight-forward design and splash of the circus posters.  He'll also talk a little about Raymond Thunder-Sky and his work -- and Raymond's deification of all things circus (March 5, 2011, 1 to 4). 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mystery, Mischief and Meanness

Keith Haring

Thornton Dial

Jimmy Baker

Bunky Echo-Hawk

Tony Dotson

It's an incredible time in this part of the world to love art: five great shows are opening within a span of two weeks, in Indiana and Ohio. Each of the artists are incredibly different in what they do and who they are, and yet their works have a sort of commonality: a seriousness that is tempered with humor and electrified by mystery, mischief and meanness. 

Thornton Dial: Hard Truths is a retrospective of an African American "outsider artist" who has become canonized; his paintings and assemblages have a high-art resplendence like Robert Rauschenberg's works, and yet they also have more of a bite to them that allows the subject matter to be go mythic but stay intimate: a disheveled household becomes the end of the world, a plastic doll gets smothered in love and paint, raw sad objects and new ways of seeing them get swept up in the flood of Dial's persistence and joy. Opens February 25, 2011 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Keith Haring: 1978 - 1982 and Jimmy Baker: Remote Viewing  are two exhibits opening at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati February 25, 2011. They survey two artists' careers in ways that pay homage to youth and ingenuity, optimism and wisdom. The Keith Haring show looks at Haring's early work, and finds a celebration not just of high and low art, but also of spirit and body, innocence and experience. Haring's work is well-known, even a little ubiquitous now, but it's such a pleasure to have the opportunity to go back to where he started and to feel that exuberance of not knowing anything but what you want to do.  Baker's show promises to have that same thrill.  He's at the beginning of his creative output but he has a prowess and promise and a sort of worldly stubbornness in his work, constructed and deconstructed collage-like large oil paintings that blur the oversaturated world of media and information into blissfully creepy nowheres.

Bunky Echo-Hawk: New Works is a show we're doing, featuring Native American artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. He's going to show up on Friday February 25, 2011 and for a couple days paint/perform in the gallery, producing the works that will make up the two-month show. His paintings, music and poetry all revise and re-invigorate the way Native Americans have been represented. He has a sarcastic, clean, clear and Pop-Art-instinctive eye that telegraphs meanings within meanings, while also telling jokes. His performances take away the preciousness of "art gallery" and replace that with "party." And yet the works produced become a part of his constant reinvention of the way we're taught to see. Show opens February 25, 2011.

Tony Dotson: Shock and Awe pushes Dotson's mean-spirited yet innocently and gorgeously streamlined aesehetic into newer and fiercer territories. While you might think Dotson is telling the same joke over and over, he is also stubbornly dedicated to allowing that one joke to splinter into hot little sparks that burn your eyes.  His pictographs, painted on wood usually in bold but somehow placid colors, make you want to laugh not just because they are funny but also because there's truth embedded in each painting's core. And while he wants to eliminate the decorative, Dotson comes up with devious little tableaus that are as pretty as a picturebook. The dangers and shock-values of each painting increase due to his dedication to that simplicity.  Inspired by outsider artists, Dotson's work does not pay attention to that canon as much as parodies the way most people view outsider art, as a sort of "kid's table" of the art world. Dotson wants to make outsider art the "adult's table" feast: a violent, drunken Thanksgiving dinner with John Wayne Gacy at the head of the table, ready to carve the turkey. Show opens March 4, 2011 at Pac Gallery in Cincinnati.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Above:  Dale Jackson.  Below:  Cy Twombly.

Colin Rhodes' definition of "outsider art" might be my favorite.  In a New York Times article about the new Outsider Art Fair happening in NYC this weekend: “Pathology is not the defining criterion [for outsider art],” he said. For him, an outsider artist is not an amateur, just someone working outside the regular art world structures."

If that's the most appropriate definition, then a lot of time seems to be wasted in trying to figure out the meaning of "outsiderness."  Really we should try to understand more fully what it means to be an "insider artist."  Even though there is a sort of cache in defining yourself as an "outsider," the categorization depends on the power and hegemony of "insiderness" to exist.  It is always going to be the redheaded stepchild in a family of power-brokers.  Outsider = Kid's Table.  Insider = The Only Table That Matters.

In purposefully naming art "outsider" because it does not really exist to the power-brokers, purchasers and purveyors in the "regular art world," we seem to allow that art to become both an inspiration to insiders (check out how "outsider art" has influenced an insider artist like Tara Donovan, whether or not she talks about it) and a way for insider artists to reduce the playing field to pedigrees, networking, and well "insiderness."

Maybe the anxiety of what to call art that is unconventional and not about trends and art-history and fashion should be placed on the other side of the equation:  what is "insider art" and why should we care?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Circus-Like Atmosphere: Bill Ross Paintings"

Bill Ross, Thunder-Sky, Inc. co-founder, will be the Visiting Artist at the Cincinnati Art Museum March 5, 2011, 1 to 4 pm.  He'll be showing some of his work, as well as Raymond Thunder-Sky's, in context with "The Amazing American Circus Poster," a new exhibit at the museum.  Here's a sampling of Bill's circus-like atmosphere:
"The Party Crasher," 4' X 5', acrylic on canvas

"Be Aware of Your Surroundings," 3' X 4', acrylic on canvas

"Boil Water Advisory," 3" X 4', acrylic on canvas

"Poem for a Birthday," 4' X 5', acrylic on canvas

"Mama Bear Syndrome," 3' X 4', acrylic on canvas

"Mother's Day," 3' X 4', acrylic on canvas

"Sweet Tooth," 3' X 4', acrylic on canvas

"Housework," 3' X 4', acrylic on canvas

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ultimate Outsider

Before Ted Haggard got caught getting a "massage" and buying crystal meth from his masseur four years ago, he was having breakfast with George W. Bush, shepherding a huge mega-church flock, and writing books about how to be a Christian in a complicated world.  Now he's a strangely compelling has-been living in the same city in which he was disgraced, with the same wife and family, and even in the same house.  He is a total exile, however, in every other aspect of his life, including his Christianity. 

Kevin Roose writes about this exile in a masterful article in this month's GQ.  This portrait of Haggard gives to us an odd hybrid of therapy-speak-ness, Jesus-freak-ness, sweetness, and Neo-Golden-Rule-ness, developing eventually into the ultimate depiction of an outsider.  Haggard exists in the shadows of Huge Ideas; his very existence is in contrast with "normal" dichotomies like Christian/Sinner and Gay/Straight.  His life after the bombshell that he was a homosexual (he now says he is "bisexual") mega-pastor has taken a twisted and absolutely novel route:  he seems to be trying to make sense not just of what happened to him, but how what happened to him might alter the way he treats other people.  He seems like a loudmoth, egotistical creep, of course, a sort of parody of a parody now, but he also has a strangely beautiful message:  "Do unto others as nobody did unto me."  And his relationship with his wife and children, in the way Roose represents it, seems authentic and loving and real. 

From politically correct, left/right prospectives he is a traitor and a hypocrite -- a shapeshifter who deserves erasure.  But Haggard has survived in the shadow of everything he tried to accomplish before he was "outed," and he still seems hell-bent on staying on message.  That's an accomplishment I think, and sheds light on how people who can't have access into the mainstream often develop their own subcultures, aesthetics and philosophies through reimagining themselves and their struggles in tropes and narratives beyond "therapy," "religion," and "politics."  Ted Haggard as Outsider Artist.  What the hell?

Read Roose's brilliant article if you get a chance:  "The Last Temptation of Ted," by Kevin Roose in February 2011's GQ.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Shut Your Beautiful Mouth

Michelle Williams is a movie star who can disappear into the people she plays and the places where they live.  Watching her performances, you get the feeling that she has an intense desire to be anonymous merging with an overriding passion to be filmed being anonymous.  And it's in that mix of obscurity and fame where the magic of her acting happens:  she becomes another person and yet there's an almost silvery Warholian glamor to the whole process.  But still it's an overall emotionally satisfying transformation:  you ache right along with her.  You're actually exalted by that ache.

In Blue Valentine, she outdoes herself.

Williams plays Cindy, a nurse with a young daughter and a husband (played by Ryan Gosling) who paints houses for a living.  The movie is a paean to love and the torture and ecstasy it causes, but it's grounded in a lyrical drabness; this love and its downfall take place in a doctor's office, a kitschy "space-age" motel room, a nursing home, a community college campus, a weed-covered backyard with a little girl trying to find her lost dog.  In those dreary but poetic spaces, the writer/director Derek Cianfrance allows moments to happen without a lot of push or pull, just a steady intensity that pulls back to catch the landscape and other surroundings, but then goes in for the kill:  juicy, nervous close-ups of the faces of his stars as they kiss, yell, laugh, sing.  Cianfrance knows that the true pleasures deep inside all movies are those moments when a close-up becomes a whole universe:  one face transmutates into a new way to feel.

Williams' face is moony but wan, pale but tinged with a fury of pink, and her eyes carry a loss inside them Cindy the nurse can't express but truly needs to, a truckload of poetry, ambition, and sadness inside each iris.  When Cindy is driving to work in their minivan, about to take a big bite of a jelly donut, with Pat Benetar on the radio singing "We Belong," there's an instant when Williams' expression goes from everyday-driving-to-work to Joan-of-Arc.  The transition works seamlessly, a pulse of charisma that dislocates both her and the audience watching her.  The camera shows us why:  her daughter's lost dog is dead at the side of the road.  But Williams and Cianfrance do not use that scene to make us cry; it's to show us how beautiful and lost Cindy is, how she was just about ready to go into her work-trance, but then there the dog is, and all that she is capable of feeling unleashes itself in one brief flash.  You just want to go into the movie and help her right at that moment.  You also want to be wrapped up in Williams' ability to make that pain so glamorous yet real.

The movie is organized in a simple past/present feed:  the innocent past and the very tried present bleed into each other.  In the expositional scenes, Ryan Gosling gives the young Dean a swagger that lets us know it's Deans finest moment.  Right now he is at his peak:  rugged, lean young hipster working for a moving company, a smile that is somehow indecent yet boyish, not mischievous as much as trying to find out how to be obedient so he can get what he wants from Cindy.  Cloudy eyes, blissful thoughts, just trying to get there.  Unlike Williams, Gosling does not disappear into his performances as much as reappear; he merges with Dean, all in, but also is astute enough to give Dean a metrosexual attractiveness in the beginning scenes, a masculine prettiness that calls to mind Brando in Streetcar Named Desire, dirty enough to be "real," preened enough to be sexy.

In another expositional scene, Dean helps an old man unpack all his wares in his new nursing home room.  Dean does not treat the process like your average everyday mover.  He turns himself into a makeshift interior decorator, trying to please the old man.  Gosling's face is lit up like an artist on the verge of finding his true voice.  It's in that same scene that he first sees Cindy for the first time.  She's there visiting her grandmother.  He is automatically smitten, and you can see in Dean's expressions and gestures that he realizes at that moment all he needs to be happy for the rest of his life is to have this girl. 

At the end of the movie, when Cindy and Dean are trying to rekindle their relationship in a really cheap-ass "outer-space-themed" motel room called The Future Room, Dean tells Cindy that all he wants is to get drunk, paint houses, and come home to his wife and daughter at the end of the day.  This is happiness for him, he says, and yet you can tell it's prison for her.  That loop of misunderstanding -- Cindy falling in love with that sensitive swaggering beautiful fool only to end up with a guy with a receding hairline and lowered expectations and 24-hour beer-breath, and Dean falling in love with a girl he thought would be able to save him only to find out she's just plain sick of him -- is what gives Blue Valentine the heft and depth of great literature.  There's no way out except the way Dean and Cindy are doing it:  haphazardly, violently, blindly.  And no one is to blame.

Dean of course has to follow Cindy to her work that last day they are together.  He has to be completely drunk and stupid and full of love, barging in and throwing things around.  But as he does this, he's sobbing, not wanting to be "a big man," but just her man.  He is trying to re-enter that early phase of swagger and masculinity he performed back in the good old days, but this time desperation and hurt turn it all into a sad, awful parody of what he used to be.  And then there's Cindy, frustrated, teary-eyed, trying not to remember how much she loved him, just wanting to move on.

This is one of those movies you can't shake out of your head.  As soon as it ended, I remembered a scene that happend in the cheesy motel room, when they were trying to revisit who they once were.  Cindy is trying to tell Dean all that's wrong with their relationship, and Dean just looks at her, smiling, trying to turn everything into a joke so they can laugh like they used to.

"Shut your beautiful mouth," he says to her. 

Cindy does that.  She just shuts up.  Williams and Gosling are actors who can even make that short exchange seem as meaningful as wedding vows.  He playfully grins and tries to turn on the charm, and she just closes her eyes, wanting everything to disappear.