Monday, July 25, 2011

Artists as Activists

"Ode to Matisse," one of the collaborations by Bill Ross and Becky Iker that will be "Artists as Activists"


A two-year anniversary ART SHOW of works by artists featured in the semimonthly column “Artists as Activists” in Streetvibes since September 2009...

August 5 – September 23 @The Artisans Enterprise Center (AEC)  27 West 7th St, Covington, KY

Opening Reception: Friday Aug 5, 6-10 pm

Gallery Hours: Mon-Fri: 8am-5pm


Farron Allen * Lauri Aultman * Gordon Baer * Keith Banner
Mary Pierce Brosmer * Carmen Bush * Jeff Casto * Jan Brown Checco
Halena Cline * Suzanne Chouteau * Cedric Cox * Scott Donaldson
Andy Fausz * Steven Finke * Dorothy Fraembs * Gary Gaffney
Barbara Gamboa * Stephen Geddes * Melvin Grier * Gena Grunenberg
Kymber Henson * Barbara Houghton *Jimi Jones * Jerry Judge
Kevin T. Kelly * Aaron Kent * Mary Ann Lederer * Gloria McConnaghy
Paulette Meier * Kelly Phelps * Kyle Phelps * Tom Phelps * Ellen Price
Matt Reed * Bill Ross * Kim Shifflett * Thom Shaw * Kurt Storch
Steve Sunderland * Ken Swinson * Leigh Waltz * Roscoe Wilson
Martin Zeinway

Curator: Saad Ghosn

And Then the Awe

Russell Brand has written a beautiful elegy to Amy Winehouse.  In the often stupid and meanspirited blogosphere, where jokes and juvenilia can sometimes be the most popular form of communication, Brand delivers a poetic, real, urgent, elegantly written paen to somone who was both a great artist and a tragedy.  Winehouse's dark-chocolate-and-red-wine voice has stained the world's white table-cloth:  it has the rudeness and staying power of primal myth.  God bless her and Mr. Brand both.

Here's the elegy:

When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction you await the phone call. There will be a phone call. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone.

Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make it must be received. It is impossible to intervene.

I’ve known Amy Winehouse for years. When I first met her around Camden she was just some twit in a pink satin jacket shuffling round bars with mutual friends, most of whom were in cool Indie bands or peripheral Camden figures Withnail-ing their way through life on impotent charisma. Carl Barrat told me that “Winehouse” (which I usually called her and got a kick out of cos it’s kind of funny to call a girl by her surname) was a jazz singer, which struck me as a bizarrely anomalous in that crowd. To me with my limited musical knowledge this information placed Amy beyond an invisible boundary of relevance; “Jazz singer? She must be some kind of eccentric” I thought. I chatted to her anyway though, she was after all, a girl, and she was sweet and peculiar but most of all vulnerable.

I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but un-ignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his “speedboat” there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.

From time to time I’d bump into Amy she had good banter so we could chat a bit and have a laugh.  She was “a character” but that world was riddled with half cut, doped up chancers.  I was one of them; even in early recovery I was kept afloat only by clinging to the bodies of strangers so Winehouse, but for her gentle quirks, didn’t especially register.

Then she became massively famous and I was pleased to see her acknowledged but mostly baffled because I’d not experienced her work and this not being the 1950’s I wondered how a “jazz singer” had achieved such cultural prominence. I wasn’t curious enough to do anything so extreme as listen to her music or go to one of her gigs, I was becoming famous myself at the time and that was an all consuming experience. It was only by chance that I attended a Paul Weller gig at the Roundhouse that I ever saw her live.

I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie and Ella, from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened. Winehouse. Winehouse? Winehouse! That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I’d only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound. So now I knew. She wasn’t just some hapless wannabe, yet another pissed up nit who was never gonna make it, nor was she even a ten-a-penny-chanteuse enjoying her fifteen minutes. She was a fucking genius.

Shallow fool that I am I now regarded her in a different light, the light that blazed down from heaven when she sang. That lit her up now and a new phase in our friendship began. She came on a few of my TV and radio shows, I still saw her about but now attended to her with a little more interest. Publicly though, Amy increasingly became defined by her addiction. Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. The destructive personal relationships, the blood soaked ballet slippers, the aborted shows, that youtube madness with the baby mice. In the public perception this ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent. This and her manner in our occasional meetings brought home to me the severity of her condition. Addiction is a serious disease; it will end with jail, mental institutions or death. I was 27 years old when through the friendship and help of Chip Somers of the treatment centre, Focus12 I found recovery, through Focus I was introduced to support fellowships for alcoholics and drug addicts which are very easy to find and open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking and without which I would not be alive.

Now Amy Winehouse is dead, like many others whose unnecessary deaths have been retrospectively romanticised, at 27 years old. Whether this tragedy was preventable or not is now irrelevant. It is not preventable today. We have lost a beautiful and talented woman to this disease. Not all addicts have Amy’s incredible talent. Or Kurt’s or Jimi’s or Janis’s, some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nothing's Shocking

At the end of Role Models, John Waters' talky, self-involved, and still somehow entertaining memoir about the people who have inspired him over the years, Waters gives a pretty good description of what art needs to be for it to be successful:  "purposely homely, haughtily failed, and passively confrontational."  He uses Cy Twombley, the Swiss duo Fischli/Weiss, and Mike Kelley as prime examples of winners of this aesthetic taste test, and it's a fascinating bit of art criticism, a full-on ironic monologue that also praises these artists while pointing out the limits of their worth.  Twombley's scribbles, Kelley's dirty stuffed animals, and Fischli/Weiss' hyper-banal photographs of airports all become examples not just of contemporary art, but also metaphors for the way Waters sees the world.  He positions himself as a cherisher of the uncherished, a snob among snobs, with a heart as big as a sweaty, low-rent circus tent, and just as sad and cheap.

Waters is one of my role models, but as I read Role Models I felt like I was on the phone with a loquacious and very drunk best friend.  A lot of the time I wanted to hang up on him and go to bed.  In the book, Waters' voice is chatty to the point of annoyance:  he seems almost too eager to please, as if he is trying to reinvent the past so he can shock people all over again.  In his early movies, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, Waters' excitement and chutzpah in spotlighting the demented perversions of his cast of misfit talents (Divine chief among them) was bubbly and somehow innocent -- a dreamy catalog of raunchy dramas and activities.  The clothes, props, and sets were the objective correlatives of Waters' meanspirited rainbow frenzy:  whore/clown make-up, thrift-store S&M, flabby flesh inside a dirty pink playpen, a trailer set on fire, an Xmas tree falling on a sour housecoated old lady.  And so on.  He was inventing a way to focus his attention on grotesque freaks by beatifying them, pickling them in their own horrible juices.  All those early movies fit Waters' "homely/failed/confrontational" matrix.  They are even better examples than the examples he sites in Role Models.

I guess the problem is that once you burn down a trailer, push an Xmas tree onto your sadsack mother, and eat dog poop, what else can you do but feel nostalgic?  That's the tone of Role Models, but the tone doesn't fit the subject matter.  Waters seems hellbent on being "shocking" so he can relive what "shocking" used to be.  But there's no shock left now, so his chatty, gossipy takes on Johnny Matthis, Little Richard, Zorro the Infamous Lesbian Baltimore Stripper, and all the rest come off like longwinded but usually entertaining stories about The Glory Days.

The only chapters that broke out of this nostalgia were the one I mentioned about Twombley, et. al., and the chapter about Leslie Van Houten, ex-Manson-Girl.  Waters in this part of the book deconstructs his "love" for the Manson Murders, and gets serious about how being a fan of murderers like Van Houten is a pretty complex position to take.  But he's not trying to shock or lead us into temptation here:  he's writing about personal responsibility and guilt.  It's a sober chapter, and yet it seems more energetic and alive than all the other chapters before and following it.  He comes off like a true friend to Van Houten, a friend who knows all the horrible things she's done and yet he still stands by her.   He stops name-dropping and starts questioning his own life in a lot of ways, as well as trying to figure out his art:  "I [like Van Houten] am guilty too.  Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families."

You start to appreciate Waters in this part of the book.  Not as a shock-art auteur, but as a human being coming to terms with his past and how that past intersects with who he is now.  I am one of his biggest fans.  His movies  and persona have been so inspirational to me.  For the majority of Role Models, though, Waters seems dead set on being who he used to be.  He has a strange, vociferous need to please us by shocking us with stuff that doesn't really shock us anymore.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

God Bless Patti Smith

I finished reading Just Kids last night while gallery-sitting at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  It was devastatingly beautiful, precise without being perfect, compressed and controlled but expansive like a dreamy encyclopedia.  I never really thought of Patti Smith as a great rock-n-roll priestess.  I always considered her a sort of 70s belch of Rolling-Stones chic and creepy feminism.  In fact Gilda Radner's Candy Slice had replaced the real thing in my head.  I didn't know shit.  Just Kids educated me about a bookish, working-class girl who took off for the big city after dropping out of college because she got pregnant, had the baby and gave it away.  The scene Smith sets the day of her departure:  a sad drab going-away party with her family, and then she walks to the bus station and realizes she doesn't have enough money to get to the big NYC.  In despair she goes to a phonebooth in the station to call her sister, and in the booth is a little white patent leather purse with thirty bucks in it.  It is a tiny miracle that sends her on her way, and Smith delivers that miraculousness without one false note. 

Smith is a writer who can write without showing off, and yet every paragraph in Just Kids is a polished fender, pure chrome precision.  The poetry fits snugly into each moment.  She never languishes in her ability to lyricize:  she uses her lyricism to let us know what life can be.

Her depiction of Robert Mapplethorpe, her eventual best friend and lover, (and another cultural titan who in my mind had become a Bonfire of the Vanities parody -- snickering, silly/lurid 1980s bad-boy artist) releases Mapplethorpe from his own self-made cage of S&M stylizations.  He is beautiful and real and frenetic in the book, an angel with a devilish smile, trying so hard to make something of himself he makes something out of the world. 

The book chronicles Smith and Mapplethorpe's relationship as they struggle to become icons.  That alone sounds cheesy, I know, but it's true, and Smith never apologizes.  She just moves the story to its inevitable and devastating conclusion:  Mapplethorpe dying of AIDS at the peak of his success. 

Here's one of the last sentences in the book:

"So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger."

Nothing is better than that.  God bless Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.  I stand corrected.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Wisdom Is Mystery

At the end of Another Year, a Mike Leigh movie that came out last year but I just stumbled across this week, there's a moment of pure and devastating melancholy:  Mary (played by Lesley Manville), a working-class friend of a complacent and cozy middle-class couple Tom and Gerri (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Steen), is sitting at the couple's dinner table, staring off into space while the rest of the table, including Tom and Jerry and their son and his new girlfriend, chat.  "Chat" in this case is a listing of all the travels they have done, all the greatnesses they have accomplished.  Leigh's camera slowly pans around the table, the chitchat filling the air like confetti, and when Mary finally comes into focus her face enters your consciousness like something primordial, something so real you automatically flinch.  At this moment she is either at the beginning or the end of a downward spiral.  The movie dramatizes her confusion and desperation in a one-year arc in which she grows more and more dependent on Tom and Gerri's upper-middle-class comforts. 

Another Year, although it focuses on the lives of  a jovial social-worker and her geologist husband, is really a character study of someone who is lost without a lot of hope of ever finding out why.  Manville inhabits Mary body and spirit:  she uses a language of stutters and gestures to show us how eager Mary is to break free from her habit of loneliness and desperation, and yet she can only stir herself up into a frenzy that finds no release.  Manville is masterful in the movie.  Her acting is all in, and yet Mary is not an overacted stereotype.  She's a living breathing poem of what can go wrong in your life if you're not very very careful.

"Very very careful" is the best description of Tom and Gerri.  As played by Steen and Broadbent, they are a lovely, loving couple whose security and self-satisfaction is assured:  they garden together, he cooks her gourmet dinners while she talks about her social-worker woes.  Mary's desperation finds shelter in their suburban oasis, but eventually the two tire of her, and at the end  their carefulness somehow becomes Mary's doom.  Mary's need to insert herself into their perfection damns her to being ex-communicated.  Her only solace is downing a bottle of white win to soften the blow of her own mistakes.

This is a movie about social class without overtly choosing sides.  You understand the creature comforts and condescension involved in the lives of Tom and Gerri.  They are fine, upstanding citizens after all.  You also understand Mary's need to be a part of their upstandingness, as well as her unspoken hurt and anger that she is not truly "one of them."  Gerri and Mary work together at a hospital.  Mary processes paperwork, and Gerri, as a counselor, creates it.  Their connection is found at work, and as they carry that connection outside class enters into their relationship without being spoken:  it's just in the way they deal with one another -- in the way Jerri seems to completely understand Mary will never change, and in the way Mary seems to completely understand she needs help to break away from her self-imposed crises. 

But guess what?  The help's not free.

Toward the end, Mary confesses to Gerri that she needs to talk to someone seriously about her life.  Gerri lets her know she can refer to a professional.

"No," Mary says.  "I need to talk to you."

Gerri lets her know that she does not think this wise.  It wasn't a friendship they had after all, it seems:  Mary seems to have been a kind of charity case for Gerri, an adopted, working-class "friend."  As soon as Mary starts getting on her nerves, Gerri offers professional intervention as a way out for both of them.

Another Year lets us in on secrets about class and humanity most movies steer to miss:  wisdom to Gerri is a referral to a professional counselor who will use canned questions and forms to "see what the matter is."  Wisdom to Mary is something mysterious -- something far beyond her reach.