Monday, September 30, 2013

Loud Enigma

It's always hard to come up with a postcard invite for a group-show.  You don't want to feature one artist, and you want to give a sort of global take on the concept, but a "global take" never is that interesting.  So often what gallery people do is collage together a bunch of images, which makes everything look a little puny, even while you're desperately trying not to.  So for our upcoming show, "Superunknown:  the Neo-Folk Impulse," curated by Leigh Cooney and featuring Andrea Heimer, The Cooney Brothers, Mike Egan, Ben Kehoe, Bill Ross, Marc Lambert, and Matthew Waldeck, I thought a little bit and decided:  go with Raymond.  But not a Raymond drawing, a Raymond costume.  "Superunknown" could totally describe Raymond during his heyday.  He was a secret, unnerving, but beautiful presence on Cincinnati streets, walking in one of those clown outfits with a big ominous toolbox in tow.  He created his own enigma, and boy was it loud.  A "loud enigma" is kind of a good way of explaining what Leigh is after in the show:  folk art that does not have a sense of preciousness, but a smart snappy attitude that deconstructs notions of what "folk/outsider/self-taught" art can mean and be.  He's selected these artists because they seem to be working on art that does not conform to notions that are already in the world.  They are mining what's inside their minds and souls without aligning themselves with a genre or school. 
So be on the lookout for the "Superunknown" postcard.  Coming soon...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great Emptiness

Sofia Coppola loves ennui as much as Gustav Flaubert.  Here's a quote attributed to Flaubert from a letter he wrote:  "I sometimes feel a great ennui, profound emptiness, doubts which sneer in my face in the midst of the most spontaneous satisfactions. Well, I would not exchange all that for anything, because it seems to me, in my conscience, that I am doing my duty, that I am obeying a superior fatality, that I am following the Good and that I am in the Right."

I think that's Coppola's motto too. She seems to want to find ennui and the great emptiness in her characters so that we can connect with them deeper, in a way that almost incriminates us.  Ennui, the great equalizer, so to speak.  All of us are bored and enraptured without having anything to be enraptured by or about.  We're all wistfully discovering that wishes do not come true, but the wishing never dies.  That's the great theme of all Coppola's wonderfully eccentric but somehow very satisfying works.  She finds it in the upstairs bedrooms of the doomed teenaged sisters in The Virgin Suicides, in Marie Antoinette's posh abodes, in the hotel room of the woman/girl in Lost in Translation, and in the swagger and exhaustion of the male movie star in Somewhere.  All of these characters float through life, and seem anchored only by the great emptiness, trying to satisfy some desire that they can't name, only feel.

And here comes Coppola's latest, The Bling Ring, which a lot of people have remarked is a departure for her, but I still see and experience that ennui.  Only this time it seems even more focused and even more poignant somehow.  Based on the true story of a bunch of spoiled brats in Hollywood who break and enter into celebrity's homes (including Paris Hilton's and Lindsay Lohan's) in order to steal property and tweet about it, the movie has an elastic sense of itself, fun and silly and yet tightly wound, meticulously executed.  Coppola has come into her own in this one.  It's sumptuous and mean-spirited, hilarious and boisterous, but still it is full of that strange lovely emptiness that makes all of her movies echo out of themselves. 

Emma Watson plays one of the chief little bitches named Nicki Moore in a performance that resonates the way Nicole Kidman's did in To Die For.  The icy calculation and concentration it takes to transform her British accent into a California-rich-girl snarl makes the performance both arch and awkward, but also somehow innocent to the point that it seems Nicki is the only one here who understands how to survive:  you lie about it all when you're arrested.  Newcomer Israel Broussard is the stand-out, and the only male in the lead cast.  He plays a gay, shy introvert who takes to the gang of glamorous robber-vixens like a fish to water, only to discover he'll be the first, and possibly the only, one to drown.  Coppola locates the uber-ennui in Broussard's performance.  There are moments in his bedroom when he is going through his stash of stolen celebrity items that are blissful and scary enough to make the movie go tragic for a little while.  You see hope and happiness in his eyes as he dreams what these items mean, and as he slips on the red high heels he's stolen from Paris Hilton's house and walks around his room you feel you are there with him, not against him at all, seduced by his need to escape himself.  His sin is our sin:  we all want to be whatever it is we want to be, but we just don't know what it is yet.  So we keep stealing and dreaming. I felt a little Jean-Genet spark in Broussard's willingness not to be fey or twee, just desirous and  scared.

The Bling Ring is probably one of the best movies of the year.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

And You Don't Stop, Sure Shot

I had a total Sha-Na-Na moment this week, when we went to see Blondie at Riverbend Wednesday night.  When I was a kid Sha-Na-Na was a 50s nostalgia act that would not quit.  Fronted by Bowser, a greaser with a hyperbolic Brooklyn accent, Sha-Na-Na had their own show and were always appearing on Merv Griffin and the like, playing the hits of the 50s and allowing a whole generation, I guess, to reminisce about each other's experiences without really thinking too hard.  It was like kitsch with a big heart beating inside.

Blondie gave off that same feeling Wednesday night, like the joke was on me, but thank God it was.  The audience were all versions of people like me, close to 50, not in too good of shape, outcasts in high school who have clung to punk and new wave because it allowed us an escape from both our environments and ourselves.  Debbie Harry was our goddess, the chief executive officer of glamorous outsiderness.  I remember listening to "Rapture" over and over in my room, and of course "Heart of Glass" was a sort of anthem for people who were pissed off at what happened at Wrigley Stadium when disco (and gays and black people) kind of were sacrificed so a bunch of dumb-asses could have something to be pissed about. 

And there Debbie Harry was on Wednesday, 68 and in fine shape, live on stage.  She ruled the joint, an in-shape, grand-dame/grandmother, one who mall-walks and drinks Chardonnay on her patio with a sweater around her shoulders but also has a secret sharp sense of humor and outrage that comes out whenever she feels it needs to.  That transformation from punk siren to elder stateswoman was a beautiful thing to behold.  All of us should be so lucky.  I fell in love with her on Wednesday all over again:  she was a symbol of both survival and tranquility, and her voice was better than it has ever been, a punch-bowl, all fevered and self-contained, drunken and delicate and fierce.

Nostalgic is not the word for it, but that's what it was:  a yearning to understand where all the years went without getting too sad or even too thoughtful.  Like Sha-Na-Na doing their schtick on Merv Griffin, but also signifying a loss and also somehow a return...

Someone Left the Cake out in the Rain

I'm always on the lookout for artists who are "big" but whose work is stupid and weird and lovely, intelligent without having to try too hard, but also completely comfortable with the boundlessness of not being smart.  I hit the jackpot with Joyce Pensato.  She's been around for over 30 years, but recently her work has been getting attention all over the place, chiefly for her show last year at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in NYC titled "Batman Returns," pictured above. 

Her strategy and practice have a decidedly outsider-art smell and shimmer:  take what's out there and internalize it in an odd, festered, beautiful manner, then externalize what's been internalized obsessively through a variety of means.  Pensato does this by finding incredible shit at thrift-stores (toys, figurines, what have you), bringing the objects back to her studio, and then molesting them artistically.  The paintings are like Phillip Guston smashing into Franz Kline, all abstract-expressionist and dumb as hell, parodies and homilies simultaneously.  Someone left the cake out in the rain, so to speak.  The sumptuous apocalypse of her work is like a queen letting us in on the torture she provides to her subjects.  I love the crap in the center of the gallery too:  Mike Kelley (RIP) eat your heart out.  There's a feeling here of love lost and rediscovered somehow in the ashes after that trailer in Pink Flamingos goes up in flames.  It's poetic but also, as I said previously, completely and delightfully stupid.

Pensato has a big show opening at the Santa Monica Museum of Art soon.  I would love to go see it and get enraptured.  I think her work is another reason why we need to abandon the outsider/insider split for good.  I'm thinking of Judith Scott stealing people's car-keys and cocooning them as I look at Pensato's stuff, as well as Mose Tolliver and Thornton Dial paintings and assemblages.  I'm thinking of Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Keinholz as well.  The earned rawness of her style, the messiness taking over and persuading you it's all on purpose is a direct offshoot not just of expressionism and Pop, but outsider-art's propensity to aestheticize experience and biography while also burying the need to explain.  In other words, if you looked at Pensato's crazy-assed work you might think it's done by anybody with a need to explicate (without explaining anything) what's been bothering them for years and years.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

We Don't Know What Else to Do

Toronto-based artist Leigh Cooney is curating Superunknown:  The Neo-Folk Impulse, featuring new works by The Cooney Brothers, Mike Egan, Andrea Heimer, Ben Kehoe, Marc Lambert, Bill Ross, and Matthew Waldeck.  This show that ends Thunder-Sky, Inc. 2013 season with a bang.  Here's a wonderful, insightful essay Leigh wrote to accompany the show.  We'll also be publishing a catalog in which this will appear.

I must begin by saying that I have a very limited knowledge of art history, contemporary practices, or terminology. I did not go to art college.  In fact I only failed one course in high school and it was visual arts which was a requirement for art college. This led me to give up on art for several years.  I own, yet have never read, an entire book on art history.  (Yeah okay I like the pictures.)   I do not claim to be an expert on the definitions of “outsider” “folk,” and/or “visionary art.”  I’m ignorant of what makes a piece of art “great,” and yet I do not live in a cave, (or for that matter a psychiatric facility).   I would never say I am completely removed from the art world.  And yes, because of my ADHD I can only write in a stream of consciousness format so you’re going to see a lot of parenthesis where thoughts are broken up by thoughts as well as run on sentences and phrases that are sometimes deliberate (for emphasis) and sometimes not. Deal with it.

However having said that, I don’t believe my ignorance gives me any less authority to speak on art within the parameters of these limitations. Why? Well as an art authority answer me this: I have no doubt that the great Henry Darger’s knowledge of the art world was extremely limited; however I think it would be inappropriate to assume he was completely unaware of at least some of the more famous works.  If you could bring Darger (one of his works above) back and ask his opinion on art within these parameters would you want to hear what he has to say?  Would you want him to explain his own work?  Would you like him to reflect on art in general in relation to his work?  Of course you would. Would you ridicule him or dismiss him because he didn’t have the right terminology or knowledge? Absolutely not, because unless you want to be the laughing stock of both the above and underground art worlds you have to recognize Darger’s genius... because those are the rules, and art world people like to follow the art world rules.

You would want to hear him out because he is an artist, and an artist doesn’t need to study the books, although it can be an advantage depending on what you would like to accomplish.  An artist simply needs to create viscerally and instinctually, and in doing so a self-taught artist will more than likely come to many of the same results as a classically trained artist in the end but will come to these conclusions organically and generally at a significantly slower pace. It is often inevitable during this process for an artist to create her own opinions and connections and sometimes she needs to trust herself in spite of feeling overwhelmed when faced with so-called “expert” opinions. This is after all art not science and there is room for subjectivity and opinion even from the lowliest and most “ignorant” of us.

So how did I, a mere self-taught artist come to curate Superunknown? Well firstly it must be said that much of the credit goes to Bill and Keith at Thunder-Sky, Inc. who are immersed in self-taught art daily and have no pretensions (that I can see) about who can have an opinion on art. It is galleries like Thundersky that give artists like myself who exist on the fringes of the art world the confidence to state their opinion and to state that they have an opinion at all! 

To fully understand my own interest in folk and outsider art we must go back four years to when I first picked up a paintbrush (outside of those doomed high school classes 7 years before) and decided I would create for the sake of creating with absolutely no expectations as to the results. Up until that point I was very limited in terms of what I considered great art. I could only fully appreciate art that showed a very high level of “craftsmanship” like Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, Mark Ryden, and Chuck Close. I hated so-called “modern” or “abstract” work.   (Here’s where my terminology shows its limitations… I’m pretty sure “abstract” as an all-embracing term is frowned upon, but I’m not sure what would be better suited?)   It was for this reason that I threw out my paintbrushes after high school upon realizing I couldn’t go to college. If I couldn’t go to college and learn to paint like a master, I didn’t want to paint at all. Oh youthful ignorance… but of course things eventually came around.

When I began I was inspired by two artists specifically. One was the late New Yorker Jean Michel Basquiat, and a little later came my introduction to Outsider artist Gerald “X” Thornton (Basquiat on top; Thornton bottom). I did not immediately warm to either of these artists, I had the usual misguided “my kid could paint that attitude” to both. But again and again I came back to Basquiat, and one day something clicked. I felt that here were artists who sat down in front of a canvas and (arguably in Basquiat’s case) weren’t for a second worried about image or perception or an audience. They painted purely to communicate and the sense of naiveté that I perceived seemed to me to reflect a certain raw edge in their very souls that screamed self-doubt and desperation, and that was something I understood. And when I realized I empathized with these artists it occurred to me that I was appreciating their work less for the sugary finish that I found in a Dali or a Ryden, and more for the underlying narrative they seemed to be struggling to convey as well their own inner struggle itself. I was hooked.

I wanted to paint fast and without hesitation. I went out later and bought the cheapest brushes, canvases, and paint I could find (I still work with the same materials) and I sat down one afternoon and promised myself that I would start and finish a painting that afternoon. I did and the result was a mediocre attempt at best but the fact that I had not stopped to reflect self-consciously during the process meant more to me than the finished work. That year I would create hundreds of new paintings and I would continue to discover Outsider artists I admired. I wasn’t overly interested in the history (psychological or otherwise) of the artists I discovered and I was even less interested in the squabbling over definitions that I soon discovered was such an integral part of the world of Outsider art; I was simply interested in their subject matter and the way in which they presented it. During this first year of painting I found I could connect with groups via the internet that appreciated Self-taught art as much as I did. This was wonderful as I was too far removed from the art world both psychologically as well as geographically to be able to connect in person.

The style, subject matter, and association with Outsider fans led me to be grouped into the Outsider label myself and I was more than happy with that. It wasn’t long however before I inevitably discovered the sensitivity of certain critics to the connotations inherent in the term “Outsider.” This squabbling as well as the fact that my work was inadvertently becoming more streamlined and less “naïve” in appearance led me to distance myself from the outsider label. It only seemed fair, and I learned fairly quickly that if you wanted to call yourself a self-taught artist you better “appear to be self-taught…” in other words you couldn’t allow your work to become more technically proficient. As my work became more proficient and less naive in appearance I began to start my own questioning of terms like “Outsider,” “Art Brut,” “Self-Taught,” “Visionary,” and so on. I began to become more interested in that blurred line that disconnects the aboveground art world, and the underground art world of which I was a part, and finally the subterranean Outsider world that I was overlapping with. Not because I wanted to attempt a grouping of myself into any of these, but because I started to think maybe art labels in general were arbitrary and often misleading and best left to people who are more interested in marketing and labeling than the art itself.

This leads me to why I decided to curate a show of artists that each exemplify some facet of my love of Folk and Outsider art, yet would not be considered “Outsider” artists by the restrictive traditional definitions. These are artists that exist in neither the mainstream art world nor the Outsider art world. Some of these artists are self-taught, some are classically trained, some have a body of work that is more naieve in appearance, and some have a look that is more classical in appearance, but all have some aspect to their work that I feel falls into both the categories of contemporary pop art, and folk art. I originally thought I’d call the show Pop-Folk but I settled on Neo-Folk as a nod to my British friend and art theorist Dr. Melissa Westbrook who coined the term Neo-Outsider to group together many of these same artists that exist on the fringes of the underground, aboveground, and Outsider art worlds.

Why these artists?

After I considered the attitudes of the potential artists and dismissed a couple I respected but didn’t like on a personal level, I considered the art itself. As I mentioned before each artist has some quality to their work either physically or spiritually that borrows, pays homage, or otherwise embodies in a natural way (with little forethought or deliberation) the work of Outsider and especially folk artists. To me these artists felt pure and unpretentious in their approach in the way that the best Outsider artists do. None of these artists appear to be creating art with the sole purpose of selling work in the way that the best Outsider artists do. Although the works of these artists vary widely in presentation, they each seem to be trying to express a frustration with, and discomfort inherent in living on the fringes of the fast-paced and impersonal modern world that none feel quite at home in… you got it, the way the best Outsider artists do.

I love the natural way that these artists present themselves. Too many artists are wrapped up in the potential viewer’s perception of their art and they begin unconsciously to create art that aims to please others rather than themselves and this often results in work that is very fine at a glance, but like white bread lacks that nutritional punch that keeps you going. But like brain candy for the intellectual sweet tooth, the works in this show contain the best of both worlds, they are fun and tasty at a glance, but they have substance and keep you coming back for more.

With Ben (pictured above) I appreciated his use of autumn weather, the outdoors, grassy knowles, farm animals, wild beasts, spirituality and scenes played out against that backdrop which I often associate with folky Southern U.S. art traditions, and which I thought invoked the spirit of those that came before him that were dismissed as mere “folk artists” because they weren’t painting what those collectors and critics in the big North-Eastern U.S cities thought was in vogue at the time and were looking to buy into.  

I felt the same way about Mike’s work (above), even though Mike was presenting himself in such a different way. His work invoked not only the spirit of the Southern U.S. folky (as well as folk artists from South America and Mexico,) but also the minimalist style of these artists. Much like the artists that existed long before there was such thing as an “art world” or even the word “artist” for that matter Mike’s work spoke to me of birth, death, rebirth, religion, and what is often referred to as the human spirit.

Most importantly, both Mike and Ben (who grew up together and remain friends to this day) took these Southern U.S traditions and blended them with just a hint of contemporary “Lowbrow” and Pop-Art sensibilities. And therein lays the definition of Pop-Folk or Neo-Folk. But again I don’t suggest these titles to limit or otherwise narrow the viewer’s interpretation of the work, but rather to guide the questions a visitor to this exhibit might ask so that we can reinterpret our narrow view of what it means to associated with the self-taught traditions.


My brother Roland (or rolo as he’s known,) and Andrea Heimer (rolo's work pictured on top; Andrea's under) display the naïve (or in this case “faux-naïve” characteristics that remind me of the purity of the greatest of Outsider “self-taught” artists. I love that the uninitiated might look at the work of these two artists and dismiss it out of hand simply because it doesn’t attempt to impress with flourishes of so-called “craftsmanship.” One need only stop and read the titles associated with each painting to see that there is so much more on display here than crudely rendered narrative illustration work (and I mean that in the best possible way because I am a huge admirer of this style and these two artists.) These paintings more than any of the others offer up the confessions of the artists themselves, and reveal their discomfort with the tension that bubbles just beneath the surface of contemporary suburban living. Andrea often fills her pictures with symbolism and stories where rolo strips his work of most of the available signals as to his intent leaving just the bare bones, but both question what results from our neighbours bottling up their emotions and desires, and how it feels to both belong to as well as be scraped, grinded, pushed, and shredded on the cheese grater of modern life. Rolo and I would like to take this opportunity to coin the phrase “The Norman Rockwell of the Suburban Underbelly" to describe Andrea Heimer.

As anyone who is familiar with Thunder-Sky, Inc. knows, Bill Ross is both the co-founder of the gallery and an artist in his own right. Bill’s work is the most pop influenced of all the artists involved in this show and I believe he really puts the Neo in Neo-Folk, but if we are really going to knock around arbitrary titles here I feel Bill’s work would fit right into a Los Angeles contemporary gallery with today’s top “Pop-Surrealists” or “Lowbrow” painters simply due to the fact that (more so than many of the PS and LB artists in today’s magazines) he actually embodies the definition of  PS and LB art by being down right funny, pop influenced, colorful, kitschy, and confessional all at once. Bill’s paintings have the natural dark humour of someone who has seen how differently people can be treated either in his own experiences or through the lives of those he has come into contact with during his years as a social worker for people with disabilities.

It was Bill and Keith at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that introduced me to the paintings of Marc Lambert and the sculpture of Matt Waldeck (above, with Marc's on top, Matt's beneath) and I was immediately impressed. We agreed these Cincinnatti artists would be a great fit, but I think I’ll leave it up to Bill or Keith to better explain in their own words what it was about Marc and Matt that sparked his interest in their work.  Keith here:  Marc's sci-fi exuberance, and Matt's intricate, sweetly steam-punk daydreams so fit with Leigh's overall thesis:  they take pop-culture and channel it through a very self-made network of "not knowing what else to do," thus merging kitsch with seriousness, fanboy-ness with technique and style that supersedes pretentiousness while paying homage to invention.  

As for myself, I see some obvious and not-so-obvious but still very real parallels between my work and the work of everyone in this show (hence the gathering of these particular artists.) Some of this is due to the fact that I am influenced by every one of the artists daily, and some of it is due to the fact that I believe I draw from the same creative well as each of these individuals. I don’t have to speculate as to my influences or the signals and symbolism in my paintings because I know exactly what drives me. I like naieve and faux naieve work more than any contemporary art style, I am hugely influenced by the physical stiffness of the characters found in Outsider and medieval art, I am fascinated by the desires we hide away and the masks we wear during the day and hang from our bed posts at night. I like Kitsch and bright colours. I like pop culture, pop art, and pop music. I like to express and confess. I want to be part of the popular clique at the school of life, while I simultaneously despise them for putting me so firmly outside the circle.

I suffer from anxiety and I fear most of the artists in this show do as well, and most of my work involves the struggles we face with anxiety and in my case the overlapping ADHD problem. My work also asks questions that are related involving what I perceive as the absurdities of religion and the difficulties of the day to day interactions with folks that many people take for granted. My work is very confessional but in some cases it is buried so deeply below a layer of stripped down symbolism the intentions thankfully aren’t very clear.

These artists and I are not inside and we are not outside, but we are creating because much like the Outsiders, Folkies, Visionaries, and cast-offs before us we don’t know what else to do. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013


On CBS Sunday Morning today they previewed a story about a guy with Down syndrome who lifts weights.  It was promoted as an "inspirational story," so of course I felt a little queasy, thinking here comes another one:  somebody with a developmental disability being represented as a "superhero," probably in the midst of a very special program helping him to get to where he can be "just like everybody else." 

And of course the story starts with that "superhero" trope, the reporter Steve Hartman beginning the whole thing with, "Unlike most superheroes, Jonathan Stoklosa lives with his parents," etcetera, but what happens in the 2:44 spot is pretty beautiful.  Jon the weightlifter is shown in his home being a little cranky waking up, then corralling carts in the parking lot of the grocery store where he works, and then working out in the gym where he trains as a power-lifter.

Hartman reports that Jon is an "incredible competitor" who is "not just an incredible Special Olympics powerlifter, but an incredible powerlifter period."  It turns out Jon can bench-press over 400 pounds, and competes and wins routinely in a regular old power-lifting contests. The story ends with an examination of Jon's work ethic, and the final image is of him unloading an old lady's groceries into the trunk of her car.

"Ever crush any eggs when you're bagging people's groceries?" Hartman asks.

Jon just looks at him and shrugs, "Oh please."

What happens in this little segment is metaphor and hyperbole being matched by reality and common sense.  Jon's identity both as a weight-lifter and a person with Down syndrome creates a territory where meaning and symbol crash into one another, and what's left in the aftermath is a guy who works at a grocery store, works out a lot, lives with his parents, and is just a regular human being.  The power-lifting/Down-syndrome representation melts in the presence of telling his simple non-nonsense bio.  The "superhero" trope gets erased by an almost accidental focus on Jon's true personhood.  We see him just doing what he does.  There's not a lot of celebration in the piece, not a lot of jabber.  Just everydayness.

Of course without the disability, Jon probably would not be depicted in the media at all.  A story has to have a reason to exist, and unfortunately the disability thing was it for him.  However, once you have that out of the way, and you just watch the piece you understand that Hartman is trying to critique the structure that imposes that disability rule; he is trying to give us a portrait of Jon that isn't steeped in obstacles he had to overcome, all the "special" people and programs who helped him, and the "miracle" of his accomplishments.   It's pretty blunt and articulated clearly:  this is Jon.  He works at the grocery store.  He's a really good power-lifter.  His parents are proud.  Move on.

When you think about how you yourself would want to be depicted, that seems like one of the best ways.  Without heroics or maudlin violins or teary eyes.  Just you out in the parking lot, helping some lady with her groceries.  It's one of the best ways to rid the world of condescension and sentimentality. 

Go on with your bad self Jon.

Here's a link to the story:  Jon the Weightlifter on CBS This Morning.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Female Troubles



Last week I wrote about all the media furor over Miley's fucked-up cheerleader/porn-star drag at the MTV Music Awards, satirizing and taking seriously Miley's attempts at Madonna-ness:  "[Dancing around like a stupid slut at a trailer-park prom] is her art.  She has become the neo-neo-neo-Madonna.  Madge almost thirty years prior did a rolling-around-on-the-floor-in-a-wedding-dress stunt on the VMAs that got her in 'hot water' too.  And remember her glossy, awful Sex Book?  Remember her flaunting her "transgressive sexual power"?  Remember Camille Paglia?"

Well somebody sure did remember Camille Paglia.  She was enlisted to sum up the whole tragic Miley debacle in Time Magazine.  Camille even got her name on the cover.  Damn. 

And the essay she wrote has a mummified unintentional self-parody to it that seems stolen from an outtake of Waiting for Guffman.  Camille chastises Miley for being "disgusting" and "artless" and "crass," while canonizing Madonna for all her artfully executed hijinks, the Original Genius Bad Girl.  The peak moment in Camille's essay in Time comes right smack dab in the middle, when she kisses Madonna's ass so magnificently you just cannot believe your eyes:  "Young performers will probably never equal or surpass the genuine shocks delivered by the young Madonna, as when she sensually rolled around in a lacy wedding dress and thumped her chest with the mic while singing 'Like a Virgin'  at the first MTV awards show in 1984. Her influence was massive and profound, on a global scale.  But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove."

I remember that "Like a Virgin" stunt, and it wasn't in any way "sensual" or "profound" or an example of "trained modern dance."  And Marlene Dietrich or Bob Fosse were nowhere in the schtick.  It was just the slutty, stupid, young Madonna rolling around on the floor with a microphone stuck up to her mouth, singing "Like a Virgin" as if she were drunk and throwing a sleepy tantrum.  Her singing voice was pretty sad, just like Miley's, as both young ladies were focused primarily on trying way too hard to push buttons the way young and slutty people often do.  Which makes both preeminent moments in pop culture, Madonna rolling around on the floor, and Miley rolling her tongue outside her mouth, hilarious.  Just plain god-awful funny.

Which brings me to Divine, the goddess both of these gals seem to be referencing, intentionally or not.  Divine, who passed away in 1988 of heart failure, was the star of many John Waters' films, but the one I love him in the most is Female Trouble.  In this highly stylized and completely enjoyable romp from 1974, Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a morbidly obese teen-aged runaway who grows up to be a white-trash superstar addicted to both drugs and fame.  (Ring any bells?)   In the movie, Divine sports many uniquely fabulous looks, including the two in the photos above:  a see-through wedding gown and a strappy sequined pantsuit number.  Both these looks would definitely be at home on the MTV Video Music Awards stage, whether worn by Miley, Madonna, or Gaga.  But more importantly, it is the way Divine acts that brings to mind what is missing in both Madonna's and Miley's oeuvre.  There's a bit of angry tragedy in Divine's portrayal of Dawn, a maniacal need at the core of her performance.  Divine plays Dawn with an un-ironic gusto that supersedes vanity, and therefore a true picture of something depraved and ravenous and hilarious is revealed.  She makes the horror of Dawn's spectacle turn into a sort of wild beauty. 

Miley didn't.  Madonna didn't either.  Camille wants to critique Miley on the grounds of "high art," but really it's a different kind of art and territory on which Madonna and Miley and other pop provocateurs should be judged:  drag.  And Divine set the standard.  He provoked and performed with a sense of abandon and yet with no need to please his audience.  He seemed completely intent on finding a way out of popularity and into a sort of grandeur beyond "art" or even "fame."  He mocked "art" and "fame" with his smart-assed yet authentic display of desire.  Divine was punk, outsider-art, pop-art, low-art, high-art, and decadent Weimar-Republic, all rolled up into one horribly beautiful package in Female Trouble

He is actually what Camille calls the "superb precursor."  Madonna was simply aping feeble imitations of Divine at 10th remove.

To read the Camille's full and hilariously fusty essay about Miley:  Camille on Miley in Time Magazine.