Sunday, April 27, 2014

Massive Heart Attack

I Am Divine is a new documentary about probably one of my favorite artists who ever walked the face of the Earth:  Divine.  This picture does him justice:  glamorously monstrous, beautifully horrible, and yet a kind of defensive innocence glitters from his eyes.  Mockery and sympathy contend with each other in the way he presents himself.  I refer to him as "him" because I think that is what he always wanted:  the masquerade did not change who he actually was; it was only a device to show how fucked-up and beautiful everything is. 
Divine, or Glenn Milstead, is one of those penultimate figures in my life.  He was punk, queer, down-home, sloppy, stupid, sarcastic, bombastic, crazy, lovely, and so on.  I first saw him via VHS, 1985, when I was an art-school dropout in Indiana, washing dishes for a living, dropping acid, smoking Salem Lights and eating Little Debbie's Oatmeal Cream-pies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It was Pink Flamingos, and what a terrible and glorious introduction.  Simply iconic, Divine wore clownishly femi-nazi make-up (created by the genius Van Smith), tight-fitting ball-gowns, and brandished a pistol in the cold air outside her junkyard trailer.  She had a posse of tragicomic misfits that somehow seemed completely pleased with themselves, arrogantly mean-spirited, selfishly unaware of their own joke and yet completely committed to it.  Divine in the movie is total woman, dolled up and pissed off, ready to eat dog-shit at any moment, incredibly proud of her own demonic nature, and yet also chatty and sweet with those of her own kind.  In short, she was a lot like the white-trash folks I had grown up with, only glazed with freak-love, popping out of the ordinary nastiness because Glenn Milstead (and John Waters of course) had willed this beautiful monster into being to lead the way toward the Abyss.  Waters gave Divine a universe to be pissy and mouthy and elegant in, a brown ugly landscape of muddy hills and brambles and broken-down cars, and Divine graced that pit with an angry otherworldliness.  She was a goddess creating her own origin myth while shoplifting chuck-roast in between her legs. 
In I Am Divine, John talks about the day he and Glenn first saw each other, in high school.  They were both seventeen.  John's dad was dropping him off at school, and they both spotted Glenn waiting to go into school.  Glenn was dressed in preppy anonymous clothes, John says, and he was definitely trying to camouflage himself in normalcy, but obviously could not hide what John calls his "nelly-ness."  John's dad quietly noticed Glenn too, according to John:  his dad's face got stony, angry, right at the moment he spotted Glenn.   
Glenn could not hide his "Divine."  Even if he tried really really hard.  And so he eventually understood instead of hiding he would need to scream and flail and display his "nelly-ness" to the point people were afraid of it, afraid of his power.  And God did he have power.  In Pink Flamingos, in Female Trouble, in Polyester, and even in Hairspray, Divine was something never seen before or since:  all fury, all horror, and yet completely real, down-to-earth, hilarious, intelligent.  He didn't create a character (John did that); he created an atmosphere of self.
At the end of the documentary, Glenn's agent talks about seeing Glenn dead in his motel room in 1988.  (Glenn died of a massive heart attack in his sleep.)  That day he died was going to be one of those penultimate moments for Glenn:  he was going to start a stint on Married with Children, not as Divine, but as another character the writers had created for him.  And that character was a man, which made Glenn very happy.  The agent narrates what she saw that morning:  the Married with Children script carefully placed on his nightstand, his bed-slippers next to the bed, the suit he was going to wear laid out on a chair. 
And Glenn in bed, gone from this world.
"He was beautiful," the agent said.
The poignancy about that whole scene is his preparedness, his optimism, his work ethic.  He was dedicated to finding ways of turning people's heads inside out. 
That takes a lot out of you.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Jelly Beans and Diana Ross

It's been a quarter century almost since Bill and I did this show in Indianapolis at 431 Gallery.  It was called "The Fifteen Dollar Museum," and it was like a manifesto of sorts, and also an accidental action plan for the rest of our lives.  431 Gallery was a cooperative joint downtown, and when Bill and I were voted in by other members back in 1989 it was a wild feeling for me.   I was backwards and kind of kooky, as was Bill (and really using the past tense here is kind of stupid:  we still ARE kooky and backwards when you get right down to it), so we went about making art and art shows exactly the way we wanted them to be, without thinking about who would want to see them.  In this gig we sold everything we made for fifteen bucks a pop and donated all the money to a food bank.  We did this not because we were martyrs or hippies or whatever.  We were just stupid and full of energy with an intense need to make some kind of meaning happen.  We truly wanted to make authentic connections between artifice and reality, art and life, in ways we saw would allow us to be ourselves.  We were/are anomalies in many ways:  artistic, ambitious, silly, serious, working-class, rural, sarcastic, professionally unprofessional, numb-skulled and overly sensitive, etc.  All of that laced with an understanding that no matter where you live or what you do your intentions usually remain the same.  So making art and showing it in Indianapolis truly suited our mentalities, a midsized city without a lot of opportunities for young artists outside of DIY.  And all the other folks at 431 were kind of like kindred spirits.  In fact, I don't think I had ever experienced what "kindred spirits" felt like before because my oddness consigned me to the total outskirts.  In high school I was a freak among freaks, gay and "creative" and poor, haunting hallways in oversized flannel shirts and baggie jeans, hiding out in the basement when they made us go to pep rallies.  I made a few friends (including Bill) at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis when I went there for a year right after graduating high school, but I dropped out after only that one year, defeated by the fact that I didn't want to draw and paint and get graded.  I just wanted to make stuff happen.
It all worked out in the end as they say.  I wasted a lot of time in between being an art-school dropout and figuring out I needed to go back to college and get a degree in something.  In fact, I was in my second year at Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis when Bill and I got into 431.  And now I realize that time was probably one of the most magical times I'll have.  It was full of hope and weirdness, stupidity and hilarity and backfired experiments and the major realization that I could make something out of myself.
We did all kinds of stupid shit at 431.  We dressed in drag and got half-naked in the basement.  I did a performance one time composed of eating jelly-beans with my head shaved singing along to Diana Ross's "Theme from Mahogany" in the gallery front window.  We played with mud and thrift-store objects and built little shrines to everyday goofiness.  I gave a reading of the first real short story I ever wrote there.  Bill painted resplendently absurd cartoons.  We made a video that had little bits and pieces of porn and loveliness in it.  Made lots of drawings and paintings and whatnot.  Sold a few.  Got to meet truly dedicated artists who were always looking a little afraid at what Bill and I were up to, but then again I think they liked us all the same.  At least I hope. 
Anyway, I just wanted to write all that down now that there's a retrospective coming up about 431 Gallery this June at the Indiana State Museum.  Bill and I are pretty settled in our existences here in Southwestern Ohio.  We are social  workers who help people with disabilities gets jobs and have lives, and we also started a studio for artists with disabilities called Visionaries and Voices, and we run a little weird gallery in town called Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Bill paints (he has work in a show in England this summer), and I write stories (a book of my stories just came out).  We really are okay people now.  And I think our tenure at 431 helped us out a lot.  It made us realize we don't have to ask permission to do what we think we ought to do.  It kind of made us braver and smarter in ways school never could. 
Thanks to everybody who hung out with us at 431 for those couple years.  It was meaningful.  It truly was.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"But the Boulder Is Gone"

Alice Munro's work is filled with landscapes that don't mean anything and yet reverberate with non-meaning and a sort of backward emotional soulfulness you can't label or justify.  They are simply the nameless centers of universes that encompass us all.  In "Chaddeleys and Flemings," one of her most expansive and yet intensively introspective stories, she turns the boulder-decorated gravesite of a one-legged nobody in rural Canada into the end of a line of thought about what we know about other people, what we remember, what we need to remember, and what truthfully ends up worthless, which happens to be most everything and then again nothing at all.  The hopelessness is the quid pro quo and is the reason you need to hope.  Her artistry collapses philosophy and makes feeling become the only compass, a feeling that is schooled and chilled by a direct connection to what is "there."  And "there" is this:  dirt, gray grass, that comatose boulder sucking in the light, allowing words to defy but never erase, words being gravel and weeds and dimly lit sky.

"But the boulder is gone," writes Munro.  "Mount Hebron is cut down for gravel, and the life buried here is one you have to think twice about regretting."

I'm always trying to figure out why I love  Munro so much.  It isn't her way with words as much as her way with getting outside of words, finding that perfect "objective correlative" that pieces together a moment that transcends metaphor and simile and theme and configures the shape behind "hope" and "despair."  It's something so secret and universal the words turn out to be usefully useless, and you come upon that image of that boulder now gone and yet as heavy as it ever was.  The tongue can't go there.  The brain can't either.  But it's all she has to work with so she finds the pulse inside the boulder, that feeling throbbing within the most uninteresting object and scenery and scenario. 

I'm almost halfway through her Selected Stories right now, reading them slowly, but also trying not to lose the impulse to skip to get to those diamond-sharp insights that happen almost every paragraph.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Effort Outweighs the Meaning

I don't know.  Art is embarrassing when it's done right, when its motives are pure and the image comes from an honest attempt to make something sincere, even sacred.  In this case George Bush's desire to signify his begrudging respect/admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Lord have mercy, that amateurish skin-tone, those blank third-grade eyes, the sad scratchy lavender background.  This is the kind of art I always respect because the effort outweighs the meaning, and truly meaning here is pretty dumb and limited to the point it becomes profound, elegant in its monster-like simplicity.  The ears have a surrealistic bent, like homosexual sea shells.  And those baggy eyes, those thin lips like an obscene peanut shell.  There's a sensual quality here, a school-boy's love-letter, a sketch done in secret.  It's a joke, and it's not.  Power and solemnity get usurped by a truly stupid intent.  You can see George getting cross-eyed trying to get it right.  Trying to make it look right.  Trying and trying, and then one sunny morning he gets it.  He comes up with this denouement, this image from a dream, this image from history. 

I would love to own this godforsaken painting.  It needs to disappear.