Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mystery Machine

The crowd on opening night of "Otherwise." 

Mr. Ben Clark in front of his work.

Keith Benjamin's tabletop genius, with Richard Emery Nickolson's and Ben Clark's
drawings on the wall behind and adjacent.

Keith Benjamin, Richard Emery Nickolson,and Ben Clark's brother.

Basement fundraiser for human rights happening at the same time.  Thanks to Holly Prochaska.

Keith Benjamin's work, with Ben Clark's on the wall.


A mirror piece by Keith Benjamin greets everyone.  Below are other shots and angles of the show:

We just opened a show called "Otherwise" last night, and it was a blast.  Down in the basement was a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and Southern Poverty Law Center.  The joint was packed.  What I want to concentrate on though is the "Otherwise" show, which presented works by Keith Benjamin, Ben Clark, and Richard Emery Nicksolson.  It was so much fun installing and organizing their works together that it felt as through all 3 gentlemen had worked on being in an exhibit together without actually know it, like they'd combined their visions into a perfect puzzle we could solve.  

We stumbled across Ben Clark's work at InsideOut Studio in Hamilton, Ohio, last year; it's a storefront space downtown that houses both a gallery and a studio for artists with developmental disabilities.  As soon as we saw Ben's work we knew we'd need to figure out a show.  I'd seen Keith's work in shows at PAC Gallery and the Carnegie, and Bill had reached out to Richard, who was his drawing professor back in the 80s at John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.  

Richard's stark, perfect renderings of smokestacks, cranes and sky-wires have such an intense precision they read like imaginary movie stills, cinematic moments frozen into pen-and-ink telepathy. Keith's gorgeously and deceptively simple sculptures pull together tossed-aside materials like torn t-shirts and commercial packaging and rearrange and repurpose those things into objects that feel almost on the edge of utility but somehow find a poetic escape from it. Ben's paintings combine both Richard's intense connection to atmosphere and scenery with Keith's nervy, heightened appropriation of everyday objects; he creates totems from road signs, myth from strip malls and maps.  

Inside "Otherwise," you go from a minimalist, frenetic drawing of the Scooby-Doo gang's "Mystery Machine" to an almost sinister smokestack vibrating against a stark white sky, to a fresh, smooth wooden table covered in what appear to be delicate nostalgic maquettes of dream buildings constructed from stuff you find in your basement on a rainy day.  

All of the art in the show has a classy handmade/homemade aesthetic to it; all three artists have accomplished their missions by paying close attention to what's already there and transforming it all into a beautiful kind of strangeness.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The Backstreet Cultural Museum is nestled inside a house in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.  Bill and I finally were able to make a visit last month when we there, and it's one of those experiences that's hard to convey, outside of just showing pictures and describing the feeling.  Here goes. 

The door wasn't locked, the open sign was out, so we just walked into the place.  The front-rooms are the actual museum (with a claustrophobic hallway lined with black-framed newspaper articles leading into a little kitchenette).  Two front-rooms are stocked with enough Mardi Gras Indian costumes as to make your head spin in a gleeful, dreamy manner.   On the right is a folding chair next to a little fan with a sign that says "10.00 per person." 

On that morning we went no one was around.  A sense of vacancy, all these costumes and history left unattended, gave the whole visit a ghostly sweetness.  (We met up with Sylvester Francis, the owner and proprietor, on our way out; he had gone to the store.  So we were able to pay him in person for the visit, as well as get a selfie with him, see above.)  I felt cushioned inside all the feather and beads there, those outfits giving off more than vibes, a sort of radiation you can't Geiger-count, or even understand.  All that work, all that thinking and sewing and doing.  

Up close the Mardi Gras Indian costumes read both show-bizzy and heart-breakingly homemade, astutely constructed and yet firmly dedicated to "prettiness."  In fact, "pretty" is what the makers of these works are going for -- it's the highest form of compliment in Mardi Gras Indian culture.  (If you don't know the history of all this, check it out here: Mardi Gras Indians.)  Basically, Mardi Gras Indian culture is an African-American self-made New Orleans tradition in which "tribes" of artists and performers construct voluptuous costumes from feathers, beads, and whatever else is needed; subject matter for each outfit is based on regional histories and other ideas.  Once the costumes are complete (it takes months), the makers and others parade around on certain days, seeking out optimum moments of grandeur and exposure.  The whole thing started in the 1880s, but also has some historical connections to slavery and Congo Square in the 1700s New Orleans, a site where African-Americans folks were "allowed" to party and play music for a certain period of time, flaunting their culture and humanities even while they were enslaved.  

So all that gorgeousness, like a lot of beauty, is anchored in horror and survival, and yet when you witness the costumes up close you only are in awe of the work, by the sheer funky fluorescent profundity of each effort, each stitch.  I could go on.  The Backstreet Cultural Museum allows  "art" to get real, without getting self-righteous.  

Bill was on a panel last week at the Cincinnati Art Museum concerning "artists and social justice," and while it seemed like a valiant effort on the parts of everyone who participated, I kept feeling antsy listening to the talk.  Bill was antsy too up there on the stage, trying his best:  how does art really contribute to cultural and social salvation?  I mean, for real?  How do artists matter in a world going to, well, kind of going to hell?  Bill mentioned "humor," and his personal history, his connection to people with developmental disabilities, how we are all equal, how that has to matter. That seemed pretty sane.  But a lot of the other panelists went a little loftier, tried to draw some conclusions, some abstractions, and I think that's why I'm writing this right now, why I wanted to revisit Mr. Francis's joint.  

The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a funhouse of sacredness, a tribute to surviving, but also a celebration of the intricate and somehow heady process of "prettiness."  Each bead and feather is a way to understand "social justice" in that little house on Henriette Delille Street.  The Mardi Gras Indian pretentiousness devours pretentiousness.  It's a working-class code of departure, of dedicating time and effort toward style, glitz, and escape, and yet also a return to personhood, to identity, like drag, only the end result here is spectacle beyond spectacle, turning the streets into theater, but a kind of theater that transcends theatricality.  It's homespun, visceral gaudiness.  It's screaming and laughing and carrying on, faced with unfairness and bull-shit politics and history and poverty and so on and so forth.  But it's not by any means fussy or self-involved or pedantic or even literal.  Those costumes reverberate with a strange magic you can't qualify.  That strangeness allows all of us to feel how odd it is to love without knowing what's being loved.  To be alive and full of love and energy and spite and power and creativity:  to be heroic just walking down the goddamned street.  

That's about all I have to say.  

Except, thank you very much Sylvester, and God bless you.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Get the Hell Out

Get Out is a movie built from other parts of movies, a pastiche/celebration of horror and other genre tropes.  Yet it doesn't feel at all derivative or superficial.  The writer-director Jordon Peele (of Key and Peele fame) has the goods.  He's a stylist with something very important to say, and that blending of subject matter with technical prowess is exhilarating to witness; in fact it's the overarching reason why movies themselves are so important, so influential.  Peele cannibalizes Rosemary's Baby, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs (just to name a few) with abandon and glee, skillfully slicing and dicing moments and dialog into a meta meditation on horror movies and race and otherness and whiteness and privilege, until by the end of Get Out you are hooked and sunk into a world totally manifested by Peele's intelligence, wit, and anger.

But he doesn't just riff on horror movies.  That would be too easy.  Interspersed within the glittery, gory, Grand-Guignol fetishes are bits and pieces of Woody Allen movies and even a sort of Merchant-Ivory attachment to comedies of manner.  He's out to skewer, but also to humanize what it means to be shut out of the ruling class in a way that's not so much about hate as it is adoration, a belittlement based on fear and envy.

The story is pretty simple, like all great horror movies.  Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, even better than he was in Black Mirror) has a white girlfriend (Alison Williams, just plain perfect), Rose Armitage.  Chris and Rose are going to visit Rose's family for the first time, and guess what?  She hasn't told them he's black.  Once they arrive (after a run-in with a deer and a policeman), the gaze of the movie sets its sights on the opulence and appurtenances of Rose's mother and father (both doctors) and her douche-bag of a brother.  Here we have the reversal of tropes: freakishness in the guise of white-people in posh circumstances, with Chris the horror-movie innocent negotiating the strangeness and ickiness.  The "ickiness" is most on display when other Armitage family and friends visit for a dinner party wherein they put on the happy-happy smiles of white people welcoming a black person into their midst.  The arrogance of the scenes here topple into the grotesque; each of the rich white folks at the party finds ways to compliment Chris on his athletic prowess, his muscular beauty, his genetic strengths.  It's not about pushing him away; it's about somehow owning his identity without wanting to know him.

That's the crux of the horror here, that dinner party by the lake.  It has the fever and fright of everyday embarrassment and condescension merged with the promise that the paranoiac atmosphere will soon boil over into sordid hypnotic realities:  abduction, enslavement, basement brain surgery.

Get Out's plot is funky enough to be both genre frenetic and yet perfectly, coolly satirical.  Peele never loses sight of genre-movie pleasures, while also  using them to help us feel and understand what it means to be shut out of the world, completely ostracized, while also being smiled at and cajoled and patted on the back.  Rose's dad, after all, would have voted for Obama's third term if he could have.

Within this maelstrom of manners and terrors, our avatar is beautifully performed by Kaluuya.  He's the center-point here, and as we follow him through his paces we start to understand the totality of all the little humiliations he has to go through.  The smiles that kind of make you feel sick.  The ongoing onslaught of conversation that has nothing to do with who you are and yet everything about who they think you are, or at least they think you should be.  Kaluuya's brilliant, intelligent eyes shine out of all that bullshit, as he tries to remain rational, as he tries to remain alive.

I never really liked Key and Peele's sketch-show on Comedy Central too much.  It always seemed to be trying way too hard to make points that have already been made, and the more they went at it, the more tiresome it got.  But Get Out is the complete opposite of that kind of exhaustion; it has a freshness to it, a sense of righteousness devoid of self-righteousness, exercising a brand of humor that's both ghastly and completely optimistic, unique.  After you see this movie, you feel smarter somehow, edified.  Most movies don't have the guts or brains to edify anyone.  Get Out has guts and brains galore.  It skewers (literally at times) a brand of poshness and stupidity heretofore often left out of horror-movie villainy:  pleasant, professional white people in palatial lake-houses, stirring their cups of tea, smiling like they have everything and know everything, and are just waiting to let you have it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Blizzard Stew

We're doing a show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that commemorates the blizzard that swept through this region in 1978.  Opening January 7, 2017, it's titled "Thunder-Snow," and about 30 artists from across the area have contributed works of all kinds (poems, paintings, sculptures, drawings, you name it), delving into their memories and dreams about what it felt like confronted with all that colossal snow-fall and fury.  Evidenced by the blue-and-white-tinged nostalgia and comfort depicted in many of the works, the '78 blizzard, nicknamed "The Great White Hurricane," somehow yielded its own form of community:  neighbors who barely spoke to one another in the sunlight helped dig each other out and families got reintroduced to one another, surviving together as opposed to "living together."  The whole world seemed altered, at least for the time it took for the snow to fall, the wind to turn the snow into castle-sized drifts, and eventually for the air to warm and melt it all away.  The stories behind most of the works are next to each piece on the wall in "Thunder-Snow."  Those narratives really are what the whole exhibit is about.  The stories we tell ourselves before, during and after crises, those images and smells and tastes we commit to memory and then somehow lose, flood back when given an opportunity, a reason to reinvent and retrieve them.    

Blizzards isolate, turn people inward, and yet due to their catastrophic nature they cause people to reach out for help.  That contradiction is what gives, I think, the Blizzard of 1978 its force of inspiration:  there was no running away from it, only trying to figure out how to live through it.  One of the pieces in the show is more of a "happening," in that Sharon Butler is asking folks to write down what they ate during the storm and then she will be making versions of those recipes for a closing-event dinner.  Food, of course, is central to a blizzard story.  What's the first instinct when people hear on the news that snow's coming?  Rush to the grocery store, stock up for "the white death."  In the '78 storm, though, many people didn't have the chance to make a run for food, so they had to figure out how to make what they had on-hand into something that would get them through. That's what happened with my family.  I always remember my dad making this really salty but somehow totally delicious stew the third or fourth day we were cooped up.  I was 13 at the time. I think all we had left was some bacon, old shriveled potatoes, pinto beans, garlic salt, maybe an onion. So he made this soup for us.  He didn't really cook when there wasn't a blizzard; my mom was the cook. But he got bored and hungry and just decided to do it.  We were all like that, cabin-fevered and hungry.  He fried the bacon, cooked the potatoes, soaked and cooked the beans.  It was just this taste of salty warm water, the potatoes going creamy, that bacon/garlic residual lining the inside of your mouth.  And out the window all that white.  We weren't a real close-knit clan, and I don't have a lot of sentimental-happy memories stocked up, but that one comes at me with a warm and elemental authenticity.  Remembering that stew he made helps me understand that you often have to focus on something peripheral and real to get at the bigger truth, whatever that "bigger truth" might be.      

E. E. Cummings once wrote in one of his poems that the "snow doesn't give a soft, white damn whom it touches," and I think that's what makes a blizzard of the magnitude of the '78 one such an epic moment.  That snow is a reminder of how much nature really could not care less about your problems, or even your existence.  That essential epiphany of how small you are allows you to reconnect with what makes you human.