Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Lovely Thing to Behold

Lars and the Real Girl was released in 2007 to not a lot of acclaim, except a smidgen for Ryan Gosling's incredibly moving performance.  I've seen it three times now, and each time Lars moves me more as I see how the writer Nancy Oliver creates a universe that's Utopian in scope, but utilitarian in the way it is conveyed.  The premise sounds like a stupid joke, which is probably why the movie did not get as much notice as it should have.  Lars is a functional recluse who lives in the garage behind the house where he grew up.  His brother and sister-in-law live in the house-proper.  The sister-in-law, Karen, is trying desperately to include Lars in their domesticity, even at one time tackling him out in the snow to ensure he makes it to dinner.  As played by Emily Mortimer, Karen is the beating, beautiful heart of the movie:  someone so guileless and sweet that she feels the need to enforce kindness, not just give it. 

And that's the way many of the townspeople in Lars and the Real Girl come across throughout the rest of the film.  When Lars orders a fake girl through the Internet (and it's a salacious website he gets it from, advertising poor lost lonely orphan-girls to be adopted by poor lost lonely old men), and the girl arrives, you expect the movie to lurch into simpleminded, mean-spirited comedy.  Even the third time when I watched I was almost anticipating some crude aside I missed the first two times, but the triumph of the film is that it takes that low-grade concept (lonely loser purchases a fake doll to make love to) and elevates it by paying attention to what the fake girl means, and how her presence in Lars' life allows him to find his way out of all the traps he has set for himself.

This time seeing it I noticed even more of the disability aspects of the movie.  In order to move Bianca (the fake girl) around Lars imagines a disability for her, so he has to get a wheelchair for her.  Bianca, his first love, is a woman with a disability, and yet the townspeople, when asked to help Lars through his delusion by believing in it along with him by the local family doctor (a miraculously understated Patricia Clarkson), take Bianca into their midst as one of their own.  They provide her with a job at the mall as a model, and eventually she is even voted onto the schoolboard.  In her vacantness and in her pliability, Bianca becomes a perfect symbol for human kindness.

And Lars is as well a person with a disability:  loneliness manifesting itself into a delusion, some kind of mental illness, I'm sure, but what the movie does is dramatize not the internal aspects of "being disabled," but the external ones movies always miss.  When Lars goes to a party with Bianca, there are stares and comments, but there's also this feeling that somehow Lars is using Bianca to let people know how human he is too, and how much he needs.  He could never tell them that upfront, so Bianca becomes his visual cue, and we see him and what is "wrong with him" through innocent eyes.  His attention to Bianca, his devotion to her, becomes as natural and real as any romance in movies can be.

"Disability" gets deconstructed because the secrecy and shame usually connected to a story like Lars' are not there.  He is openly courting a fake girl he ordered over the Internet, and guess what?  Everyone in town is in on it.  The "disabilities" inherent in both Bianca and Lars' bodies and persona are somehow "owned" by everyone, and in the end a sort of catharsis happens, at least for me, as I watched.  Throughout the film, Ryan Gosling's face transforms from the face of a weary, half-dead soldier in the beginning to a beautiful half-asleep silent-movie comedian in the end.  He finds peace, a casual insouciance, but there's neediness still in his eyes, and a desire coming from his forehead somehow to figure out how to be who he is, and get what he wants out of life, without losing his mind.  Lars' quest becomes a sane journey if not to self-acceptance, at least to accepting reality, which is probably the same thing.  And this movie truly does something miraculous:  it delivers a tableau hardly ever constructed for movies and rarely seen in true life:  people being nice to each other, even when being nice means putting up with something they might easily toss aside as "deranged" or "sick."

It's a lovely thing to behold.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Deconstructing Deconstruction

This is a portion of a Raymond Thunder-Sky drawing I "cropped."  Thinking about deconstructing Raymond's in order to find the way he deconstructed the world.

Friday, December 24, 2010

This Is Not My Beautiful Wife

There's a show of works by Visionaries & Voices (V&V) artists at the Cincinnati Art Museum up through the end of January, 2011.  Here's the way it's marketed:  "Love is an important part of the lives of the artists at V&V and continually influences their decisions and their futures. Bride & Groom Collide provides an opportunity for artists with disabilities to express their honest opinions, their ideas, and their dreams about forging a loving relationship.   More than 40 V&V artists have revealed their personal beliefs on the subject for the exhibit, and have created new paintings, sculptures, and drawings that are insightful and emotionally powerful. The artwork in the exhibit, as does most work by self-taught artists, has noticeable influences by the American folk art and the abstract expressionism movements."

Some of the works are lovely, some are beautifully weird, and some are not that good.  That's probably a taboo thing to say, but I've earned my status as taboo-breaker.  I helped start this whole V&V thing, and participated in curating many shows like this one at the Art Museum.  Every time I did this, I told myself that it's a chance for "self-taught" or "outsider" or "visionary" artists with disabilities to have their work shown in a space that usually would exclude them, as they don't have access to networking opportunities and art-school, etc.  But each time I curated shows like "Bride and Groom Collide," I always heard this voice inside my head, a doubting, whiny one, whispering little asides about how I was helping to ghettoize the art and artists even while I was helping to show their works in a great venue (and by great venue I mean, like this show, in the back stairwell at the Cincinnati Art Museum, not the main gallery, but still it's close). 

This voice was telling me that "grouping" artists because they have a disability somehow makes "disability" the focus of the way we perceive the works, and therefore diminishes the juice and excitement of viewing the art.  There's no mystery here, no cacophony, just harmony.  The marketing notes hammer that home:  it's about "artists with disabilities expressing their honest opinions, their ideas, and their dreams about forging loving relationships" through "paintings, sculptures, and drawings that are insightful and emotionally powerful."

The literal "expressing" about marriage and love and brides and grooms though comes through mostly in quoted text next to the works, attributed to the artists who made each piece, sort of like a documentary of what love and marriage mean to "people with disabilities."  The quotes are great and funny and insightful, as advertised, but again the point is underlined so thickly as to eliminate any other possibilities.  The trials and tribulations of love are complicated by the disability in everyone's lives of course, and the universality of that issue is duly noted, but this is not an art show as much as a show of artists with disabilities using art to exemplify an issue:  love is an important part of people's existences.

Any group show with a "big" theme like that can get on your nerves, of course:  themes notoriously undermine the strangeness and richness of art, taking something huge and odd and gorgeous and often shrinking it to fit into a neat little category.  But a group show featuring "artists with disabilities" as the main categorization has two big albatrosses around its neck:  trying to break free from the way most people view "disability" and also trying to deconstruct the way we lazily consume art by assigning it into categories we can check off and then leave behind in the first place.

"Bride and Groom Collide" has blissful moments, but not because of the pedantic subject matter; it's more because some of the chosen pieces break free of the theme and allow us a moment of respite from the heavyhandedness.

The two pieces below do this for me.  The top is by Holly Ebel, and the bottom by Marci Rosen.  Joyous, a little cynical, kind of weird.  Ebel's piece is a merging of Finster and Chagall with Saturday morning cartoons back when they were really cool.  Rosen's has a jittery, unnerving graveness, a dark little laugh inside each eye.

Shared Interests

For “Disappearances,” Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati, the artist uses elements such as plaster and paint chips to create sculptural works meant to comment on fragility and transience in the human world.  On the walls of the gallery are gilded fractures and found pieces of demolition, destruction and detritus, evidence of buildings and lives no longer there, but lingering both in the mind and in the material world.  The show is an amazing and sparse poem about what is left behind, and as I toured it my thoughts turned to Raymond Thunder-Sky.  The connection is obvious:  Raymond was interested in deconstruction and demolition, and his drawings, like Turner-Yamamoto’s sculptural wall-hangings, are evidence of buildings torn to pieces by a large wrecking ball usually, and in that destruction Raymond finds pattern, order and an almost Mondrian-esque symmetry.  The same eye and ambition and interest is in Turner-Yamamoto’s works.  Shinji Turner-Yamamoto was born in 1965 in Osaka, Japan and studied fresco painting in Kyoto.  He has exhibited around the world, from India to Ireland, and is committed to using historic and natural elements in his work as meditations on the environment. Raymond Thunder-Sky was born in Hollywood, California in 1950, and lived most of his adult life in Cincinnati, Ohio, only exhibiting his drawings toward the end of his life.  Their biographies could not be more disparate; their aesthetics and sensibilities intermingle like musical notes.

Below:  Top three photos:  works at the Contemporary Arts Center by Shinjo Turner-Yamamoto.  The bottom four photos:  three "close-ups" of Raymond Thunder-Sky's works, and a full-scale drawing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Please Don't Give

The Kids are All Right got all the indie-film buzz, but Nicole Holofcener's Please Give is just as vibrant and fizzy and truthful.  It also has a sort of bent, honest sense of humor that allows you to get over yourself. 

You have to love Catherine Keener's Kate, the co-owner (with her kind of schlocky husband Alex, played by the lovable Oliver Platt) of a trendy estate-sale furniture store in Chelsea:  she's savvy and ambitious, but also self-deprecating and guilt-ridden.  In her journey to make her life have more meaning, she checks out different charities where she might volunteer.  These scenes, in which Kate interviews for volunteer gigs at a nursing home and a day program for people with developmental disabilities, have a spark and rush to them.  Keener's face goes ghostly as she confronts what her own charitable instincts mean:  introducing herself to total strangers via "giving" them some of her time.  Obviously for someone New-Yorky and self-hating as Kate is, being able to get over the hurdle of wondering why these folks would even want her in their lives is a big endeavor.  She's honest to the bone, and her sympathy does not allow her insight or motivation; it just makes her cry when she sees a women bent out of shape from arthritis, or a man with Down Syndrome being cheered on to make a hoop. 

This brutal truthfulness gives Kate, and the movie, a mean streak, but it's a mean streak we all have and eventually have to get over to be sane enough to do good works.  Kate realizes her instinct to be a better human being needs to start at home, and by the end of Please Give she buys her daughter an expensive pair of jeans.  Her daughter whining and wanting the jeans has pissed her off for most of the film.  She sees the jeans as a symbol of conspicuous consumption since the world around her is teeming with "needier" cases. 

The movie seems to be spotlighting an innate hypocrisy at the center of all charity:  the desire to be "good," to "please give" is not totally altruistic or even a good thing.  It's built on other darker desires too, and Kate's quest for peace of mind includes giving a Styrofoam container of restaurant leftovers to a "homeless man" who actually turns out to be a guy waiting in line on a table outside a bistro.  What you see isn't necessarily what you get, and Please Give trounces on that concept, satirizing the need to make the world a better place and eventually arriving at a more amenable and honest thesis:  good intentions aren't what save you, not even charitable acts.  Giving a 20-dollar bill to a homeless man is just the same as buying your daughter a $200 pair of jeans.  

Sounds superficial and self-centered, right?  But Please Give makes a pretty strong case.         

Monday, December 20, 2010

Word to Your Mother

I love this photo montage featuring Mike Weber, whose work is featured in the next Thunder-Sky, Inc. gig:  "Ice Ice Baby! New Works by Bob Scheadler and Mike Weber."  Bob is Mike's brother-in-law, and he did the pic above, featuring Mike as the Iceman rocking it out with some polar bears.  Both Mike and Bob are totally excited about the works they've made, and the results, both collaborative and solo, reflect that energy.  Mike has truly taken some giant aesthetic steps forward, pushing his experimentation with paint and texture into new territory, honing in on a subject that's both abstract and concrete:  anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  His pictures are like meditations on the way ice is both experienced and represented, and some of the works even push image into spectrum, ice into ornament.  Bob's photos and prints have both an austerity and a grit, like crystalline images from a science textbook chopped up and sprinkled into a kaleidoscope from Mars.  When we were talking at the gallery last Saturday, both artists were riffing on all kinds of ice-inspired variations:  how ice controls the temperature of the planet, how if you eat too much of it ice can chip the enamel off your teeth, how they want to talk to Dave down at the Comet about having an "Ice Ice Baby" cocktail for the night of the opening.  Which is January 7, 2011, 6 to 9 pm.  Both Thunder-, Inc's gallery and the basement underneath will be featuring their works.  It promises to be a great example of 2 + 2 = 5 -- not only because Mike and Bob are sharing the same inspiration, but also because Adam Maloney will be installing a "soundscape" that night called "In Space No One Can Hear Your Tractor Beam."  Word to your mother.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Hell Is a Place on Earth. Heaven Is a Place in Your Head."

David Wojnarowicz (1954 - 1992) was a genius. 

His visual art merges an intense Pop-Art impulse with the bleak, necessary poetry of a letter written on death row:  every image he uses feels as if it has been looted from a primordial basement of consciousness, stock footage of cowboys and fetuses and astronauts and trains and dinosaurs and afternoon forests juiced up by desire and ingenuity, a need to let the world know there's another place to live, another way to see. 

In all the bull-shit surrounding the controversy at the National Portrait Gallery (New York Times Wojnarowicz piece), Wojnarowicz's accomplishments and originality are once again being crowded out by small-minded religious zealots and scaredy-cat arts administrators and writers, much like what happened to him in the late 80s and early 90s when his work was assailed by Donald Wildmon and Jesse Helms.  Wojnarowicz's place in the world became about "one of those artists" who got victimized by the government; I remember reading in an newspaper article back then that he was "Mapplethorpe Junior" in an offhand dis. 

The important thing to remember about Wojnarowicz is that he was working out his political and moral outrage through a sophisticated visual language and algebra:  a mythopoetic tapestry that appropriated substance and style from so many media and systems that the results were more than synthesis or collage:  his art, writings, videos, performances, sculptures, graffiti, and exhibits all became chapters in a dreambook about one person's search for truth in a universe constructed by small-minded zealots and scaredy-cat administrators.  He was trying to make a place for himself not in a careerist sense but in an existential one.  And his work has the heat and shine of that rapture.  He discovered a way to think beyond thinking.

In his book of essays, Close to the Knives: a Memoir of Disintegration, he writes:   "Hell is a place on Earth.  Heaven is a place in your head."  Every creative thing he did was evidence of this thesis:  he made a heaven out of all the crap.  He made 2 + 2 not just equal 5, but constructed a moral/poetic/spiritual/political 2 + 2 that equals a number that is impossible to write down.

Please don't remember Wojnarowicz as the center of some foolish battle about censorship, where everyone on "both sides" scream out platitudes.  Remember him as an artist capable of transcending such stupid binaries and literal-mindedness by insisting on his one true vision of the Heaven inside his own head.  In every work, he gives flesh and bone to that vision, and his dedication and discipline makes most other contemporary art seem just another part of the sad, dismal system Wojnaorowicz describes as "the One Tribe Nation," a culture of easy answers and easy outrage where everyone has his/her own place to be offended and/or blessed.  Wojnarowicz fought against that complacency by giving us the alternative:  greatness, succinct and true.     

I wrote a poem a few years ago about one of his pieces...

David Wojnarowicz

The mud got
Lush that last week
Before he croaked
And the trees started sprouting

A vagabond
Alive for about ten seconds
Created a dynasty

Take the fever
Of a five-year-old boy
And attach it to celluloid
All the sci-fi you can take
Boiled down to one

Two half-naked astronauts
Waking up in one another’s arms
Beside the sea

More images and information:  David Wojnarowicz.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Art of the Finger on a Cold Window

Tracy Featherstone + Krista Connerly

Judith Brotman 

Dale Jackson

Last night I went to the U-Turn Art Space's opening reception for "The Mechanics of Joy," a show featuring the works of five artists:  Tracy Featherstone + Krista Connerly, Judith Brotman, Dale Jackson, and William Howe.  The show is a dreamy collapse of mechanics into poetics or maybe the other way around, and the whole experience of seeing it is like witnessing someone trying to write a villanelle on the inside of his/her skull, and instead of using actual villanelle language he/she uses whatever is around his/her subconsciousness:  fragments of cardboard and plastic, transmission fluid stains, sleeping bags, lost shapes and sympathies from childhood, vague but intense moments written down on wrinkled pieces of newsprint.  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...

Each work teaches you how to worship what you think has been sent to the figurative and literal landfill.  In this phantom zone provided by U-Turn you learn how to reconfigure what "ephemeral" and "fever" mean when laced together.  Claes Oldenburg kind of gets at this in his Pop-Art manifesto from 1961, "I Am for an Art."  In the piece he goes through a litany of meanings of the kind of art he "is for," including "an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary," and "an art that is smoked like cigarettes," and "an art that a kid licks, after peeling away the wrapper."  Oldenburg is on a verbal safari for art that leaves itself behind and finds its truths and pleasures beyond what art is supposed to be, even though it still is in a gallery looking and acting like art.   

All of this art-hating-itself-but-really-loving-itself, however, gets at something serious and maybe even a little divine in "The Mechanics of Joy."  The precision of placement, the way objects and language both mock and harmonize with one another give the show a sharp simplicity that foregrounds the mystery of engineering without the safety net of practicality:  Judith Brotman's intricate and angelic sculptural fragments and figments hold court beside Dale Jackson's non sequiturs about (among many other issues) "what could cause Speed Racer to go off the road."  The beautifully utilitarian puppet-show featured in Tracy Featherstone and Krista Connerly's collaboration leans up against a telephone-pole beside the ghostly print pollutions by William Howe. 

This exhibit is a machine that travels unique distances without ever leaving the lot.  There's a celebration of absurdity without any explanation or political rant:  just what it is, here, in the gallery, a moment of mechanical thought idling into a weirdly innocent vision of joy.  

One more Oldenburg's "I Am for an Art" quote, and I'm out of here: 

"I am for the art of things lost or thrown away....  I am for the art of crayons and weak grey pencil-lead...and the art of windshield wipers and the art of the finger on a cold window, on dusty steel or in the bubbles on the sides of a bathtub."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Junk Drawer



It's snowing.  That feeling of being trapped without being trapped inside a house in the middle of nowhere.  When I was a kid and it was snowing I always got this urge to make something out of nothing.  I would go to the kitchen and open up the junk drawer and pull objects and crap out and try to construct...  hell I don't really know what it was:  sculptures?  Robots?  Artificial hearts? 

I had fallen in love with the idea of making art, even though I had no idea what "art" was.  The need came before knowing what it was.  That urge bloomed when I was confronted with snowy windows and boredom and that itch caused by the intuition that you are about to disappear and you need to send signals out. 

No audience, no place for the things I made to go.  I would sit at the kitchen table and scotch-tape stuff together, move it around, make drawings of what I had constructed.  Often the ingredients from the junk drawer included old batteries, empty pill bottles, old keys, gaskets, empty Bic pens, shoe laces, envelopes, nuts and bolts, plastic spoons and forks, and the list goes on.  Detritus from working-class life, stuff pulled out of pockets and purses and instead of being thrown out kept because it might be useful eventually.  It never got used except when I tried to turn it into something it wasn't.

And then the "art" or whatever I made would just be destroyed and placed back into the junk drawer.  Like that. 

I think that urge, that response to snow and frozen feelings and that sense that you are being erased without being told, is what really always propels me not only to make art and to write, but also informs the way I look at the art made by other people.  Those days spent making something out of nothing and then returning it all to nothingness has completely influenced the way I appreciate art.  That's why art made by people who are out of the picture or who are trying to be out of the picture always inspires me, but not just any kind of art:  there's an ingenuity in the face of obscurity that needs to surface, a sense of intentionally discovering magic by taping or gluing or pounding all those objects you pull from the drawer into a "thing of beauty," or drawing pictures of things everyone sees but never experiences that way you experience them, or making your whole life one long beautiful poem to that initial feeling of knowing you are about to turn invisible and you need to leave behind some evidence:  a snapshot or two of strangeness that can verify what you meant. 

The ultimate 2 + 2 = 5 is that, right?  Junk Drawer + Intense Need to Make Something Even Though Nobody Gives a Shit = Art.

Something like this:

("Solar Set," Joseph Cornell, mixed media, 1949.)

Or this:

(Raymond Thunder-Sky holding two of his drawings, surrounded by clowns, date unknown.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom + Tom = Bliss

About ten years ago I wrote a short story that was published on the website  It was about two guys with developmental disabilities who happen to be in love with one another, and the dedication of one support person working in their group-home who helps them to get married.  The title was:  "The Wedding of Tom to Tom."  It's also in my book of short stories, The Smallest People Alive

Ten years.  Damn.  I'm not famous.  And God knows I'm not a genius.  But what's amazing to me is that this story seems to have a life beyond most of the other things I've written.  I guess it has something to do with the fact that when I wrote it I was trying to merge all aspects of my life together:  people with developmental disabilties, gayness, social work, fiction, and a philosophy honed on reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, in which Flannery writes, “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”  I've always taken these words to heart in everything I've written, but in this story I think it may have yielded some of the greatest moments I could come up with.

Anyway, a student named Amanda Grace Gorman in the ENGL 375A2 DISABILITY AND LITERATURE class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia wrote a paper about my story.  (I copied it and pasted it below.)  I read it yesterday and burst into tears.  I've been writing now for 25 years or so, and have had reviews in the New York Times, Village Voice, Boston Globe, Publisher's Weekly, and blurbs from famous writers and editors who say my stuff is great, etc., but this was the first time I cried reading something somebody wrote about my fiction.  I think it has something to do with the no-nonsense connections Amanda has made with what I write and the way people with developmental disabilities are perceived and relegated.  It also has something to do with her sympathetic yet strategic way of reading my story.  There's a moral code Amanda is targeting and she finds it in my work:  what an incredible gift to me as a writer.

A true example of 2 + 2 = 5:  me the writer writing something wholeheartedly dedicated to reinventing the way people view characters with developmental disabilities in literature, and ten years later a writer takes what I did and gives it back to me fully reinvigorated.  Wow.  Another example on the same blog is four students in the class creating monologues based on some of the characters in my story that I did not give a lot of voice and agency to.  Reading those monologues made me cry too.

Maybe I'm just some overemotional freak (well wait a minute:  yes I am that), but also I think that this is probably a pretty normal thing that happens to writers all the time.  This is just my first time.  It was Amanda and the other students' thoroughness that got me.

Thanks to ENGL 375A2 at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia...

Link to the story I wrote:  "The Wedding of Tom to Tom"
Link to the ENGL 375A2 blog:  Dislit blog

Here's Amanda's wonderful paper:

Disability and Representation in Keith Banner’s “The Wedding of Tom to Tom”

by Amanda Grace Gorman

Disabled characters, perhaps because of their inherent mystery to nondisabled writers and readers alike, have always been well utilized in literature. These characters often become walking talking embodiments of their disabilities, and help to further the plotlines of the main nondisabled characters. The paradigmatic example of a disabled character in literature is Tiny Tim, the helpless, pitiable disabled boy who acts as a moral compass for Scrooge’s change of heart in A Christmas Carol. We seem to be comfortable encountering disabled characters in literature insofar as they act the part: innocent, desexualized, childlike, bent on overcoming their limitations. In “The Wedding of Tom to Tom”, Keith Banner seems to be challenging this literary stereotype to the utmost degree. He opens the story by confronting the reader with two intellectually disabled characters engaging in gay sex, an act that many people are barely comfortable reading about nondisabled characters engaging in. Banner continues his incredibly progressive representation of disabled characters in “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” by granting legitimacy to their sexualities, asking the reader to reject an infantilized view of them, and by re-imagining the kind of impact that they might have on nondisabled persons.

The fact that Banner’s representation of the intersection of sexuality and disability is a positive one is first evidenced in the text by the fact that he clearly depicts the sexual acts between Tom and Tom as intentional. Anita, after walking in on the couple mid-blowjob and forgetting to turn the lights off as she left says that she “ was getting ready to open the door and turn them off when [she] saw that one of the Toms had already got it. Almost as soon as it was dark in there again, they were making that same crazy silly sex music” (51). This shows that Tom and Tom had not only a physical understanding of what they were doing but also a social understanding, as it is common practice that lights are dimmed during intimate sexual interaction. Anita as the main narrator also makes reference to Tom and Tom’s sexual practices within terms of normal discourse: “Tom A. and Tom B. were trying to sneak off for a quickie right then, and I saw” (59). This shows that not only do the disabled characters view what they are doing as legitimate, but one of the nondisabled characters does too. Though this perhaps should not need to be the case, the fact that a nondisabled character shares this viewpoint does seem to help encourage the reading of Tom and Tom’s behavior as worthy of being understood as mature, intentional sexual behavior.

But it is also made clear in the text that Tom and Tom are not merely mimicking nondisabled sexual behavior. As Tom B. sneaks back to his room, Anita describes him as

“half-demonic, half-angelic, but dramatic, like he had gone off and now he was returning from his journey filled with beautiful new things to tell” (52). This description portrays Tom B. as seeming to understand and to have personalized the complexities of sexual life, rather than merely engaging in acts prearranged by a framework of nondisabled sexual meanings. Though their pleasure itself is described as genuine, for example Anita imagines a fantasy in which a lot of people are coming towards her all “smiling the way Tom A. does during a blow-job session”, Banner does not portray their shared sexuality as functioning merely for physical gratification (73). The love between Tom A. and Tom B. is conveyed to the reader in poignant subtle detail. For example, after the two men are split apart during group time, Anita describes Tom B., smiling, “but his eyes were afraid at the same time. He blew out a sigh and let go of Tom A’s hand…” (58). The fact that the men are constantly split up ends up being read not as a necessary precaution, but rather a tragic element of their love story. The “stack of old-timey bridal magazines, worn out from looking at them”, that Tom A. has stacked in his room, clearly is meant to evoke a kind of sympathy from the reader that differs from the kind of pity one might have for two adults with mental retardation engaging in sexual acts devoid of an understanding of their meaning (65). When Tom B. talks about his relationship with Tom A. Anita describes his face as “sincere and stupid and scary and beautiful”, the kind of face she cannot say no to (66). By the time in the text wherein Anita plans a wedding for the two men, the reader understands why she would want to do something nice for these two men who are unquestionably in love.

It is because of the tender details of their love that Banner includes in the story that the reader ends up having such an adverse reaction to Anita’s boss Kate’s viewpoint on the relationship of Tom A. and Tom B. which is that it is a problematic one, characterized by a strange obsession with each other’s presences. Her view of the two men only makes sense within an infantilizing, paternalistic view of disability that denies disabled persons their own agencies to make informed decisions for themselves. In a meeting for workers at the home, Kate expresses her concerns about the two Toms: “I mean, what I’m afraid of is that they are gonna end up hurting each other. Physically. There’s all kinds of issues here. I mean when I walked in on them the other morning, Tom A., excuse me, but Tom A. was anally penetrating Tom B.” (63). It is clear that this is not a rational concern, proof being that it is indicated that the men have been together for many years without much incident, but rather Kate’s “concern” seems to be a matter of attempting to rationalize her paternalistic motives. Kate’s assumption that the two men cannot make their own decisions despite their apparent competence may be related to a belief that their choosing to be in a homosexual relationship is indicative of an impaired ability to choose appropriate partners due to their mental


However, Kate is emphatically not a sympathetic character, which reveals that Banner wants the reader to reject Kate’s infantilizing view of the intellectually disabled characters. The reader is not supposed to like Kate, who is first described as “smiling like a whack-o” (51). But furthermore, her way of demeaning others and undervaluing their capabilities is shown not to be caused by real necessity insofar as she works with needy disabled individuals, but rather a manifestation of an undesirable personality trait. After the meeting Kate has with the (nondisabled) workers at the home Anita relates that it “…got quiet, like we were all suddenly little kids and Kate Anderson-Malloy was the teacher” (64). The fact that Anita constantly refers to Kate with all three of her names, Kate Anderson-Malloy, helps locate more specifically what Kate’s undesirable personality trait is: pretension. In fact, throughout the story Anita expresses her frustration with Kate’s assumed superiority. For example, she says at one point, “I mean, she’s a bitch…but also there’s this weird, loud, lovingness in her face as she pronounces her proclamations, like against her compassionate instincts she’s always having to tell us these things” (63). As Anita has trouble pinpointing just what is so terrible about Kate’s opinion that the two men need to be separated, all the while she does not doubt that the two men should have “permission” to be together. Banner seems to be saying that of course love between two adults should be allowed, this should be an unquestionable fact, one that should not need arguing for.

As progressive as the narrative is in representing the intersection of disability and sexuality and rejecting the appropriateness of infantilizing mindsets, it runs its biggest risk of falling back into the conventions of the archetypal disability narrative in making the disabled characters somewhat auxiliary to the dynamic narrative of the main character. Not only this, but it does seem to be the implication that the protagonist Anita, a nondisabled character, is looking to learn something from the disabled persons at the group home. In fact, she describes her job there as her “antidote” to what she had been through with her ex-boyfriend. She explains that she feels like she is “paying penance too but just for being a total fucking fool” (57). But Banner now departs from the typical nondisabled character learning from disabled characters structure. The familiar storyline might include disabled characters overcoming their limitations in some way or learning to cope with their disabling conditions and a main nondisabled character that finds that inspiring. In “The Wedding of Tom to Tom” there is no talk whatsoever of overcoming disability, and what the nondisabled Anita finds inspiring about Tom and Tom is their love story and the endurance of their love through hard times.

Banner makes it very obvious at certain points in the text that Anita draws analogy between her relationship with Archie and Tom and Tom’s relationship. For example, she admits that when picking up the Toms before their impromptu wedding that she is “thinking: well it’s me and Archie in my head, if you want to know the truth” (69). Later on, Anita imagines within her prophetic fantasy of Tom A. and Tom B.’s happy life together, “Love-light. Lava-lamp light” (73). She then immediately connects this to a memory of Archie: “Archie has a lava lamp in his bedroom, or used to. He would turn it on in the dark while we made love. “Real cheesy,” he would say (73). There are also more subtle comparisons in the text that truly bring to light the resonance for Anita of Tom and Tom’s love. In the car with the Toms in the back seat, Anita remembers a moment with Archie: “…and this was love, without crack and without any lies and without his petty-assed, trashy ways. Maybe, maybe not. I see them back there in the rearview. Tom A. and Tom B. Looking straight ahead” (70). Here Anita is looking back to the past to recall a pleasant memory of Archie before they began to have problems and questioning whether or not she loves him. This stands in stark contrast to the reflection in her mirror of the two Toms sitting in her backseat, looking straight ahead, unflinchingly, resolutely, in love and looking towards the future. In addition, Banner even seems to evoke the blowjob motif first encountered in the opening lines of the story when Anita decrees to the reader in a moment of unbridled passion for Archie, “if he had a crack-pipe I would let him stick it into my mouth” (75).

Ultimately, though, it ends up being not just the inspiration of Tom and Tom’s relationship that leads to Anita’s epiphany of her love for Archie at the end of the story. It seems rather to be the fact that he on some level grasps the fact that Tom and Tom are in love, and would never think to question it. This almost seems to conjure the archetypal image of the disabled character acting as a moral compass, but I argue, differs in a fundamental way. Archie can in no way be seen as a moral hero for the way he treats disabled characters, for in fact he does not even interact with the disabled characters. He merely hears the crazy sex music of the Toms through the wall separating their hotel room from his and Anita’s and “isn’t disgusted” or “even perturbed” (76). It is this, instead –his attitude towards love, that it cannot and should not be denied no matter how difficult or unusual the circumstances, which is evidenced by his seemingly natural acceptance of Tom and Tom, that makes Anita realize that she loves him.

By representing the disabled characters as sexual, adult individuals capable of making decisions for themselves, and capable of inspiring people in ways other than attempting to overcome their impairments, Banner breaks from traditional uses of disabled characters in literature. Instead he comes closer to representing people with disabilities as they actually might appear in the world, as nuanced, complicated individuals with their own ideas, goals, and values. Banner’s story might be read as an argument for the transcendent quality of love, for its ability to reach beyond the socially sanctioned places it is supposed to be confined to and manifest itself in anyone. By including disabled characters in this argument, Banner in a small way begins to right the wrongs of his predecessors. He gives disabled characters back their humanity.

* I am indebted to my peer, Helen Alston, for this insight. Her complete explication of this passage through the joint lens of sexuality and disability is available at our Disability in Literature course blog at…

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Break Down

Collaboration breaks down the ego and the mechanics of making art; it supplies a new way to figure out how to invent the wheel.  It also allows for biography to be erased, so that eventually only the collaboration, and not the singular artists who created it, become the focus of interest and inspiration.
"2 + 2 = 5: Collaborations" opens the last Friday in April at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  If you make collaborative works, contact us about possible inclusion in this show.

Above:  collaborative work by Becky Iker and Bill Ross...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It Happens in Threes

Three simultaenous shows in Cincinnati about beasts and not on purpose:  (from top to bottom) Jeremy Johnson at Praire in Northside, "Beastiary" at Manifest in Walnut Hills, and Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s Bill Ross at the Bonbonerie in O'Bryonville.  Go see all three shows in one day and finish up at the Zoo.  Then eat some animals crackers.  Call it a day.  (All shows are up through the end of this month.) 

Saturday, November 13, 2010


The pleasure of watching Fox's Glee is witnessing a group of outcasts form their own unique society through an interest in performing and using that performance as a way to seek glamorous revenge on those who have consigned them to the status of "freak."  Every week the Gleeks get victimized:  the stridently talented girl-singer is egged in a parking lot, the gay kid is thrown into lockers, the pregnant teen is ostracized by her once tight network of cheerleader friends, the guy in the wheelchair is pushed down the stairs...  And all this humiliation is answered through heartfelt, intense performances of pop songs.  The catharsis comes through karaoke, only it's not mimicry the Glee cast is indulging in:  it's reinvention through pop, self-acceptance channelled through a song on the radio.  The pleasures Glee offers all of us losers are intensely satisfying because we have constant access to both sides of the equation in our daily lives:  we all get treated like crap, and we all crank up the radio in the car when Lady Gaga belts one out.    

It's the same beautiful vengeance you feel at the end of Carrie when our pig-blood-covered teenaged heroine finally lets loose the hounds of hell at prom; only with Glee it's a really splendid rendition of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" that does it for us.  Carrie is performing her pain in that famous horror movie scene, but remember:  she is the Queen of the Prom and the Queen of the Night combined in that image, and her power not only comes from what has been done to her, but also from her own glamorous transformation from dowdy girl in the gym showers having tampons tossed at her by mean girls to this figure of both horror and transcendence at the end of the movie:  the center of attention, a centrifugal force of teenaged pain and telekinesis not singing her way out of outsiderdom, but burning the whole stupid joint down just because she can.


The connection between the pain of daily humiliation and the release of a triumphant performance, between being bullied and glamorously confronting those bullies in show-tune showdowns, is palpable especially now because of the media coverage of gay teenaged boys killing themselves after being tortured by classmates.  The fury that comes from knowing this is happening is always quivering under the surface now.  And it's not just a pop-song we're talking about here, but still Glee provides a public service:  it allows us to know the truth (the gay kid getting thrown into lockers and worse) and the beautiful fiction it takes to transform and survive (that same gay kid singing a song from Victor/Victoria and all the other Gleeks clapping amazed and stunned by his talent).  Without fantasy, without music, without performance, the torture becomes an unbearable malignant force.

Watching Glee, I keep thinking of Todd Browning's 1932 controversial masterpiece FreaksFreaks is a revenge-fantasia concerning sideshow freaks taking revenge on the "normal" people who are trying to trespass into their own happy society.  The freaks in the movie (people with disabilities ranging from microcephalia to leglessness, a bearded lady, midgets, conjoined twins, etc.) survive through performance:  they use what is seen as "wrong" with them as a way to make a living, strutting their stuff inside tents and cages to suckers who pay to see them.  But the movie never catches that gaze:  it's interested in how freaks live and survive and flourish behind the scenes, and it is that society that both Glee and Freaks tap into, that cultural creative diaspora that allows groups of people often consigned to "outsiderness" to reinvent what it means to be "real," what it means to be alive.  

The penultimate, most gorgeously hilarious and strangely heart-warming scene in Freaks happens a little past midway in the movie, when the Freaks gather for an acceptance dinner.  The circus' beautiful trapeze artist has agreed to marry the leader of side-show performers, the midget named Hans.  The trapeze artists is not a freak, and she has secret plans of killing Hans after their wedding in order to get his inheritance.  At this dinner all of his sideshow friends (not knowing his betrothed's evil plans) pass around a goblet filled with wine, everyone taking a sip from the loving cup while chanting, "Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us."  Over and over the phrase turns into a beautiful song.  The camera lovingly pans from sideshow freak to sideshow freak, everyone happy and free and enjoying each other's company (kind of like the choir-room in Glee). 

"Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!  Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!"

But the trapeze artist is not amused.  She just can't take it anymore.  She turns on the chanting folks and screams, "Freaks!  Disgusting freaks!"

There is a moment in this scene of pure guttural rage flowing through the shot-down happiness of the party.  The bully here is outnumbered however.  The mob has switched from chasing the monster to being chased:  the monster now is the mob.  The freak controls the room.  This morality changes the atmosphere.  There is a close-up of the trapeze artist's face.  She is dumbfounded and horrified and amazed.  Freaks are people too, she seems to understand.  But it's way too late for sorry.

Glee captures this same shift in the moral code, only in slightly less horror-movie terms of course.  But the sentiment is there:  freaks shall inherit the earth.  Now let's all break into a song.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Art vs. Social-Work

At the Comet  (the bar a couple doors down from Thunder-Sky) Friday night, I escaped the fun during one of Thunder-Sky, Inc.'s best openings to have a few drinks, and I got into a discussion with one of the artists in the exhibit, Bruce Burris, plus a friend of his.  Bruce is a great guy.  I don't think this will make him upset, but I feel like we have a lot in common:  we're both a little highstrung, passionate, and very very sensitive, especially about art and outsiderness and "disability" and the whole nine yards. 

So Bruce asked me a question about Antonio Adams.  About whether what we are doing for Antonio through Thunder-Sky, Inc. is about art or about social-work.  There was a lot more to the conversation than that of course.  I've boiled it down to that essence because I've been perseverating on that art/social-work binary all weekend, and even now here in a Starbuck's in Columbus, Ohio. 

First off, what Bill and I do for Antonio is try to help him stay inspired, and also we listen to him.  I like to think that we are among some of Antonio's best listeners.  We also try to supply him with art supplies, and a space to come to make stuff when he gets tired of making art in his bedroom.  Bill and I have known Antonio for ten years now, and I think more than anything else we are friends with one major thing in common:  we understand that Antonio is a genius.  Antonio knows it, Bill and I know it.  We also share in the Cult of Ray.  It was Antonio, Bill and my idea to cofound Thunder-Sky, Inc.  It was Bill and Antonio who came up with the concept of the big beautiful Raymond mural on the side of the building in Northside where Visionaries & Voices (V&V) is housed.  And it was Bill, Antonio and I who really pulled together the whole concept around V&V back in the day.  Antonio, Bill and I have traveled to Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Nashville (TN), Columbus (OH), Indianapolis, Louisville (KY), Chicago and several other places to exhibit Antonio's brilliant art.  I've written countless news releases, blogs, articles, letters of support, grant proposals, etc., all with Antonio in mind.  And maybe most importantly (I hope) with Thunder-Sky, we have created a space for Antonio to be a part of that is not about "disability" or "outsiderness."  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is a gallery and a studio that is about fostering connections among all kinds of different artists without talking about the same concepts and narratives and tropes.

This brings me back to that binary:  art vs. social-work.  Is what we're doing either one really?   

We don't have connections with Big City Galleries.  We can't offer Antonio acceptance into the Whitney Biennial or whatever.  But my hope is that by creating a space where he can flourish, and other people can too, without foregrounding "disabilities," then we might be able to build an audience who will eventually be interested in supporting him.  As we keep trying to reinvent what art and social-work are supposed to do, maybe they merge into a sort of bliss, an irregular heartbeat that is better than a regular one.  Maybe what we are trying to do with Thunder-Sky, Inc. is reinvent a heartbeat.

I don't know.  I really don't.

I think when we do the art/social-work split we lose track of what both concepts are.  And we start forming the same old narrative in our heads about "outsider artists."  I really want Antonio not to be a part of that cliche.  It's always been amazing to me when I go to outsider art shows or read outsider art criticism, I feel a sort of voyeuristic weirdness steaming off it all, not intentional, but still:  the art of "The Outsider" is special because the artist is in need of social-work services.  Social work in that context becomes a code for "other," I think:  an exotic world of poverty and doctor visits and being "helped."  Antonio is saner and smarter than anyone I've ever known.  He is so down-to-earth he wants to eliminate cellphones, God bless him.  (See the painting above.)

So at the end of the day:  I really want Antonio to be a superstar.  But I want him to be a superstar on his own new terms.  We're trying.  We really are.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Yet to Be Born

This decade has been a strange experience in loss for me. This Friday 10-22-10 marks the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I found out she had cancer in June of 2002. That same day I found out Raymond Thunder-Sky had cancer as well. He passed away 10-29-04. The 6th anniversary of his passing will mark the first year anniversary of the opening of Thunder-Sky Inc.

In January of 2008 I lost my father and in Sept 2009 an artist Keith and I championed, Donald Henry, passed away suddenly. The recent passing of Brian Joiner shook me more than I thought it would. I thought knowing this was likely based on his condition would have lessened the effect.

I ran across a piece I wrote about “Vision and Mission” which I shared with all the staff at Visionaries & Voices on 10-22-08. In it, I tried to address how the death of my Mother and loss of Raymond Thunder-Sky shaped the urgency of what we (Keith and I) were trying to accomplish.

Here is a little bit of it:

I consider art as a great equalizer. When artists collaborate, it is one of the best ways I know of to step outside yourself and become a part of a larger conversation and a larger art world. The “Guernica Project” Antonio Adams and Brian Joiner are currently finishing up is a great example of what I am trying to say. Using one of Picasso’s most famous works as a spring board into a new work, Antonio and Brian are creating a work neither of them would be able to accomplish on their own.

As a co-founder of V&V, I appreciate your struggles and am proud of your accomplishments. It is my hope, my dream, my vision to someday see V&V serving the Raymond Thunder-Sky’s, the Antonio Adams and the Brian Joiners yet to be born.

I closed with this:

Today 10-22-08 my Mom would be 76 years old and Raymond would have been 58. Let’s make it a point to live our lives no matter how long or short with a sense of “Vision and Purpose”. Helping artists achieve a greater sense of their worth in this life is mine.

Top:  Donald Henry and Bill Ross
Bottom:  Becky Iker and Bill Ross

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Antonio and Brian: Imagination and Skill

Above, Antonio Adams works on a drawing at Thunder-Sky, Inc., about Brian Joiner, who passed away this week at the age of 49.  Brian was an incredible artist and mentor to Antonio.  They worked on several projects together, including a beautiful suite of large paintings that paid homage to Picasso's Guernica back in 2009.   Antonio's drawing is an episodic and fictionalized account of Brian's life through Antonio's magical looking glass.  Antonio pays homage to Brian's imagination and skill with his own imagination and skill.  Brian will be missed. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Barely Discernible Moments of Utopia

Donald Henry passed away last year.  There's a retrospective of his work at the Northern Kentucky University Main Art Gallery in Highland Heights, Kentucky, up until October 29, 2010.  We went there last night and got to see his work, and this reminded me of the first one-man show he had at Semantics Gallery in Cincinnati in 2007.  I wrote a poem about it.  In the picture above, Donald is hugging David Dillon, who I think helps run the Semantics Gallery.  Folks from Visionaries and Voices sewed a painted-cloth version of one of his paintings on the back of his suitcoat.  I will never forget that night.  A total 2+2=5 moment.  Here's the poem:

Barely Discernible Moments of Utopia

The art gallery was cold as hell
Maybe about ten people were there
Some guy was trying to fix the furnace
And everybody else was standing around.

Donald’s art was up on the walls
Wood panels were lined up like
Targets on a shooting range

Mean-looking beautiful things
Those robots he does
Some with gigantic genitals
Some without.

Donald had on a shiny necktie
And a ski-mask
Drawing robot versions
Of the characters on Gilligan’s Island
While a few of us tried to remember the theme song
To that show.

Smoked sausage links
Bubbled in a crock-pot of barbecue sauce
Next to a ripped-open bag of potato chips
And some of those miniature Three Musketeers bars.

The one painting Donald did not want
To sell was the robot
With his grandmother’s name

Pink and lavender
With those match-stick lines
And a number across her chest.

He ended up selling
About $1,000.00 worth.

Donald was totally comfortable
In his ski-mask
That staccato singsong voice of his
Echoing in the art gallery like the voice of
The god of all robots

The expressionlessness
That is total expression.

That night
He went from person to person
Hugging us all like
There was no tomorrow
Letting us know

He was what he was
And this is what
He does.

Letting us know
He was capable of hugging us
It was that easy.

And then Monday came
He lives in a group-home
And he wanted to wear the same clothes he wore to the art gallery
He wanted to keep on being that way
Shiny neck-tie

I guess the ski-mask too

But the worker in the group-home was new
And she hid those clothes
Thinking they were his dress clothes
And that they should be kept clean for special occasions

Donald flipped out
Ran out into traffic
Got hit by a car

He was not killed thank God
Just bruised.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Raymond Thunder-Kids

Happen, Inc. has sponsored Raymond-related art-making workshops at their studio in Northside the past couple weeks, preparing for the Raymond Thunder-Sky Folk Art Carnival happening Sept 25 and 26, 2010, at Building Value in Northside (4040 Spring Grove, Cincy, OH 45223).  One of the activities was helping the kids make their own official clown-collars.  Look at their faces.  Amazing.  One of Raymond's beautiful eccentricities becomes a great project.  The ultimate 2 + 2 = 5.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The $50 Museum

Art for $50 and under benefiting Thunder-Sky, Inc. Opens with a mobile unit Saturday September 25, 2010 at 11 am at the Raymond Thunder-Sky Folk Art Carnival (Building Value 4040 Spring Grove Avenue Cincinnati, OH 45223). The $50 Museum returns to Thunder-Sky, Inc. after that and is up through October 15, 2010. On October 15, there will be a closing party, 6 to 9 pm.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"I Was Here"

Thunder-Sky, Inc. Cofounder Bill Ross answers three questions about making art with the late, great Donald Henry. There's a retrospective of Donald's solo works opening September 30, 2010, at Northern Kentucky University. Some of the paintings Donald and Bill did together (three of which are pictured above) were exhibited last month at 1305 Gallery in Bill's show, "Paradise," and many others will be exhibited in 2011 at Thunder-Sky, Inc.

When and how did you meet Donald Henry? I was first made aware of Donald and his work after the success of the Art Thing show in 2001. A work friend Sue Anne Krause who was working with Donald at the time brought in a batch of his drawings to our office to see what I thought. I was amazed. I then met him at the workshop he attended. And I eventually assisted Donald in being able to attend Visionaries & Voices instead of the sheltered workshop he was at.

What was it like collaborating with him? Collaborating with him was a great experience. I got to understand firsthand what it was he was after in his work when he was willing to collaborate. Some days I could just tell he wasn’t in the mood to put up with my excitement. When he was interested in working with me he would be intense but happy, sometimes he would dance a little in the middle of doing a powerful drawing. His face would just radiate with this stubborn joy. I am so glad I was able to have that experience of adding color to his line.

What does his work mean to you? Like Raymond Thunder-Sky, Donald’s work was intentional. It was his way of saying “I was here”. He sought out to capture in line and in color the need for permanence of those he cared about and the places he longed to be. He was able to reveal his true self in knowing what he wanted to do as artist. He was bold and he had authority.

Friday, August 27, 2010

That's the Look, That's the Look, That's the Look of Love

This month in Aeqai, a local Cincinnati online art-criticism journal, Alan D. Pocaro writes about the latest works by Spencer Van der Zee at Malton Gallery: "While possessing no formal education in the medium, stylistically, Van der Zee has absorbed all of the conventions associated with the look of the outsider. The drawings on display include juxtaposed images, scrawling lines, doodles, snippets of text, blobs of color, ethereal narratives, and highly rendered scenes that jostle for attention on the surfaces of the support."

I guess my question is: what exactly is "the look" of "outsider art"? The way Alan D. Pocaro frames it, the look is actually just plain old Wetsern art:

"Juxtaposed images" = Surrealism and its offshoots
"Scrawling lines and doodles" = Cy Twombley
"Snippets of text" = Jenny Holzer
"Blobs of color" = take your pick of the Abstract Expressionists on that one
"Ethereal narratives" = William Blake maybe, or Andy Warhol making movies
"Highly rendered scenes ..." = Keith Haring and all that came after.

Or that whole paragraph could be used as a way to define graphic novels about superheroes who think too much, funky-fresh, overly clever/cute ads in Details magazine, or a really cool one-sheeter advertising the Ramones with special guest Blondie back in the day.

I guess what I am getting at is that by appropriating the "look" of "outsider art," you also collapse its meaning. Which from my point of view is a good thing: it takes away the special preciousness embedded in that super-sweet narrative of the naive and innocent outsider "doodling" his/her way into your heart, or that slightly scary outsider creating "highly rendered scenes" of hell or something because he/she just can't take the real world... The good old narrative Jean Dubuffet more-of-less started in 1948, when he officially established his Art Brut collection, modeled after the art collection of Dr. Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist in Germany. Dubuffet's Art Brut collection showcased works of various media, but what made them "outsider" wasn't the "look" or "materials" as much as the biography: the artists in his collection weren't pros. It was a class thing. Dubuffet loved to talk (and often scream) about the works in his collection as alternatives to the tired artwork of Western culture.

Dubuffet's outrage at Western civilization becomes a "look," right? Just another variant of "style." That's not sad at all really, because Dubuffet's initial instinct, to use the art made by unconventional artists as a metaphor for his anger at this rotten old world was kind of self-centered, even while being revolutionary. His insight opened a lot of doors for unconventional artists, but it also created a hallway they can be lead down and then unceremoniously escorted out of.

Dubuffet's Art Brut became Roger Cardinal's "outsider art," and now it has become a a "look." Hooray. But what also is just as wonderful to think about are artists not trying to capture a look, or create art from looking at art, artists who really don't want to be artists but will put up with the whole idea of being one because they truly have something to say that scratches its way out of them visciously and quietly in rooms and trailers and day programs and bus-stations all over the universe. The "outsider art" narrative collapses under the heaviness of the "aesthetic," and what arrives in its place?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I want to be there to see it.

Above: one of Spencer Van der Zee's great outsider-looking collage/drawings, on display at the Malton Gallery in Hyde Park. Cool stuff. Like Max Ernst and Fritz Lang and Cy Twombley and R. Crumb got together and played Exquisite Corpse one afternoon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jet-fueled Ping Pong

It never fails somehow. Seeing Antonio Adams' and Tony Dotson's works together always reminds me how two plus two equals five. Their works play off and with each other in so many ways it's like watching a jet-fueled ping-pong match between Green Lantern and a stick-figure King Kong on a Saturday morning cartoon while listening to Prince sing all his greatest hits, with a Happy Meal on a TV Tray in front of you. Not kitsch, but a deeply felt nostalgia. Comic and tragic and melodramatic but with a straight-edged sense of wit.

Thunder-Sky, Inc. is here at the Atlanta Folkfest through August 22, and our booth is at the back of the North Atlanta Trade Center space, but still Tony and Antonio's works seem to be humming a loud and happy tune.

We're also featuring Dale Jackson, collaborative paintings by Bill Ross and Becky Iker, and a few Kevin Whites.

Above: close-up of a wall of Tony and Antonio's smaller works & the booth itself with me sitting there checking email.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Say Goodbye

I watched The Blind Side last night on pay-per-view. It's one of those movies I wanted to see just because of its zeitgeist purity, but also dreaded seeing because of the zeitgeist subject matter: Southern upper-middle-class white family "saves" a homeless African American high school football player from the ghetto. Based on a true story no less.

But The Blind Side blindsided me. It has a big-hearted tenacity to it, and while it is completely sentimental, the sentimentality is rooted in the excitement caused by being a do-gooder even when no one asks you to. In fact, it's the last thing most people want you to do. This seems to be the drug Bullock's Leigh Anne Tuohy is on: she really digs doing the right thing especially when it mystifies and even pisses off her family and friends. Her altruism has a shock value she enjoys, and Bullock allows that renegade spirit to shine through the right-wing polish and make-up.

Bullock's stubbornness gives The Blind Side its grit. But Quinton Aaron's performance as Big Mike gives the movie its gravity. He emboldens the orphaned left-tackle with a spirit that flickers with tenderness and fury. He is comically scary at times in the movie -- pushing little girls in their swings on the Christian school playground kind of like Frankenstein -- but then there's the scene where he washes his t-shirt out in a laundromat sink and then sticks it in a dryer and sits, contemplating the quiet and the loneliness, but also somehow savoring it all too. Aaron's triumph is that he suffuses each of his scenes with that quiet, self-taught fierceness, and he produces not just a pathetic sweet figure, but a true hero.

The movie coalesces around what "heroism" is actually: Leigh Anne Tuohy's stubborn allegiance to her true feelings of generosity and kindness, and Michael Ohler's stubborn resourcefulness and intense need to succeed, even though he does not know exactly what that "success" means. Both characters' heroic natures come from their "outsiderness." That's the movie's structure: Big Mike, the ultimate outsider, in taken into the fold, but in the process Leigh Anne Tuohy begins to understand what it means to be "outside" of her own privilege and class. The journey she's taking is pretty cushy of course, and it pales in comparison to the strife and struggle involved in Big Mike's transformation from homeless orphan to college student to pro-football recruit, but still the plot of The Blind Side pivots on the connection the two of them make, and the benefits of being outside of what's normal in order to eventually find a way to be sane.

This narrative of the insider becoming the outsider in order to allow the outsider in is a direct descendant of the plot to a movie that came down the pike in 1994. Also based on a true story, and a play before it was turned into a film by Fred Schepisi and playwright John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation stars Stockard Channing as Louisa Kittregde, a Manhattan socialite who is conned by Will Smith's Paul, an African American homeless gay man who craves insider status so bad he feigns injury and risks everything to become a part of Louisa's elegant, elite universe.

Will Smith's performance in Six Degrees is both vulnerable and vengeful; a beautiful blend of resentment, envy and love registers in just about every move he makes, and those moves in turn are watched by Louisa with an intense interest and yearning. Stockard Channing's Louisa, like Bullock's Leigh Anne, is a stylish, head-strong dame who stumbles upon a new identity, and new meaning, by empathizing with someone totally outside of her realm. It's an act of imagination really, a creative exercise in which Louisa re-creates herself by finding Paul's desire within herself.

The denouement of Six Degrees occurs when Paul finally pulls one con too many and becomes a criminal outcast sought by the cops. Louisa still cannot give up on him. Like Leigh Anne Tuohy's desire to adopt Michael, Louisa must save Paul; unlike Leigh Anne she can't because the stakes are too high, and Paul is too much of an outsider to pull into her world in one piece. This creates a tragic but cathartic ending, in which Louisa is at a luncheon with her high-society tribe, and everyone is asking her to "tell the story about that boy," that really entertaining anecdote about how she and her husband almost had their throats slashed, etc. Everyone at the luncheon table stares at Louisa, wanting all the juicy details without any of the reality or meaning or cost.

Finally Louisa breaks down and turns into a prophet, wondering outloud if Paul, who was taken into custody weeks before and absorbed into the system, has killed himself, and if "the anecdote" they all want will be the only thing left of him. She lets them know how "paltry" all their lives are, and yet that was all Paul yearned for: to be like them, to live like them. At the very end of the movie she can no longer stand her own superficiality. She breaks away both from her society and her husband. She is an outsider walking the city streets.

"Outsiderness" is a concept that gets overused. You know it has become a cliche, of course, when Sarah Palin rallies the troops around it. In the world of art and art-making, it has become an even bigger cliche, a way to type and often disregard artists who don't have a pedigree or a status significant enough to allow them in. What both these movies tell us about "outsiderness" is that the outsider truly is not the main entity that needs to be "helped." Both Leigh Anne Tuohy and Louisa Kittredge are upper-class ladies who have to realize how meaningless their lives are in order to live the lives they need to. Michael and Paul, the outsiders they come across who cause their epiphanies, are survivors; they need a roof over their heads and they need someone to stick up for them, but it is obvious they have strength far beyond their predicaments. Louisa and Leigh Anne need to connect with that strength in order to shake themselves out of their complacency.

So "outsiderness" is not about the outsider. It's about the insider mainly, and how that status must always be questioned and reinvented. The grandaddy of the concept of "outsider art," Jean Dubuffet writes, "Unless one says goodbye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and an eventual extinction.”

"Outsider art" as a concept often ossifies into a trope: untrained people making untrained art. Isn't that nice? But in actuality "outsider art" and the idea of "outsiderness" is about how training and tradition and insularity often lead to extinction. An infusion of what is uncomfortable, what is true, always has to make an appearance.

In The Blind Side there's a wonderful moment when the Tuohy's are having their Christmas card picture taken. Leigh Anne asks Michael to join the photo session. His presence in the family portrait is both jarring and sincere. Leigh Anne is "outing" the whole family as a group of people unsatisfied with who they are, and willing to let the stranger share center-stage. That strangeness becomes the way out of themselves.