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.)