Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Grace" Is the Word

Ultra-Suede is a new documentary by Whitney Sudler-Smith focused on Halston, the fashion designer who started out as a hat-maker (Jackie O wore his pill-box hat to the inauguration) and transformed himself into a household name in the 70s and 80s by simplifying fashion and marketing and personality into a crystal-clear fever-dream disco-ball.  The movie mines old video and film footage archives to produce a phantasmagorical set of montage sequences that fuse Good Morning America circa 1979, Studio 54 prancing, valcano-lit fashion runways, mayonnaise commercials, Versailles 1973, day-glo Andy Warhol portraits, beige-gray hyper-architectural party rooms filled with white orchids, the Twin Towers echoed in a hall of mirrors, etc. into a Rasuchenberg-like setpiece about the famous designer who seemed to piss away his fortune all so he could brag about how much he loved America.

Halston was a genius, the movie argues, and the way Sudler-Smith investigates his subject-matter mesmerizes you into believing.  Plus interviews with everyone from Billy Joel to Liza Minnelli allow us insight into a world of fashion, freaks and friends.  Halston was a tragic figure, Warhol sycophant Bob Colacello tells us, because of his greatness.  That greatness manifests itself most glamorously and amazingly in his clothes.  Using a wide concatenation of fabrics and hardly any sewing, Halston created caftans, blouses, skirts, and evening gowns that seem to flow out of a dream and onto a body without losing anything in the process; in his designs he took form, function and style and allowed simplicity to dictate almost every move, and yet there was nothing simple about the finished products.  "Grace" is the word.

Sudler-Smith insinuates himself into the movie's narrative in set pieces about his love of the 70s (he even drives around at times in a Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans-Am), but he truly is most effective as a naive dumb-ass asking the questions we would when confronted with people like Liza.  He seems to idolize Halston, and not understand why until he starts figuring out Halston's eminence and more importantly how human and fallible and strangely sweet he was.  I mean, as the movie points out, Halston's most tragic flaw was his love of JC Penney's, and his trust of CEOs.

By the end I felt as if I had gone back to that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, when the world seemed horribly and beautifully off-kilter, as if the decades were crashing into one another and throbbing disco lights were being summarily extinguished by "Just Say No."  Ultra-Suede has the charm, innocence and decadence needed to both eulogize and re-crown a genius.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Welcome to the Monkey House

Diane Arbus:  "A Woman with her Baby Monkey, New Jersey 1971"

Andy Serkis as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Movies do things to you, even movies that you think you are too good for.  Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a late summer blockbuster that seemed like a waste of time, one of those "franchise" movies trying to squeeze whatever juice it can from a mostly dried up concept:  monkeys ruling the earth.

So I saw it on TV the other day and I was floored.  Emotionally crippled for a little while. 

The movie has the grace and pace and eeriness of an early Cronenberg masterpiece like Dead Ringers smashed together with the popcorn glee of the very first Planet of the Apes.  Rise tells the story of Caesar, a chimpanzee born in a medical lab whose mother, Bright Eyes, is being injected with an experimental drug that supposed to eradicate Alzheimer's.  At the very beginning of the picture, Bright Eyes goes berserk because she does not want her secret child discovered.  Once he is discovered, however, James Franco's goofy. sweet, intense scientist adopts him, and they become linked parentally, spiritually, and morally.  It's the Moses story spliced with Spartacus

What allows Rise to escape its conventions is Andy Serkis.  Through the "magic" of motion-capture technology, Serkis portrays Caesar without wearing a monkey mask.  He is transformed digitally into his chimpanzee-ness, but that transformation somehow increases the emotional power of what he accomplishes as an actor.

It's all in the eyes.

Rise reminds me of how intimate, creepy, perfect, and simple movie-acting should and can be.  Serkis's eyes carry the movie through its many plot machinations, as if behind all those glossy computer-generated cosmetics are beams of light so strong you are allowed to forget the fakery and enter a place where chimpanzees actually do feel, talk and organize themselves into a kick-ass army about to take over Planet Earth. 

But the quintessential moment of the movie, for me, comes in a scene early on, when Caesar is taken for a walk in the park and he sees a dog on a leash, and then realizes he himself is on a leash too.  The expression in his eyes is one of disappointment, terror, fear, and hurt:  all this time he was actually thinking he was the equal of his human counterparts.  Now he knows he is not, and that knowledge is our doorway into his pain, and the movie's triumph.

I remembered a photograph taken by Diane Arbus while watching Rise.   It's titled  "A Woman with her Baby Monkey, New Jersey 1971," and I saw it in September at a retrospective of her work at the Tate Modern in London.  A skinny, ghostly and kind of ghastly-looking lady holds a baby monkey in her lap.  Both sets of eyes look right into Arbus's camera, as if to challenge us out of mockery.  And then as you look deeper you see there can be no mockery because this is life:  this is kindness, weirdness and bravery.  The baby monkey is being protected by this possibly insane lady, and yet the baby monkey seems also to be protecting the lady from something all of us fear:  being alone, being disconnected from the world, shattered and lost.  That baby monkey on the lady's lap is her connection to us somehow.

When Caesar recognizes he is just a goddamn dog on a leash I felt that same sense of displacement, and the movie guides us into an understanding of how horrifying and eventually empowering choosing not to be a dog on a leash can be. 

Monday, December 19, 2011


Will Tucker and Jacob Isenhour's onesheeter for "Buy an Hour."

The post below this one is my personal, kooky, and freewheeling take on an art exhibit at a little local art gallery here in town called Museum Gallery Gallery Museum.  The exhibit is titled "Buy an Hour," and it features art by two gentlemen with BFAs and MFAs, Will Tucker and Jacob Isenhour.  Upon seeing the show on its opening night I was truly inspired.  It seemed to me to be about a mystical yet landlocked convergence of working-class angst, visual mischief, and poetic ambitiousness, a dreamy vignette in which William Carlos Williams and Marcel Duchamp have started running a meth lab together.

Here's the artist Will Tucker's response to what I wrote:  "Although I appreciate the complimentary tone of this review such cannot justify the kind of hijacking it attempts. This review reproduces that Dickean trope that buttresses a modernist teleology against a pre-modern Appalachian/rural other. Such fascination with the grotesque is an expression of the uncanny shock where modernity experiences its land base."

I wrote a smart-alecky response back to him, which you are welcome to read in the comments section below the original post.  But I got to thinking Sunday as I was watching football all day about Will Tucker's weird, over-the-top, and somehow anxious reply to my reaction to his show, and I remembered the onesheeter that had accompanied "Buy an Hour."  (I scanned it in; see above.) 

A brief little comment on the show's intention and the artists' relationships and credentials, the onesheeter states, "With a common concern for how labor conditions and production time dominate environment and energy relations, these artists look for ideas and potentials that outfall property lines."  At the time of seeing the show I remembered reading this sentence and that is kind of what made me go with what I wrote.  I thought embedded in that rhetoric was a desire for transgression somehow.  "Potentials outfalling property lines," etc.  The show itself transgresses playfully, mixing "nature" and "man-made" in little sick ways that reminded me of my white-trash childhood.  I remembered the boredom and fear of being left alone when I was little and my mom and dad had to go to work, and all the trash and objects in and around our rundown house turning magically into objects that could "mean" something beyond just being there.  This transformation occurred because the circumstances of being left by myself dislocated my perception of the natural world, spun me out of the norm and into the universe left to me when I was all alone and afraid no one was coming back.  The art in "Buy an Hour" allowed me re-entrance into that world.  It allowed me to rehash my "fascination with the grotesque."  And by "grotesque," I'm referencing Bahktin's version, the one in Rabelais and His World, the grotesque trope used as a comic figure of profound ambivalence, displacement and transference.  The kind of literary and philosophical grotesquery that allows you the pleasure of reversing your idea of good and evil, beautiful and ugly.  (By the way, I could be identified as possibly the penultimate "Appalachian/rural other."  I'm from Johnson City, Tennessee, working-class, raised Fundamentalist Baptist, and yup:  gay.  You name it.  In other words, I wasn't being "teleological."  I was being "ontological.") 

However, Will Tucker seems to want to block that entrance in his response to my post.  He seems to have found meaning in his work prior to it being seen, and that meaning, he seems to feel, needs to be protected with a fence made out of $100 words.

I wonder if Will Tucker was not credentialed and not making art in that sense of what "meaning" means he might allow for meanings beyond philosophy and post-structuralism. 

Which brings me around to the topic I beat like a dead horse:  outsider art.  "Outsider artists" simply by BEING "outsider artists" are posited as not "owning" the meanings of their works; they make art reclusively, so the story goes, without regard for the art-world or its meanings and meaning-makers. 

BFA- and MFA-less, Antonio Adams is an artist we champion at Thunder-Sky, Inc., the art gallery I oversee along with a few other folks.  Often working under the title "outsider artist," Antonio does his artistic "research" when not being a busboy at Frisch's.  Antonio creates buckets and buckets of meaning, but he doesn't claim that meaning as his sole property I don't think.  I really don't think he cares too much about what people think, other than folks showing up and possibly buying some of it.  Or cute girls telling him how great he is.  However, the universe he is creating, the identity he is trying to fashion (as an artist outside of dichotomies, institutions and academies), is quite precious to him.  And to me and several others who know his work.

Take a look:

Antonio Adams' new painting
In many of his paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures, Antonio is positioning himself as a maestro of an ongoing orchestra.  This new painting has the absolute clarity of a WPA mural mingling with the bright lights of Broadway and the chaos and absurdity of your favorite guilty-pleasure reality show.  "Meaning" in Antonio's aesthetic is (another Bahktin term) "heteroglossic," a matrix of conflicts, comedy and just plain moxy.  In fact, Antonio references every form of culture (both high and low) in his oeurvre.  In other words, the "meaning" in Antonio's work comes through a little clearer than in Will Tuckers' because of the confidence of not wanting to control outcomes, not caring who sees it or how it buttresses a reputation.  As the saying goes:  show, don't tell.  I think the same thing could be said of Will Tucker and Jacob Isenhour's "Buy an Hour."  No hijacking was intended at all, but what I assumed was that their art was up for interpretation and celebration in terms beyond "deterministic time systems."  I guess I just wanted the gloriously evokative simplicity of their art to be what I wrote about, sans the self-made complexity of what they think it should mean.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Nothing Would Sleep in That Cellar"

I went to the opening of a show at Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum last night, in its new space in Brighton here in Cincinnati, and as soon as I walked in I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.  Which is a good thing.  "Buy an Hour," a two-person gig starring artists Jacob Isenhour and Will Tucker, comes complete with a one-page Xerox explanation about the genealogy and purpose of hedge-apples, the credentials of the artists, and some abstract notions about "discipline, regimented labor, and deterministic time systems."  But all that is truly just hokum when you experience this show in the flesh.  Words spin and melt away like your dead grandpa's pills tossed into the commode, and you are at once confronted with a feeling of awe, comfort and nausea.  The gallery space has been transformed into what happens when boredom meets ambition, when all the crap left behind at construction sites intermingles with nature's dross and the desire of a couple of really serious artists to grapple with re-imagining what "country living" actually means, and can do to you. 

The art on the walls and floor is beautifully curated and oneirically off-kilter.  All of it is lit in a mishmash of lighting reminiscent both of a barn in a horror movie and a one-act play about loneliness in a small town.   A strand of gangrene-colored hedge-apples are tossed onto the floor like a giant's horrible, tacky jewelry.  Hybrids of potted concrete and rotting hedge-apples with sticks sprouting from the top anchor the whole gorgeous mess, and catercorner to the hedge-apple necklace are two spinning pickle-buckets, making a noise kind of like hamsters on amphetamines.  On the walls are blond-wood framed detritus, beautifully unfinished yet completely "there" paintings/collages/whatever captured from demolished rooms. 

Serendipity transforms into perception in this show.  Both Isenhour and Tucker re-purpose to the point of no return, and beyond even that -- conjuring a backwoods laboratory where hedge-apples morph into heroin-tumors, and "crystal-meth" is just another word for nothing left to lose.  The gallery space is a limbo of objects and waste, a place between Heaven and Hell where you go to wait for bad news, and the only solace is that you are indoors.  Industrial, sleek, bluesy, creepy, working-class, and very distinct, "Buy an Hour" is one of the best shows I've seen around here in a while. 

I kept hearing Theodore Roethke in my head as I walked through.  One of the greatest 20th Century American poets, Roethke's works often celebrate the dank and dark place where man tries to find peace in nature, and nature doesn't actually ever return the favor.  His poems about ditches and graves and journeys into the wild represent a dangerous world of objects and emotions preserved in a silence you can only hear when you're not there.  I'll end with one of my favorite Roethke poems, which for me is a replacement for the perfunctory "Buy an Hour" Xerox:
Root Cellar
Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

John Hinckley, Jr., Captain America

The other day on the radio the announcer said John Hinckley, Jr., the guy who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was found innocent by reason of insanity, wants more privileges.  Instead of going home to stay with his mother for ten days a month, he wants 24.  The Federal Attorneys in John's hearing on this matter quoted the Secret Service as saying that John is a liar and narcissist.  They said, for example, this summer his mother dropped John off at the movie theater to see Captain America.  But instead of going to the movie, he walked over to the Barnes & Noble and looked at books about presidential assassinations.  Then he went out to a bench, the Secret Service said, and sat down in front of the movie theater, telling his mom when she picked him up that he saw Captain America, and also later that week John went to a gathering with his mother and told friends and neighbors how wonderful Captain America was and how they must see it.

This story is reminiscent of the ridiculousness of a really good Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, but also showcases the tragic banality of real life.  The core of it is John searching out images of his own ghostly fame, that secret stardust the Secret Service will never see.  The unmitigated gall of this insane assassin!  Or is it just human nature?  Puffy-faced, intent on shaping his own weird shady legacy, John is a performance artist in this vignette, using Captain America as his cover and his allusion to bigger and better worlds, and to normalcy itself.  I haven't seen Captain America, but I did catch a preview of it, and it seemed to focus on the transformation of a skinny, heartfelt little guy who gets beefed up by a sci-fi machine in order to fight Nazis.  In the process of transformation a costume appears:  red white and blue with a shield and mask and everything.

Flash on John:  pants that probably don't fit, pit stains, hang-dog yearning.  A sadsack with mental problems looking for love in all the wrong places, dreaming of that one day when he got what he wanted.  All that attention, all that drama.  He still walks the earth like that.  And the Secret Service follows.  There has to be a loneliness like a hot light reaching through his clothes, burning and not burning his skin, like someone is always taking a picture of his heart. 

He doesn't know any better, and yet he's guilty none-the-less.  The subtitle of Captain America is "The First Avenger."  John could have chosen ten or eleven other summer blockbusters at the multiplex as his alibi.  I'm betting that subtitle was what drew him to that initial scheme.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ghost of a Chance

Susan Boyle's new album, Someone to Watch over Me, kills me. 

And it's only partially because she won that big contest despite looking like a Neanderthal merged with Little Orphan Annie back in 2009.  The songs she and/or her managers/producers have chosen have a resounding oddness and poetry simply because of her voice, status and charm, a bone-deep mysteriousness both from the musical arrangements and the singular, studied, mystical way Susan sings. 

Susan actually offers up a rendition of "Enjoy the Silence" by Depeche Mode that brings me to tears.  The way it's been produced, the song is no longer a vibrating neo-disco chant, but a sleepy, sophisticated, seductive ballad.  I play it going on home visits, driving through rundown working-class neighborhoods.  The journey kind of goes cinematic and spiritual, Susan's voice turning peeling vinyl siding and wet barking dogs and upside-down toys in the mud into images from a tragic, delicate independent movie in my head.  Some sincere, enchanting documentary about abandoned hopes and dreams, etc.

"Enjoy the Silence" bleeds into Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and that ethereal treatise on something being lost and something being gained in living everyday bleeds into the late Jeff Buckley's "Lilac Wine," one of those songs that make you feel like you've dropped in on a dream while it's still in progress. 

This is an album that makes you want to succumb to its bittersweet spell so you can officially be invisible. 

Susan's transformation from that creepy kinky-haired She-Devil to Sophisticated Song Stylist is no longer the main story here.  However it happened, Susan has started to create a body of work that feels authentic and has a comforting melancholic gloss.  Like the Carpenters' or Bread's or Gordon Lightfoot's, Susan's oeuvre has a lasting sting to it because of the mix of easy-listening approachability and sorrow, show-biz and serious longing.  Someone to Watch over Me is a slick, rigorous, and slightly off-kilter collection of songs about not getting what you want.  One of the few newly written songs on the album, titled "This Will Be The Year,"  already feels like a classic.  All about lost chances and trying over and over to get things right, Susan sings the song with the depth, hurt and majesty of all people who've not been taken seriously and who stow away doubts and taunts until one day they get the chance to fly out of the ashes of their lives.  Revenge somehow leaks out of every note in "This Will Be the Year."  It feels like Susan is confronting all those people who laughed at her, or considered her a lost cause, or just plain ignored her.  That's the feeling I get:  all those people who never thought she had a ghost of a chance, and now here she is ghostly and powerful, haunting pop culture with a grace and dignity that almost out-shimmers Adele.

Here's to you, Susan:  to who you were but especially to who you are now, and to that lovely, distinct, musical pain and suffering that allows us a brief respite from true sadness.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

Evan Glodell has made a strange, vicious, creepy, fascinating, hyper-romantic little movie, a visionary melding of David Lynch's Blue Velvet and David Fincher's Fight Club with a spastic splash of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  High style without losing itself in style, the movie zooms out and back into itself in fire-breathing intervals; the cinematography exhibits symptoms of high blood pressure, each scene and image coming at you in a dizzying swirl of unmedicated colors and textures.  (Joel Hodge, the cinematographer, cannibalized lenses and parts to create a new kind of camera to shoot the film, and the result is both visceral and virtuoso, like a Hot Wheels commercial directed by Lucifer Himself.)

The plot and atmosphere have a major Lynchian scorch without the latter-day Lynchian propensity for self indulgence.  Two dumb-ass buddies in California spend their days building a flamethrower, inspired by their childhood obsessions with a VHS copy of Mad Max.  For a break they go out to get wasted and meet up with two girls who party all the time and wreak havoc the way only white-trash party girls who party all the time can. Glodell plays the main dumb-ass Woodrow, a sweet, kind, enthusiastic dweeb who falls in love with Party Girl Milly (played by Jessie Wiseman, an actress that re-brands the Scarlett-Johanson brand with more junk in her trunk and more innocence in her eyes). 

Eventually Milly ends up hurting Woodrow really bad by having sex with some guy in Woodrow's own bed.  Woodrow catches Milly and the dude and loses it, driving his motorcycle into an oncoming car.  The movie then spirals into a dream/not-dream epilepsy that reveals the madness, ecstasy, torture and glory of lover's scorn transforming into perpetual revenge.  For all its flame-throwing and booze-soaked antics, however, Bellflower is lushly romantic, a sort of meditation on what it means to be "masculine" without caving into the pseudo-masculinity most movies try to reify.  Woodrow is a sadsack Mad Max, adolescent, pouty, and possibly brain-damaged; his gorgeous fury and  nihilism form the center of Bellflower's core meltdownThe energy of the film-making allows Woodrow's desperation to intermingle with the memories of your own misspent youth.  By the end of this thing you feel like you were at an all-night party in hell with Woodrow and his peeps.  You wake up with a beautiful hangover. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hopelessly Devoted to You

From Obey Giant's Facebook page:  "This poster represents my support for the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement spawned to stand up against corruption, imbalance of power, and failure of our democracy to represent and help average Americans. On the other hand, as flawed as the system is, I see Obama as a potential ally of the Occupy movement if the energy of the movement is perceived as constructive, not destructive. I still see Obama as the closest thing to "a man on the inside" that we have presently. Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let's be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people. I'm still trying to work out copyright issues I may face with this image, but feel free to share it and stay tuned...  -Shepard Fairey..."

I don't know.  Really.  I don't.  But one of the greatest things about art for me is that it moves us away from propaganda, chills the stupid heat that inspires political rants and lazy "us versus them" naivete.  And that goes for propaganda even if it's propaganda for "our side."  Fairey comes off opportunistic and self-involved and indulgent and teenaged-romantic in this little diatribe about his "new" piece of artworld branding that isn't new, and definitely does not add anything incisive or realistic to the conversation.  I especially love the part about "copyright issues."  And the way he positions himself and whoever is on "his side" as "outsiders."  The image is lifted, the politics are worn out, and the message feels like head-shop pontificating.  "Occupying" public parks and changing the system are actually not linked:  the style subverts the subject matter, and most of the main points in the media become about "free speech" and how a bunch of folks have a right to pitch tents and hold onto their sleeping bags before The Man comes in with power-washers.   These are serious times, possibly beyond "hope" and other nice little abstractions that only add idealism to a bunch of tired ideas.  If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then run-down leftist political propaganda is the saddest refuge of an artist.  It's too easy and only recycles the same emotions and the same dance of right and left, conservative and liberal.  I know everyone means well, but at the end of the day pretending you're Guy Fawkes in the 21st Century is pretty close to pretending to be John Wayne.  Symbols are fine, but they don't get the job done.  You have to get elected to school-boards and file law-suits and out-think and out-organize your foes -- not out-camp them. 

Writes Fairey:  "We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals."  What are the "tools'?  What actually are the "goals and ideals"?  I don't think anyone really knows at this point, and until they are known and spoken eloquently and forcefully (and by "forcefully" I don't mean "drum-beating" and "chanting"), the same old rhetoric achieves the same old results.

Beginners' Luck

Beginners is a sweet, super-precious, sometimes annoying but also oddly satisfying movie by Mike Mills, a graphic designer whose 75-year-old father came out of the closet a few years before he passed away.  The movie's plot is basically that:  a graphic designer's 75-year-old father comes out of the closet and a few years later passes away.  During and after all this, the sad and lonely graphic designer falls in love with a sad and lonely actress who luxuriates in hotel rooms and makes funny faces and loves love but also has a suicidal father who keeps trying to call her so she is afraid of intimacy, etc.  In fact both the actress and the graphic designer, even though thoughtfully portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Ewen McGregor, never really seem to come to fruition as the center of the movie's concerns.  It's the periphery that takes over, and that periphery is astutely and hammily brought into the foreground by Christopher Plummer as the gay old dad.  He is both charming and ridiculous, stubborn and free-wheeling, a precise depiction of something I don't think I've ever seen in a movie before:  an elderly homosexual who is conveyed to us without a lot of frills or apologies or gimmicks.  There are no cheap laughs.  He is so happy to be gay it is both funny and true, a joke but not.  I think we owe this beautiful portrait not just to Plummer's incredibly delicate yet hilariously bold performance, but to Mills, who seems to have made this movie as a love letter to his dead dad.  This could have been horribly sentimental (and it kind of is sometimes), but there's this magical atmosphere in Beginners that seems to permeate almost every scene, like the afterglow of a memory that won't let itself be erased or cheapened.  The loveliest image in the movie:  Plummer lying on the floor with his new boyfriend, smiling at the camera, overcome with joy. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tara and Bella

I saw this story about an elephant and a dog becoming friends at a nature preserve near Nashville, Tennessee on TV Sunday, and it haunted me to the point I had to revisit their relationship via You-Tube.  And by "haunted," I mean bursting into tears every couple of hours after seeing it.  The dog was a stray who wandered onto the preserve grounds, where elephants from all over the world are given sanctuary.   Tara is the elephant's name.  Bella was the dog's.  The images illustrating the story were like Utopian picture postcards -- Bella following Tara around, Tara petting Bella with her trunk.  Bella was killed (possibly by coyotes, although no one is sure) in the middle of the night.  But it turns out Tara carried Bella's dead body to the main office on the grounds, as if to somehow rescue her from death.  Now Tara is in mourning, and all the other elephants on the compound are trying to soothe her by giving her portions of their food.  Kindness is devastating.  It is wordless and conjured through very simple actions that have no other way to enter the world.  What happened between Tara and Bella is not human or animal.  At the risk of sounding completely flaky, it's spiritual.  A connection that can't be explained or replicated, just recognized. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

School Spirit

The child molestation scandal at Penn State, for me, is yet another rendition of how institutions turn into monsters while no one is looking.  Certainly the assistant coach who did the molestation is the nucleus of the cancerous cell, but the whole body is Penn State, a culture trying to grow itself into a sort of deification.  On the Today Show Thursday, a columnist from the New York Daily News told Ann Curry that the whole horrible issue is about "branding," and it is:  the need for the institution to "grow" beyond its natural state of being, into a way of life, into a way to worship not just academics and sports, but the institution's scope and swagger, its ability to keep growing.  That's what Joe Paterno and everyone else involved had on their minds when they made decisions.  Sure they also had a relationship with the molester, and sure they did not want to jump to conclusions, but as all this is coming out you can see it was incredibly hard to ignore the truth.  Janitors saw it happening.  Another coach witnessed it.  Families of the victims were complaining.  And still the primary goals for the institution and its mandarin society was the "brand," keeping that "brand" clean and shiny and ready to grow even larger.

That's what happens when people begin to lose the understanding that what has been created for simple purposes like learning and playing sports has somehow become a behemoth based on congregate arrogance.  So those kids and others who stomped around Penn State campus this week, pissed because Joe Paterno had been fired are just continuing that zombie dance of "branding."  They don't want to stop that growth; they want to believe in the invincibility of tradition.  It's a mirror image of the scandal that has momentarily limited the growth of the Catholic Church.  It's institutional arrogance.  School spirit turned into mob politics.

The coach/molester was allowed to thrive within the institution's blindspot because the institution willed that blindness on itself.  No ugly stories, no horrible nightmares please:  this is Penn State. 

It just so happens that I bought the first season DVD of Friday Night Lights this week, and watched the first few episodes.  I had stumbled across the show on a flight to London in September, and it blew me away.  What this TV show does best is dramatize that "branding" process I'm talking about:  small town high school football being turned into a reason to live, an institution that blocks out truth in order to keep the "brand" going, because without that "brand" many people's lives would somehow be not worth living any more. 

However, Friday Night Lights also allows us to see that those lives are worth living, with or without the Friday night game.  It conveys small-town life as beautifully complex and strange in many ways, and also lets us see how everyone both contributes to the institutionalization/deification of high school football, while also trying to struggle against its omnipresence.  Kyle Chandler plays the head coach, and of course he is gung-ho and a little jingoistic about the game, but his love for it does not allow the game to eat his common sense alive.  In one episode from this first season, the coach first stands up for one of his players when they are caught beating up another student in the parking lot of a local hangout.  The player says the kid he beat up, a fat, geeky loser who was overheard talking about how stupid football is, was "talking smack" about the team, and that justified the beating.  Chandler plays the coach with a finesse and intensity that allows us to see how he both wants to ignore the incident and also somehow applaud the beating as the ultimate example of "school spirit," and yet also we can see in Chandler's face a sort of dawning of skepticism as he inspects his own motives with the help of his wife (a guidance counselor at the school played by Connie Britton, one of the best actresses I've ever seen on TV).  Finally the couch musters the guts to confront his player and kick him off the team.  It turns out the beating was just plain old bullying.  And at the end of the episode the coach goes over to the fat geeky kid's house and apologizes to his mother and him. 

That last scene was haunted for me by the Penn State scandal.  Of course I understand the difference between TV and reality, but this time TV held the higher moral ground.  It made me think:  what would it have taken for Paterno and some of his henchmen to let go of their egos and their sense of institutional obligation, and to go over to the houses of the molested kids, and to look their parents in the eyes, and say, "We are so sorry.  We believe you."  What would it have taken for Paterno to call the cops?

Common sense. 

And an obligation to a power higher than even Penn State:  common decency.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Curated Lives

This is an illustration from a 1960s psychology textbook depicting the Eugenics process as "revealed" by the studies of Dr. Henry H. Goddard.  Goddard wrote the ur-text for Eugenics in 1912, depicting the fictitious "Kallikak" family in which he plots the "beginning" of "feeblemindedness" by finding its essences in a moral binary:  a "moron" line of descendants spawned by a "dalliance," and a "superior" line of descendants from an upstanding marriage to a "Quakeress."  While Eugenics was essentially gutted in the 1930s and 1940s, its imagery and symbolisms and metaphors still remain intact culturally (and sociologically, psychologically and morally too) in multiple ways.  In art this echo works itself out via biography and credentialization:  an "outsider" line of "instinctive, accidental" artists who make art in institutions (hospitals and day programs), and an "insider" line of professionals creating and showing their works in Institutions (art schools and museums).  When an "outsider" (like Judith Scott [see below]) is inducted into the "insider" world  the explanation of his/her diagnosis and struggle becomes one of the primary reasons for seeing and understanding the art.  The "outsider" lineage is based in the schematic above; the "insider" lineage is not connected to that.  In other words, "Quakeresses" don't have to explain where they fit in the scheme of things.  "Feeble-minded tavern girls" always need to be explained to the lay audience.  

1.  the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.
2.  a manager; superintendent.
3.  Law: a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, especially with regard to his or her property.

Institutional art (sanctioned by art schools, art historians, museums, etc.) is curated of course:  paintings, sculptures, performances, photographs, etc. all ordered and categorized, labeled, cataloged and consigned, placed in spaces that are designated as worthy of Art. 

But lives are curated too, often using those same lofty and often meaningless verbs.  In fact, the lives of people with developmental disabilities have been curated in the United States for over 200 years, when some of the first "special schools" were founded (and "special schools" here means huge institutions where people with "it" were colonized).  And still today people with intellectual difficulties, what many people call "mental retardation," are still consigned, labeled, ordered, categorized, and consigned into institutions deemed worthy of their status and abilities.  People with "it" often live in group-homes, foster-homes, and larger institutions.  They often spend their days in day programs where other people cosigned and labeled just as they are also are placed, overseen by staff.  They live under the weight of curation everyday of their lives, and the curators don't often understand that they are in fact curating, managing and supervising, using the tools of their historical (and kind of retrograde) practice.  They apply generalizations and abstractions in order to let everyone else know what to do and think when approaching the people they curate.  They surround their curated people with paperwork and rules in order for the rest of "us" to understand who they are -- in much the same way a gallery or museum curator fashions wall texts or writes an essay for a catalog, or juxtaposes one picture next to another.  These meticulous decisions are freighted with meaning for art curators -- but for curators of the lives of people with "it" no so much.  These curatorial powers (used by social workers and teachers and doctors and lawyers) have devolved into a standardized practice.  This is who you are, this is what is wrong with you, this is what you need to be safe, and these are the places you can go to be who you are.  To be what you are.

Now let's zero in on the main reason I'm writing all this.  It's about when people with curated lives make art.  Really great, interesting art.  How do we take a curated life and attribute art worthy of curating to it?  History and common practice devalue these lives to the point they need to be curated;  artists without "it" (and who make great, interesting art) are curated in exactly the opposite way.  Their art is curated by credentialed specialists whose mission it is to find what is worthy of being institutionalized.  People with curated lives more often than not are just plain institutionalized (whether it's a nursing home or a group home or their own apartments with supported living staff). 

What I want to try to figure out is how great art made by artists with "it" can smash through the complacency of both poles.  And how the curation of this art can somehow critique and replace the curation of art in the lives of artists with developmental disabilities.  This means you have to almost pull away from both mindsets.  Often when people with "it" make art they are grouped together, and the shows they are in consigned to the level of "community outreach."  When these artists with "it" are included in non-"it" shows, "it" always has to enter the picture and jargon and conversation somehow.  Maybe one of the best moves when this happens is to have every artist in this kind of show reveal their own personal diagnoses -- what society has deemed wrong with them.  Maybe then the playing field might be completely fair.

Maybe the problem isn't about "it," but the way "it" becomes the only way into each sphere.

Who knows.

Here's a snippet from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle introducing Judith Scott (above) to the world in 2002:  "Some favor the totem figures for their primal, symbolic quality. Others are drawn to the boulder forms -- bulky, egglike works that seem complete from any angle. Still others see something simple and gorgeous in the papery sculpture that resembles an ancient Egyptian mummy.  These are all works by Berkeley artist Judith Scott, pieces that have traveled in an international tour, that sell for thousands of dollars.  Some of those who like and collect the art know Scott's story. Others are drawn to the pieces for their elemental quality, for their bursts of color, for their mysteriousness -- the sense that they convey something at once hidden and exposed.  Only later do fans learn that Scott, 59, has Down syndrome. That she is deaf and mute. That for more than three decades, she was shut away in an unforgiving institution, all but forgotten. That Scott, who is one of those rare creatures, an art world star, doesn't know it."  Why do fans need to know her diagnosis?  What does this information add to the objects?  How did the writer know Scott (who passed away in 2005) "doesn't know" she was an "art star."  Is her art stardom predicated on the fact that she "doesn't know it"?  Isn't the "mysteriousness" better served by not aligning her work with diagnostics and her supposed "not knowing"?  I guess what I am trying to think through is how to separate Scott's art from a world Scott probably did not participate in:  while she had to put up with the after-effects of diagnoses and institutions created to "improve her," she resisted by making art.  But the art  is not just evidence of that resistance.  It is a product of her intellect and her ambition to be an artist.  She is a "Quakeress" much more than a "Tavern Girl."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Philadelphia Freakdom

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has a scummy, shoddy look to it and a fevered meanspiritedness at its core.  It's a really bad episode of Seinfeld directed by John Waters.  And bad on purpose.  Really, really, really bad on purpose.

I only started watching it this season so I don't exactly get the relationships and/or the premise.  But that doesn't really matter.  I have gleaned from the four episodes I've seen this season that a bunch of smarmy, creepy idiots who interact like white-trash anchor-people about to go to commercial (one female and four males, one of them being Danny Devito, who seems to be the magic-worm in this cheap bottle of tequila) are always looking for a way to, well, I really don't know.  Always looking for a way to be the penultimate smarmy, creepy idiots they are supposed to be in this universe of dead whores in hallways, chimichangas in garbage bags, and (my personal favorite) rum-ham floating delicately on the ocean's surface.  The nastiness of the show is its surrealism, and each of the puppet-characters are hell-bent on being horrible and stupid to the point there's a magical rhythm, kind of like when the Three Stooges really get going.  Only these stooges don't move around that much.  No pies or slaps in the face.  Just constant bull-shit talking.  And a sucky, vast abyss always around every corner.

My favorite episode happened a week or so ago when Danny Devito's Frank Reynolds decides to host a kiddie beauty pageant in the bar all the characters seem to either co-own or maybe just co-habitate.  The first scene is a true slapstick gem:  Devito jogs into the bar to tell everyone about his beauty-pageant idea and falls flat on his face, busting his nose.  Horrible horror-movie blood trickles down Devito's troll-like face in a gruesome, hyper-real pattern copied it seems from the Busted-Nose Hall of Fame dictionary.  The episode quickly descends into beautiful and completely politically-incorrect madness:  Frank tries to cover his broken nose with funeral-home make-up, giving him the pallor and soullessness of Nosferatu with a hangover, and he spends all his screen-time with a microphone telling everyone in the audience how much he is not going put the moves on the little girls in the pageant.  Tall and blond and gawky, like a slightly less stressed Ann Coulter, Kaitlin Olsen also stands out, turning one of the contestants into her little dancing and singing co-partner, in a duet about how horrible mothers are.

In every episode I've seen, Charlie Day's weaselly face and high-pitched voice always add a sort of terrifying joy to the atmosphere.  He's the Willy Wonka on this melted-candy-bar planet.  The atmosphere rots your teeth, the people are worthless, the candy is poisonous, and every situation is contrived and quite stupid:  God do I love this show.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Too Good to be True

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is an organism constructed from completely disparate bits and pieces.  Moments most other writers would edit away are taken into the laboratory and turned into voluptuous Frankenstein fantasias:  its aesthetic can be located on an imaginary scatterplot documenting the exact location where John Barth has stopped trying so hard and Joyce Carol Oates has stopped taking her meds.  Each chapter has a new voice extolling the banal yet somehow significant (and oddly nostalgic) experiences of characters you barely get to know, and yet love and take into your soul almost instantaneously.  Passers-by become central figures, the periphery the focus.  And in these fringes Egan finds an apoplectic and apologetic record producer and his klepto assistant bumping into people and falling into their lives; each bump (like cocaine) creates a new way to reinvent the novel's plot. 

What could be seen as gimmickry transforms into bliss.  Your heart aches with each sadsack yet somehow triumphantly alive character:  a once top-notch NYC publicist in sad decline, a beefy closeted gay college student about to find a way to completely ruin his own life, a Lindsay-Lohanesque starlet about to be disappeared, a bipolar journalist trying to reinvent the reason he is what he is.  And so on.  The writing never gets in the way:  it whispers/hisses/mumbles like a voice climbing out of your head but not through your mouth.  There's even a chapter done completely as a Power Point presentation from the future.

"Something was funny a while ago," Egan writes in one chapter.  "But you can't remember what."  Goon Squad is about laughter in the face of amnesia and laughter in the face of memory:  it merges the two into a slightly uncomfortable yet completely exquisite dreamworld where no one is important and yet everyone is.  It's like one of those long, boring, beautiful Andy Warhol movies edited into coherence and transformed into a glamorous, hellish TV miniseries from 1982 that never aired because it was too incredibly strange, too good to be true.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Three-Ring Circus

"Direct Contact: Self Made Pop” opens October 22, 2011 at Bromwell's Gallery, on the second floor of Bromwell’s (117 West Fourth Street), the longest-running business in downtown Cincinnati. Bromwell’s Gallery’s mission is to bring Cincinnati fine art that is accessible to all art enthusiasts, and “Direct Contact” is an accessible, fun, unpretentious survey of art made by unconventional artists including Antonio Adams, Todd M. Coe, Cedric Cox, Tony Dotson, Drew Kidd, David Mack, Bill Ross, Spencer van der Zee, and the late Brian Joiner and Raymond Thunder-Sky.  The show is a three-ring circus, and in the center ring will be the first-time screening of "Thundeer-Sky!", the new feature-length documentary about Raymond Thunder-Sky directed by Alfred Eaker October 27, 2011 at Bromwell's....

David Mack

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Spencer van der Zee

Raymond with his drawings surrounded by clowns

Spencer van der Zee

Todd M. Coe

Todd M. Coe

Todd M. Coe

Tony Dotson and Antonio Adams

Tony Dotson

Bill Ross

Antonio Adams

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Raymond Thunder-Sky

Bill Ross

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wrecking Ball Afternoons

Guy Tillim's "Avenue Patrice Lumumba" just left the Contemporary Art Center here in Cincinnati.  I went to the CAC Monday and got to see it, not even knowing it was there and it was the last night.  I am so glad I got to see the work.  The walls of photographs were an amazing experience.  Tillim's pictures have a poetry deeply embedded inside them, as if not only light, shadow and shapes got in through the lens, but an exhausted universe making its last claim on consciousness.  Ghosts of bureaucracy, ghosts of statues that have lost their meanings and their heads, ghosts of grand hotels resembling ship-wrecks far below the ocean...  Tillim's worldview reflects a need to make meaning out of what is left behind, and to find a moment in the lonely stillness of it all that allows you to recognize what has been lost and won't ever come back. 

This is from the CAC's website:

In his project Avenue Patrice Lumumba (2007–08), South African artist Guy Tillim (b. 1962) records the architecture and infrastructure of colonial and postcolonial Africa. Patrice Lumumba (1925–61) was one of the first elected African leaders in modern times. In 1960 he became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo after his country won independence from Belgium. Only ten weeks after his speech at the independence celebrations, in which he listed various injustices and human rights violations implemented by the Belgians, Lumumba’s government was deposed in a coup. He was imprisoned, beaten, and murdered in circumstances suggesting the complicity of the governments of Belgium and the United States. Lumumba became revered as a liberator of independent Africa and his legacy has made a lasting impression in many cities throughout Africa. The streets and plazas that bear his name in western and southern Africa have come to represent both the idealism and decay of an African dream for unity.

That decay becomes a way of life, and in all the photographs you can see that evolution slowly losing its reason to evolve and yet there it all is, brick, concrete, steel and shade, vast boulevards and balconies haunted by emptiness.  You can't erase the world.  You can only watch it slowly try to erase itself.

And of course I thought about Raymond Thunder-Sky.  How his drawings depict that same sort of alienation, that same sense that everything goes away and stays at the same time.  Especially in his drawings of interiors, Raymond seems intent on finding that exact moment when you feel both lonely and yet also past loneliness:  the room becomes what you are feeling, and you lose a sense of yourself. 

Then you disappear.