Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Down to Earth

U-Turn Art Space is about to come to an end.  It feels sort of like the last episode of Friends , that weird nostalgic ache, that sense that a group of people who made something both approachable and unique, culturally aware but also down to earth, is over.  And there's nothing that can take its place, not even reruns. 

I first stumbled onto the space last July and got mesmerized by the glamour and chutzpah of a show called "The Place You Made to Find One Another," featuring the works of Eric Ruschman and Patricia Murphy (two artists who also helped run the space).  The exhibit had a ghostly cast of misfit sculptures and intricately conceived paintings, but also a sense of finish and what I call "there-ness," meaning it just seemed like a show that came fully intact from somebody's brilliant brain, like Athena busting out of Zeus's skull, or a crazy chandelier dropping out of the sky and landing without breaking right in front of you.  There was an easy-going pretentiousness that I loved in that show, and every other show I saw there also had that knack to be both sophisticated and unfussy, brave without showing off.  Each show examined the limits of what art can be, while expanding the way you can appreciate those limits, like Duchamp without fustiness.  Each exhibit, it seemed, offered a new brand of readymades, a new centerstage urinal.

But something else:  an enthusiasm and naivete tempered with glittery wisdom.  Nothing heavy-handed, but a sort of gravity through the curatorial choices made, the careful consideration of how art got installed and lit and talked about.

So thank you Matt Morris, Molly Donnermeyer, Zachary Rawe, Patricia Murphy and Eric Ruschman.  What an incredible sitcom you created.
Here are the shows I wrote about:

"The Mechanics of Joy"
"moon in the wall, hope it don't dissolve"
"The Place You Made to Find One Another"

The final show at U-Turn, "Aloha Means Both Hello and Goodbye" opens this Saturday, June 4, 2011, witha a reception at 7 pm to 10 pm.  (Bill and I were asked to be a part of it, and we're so happy to be.)  U·turn Art Space 2159 Central Ave.  Cincinnati, Ohio Please come and show the U-Turners how much they meant to Cincinnati art, and just plain old art in general.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Butch Freak Goddess

Bridesmaids, the new Kristen Wiig chick-flick/raunch-comedy that came out last week, is a total pleasure to experience:  smart, heartfelt, and silly, with a sidecar of Brazilian-food diarrhea.  It has its own rhythm and pace, guided by Wiig's eerie, brilliant comedic timing.  Wiig's setpieces are like elongated SNL sketches, only better because Wiig and the filmmakers have created an atmosphere in which the creepy/zany sketch-comedy routines are braided into an overall narrative that satisfies your inner-fratboy, while also allowing you to catch the bridal bouquet.  It's Mary Richards and Rhoda climbing on board the Farelly Brothers train to Apatow Junction. 

But truly the main reason I love this movie is Melissa McCarthy's Butch Freak Goddess Megan, sister of the groom.  In the beginning of Bridesmaids, at the initial engagement party, Megan is a total throwaway cliche, one of those goofy grotesques comedic movies often trot out for cheap laughs and also to get us to "like" the main character by comparison.  She's all huff and puff and dyke-like moves, dressed in boy clothes, overexcited and a little stalker-scary.

As the movie progresses, though, Megan stops being the butt of jokes and transforms into its moral center.  McCarthy hams it up in a way that isn't hammy somehow, providing breathing room for Megan's innocence and intelligence.  One of the best images in the movie is of Megan abducting nine puppies from the bridal shower (it's a site-gag:  the party is so plush that parting gifts are gorgeous, pedigreed little doggies).  She's in her minivan, puppies all over the place, driving like mad to get home.

Megan is also the slap-in-the-face Wigg's Annie needs to get over her funk.  In this scene, we find out how accomplished and how triumphant Megan really is.  We can see her work her magic.  Only in this bell-jar of chick-flick-raunch-comedy weirdness, I'm thinking, could such a wonderfully full but still hilariously broad character be hatched.  McCarthy is blissfully unaware of her looks, and yet there's an inherent beauty pulsing out of Megan's hungry eyes. 

Of course there's the food-poisoning in a wedding-dress schtick and lots of Wiiginess, all of which is spectacular.  But at the end of the day, Megan feels like something new:  a masculine, overweight, kind of freaky lady unapologetically in charge of her life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Bare Bones of Belief and Decency

We went to Finster Fest at Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia over the weekend with a booth of Thunder-Sky, Inc. art.  It was one of those experiences I'll never forget -- being in the epicenter of a universe I have been circling most of my life. 

Art is often a way out for many people:  making it, buying it, loving it...  Art-making for Howard Finster was a way for him to find a sort of heaven on earth.  He seems to have relished the idea of Slipshod Utopia, and that aesthetic is in full-bloom now, with all his sculptures and installations slowly (and some quickly) deteriorating.  But it is a spiritual disintegration, isn't it?  All that art and love and godliness left to the elements, being eaten up by rain and time.  It seems almost like a prophecy, Biblical, humble and small.  Finster's art has the same effect:  his paintings and other works may come off to some as Bible-belt kitsch, when in reality he was doing what William Blake did, creating his own aesthetic and philosophy using organized religion only as a platform for something bigger, stranger, and kinder.

I felt as if I had drifted into somebody else's dream being there, but it was my dream too somehow.  Finster has made sure of that.  Concrete facades built from bear faces and pop bottles, old costume jewelry and broken dinnerware.  There's that initial whimsy to it, of course, but that has worn off now, and what's left is the bare bones of belief and decency.  Finster did not construct a Paradise that would last.  I think that's part of his meaning:  you can't get there from here.  You can only find glimpses and create idols that crack and melt into grotesques.   

The area around Paradise Gardens is residential, and many of the other homes are abandoned.  There's a state prison in Paradise's backyard.  Highway 27 toward Summerville is green and raw, a landscape of hollow trees and overgrown grass and static cows, old ranch-style houses and barns, and a sky above it all as blank as thoughts before you go to sleep.  I kept thinking of a phrase Flannery O'Connor said of her version of Georgia -- that it was "Christ-haunted."  That's the feeling.  A holy ghost barely visible, being chased away.

Paradise Gardens is not paradise of course.  Its poetic decay is incredibly moving, but also very sad.  It makes you wonder if Finster had not been categorized in the way he was (as an "outsider/folk/self-taught/visionary artist"), maybe we would not be losing Paradise in this way.  Finster made immense contributions to culture from this location.  Respect needs to arrive soon in the form of conservation and curation.  Here's the website if you're interested in providing any kind of support:  Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens.

Below are photos we took...  An incredible place...

Monday, May 9, 2011

No More Drama

Elle Fanning and Steven Dorff in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere
Reality TV shows like The Real Housewives of (Fill in the Blank), Mob Wives, and Bad Girls Club, etc. are really inexpensively produced soap operas without actors and writers:  the national neighborhood trash getting together and performing their version of Greek tragedies after downing a box of wine.  There's nothing outside of the scope of these made-up, people-pleasing pseudo-dramas, and each character/real-person knows he/she needs to make enemies and not friends in order to be central to the episode.  The pleasure of watching these programs is in the hyperbole and crash; they are drag shows without drag-queens and have a bad-art glitter and sheen Andy Warhol craved. 

Sofia Coppola's Somewhere is an antidote to reality TV, a slim, sweet, posh curio of a movie about a dazed and confused movie star who lives at the Chateau Marmont.  Steven Dorff is the actor, and he glides through Coppola's beautiful atmosphere like a lost dolphin.  He can hold the camera's attention without desiring to be filmed:  that seems to be the essence of anti-reality.  Elle Fanning, as well, effortlessly embodies his daughter, an eleven-year-old girl on the verge of both tears and laughter as she makes Eggs Benedict for her movie-star dad and then sits at the breakfast table on her laptop typing in the stuff she'll need to take to summer camp.  Ease and gravity merge together in Coppola's universe.  She has turned out to be a great movie-maker, lingering on scenes that most directors don't even consider filming, and through that process of paying attention delivers intimacy instead of phony drama, beautiful moments instead of personality clashes.

There are moments, in fact, in Somewhere that have the kindness and sweep of dreams you want to go to sleep to re-enter, as if you are channeling lives you'd never have access to.  The pleasure comes from the smallest details, the softest voices.  Coppola is a Beverly Hills Vermeer, stylishly creating vignettes that seem frozen and yet incredibly alive at the same time.  Somewhere is  a lovely experience, and a relief from reality overload.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blind Taste Test

 A photo of the judges of the new reality singing contest show The Voice.  It's on NBC. 

At one point in the new reality/contest/talent show The Voice, one of the contestants who has just been deemed worthy by the judges, a beautiful, thin, brunette young lady says something like, "All my life I've been the girl with the pretty face who can sing a little.  Now I really feel like this show has shown that I have talent, not just a pretty face."

To which Dick Clark's heir apparent, and host of The Voice, Carson Daly, says something like, "That's why this show is so important."


This moment should go down in reality-show history as one of the smarmiest, silliest, hype-tastic ever recorded.  But actually I found myself agreeing with Daly.  I was happy that he had pointed that out.

Let me walk you through my line of thinking...

The Voice harnesses the powers of a Prefab Pop Music Mount Olympus (Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine from Maroon 5, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Lively) with their thrones turned backwards so that they can only hear, and not see, the singing contestants as they belt out their auditions.  This simple gimmick is what moves me, and probably many others, not because of the gimmickry, but because a genuineness settles in with all the phoniness.  You start to believe in people actually developing tastes and making artistic judgements without having to know anything other than art.  

Of course I know using The Voice as a metaphor for understanding art and culture is a bit of a stretch, but I keep going over it in my mind, and it makes so much sense because of the transparency and simplicity of the exercise.  And also because if the Pop Music Zeuses and Athena do decide to flip their thrones around with their magic buttons that make a totally cool "whoooosh" sound, and there's two or more who want to choose the singer to be on their "teams," the power of the whole enterprise switches over to the amateur:  the singer is now in charge of the Mythology.  Nice.

And of course now I transpose this narrative onto (you guessed it) the machinations of "outsider art," especially in examining the way this kind of categorization often dictates a biography about the artist prior to, or during the viewing of the artists' art.  In an "insider art" context, "biography" often enters the picture as a resume or curriculum vitae, allowing perspective collectors and other interested parties a view through the lens of "professional accomplishment" or whatever.  "Outsider" artists usually don't have a lot on their scorecard professionally speaking.  They've been shut out of that possibility because they don't have opportunities to go to art school, to network, to play the game.  And of course the vast majority of "insider" artists don't have that "in" either, but they do have the opportunity at least to pretend, and to have a pretense of "accomplishment" is much the same anyway in the art biz.

"Outsider" artists (especially those with developmental disabilities) are cordoned off:  "special" is often the word.  A list of diagnoses, or idiosyncratic "tricks" they have up their sleeves, or another list of all their hardships often becomes the substitute for a resume, and that in turn becomes the conversation:  not art, but "special struggle," not aesthetics but a cultural vacuum created by good intentions and a need on the part of "outsider art" collectors and curators to critique "insiderness" via "outsiderness," ie:  "Look what this artist who has never been outside of her home has accomplished with house-paint, broken bottles, chicken wire, and ink pens!  Take that SNOBS!"

The sad fact is that the SNOBS! run the show, and the SNOBS! work in a world of pedigree, politics, and just plain old power. 

Enter The Voice:  would it not be lovely if all artistic decisions in galleries and museums across the world took Voice lessons.  And had all their curators/board-members/partners take blind taste tests.  No categorization, no resume, no social-networking allowed.  What would happen?

Maybe this:

A big tall overweight kid from Texas, on a stage with the Pop Music Mount Olympus Gods' backs to him, sings some schmaltzy, over-the-top country ballad like a combination of Jeff Buckley and Garth Brooks.  And it makes you cry.  And then Cee Lo Green turns his throne around and says in that Cee-Lo-Green-godly-raspy way:  "When I pressed my button and turned my chair around, I was so glad that voice was coming out of you."