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.