Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Careless Whispers

At the Contemporary Art Center, downtown Cincinnati, Patti Smith's "The Choral Sea" seems both cozy and distant, kind of like she is shellacking her memories into deep meaning, but also losing something in the process.  Just Kids is an incredible book, and in it Smith's voice is lyrical and inventive, but also friendly and chatty, celebratory, simple.  I guess I thought her visual art would be the same.  But the exhibit, based on a book of poems she wrote about Robert Mapplethorpse, is almost the opposite to me, overly poeticized and fussy, a little too shabby-chic.  Upstairs on a couple floors is a hot mess called "ON!  Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds."  Billed as "an interactive exhibition celebrating our innate attraction to play," it's basically what's left after the innate celebration and play are over:  a sort of art-school apocalypse with chalk and smeary pastel scribbles all over the walls and a feeling of abandonment in the aftermath of a really good pillow-fight that is no longer in session.  It's like wandering around a closed-down amusement park.  The thrill I guess is of witnessing the poetry of closed-down amusement parks, but I don't think that was the intention.

The intention of "The Living Room" (right across the way from "The Choral Sea") is about deconstructing living space and then getting all kinky with it.  The "Living Room" itself, pieced together by several artists (Paul Coors, Guy Michael Davis, Terence Hammonds, Katie Parker, and design collective Such + Such), reads like a setting in a Ke$ha music video, maybe if she did slow-jams -- romantic and kitschy and luxe, with solid gold bears in chains and an old-school fireplace doctored up with artistic intent.  Such + Such contribute a really excellent hard-wood bear-rug.  All of it is fun and odd in the best way possible.  But the highlight of "The Living Room" and of what's up at the CAC right now, is a video installation.  To the right of the actual living room are video images covering two walls and meeting in the corner.  There's a giant Barbra Kruger horizontal word crawl featuring non-sequiturs you want to hang onto and put into practice, and genuinely sweet and endearing visuals of people hanging out self-consciously while songs like "Careless Whisper" are put through a sort of ear-worm redux that makes them sound like the poetry of the gods.  Paul Coors is the artist credited for this.  And at the start of the video the camera follows his back out of the CAC and down the street toward places he seems to call home.  The whole thing blurs into a sort of revery, a cable-access stream-of-consciousness riff.  The technique is sumptuous and home-made, a mix of glamor and yearning for its opposite.  The big ring on Alicia Keys' finger (in an interstitial moment that stretches out almost into infinity) is the sun the whole world orbits.  An adjunct renegade spotlight creeps outside the video through the gallery space like the gestapo or the light Emmet Kelly tries to sweep up during a clown/hobo performance.  One of the most perfect moments for me was watching that video and seeing a Jenny Hulzer quote in big red letters:  "Private property creates crime," and then looking down and seeing the spotlight shining on the "U S Bank Gallery" emblazoned on the gallery floor.

Coors' video is where your mind goes when it wants to find meaning, but your mind often can't find meaning in the world even inside your head.  It can only make what your feeling crawl closer to meaning.  Slowing down pop songs to match your mood, walking on sidewalks to places you've been a thousand times, friends and family posing like they are characters on a sitcom during the beginning credits -- all of this is about someone finding a way to be happy, I think.  The title of the video, if I remember correctly, is something like "How I stopped worrying and started loving y'all."  There's bliss in this thing, pure and clever.  As I watched, I kept thinking of everything I'd done that day before seeing the show (buying a washing machine at Home Depot, driving on 1-75, trying to find a parking space because of Taste of Cincinnati patrons taking up the Fountain Square parking garage), and I felt completely vindicated somehow, as if all the shit you do and have to go through really is just a secret path to at least partial wisdom, maybe even happiness for real.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Sometimes it will hit me that the very idea of Raymond Thunder-Sky might put a few people off.  I know he was not universally loved while he was alive.  I like to think he was.  It gives me great comfort that he was, but I've heard stories (the John Wayne Gacy contingent and other forms of trying to figure Raymond out and piegonhole him into a dark place), and I witnessed a few times when Raymond was alive:  people giving him that look, or even saying shit about him right in front of his, and my, face.  And here's this Polaroid of Raymond that probably would be unnerving, if you don't know who the man is.  "Coulrophobia" is the term for fear of clowns.  A  lot of people have that, and I could see how Raymond's very existence could throw people off, even induce a little ickiness. 
I guess that's why Raymond is a lesson to me in so many ways, especially now that he is no longer on this earth.  His spirit seems to be about moving forward, being exactly who you want to be, and creating a solitary space that allows you to survive whatever happens because of who you are.  There's a magical freakishness in this world that cannot be pummeled or feared or talked out of existence, and Raymond had that.  He was so otherwordly he became more real.  His life was a secret that yelled itself out of secrecy.  And now we have all his drawings and other stuff, we've established a little art gallery in his name, and it's just a wonder.  If you really just step back and look at him and who he was and how he lived, it kind of stupefies.
Look at that face, surrounded by clowns.  He's holding a drawing and what looks like some kind of mechanical equipment.  He's dressed in one of his finest confections (it's still around; the drawing is hiding the King Wrecking Company decal he sewed onto the outfit), and he is in Heaven here, you can tell.  It's like a picture of where he is right now.  
You get wiser because you meet incredible people like Raymond and they show you how to be without really saying one word. 

A Piece of Cake

Side Effects is a homage to a homage, a chic-sick little ditty about murder and pharmaceuticals and treachery and really beautifully lit Manhattan interiors.  It has a lush feel that is almost so artificial it feels animatronic, a movie that moves without really moving, like one of those Disneyland funhouse dioramas that keep doing the same things over and over until it becomes sort of ghostly and unnerving.  Steven Soderbergh directs, and Rooney Mara and Jude Law star, with help from Channing Tatum and the incredibly perfect Catherine Zeta Jones. 

It's a set-up flick, meaning it's another yet another version of Vertigo, the penultimate setup flick Hitchcock made back in 1958, with Kim Novak as the vacuous victim/temptress, and Jimmy Stewart as the sadsack she both swindles and falls in love with and is ultimately victimized by.  The dynamics of Vertigo are all over Side Effects, but Side Effects also is a homage to Brian DePalma's Verigo pastiche Body Double (in which Melanie Griffith steals the show),  a flick so scrupulously, lavishly stupid it has the feel of a dream in some body's empty head, listless and eerie and funny in an unfunny yet completely hilarious way.  DePalma's version of Vertigo takes place in a 1984 Hollywood underbelly of porn stars and out-of-work actors.  The look is 1980s music-video/day-glo unreality.  Vertigo itself takes place in a velvety San Francisco that is so Eisenhower-era elegant you want to crawl into its big strong arms.  Side Effects' setting is the glossy/gritty cityscape out of Adrien Lyne's 1987 masterpiece Fatal Attraction, smoky and primal when it needs to be, shiny and perfect most other times.  The lighting in Side Effects has the fragile mistiness of a romance-novel but also the muscular, graphic precision of noir, as well as the deft, foggy comfort of a depression medication commercial. 

The pharmaceutical commercial aspect makes sense for sure:  at times Side Effects feels like a parody of everything contemporary, from pharmacology overload to insider trading, not to mention lesbian chic and overworked professionals who can't turn off their smartphones.  There's a psychiatrist afraid of losing his clients, as well as his striking blond wife kvetching because she didn't get the Citicorp job she wanted.  At times it's all like a really grim episode of The Good Wife, and yet also a sort of kinky aftertaste fills every moment, thanks mainly to Mara's heady, delicious underacting that feels like overacting.  She plays the femme-fatale in much the same way Novak and Griffith played them in Vertigo and Body Double:  sort of hapless, a little stupid, but also so conniving they become innocents in a debauched little universe that only movies can make. 

Hitchcock once said, "It's not a piece of life, it's a piece of cake," referring to how he sees making movies.  All three of these films follow that dictum.  They flaunt that feeling of hermetically-sealed "movieness" most movies can't capture because most movies seem to be made by committee.  These three pictures are "director pictures."  The visions of Hitchcock, DePalma and Soderbergh all coalesce around the experience of making whole worlds come to life without the necessity of realism, using technique and style to transcend what is normally necessary to fool us.  These three movies don't fool us; they overwhelm us with artifice, a joyous lack of common sense.  The texture and DNA of movies themselves gets somehow captured in all three, as well as a feeling of the complete abandonment of logic, as in "There is no way in hell that could happen."  But it does anyway, thanks to an obsessive attention to set design, lighting, cinematography, and the actors acting like actors in a movie, not trying to reveal but to somehow symbolize and radiate.  Really great movies like Side Effects and Body Double (and every movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made) that rip off other great movies like Vertigo are wonderful because they are coding and decoding the very pleasures they create, giving us a sense both of departure and of dejavu, gorgeous style without substance.  What's better than that?        

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cash in Hand

This past weekend I went to two social events that seem worlds apart when you think about them, and yet when I experienced them I got a weird epiphany from the juxtaposition.  The first event was a fundraiser for Visionaries and Voices at the Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky.  The second was crashing a friend's bachelorette party at a drag show downtown. 

I don't know how to put this without sounding horrible, but I always get the creeps when I go to fundraisers of any kind.  Not because charitable acts of giving are taking place, but because of all the machinations and strategies that seem to have to take place just so you can court rich people into underwriting your thing.  In the movie Friends with Money, one of the characters, who is down on her luck, points out the bold-faced irony about benefits by asking her rich friend why doesn't she just write a check and not have to go to silent-auctions/awards-presentation/etc.in the first place, saving the non-profit organization a lot of time and money that they could use to actually do the work they are supposed to do.  And her rich friend just looks back at her totally befuddled and pissed off:  "Because that's the way it's done."  End of story. 

And so it goes. 

It was great to see the artists Visionaries and Voices helps dancing and showing off their art last Saturday night at the Carnegie, and the small-talk was fine, but there was also this feeling that after the auctioneer turned off his microphone and the staff took out the trash, and everyone got what they wanted or didn't get what they wanted, the world would be sliding right back into status-quo mode.  Charity is weird like that.  It allows people to feel good in the moment and do a little something, and then forget about the whole complicated mess and move on.  It's all noble and wonderful, and yet fundraisers keep on happening and the world does not really progress that much.  Without them, though, nothing at all would happen.  "Because that's the way it's done."

Drag has that same feeling of inevitability and futility, but the drag-queens always get the joke.  They seem to understand that what they are doing is both vitally necessary to their own mental health, while completely acknowledging that the activity of drag does not change a mother-effing thing for their stations in life.  They are pretending to be people they aren't, but also are creating the persona they need in order to feel alive.  In that off-kilter mix of self-congratulation and self-knowledge and self-deprecation comes a sort of enlightenment that's sad enough to be a torch song and funky/freaky enough to go 100% trashy disco.  There's a joy in the irony at a drag show.  A truth shines through the machinations and strategies, and I think that's why Saturday night I felt more comfortable and alive  watching Mystique strut her stuff as a supersonic Missy Misdemeanor Elliott grabbing dollar bills from audience-members' hands, than witnessing acts of charity.  In the charity format there's no counterbalance, no wicked whisper, just a sense of do-gooding that yes is wonderful but also kind of momentary and self-congratulatory.  In the drag format, the artists gets the dollar-bills directly, that evening.  Cash in hand. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The One True Thing

In a New York Magazine article about the recent opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute's exhibit,“Punk: Chaos to ­Couture," Nitsuh Abebe writes:

"In music, punk remains what the critic Frank Kogan calls a “Superword”—a term whose main purpose is for people to fight over what it should mean, using it as a “flag in a bloody game of Capture the Flag.” It’s a concept like “freedom” or “the one true Church” or “real Americans”: to invoke it is to advance a vision of what it entails, and duke it out with competing visions. (Saying that real punk only lasted 100 days is a terrific example of how Superwords work.) In the 37 years since a good mass of people decided “punk” was a flag worth waving, we’ve seen countless versions of it, most at odds with one another. There’s punk that’s dissolute and nihilist, and punk that’s earnest and abstemious; punk as attitude, as economic model, as ideology, and as an ordinary subgenre of music; punk that’s funny and punk that’s humorless; Fascist punk and anti-Fascist punk; punk that sounds like 1977 and punk that can’t imagine repeating the past; you name it. If there’s any reason the stuff’s stayed in the bloodstream of rock, it’s that the idea is flexible enough to put anything into it, take anything out, and feel like you’re fighting the good fight—the word itself is mostly just permission to get into the ring."

Semantics becomes destiny in other words, and all the antics, epiphanies and realities get swamped by what we call them.  "Superword" is a way to conceptualize that other weird little cultural red-headed stepchild:  "outsider."  Anytime I've ever been to an "outsider art" conference, fair or symposium, capturing the "outsider" flag is always of optimum importance, especially to curators and academics.  It's like naming and claiming something becomes the something you're trying to name and claim, a magical alchemy that doesn't really deliver any help or insight, just fogs up the issue and makes you feel like you did something.  A "superword" is just a way to give yourself a way to aggrandize what you feel, and in that "outsider" cultural void there really are no true winners.  The artworld considers "outsider art" a sweet little nuisance at best, and outsiderness's representatives and apologists become predestined wannabes.  They end up squabbling at the kid's table at Thanksgiving.

So why not get rid of the whole damn idea?

Because, I guess, if you don't name something, if you don't claim it as "something," then it becomes what everybody already seems to think it is:  nothing.  You have to figure out what an artist who doesn't have a pedigree, who does not have access to museum-ness and professionalization, but who does have talent and energy and motive -- you have to find a way to push them into the spotlight, not so you play the "capture the flag" game, but so they can prove to the world what they are made of.  And that means you probably have to get rid of the superwords that are in the way, while understanding that the real game is outside of the outsider realms, outside of semantics, outside of superwords.

That's what's so great about Courttney Cooper being in a two-person show at the Cincinnati Art Museum, coming up in a couple weeks.  (Thanks to Matt Distel.)  I'm working on another essay about Courttney and how I met him and was the first person to introduce him to Visionaries and Voices, the art studio I, along with a bunch of other people, pulled together back in 2003 to support -- yup you guessed it -- "outsider artists," mainly those with developmental disabilities.  I'm trying to do this essay without using "superwords," and without aggrandizing myself and the organization I helped cofound.  I think Courttney used V+V in a way that allowed him to be above the fray and yet exactly at the center of it.  He expanded his mode of operation because there was more real estate.  V+V had a big table that he could stretch out on, and his repertoire grew because of it.  His deeply personal and astonishing drawings of maps took on an epic scale because he had a place to go to do it that allowed him to expand, that cheered him on.  (Plus V+V was just down the block for him.)  This happened because he had a disability and V+V was created to help him, but I'm thinking whether or not V+V opened Courttney still would have found a way to create his art and what he needed to happen.  It's because of his intense talent and drive; in other words, and these aren't super at all, Courttney is an artist not because he has a disability or because he goes to V+V or because of anything other than the fact that he himself willed himself into being one.  When you place some one's spirit and talents into the realm of "superwords," it's easy to forget that.  Courttney is an artist because he wants to be.  He needed to be.   

Above is a blurry photo of an object Antonio Adams created back in 1999.  Like Courttney, Antonio is one of those "outsider" artists that can't be "superworded" to death.  That little green felt pillow in the bad photo was something he made in high school, and it has a precious yet somehow intentionally/unintentionally smartassed quality.  It's an exercise in punk in many ways, and it gave birth to this whole thing truly:  we named the whole project of pulling together a studio for "outsider artists" The Art Thing Project (before coming up with the V+V tag for a grant proposal) based on the simple, silly, yet very intelligent little object Antonio created out of nothing except a sort of desire to conceptualize what art is.  An "art thing" dislocates superwordiness.  It gets rid of the clutter.  All artists, outsider or insider or in between, make "art things."  All artists dream up little green felt heart-shaped pillows the size of the palm of their hands, execute the production of it, and then just look at the thing, wondering why they did it, and yet rejoicing in the afterglow of doing it. 

"Punk" and "outsider" coalesce in many ways.  Both are cultural movements that are disorganized and yet somehow here to stay because we need concepts that counteract our complacency and snobbery.  In-house arguments about meanings take away from the actual reason the concepts were created in the first place:  to pull people's heads out of their asses so they can see and hear and feel incredibly new and great stuff made by people they usually see fit to ignore.

On with the show....

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Everything Would Appear

A painting by one of the people being helped by Opening Minds through Art.

A work by a child in Suzanne Nall's class at Parker Woods Monesourri.

The title-plate for William Blakes books of poems.

On Monday I met with Professor Elizabeth Lokon, the founder of Opening Minds through Art. OMA's mission (from their website) states: "In OMA people with dementia build close relationships with trained volunteers, staff, or caregivers in small groups... to make beautiful works of art that rely on imagination, not memory."

We usually "embellish" our bimonthly shows with shows that expand on the main theme, and for the one coming up in June (opening 6/28/2013), "INNCE/EXPCE: New William-Blake-Inspired Works by Emily Brandehoff and Robert McFate," we are going to curate an ancillary exhibit featuring the collaborative works by some of the people involved in OMA, as well as works by kids from Suzanne Nall's art class at Parker Woods Montessori a few blocks down from Thunder-Sky, Inc. The idea is to juxtapose the art of "innocence and experience," and to find a sort of dreamy association among people at both ends of the "innnocence/experience" spectrum, and how what they make intermingles in uniquely poetic ways. 

As I pull together this little show I want to be very careful, because as is usual with any art show that features art made by different kinds of people the territory is rife with meanings and misnomers you almost have to shake hands with prior to doing anything.  Professor Lokon seemed a little anxious about the prospect of the art made by the folks in her program being exhibited next to the art of children.  It somehow sends a message that we aren't taking the works seriously.  We are though.  Very seriously. 

The main reason I want to juxtapose works by children and older people is pretty obvious:  to correspond with Blake's binary, in a sort of sweet and point-blank way.  But I also wanted to do this small show as a tribute to what art means and can do for people who don't consider themselves artists.  The kids in Suzanne's class probably aren't thinking about their next show at the Whitney, and the folks in Opening Minds through Art are trying to find a new way to think and feel and remember that goes beyond "memory," using their imaginations as a way to supplement, or even supplant, what's missing.  I love all these works because they serve a purpose beyond my seeing them.  As the kids learn to manipulate materials, they fashion finished moments they can claim as their own.  The older people, being supported by Opening Minds through Art because they have dementia, are relearning that same process in a collaborative way -- art as a way to reinvent who they are and who they were in order to find some peace, a space where they exist in the present, but can somehow access meanings and emotions that go beyond it. 

One of the most cited quotes in William Blakes' vast repertoire of quotes is this one:  "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."

That is what art is doing for these artists, opening up doors they did not know were there, onto self-made vistas.  Their art somehow allows us to experience those moments of infinity as well. 

The poems Blake wrote in "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" have that same sense of predestined beauty, of works of art made to find a place beyond "real," and yet anchored by their simplicity and grace to reality and to us as readers.  In the works in both books of poetry, Blake finds epiphanies and music in the simplest of moments:  a baby in a cradle, a lamb in the field, a little girl and a little boy getting lost and then getting found.  These tropes have a fairy-tale glimmer but also a Bible-story resonance.  You read them like lullabies, but something else is occurring within what you thought was just a song.  Meanings flutter past like a bird's wings you don't see, only feel, a slight rush of wind that somehow lets you return to memories you didn't even know were there.

Blake was born on November 28, 1757 and died August 12, 1827.  Most of his life he lived in obscurity, creating masterpiece after masterpiece, illustrated poems and books that spiral out of control, and yet there's never any chaos.  Blake used his art to teach himself how to escape the constraints of art and society, to make something new, in much the same way the kids in Suzanne's class, and the elderly folks in Opening Minds through Art use art as a way to learn and relearn who they are and what they once were and can be.  They are illustrating their lives, creating meaning with the simplest of materials, and the by-product of this search is the works we see:  art with a purpose, and yet still something beautiful to behold.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Size Matters

"Put any of MoMA’s art in that building and it will die. And certainly contemporary art does not work there. Even granting that the Williams-Tsien facade is singular (I once compared it to a Kleenex box), the proponents of this building love it as an abstract ideal of a space for art, a platonic thing apart, a fetish," Jerry Saltz has written about the razing of the American Folk Art Museum. 

Originally unveiled in 2001, the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the American Folk Museum as a sort of paean to folk art.  That's probably what is killing it now.  Although there is a lot of debate and hand-wringing happening about the whole incident,  Saltz seems to be the spokesperson here for institutional truth: the reason the building needs to go is because it kills contemporary art.  The backstory is pretty simple:  MoMA bought the building in 2011, around the time the AFAM was running into major trouble as an institution.  AFAM almost folded last year, but is now back to where it started in a lobby somewhere.  And now MoMA wants to demolish the building in favor of more "big" space.

It's almost like a comeuppance, this tragedy, for any of us who ever had the unmitigated gall of taking something so small and insignificant as "folk art" seriously.  After all, Saltz is letting us know in his piece that "folk art" is not "contemporary art."  Saltz loathes Williams and Tsien's creation because it evokes the strange smallness and unnerving disjuncture that a lot of folk/outsider/visionary/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it art elicits.  He does not know how to categorize something unless it is categorical, defined by tradition, and I guess great big.

Comparing the bronze, beaten, carefully obtuse facade to a "Kleenex box" and then the whole building to a "fetish" is probably the way he sees most of the art that used to be, and would have been, showcased inside the thing.  Something is missing, Saltz is letting us know:  size.  Bigness rules.  Saltz, and the MoMA and its legions, are doing Gordon-Gecko drag here.  Those big MoMA works of art ("big" both literally and figuratively and historically) can't be housed within that itty-bitty Joseph-Cornell shitbox called a "folk art museum."

It's really kind of sad the disrespect not only the arcitecture is getting in this whole weird battle to destroy a "Kleenox box," but also the art that once was celebrated within it.  A lot of folk artists work small, with weird, inarchivable materials, in strange and platonic ways that look dinky and silly, I'm sure, to Saltz' eye, especially when compared to actual "contemporary art." 

If folk art is the Rodney Dangerfield of the artworld, then Saltz' "contemporary art" is the Donald Trump, and the Donald right now is saying, "You're fired" to art that doesn't take up a lot of space literally but that can expand in your head if you give it half a chance.  Same goes for Williams and Tsien's intricate, origami-lush little building. 

"You're fired, Mr. Kleenex Box."