Sunday, October 20, 2013

Satan in Outerspace

Sometimes really bad movies take on lives of their own.  Dune is a 1984 sci-fi flick directed by David Lynch that was horribly overwrought and dead inside.  Based on the novel, it was meant to be operatic and regal, but it actually turned out to be a shiny creepy parade that did not make one bit of sense.  It truly is a dream of a movie.  Dreams usually don't have plots, and the pacing in Dune is plotlessly inert, the way it goes when people try to tell you their dream-narratives.   As in Last night I had this weird dream...  They start off really excited but as they tell you they start to realize how boring and unnecessary the dream actually is to anybody else outside of their heads.  Lynch made a movie that isn't a movie as much as a strange combination of textures and cornball voice-overs and costumes that seem terribly uncomfortable and senseless, with characters that aren't characters as much as totems on a totem-pole, and scenery that wobbles away from the camera like blinds on windows accidentally sliding up.  There's a nervousness to the whole shebang, a tentativeness to the way scenes work out.  Lots of talk among people who don't seem to be talking to one another, and not even to the camera.  Just talking. 
When I was 18, I moved to Tennessee with my mom and sister because my parents got a divorce and my mom was a nutcase right out of a Tennessee Williams play.  We lived in a lower-income apartment complex.  I was working at a steakhouse washing dishes.  My mom's sister was married to a pedophile who had molested his two sons.  So when we moved to Tennessee I had to be around this guy and the whole situation, but we couldn't say anything about it of course.  It was all secret.  I'd dropped out of art school in Indianapolis to move to Tennessee, and I was thinking about going to East Tennessee State, but at this time, December 1984, I was lost and filled with all kinds of poetry that couldn't find a way out.  Then Bill and Al, two of my friends who were still going to art school, came to visit me, and we went to see Dune.  My uncle, the pedophile, wanted to go with us.  So he came too.
In 1984 he was no longer doing what he had done to his two sons, but the aftereffects of it were still in the atmosphere.  One son had disowned him, the other forgiven him, and my uncle, who had a large beer-belly and thick blond hair combed back from a wide forehead with keys always jangling on his belt-loop, was living out the rest of his life in a quiet sort of shame, as if everyday he was trying to take back all that he had ever done or felt, but no one was going to help him.  So he just kind of floated through his days as an audio-visual guy at the local high school, working part-time at a local radio station.  He always looked like he was sorry, but also like he didn't know what he actually was sorry for.
Bill and Al were my friends, and I was jealous and hurt because they were still in art school, and I felt so connected to them but I didn't know how to say it or even express it on my face.  It was a secret kind of misery in Tennessee for me, and I kept wondering if this was the way I would live out my whole stinking life:  washing dishes, helping my mom and sister, ignoring my pervert uncle, finding a way to escape somehow eventually, but not really knowing what steps to take.  It worked itself out of course.  I eventually moved back to Indiana, went to college, Bill and I started a life together, etc.  I'm not complaining.  It's okay.
But that moment in December 1984 when Bill, Al, my uncle and I went to see Dune at the Johnson City Cineplex is kind of burned into my consciousness.  In the movie, Kenneth McMillan plays Vladimir Harkonnen, a total grotesque.  So evil that he floats around in an evil-king-astronaut outfit, constantly in search of handsome boys to kill by pulling their "heart-plugs" (little plugs installed presumably by his henchman into their chests that when pulled release all their blood), Vladimir Harkonnen was a ghost that came out of that movie and into my head, nesting there.  His relentless goofy evilness became a sort of poem when I looked over at my uncle, who was watching the same thing and probably feeling something close to recognition.   I think my uncle was evil.  I don't think you're supposed to say that about people, especially relatives, but I guess he was.  That doesn't mean he should have been shot in the head, but still he did things to people that scarred them beyond scarring, and also his actions created a gaping wound in the whole family that never healed.  His actions destroyed a whole house of people.   
Harkonnen cultivated sores on his face.  He had red hair and green eyes and he was morbidly obese.  Something was so wrong with him that no one could fix him.  They could only obey him.
My uncle died in 2000 from complications of diabetes.  At the end of his life he looked gray and bloated and sore.  He looked as if he had never known himself, only what he had wanted.  He looked like a king who had been dethroned and cast aside, placed somewhere he could never escape. 
Two worlds merged that night when we watched Dune, and there wasn't any kind of epiphany or even insight.  I just felt a message had been delivered to me that didn't change anything but somehow made my life stranger and I could identify with the fucked-up poetry because sometimes that's all you have.  Dune was a very bad movie, but David Lynch's fucked-up poetry gave it a radioactivity, a nightmarish relevance.  I watched it again a couple weeks back, and boy was it bad.  But still Vladimir Harkonnen is in it, floating around like a very particular kind of Satan in Outerspace, in search of what he wants, ready to do whatever it takes to be whatever he is.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

All Show, No Tell

We accidentally got to see "David Bowie Is" at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on Friday.  We went there to see Rufus Wainwright sing with the Toronto Symphony, and that was amazing of course, but the David Bowie show has a magic shimmer to it in my head because of the serendipity and the utter beautiful chance of the whole thing.  Bowie has a huge place in my life; he's like a planet I've revolved around many, many times, me this white-trash moon.  In the seventies and early eighties, he was sometimes all I had connecting me to a place I wanted and needed to be, some glamorous kingdom in which pure feverish creativity is the very atmosphere you breath and pollute.  His three "Berlin" albums (made with Brian Eno. God bless him, self-exiled in a city that is perpetually in black-and-white), Low, Lodger and Heroes, all leave a majestic space in your head, as if they were recorded before records were even created.  Those three records are so out of time and so rich with eerie throbs and an aural meanness that goes beyond sentiment and toward delirium (and even a little ecstasy), you think you are in the presence of an alien god just arrived and ready to kill what he can't enslave.  At least that's what it felt like being 17 years old and experiencing them for the first time.  The songs on each range from moody set-pieces to ballads to honest-to-goodness rock anthems, but as a whole each of those three albums feel like they were hatched in meth-labs, home-made science that somehow creates a whole new subculture.  Lodger for me especially has a sort of love-sick brilliance to it; songs like "Fantastic Voyage," "Repetition," and "Boys Keep Swinging" speak to life outside of life, satirizing and elegizing at the same time the desperate need you feel when you can't feel what you are supposed to.  Lodger is the best novel I've ever read in many ways:  literary and fast-paced, and almost completely plotless, but pulled forward by that sinewy, reptilian, gorgeous voice and soul.

"David Bowie Is" captures a feeling of both worship and understanding, as if a bunch of freaky good-for-nothing teenagers with a penchant for goth-rock and posing wised up and became astute curators and assessors.  There's so much stuff in the show (lyrics to "Fame" on a cocktail napkin, beautiful costumes from Diamond Dogs to Labyrinth, videos (the one for "Life on Mars" is spectacularly glamorous), albums covers in a makeshift record-store corner, paperback books Bowie posed with and eventually read strung from the ceiling like birds flying into the horizon, a one-room concert-hall flashing scenes from "The Glass Spider" 1987 debacle/tour, and so on) that you'd think you'd be totally overwhelmed, but the way all the objects and ideas have been placed and contextualized you feel right at home.  I almost burst into tears a couple times, especially, of course, in the rooms associated with Berlin.  Someone even had the great insight to place the keys to Bowie's Berlin apartment inside a Lucite box on the wall, and the video performance of "Sense of Doubt," a really gloomy soundtrack flourish off of Heroes, is one of the most absurd and beautiful live performances you'll ever witness. 

I could go on. 

Museum shows often try to examine events and historical epochs through a constellation and collection of images, trying to form an abstraction based on concrete data.  It's like trying to swallow a whale usually:  too much "stuff," not enough meaning.  In choosing to focus on one person who has an amazingly prolific and effusive history of creativity and pop-culture resonance, the curators here almost effortlessly show us the times Bowie lived in without even talking about the times he lived in.  It's all show, no tell.  The way he worked his magic with what he had is all we need to witness.  It's not a retrospective as much as a dream of the past forty years or so.  And that dream, like Bowie's music and performances and life, tells you a lot more about the way world is than actually trying to survey and "capture" it.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Written on the Wind

David Jarred's“Two Gaseous Entities Exchanging Atoms Forever” and
“Our Membranes Envelop Each Other Eternally to Protect Our Precious Gasses”
The (F)art Show Installed.

Watching the "(F)art Show" film, "Whisper," by Golden Brown.  Below: 
Philip Louis Valois’s “Recettes de Cul Puant” (both cover and a couple pages from the book);  The official "(F)art Show" brochure; and the official "(F)art Show" t-shirt. 

"Satire is a lesson; parody is a game."  Vladimir Nabokov

I love the paintings David Jarred did for "The (F)art Show," the exhibit at Thunder-Sky that's ending its run this Saturday with a bash starting at 7 pm.  I loved the whole stupid show actually.  And when I use the word "stupid," I mean business.  I pursue stupidity in the arts, especially the visual arts.  "Stupid," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means:  "dazed and unable to think clearly."  I want art to dazzle me and to allow me to think without clarity, to be pushed toward some other realm of thought that's outside of rationality, outside of convention, and outside of whatever is thought to be "wonderful."  "The (F)art Show's" stupidity is of course very intentional, and it gets to work by treating its subject matter with the utmost professionalism and meticulousness.  Both David and Kenton Brett (whose work in the show I blogged about in a post a couple days ago), partners in Golden Brown Enterprises, a dynamic-duo/art-collective that sponsors art-related activities across the city, have taken the idea of a show about farts and turned it into a tour de force, but always keeping their eye on the prize:  a good time.

But back to David's paintings, pictured above.  Such strange careful attention to detail, a Dreamsicle distortion of what biology is, with  a Philip Guston flair for cartoon simplicity.  The titles weight these little balloons back down to earth, but also are jokes on themselves, teetering toward a dismissal of meaning while trying to make meaning happen in a way that isn't meaningful.  Which is basically the whole thing with the show.  A joke that is a joke but not a joke unless you get past the fart thing, and see it as a celebration of what art can do once it gets past its own stodgy nature. 

Philip Louis Valois does the same thing with his booklet, pictured above as well.  In a sort of  Proustian flourish, Philip records what he eats and what the resultant gas smells like.  It offers us a homemade pastiche of church cookbooks merged with the mean-spirited wit of Mad Magazine.  Crafted with tender loving care, the joke here is about how delightful the little drawings are and how beautifully stupid the whole exercise is.  Emily Brandehoff''s simply sweet little painted ditties are comprised of cartoon animals letting it rip.  Jen Edward's stained-glass-over-x-rays gives us a Gothic blend of technology and religion, all in the service of the meaning of you know what.  Mark Betcher's series of paintings has an R. Crumb delirium mixed with a Pee-Wee Herman wanderlust.  Joey Versoza's video install looping fart-mockery with melting glaciers has a great and stupid density:  it's a joke but also a sermon on the mount.  Jared Dryer's pop art logo says it all with a heavy-handed brilliance:

I quote Nabokov (a genius who sometimes pursued scatological insights in his works) up-top because "(F)art" truly is a prime example of his thesis:  satire preaches; parody plays.  "(F)art" does not satirize; it is a game of hide and seek, a sort of joyous little romp where everybody is wondering who is "it"?  Satire contracts.  Parody expands, laughs, jeers, and yes most definitely farts.

So thanks to David and to Kenton, and to all the artists whose works made me feel dazed and confused.  Nothing better than that.

(All the other artists I haven't mentioned but whose works deserve seeing:  Philip LaVelle, Carolyn Watkins, Philip Spangler and Samantha Boch, Jonathan Hancock, Bekka Sage, Anh Tran, Emily Caito, Joel Armor, Robert McFate, Antonio Adams, and CT King.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sloe Gin Fizz

Last night channel-surfing I stumbled across Coal Miner's Daughter for the thousandth time, and for the thousandth time Bill and I watched it the whole way through, marveling at its genius.  The thing moves like an action movie.  The scenes don't have title-cards or markers, but Michael Apted the director is so in charge of time and space you can feel the movie moving ahead of you, each scene bumping into the other blissfully.  Drama somehow blinks itself alive in each moment, thanks to Sissy Spacek and Timmy Lee Jones, playing Loretta and Doolittle Lynn.  Spacek especially has a witchcraft-handle on morphing through teen-age to middle-age without really changing that much physically.  It's the way she looks at the camera that does it, super-charged but also shy, meek but furious.  Plus she sings the songs like Loretta, full-throated, slightly off-key, and completely real.  (Beverly D'Angelo plays Patsy Cline with the same intensity and truly captures her singing style; their scenes together as Loretta and Patsy have such a homey loveliness you want to fall asleep listening to their voices.)  Jones has that effortlessness too, giving Doolittle enough exasperation and kindness to allow you to figure him out without judgment or skepticism.  You want to be in the backseat of that big car they drive around in, visiting radio stations to plug the first record he and Loretta made, and then the morning they are parked in front of the Grand Old Opry is so matter-of-fact alive and wonderful it's a like a really good memory from your own life you want to hold onto. 

Apted, Spacek and Jones all blur that line between what is in your head and in the movie through a total concentration on specifics.  Apted especially finds pure poetry in rainy, muddy campgrounds, and old coal mining downtowns with old men sitting out in front of the hardware store, and the windows inside an old schoolhouse with that shiny black glamor of a holiday party at night...  By the end I was crying like I always do, not because I was sad, but because Coal Miner's Daughter gets everything right.   It truly is a joyous feeling to witness that.

And then this morning I remembered Van Lear Rose, Loretta's album that came out in 2004, the one Jack White produced.  I'm going to try to find the CD somewhere around the house here, but I looked up some of the songs on You Tube and caught a performance of "Portland Oregon" that was originally on David Letterman.  Both Loretta and White appear, with White starting out with his guitar solo and then Loretta sauntering on-stage waving hello with her microphone.  What an incredible performance from an incredible album...   That song still resonates in my head, one of those tunes that make life worth living, no matter how much it sucks.  I did a little digging and found out that Doolittle is credited as a co-writer with Loretta on "Portland Oregon."  He passed away in 1996, but lives on in that song, and in Coal Miner's Daughter, as a truly mythic figure.    

Here are the lyrics to "Portland Oregon" by Loretta and Oliver (Doolittle) Lynn:

Well Portland Oregon and sloe gin fizz
If that ain't love then tell me what is
Well I lost my heart it didn't take no time
But that ain't all. I lost my mind in Oregon

In a booth in the corner with the lights down low
I was movin' in fast she was takin' it slow
Well I looked at him and caught him lookin' at me
I knew right then we were playin' free in Oregon

Next day we knew last night got drunk
But we loved enough for the both of us
In the morning when the night had sobered up
It was much too late for the both of us in Oregon

Well sloe gin fizz works mighty fast
When you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass
Hey bartender before you close
Pour us one more drink and a pitcher to go

And a pitcher to go [repeat]...


Global Anonymity

JR has a show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, part of an overarching project called "Inside Out."  JR is a famous street artist from Paris, and simply typing in that bio feels kind of icky to me.  Not sure why, except that his whole gig seems to be about a sort of utopian populism in which getting your picture taken and plastered somewhere in the city constitutes -- well, I'm not sure what.  The whole endeavor is predicated on the fact that fame, no matter how it is instituted, is worth it.  The kind of fame JR deals in, sweet and esoteric and empowering, is actually the same kind of fame that is dealt out via the internet, TV, radio, and any other platform.  Your image becomes your identity.  So what is the difference between getting your photo taken by JR and his project-workers and getting it taken by paparazzi or even doing a little selfy on Instagram?  In the case of JR's project, it must be that his presence as a "famous street artist from Paris" is what makes it different.  Plus he's not making a shitload of money from the image.  Plus the image is not of someone who is already famous.  Plus it takes the concept of "selfy" and rarifies it, turns it into a status beyond self-promotion. 
In the case above, JR and his project workers pasted the portraits they took on the concrete around the fountain at Fountain Square.  So, I guess, people could walk on them while enjoying them.
Which brings me to Inside Out, the overarching project.  This is from the Inside Out website, from its "about" page:
"On March 2, 2011, JR won the TED prize at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California, and called for the creation of a global participatory art project with the potential to change the world. This project is called INSIDE OUT. Inspired by JR’s large‐format street "pastings," INSIDE OUT gives everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and make a statement for what they stand for. It is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.  Each INSIDE OUT group action around the world is documented, archived and exhibited online. Over 120,000 people from more than 108 countries have participated.  The INSIDE OUT project has traveled from Ecuador to Nepal, from Mexico to Palestine, inspiring group actions on varied themes such as hope, diversity, gender-based violence, climate change..."

A project that is built around being "a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art" looks kind of odd when executed like the picture above.  The portraits become plastered litter on the ground, peeling away from the weather and from people actually walking on the faces.  No messages are delivered this way, I don't think.  When I was looking at all the faces I just thought about the faces of missing children on milk cartons or on bulletin boards in Wal-Mart:  an anonymity intervenes.  You can't help that.  When people's images are grouped and plastered on the ground there's a sort of unintended irony, a message about the uselessness of portraiture. How does having your picture taken and then pasted on the ground with other pictures of people inspire group actions around "hope, diversity, gender-based violence, climate change"?   

Or maybe the art happens when the project happens?  When people are having their photos taken, and everyone is having a good time?  Is that the art?  Maybe the end result is just a weak echo of what actually occurred? 

Still trying to figure it out. 

I saw the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art earlier this year, and I was a lot more impressed with the way he blended art and activism.  In one elegant, epic piece he and his project-workers pounded out miles of rebar to form ocean-waves of meaning.  The rebar came from the shoddily-constructed schoolhouses in Chinese villages where kids died during an earthquake in 2008.  And in the ether inside the museum was a recorded voice reading off the names of the dead.   There's an intended irony here of course, and a seriousness about how anonymity creates throw-away lives, but then also hearing those names and seeing that repurposed rebar becomes a celestial experience:  both aesthetic and political, without indulging in fame or even rhetoric.

I don't know.  I guess you shouldn't compare the two.  But I am. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Sunday in the Park with Bosch

Kenton Brett, "Sunday Picnic," Ink, charcoal, digital print, and paper

Kenton Brett and David Jarred co-curated the show currently up at Thunder-Sky, Inc., titled "(F)art Show," which is up a couple more weeks.  It's a group gig filled with wonderful and hilarious moments.  The two of them (under the guise of Golden Brown) truly have done a magnificent job installing all of the works, so I wanted to spend some time with some of the pieces I admire. 
First off, it's one by Mr. Brett himself, titled "Sunday Picnic."  Essentially a diorama made from cut-out drawings, "Sunday Picnic" has a presence both on the wall and in your head of blanched Saturday morning cartoons slowly transforming into a Bosch bash that is both frightening and terribly funny.  The meticulous care it took to make this paper wonderland is breathtaking.  Each fragment has a skillfully accomplished edge, and the whole enterprise is just plain flawless.  The assembled, lacy atmosphere makes me think of both Henry Darger's warrior princesses and Kara Walker's supercharged silhouettes.  The simplicity of the landscape gets overcrowded with a sort of leisurely mania.  A coloring book has exploded and definitely does not want anyone to color in its lines.  Also Kenton seems to be referencing storybook illustrations from the 19th Century (like those Sir John Tenniel did for Alice in Wonderland) while undermining the whimsy with fart clouds and a deadpan depiction of Victoriana: a stiff upper-lip uncurls into a Monty Python snarl. 
That really is what the show centers on:  a joke that inverts itself and becomes so polished and pristine you have to take it seriously just because it makes no sense and is so skillfully executed.   The senselessness is the point, but also the counterpoint.  Kenton's constellation of drawings inhabiting a black box has a sort of puppet-show innocence to it, but also a Vaudevillian meanness, a propensity for anarchy.  You want to laugh even when you feel a little uncomfortable with its manners turning to shit. 
I'll be writing about some more of the pieces through the closing of the show.  Stay tuned...