Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Prize for Each Age Group

Bill and I were at Kroger last night and saw this, a coloring contest table for Black History month, and it just seemed so sweet and worn-out and beautiful I had to take a photo.  It was like one of our art shows without being one and that's kind of what I want all of them to be.  We do art shows at Thunder-Sky, Inc. every other month and many times I really don't know why, except because we have to, and then that reason makes you feel kind of dumb, as if you are not in control of making art shows, it's just one of those things like concussions or bankruptcy.  And then I see a good example of what we are after every once in a while, as in this photo above:  sloppy, makeshift, but full of meaning beyond its purpose, an accidental momentary impulse to find a way to make meaning beyond what something is, and beyond the joke or the irony of trying to tell yourself what it isn't, and you're all of a sudden in this space of forgiveness and grace without having to go to church or listen to some ass-hole motivational speaker.  You are no longer judgmental or even capable of a snide comment.  You are in a state of mind that allows things to get in without the usual struggle.  I think that's what I'm always searching for when I go to art shows or when I try to make art shows.  That sense of losing your mind and your intentions and being awed.  This shit here awes me for some reason, like William Carlos Williams' little red wheelbarrow.  So much depends on this somehow.  The tableau feels unfinished, the tablecloth is terribly yellow, that Xeroxed woman's face is sad and hopeful somehow at the same time.  It's a contest so somebody's going to win something.  In fact there's a prize for each age group.  And of course there's all that black history and melancholy beige linoleum and that fluorescent sheen all grocery stores have after about 9 pm.  The loneliness of buying groceries kind of permeates the atmosphere, and here's this table of crayons abandoned but still vibrating from something I can't really articulate.  Which is good.  Not being able to articulate is the point.  That's about all you got in this world.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Vampires Need to Get Flu Shots Too (Mike Kelley at MOMA PS 1, Part Five)

(This is Part Five in a series of responses to Mike Kelley's retrospective at MOMA PS 1 in New York City, which closes this week.  The show was amazingly thorough, and Mike Kelley was so amazingly prolific, I can't just write one post and move on.)

This one is called "Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #5 (Sick Vampire)," and it's part of an ongoing series Kelley did in which he recreated scenes from yearbooks, corporate newsletters and other ephemeral publications featuring accidental interventions into the conventional world through pagan rituals that seem both ethereal and kind of sad.  A lot of this work got turned into a movie musical he pulled together called Day Is Done.  Also part of the PS 1 gig was a huge pull-away document holder that was home to Kelley's vast archives of those clippings from yearbooks, newspapers, whatever:  vast dossiers of nothingness akin to Joseph Cornell's files of movie-stars.  Hoarding banal yet creepy and illuminating documents seems not only be a part of Kelley's oeuvre but also his soul, and this split-screen image holds that magic still so we can approach and maybe even be kissed or bitten by it.  Drabness eased by a supernatural silliness, I guess, is one of the best ways to describe real life lived as it is lived, and I keep thinking about all the boring conferences, awards presentations, board meetings, just meetings in general that people go to and then also the times they feel they need to collectively let off a little steam or take a break from the everyday while at work and something horrible and beautiful and completely unnoticed happens.  A vampire uses the bathroom, or a guy dressed in drag delivers a birthday cake, etc.  And the world remains the same of course but reality is slightly shaken awake only to slap its fist on the snooze button and go right back to sleep.  Kelley wanted those small moments to be extrapolated into a philosophy without pinpointing the meaning or the reason.  He only gave visual proof to ideas lurking behind the real, and even with that the sullen sinister affect of a half-asleep vampire becomes the ultimate visage, a veneer of evil that isn't evil or even a little bit scary, just kind of what it is.  The magic somehow blossoms from that brave staring down, that joke that is never laughed at but somehow consumed like a drug that gets you through, only sometimes even that does not work.  Vampires need to get flu shots too.

Curling into Artifice

Elizabeth Taylor in black and white is a mystical experience.  With her pale skin and dark eyes, her sad but vibrant neediness, she is a spectacular vision that transcends real life without losing the overwhelming essence of it, the abundance of tragedy, the music of surviving every fall.  She doesn't really act as much as experiences things loudly, but with a stinging intensity that passes through the air without sound.  And in the silvery-gray confines of black and white, she blurs into goddesses right before your eyes.  In A Place in the Sun, from 1950, she's pure porcelain American royalty, moving through mansions with grace and confidence and finding out how to be alive by falling in love with someone she knows is trouble, but also knows can save her from her own kind (Montgomery Clift's nervous, beautiful working-class outlier).  In 1965's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she's a Medusa snarling and crying and laughing her way through a dark night of the soul.  The meanness mixes in with vulnerability, though, and the cinema-verite stew on one night boils over onto a linoleum floor in a college town nobody wants to live in.  She's somehow both grotesque and gorgeous here, ensconced in the artifice of a playwright's overwrought language and scenes that seem to fester into fevers over and over.  And yet she's also regal in her bitchiness, to the point the movie allows her to recapture that innocence she had fifteen years before.   But it's the cinematography that captures what she's best at:  performing beauty unraveling from its majesty.  In both these brilliant movies, she finds ways to portray characters who exist in the real world while curling into artifice when it matters most.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Slapstick (Mike Kelley at MOMA PS 1, Part Four)

(This is Part Four in a series of responses to Mike Kelley's retrospective at MOMA PS 1 in New York City, which closes this week.  The show was amazingly thorough, and Mike Kelley was so amazingly prolific, I can't just write one post and move on.)
This is a joke of course, but so tenderly told the joke gets lost in the lines and scribbles and shades it took to finish it.  Clown wigs piled up into a cloud, but also clown heads somehow accumulating beneath a guillotine.  Or maybe Hanna Barbara sea-creatures sucked into an under-sea vortex and frozen into a moment in time.  Or an official symbol, a flag for a nation of people (Carrottoplandia) who think they are funny but really aren't.  Or all the doodles and thoughts you had as a ninth grader cooked down to an essence of pure beautiful silliness.  Or a poem by e. e. cummings  that does not require reading, just falling down the stairs.  Or a way to take the slapstick world in without malice or indecision, without scorn or confusion, a way to make lace out of synthetic sunshine bull-shit.  Or as Kurt Vonnegut chirps in his novel Slapstick:  "Hi ho."
Or an anthem to all the degenerates marching in a parade to free ourselves from tyranny. 
With this one, Mike Kelley teaches you how to not care by caring so much it short-circuits your vast intentions, and you suddenly can see the joke beyond all the tear-streaked pages in your superserious diary, the one that you keep locked up but then you can never find the key.  Those words about how unfair the world is, those sentences about how your next-door neighbor always gives you the stink eye, those paragraphs about falling in love with total strangers and then feeling like you've wiped yourself off the face of the earth by doing that.  Clown wigs, like a pestilence of butterflies.  Clown wigs formed into a shield.  Clown wigs melt into a continent on which you chase the only dream left:  clown wigs. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering

I finished Brave New World this week.  It's one of those books that I'd always hear about in comparison to other novels, but I never really got around to the original text.  I knew it was about babies in bottles and a future in which everybody took happy pills and that was about it
Reading it was a bracing experience, not because it is a dystopian masterwork, but because it feels so real and dumb and true in the way it investigates the future without being portentous and without pointing fingers.  The prose is very quick and bright, and horrible things are kept away while you feel the horrible things somehow simmering inside sentences, throbbing out of each paragraph.  The brilliance of the book is its hermetically sealed sense of itself.  Huxley must have dreamed about this world a billion times before writing anything down because there is a logic and a circumstance in every scene that feels both lived in and surrealistic, a banality branching out of sci-fi trance.  The governmental jargon has a jazzy, flashy fever to it:  "The Chief Bottler, the Director off Predestination, three Deputy Assistant Fertilizer-Generals, the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering, the Dean of the Westminster Community Singery, the Supervisor of Bokanovskification..."  The posh creamy set design of living spaces, the sleek helicopters they all ride around in, the vinyl primary-colored clothes everyone wears -- all of it has a sort of cartoon-like garishness to it and yet a grim perfunctory prefab believability.
Everyone is happy in this future.  They take soma, a drug that allows them to drift into personal paradises for extended periods of time.  They have sex with multiple partners.  They freak out when they hear the words "mother" and "father" because they have all been programmed to understand the limits and nightmares inherent in the family dynamic.  There's a crazy logic to everything Huxley does both narratively and thematically.  This thing snaps together like an Ikea set of shelves.
And yet you feel inside the locomotive of story a deep almost religious sadness, a yearning, if not a nostalgia, for a return to some kind of god to be afraid of.  At the time of Brave New World, eugenics and other scientific endeavors were being used to create a better future, to rid the world of sickness and also to rid it of any semblance of what might be the reason for sickness, and in that scientific wave of perfecting people and worlds came a rush of institutions, laws, sterilizations, deaths, metaphors, visions, etc. The dictate of how people should be became the rule of law, and the government and its power tried to "fix" problems in ways that simplified them to cause and effect, when many times there was no cause and there was no effect, just reality.  So those endeavors only created outposts of control, and now here we are still trying to figure out how there's no heaven on earth but oftentimes a whole lot of hell being created in pursuit of it.
The characters in Brave New World aren't characters as much as circuits, but the one that stands out the most is The Savage named John, who is brought back into civilization after living all of his life on a reservation only to find civilization maddeningly oppressive, even while everyone is smiling and telling him how great he is.  He can't stand that creepy crass indistinct mob of people interested in his status of "not them."  They ogle him.  He symbolizes both a way out of the mass-produced hysteria and amnesia as well as its biggest mistake.  His journey out of the civilized world and back to his own devices, though, is not a triumph in the end.  That's what makes the farce in Huxley's book tragic:  there's no way to be a human being, he seems to be saying, unless you are in the process of escaping being human. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Monster Always

So this is the blog post about Philip Seymour Hoffman .  I was just telling Bill this is my John Lennon moment, that desperate feeling of losing someone you never knew but somehow knew through a cultural pipedream.  Scotty got me first.  I was just finishing up a novel about a pedophile when I saw Boogie Nights, and that movie made me feel brave and as if I knew what I was doing because Scotty was in it.  He was stupid, creepy, glorious, and he occupied a space in cinema that was never before occupied and hasn't been since:  he was an inarticulate loser with a beautiful interior life that could only seep out in emotional tirades performed alone.  That scene with Scotty sitting behind the wheel of his souped-up make-believe sports car as he calls himself a fucking idiot over and over into infinity after confessing his love for Dirk is one of those things, right?  It's epic and it's embarrassing, gigantic and very, very small, and yet it also is what makes life worth living.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is no longer among the living.

What the fuck do you do with that?

You watch Capote.  He won the goddamn Oscar for it.

I'm watching it right now as Truman spoons baby food into the mouth of the murderer.  It's one of those dour gorgeous movies, a gothic sweetness leaking through the black Kansas trees.  And Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman is the pale, red-headed sun the whole situation obits.  That lispy, musical, high-pitched voice, that shiny innocent yet somehow despotic face.  He got into that world by seeing its exterior, by examining what things look like from the outside, and he got in.  He got in.  That's probably what made him feel the most alive and yet it also probably damned him to that sad little death.  You know.  The needle in the arm.

You know what?  I don't fucking care how he died.

I only care about him right now.  With his horn-rimmed glasses and his melodic frilly voice and the silhouette he inhabits with the dignity of a queen.  He made the world safer for freaks.  The sad thing is he also was building his own spiral staircase to heaven.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You Are What You Steal (Mike Kelley at MOMA PS 1, Part Three)

(This is Part Three in a series of responses to Mike Kelley's retrospective at MOMA PS 1 in New York City.  The show is amazingly thorough, and Mike Kelley was so amazingly prolific, I can't just write one post and move on.) 
"Memory Ware" is a series of "paintings" Mike Kelley did in the early 2000s, using trinkets and other crap in place of splattered paint in a sort of Jackson-Pollock flourish that feels both aesthetic and anti-aesthetic, the exact nexus where Kelley's work foams over into mythology.  These large, voluptuously stupid pieces of art really seem like toss-offs and yet the room they occupy had a heavenly, game-show majesty, a feeling of fever and brute-force and also somehow poetic justice.  These works reference folk art's intense focus on non-focus, as well as nervous doodling numbness, a pile of gaudy activity shored up and frozen, completely meaningless and yet chief among the suite's narrative statements is an exclamation of freedom and embarrassing pride:  Look what the fuck I shoplifted. 
These are tabula-rasa trash piles, paragraphs of plastic bracelets and digital wrist-watches and little dumb dolls, the shit that spills out of vending machines after a shooting spree, all of it compiled and composted into a manifesto about what it takes to not be an artist.  The pretend opulence is pre-teen drag-queen, an over-arching innocence spilling out of the hoarded phoniness.  You are what you steal. 
Think of kids dumping their bags of Halloween candy on living room floors.
Think of Paris Hilton's bedroom after she throws a tantrum.
Think of polluted rivers starting to sing Carpenter's songs.
Think of a tornado sucking in a Liberace chandelier and spitting out a monument..
Think of Mike Kelley painstakingly gluing all that goddamn shit and then framing it all in with tender loving care and knowing that's all there is.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ready for the World

Last Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of A Whole Lott More, a documentary about a sheltered workshop being shut down in Toledo, Ohio.  I also was a small part of a panel discussion right after with the movie's three stars:  TJ Hawker, Wanda Huber (pictured above), and Kevin Tyree.  A Whole Lott More was directed by Victor Buhler, and Buhler's focus and dedication to showing every aspect of the shutdown has a procedural quality to it.  He concentrates intensely on a moment in time when a lot of people are struggling with past, present and future.  The past, in this case, is symbolized by a large sheltered-workshop facility in which many people with developmental disabilities have worked for most of their lives.  Back in the day, the facility was going gangbusters with contracts from Detroit car manufacturers, but as the economy has shrunk so has the contracts.  The present is dramatized through the lives of TJ and Wanda, who both work in different capacities at the workshop, and Kevin, who is transitioning from high school to work and has chosen to look for a job in the community.  Their struggles with work comprise one aspect of the film; the other aspects revolve around non-profit and governmental agencies and boards battling for control of the future, trying to figure out how to support people with disabilities in capacities that transcend programs and buildings and the past.
In many ways this documentary is a ghost story, and the Lott Industries work facility is a haunted house that has outlived both its cultural and economic purpose, and yet the people who worked there and were supported to be there did not experience it as anything other than the place they worked and socialized and went to every day.  The symbolism gets lost when you're living your life, as do the politics and the controversy.  That's one of the more profound themes coming from A Whole Lott More:  we live our lives in whatever systems, codes, rules and values surround us, and making fundamental change happen often isn't about the will to do it as much as having the patience and dedication to reinvent and reimagine the environment in which the change is taking place.  That building full of folding tables and windowless walls and concrete floors is more than the sum of its parts:  it was a refuge, a place for people to know what they were and where they fit.
I work everyday trying to help figure out how to support people with disabilities to get jobs in the real world, but it's incredibly hard in a universe where sheltered workshops, and the concepts and mindsets that helped to build them and staff them, still exist. These buildings and symbols often become the only answer and the only vision, places and programs and cultures where waiting for a job becomes the job.  And everything else follows:  businesses, employers,  supported employment service providers, families and the people being helped all get bogged down in a status quo that supports preconceived notions, the main notion being:  you're just not ready to be in the real world.
And I know "real world" is a prejudicial term, but still the concept of isolating people and then training them to return to the world rehabilitated more often than not eliminates the possibility of a chance at individuality.  It assumes you deserve a uniform group status, a place where you can only hope to ascend once you figure out you can't.  That hopelessness often becomes a way of life, and that's okay because you don't have any alternatives.  In the movie, Wanda lets us know about her employment history from the get-go, saying when she was younger she went to Sears and K-Mart and applied but they turned her down, she said, because they saw she was disabled.  "I don't want to be a part of a community that does not want me."
I totally understand that feeling.  Of course she doesn't.
But is that the only dichotomy we're dealing with?  I hope not.  Maybe the discussion isn't about a sheltered workshop being shut down, but maybe the conversation is about the rest of the world?  What if the concern wasn't about the closing of an institution, but the promise of what's "out there" waiting for people to come and get it with a little help from their friends and the people paid to help them?  What if systems and bureaucracies, instead of turf wars, got into a discussion about how to figure out how to make more and more and more connections, more and more actual job opportunities, more and more business opportunities, knowing that there's no alternative?
Kevin is the representation of this line of thought in A Whole Lott More.  He never became a part of the workshop culture, and from graduation he pursued getting a job.  That's fraught with all kinds of dangers of rejection, dead-ends, and all the other obstacles in the way of anyone pursuing employment, but he kept trying, just like anybody else, and he finally got a job at Best Buy, even though he truly wants a job in a library.  He settled, but still has a vision forward. 
I think all the folks involved in this film are heroic in all kinds of ways, because they are all in pursuit of  a decent wage, a decent life, and a little dignity.  I completely understand how the Lott Industries facility that shut down was a space that held a lot of great memories involved in that group struggle, but at the end of the day I know that everyone who worked so hard within those walls should have a chance to give a try on the other side...