Monday, December 28, 2015

Escape Artists

I wrote about a couple of local exhibits here that I loved a few weeks back (click here to take a look), and in the course of coming up with that post I stumbled onto a phrase that's kind of stuck with me:  "art escaping itself."  That idea inspired me to try to figure out what I actually mean.  I'm guessing the main function of art trying to get away from itself is so that it can become something else entirely while also drawing attention to the fact that it's actually still exactly what it is.  The whole concept is a reiteration of Jean Dubuffet's famous quote:  "Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called."  But Dubuffet always goes a little overboard.  I want art not to be incognito as much as the face on a Most Wanted poster -- eagerly anticipating being caught for what it is while running away from what it does, or is trying to do.  That's the perfect nexus at least for me:  grand schemes at the service of never being assigned to a cell or a pigeonhole.  

So I thought:  what if I could curate a group-show called "Art Escapes Itself"?  What works would I choose?   I mean not for real of course, but in a little museum in Heaven with no restraints, no bull-shit.  Then I started to remember moments in my life when I was in museums and galleries and I came across works that allowed me that feeling of watching prisoners escaping, running across night-time fields, never looking back, but then again eventually caught and returned, some kind of gorgeous sci-fi escape route constantly reiterated, refashioned, reborn.  The pieces below are what came to my mind.

1.  David Wojnarowicz's "Earth," synthetic polymer paint and collage on Masonite, 1987.  I could look at this sucker all day long.  The imagery here is encyclopedic and comic-book, but it escapes those formats through glaring into a mythical sun.  You want to crawl into Wojnarowicz's atmosphere here, feel his fever, but also the picture has the innocent postcard nostalgia of a summer vacation, that boredom that produces dream-states.  He paints over the collage and collages over the paint, creating depth and shallowness that somehow interrelate, giving the whole enterprise an amateurish nervousness and a spot-on professional gloss; you feel Wojnarowicz's itch to say something he can't say, to see something he can't see. It's a pictograph of illusions and allusions, jokes and prayers, and yet when you look at it all you see is exactly what it is, a burial ground giving birth to the last stages of an empire, a compilation of  tropes and tattoos, an incantation that triggers bliss and sorrow.  Wojnarowicz, as in his other work, merges childhood's end with an adult's desire to create a Utopia that encompasses creation and destruction, train-wrecks and daydreams.   I think the main reason I see this piece escaping itself is that it is both elegantly simple and yet totally overwrought and still you only experience it as a fully realized picture divided into quadrants that seem to be telling one another about the transformative purposes of dirt:  digging, planting, burying, sprouting, escaping... 

David Wojnarowicz

2.  Cy Twombly's "Bacchus" series, acrylic on canvas, 2006-8.  These are so dumb you want to get dumb with them.  "Dumb" is their escape route.  The god of wine is talking drunkenly and loudly on his cell-phone at a party at the edge of the earth, and you're overhearing babble and bombast and bull-shit, getting a contact high.  Gigantic-assed doodles and loops executed in murderous, cartoonish red, these paintings don't really need to exist at all, and yet here they are, at the Tate Modern in London, big as billboards, loud as thunderbolts.  Twombly's style here helps him to reinvent abstraction (the way Mel Brooks reinvented the Western in Blazing Saddles), losing that calcified sense of meaning/non-meaning, and shooting for stupid in a way
that transcends stupid.  These big old wall-objects are jokes that turn in on themselves, jokes into galaxies.  They have an earnest funk to them, but also a scratchy sense of old-man lyricism, poetry that gets thrown into the trash and retrieved and stretched into myth. Twombly finds his way out of himself and his pretensions.  No longer trying to make scribbling an epic journey of the soul, now he's just going for it.  "Fuck it," says the god of wine.   Cue "Love Hangover" by Diana Ross.

Cy Twombly

3.  Robert Rauschenberg, "Melic Meeting (Spread)," solvent transfer, fabric collage, acrylic, mirrored panel, wood, and comb on wood panel, 1979.  We stumbled into this beautiful thing at the New Orleans Museum of Art earlier this year.  It's Rauschenberg mid-term, 1979, and kind of like a Fred-Astaire reinterpretation of his other earlier works, without the rust and vigor and lushness, but with a strange kitchen-curtain grace that feels like dancing with your eyes closed.  There's a memory parade here, unlike the memory stockpiling and convoys in the 60s combines (the mattress, the ram, the stuff eagle and so on):  you feel elevated not submerged.  Rauschenberg has found a way to suck in all the elements and objects humanly possible into this work without having to call movers in.  It's lightweight but fabulously so, an empty apartment full of ghosts, and the ghosts can only communicate with combs and mirrors and pictures of cats.  It's wallpaper and duct-tape and sleep, migraines and half-eaten birthday cakes and ruined Polaroids after a floor.  Someone somewhere is walking down a hallway thinking about what they are going to have for lunch as well as what it means to be alive:  banality and profundity find each other and laugh about all they have in common.  Poetry usually can't get to this place he's found.  Words are just dirty clothes on the floor.  Mr. ee cummings does find a few argyle socks sometimes though that match Rauschenberg's insights and flights:

 “though your sorrows not
any tongue may name,
three i’ll give you sweet
joys for each of them
But it must be your”
whispers that flower

Robert Rauschenberg

4.  Joseph Cornell, "Celestial Navigation," found objects, acrylic, and collage, 1958.   We're doing a Joseph-Cornell tribute show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. this year, so he's always in my head somewhere, working diligently on things like this:  carefully constructed whispers (see ee cummings above) that freeze themselves into time-machine tableaus.  This one is calibrated to narrate a story only Cornell knows, and yet you can grasp the meaning without knowing the story.  You can look at it as "art,' but also as something else entirely:  talisman, crystal ball...  Cornell arranges knickknacks and toys into incantations.  I wrote a post about 4 years ago not about Cornell, but about a blue bucket.  Here's the link:  "Little Blue Buckets".  It's a short piece about a home-visit I made and I came across a school-age kid with a developmental disability who basically worshipped a little blue bucket he kept around the trailer.  I wrote:  "The little blue bucket escaped art and has become art simultaneously.  The saying goes, "If a tree falls in the forest..."  But that's not it.  I stumbled onto a happiness and a beauty that does not need documented.  It doesn't need justified.  It's just there."  I think this is what Cornell did most everyday of his life.  He searched for ways to stumble into things; he worshiped what was right in front of him to the degree that he could alchemize everyday objects and notions into totems and triumphs.  He lived for self-imposed serendipity.  It was the way he survived.    

Joseph Cornell

5.  Judith Scott, "Untitled," fiber and found objects, 2004.  There's something about revenge here, in this entangling of yarn and stuff Scott found to take hostage; she's trying to build a nest, sure, that's the easiest interpretation.  Foraging for tubes and plastic wheels, spools of thread, taking all of that and spinning it and wrapping it into a place of rest, or maybe even restoration?  But I don't think so.  It doesn't seem restful, this "Untitled" thing.  It seems almost vicious, unnerving.  Vicious and unnerving in a good way.  Unlike Rauschenberg who fashioned his obsession with appropriation, assemblage and collage into stream-of-consciousness window-dressing, Scott's work isn't theatrical or expressionistic, as much as it is conceptual and harmonic.  She's creating and obscuring symbolisms, taking away the function of things while imbuing them with an entrapped power and focus objects shouldn't have, wrapped in yarn or not.  It's accidental, what she does, but also fully intended to show us her territory, her conquest.  She's pulling the world into her grasp one little piece of crap at a time, and giving us these sonnets and villanelles made from whatever is at hand.  The structure is key.  They don't look messy.  This one especially has a firm focus, a grim and hilarious necessity.  She's swaddling, she's capturing, she's finding a way to make sense of a world made up of so much shit it's time to get out some rope and track it all down.

Judith Scott

6.  Jean Michel Basquiat, "King Zulu," mixed media, 1986.  A theme that runs through this whole "Art Escapes Itself" motif is how the stuff I love to look at is made:  a simple, declarative ingenuity, making art out of whatever is around.  That's what I love about all of Basquiat's work, and especially this piece, which I saw in the late 1990s at the NYC Museum of Modern Art.  It's always left an impression.  That cold cobalt blue there, a wave of it splashing and focusing the picture on whatever Basquiat wants us to see; he's editing himself while also enlarging the vision.  The quality of his line and the big bang boom of his color choices give the piece energy but also a sort of sarcastic urban menace, as well as a cinematic glitter.  The thing vibrates itself out of itself, like riding a subway while on ecstasy.  His drawing has a sense of nerve leaning into nerve, an almost painful whimsy cooling into folklore.  You know what Basquiat means, but you feel the meaning like you hear music, without a sense of what is going on, that feeling/meaning/music coming through without acknowledgment, just seeping all jazzy and revved-up right into you veins, cool enough not to indicate anything other than what it wants you to know and feel head-on, rush into rush.  "Sophisticated" isn't the right word, but it's close:  Basquiat makes you understand without making you understand.   

Jean Michel Basquiat

7.  Cindy Sherman, "Untitled," photograph, 2000.  Sherman is a standup comic who isn't after laughs (even though she gets them anyway) -- she's after the feeling that comes when you can't find the laugh anymore.  This one is a fave because it harnesses the energy of a thousand suns to satirize what is already satirized and yet the disposable nature of the whole exercise gives it the kick it needs:  those sad specifics, that stupid make-up, that floppy hat.  She's making fun of the people who make fun of people, finding empathy at the end of a long day's tanning.  But it's not the kind of empathy that sells.  The woman she's depicting and objectifying has been so self-depicted and self-objectified through chemicals and other means the parody doesn't take.  That's Sherman's intention I think, and the way she escapes the easy categorizations in all of her work:  she strives for the interregnum, the in-between queasiness that's unleashed every time someone gets their picture taken, every time someone becomes a "star."  That horrible face does not know it's a face anymore.  The tan-line becomes destiny.  I even love the lush backdrop, like a popsicle melting.  But she's looking right at you.  She wants you to understand a few things.  This isn't art; it's something else, art once removed, a process of elimination.   

Cindy Sherman

8.  Mike Kelley, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites," plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with Styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint, and disinfectant, 1991/1999.  I 've done a whole series of posts about the Mike Kelley retrospective at the MoMA PS1 space in NYC back in 2014.  That show killed me in a way no other exhibit has, pulling together almost everything Kelley made and displaying it lovingly and exhaustively throughout that huge complex:  it was Kellyland.  This installation was the centerpiece, and set the tone for the rest of the retrospective.  It truly is penultimate.  Kelley takes the same shit Scott, Cornell, and Rauschenberg do and transitions it all into a makeshift carnival of thunder-clouds and planets.  You walk around each concoction a little afraid of something jumping out at you, and yet it's all perfectly still in its floating apparatus, each plush toy anesthetized and sewn into harmony.  There are so many associations you lose count:  genocidal piles of bodies, that Princess-Diana-stuffed-toy memorial, garbage dumps, cancer-cell clusters.  And so on.   There's mystery here, telekinetic, sinister, sweet.  You know it's art, but also you don't know what to call it. Like wads of chewing gum giants have spit out. 

Mike Kelley

9.  Andy Warhol, "Little Electric Chair," acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 1964.  This would be the last thing you see in the "Art Escape Itself" group-show.  A whole willful of multi-color prints of a little electric chair from 1964.  Warhol knew some things.  He obscured his knowledge often by teeheeing, or over-worshipping what was already worshipped, or by instilling a darkness over all the brands, and yet the darkness that truly registered was fashioned from a simple curiosity:   what does death look like?  How does it move through the world?  He was x-raying it here, trying to get at the glamor inside it, outside of it, like a still from a snuff film, like the dream you dream the night before...  He escapes all his bull-shit here.  He stops talking about it and gets down to business.  It's better than the car crashes and better than the person jumping out of a building.  This one has a solemnity to it, an elegance enhanced by humility and sobriety, but still a little fun, right?  Party colors.  Like balloons.

Andy Warhol

Monday, December 14, 2015

Thunder-Sky, Inc. 2016: Radical Approaches

This will be our seventh year in existence, and the collection of exhibits we’ve pulled together represent Thunder-Sky, Inc.’s vision and mission pretty spectacularly:  paintings, costumes, sculptures, installations, performances, shadow-boxes, songs…  All of these artists have totally different and divergent approaches, all of them “radical” in ways you’ll need to see to believe, and all with a distinct and powerful sense of authority and ingenuity in sync with Raymond Thunder-Sky’s legacy.

January 9, 2016 – February 13, 2016:  “The Garden of Restoration:  New Works by Tom Towhey and Adrian Cox.”  Two veteran, skilled painters, one from Cincinnati (Towhey) and the other from St. Louis, Missouri, create works that are disturbingly plush and whimsical but also have the depth and cunning of masterpiece daydreams.  Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali can be used as reference points, but then both painters slide away from reference into their own versions of paradise and the opposite.

February 26, 2016 – April 9, 2016:  “Utopia Parkway Revisited:  Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow.”  Joseph Cornell was an “outsider artist” before “outsider art” was engendered as a label.  In the early 20th Century, he lived in Queens, New York with his mom and brother, and created a secret world of shadow boxes, movie-star dossiers, collages and home-movies that are seen today as remarkable works of art.  Local artists Jeff Casto, Marc Lambert,  Christian Schmit, Matthew Waldeck, and Matthew Waldeck Jr. make art that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture. 
April 29, 2016 – June 11, 2016:  “Radically Visible:  Sky Heyn Cubacub, Lindsey Whittle, Craig Matis, and Antonio Adams.”  Cubacub, Whittle, Matis, and Adams are artists who use costume, performance, music, language, and symbol as vital ways to break down the barriers between artists and audience, and to both celebrate and invigorate the conversations and tensions around identity, appearance, and meaning.  The works in the show range from costumes, performances, songs, paintings, drawings, and collages.  

June 24, 2016 – August 13, 2016:  “Dollar General:  Installation Art by The Girls Coloring Space.”  Krista Gregory, Jamie Muenzer and Kathy Brannigan comprise the artists collective The Girls Coloring Space.  The premise of this show:  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is awarding a $100.00 grant for materials to The Girls Coloring Space with the stipulation they must spend the 100 on materials at a local Dollar General store.  That will be the only materials they can use to make art and/or to install the show outside of the white-paint and spackle and nails the gallery has on-hand.  The Girls Coloring Space has the wit, ingenuity, and sense of intuitive style needed to make “Dollar General” an aesthetic and commercial success.

August 26, 2016 – October 8, 2016:  “Well-Known Pacifically:  New Works by Antonio Adams.”  This will be Antonio Adams’ 2nd one-man show at Thunder-Sky, Inc., and his 3rd installment of a series works that began with “Unrealized & Unforeseen” in 2012 followed by “Outcasts from Hollywood” 2014.   In “Well-Known Pacifically,” Adams’ continues to explore his technicolor notions of celebrity and reality with a sense of mischief, comic grief and funky spirituality.  

October 28, 2016 – December 10, 2016:  “Flourish:  Cindy Dunham and Carla Knopp.”  Two artists from Indianapolis work in different modes and scale, but find common ground in the gallery space.  Dunham draws and makes intensely-colored digital prints from the drawings.  Knopp, a painter and sculptor, will be featuring sculptural pieces that have the shape and form of phantom wild life.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Art Escapes Itself

We went to see two shows on Friday, "Modern Living" at the Carnegie in Covington, KY, and "The Art of the Brick" at the Museum Center.  I wanted to witness both in the same day, just for kicks, and also because they seemed, at least from what I'd read, to be coming from similar places:  taking everyday objects and ideas that are normally just taken for granted, and using those ideas and objects as formats to go on humble yet surprising tangents.  The artists and collectives involved in both shows seem to have figured out how to push things in skewed directions, while staying very true to their aesthetic roots and materials.  And both gigs deliver because they luxuriate in the fact that we all love the idea of that kind of alchemy; sometimes that is all visual art can do -- transform what's just sitting around (a cluster of LEGOs, a pile of pizza boxes, and so on) into ideas and images and objects that aren't really communicating anything other than what they are, but then again delivered to us stylishly as something else entirely.

"Modern Living" features works by Amperand, Keith Benjamin, Brush Factory, Taryn Cassella, CVG Made, Grainwell, Colin Klimesh, Matt Lynch, Matthew Metzger, Such + Such, and Chris Vorhees.  Usually group shows with this many people involved can get a little superfluous and precious, all of the work hung together because of a unifying theme that is either too pointed or too abstract or too self-involved.  But "Modern Living" takes the artists' works and combines them in ways that counteract that sense of too much going on just for the sake of  too much going on.  There's a really solid reason for bringing each artist and object into the ensemble; the works work together in ways they couldn't if they weren't juxtaposed this way.  The bottom floor of the Carnegie, a rotunda, is the white-box rendition of the show:  the artists' furniture, wall pieces, crafts, etc, hung with a lot of  care to illicit that art-world flourish, that aesthetic little tug at the heart.  While nothing actually "sticks out" because of the seamless curatorial precision you still can pick out faves.  Mine were Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the center of the space (see below), and Such + Such's wood-sculpture bear-rug hanging on the wall to the right as you come in.  That doesn't really matter though:  "Modern Living" isn't about showcasing artists as much as figuring out how what they do can become an integral part of your life.  The show wants you to "live with" what artists do.

To bring that point home, on the second floor of the Carnegie, the artists and collectives who have work in the rotunda were given spaces to depict 3 different kind of living situations:  each of the three arrangements have a real zany, crafty ambiance without becoming too Wes-Anderson twee.  There's a comfort in the whimsy here, and also a tempered seriousness:  a severe, naked chipboard chair with a cement-block footstool is to die for, a sort of Magritte joke on furniture that also gets at the feeling of sitting in a church pew.  In the dining room vignette are cool makeshift stools made from pickle-buckets, cushioned in stuffed old denim.  In the living is a bird bath constructed from an old satellite dish, as well as a Pee-Wee-Hermanesque log sofa that seems right at home.  All 3 of the installed environments allow each piece to ring true; there's nothing sneaky or ironic I don't think going on, outside of the fact that this is an art gallery pretending to be a superstore.  All these artists are just trying to figure out how to merge what they make with what people might want and use, and vice versa. 

In effect, "Modern Living" is an art show that escapes itself by being completely artful while also focusing on how "Art" sometimes needs to lose the capital "A" so we can see it better.  It's probably one of my favorite shows in the area this year.

As is "The Art of the Brick," the LEGO orgy over at the Museum Center, featuring the point-blank works of Nathan Sawaya, who basically builds stuff out of the primary-colored toy-bricks, using skill and tenacity and a lot of energy to transform classic works of 2-D art into 3-D oddnesses like Wood's "American Gothic" (see below).  He also does original stuff that's not really original outside of the fact that everything is made of LEGOs.  Lots of faceless human figures that seem to have escaped from Power-Point presentations, and yet powerful because of their inception.  Originality isn't the point here; it's ingenuity.  Sawaya is a slave to the brick.  His obsessiveness comes close to the "Outsider Art" trope of "fringe" artists dedicating themselves to materials normally not used for "higher purposes," as well as the kicky self-referential world he's made out of that dedication.  Sawaya also has a great naïve sense of his own importance (the wall-text is all about how humanity is this, and creativity is that).  At the core, though, "The Art of the Brick" is about the brick, and making wonderful things out of them.  Sawaya is a master,  The curators of the show understand this and have installed each piece with tender loving care, coated all the walls in black, lit everything like a big-budget movie.  While you walk through, you just let Sawaya's obsession take over.  You ooh and ahh, and for a second you're just amazed by the stupidity and strangeness of the whole endeavor, but also overcome by the process Sawaya created:  each title-card tells you how many LEGOs it took to make each piece.  He's building a LEGO staircase to Heaven. 

Directly below is a cloud he made.  It's beautiful in a way that you can't really describe without stating the obvious, which is what is so fantastic about Sawaya's oeuvre.  Outside of the fact that it was made from toy bricks and it's floating, there's nothing much else to say.  So just enjoy the damn thing.  It's a plastic heavy cloud that took hundreds of white LEGOs to make, and sometimes that's just all you need.       

A cloud in the LEGO show.

Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the Carnegie.

"American Gothic" made of LEGOs

Bottom floor at the Carnegie.

More LEGO art history.

Upstairs at the Carnegie.

A LEGO tree.

LEGO dinosaur.
The dining-room arrangement at the Carnegie.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Get with the Program

It's been a week.  The highlight was last night, when Antonio Adams was part of a big gig downtown Cincinnati at the Weston Gallery.  He created a huge assortment of sculptures for "GIMMIE GIMMIE GIMMIE," a show curated by artist Todd Plavisko.  He created the pieces for about ten months in the Thunder-Sky, Inc. basement -- lots of hard work, inventiveness, Antonio's usual.  And he came to the opening last night in full seersucker-and-face-mask regalia.  Look at those shoes too.  The sculptures, kind of like enlarged Christmas toy soldiers, lined the windows of the place, on guard and protecting whatever needs protecting.  Antonio's mom and family came, and lost of friends, supporters... 
A couple days before, I was in Columbus at a conference about people with developmental disabilities getting employed in real jobs.  The main speaker, a soft-spoken bureaucrat with blank-cut hair and a sweet face, said something that has stuck in my head.  She said she has to keep correcting herself from using the word "program."  She said that she's trying to rid her vocabulary of that word, in order to replace it with "supports."  "Program" is no longer the go-to bureaucratic word when talking about services for people with disabilities. 
Semantics is often a way for bureaucracies to skirt the issue, and to move the emphasis from actually doing something to talking about doing something, and I'm sure that's a strategy at play here in Ohio, where all kinds of changes and forces are in place now to desegregate people and reinvent "programs" that are "supporting" people with developmental disabilities to become a part of the "community."  I put air-quotes around "programs, supporting and community," because I want to figure some stuff out, to detangle the language from the practice maybe. Those three words are the holy trinity of the way we all B.S. about how to help people with developmental disaiblities, as well as how tax-payer money gets spent on doing it, so those words become freighted with meanings and non-meanings that we all take for granted.  The speaker at the conference Wednesday, when she said she was intentionally eradicating "program" from her bureau-speak, seems to be making a pretty smart move, keeping in mind it's still just a move in an ongoing dance of course.
What does "program" actually mean.  Straight from the dictionary:  a plan of things that are done in order to achieve a specific result.  So in trying to rid the world of that moniker, I guess, the bureaucrats who oversee policy and funding are trying to get at the way we organize our activities in the helping-people-out biz around plans and results.  What have we wanted to accomplish all these years?  (I've been doing this stuff for close to 23 years now, trying to help people with developmental disabilities be a part of the "community,"etc.) 
What results have actually happened?  We've had great intentions but hardly any results that actually do anything beyond setting up "programs that support people to be in the community."  Air-quotes again.  We set up programs in order to set up programs that are done in order to achieve the sustaining of programs.  I know all of this by heart.  I help set up a program called Visionaries + Voices that did not start out as a program.  It started out totally grass-roots without a plan and then got a series of plans that morphed into "programs."  The plan at the beginning was to create a studio where any artist who needed support of any kind -- artists with or without disabilities -- could get it.  But then we started to realize that the majority of the artists who were becoming a part of V+V had disabilities, and from that realization came another realization:  V+V needs to become a program because programs get grants and government funding.  We pursued program funding then; we became a program so we could be a program.  That tautology ruled for the majority of my tenure, and we snowballed into segregation pretty smoothly, starting out in a building with a bunch of other artists and eventually realizing we needed to leave and have our own place, and then another place, and then we went from 10 artists to 100 in what seemed like overnight. 
A program is born.
Results for that program were judged by programmatic measures:  numbers of people served, how many staff hired...  Columns of grant-proposal spreadsheets dictated behavior.  And so on.
I left V+V in 2009, and so did Bill, my partner who helped set it up along with other great people who got hypnotized, I think, by the notion that we were onto something here; our telescope hit on a target.  We didn't just have a ragtag group of artists helping each other out.  We had us a great program.  All we needed to do was perfect it.
The soft-spoken bureaucrat on Wednesday was letting me know (unintentionally -- she wouldn't know me from Adam) that we should have never pursued ProgramLand.  But you can't put that genie back into the spreadsheet column.  All you can do is move on.  And that's what we all have done.  V+V is a program that's doing great work, albeit in the form of yup programming. 
But the original intent of the whole she-bang wasn't programmatic.  It was supportive.  That binary is useful.  You don't have to have a program to offer someone some help.  Antonio's picture above is proof of that.  He left V+V about the same time we did.  All three of us were integral in making the thing happen, and yet we decided we couldn't be a part of it any more and came up with Thunder-Sky, Inc., in Raymond Thunder-Sky's name, the artist whose bravery and spirit started the whole stinking journey.  And since 2009 we've been "not a program," but a collective of artists supporting each other.  Not 100 artists by any means, not even 25, but we do OK.  Nothing to brag about.  But why would we need to brag anyway? 
Now, besides Thunder-Sky, Inc., I focus solely on helping people with developmental disabilities get employed.  Going through all that ProgramLand turmoil is the main reason I think I've gone down this path.  It's a hell of a lot harder to help someone figure out where they fit in in the actual world than where their place is inside ProgramLand.  You have to know them really well, what they can do, what they can't, what they're interested in and how that interest fits into the actual world around them.  How do you help someone become a part of the community?  That's community without air-quotes.  First they need some kind of economic self-sufficiency:  they need a job.  A lot easier said than done, and a program that focuses on that result really isn't a program in the conventional sense any more because the "results" of the "plan" are to support folks enough so they no longer need the program -- to help them get to the point where a program is no longer necessary.  
It's a beautiful conundrum.  One I keep trying to figure out.
Maybe Antonio already has though.  He works part-time bussing tables, spends a lot of his time making art, perfecting his opening-night outfits, and being a part of -- you guessed it -- the community.  On his own terms.   

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Big Shot

A couple days back we stumbled into binge-watching Show Me a Hero, a miniseries on HBO that debuted back in August, but I'd never heard of it before.  Serendipity definitely has its rewards.  Show Me a Hero chronicles the true-life tragedy of Nick Wasicsko, the mayor of Yonkers circa late-80s whose fever for political power got circumvented into practicality by a federal judge demanding low-income housing be built in the area, despite the angry protests of Yonkers (white) residents.  Wasicsko's story is the main one, but like he did in The Wire and Treme David Simon (Show Me's writer, along with William F. Zorzi, and director Paul Haggis) creates a Dickensian universe here, following bureaucrats and politicians and Yonkers citizenry, as well as people living in the projects who will have to enter a lottery to gain access to the housing.  The housing itself is eventually built to specifications that try to eradicate slums in favor of townhomes cushioned within already flourishing neighborhoods. 
And there's the rub:  the "flourishing neighbors," at least those who are the most vocal, create proto-Tea-Parties against this idea, or really any idea that includes including poor (read black) people amongst them.
A maelstrom of backroom politics and maneuvering ensues, but what makes Show Me a Hero such an incredible piece of work (and an emotional experience) is the intensity with which it considers every aspect of the goings-on.  It's a mural really, made out of all kinds of details and minutia and fragments that accumulate incredible power over six or so hours of watching, until by the end I felt as devastated as I did when I first saw Death of a Salesman.  There are no heroes in the piece, and like Willie Loman finally realizing in the end that he is nothing special even while he screams "I am not a dime a dozen," Wasicsko's desperate attempt to be somebody becomes mythic even though his part of the history seems incredibly small and never really recognized by anyone the way he needs it to be.
Oscar Isaac plays Wasicsko's with such skill and nuance and energy you feel connected directly to his burning ambition to ascend, which actually is the root of his failure.  Isaac does not leave any space for judgment here, turning each scene he's in into ways to witness what Wasicsko wants and to also understand how he's not going to get it no matter how hard he tries.  He yearns to be a big shot, and his first foray into that status comes when he uses the divisive housing issue as his way into office, promising homeowners in the area against the issue that he'll appeal on behalf of the city against the judge's order, kind of knowing deep inside it won't work.  And it doesn't, and he's saddled with backtracking, but then by doing so he grows to understand the importance of the issue.  He never recovers, however, from the vitriol involved, confusing love with votes, and finally, in 1993, he kills himself. 
Other people fare better in the story, and you could really argue that the soul of the piece is Catherine Keener's Mary Dorman, one of those outraged homeowners who at first gives into the needs of the mob she's a part of.  She yells and screams indignantly, and tries to tell herself the true reason for her outrage isn't because the people moving in are black but because of "property values."  Then as she begins witnessing the actual behavior of the mob it all gets clarified for her:  this is a moral issue.  Keener gives us Mary without decoration or heroism.  She never has an epiphany.  Eventually her transformation registers as just plain old working-class common-sense finally coming back.  Mary slowly becomes an advocate for the people she once wanted to deny entrance.  It's hard to put into words how Keener manages to dramatize Mary's growth because she never actually changes, except somehow she does, and in one beautiful scene when she helps escort some of the new residents to their townhomes you get a feel for Mary's moral outlook.  Two ladies in the neighborhood are standing defiantly outside the bus as everyone unloads and walks over to their now homes.  These ladies are definitely not part of a welcome committee.  They scour, arms folded, ready to spit fire.  Mary Dorman walks over to them, and Keener gives them that same exact scour, that same fiery attention until they both back away, not defeated by any means, just denied. 
One of those residents visiting for the first time is Norma O'Neal, played so effortlessly and gracefully by Latanya Richardson Jackson I almost remember her not as a character on a TV show, but someone I knew way back when.  47, diabetic, Norma is going blind, living in the projects, trying to get some help through a home-health agency but none of the aides want to come to her apartment because they're scared of the surroundings.  When she gets the word that she's won the housing lottery and is able to move into a new townhome, she's happy but also knows the neighbors don't want her there.  But her son and daughter talk her into making the move, and when she enters the new home you get this feeling of both exhilaration and exhaustion:  she's found her place in the world, but the world doesn't want her there.  Jackson lets us know she'll be okay though.  She plays Norma without "playing her," delivering a performance that's so real you can't help but know even though her life has improved she knows it doesn't really matter.  She's still going blind.  She's still in a place where she's not wanted.  But she knows she will survive.  She knows it's going to be whatever it's going to be, and she'll have to make her life from that, which has always been the way.
In the end, Show Me a Hero doesn't show us heroes, as much as how "heroism" is never the point.   

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Kirsten Dunst was always a mystery to me until the second season of Fargo came rolling along.  Directed and written by Noah Hawley and scattershot-based on the Coen Brothers' masterpiece of the same name, Fargo has offered Dunst a chance to become sordidly iconic, playing the role of a dimwitted beautician's helper in a small town with a thwarted, off-kilter desire to "actualize" herself in the late 70s.  That combination of anxiety, ambition, and stupidity is a beautiful thing in Dunst's performance so far, 2 episodes in.  She captures an unhappy disco glow in almost every move she makes; there's a plastic/tragic neon flicker inside her eyes.  Before, in other movies (especially the Spiderman ones), Dunst has seemed tentative, a little too victimized even when she wasn't being victimized, but in Fargo she is full-force, authentically vulnerable, but also alive to her own need not to be:  she is in survival mode, and even more vibrant than that, she's grasping for some kind of meaning outside of what she's told she's supposed to feel.  Jesse Plemons plays her sad-sack butcher-boy husband, and the scenes they have together have a worn-in/worn-out sadness to them and yet also feel vitally alive.  He wants kids; she wants something else, some form of personhood (maybe feminism, maybe not) that will allow her to escape. 
"Desperation" is the mode Dunst is in here, and she gives that desperation an incandescence while also fleshing it out ruthlessly.  Her face is both kewpie-doll unnerving and moon-shaped sensual, her silvery blonde hair so tinsel-tight it could cut you.  But it's the expressions and those intense glances Dunst is giving us that don't allow us to comfortably assign her character to cliché status.  Dunst works her way out of that trap simply by going with it, becoming the desperation, understanding it in multiply tricky and invisible ways. 
The director and writer Hawley does the same thing in Fargo:   he takes situations and characters that seem hell-bent on being flagrantly and impossibly cornball and he invests in all of it a sort of intense belief, an energy that guides his camera-moves, the music, the scenarios, and everything else, toward kitsch and then out of it, into a realm of distinct, cinematic dreaminess, a heightened reality that gets into your way of seeing things before you have a chance to judge any of it.  In fact, the first 2 episodes I've seen of this season of Fargo are the best movies I think I've seen all year -- on TV or at the movies.  Hawley has built on the Coen brothers' legacy by elevating the homespun banality and blood-hot violence into a visual language that keeps repeating itself without getting boring, a staccato back and forth between what it means to be a good person and what it means to be an evil one, loving small-town life while hating living that way.
And then suddenly a UFO appears...

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Deep in Their Roots

I take pictures with my phone of stuff I see as I go about my day.  
I don't search for beauty, and I definitely don't search for any kind of meaning when I do this.  In fact, I try very hard not to think about anything at all.  A little spasm goes off in my head, and I think:  what the hell?  The most uninteresting shit is what I'm looking for, to be honest:  the interregnums, the gaps between moments that don't really justify jpegs but still I do it, and then I look at it and post it and it's gone.  It's kind of like a form of prayer, like I'm absorbing meaning by cancelling out the pursuit of it.  And posting them on Facebook lets them come back at me as if they never were photos in the first place, just little digital burps trapped inside other nonessential information. 
If you stare at things long enough you find what you need to find, but still you won't have any idea what you've found.  These stupid pictures are evidence of that.  A solitary silver light-switch menacingly daring you to talk to it, fluorescent tubes above a urinal humming themselves to sleep, a couple of cigarette butts staring at each other longingly on a parking garage platform.  These images don't lie because they don't have to.  They just do their jobs, being meaningless and factual and then gleaming toward a poetry you can't really publish or even most of the time translate into actual poetry.  They don't need language and they really don't need you. They are pretty close to unconsciousness and yet they are fully aware of what they are, what they are supposed to be doing.  It's like that last beautiful glimmering burst of knowing something right before you forget it and it's gone forever.  
So here are some of these pictures I've taken.  I used to do the same exercise back in the day with a Polaroid camera.  And those milky-shiny pictures turn into jumping-off points for short stories, novels, poems, whatever.  Maybe some of these will spawn something else, not too sure, but they make me feel sharper somehow.  They give me a reason to contemplate without connecting to common sense.  One of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, wrote this in his journal:  "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light."
That's kind of what these photos are:  unobtrusive and homely flowers keeping the light deep down inside a network of roots and tunnels and tributaries that flow into and out of one another without anyone noticing, caring or even feeling the need to see. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

War Babies

(Bill makes a special guest appearance with some serious stuff, beautifully conveyed...)

Looking at this picture, I can't help but think what war babies we were.  To anyone else this may not be so easy to see.  We were born into a war our dad waged against our mom.  By the time this picture was taken the war was nearing it's 25 year.  With no real understanding as to why, we of course did our share of internalizing what we saw happening as being our fault some how.  At least I know I did.

I have beautiful memories of our mom of course.  She was a kind woman.  She loved to laugh.  There was peace in her silence.  She was smart and beautiful, especially in her younger days before we were born.  These memories, the sweet ones, come in fragments and to retrieve them, I must reach through the times when I would see her blackeyed, bruised, teeth knocked out, scabs on her scalp from hair being pulled out, pushing a cart in a store with no money or washing clothes in the kitchen sink by hand for us.

No amount of effort could pull her away from her life with him.  The reasoning probably too simple to consider a real reason.  She was forced to quit her job, not allowed to drive.  As isolated as we were, where would she go? Our older brothers and sister would try to get her to listen to reason, offering refuge in their tiny newly wed apartments, only managing to give $5.00 or $10.00 to buy some food...cereal suppers.

Dad only worked when he took a notion.  So living without electricity or phone or food was just the way it was.  He wasn't a drinker.  He didn't take drugs. I only saw him drunk once after a party with a company he worked for from time to time as a welder. He was sickenly sweet. My fear of him just turned to disgust.  But when he was in a rage they could last for days and sometimes weeks.  When beating on mom was not enough we got our share too.  There are of course the shooting rampages he went on from time to time, taking out our pets, our cats and dogs.  This happened more than once.  This happened more than twice. It happened...gunshots echo through the hills, broken glass, broken plates, coffee on the walls, bury the dead.

Again our older brothers and sister would take us in like war babies for a weekend or a week till things died down.  No one could really help.
One night late around 11:00, I remember grabbing up Kathy and running out the front door, barefoot down the gravel road in complete darkness.  He had started in on mom.  I heard him kicking the the kitchen door towards the back of the house.  Glass breaking...that scary yell full of pure stupid fury...I heard him say in a matter of fact voice, "I am going to kill our kids!" We ran and ran down the road across the bridge to a neighbor's house.  The police were called.  They showed up, but dad had left.  Nothing was said.  No one talked about it...forget...everything gets buried.

This summer we had a family reunion.  It was great to see the family.  Mom and dad are both long gone now.  We all have our scars, our lonely burdens.  We joke, we drink, we laugh and use whatever fragments, like this picture to realize we survived!  We have moved on.   We use our time together basicaly asking what the hell was that all about?

The world is full of war babies.  So, I'm sharing this to recognize a history that still makes me feel weird at times.  Plus I just need to say it.  And I want to forgive.  It's taken a long time, but I am now at a point in my life where I can look at this picture and be OK.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rescue Me

Steven Rosen in the newsweekly Citybeat here in town wrote a smart little article on "The Goodwill Biennial," the show that's currently up at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  (Here's a link:  Citybeat.)  He took the serious joke we worked on quite seriously, which is totally appreciated, and found that we didn't really find the "good art" that he wanted to see pulled from the bins at Goodwill:

"Banner and Ross want you to ask questions about all the pieces’ provenance when looking at the art. Banner writes in a statement that he hopes we find 'some kind of meaning/redemption in them that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm.'  But The Goodwill Biennial doesn’t have enough good art to sustain that quest for deeper meaning.  Too often you wind up being amused by what’s bad. Sometimes good bad, mind you — I found myself laughing at one painting’s bifurcated perspective of the Cincinnati riverfront. It offered a credible perspective and rendering of the urban skyline, but made a tugboat plowing through the frozen river look like small toy on a table. And there seemed to be an ocean just behind downtown."

One thing I really did not want this gig to be is an Antique Roadshow kind of thing, all those Goodwill buried treasures found, rescued, curated, appreciated.  What we selected was what was there:  stuff people donated, wanted out of their lives.  We tried to find the most erratic, eerie, interesting pieces possible, but in the end we just went with it.  And I guess that's where the striving for meaning for me comes from -- not trying to find meaning because something is "good" or "bad," but finding meaning that somehow appreciates the painting/sculpture/drawing/whatever for what it is, and finding within that discovery something that jars you out of appreciation, out of the notion that art is "good" or "bad."

The concept for this show came from witnessing Mike Kelley's one-person retrospective at MOMA PS1 in New York City in 2014.  It was confoundingly great, every inch of PS1 spaces loaded with Kelley's oeuvre, from globular sculptures made from natty stuffed-animals and afghans to incantatory recreations of planets from Superman comics and so on, as well as a whole room dedicated to small movies and photographs inspired by photographs Kelley culled from high school yearbooks from thrift-stores.  The pictures he chose to riff on vary from the unintentionally camp to the intentionally hyper-sentimental, and yet what Kelley does with them in his interpretations does not alter what they are, but somehow expands the boundaries of how they are perceived, just by paying homage to them.  One in particular was both hilarious and very boring and sad, involving a recreation of a high school Halloween party (or play or something, who knows?) in all of its completely sad-assed glory:

It's kitsch reconstructed and redefined as meaning but the meaning is not there for you to enjoy or even understand -- it's just there, staring at you, telling you this is what it is. 

Kelley's whole career was about unmasking what's there and masking what isn't with a fiercely thrift-store/punk glee that often manifested in collecting and redistributing/redefining the crap people think they don't need anymore, whether it be high-school yearbooks, dirty blankets, or even, when he was first starting out as an artists in LA, birdhouses.  In an interview in Bomb Magazine from 1991, Mike Kelley discusses his 198 debut: 

John Miller Why don’t we start by going back to the birdhouse sculptures you made for your graduate show at Cal Arts in 1978. You ended up not only having a reductive object, but the normally “heroic” process of making art was reduced to craft. Even though there may not necessarily be much material difference between art and craft, I think the distinction turns on what an audience is led to invest in a certain set of objects or a certain set of practices; and those become adequate sublimatory vehicles. So in a way, you were confounding those expectations, parodying them.

Mike Kelley Yeah, I definitely was. At the time, people would generally talk about the birdhouses as formal jokes. People wouldn't consider sublimation as an aspect of art production except in some heady, Freudian way, like, “Oh, these bad impulses are being nicely put into this object.” Instead of saying maybe it’s not so nice that these impulses are put into these objects. Maybe it’s pitiful that all these energies are pumped into a birdhouse. That’s what I realized I was going for, not some one-line joke like, “Here’s a birdhouse that’s minimalism.” Rather, here’s a structure that’s loaded with pathos, and you still don’t like it, you don’t feel sorry for it, you want to kick it. That’s what I wanted out of the thing—an artwork that you couldn’t raise, there was no way that you could make it better than it was. Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable
JM It implies a kind of dysfunction.

MK:  Yes.

In psychology, "sublimation" is often defined as a type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior.  What Kelley is saying here is that he did not want that defense mechanism to get in the way of his intentions as an artist.  He wanted people to see the birdhouses he made as the birdhouses he made, and that's kind of the way I feel about the art we chose to be in the Goodwill Biennial:  we didn't want people to think the art in the show is "good" or "bad," just what it is, so that maybe the art in the show could replace (or confound) notions of preciousness, greatness, whatever.  To harness all that abandoned art to an old artworld standby like "biennial," in which tastemakers and curators and collectors and organizations come together to define what is "good" and "bad" in contemporary art is just another way to both parody culture, and also to pay homage to the fact that the thrift-store paintings and other objects we discovered couldn't be "raised," as Kelley puts it.  There's no way you could make the art we found better than it was.  "Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable."

And to be in a little gallery filled with such uncomfortable oddness is what the show is about, purely and simply.  The title of Rosen's piece in Citybeat is, "Thunder-Sky Rescues Art from Goodwill Box."  Even the title kind of gets it wrong, to be honest.  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is not a tastemaker, God knows.  It's just a little outsider art gallery in Cincinnati that tries hard to ask questions, to find meaning in ideas, people and things that often don't get the time of day.  We're not out to celebrate what is good or bad or whatever, but just what is there, like those birdhouses, untransformed and spectacular reminders that art has a ghostly and unfathomable weirdness about it that can't be categorized, "biennial-ized," or even "rescued."  We didn't go into the whole thing as an exercise in finding greatness.  We're not about "taste," as much as we're about establishing an "atmosphere."  We went into the Goodwill looking for strangeness and an assortment of art that could not have been found anywhere else.  We found what was there, and then selected the pieces that seemed to fit together in a creepy and lovely little dance of diptychs and tableau.

And that's about it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lily of the Valley

Grandma is Lily Tomlin's gig, start to finish, and it totally reminds me of why I have always loved her so much.  She's not just funny; she's charismatically at her wit's end, an insanity glistening behind her eyes and words.  Her whole persona is kind of like an after-burn, a punch-line to a joke that's kind of funny-ha-ha but mostly funny-weird.  Lily's real that way, right on the edge of losing it, but somehow finding energy and renewal from that status.  Grandma captures her elderly punk spirit vividly, as Lily plays a lesbian/poet/grandma who in the first few minutes of the film breaks up with her younger girlfriend in a very callous manner and then takes to the shower to sob.  There's Lily for the first time, it feels like, on-screen performing a version of herself in the way she's performed all those characters over the years, Lucille and Emily and Ernestine and Judith, all of those wonderfully freaky characters she did on TV and most importantly on 70s comedy albums that totally got me through high school.   That one below, Modern Scream, especially.  I remember listening to it on my record-player at night and just getting blissed out on how Lily lovingly portrayed those people that seemed completely out of sync with the world, but here someone was making a world out of, and for, them.  And then of course there's her Broadway show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (written by her now wife Jane Wagner) that's a tour de force of empathy and magic, championing all kinds of human oddities, all of it rolled up into a sort of road movie of the mind.  In Grandma, Lily herself gets that kind of treatment, empathy revealing empathy, without a lot of chuffa (totally thanks to writer-director Paul Weitz). 
In movie roles in the past, Lily has always seemed a little uptight, at the mercy of someone else's eye, closeted, less than.  In movies like Big Business and Nine to Five, she was fantastic of course, but too-get-along, too sweet.  And even in Nashville and The Late Show, beautifully idiosyncratic late-70s movies that have great off-beat rhythms all their own, she was still not who she was, even though she was astutely acting her ass off.  And I understand of course that acting is often about not being yourself, but somehow those great characters Lily did on comedy albums and TV and on Broadway were so on-point, so damn real, that they seemed closer to who she was, even though they were often her complete opposites.  She vested in them a psychic energy, a need that made them sharpen into self portraits, not just rinky-dink puppets in sketches.
Based on a quest to get her granddaughter to the abortion-clinic on time (and with enough money to pay for it), Grandma has an effortless flow to it, unlike a lot of these kinds of indie movies.  It's actually people-pleasing, even though the characters aren't really that upstanding, and that's a total relief.  Because in it Lily is so authentically "Lily" (or at least the Lily I have in my head from loving her so long) you finally understand what kind of power she has not just as an actress, but as an icon.  And of course it's an ironic, pissed-off, hilarious, intelligent version of icon status, but still Lily plays Elle with a sense of mission and grace that burns away all the unnecessary gestures and poses.  It's her face, right there, on the big-screen, smoothed out but still completely lived in, and those glass-shard eyes, that bruised sense of still being around, knowing all the shit that's gone down.  She has a remarkable long scene in the middle of Grandma with Sam Elliott that will blow you away, and every scene with Julia Garner, who plays her granddaughter, is priceless, and so on so forth with everyone else in the film.  But it's those moments when she's thinking, by herself, that I felt the sense that there wasn't any distance between my soul and her soul, which is kind of what great acting is supposed to do. 
Toward the end of Grandma, Lily as Elle is in the backseat of a cab at night, and she just gets tickled.  She's thinking about something Violet, her partner for 30 years who passed away a year or so back, said, something funny, and that moment packs such a wallop when combined with all that Elle has gone through in the movie, you can almost hear what Violet is saying to her, just by seeing her response to it.  All that from Lily's face in the dark in the backseat.
Go see this movie and bask in it...