Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sans Soleil (missing Halberstam)

24 April 2007

I just looked over my last post, and – in addition to the usual typos – just noticed that I made a reference to one Helen “Brown” that – completely apart from its dubious relevance to the subject immediately at hand – may have thrown the reader off a bit. The Helen I was referring to – the straightforward satirist who gifted us (via Esquire) with such gems as “Latins Are Lousy Lovers,” to say nothing of books like Whistling Girl and Stranger At the Party – was, needless to say, NOT Helen “Cosmopolitan” Gurley Brown, but Helen Lawrenson – née Helen Brown, which was her by-line at the original Vanity Fair. Are you confused enough yet?

We lost Brownie’s (that’s what Clare Boothe Luce called her) acute eye and voice too early – sometime in the early 1980s, I think. And yet it wasn’t as early as we lost David Halberstam who, as you are undoubtedly aware, was killed in an automobile accident yesterday morning. I seem to be dealing with loss a great deal lately – which may on some level also be symptomatic of the larger cultural losses being sustained secondary to the political catastrophe we seem to be wafting through so blithely. I have to say I’m a little shocked at how meager the Times obit was. He was one of their own. Doesn’t that count for anything? He won a Pulitzer for the Times – when a journalism Pulitzer meant something more than just the brightest, newest flash in the pan. I noticed later in the day that they opened up an archived selection of reviews of some of his books and a few essays in the on-line edition. So they couldn’t flesh out the significance of some of those books, some of that prize-winning coverage just a bit in the obit? It’s not just the current resonance of books like his original précis on his Vietnam coverage, The Making of A Quagmire or, less commented on lately, but pretty obvious all the same, The Best and the Brightest, or – stood in the light of Chicago’s assault on the local daily, the Los Angeles Times, which is now, even in spite of some decent coverage here and there, almost impossible to look at – The Powers That Be.

Okay – I know what you’re thinking: what’s she going on about? This isn’t, say, Robert Rosenblum or Susan Sontag (though I mourn Sontag to this day), or David Sylvester or – I don’t know – someone like Sol LeWitt; in other words, a great artist or a great critic. (Except Halberstam was, of course, a great critic; the kind of histories he wrote in The Best and the Brightest, or, say, The Fifties assume the most rigorous critical criteria and perspective.) Here’s why Halberstam matters: what books like The Best and the Brightest (but also to some extent some of his other books, including his sports books) show is culture – in both micro- and macrocosm – shaping history. In The Best, he reveals ‘sense and sensibility’ trumping the military-industrial complex. It’s sense and sensibility conditioned by, among other things, the military-industrial complex; but nevertheless clearly the elite product of a particular cultural moment – and giving rise to a cultural-historical atrocity. It’s about an almost perfected economic rationalism foundering in the bedrock of cultural and perceptual actualities. (I recall devouring the book alongside another study of the cultural clash in Vietnam – Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire In the Lake.) It’s an almost ironic coincidence that on the same day the obit ran, one of the books reviewed in the Arts section is Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger, a book whose perspective and approach are indebted to Halberstam’s Best and Brightest; and cheek to jowl with the obit itself is an ad for Stephen Kinzer’s “tale of imperialism American-style,” Overthrow. And only yesterday, Ben Brantley was reviewing Frost/Nixon. I wonder to what extent these texts would have been possible without Halberstam.

It’s hard to think of people like Wolfowitz, Perle, Chalabi, Cambone, Hadley, Feith in an analogous context. Their political superiors are the most brutal, cynical and mediocre bureaucrats and hacks; and – whatever their credentials – they’re no Bundys or Rostows. But their arrogance and hubris are easily on the same level and their crimes. . . . Well, their hands are very, very bloody indeed. So yes – we will be missing Halberstam for a very long time.

I mentioned the other day that I was quite taken with the group show at Christopher Grimes – which was really only half of the show; the other half being shown at Chung King Project downtown. I didn’t realize how thoroughly considered the curatorial concept was until I read the show’s press release. The show, titled Without Sun, actually took off (in Carole Ann Klonarides’ concept) from Chris Marker’s 1982 film, Sans Soleil. I’m not sure if Klonarides’ concept (to judge from the press release) parallels with any exactitude the conceit of the Marker film, which is fairly complex – disclosed in layers like nesting boxes, each box opening to reveal yet another. Loss and recovery are addressed in the narrative, but with each strand of the narrative tangential to the last – with the chain of associations and actual meaning elusive. Marker plays with an aesthetic of recomposition in this (and other) films. (The only reason I know any of this is because I saw the film many years ago – along with several other films, including La Jetée. For many years before establishing his own career, Marker was a protégé of Alain Resnais, whose films, however conceptually problematic or flawed in execution, also exert an enduring fascination for me.)

That’s a phrase I might apply to the show and – well, some of the more fascinating objects and paintings in the portion of the show I saw. Of the works on view, Dan Bayles’ paintings perhaps came closest to that chimerical Marker aesthetic. Bayles’ paintings are abstract, fragmented (even fractalized) mappings and dystopian landscapes rendered in a flattened, demotic, almost diagrammatic style. The favored palette is more or less grisaille with the pigments (and other media) applied flatly, almost scraped to the canvas. “Proposal for a National Monument to Paranoia” (2005), for example presents what might be an exploded architect’s model of cracked causeways, catwalks or bridges, snaking through each other to arbitrary elisions or abrupt truncations over a mosaic of filigree and irregular black and white voids – pools, drifts, dunes, banks, glacial masses. (You wonder if it could be a monument to a paranoia that wasn’t. Are these ‘glaciers’ advancing or in retreat? At the current pace, this could be a swath of inter-urban infrastructure after the nth Katrina-level disaster – and in fewer years than we may wish to contemplate.) In another canvas, what looks like a landscape transmuted through an ionizing cloud chamber is bisected and contained beneath a field of fractals. Hard to say if this is the “sunless” world foreshadowed (or post-shadowed?) by some hypothetical ‘Marker avatar’ – it’s light years from the landscape of the Romantics, but perhaps not without something of the sublime.

Thom Merrick’s landscapes are somewhat more straightforward – but they too have been transmuted by a kind of force field of striations (it’s a post-atomic rain that falls on these desolate landscapes: one canvas is actually called “Desert Metamorphosis”). This is less about recomposition than a composition that seems to continually subvert or undermine any stable reading. The ‘metamorphosis’ (in either canvas) is a morphing between incident and inventory – and perhaps ultimately, the ‘submerging’ or disappearance of both. We’re left – not with landscape, or even abstracted zones of color or registered incident – with a sense of shape that may be only tenuously related to the nominal depiction.

Anna Sew Hoy showed two sculptures that had an oracular, almost mythic presence.
One was a kind of boulder of polyurethane, foam and plastic film – it could have been an asteroid or an alien dinosaur: that’s the kind of presence it had. It had a kind of iridescent sheen to it that faded to a more mundane dull grayish green-purple as you moved around it. Its topography fascinated: certain prominences and protrusions gave it an organic, biomorphic aspect – a malignant mass metastasizing as you moved around it; or a ‘creature of the mire’ that could only continue to swallow up and engulf anything in its path. (It also contained bike parts and a handlebar protruded from an opening in the plastic film.) This was a ‘nesting’ orb or egg or ball that you would hypothetically unwrap only at your peril. Another piece was a kind of bird-like totem (though it was Case Culkins’ “Butte” that actually looked like a kind of abstracted “totem pole”) that seemed to challenge, almost defy the viewer’s visual interrogation – with its notional kitsch (a base made of Darth Vader heads), its fossilized aspect, the ‘circle-within-a-circle’ that made up the ‘head’. It was a veritable ‘sunless’ goddess.

Far less focused, but certainly not without its pleasures, was the group show at Roberts & Tilton (yeah yeah yeah – there were a couple of other stops at Bergamot – you really want to hear about them? oh no you don't). I’m not sure what Aaron Rose (who curated) meant exactly by “Other Scenes,” (I think the title almost diminishes the show), but at least a few of them held my attention. (I’m still thinking about a great Jockum Nordström drawing I saw there (“Charlie (“This Horse Is Man’s Best Friend”) (2002)). More from 6150 Wilshire (Daniel Weinberg; Paul Kopeikin) later.

1 comment:

Paige said...

I was so happy to see you write about the group show at Christoper Grimes. After a spectator spectacular star studded evening of openings at Bergamont Station, David Stone insisted on checking out the Grimes show. It was considered by all in tow (5 la art ist in total) the best show of the far. Way to go Carole Ann Klonarides and thanks Ezrha! The blob with the bike handle stood out to all of us! BIKE BLOB BLISS!!