Friday, June 29, 2007

Subterranean Depths; Budding Genius

"Back when?" you say. Dear Readers: As I've mentioned before, awol occasionally drops into a big black hole. No -- not D-- time; not Lost Weekend style black-outs (I leave that sorry business to other scribes of our acquaintance. Have you ever noticed that once they stop, they only become even more boorish and self-righteous as their rehabbed selves? Or still worse -- they turn to JESUS. Jesus.) And I'm not travelling -- yet. (Soon, soon.) No -- awol has a kind of 'ctq' (remember? 'confined to quarters' -- more like confined to computer terminal) life that sometimes eats away at her capacity to be, well, awol. I should be bringing you forward, I know. And it's not like I've stopped. And yes -- one or two news items have aroused my rant-worthy ire over the last couple of weeks. But all in good time -- and this time I mean good time. So I'm not going to make this an 'omnibus' posting. Just bear with me for a while as the back postings continue.

2 June 2007 (cont’d.)

As I walked from Roberts & Tilton to the 6150 parking lot, I ran into Tom Peters chatting up – who else? – more artists – these just visiting (as opposed to showing) – Tom, the show, 6150 (though R&T was essentially the only gallery opening a show that night) – who knew? Tom is a smart, adventurous collector; and sometimes I wonder who gravitated to whom first – the dealers and galleries to Tom or Tom to the dealers and galleries? More likely, I think, they met half-way – at and via the art; and each sized up the other for being the smart, perceptive, instinctive receptors, curators each, on one or many different levels, were. A meeting of eyes and minds consummated on the palate – as so many are, in so many different ways. And our eyes and palates have lived happily ever after.

Something like that. Tom is an interesting and often shrewd collector, which is just one reason why people are always interested in what he’s buying or just looking at. Tom’s in the game for keeps – it’s oh so clear right here and now – because what he’s interested in is just about everything and people seem to know it, including the trio of artists here. Introductions are exchanged, and I inquire about a mutual friend (an art director and architect/designer I haven’t seen in well over a year) – but Tom is immediately drawn away by a sculptor named Farzad – who has some drawings to show him. They’re interesting drawings; and I think I’m more fascinated than Tom – particularly by drawings he’s done partially as entertainments for his young daughter – in pigments made of milk, chocolate, tea – the makings of breakfasts and late night snacks. They’re charming and beautiful and I take his card on an invitation to look up his studio on my way out to Carl Berg up the street who’s showing, among others, Joshua Aster (whose work caught my eye among the UCLA grads showing at the New Wight on campus).

The show is called Fractals; and I’m not exactly sure how Joshua Aster fits into it – I wouldn’t necessarily call his work ‘fractal’ in either a mathematical-geometrical, procedural or figurative sense, although there are fractal or repetitive (I’m not sure about recursive, per se) elements that figure in his work (gee, but aren’t there in everyone’s?). (There were a couple of small panels among the grouping on one wall that played literally on that notion – but more on that in a second.) Steve Schmidt’s work – both relief (in plastic) and on paper – probably comes closest to that definition – at least in a three-dimensional or non-virtual two-dimensional space – but even his work struck me simultaneously as a teasing pastiche of the theme, more than a direct, much less literal, engagement with the mathematics or cyber/digital science of recursive functions and constructions – which is frankly a relief; the wit is essential to its formal success. Timothy Nolan’s “Rise” installation piece had an strong, almost iconic presence in the Berg space, owing partially to its size (it commanded one wall of the space) and its geometric relief-like projection in monochromatic facets of white, gray and reflective silver paper. But although fractals are apparently a mainstay of his work, the works here are fragmentary, more than ‘fractal’ – a kind of continuous function of pyramidal/polyhedral planes or facets. (A ‘fragment of a fractal’? A magnification? It was hard to tell.)

On my way out of the gallery, I ran into opera buddy – in a pink coat and matching eyeglass frames, looking (as usual) fabulous, with a mutual friend less involved with the L.A. art world than the L.A. film world. I wondered why we hadn’t spoken about connecting for the show; but the show she had turned out for was actually two doors down – the re-located, re-opened Steve Turner Gallery – inaugurating the space with an eclectic (at least on the ground floor) group show. I was surprised to see Sam Durant pieces not too different from (and perhaps identical to) work he had only recently shown at Blum & Poe. (What was that about?) It was an odd grouping, retailing of its various objects, haphazardly placed and not particularly coherent. A “My Barbarian” screening was in progress upstairs. Need I say more?

In the meantime, opera buddy had scoped out the Berg Fractals show as quickly as I had turned out of Turner. I had to ask her what she thought of Aster’s work, which I had earlier recommended to her from his grad show at UCLA. “It’s a little pallid,” she said. I pressed her a bit on this point; but she is nothing if not firm in her judgments. If I could see where her take came from – the works here, both individually and ensemble, have a softness – even reticence in the context of their more assertive neighbors, Schmidt and Nolan – that is disarming (but I would also say, intriguing), I could not have disagreed more. Color and definition are, by varying degrees, pale and muted (qualities that were also on display in the larger pieces he exhibited at UCLA). But softness, even pallor, hardly diminish their overall impact. I think taste is a (partial) factor here. I think also the pieces required a more sustained (but not much, actually) viewing. Although Schmidt’s and Nolan’s pieces had immediate, undeniable presence, the Aster pieces offer a refreshing playfulness that belie their wit and formal prowess. It is enough in these pieces to propose, suggest, insinuate their ideas – and that’s another thing: Aster engages the theme(s) here in plural.

The large pieces at UCLA had a subterranean, twilit feel. And here too, there is a subterranean undertow. Aster cannot help but tease the theme (the couple of panels that actually present a fractal configuration are explicit pastiches: e.g., “Killing Floor” in which a crystalline fractal archipelago floats over an aqueous wash which itself dissolves into one of Aster’s characteristic irregular grids, what I think I referred to once as neum-like. (What to call them? – they have both architectural and musical allusiveness). And in a way I think that’s it: it’s a musical play on recursion – a whimsical counterpoint that at its most complex (or insinuating) has a fugal quality. His subtle but unique sense of color is really extraordinary (I think of his oranges, pale or vivid, pinks and blues, and acid/mustard yellows. Oh I can see it sounds like I’m talking about drugs. Well.)

The formats here give Aster the opportunity to work (if this doesn’t’ sound somewhat debased – and it really shouldn’t) in a slightly more whimsical mode – and the result is even greater depth, scope. The titles are fantastic – a continuation of his sharp, ironic wit. I can stop right there. Have a look for yourself – or just get a list of the titles from Carl or Veronica.

Besides opera buddy, I ran into a few other people – among them Alexina Matisse – no coincidence that name, descendant of Teeny and Pierre – apparently working (at least part of the time) in L.A. – but none struck me quite the way a baby in the gallery, not more than year old, did. We encountered each other opposite one of the Nolan pieces, which her infant eyes surveyed with palpable intelligence. Our eyes met and exchanged each other's assessment. There was no one and nothing in the room her eyes did not engage. I had to ask her name and her parents happily supplied it: Harper Jo. Is it possible to recognize genius in a baby? Who knows whether she’ll grow up to be an artist, but if I’m not mistaken, with any luck, Harper Jo will grow up to be a genius.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Promises and Prodigies; art vs. speculation

Okay -- as promised -- back postings:

1 June 2007

I half expected New Image to be closed when I got there (I got bogged down with traffic and errands between downtown and Hollywood) and unless I have a date with Target or some thrift store in the vicinity, it always seems my chances of getting to the gallery are almost nil. Then again – I always seem to find parking when I’m there which, let’s face it, is nothing short of a miracle in that neighborhood. I just missed Sean Cassidy’s show, which just closed – which KILLS me; and as I park the car, I immediately think – ‘it’s cursed – I’m going to miss this opening – and probably the show – too.’ The gallery is open, though, when I walk in. But some guys are rushing out and it looks as if they’re either trying to close the gallery or in the middle of installing the show for TOMORROW’s opening. (Should’ve checked Fette’s Flog – never fails.) Marsea’s still here, though, and I walk back to say hello before I leave. “I guess I came too early. For some reason, I thought the opening was this evening.” “It is – stick around. Or come back in an hour.” It’s barely controlled chaos here – there are at least a dozen people running around, some installing, some tinkering with electronics, some keyboarding – and two of her artists – the Date Farmers – putting a few finishing touches on some of their work; but this (as far as I’ve been able to tell) is Marsea Goldberg’s natural habitat. It’s an irresistible invite under any circumstances; Marsea is such a trip. I knew it was going to be a group show, but I had no idea of the scope. The show, Brodeo, is fairly crammed with work. I also wasn’t aware that it was going to be such a boys club – as the title more or less directly implies. Still, in spite of what seems to be a prevailing “skate” aesthetic, it’s a pretty diverse bunch. Marsea seems to be really excited about Evan Hecox and someone (I’m not 100 percent sure that this is simply one individual; Marsea works (enthusiastically) with art collectives) called Skullphone whose electronics take over a separate project space at the gallery. It’s hard to make any assessment in the gloom of the room, especially as it’s still being installed; but Texaco’s Pegasus makes a Day-of-the-Dead flight over the proceedings. (Maybe there is life after the Met.) I’m drawn to some very streamlined Japanese influenced graphic design, which Marsea identifies as Cody Hudson. As I turn to observe an artist putting the finishing touches on a pictorial construction that makes me think of retablos, Marsea introduces me to Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez (who’s working on the retablo) as The Date Farmers – an allusion to their agrarian background – they’re from Coachella; and they still work mostly well east of Los Angeles. It’s easy to understand – and see. It’s no accident that the installation piece looks like a retablo. In addition to the influences of rural and desert environs and Mexican-American gang culture, the influence of their parents’ Catholicism is inescapable, even if the iconography has partially morphed into something reflecting rural and desert environs and Mexican-American gang culture. “You should interview them,” she nudges; and we exchange telephone numbers.

2 June 2007

Roberts & Tilton are showing a wunderkind from Cincinnati named Jimmy Baker, whose virtuosity is amply borne out in separate sequences of images (and soundscapes – via iPods) all related under the slightly cautionary banner, Rapture. There are notes (uh-oh) – but right now I’m more enraptured by the nosh and excellent wine presided over beneficently by the L.A. art world’s favorite caterer/collector (and mine), Tom Peters. The images are brilliant in every sense; they’re all about the light – and whether painting or photography, the placement (I want to say, deployment) and execution are flawless. It’s hard to say whether there’s a strategy here. Baker certainly has a coherent world view; but, however well-installed (and it does function to some extent as an installation), and whether cast in a fictive/speculative context or ‘space’ or within the physical/contemporary actuality, it’s a bit of a stretch to compress that simultaneously historical, contemporary and future/speculative view into a single gallery installation. At best, what we’re given is a fragment, or a series of fragmentary views into several possibly related, but contingent, realities. Consider: two contrasting sequences of portraits; landscape photographs (or more precisely landscapes with figures, the iPod soundscapes, which are intended more or less explicitly to have a connective function here; two landscape photographs of a different order – they appear to be aerial or perhaps satellite shots – of arctic snowscapes, ostensibly the North and South Poles; and two automobile doors – from an apparently battle-scarred Chevrolet Suburban – there are bullet holes across the lower portion of the door panels. The doors are set at angles, as if opening upon the crystalline landscapes in the photographs (or closing on the gloom of the dusky portraits). The darker (literally and figuratively) portraits – hermetic fellows in a progressively devolving state – are bathed in a Georges de la Tour light (goddess knows they need to bathe in something). The otherwise pristine landscapes in turn are littered incongruously with abandoned appliances or vehicles – or simply men with rifles.

So what’s this “John Titor” business (I’m going over this stuff, as you might gather, several days after the fact)? I looked up the reference on-line. It appears to be based on a rather elaborate science fiction scenario hoax, the instigator/protagonist of which is one “John Titor,” who gives no verification or clue as to his real identity or authorial status, except to say that “John Titor is a real name.” The Wikipedia entry is fairly comprehensive – and alarming. It is a scary scenario – although the notion of an American “civil war between the red and blue states, and the eventual loss of 3 billion people from the planet is appealing. The salutary effect of population decline, however, might, “Titor” posits, be offset by the devastation of various intervening civil and global wars, including the devastation of most American urban centers. In the Titor scenario, Omaha, Nebraska is the only American city left more or less intact. That would certainly constitute, in my book, the end of civilization.

Reading on, the article discloses the involvement of an “entertainment lawyer” (no shit), one Lawrence (or Larry) Haber, based in Florida, who has met with Titor representatives from the “John Titor Foundation.” I’d love to see more work by Baker, who’s obviously some kind of prodigy. But as far as the Titor/”Rapture” business goes, the ‘gig,’ as they say, appears to be ‘up.’


Friday, June 15, 2007

The Politics of Portraiture: 'This is how it goes DOWN.'

14 June 2007

Before I post the back postings, please indulge me while I rant and rave for a couple minutes. First the rave: I just came from a screening of Robbie Cavalino’s and Ian McCrudden’s documentary, Anita O’Day: The Life of A Jazz Singer, at LACMA – and I’m flying. Or swinging. Or bopping. (Or nodding? Soon enough, no doubt.) It’s simply fantastic. It’s real, it’s dynamic, it’s down, it’s lighter than air. It scythes through the bullshit about O’Day and the jazz life and somehow, almost ineffably – beneath the text, the commentaries, which are alternately insightful and slightly off-point but still relevant, connected to the stream of O’Day’s unpredictable trajectory – manages to penetrate to the core of what made her keep ‘traveling light’ – fantastically – the entwined strains of pain and pleasure, the amazing rhythmic and musical genius at the foundation of her talent, the staccato of serendipity and external provocations that propelled her forward. I keep thinking of this fantastically funny line of Anita’s about her first taste of heroin – she was on the stuff for 16 years – I didn’t take notes, so this may be slightly off – but it was something like: “Hey – this is way better than scotch (that might be me – I think she might have said, “this is better than booze”); this is better than sex.” Margaret Whiting and Annie Ross comment very insightfully on what a pervasive (and persuasive) temptation heroin was for so many in the jazz demi-monde. (I love the way each of them look on the film, too. It’s harsh – it’s almost painful on a certain level – to see Whiting’s visage, in somewhat heavily but clearly hastily applied make-up, reflecting on the harsh actualities of the jazz life. Ross looks blowsy and wind-blown, the asymmetry of her features emphasized by her (much lighter thank goddess) make-up and the lighting and photography. In her lifetime, O'Day was a difficult interview (which gives some indication of how difficult she might have been on a business level) – but some squares fared better than others. (Musical intelligence trumped whatever shortcomings she perceived: she was always alert to a fresh or unique musical voice or talent, especially those with an innate jazz sensibility.) The film excerpts hilariously an interview with a hapless, rudderless, clueless Bryant Gumbel (indication of his spinelessness??) As he attempts to cross-examine (and push her towards regret or second-guessing) her pharmaco-checkered career, she cuts him dead with a dead-pan Piaf moment: “That’s the way it went down.” She was best (almost always) in her musical moments – the more spontaneous, the better. Maybe that overstates it a bit – the footage of her singing in Tokyo in 1963 is sublime (she’s flying high on smack and “Honeysuckle Rose” flows out like honey) – but spontaneous improvisations reveal her musical genius to advantage, the more challenging the better (and breath-taking). The film swings (and I do mean swing) freely over the jazz chessboard score of her career, and zigs and zags (graphically, too) between jazz dweebs like Phil Schaap (any relation to Dick? – gee I miss him) and a very intense James Gavin, and the personalities who figured in her career, some geniuses in their own right (e.g., Billy Taylor, Johnny Mandel), many no longer with us – e.g., a sketchy portrait of John Poole, the drummer and percussionist O’Day discovered doing the warm-up strip show for Lenny Bruce, and with whom she shared her life – and addiction – for more than 15 years. In addition to the clips from her Tokyo tour, her audacious (and spectacularly self-styled) rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at Newport from Bert Stern’s Jazz On A Summer Day, which she builds from a staccato, almost accidental music, improvisation, to a soaring jazz sinfonia (one of those priceless genius moments); the film of her equally audacious (at the time) duet with Roy Eldridge, “Let Me Off Uptown,” and many brilliant television clips and other invaluable filmed performances – all brilliantly whipstitched together by Robbie Cavalino’s genius art direction and editing – make Anita O’Day the simultaneously searing and soaring documentary it is – as well as a searing exposition of la vie de la Bohème – jazz style.

A mild disclaimer: Robbie is an acquaintance – we have several mutual friends. But this should in no way diminish the praise he is due for this amazing gift of a film.

Okay – I’m hearing the guffaws in my head: “Are you through yet?” Okay let me shut up about Anita O’Day for a second (hey, I’m excited; so sue me) and focus on, hmmmm – something that Bert Stern would have understood, especially on a commercial level. I’m talking about a certain style of photography. I don’t really know what to call it: creepy-dignified; majestic-robotic; get-real-or-get-replicant; I just don’t know. Alright let me tell you what I’m getting at? I’m sure you took in the cover of last Sunday’s (yeah – I should have posted this days ago, I know) New York Times Magazine, with that photograph of John Edwards. (This really doesn’t have much to do with my personal politics; I’ll confess I lean towards Obama – but all of this is really irrelevant, as I’ll make clear in a second.) The photographer is Robert Maxwell; but I’m not really sure this has to do with Maxwell himself (though obviously he’s ‘in’ on the presentation of his subject). (It occurs to me that the magazine cover shot of Hillary Clinton – the one taken around the time she published It Takes A Village (by now a very well known portrait of HC)– makes an interesting contrast in terms of the way political players (and, by implication, power) are photographed.). We notice first, the stance, the posture, the positioning – the head seems just ever-so-slightly upturned, the eyes narrowed in a near squint, the nose that much more bulbous looking (not that it’s really bulbous), the mouth, however, comfortably set, not to firm or rigid. The blue of the tie is a little too blue, too bright, not dark or saturated enough. The hands are comfortably set at his sides, set well, almost perfectly, but they’re not particularly graceful or elegant (but maybe that’s okay for a politician, who knows?) You realize by now that the shot is positioned just a bit lower than the median, the angle lowered just slightly, just enough make Edwards – not monumental (certainly not) exactly, but just a bit stony. Not stiff – because he’s clearly not stiff here – but, uh, strange? Part of it is the squint – the lighting is clearly a bit harsh, particularly the high light set. Now we focus again on the face. What is wrong? – the eyes know. Oh yeah, the eyes always know – or show. What is that square of light circumscribing the pupils of the eyes? The light source? Why isn’t this corrected? It’s so fucking obvious. Now we know what’s a little strange here – or maybe a lot strange. Let’s face it – the last time you saw a look like this was in Village of the Damned. He’s one of the Children of the Damned. Game over – we think – but first we page over to the feature. (Hey – I’ll cut the Times some slack. Why not?) Over to page 66 – a solid black bar over the center of the page (the graphic rubric), the title is simply “The Poverty Platform” (the article was written by Matt Bai). No shit – have a look yourself – we’re already set up for the facing portrait – essentially the headshot from the cover – this time a properly centered 8x10 (or 10x12 – whatever it is) glossy – the bright white ‘square around the pupils’ are now forceps – or maybe fangs (the nose looks better though). This is Dracula with a tan. The article is actually pretty interesting – the focus is economics (not only as a campaign issue, but with the campaign as focus), inequality, wealth disparity, imbalance, the check for globalization, populism, etc., etc., Edwards’ beliefs, strategy, viability, etc., etc. – I could spend another half hour discussing it – but that’s not my point here. My point is the visual manipulation and what that manipulation sets us up for – notwithstanding our awareness of it.

Let’s set aside for a moment that the system is rigged. We already know that (we’re not ALL morons – much as this White House treats us so). This is about the way our expectations are conditioned by the landscape of imagery – including the quasi-official portraiture — around us. It’s yet another filter imposed by the mainstream media gatekeepers in alternatively willful and passive complicity with the country’s political power-brokers and plutocrats. No matter that these people – e.g., Edwards, Obama, McCain, Romney, etc. – are already players on one level or another, power-brokers on some scale in their own right; no matter what or who their constituencies are – or even the raw power of the numbers (which can be and are always manipulated). Some of these guys just aren’t getting through. Go ahead and call in the stylists; call in the money-men and women, call in your own political chips and alliances. For chrissakes call Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett if it makes you happy. The choices open for your voting pleasure will shortly be made – take them or leave them.

Do you remember the portrait of John Kerry that appeared in The New York Times the Sunday a few weeks before the last election? I knew then and there it was over (in spite of the assurances of my hyper-informed Washington journalist brother that Kerry really had a decent chance). I only wonder now whether Kerry himself wasn’t complicit in his own defeat. (I confess I wondered the same thing about Gore in 2000. But at least his campaign carried the case to the Supreme Court with no less than David Boies taking the leading oar.)

It occurs to me that there is one solid argument against my thesis: George Bush almost always looks like a moron no matter who photographs him, or where or under what circumstances he’s photographed. Then again that describes almost half the electorate. Well – there you are.

A contrasting example – and I have to wonder why and to what effect ultimately. Only a couple of days later, I was sitting in a waiting room and picked up a TIME Magazine. Mitt Romney is on the cover. Have you seen it? (No, I don’t routinely read it either – outside the supermarket line; it’s still essentially the elementary school Economist. So ask your kid or your neighbor’s kid for theirs.) Once again, there was an interesting gap between the cover portrait and the feature’s contents (which, again, were actually pretty interesting – there I go contradicting myself again). I have to give them some credit. They (editors, publisher) get it about Romney. But really – did they have to be so obvious about it? Harry Luce would have had quite a giggle over it – and frankly I don’t think he would have approved; regardless of his politics, he wanted the magazine to be current and above all, to sell. But – without addressing its aesthetics, which of course tell their own story – that portrait harks back to something out of 1936 – or at the latest, 1952. What, you have to wonder, were they thinking? Right now it really is too early in the season to make any predictions – but what do you think Romney’s chances are right now?

Smile for the camera. The fix is in. MORE in a few hours.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Thinking v. Believing; Authorship v. Tourism -- OR -- My House Is A Museum; Some Things to Make You Scre-am

9 June 2007

Yes -- I'm out of town; but not where you think (I only wish). I know I haven't posted anything in what seems like a year -- my apologies. But between medical issues, work schedules, and renovations to my apartment, I might as well be a refugee -- though it feels more like 'refusenik.' I need the right Visas -- in both senses.

So this is going to be something of an omnibus posting. I warn you some of it is a bit of a rant, so you may want to skim over those parts (you'll know them when you see them). I'll try not to put it all up at once. But I've got to start somewhere -- I'M SO FAR BEHIND. Hey -- it's my birthday and I'll post what I want to.

Ezrha Jean Black, Ojai, California

22 May 2007

My Eden’s-over-the-Edge copy is in my lap as I sit down next to my pal, Carla Weber, in the Linwood Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study for Curtis Harrington’s memorial. Curtis would, I think, have been delighted and gratified by the proceedings (perhaps even more than his funeral service, which was disturbed by more than just the iconic spirits of the screen entombed around him – apparently rescued almost single-handedly by eulogist, Jack Larson – eat your heart out, Superman). The theater is a long but diverting hike through the Pickford Center, which is a fabulous facility here in the heart of Hollywood – always, physically and spiritually, close to Curtis Harrington’s own heart. (His art nouveau showplace was only a mile or so up Vine from here straight into the Hills.) I was surprised by some of the missing faces – most obviously (to me), F.X. Feeney (who’s also a neighbor – I’m guessing he’s out of town) – who were once fixtures at Curtis’s salons; and a little surprised by others, more familiar from other contexts (e.g., Irving Blum; no chatting with him though – he left immediately after the program finished, bypassing the reception altogether). The memorial was beautifully orchestrated by Robert Mundy, who also hosted the event. There could be no better host. A long and beautiful selection of photographs of Curtis played over the screen in a variable loop before the program began in earnest – coming to rest finally on the image that was featured in his Los Angeles Times obituary – Curtis pensively posed against a ‘pensive’ cherub’s head. The speakers were well chosen – succinct appreciations by Dennis Bartok (who continues to play a role in preserving Curtis’s legacy) and Peter Medak (whose own films are the stuff of legend – e.g., The Ruling Class and The Krays) – who recalled with fondness Curtis’s returning the hospitality he had found in Europe with his own hospitality for expatriate writers and directors; actor Norman Lloyd, who gave us glimpse at the comedy of a youthful Curtis’s unlikely apprenticeship with producer Jeff Wald, who – model for Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick as he was – would not exactly nurture Curtis’s nascent avant-garde spirit, even as he opened his eyes to Hollywood’s cynical checkerboard of winners and losers; Barbara Steele, who made her own eloquent tribute an elegant introduction to noir-maven John Gilmore (whose own account rambled a bit). Michael Lerner gave a beautiful reading of the Wallace Stevens poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” a fitting tribute to Curtis’s delightful spirit. The culmination of the evening was a beautiful video tribute of film clips from the forthcoming House of Harrington, edited by Jeffrey Schwartz and director/editor/artillery scribe Tyler Hubby (including glimpses of Curtis in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome – you can be assured I had no idea who that actor was the first time I saw that film a zillion years ago), followed by a halting envoi from Dennis Hopper, whose breakthrough role was Curtis Harrington’s own Night Tide.

Carla, who has her own Hollywood memoir simmering somewhere, was the perfect companion for the evening: she knew everyone who was there and everyone who might have been there. I don’t think any ‘skeleton’ is safe from her discerning eye.

28 May 2007

As readers of artillery and a few other publications as well as this blog are aware, I spend a fair amount of time at museums – including art museums. (Although you’d think I live in museums when in Europe, here at home, I go through jags when for one reason or another the idea of spending any time at all at an art museum is almost unbearable. The wall text is one factor. (E.g., ‘what – I just plowed through 100,000 words on, I dunno, hedge fund investing, taxation on perquisites, privacy and state interest, and I have to read some more? – and what do you mean I can’t take my double espresso into the gallery? Can’t you see I NEED IT??? Or – at the other end of the day – what do you mean I can’t walk through with my wineglass?? Can’t you see I NEED IT???) Better than half the time, I feel as if I need to know absolutely everything about a work and its artist. And then sometimes it feels so lugubrious. Or the obligatory essays (and you KNOW you HAVE TO READ them…. Don’t you?): e.g., Aaacccchhh! Do I really need to go through this philosophical reconfiguration to really grasp the essence of the artist’s work here??

Or maybe it’s the resentment of the time and commute – and a bit of envy. I.e., because I don’t have much of an art collection of my own, the desire to live with the art is that much stronger; the idea of living with the art on an everyday basis is all the more important, something to be cherished. (There are some pieces I feel I need to have with me almost continuously everyday until they’ve somehow sublimated their way into my mitochondrial DNA or something before I can let them go or rotate something in their place – which is why I can make a pest of myself at galleries and museums (when I am going to museums). It’s like putting on the same song or piece of music on again and again and again until you know the words, the inflections, the delivery, as if you wrote them, as if you could transcribe the arrangement note for note.

I also like the idea of absorbing and appreciating a masterpiece in depth while at the same time melting away a layer of the preciousness that inevitably accrues like so much varnish and gilt. If it’s truly important, the ideas and imagery should be absorbed into the fabric of our everyday lives. I like the idea of looking at something in between papering the couch with the Sunday Times, when I’m mangling some piece of music on the piano, while I’m cleaning the litter boxes, etc. I like it when the aura that sets it apart from the ‘mechanical reproductions’' (though I have those too) lack of aura, isn’t so precious that I have second thoughts about mixing a drink in its vicinity or even lighting a cigarette. (Hey, if the artist probably smoked all the way through making it, can’t I have a drag or two once a month?)

I’m talking here essentially about contemporary art museums – still a conceptually risky idea to me – but one I’ve always viewed as a more or less necessary parallel and adjunct to the commercial sector – the galleries, dealers and auction houses; in other words, a neutral turf in the marketplace where we can freely ask: ‘just what is it they’re selling us?’ When we tire of the museum (or the marketplace), when perhaps we’ve taken the plunge and actually bought something; or when we’re just hunkering down with our books and magazines and DVDs – the question in play becomes something like, ‘just what are we buying here? And why? It’s the point where art really touches life; enters into its rhythm, texture, chemistry – the vital intersection of the concrete and the cosmic.

I have to say I like it when even the encyclopedic museums have rooms where you feel you can flop down on a couch – or maybe an authentic Empire chaise longue (a la Récamier – an early role model of mine) or a Louis XV bergère or fauteuil (not that one ever flops, exactly, into a Louis fauteuil) – like the Egyptian galleries at the Louvre, or certain apartments at Versailles. (Interesting how the Louvre makes you understand why there had to be a Versailles.) Or even the American galleries at the Met.

The concrete and cosmic – those everyday epiphanies – have an easier time of it at other, slightly more earthbound (or, alternatively, spacebound) institutions: e.g., science and natural history museums. Most of these institutions have exhibits that invite viewer interventions or participation; some more so than others (e.g., San Francisco’s Exploratorium). There’s plenty of text at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as the Field Museum in Chicago and L.A.’s own Natural History Museum; but, however pedagogical, however grounded in the rational and factual, they somehow they lend themselves to a more random, dreamier experience. We’re all somnambulists there amid the dioramas that will eventually include specimens like ourselves among the chicken wire and sculpy terrain, absorbing tremendous amounts of information on both a conscious and subliminal levels. They nourish and refresh both analytically and synaestheically in a way that is sometimes lost in the art museums and kunsthalles where the focus is frequently a single artist’s style and imagination. If only my physics labs had been this edifying. The people who run L.A.’s own Natural History Museum have recognized this inherent capacity and capitalized on it brilliantly by inviting artists to develop projects for their galleries (e.g., Susan Silton, most recently – a good (and timely) choice, given her focus on the intersection of physical forces involved in natural events (tornadoes) and perception, on both macro- and microcosmic levels. And a linguistic level? (I’m thinking of derivations.) Or is that just me? As I said, I’m a somnambulist in these places).

Margaret Wertheim is someone else who understands the intersection of the scientific and the synaesthetic – almost too well. I wasn’t surprised when she was on a panel discussion on Tim Hawkinson at the Getty along with Doug Harvey and Christopher Miles (whose own presentation was appallingly thin). She seemed, if anything, almost hyperanalytical on the subject of Hawkinson’s Zoopsia installation – which looked as if it had been directly inspired by natural history museum exhibits (more than, say, zoological collections) – and Überorgan. It seemed as if no analogue or metaphor that could be drawn from the scientific, engineering or medical/biological world was left unexamined – perhaps with the exception of straight systems analysis (to say nothing of Hawkinson’s own capacity for narcissism). (Angel Chen was there to helpfully pinpoint of few of Wertheim’s apparent oversights.) I hadn’t seen the Überorgan in New York, and after Wertheim’s build-up, I was eager to check it out. I will say it looked pretty great in the Getty’s entry/orientation space. On the other hand, so would have Big Mama Alien (from Alien 2), which is what it reminded me of most. But I confess to being more than a little underwhelmed by it. (Why not just get the people who created Big Mama for Aliens? Maybe the Getty should do a joint show of special effects art like that with AMPAS.) But then there was music – which periodically issued from the Uberorgan’s trumpet-like extensions. Ahhh – music – to crown and climax the installation. Well. Readers of this blog will recall that I had not, so many evenings before, taken in The Tristan Project with the L.A. Philharmonic. Let me put it this way. It fell short of that standard by more than one parallel universe. You have to wonder what the point was. Look – at least give us the five tones (or was it the three tones?). Do you know what I’m talking about? (If you guessed movie music, you’re right: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Another route would be something along the lines of the Windows chimes; or . . . well, you get the idea.) Ironically, this piece of business might have been a bit more engaging in something outside the art context – something like S.F.’s Exploratorium. (It might as well go somewhere like that. Where are they going to store it?)

There’s no getting around the fact that some of the greatest art to be seen is found in churches. It goes further than that. Some of the greatest works of art are churches (e.g., Chartres, St. Peter’s, the Sainte Chapelle, etc., etc. – jesus the Catholics really knew what they were doing once upon a time, no?) ‘Gee, that’s a non-sequitur’ – you’re thinking. Yes. Well maybe. I guess my point is that maybe great art is still made for churches (though, to put it mildly, I doubt it). We just don’t know it yet because we don’t look at any of them less than 300 years old. On the other hand, most ‘art’ that goes into theme parks is simply kitsch. Not really a bad thing exactly; occasionally an amusing thing. Unless it’s a subterfuge, a fraud – a pernicious thing. When it packages and presents itself as a “museum” – not of art, but of natural history, science, biology – with a comparably vigorous pedagogical component – there neither to instruct nor edify or nurture critical thinking and scientific analysis, but instead, prosyletize, indoctrinate, brainwash, whitewash – brainKILL – that is to say all but lobotomize its patrons, including children – then what we have is de facto a CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE. It may not be against the laws on the books – whether of Kentucky or the United States; but then it wasn’t a crime to be a Nazi brownshirt once upon a time, until history and the world in typical ‘better-too-late-than-never’ fashion caught up with them.

I’m speaking of course of the new “Creation Museum” that just opened in some benighted corner of Kentucky. (Do you wonder sometimes why this country still exists? Why we weren’t invaded LONG ago by almost anyone? There are so MANY stupid fucks (over)populating it.) The charlatan who developed it is an Aussie (I think) named Ken Ham, whose background is probably ideal for his criminal enterprise: he comes from both a teaching (biology, naturally) and a theme park background. (Hard to believe he worked for Universal Studios. Didn’t we teach the guy anything? Then too, he could have worked for Universal in Florida.) Of course the guy has managed to hire a few individuals with actual hard science background to lend credibility to the enterprise. I’m sure money explains part of it (there are only so many good astrophysics jobs around – most of them near the NASA space centers and ancillary research facilities). And of course there’s always some quasi-autistic/Asperger’s type that can be suckered into this (or any) sort of thing.

Ultimately what these places do is induce a premature cynicism (as if politics – or hormones – won’t do that soon enough). They kill a child’s taste or enthusiasm for any type of museum experience – art or science or history (to say nothing of his/her trust). You have to believe (gee, isn’t that what institutions like this are about?) some significant percentage of these kids will end up in therapy for years because of it. (And unfortunately, some percentage of these kids will actually be persuaded by this shit and ultimately indoctrinated into some sacred-heart-of-darkness religious doctrine.) It makes no difference whether it’s run by megalomaniacal bigot-charlatans like Jerry Falwell, or living-kitsch characters like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or penal colony pedagogues like Ham, these are nothing but less-than-amusing amusement parks where the roller-coaster is a downhill trainwreck straight to the hell of some kitsch gift shop. (In that respect, of course, it resembles museums only too well. But maybe that has as much to do with the contemporary condition of being treated as tourists of our own lives.)

“You got to believe and you will surely find … it’s sure to ease your mind … there’s something up above… (what’s that something?) that something is love … It’s a draaaaagggg …” To think of that lyric and the charm of Dan Hicks’ lilting baritone – always pressing hard against his adorable falsetto – summons up the slightly amber-hued bliss of an era decades past when it seemed as if we were inventing a new irony – for a new society, a new culture in which – thanks in part to the barricades of only a few years earlier, we might tear down the old unnecessary barriers – between the academy and the avant-garde, between high and low, between the generations – between the New Left and their bourgeois or middle-class parents, between mainstream Middle America and the counter-culture. Dan Hicks and his fabulous Hot Licks (I have no idea why they suddenly come to mind in particular – aside from that oddly appropriate lyric) in a sense were one example of that ironic sensibility. They were tweaking genres – country-blues and western swing – with a certain pop je ne sais quoi flair – mixing them up with a few other idioms and their own idiosyncrasies to make something fresh. Certainly they took the music seriously; but not too seriously that they might not tease it a bit, and in so doing, take it in a slightly different direction – one that led straight into the hearts of their alt-rock audience.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, though. The conditions were ripe for irony – riper than we knew; and nothing (or not much) new about it. 1972: the year of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street (but also the year after Altamount); only a year after “Henry’s Show” dusted off a New York contemporary canon for the Met, a year of great work by Johns and Rauschenberg, also Oldenberg (coincidence that Warhol would begin silkscreen painting again in earnest?); incidentally an unheralded (at the time) but nevertheless great year for art in L.A. – major work from Ruscha, Ken Price, Llyn Foulkes, Kienholz, Hockney, McCracken, and on and on; also the cresting of the feminist second wave – and a great tidal wave of art that WACK, among other shows, is beginning to reconsider this year); Coppola and Fosse won Academy Awards for The Godfather and Cabaret (hey – these were important things to a NY-Hollywood kid). But the darkness was visible over that magic hour horizon. It was an era of détente, the ABM treaty; Nixon’s overtures to China. The war in Vietnam was unwinding – but it was also intensifying. Hanoi was being bombed mercilessly; Cambodia’s sovereignty was mortally breached; and protest continued apace. It was the year of the Munich Olympics. Nixon was re-elected by a less than civil campaign far more tainted that we even knew. We were already familiar with cozy DC power joints like the Jockey Club and the Sans Souci. We now began hearing about the Watergate.

Some time ago, I saw Lasse Hallström’s film, The Hoax. I thought to post something at the time I saw it and may as well share some of those notes now. The subject matter (the Howard Hughes memoir hoax of that halcyon year) has its inherent interest – more about that in a minute; but what interested me most about the Hallström film was something about its tone, its distance, its hollow, muted shadowy coloration. It is a dark movie; a movie in which a whiskey glow gives way to a jaundiced hung-over haze. The narrative moves at a frenzied pace, yet the film seems to move on two parallel tracks; and in fact there are two parallel trajectories: the unrelenting competitive drive and insatiable ambition of its principals; and, as if moving alongside in slow motion, the protest-laden trudge forward (or backward) of a historic rising social and cultural tide. ‘We want to believe,’ those principals are all but chanting in unison – and it might as well be the mantra of American commerce at the tail-end of the go-go 1960s. ‘Let’s go.’ ‘Let’s make this happen.’ The sentiment was probably not all that different in the streets – although the objective was in another direction entirely. Everything seemed possible.

“Keep the faith, baby.” I must have said that at least once myself. But this is about an ambition that creates its own blind faith, momentum, mythology; willing to steamroll a whim, a notion, a travesty of purloined notes, memories, reportage fastened to a few hard facts into an engine of its own realities, a force independent of its fictional genesis. Sounds a bit like religion – and it certainly seems to anticipate a number of movements, pop mass therapies, cults and quasi-religions that sprang up or mushroomed in the intervening years. The Clifford Irving character (played by Richard Gere) works himself up into a state in which he all but hallucinates the linchpin ‘events’ that structure the ‘memoir.’ Everything dissolves into contingency; nothing can be established, or for that matter definitively dismissed. It’s as if he almost believes the fiction he’s created is fact, or that its structure at least has some factual basis – which of course it does, but which is entirely beside the point.

Believing doesn’t make it so – then or now. Nor is the ‘resulting’ personal ‘truth’ (sic) in fact the truth, the true facts of a given story or situation or actuality. This is what makes the film so timely. The untested ‘belief set as truth’ is at the core of the propaganda style of the entire Bush-Cheney administration. Bush and Cheney are hardly alone in their use of this tactic, but they have made it the hallmark of their overall policy and propaganda strategy. The misstatement or (thinly) cosmeticized lie relentlessly repeated over and over until its establishment as a viable ‘sound-bite’ or ersatz ‘talking point’ –hence, in terms of its functional relation to the electronic mass media – the ‘position of an informed source’ – functionally, a ‘fact’ – is the rhetorical modus operandi par excellence of this administration. Even more than Bush himself, who falls more into the ‘believing until it becomes a personal truth’ style of self-delusion, Dick Cheney and Richard Perle are probably the most obvious public practitioners of this tactic – but its practice is clearly integrated at every level of the daily functioning of this White House and is emblematic of its public face.

By pure coincidence, I had read Clifford Irving’s book on the master art forger, Elmyr de Hory, one summer three or so years earlier. De Hory was a fascinating (and talented) character who might have had a career as an artist had his need for a luxurious life not led him to pursue the lavishly (up to a point) remunerated forgery of various Post-Impressionist, Fauve and School of Paris artists. The DeHory-Irving-Howard Hughes pyramid of duplicity and (self-)deception, blurred, doubled and crossed identities and failed character, abdicated authority and dubious authorship was a natural for Orson Welles whose work and career at virtually every stage engaged these themes and struggles. F for Fake is a better film than The Hoax – but then it presciently reaches what seems to be at the core of the culture’s dilemma – whether we will be authors or simply tourists of our lives.

29 May 2007

It was inevitable; nevertheless, not exactly surprising that I hadn’t yet been there. The gallery that is simply called fette’s gallery is just enough off the beaten path that someone as logistically challenged as I am would find it time and again just out of reach. And yet – to come so close so often and not quite make it there itself was pushing me to the breaking point. It’s really not that far from Western Project. What could be stopping me (besides the temptation to, uh, refresh my scotch)?

I was missing too much – or was I? There was no way to tell without personally checking out the goods. Up until a few months back, all I knew was from photography that made its way on-line (of course most of that came from her own flog), any number of disparate sightings as she did her own survey of L.A.’s studios and kunsthalles. She was an art photographer; she was a roving curator; she was a private dealer; or all of the above. But once past the ‘door’ of the flog and into the virtual gallery, it became manifestly clear that her program was far more extensive and public than any private dealer’s agenda. We had already seen each other out and about, not just in Culver City but Chinatown and elsewhere. Certainly not a week went by without my checking her blog, fette’s flog. More importantly, her ever more expansive, ambitious curatorial program continued to compel my attention. Finally the occasion presented itself. It had been a while since I had seen some interesting film or video. The curatorial premise was, well, more than compelling. It was focused, timely – of the moment – serious, urgent – probing the culture’s relationship to nature (and civilization’s to the wild), the notion of frontiers, development, etc.; by implication our relationship with the planet. The line of questioning was specific, but the parameters were broad enough to elicit a wide (indeed, international) variety of treatments. I couldn’t wait.

In theory I needed no more than 15 minutes to get to fette’s gallery from the Beverly Hills office I was driving from. But Culver City is a perversely plotted street plan – and Mapquest wasn’t really up to the challenge. Fifty minutes later, I found myself passing the bungalow at 4255 Baldwin Avenue. The films had already started, but Fette was outside, waiting graciously to usher her late guests in. A lovely bottle of red wine was close enough at hand for the gallery visitors to help themselves without at all disturbing the film projection. Except for missing the first three films, it could not have been more perfect. I was drawn in from the very first film by Tom Dale (Return to the Last Frontier) which was nothing more than a constantly morphing, dissolving, expanding patch of an oil slick on a rain-washed pavement. The image seemed to alternately turn, expand, diffuse, blur, dissolve, focus, flatten, crystallize, solidify – and on and on, in shimmering iridescence of grays, ambers, mauve, purple and green. It was mesmerizing and that was only the beginning. The next film – out of Amsterdam, the work of Margit Lukacs and Persijn Broersen explored the implications of the ‘globalized village’ of ‘media events’ – or, more precisely, events experienced, witnessed via electronic mass media. What does the conquest of time and space via the perpetual mobile image ultimately deliver? Here, in this seamless forward streaming of imagery from one event or incident in one place to the next in another place, one placid, neutral, another animated, amused or amusing, charming, the next a slice of shocking violence (e.g., a marketplace, a crime scene, disaster, debris, etc.) – and so on as if it would circumnavigate the globe. Six degrees of capricious, cautionary continuity.

Although the films and videos shared a common concern with (I hesitate to even say, ‘human’ or humankind) relations with the land, the planet, the environment; the uneasy symbiosis between civilization and its discontented hosts of atmosphere and biosphere, some were more abstract in their treatment of the conceptual particulars; and even those clearly located in a recognizable terra firma (occasionally with human participants) were more abstract than others. In the surprisingly shocking denouement of one particularly ‘circular’ film, the camera (still circling its perimeter in a full 360 degree sweep) circled a ‘triangle’ of three male figures – still relatively abstract – each held in tension with the other – until one and then the other whipped their joysticks out and sodomized and force-fellated the third member of the ‘triangle.’ (If that doesn’t sum up the condition of the planet – ecologically and politically – I don’t know what does.)

It was a fascinating and very international evening After the films, Fette (ever the beacon in white lace to her straggling guests) showed us around the galleries. I was very taken with the blocky orange sculptures – heads and fragments that had elusive uncanny affinities with a disparate range of objects from kitsch to quasi-iconic. The bright orange coloration gave them an aspect reminiscent of children’s toys and, at the same time, the keyed-up aspect of film props from horror/monster movies of the 1930s (i.e., from the golden age of film studios – ironic considering the gallery’s proximity to Sony – and what were once M-G-M and David Selznick’s studios); think of comic book monsters, “The Mummy,” or a kind of Hulk or Golem. They were by Julie Zemel, an L.A. artist – somewhat exceptional in artists grouped here who, like the group contributing films and videos, were very international.

1 June 2007

The superseding condition right now is the state of my apartment which, although glossily white-washed also looks like it was at the epicenter of an 8 or 9 Richter scale magnitude earthquake. The windows are all wide open – and frequently the front door as well – and I’m still coughing incessantly. It’s like the World bloody Trade Center in here. I suppose it’s my turn to feel like a tourist in my own life. (Observation: It’s hard to ‘author’ when you’re a ‘refugee’ (the ‘un-tourists’ of the war experience) or just a stationary victim in a bombed out place.) Still – speaking of the ‘tourist’ side of things – there is the poignancy of uncovering various things: valuables that went missing or buried under piles of rubble or other piled up furnishings and other possessions (e.g., a couple of paintings); things you might arguably, and perhaps should have, thrown out, yet which now bring unexpected delight (old magazines); unfinished books set aside and long ago forgotten, or books that now scream to be re-read; toys or objects that richly evoke a childhood moment once thought irretrievable. The museum of one’s life is an institution of exhaustion and the occasional ecstasy.