Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Divas and Disasters (Sills' eternal ebullience; & the autos da fe to come)

3 July 2007

You’ll see that I’m jumping ahead a bit below, because – well because I have to. (Frankly it’s not because the shows, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, particularly moved me. I have to say I really have NO patience for half-baked work.) But before I can even go into the week-end (which even now is going on 3 days past), I have to, well, go back to a past I can’t even imagine right now as PAST. It’s too rich, vibrant, alive, contemporary. (I’m wondering where that last word crept in – how do you call the bel canto tradition contemporary? – but listen, look – I mean, LISTEN – there’s the proof.) I’m running on because I still can’t quite grasp it. I’m having a Didion-esqe ‘magical thinking’ moment, where there’s a part of my brain still staggering between a kind of alchemical transpositional and mechanical alt-ctrl-del start-fresh modality where I’m still thinking the voices coming out of the radio will shift from passive (or simply past tense) to active, very present, with-us, alive. You know it even before you’re awake: something’s not quite right, not all here – what aren’t they telling us?

And then they tell you – or somehow you understand. I have to say, such was my denial listening to the NPR broadcast – I don’t even remember who reported it – I thought it sounded like a dry run for the obit to come, say, ten years from now. But this was the obit. Our Daughter “of the Regiment” (her recording was the first I ever heard), our Fanciulla del West (she wasn’t the first I heard, but was one of the most vibrant and sparkling) – gone? And then the anti-climax (ahhh – there’s the do-over I was looking for) of seeing the NY Times without an obit. I’m talking about Beverly Sills, the American coloratura, the American bel canto singer – sooo American, so New York – something one cherishes these days when it’s hard not to feel drenched in shame for being American.

Part of me still wanted sleep as I drove to my very ‘with limits’ desk job at the Flynt Building. (no – I don’t work for Larry Flynt, though I think it might be fun to try; except that my attempts at porn read so clinically after the fact, they could pass for a biochemistry text). In the car I immediately hit Democracy Now – Amy Goodman is sure to do a segment; and I’m perplexed when there’s nothing, and switch it back to something by Saint-Saens. (Me waking up; me upset – a less than auspicious combination.) After scanning the heads, two espressos, and dealing with the day’s first crises, I access the Times on-line; and there’s Tomnasini’s obit front and center (I mean, who gives a flying fuck about Libby?); and the moments come flooding back.

I only saw Sills perform once (though what a performance – Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare); but her recordings were an ear-opening education for me in everything from Baroque to bel canto (even more than Callas), in coloratura singing, in Donizetti – and maybe humor, too. That she had it was evident – she reveled in those duo performances with, among others, Carol Burnett, and her show-biz celebrity; and she had to. In her glory, you forgot how hard Sills worked to get there. And it just kept getting harder. Life was not fair and you just better take your revenge where the joy is, was what her life seemed to say. I appreciate her ‘better too late than never’ Met debut even more now – even though it marked the beginning of the end. Except that she knew that as long as the planet turns, there are no endings, only exits; and she kept taking on greater challenges. Her soul stayed with Lincoln Center. Can you pass the fountain in front of the Met without thinking of her? Just try. She was a player to the end; and I can scarcely imagine New York without her.

2 July 2007

I’m jumping ahead for a post or two – back to the present, more or less – if only because reconstructing or plodding through my notes sometimes makes me feel that much more exhausted for dragging them behind me – like Marley’s chain of accounting books; an artificial reconciling of what, at least in the moment, is fresh, if not exactly unvarnished. After recovering from my Thursday-well-into-Friday migraine, I had to scramble on Saturday (30 June) – already running behind schedule with what hadn’t been accomplished on Friday. I had skipped out on the L.A. Louver Rogue Wave – 2007 edition – show Thursday night, partially because between running late from the Flynt Building [*see above], my nascent migraine, and traffic, I knew I wouldn’t even get there until they were practically closing their doors. [The long schlep home from Venice would surely have done me in.] I was also just a wee bit skeptical about the show. Rogue Wave? The way we initially understood it? Some of the artists in the show were verging on mid-career. Not that I didn’t like the line-up – and who really knew? It occurred to me that one or more of the ‘on-the-verge’ set might also be veering in a wildly new direction. So that would be something – roguish? raffish? – to see. But a migraine has a way of really changing the way you look at something in the moment. That night I really only had eyes for a pillow or the ceiling – or my cats, natch. So I was running – first from Beverly Hills east to Silver Lake, figuring I could do a mid-afternoon change and head back west, all the way to Louver by late afternoon and then over to Bergamot, where I wanted to do some serious reconnaissance. It was not to be – not even close – and I was not exactly looking my best when I submitted myself to the mercies of Marc Selwyn, et al. (After Tom Knechtel’s sublime show, I felt painfully inadequate in my underdressed, bedraggled state.)

I stopped first at Roberts & Tilton for a wine-cooler – I needed it. (Kidding – but it was that kind of a late afternoon-into-evening). It was a great way to cool off. R&T shows are almost always beautifully installed and this was no exception. I only skimmed over the press material, the point of departure here seemed to be the West Coast Semina movement (already well documented in Michael Duncan’s and Kristine McKenna’s show and massive catalogue from that show) and the assemblage work of those artists and other L.A. artists in that orbit, dovetailed (at least as Bennett and Julie would have it) to contemporaneous art by (at that time) under-recognized African-American artists, including stand-out (and eventually moved-out) David Hammons. Setting aside the fact that most of the work exhibited here was made in Los Angeles, Hammons is the odd man out here. Although the Body Prints, which R&T make a focus here, are multi-textural, collaged works, and Hammons may well share similar assemblage, California funk and ethnic lineage, they have clearly moved some distance away from it, both in motive and treatment. Hammons may have been living in Los Angeles; but is already addressing what seem to be post-modernist issues. LaMonte Westmoreland is similarly addressing a cultural, or – perhaps as emphasized here – a colonial palimpsest. John Outterbridge’s work comes closer to a successful synthesis of these strains. If I haven’t mentioned Betye Saar (who is also in the show), it’s simply because her work is simply at another level entirely. Of course it comprehends all of those strains – and a whole lot more.

It was interesting looking at the Saar piece – a kind of retablo of ethnic (and racist) Americana funk – after having just scanned Doug Harvey’s piece on the Jeffrey Vallance curated show in Fullerton in the L.A. Weekly. Vallance’s fascination with the ex voto has been a mainstay of his art for as long as I can remember. But it’s not as if it hasn’t been around (perhaps especially in California, and other parts of the Southwest) forever, much less as if he discovered it. As I mentioned in a posting only a few weeks back, this kind of ethnic-inflected devotional/fetishistic art has been making something of a comeback over the last year or so. (MORE on the Date Farmers [see that post, below], et al. to come – but not in this space.) Coincidentally only a week or so after my date with the Date Farmers, I was at dinner at a friend’s and took note (had I missed it before – or simply assumed it was part of the décor for the last party I attended there?) of her surprisingly extensive collection of santos, ex-votos and other religious art (and maybe a little more impressive given her atheism). Yes – there is definitely something in the air. Anticipating the autos-da-fé to come???

It was nice to have a chance to cool off a bit before I hit the Richard Ross show at ACME. The announcement card was a tip-off that Architecture of Authority would not be about, say, Greco-Roman classicism. (A metal folding chair sits against a wall in a plain white-walled room, black baseboards; a handcuff hangs from a slender rack right beside it.) If you needed a wine-cooler before you walked into the show, you felt like having a Mies van der Rohe highball when you walked out. I couldn’t help feeling a bit less self-conscious, though: it was the appropriate show for a just-got-out-of-jail look. Randy S. thought my T-shirt hilarious (a Russ Meyer poster – or perhaps he was just being his adorable self). It amused me to actually be able to tell him something about Meyer and his leading ladies (e.g., Tura Satana). (And I thought you knew everything, Randy.)

The Ross photographs evince the sterile, suffocating white-heat of oppression, repression, authoritarianism, fascism, the systematized, systematic desecration and extinction of dignity from humans by humans – those humans who would be robots if they could. (Not Nazis or fascists, necessarily – they haven’t gotten that far in the thought process; more specifically, these are people who don’t think, who are afraid to think.) The physical details are precise and succinctly defined; the lighting, relatively atmospheric, unenhanced, yet dissolved into an overall atmosphere which, even in relatively innocuous settings (a schoolroom, a telephone closet at a Four Seasons hotel), casts a pall. The geometric aspect of the focus and presentation is a bit elegant, ritualized for its subject matter (though ritual – or at least ritual in fascist states – is, perhaps, a subsidiary theme: one of the photographs is of a presidential reviewing stand placed in front of a mosque in Iran). It begins early (that schoolroom) – what could be more innocent, less authoritarian, than a kindergarten classroom – but that circle drawn on the floor speaks volumes. It proceeds mundanely, lugubriously (e.g., a DMV waiting area). It ends disastrously.

I’ll spare you for the moment. I’ll take that highball now.

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