Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dazzle and Desolation: the Coen Brothers and Carole Caroompas

Well, reader, I'm at that odd place again -- looming deadlines, catastrophes (alright -- calamities; the catastrophes are all cultural), the hols (I want to say the Huns -- it feels like an invasion). I've hesitated posting these notes -- and why? A film already discussed to death? Paintings I've already written about in print? Obsessions (surrealism, political/conceptual work) already worried to death? I didn't go to Miami; and today, for the first time, I feel alright about it. For once I am happy to let someone else blog the fairs (The New York Times alone must have a half-dozen staffers on it -- but as far as I can tell not one of them is Roberta Smith.) while I attend to hard print copy obligations. Besides Jonathan Biss is in town to do the Beethoven 4th with the L.A. Phil. and I'm slated to hit New York for the next big contemporary sales. (I almost said 'market corrections'.) Speaking of 'corrections' -- did anyone else do a double-take at that Business Page Sunset Boulevard-gone-Miami (or Palm Beach) story Monday? It had everything but the art collection; and the story is far from over.
Perhaps double-take is not quite it; it's a story far too familiar to me -- and not just because I live in close proximity to Sunset Boulevard.

24-25 November 2007

Before I talk about Carole Caroompas (and how can I not talk about Carole Caroompas?), I have to say a word or two about the film I saw last night, the Coen Brothers film of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. I almost want to call it The Texas Terminator; it has a similar exterminating angel – though as a performance, these roles are in no way comparable – no more than an actor of Javier Bardem’s gifts can be compared to that robo-homo-sapiens who somehow got elected governor of California. (We’ll set aside the fact that he’s only marginally more robotic than Gray Davis was, and with a slightly better temper.) The film is more about the pitilessness of the land itself, and the incongruous, insupportable piteousness of its inhabitants, than the almost absurd plot that pits its characters, directly and indirectly, and almost at random, at one another. It’s almost ridiculous to even address the element of conflict that ensnares (or not) the few characters who have managed to put themselves in the path of Bardem’s implacable, indefatigable reaper. They scarcely signify more than the helpless by-standers, trapped in their unexamined assumptions, their unspoken, inexplicable expectations, at the mercy of this demonic killer’s blackjack-binary moral code. As played by Bardem, whom I first had the privilege of seeing on screen in his revelatory performance as Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s movie of Before Night Falls, the character of Anton Chigurh is a shade or shadow hanging over the film, like a dark drift of storm clouds sweeping gray over an already desolate, sun-scorched landscape. The opening scenes with their brilliant establishment shots perfectly set the tone for this upended Hamlet. This is the ‘undiscovered country’ itself – with (unlike Hamlet) nary a soul left alive. (The final scene seems to allude to this disconsolate dream-like domain.) Mere clarity or comprehension offers no defense against this fate, this self-contained keyhole into the apocalypse – the principal example of this being the cool annihilation of Chigurh’s smart stalker, Carson Wells (a witty, perfectly judged performance by Woody Harrelson). I’m at some disadvantage, not having read the book; but there is something inadequately played out here; or maybe it’s disappointment at not having enough of an appealing character. Pity is the screw in the coffin, individually and collectively. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, also excellent) seals his fate almost from his first such gesture – again, something presumably borne out of a dream. Tommy Lee Jones’s role as the sheriff’s detective Ed Tom Bell is both foil to Chigurh and fulcrum in this fatal triangle, his moral compass ‘tempered’ both by a native pragmatism and a wistful, respectful nod to the power of the unconscious, as well as the severity of the landscape. There can be “no certainties” in this landscape – or any other – an essential cognizance of which demarcates the intersection between Bell’s and Chigurh’s moral “codes.” The Coens wisely avoid forcing any play-out or pay-off in the drama (I’m tempted to call it a dram-edy); but the near-perfection of the film’s close couldn’t entirely compensate for the penultimate ‘keyhole’ face-off between Bell and Chigurh (a brilliant moment in itself) that seemed to effectively blow a hole through the scenario as deadly to the film’s momentum as Chigurh’s air pressure gun is to anything moving on two (or four) legs.

Whatever the film’s flaws, though, it’s almost impossible to deny its power – as a kind of cinematic touchstone, witness to a very dark (and desolate) historic and cultural moment. It has to be one of the Coen brothers’ best films to date. What to take on next? After Bush Country – the Bush dynasty itself? Part of the genius of this (or any) film, of course, is simply casting; and regardless of his own genius versatility, somehow I just don’t see Bardem as Cheney. (Do you?)

Carole Caroompas’s current show of paintings at Western Project evoke a similar sense of the land’s desolation and desecration; but also a sense of dazzle (which I guess she recognized fairly quickly in the process of creating them, since she calls them the “Eye Dazzler” series): there is, literally, a certain shimmer to these paintings owing absolutely nothing to glitter or other non-pigment media (unlike, say, many of Mari Eastman’s paintings). The shimmer is itself ambiguous, mediated between the vibratile zig-zagging color of the Navajo motifs that are more structural armature than mere backdrop to the inter-woven pictorial narratives created by Caroompas’s complex, multiverse iconography, and grisaille sections that float like a mirage on the surface of the paintings. In other words, it’s not simply the shimmer of ‘heat’ – there is in fact a coolness to some of these passages – but a kind of oscillation, an issue (literally and figuratively) of resolution and reflection. It’s as if the surface were dissolved into a continuously shifting and reconfigured array of signal-to-signal (as opposed to signal-to-noise) ratios. Caroompas draws many of these ‘signals,’ (i.e., not necessarily the frame image, per se; there are figures that are simply cut from these still images) from John Huston’s film, The Misfits. But virtually all of these figures – all of the imagery – are ‘misfit(s)’; their connections to each other fraught, tentative, incomplete, tangential or oblique. The figures and imagistic elements reach across a universe of time, space and imagination. A frontierswoman swims or reaches out towards a mounted cowboy who attempts to lasso a roller derby skater. Roslyn (Monroe) snaps her paddle ball like a laser towards a tumbled Barbarella (hard to believe Fonda’s “psychedelic” space emissary appeared on the screen only six or seven years after Monroe’s last commercial film release). Kinescopic cowboys, kitsch children’s fairy and nursery imagery figure as semaphores and footnotes to a text written and re-written only by the viewer. Caroompas literally embroiders some of these onto the canvas; but only as if to contradict the notion that it might fit neatly into a conventional Pattern and Decoration scheme. There is no real connective tissue here; only the yearning for connection – or re-connection. In a sense, the “Carrie” (in her familiar Sissy Spacek incarnation) is as central as Misfit-Roslyn/Monroe – invoking the gods’ wrath just as a circle of tribal Native Americans invoke the gods’ bounty.

What emerges from this shimmer, this ‘dazzle’ and ‘dance’ is above all an evocation of loss (and invocation of some cosmic re-connection), and finally a certain poignancy. Encountered initially, the paintings have a certain formal, almost heraldic, aspect at odds with the feelings they evoke after only a few moments. (Is it the vibratile contrast between reds and oranges of almost psychedelic intensity and super-cooled grays?) You feel those passages, those ricochets of time and space, and certainly their evanescence. Where the Huston-Night of the Iguana imagery of Psychedelic Jungle underscored a certain submerged (and fluid) aspect of the paintings, the ‘Misfits Dance’ imagery here reasserts the surface, a sense of lateral movement across the picture plane, and also – I don’t think it goes too far to say – the sense of light, energy just above the surface – a further irony lost on no one who spends any time with these paintings.

In my first cursory conversations with Carole Caroompas before my visit to her studio, I mentioned how taken I had been with some of her work leading up to and including the Psychedelic Jungle series she had shown at Western Project in 2004; also how distinct each series of works seemed alongside its predecessors (whether they were conceived as series or individual works; yet also (at least in retrospect), how seamless the transitions seemed. That impression held through my studio visit and interview, and to some extent still does. But I now have a clearer idea of this duality. With Caroompas, there is an element of reaching back – to her own past/work, as well as the iconography, cultural references, design elements and cues drawn from both visual and literary (and, arguably, musical) culture that makes her works like palimpsests of a certain moment of the civilization. Here, too, in addition to the rich iconography culled from any number of sources, both pop and canonical (and sometimes a fusion of the two), or a specific cultural tradition (e.g., folkloric or, as in this show, Native American), there is a reach back to work as long as a decade past (i.e., work that would have been seen at the Mark Moore Gallery) or longer – thinking here of the grisaille insets which reference alternately a half-lit landscape or the celluloid universe of American cinema (or even television – something I had a further reminder of this [Sunday, 25 November] afternoon, during Mike Kelley’s and Jim Shaw’s presentation of DalĂ­- and surrealist-influenced films – which included a kinescope of a surreal and unusually serious segment of the Ernie Kovacs show). It’s a bit as if Caroompas were re-discovering – and re-configuring, recontextualizing – bits of herself as well as the culture; re-positioning them for a fresh orientation, a fresh vantage point.

I couldn’t help thinking of this just a bit at the opening reception at Western Project – which was, of course, packed with everyone from peers and collectors, to fans and students – “Lari’s Night” redux (Lari Pittman was there of course; Roy Dowell, too – he contributed a brief essay to the catalog for the show) – except this was Carole’s Night. It was as if Carole herself had effected that unfinished cosmic connection between Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn and Jane Fonda as Barbarella. (More than one contributor to the catalog couldn’t refrain from mentioning Caroompas’s signature style.) Carole’s personal style (not unlike her painterly style?) continues to evolve; and she looked smashing that Saturday night (the 3rd). Once upon a time, I would have called her look a punk-goth Ava Gardner. Now (after a bit of MM? Fonda? damage), her hair still Monroe-Misfits blonde, she looked like an angel-fish touching the shores of another planet – in a black-and-white bateau/A-line dress and shiny silver ankle boots that looked like the classic ones by Courrèges – updated, say, for Bowie, circa Space Oddity – or Carole Caroompas, circa anytime she goddamned likes. It’s clear from the paintings she understands the Earth; who’s to say she can’t move on? It was fine with us – we were all in orbit that night.

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