Monday, January 28, 2008

Speaking Truth to Power -- Schnabel, Mason, etc.

27 January 2008

This has been the week of the art fairs in Los Angeles and of course I was there and of course I took notes – high and low. There were the usual suspects and the unusually suspect; the surprises (rare) and the real discoveries (rarer still) – in the expected and unexpected places. There was the buzz and there was the occasional stunned silence (lost in the din of course). Julian Schnabel was in town – not for the fairs or the fine art biz, but the fine movie biz – his presentation at the Directors Guild, along with his fellow best director nominees. I’m told he stole the show, which doesn’t surprise me at all. I only wish I could have witnessed it first-hand. From what I gleaned (from a writer-director who was there), it was a real ‘telling truth to power’ moment: an innovator showing up, in the most matter-of-fact, quietly down-to-earth and non-threatening manner possible, the flaws in an industry drunk on the latest technology, but mired in the hoary conventions of conventional Hollywood movie-making. It quite flummoxed a couple of his not-quite-peers on the stage. (More about Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, plus tard, say, a post or two from now.) (The other movie I took in this week – aside from Welles’ F for Fake (see previous post) was There Will Be Blood, about which for the moment I will only say: There was John Huston; and Daniel Day-Lewis, as great an actor as he is, will never bring him back to life; nor will Paul Thomas Anderson ever replace him or reproduce his achievement.

A lot of my New York pals were in town for the madness – including Super-Kathleen and a new colleague I’ll just call the Designated Italian Countess for now. Rivers of champagne flowed (and flash floods, too – hey can somebody do something about the storm drains in this town? My Louboutins are looking a little too low and beaten). I’m a bit smithereened – and soaked – by it all. It was also a seriously political week – and the week-end of the South Carolina primary, the results of which surprised me more than a little and gave me just a bit of hope. The Left Side of my family (we can forget about what I’ll just call the von Karajan-Right side of my DNA line) has more or less endorsed Obama; and although I’m an entrenched skeptic and distrustful of almost everyone in the power class, I can’t help hoping the Obama candidacy might just be the spur to turn this country around. In the meantime, the mainstream media continues to behave in this sphere much as the Hollywood studio potentates behave in theirs. Was I the only one who wondered why Bill Clinton was being spotlighted ad nauseam in a moment that belonged to Barack Obama? (That was no concession speech; though I have to give Clinton credit for his rhetorical flair and sheer chutzpah. But will no one tell him to GET OFF THE FUCKING STAGE?) And then there was the outrageously cynical dual New York Times primary endorsement. What the fuck is THAT about?? For once I was plotzing about something other than an art or music event – or my financial quagmire.

So if you don’t mind, I’m going to track back a bit again. (No, I’m not re-naming the blog “The Time Machine” – it would be more like The Science of Sleep (I loved the Gondry film – such wonderfully touching performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg) – it’s all I want to do after a week like the last.

I’m not going to talk about the L.A. Weekly “Annual Biennial” – although the opening at Track 16 at Bergamot Station was obviously the event of that particular evening (the 12th): it looked as if the entire L.A. art world had jammed into the Bergamot parking lot, to say nothing of the gallery itself which might as well have been a mosh pit – until I’ve read Doug Harvey’s essay in the Weekly. But – setting aside the fact that the emphasis was on painting, setting aside the caliber of the work on view (high for the most part), and that a good many of these artists are among the country’s best, even personal faves – let’s just say I have a few issues about it. (Is that okay, Tom Christie?)

No – I have to skip for a moment over to the show I might have missed that evening, but was sooooo glad not to. It’s a show I may write about at greater length somewhere down the line, but, on this political week-end (and ohmygod – the State of the Onion upon us!), let me just share a few things about this marvelously entertaining show by Rachel Mason, a recent Yale MFA and apparently a Daumier-in-the-making. It’s called The Candidate – and as the Presidential field is gradually being winnowed down, it may be useful to have a look – or two or three or more at this show of the winners, losers, poseurs and posturers, also-rans and even ‘never-rans’ – in short, the political animal in motion, as exemplified by the contenders in the Presidential horserace, fresh (or not so) out of the starting gate as of about fall of last year. The field has already lost a few since the show opened – e.g., Fred Thompson (not a minute too soon) and Joe Biden (there’s a particularly excellent rendering of Biden here; ditto Bill Richardson of New Mexico – which is almost a completed portrait); and will likely lose more (I’m thinking Giuliani’s number is up next – speaking of which, Mason has fingered him in her crosshairs as no political cartoonist has – at least that I’ve ever seen). But these are more than political caricatures. This is above all about physiognomy, the cast of facial expression – the political mask as prop to the will to power; and gesture – the physical expression of the extension towards, the reach and grasp for power, public acknowledgment (and endorsement). The artist has made the gallery space into a silent, but cacophonous echo chamber of gesture using podiums, microphones and cast plaster hands (the artist’s own) sculpted into various finger-pointing – directing, commanding, jabbing, hectoring, pleading; spread palm – exhorting, embracing, collecting, and pleading again; grasping the mic and the edge of the podium.

Beyond that, there’s a jagged movement and energy to the figures. They push towards us, to fill, crowd the viewer’s visual field. Mason’s line has a fluid, nervous, almost angst-laden energy perfectly suited to her subject. You sense her own reach, her extension towards the politician under her scope. Her project took first began to take shape after her boyfriend’s Playboy assignment covering the Edwards campaign was aborted. She took her sketches and kept right on going. Her own written observations amplify what is evident in the drawings: she doesn’t miss a thing. It’s interesting to see where the emphasis falls in these drawings – probing eyes, mouths and proboscis in unrelenting motion; and falling away from the face – hands, shoulders. The studies of Barack Obama had a Munch-like expressiveness. “He looks so white,” I said to the artist – which reminds us of something the media tends to overlook, that he is in fact half-white; and apparently I wasn’t the only one who had made such a comment. Perhaps as his campaign gathers momentum, the media will learn to look as carefully (if not as acutely, shrewdly or entertainingly) as Mason has.

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