Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lethal Addiction of Battle

26 – 28 December 2009

So where does an army orphan go in 2009? Well, it’s not as if there isn’t a war zone somewhere where s/he might be deployed. We have at least two – Afghanistan (which itself comprises a multiplicity of war zones) and Iraq – ever deadly, its dangers exponentiated by its illegitimacy, notwithstanding a gradually receding American ‘footprint’; to say nothing of Pakistan, easily conflated with Afghanistan’s border and mountain regions, as well as more covert operations inYemen, Somalia, and – who knows where else? A pity that this latest generation of orphans is as culturally orphaned as it is economically – although this is both overstating and understating the conditions of their ‘orphanage’ on a certain level. It’s not as if the senior officer ranks are any more culturally equipped to deal with the full range of exigencies and repercussions of armed conflict in these regions; though a ‘blind leading the blind’ staffing situation is not exactly ideal in what is very treacherous terrain. But on another level, how different is the state of their cultural ‘orphanage’, or simply alienation, from what is encountered pretty much across the board and even across class lines – especially given the state of public education – throughout America? Fortunately, this generation has grown up with current technologies within their grasp practically from the cradle. That’s one advantage – how much it’s hard to say. But also a whole range of entertainment media and forms have evolved right alongside the technology. How significant were video games and digital interactive media 20 or 30 years ago? Now, the release of a new digitally animated interactive game is a cultural event – albeit one some of us are only rarely (ironically) afforded opportunities to sample. In a sense, this generation has been prepped for a certain type of high-tech warfare before they’ve been out of children’s clothes much less contemplated donning combat fatigues.

All the more reason for this generation of orphans to opt into a military which offers to continue their technical/technological schooling and take it a level of professional competence that might be the difference between life and death. (Talk about being schooled within an inch of one’s life!) Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker offers a glimpse into one such class of ‘orphans’ – an emerging elite of “specialists” caught between the educated officers and rank-and-file recruits – in what must be one of the best, if not the best film on contemporary warfare, made to date. In its principal characters, it also gives us complex and fully dimensional portraits of three such ‘orphans’ – their social and cultural profiles, their psychology (and their professionalism) – on a par with anything available in cinema from the days of Lewis Milestone forward. What is brilliant about writer Mark Boal’s and Bigelow’s portrait of the senior specialist sergeant William James (I have to wonder if the name is a bit of a joke – a play on that godfather of American pragmatism, so many worlds apart from the contemporary world of these soldiers) – and to some extent the other two principals – is the extent to which they capture the extreme social alienation and psychological isolation embodied in his military renegade-wildcard-‘cowboy’ character. He half-saunters, half-swaggers his way through this devastated, dessicated landscape with an extreme, monomaniacal focus (which on a certain level doesn’t seem too far removed from the mindset of a championship game player), and a professional pride that is probably not so far removed from the pride of a professional like the hapless army psychiatrist, Col. Cambridge; with just enough of his core humanity in the game to connect him with his surroundings – the real consequences for communities and stark suffering of their inhabitants. We also get, by contrast, the depth (or surface – one in the same here) of his cultural alienation in ‘the homeland’. (You can also see how difficult it was to play this contrast here (and I suppose, write it into the script) in what is otherwise a truly superb performance by Jeremy Renner.)

The film opens with a very well chosen quote (like a flyleaf note on a book’s first page) from Chris Hedges, whose exceptional journalism out of Egypt and the Middle East, and many many war zones was (for me anyway) for many years one of the highlights of the front page international news coverage in The New York Times and elsewhere, and who understands some basic truths about armed conflict and the personalities engaged in it on various levels better than most. “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The movie plays out with the same ‘grace note’ – with a clearly gung-ho Sgt. James (Renner) redeployed to Iraq with yet another army company. This is simply an amazing film that is not to be missed.

There have been many other fine films this Oscar nomination season (The Hurt Locker was actually released much earlier this year – though this was the first time I saw it.); and I may have a few notes about a few of them when I return to this space.

There is also some news – a warning note – out of LACMA, which may raise a few alarms; but that will wait for the moment, too. Suffice it to say for the moment that it may make for a certain painful contrast of its own with LACMA’s rather aggressive (at least in public media outlets) advertising.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Army of Orphans

21 - 28 December 2009

Speaking of Big Dem (see one or two posts back), some time ago – oh weeks by now (actually it was November 18th to be precise) – I hooked up with Big Dem and an architect pal of his for an Academy screening of a new digitally restored print of From Here to Eternity, the Fred Zinneman/Daniel Taradash film from the amazing novel by James Jones. I’m not sure what his particular interest in the film was; but then he has plenty of movie world connections of his own and who knew about his architect pal – half the architects I know seem to have at least one project or another in production design. It had been literally a lifetime since I had last seen it; and I wondered how it would hold up. The film would be worth seeing – once, or any number of times – for the performances alone. Lancaster and Kerr are of course riveting – both so tightly wound, screen chemistry smouldering – the nightclub scenes featuring the pair are meltingly passionate. Montgomery Clift is also quite extraordinary, almost emblematic, in the role of Robert E. Lee Pruitt, bred in the bone to military service, the army’s orphan child. Pruitt playing taps for Maggio still brings me to tears right along side him. But many of the supporting performances are no less strong. The pathos of Sinatra’s performance as Maggio is still affecting, and made all the more so by Ernest Borgnine’s blunt thuggery in the role of his nemesis. Donna Reed gives what might be the performance of her lifetime in the role of the nightclub bargirl-dancer Lorene – self-invented but entirely without pretense; resigned and wan yet still so alive, ready to seize opportunity – the performance is masterpiece of naturalism. From Here to Eternity is, of course, not really a war film, though it culminates – really the boiling-over point for a film that has already climaxed more than once – in the attack on Pearl Harbor; but it engages issues critical to warfare and war-making, namely military culture, training and administrative bureaucracy and the military’s cynical exploitation of the species’ endless capacity for cruelty to psychologically manipulate and intimidate its recruits as individuals as a complement to the collective military discipline enforced by service rules and the organization as a whole.

Looking at it a second time, the film (its cinematography seems, not only wonderfully pitched to the drama, but simply note-perfect from beginning to end) seems a brilliant compression of what is after all a sprawling novel. Its ending seems all the more poignant and unforgettable for being underplayed. The same resignation that swims under the surface of Donna Reed’s entire performance is woven through the entire scene – crushing even the possibility of a future nostalgia. They abandon their romance with their soldiers, the Hawaiian islands, leaving them all orphaned together – all but a seriously diminished capacity for hope.

What has stayed with me since that second viewing is the sense of the army (and perhaps all military services) as a kind of warrior-class state orphanage. It’s obvious that most military recruits are drawn from the lower socio-economic strata of any society. Lacking opportunities in their economically pillaged regions, and – absent qualities or achievements that might airlift them out – desperate for opportunity of any kind, or simply escape, they enlist and take their slender, frequently brutal chances. You would think that might be it – that this pool of recruits is thinned out by casualties and that only the survivors (and most of them finished with their service by such time) would be available to breed; with no predicting in what direction their offspring might be led. Certainly in terms of its stated codes and policies, the military generally does not encourage its recruits to breed – at the very least it seems indifferent to such behavior (and in certain respects, it is completely indifferent). There is a saying amongst U.S. Army soldiers that, “If the Army wanted you to have a family, they’d issue you one.” But, whether it has something to do with the mix of Reserve, National Guard and non-regular units who have augmented the active service rosters since the advent of the Iraq war (in other words, soldiers who would be likely to have some family beyond their spouses), or the relative age or youth of recent recruits, or some subtle combination of peer, social and institutional pressures, soldiers in recent years, both anecdotally and to some extent statistically, seem to be increasingly susceptible to starting families and having children long before completing their active duty service.

This may be partially a simply cyclical or purely statistical surge to be offset by a corresponding downward trend at some point. But the trend seems to extend to single soldiers as well, notwithstanding that such behavior and choices may be career-compromising. To be sure, many if not most such soldiers don’t start out that way; presumably many of them were married (though one might guess they may have conceived the child before marriage). It may simply be complementary to a broader social trend. People feel empowered and entitled (justly or not) to have children regardless of their marital status or other social support network or even their means – for no other reason than that they can. (You’d almost think it was nothing more than an athletic or recreational endeavour. It never fails to amaze me how often financial and social responsibilities are given only secondary consideration in these decisions and behaviors.)

But what do you do when the kid is already there. In one instance, an AP story that I believe made the front page of The New York Times, the Army in effect told its recruit (an Army cook who had already served at least one tour of duty) to leave her child in a foster care facility she would scarcely have had a chance to research or investigate. The soldier, desperate for guidance or serious assistance of any kind, missed her deployment flight from her Georgia base to Afghanistan, rather than effectively handing over her child to strangers – and in short order (no joke intended) was disciplined. The soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, had to hire a civilian lawyer to take her case to senior officers before the disciplinary measures were withdrawn. (Common sense would have dictated that this was a public relations disaster in the making – but apparently that’s something in short supply on many military bases. Come to think of it, I guess Fort Hood and the Bethesda Naval Hospital would fall somewhere in this category, too.) The back story on this was that the soldier’s mother had offered to take care of her grandchild while Hutchinson was on her tour of duty, but then decided at the last minute that the task was too overwhelming given her health. (Eventually, she did take charge of Hutchinson’s child – presumably with some outside assistance.) All more or less reasonable – but begging the question, what was the soldier doing with a child in the first place?

Rules and regulations to one side – I don’t really think the U.S. military really discourages child-bearing at all. First of all, human instinct and psychology itself work against this: when people’s lives are in constant jeopardy, they have a built-in and urgent incentive to reproduce irrespective of the consequences to their offspring. It’s all about the basic biological imperative to reproduce and spread the DNA. Secondly, the military sets in place circumstances and conditions for what to some extent is a captive audience (at least until they are college age) all but guaranteed to yield some percentage of future recruits (at least from the ones who aren’t thoroughly alienated). Casualty (or dead) parent? No problem – just that much more incentive for offspring to compensate for or avenge their parent’s sacrifice So – plus ça change – has anything really changed from the days of From Here to Eternity with its Army of orphans? Well, yes. Of course – but that change has as much to do with an entirely transformed geopolitical landscape as well as several generations worth of technological and cultural evolution. The individual soldiers being sent to the theatre of war, whether from backwater small towns or urban metropolises, have also undergone a transformation. But more of that – in the next movie, so to speak.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bicoastal Gazing through the Winter Solstice

18 - 20 December 2009

As the Copenhagen climate talks wrap, the next Artillery gets ready to go to press, and everyone who isn’t shopping is heading off to snowy slopes, family reunions or other holiday destinations, it’s back to Global Warming Endless Summer L.A. (even as snow blankets New York and Washington, D.C.) – though I notice a few clouds in the sky as I write this. (Missing New York a bit lately.)

Speaking of L.A. in N.Y., I didn’t blog it (because I was enmeshed in hard print deadlines), but Kim Light, who’s been taking a New York sabbatical the last few months (geez – I think everyone in L.A. needs one), jetting back into town for a show now and again, hosted a group show in her New York digs somewhere on East 57th (I think near Second Avenue), featuring, among others, Anthony Goicolea and Ryan McGinley, as well as Bruce LaBruce (whose work has become quite tedious in recent shows), Dean Sameshima, -- and can you tell which way this is going yet? If you’re guessing correctly, you’ll be surprised at the title of this curated, one-night only, show: Youthful Gazes. Obviously the title should have been something like “One-Night Stand in Boyland.” All male; all vaguely (or not so vaguely) homoerotic. What? There are no youthful WOMEN??? Or would they have had to be LESBIAN??? (No problem with that, frankly – there are plenty of great artists who happen to be lesbian; but – setting aside my own proclivities for fairness’ sake – aren’t there a few interesting hetero girls who might qualify as youthful?) Or is there something wrong with the way women GAZE at things?

That said – I would have gone to have a look, natch, if I had been in town; but obviously I wasn’t, so I asked a pal who was around the corner at some auction (Bonham’s, I think) to stroll a few blocks east over to Kim Light’s NYC Box and have a look. I warned Big Dem (he’s a big bicoastal Democratic Party fundraiser as well as a sometime collector) that the line-up looked a bit heavy on the homoerotics for his particular tastes, but, like any smart collector, he’s always game for good work. I wasn’t particularly surprised that he singled out Anthony Goicolea’s Sleeping – a photographed (C-print) sleeping male figure infinity-mirrored to the end of its dormitory via photoshop-multiplication, mounted on aluminum and laminated, as the stand-out of the show. He described the video by Dean Sameshima, Boys In My Bedroom, as “a homoerotic wish list of segments from popular television shows, “ which he found interesting – but not exactly his thrill. I thought the Ryan McGinley looked interesting from what I could scan of it (but then I sort of like Ryan McGinley). While he was there, he spoke with an art critic from a New York publication, who expressed the opinion that the work on view was “not up to the usual standard” of any of the exhibiting artists.

I looked over the press release and found it very perplexing. Just how exactly is “the gaze in contemporary art practice” or the “interconnection of the viewer and the subject” being reevaluated in these pieces? I mean, to some extent, you would think that would be implicit in making contemporary art of any kind. Or, more precisely – what’s new or particularly “youthful” about this reevaluation? I’m not going to critique the press release paragraph by paragraph; but – just one more example – much as I like the Goicolea piece (and his work to date generally), I don’t really see that his piece here brings “into question” “the role of the gaze” “as a gender specific term, which defines traditional power relations between men and women.” And – really – should it? Once upon a time, yeah, sure – it did have something to do with the “traditional” power relations between men and women. But in 2009?? Would you really call it “gender-specific” in 2009? Or even 1979?? I don’t think so. And anyway – if this is being called “into question” – why aren’t we seeing some re-definition of this power relationship or gender specificity? We’re not. We just happen to be looking at images of men. So? Uh, like this has never happened before? Gee, tell that to Caravaggio or say, Leonardo or Michelangelo, or Raphael – or I COULD GO ON. Okay, enough said.

I want to talk about some movies – but first I have to go out to look at one. So I’ll break off here for now. More to chat about – mostly politics; but it will wait. Winter solstice – though you’d never know it here. Beautiful all the same. It’s been a nice – fine art-free – week-end here in Los Angeles.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Empire of the Senses: the Sisterhood of Scent

11 – 12 December 2009

Packaging is always the big draw for me. (I mean who on the PLANET could resist the original Chanel No. 5 bottle?) Anyway, so I’m already heading for the shoe department (what did you expect? Went momentarily INSANE about a pair of black knee-high suede boots someone was wearing – only they were her own – 4 year-old Yves Saint Laurent.), and I stop before an interesting array of bottles – with interesting names attached to them – all French, all very evocative. The woman standing behind the table is no less interesting – and she’s wearing a spectacular jewel that I can’t resist commenting on. And she’s no mere saleslady. This is DelRae and these are her fragrances – and boy do they have a story to tell. I am, of course, pretty resistant (and exhausted) again by now. But poetry – literary or olfactory – can be a pretty effective draw; and there is poetry here. Début would seem to be pretty straightforward; and perhaps it is; but DelRae immediately sizes me up and gives me a whiff of fragrances that are nothing if not complex – e.g., Bois de Paradis, Eau Illuminée. The names alone take us back to the Château – no escort needed (the rare exception allowed, I really don’t think most guys would understand) – and I don’t just mean any château. I mean Versailles – its bosquets, follies and fountains, the Apollo Basin and the magnificent wooded allées that flank the tapis vert, the Trianons with their own lovely gardens and bowers. Do you remember what I said about that certain ‘veil’ – I’m not even sure if I can call it a scent or aroma; maybe a kind of olfactory aura – that seems to descend over you when you walk into the Crillon in Paris? That aura of restrained luxury, power and elegance. That’s the finish on these scents – a sort of light, slightly powdery envoi off what are essentially complex floral/non-florals, floral-aldehydes. As you might guess, there’s quite a bit here for a Chanel girl – and certainly what dominates here is a kind of very dense, rich, but subtle olfactory harmonic. But it goes a bit beyond density – there’s an expansiveness here – not so much a second floral/non-floral note or after-scent, as a kind of aura that radiates from it. As I said, this world has changed, and DelRae is a part of this new landscape – and that’s it right there. If with some of the Lutens fragrances, you had the sense that the perfumer was trying to develop a narrative on your neck, here it’s as if DelRae and her collaborator, Yann Vasnier, were trying to paint a landscape; and to some extent they succeed.

Amoureuse – also a floral/non-floral – with moss and woody notes – didn’t really do it for me – but that might have something to do with my headset (could I possibly feel less romantic than I do right now? ‘amoureuse’ is forever off my horizon-line) plus maybe a bit of olfactory overload for one afternoon. But after my first samplings and the usual sketchy disclosures regarding my preferences and occasional digressions, DelRae has yet one more for me to sample – a scent she insists is all but custom-tailored to my scent-silhouette.

Well. I have to love the name – Mythique. Though what, I wonder, is my myth? I’d like to think of myself as Pallas Athena; but I think I’d fall well below the goddess line – maybe even something slightly pathetic – down there with Chloe or Eurydice. But perhaps there’s a middle ground (I want to say parterre) as in Diana, the Hunter. That might work – but we were talking about scent, weren’t we? As I said, these are fragrances as deep and expansive as landscape – and this one is very specific (speaking of châteaux): Chenonceaux. The gardens of Chenonceaux have a narrative of their own – having to do with the rivalry of Catherine de Medici – of the famous Florentine family, who brought art, servants (including cooks who would forever and decisively influence French cuisine), and serious political chops to the Valois monarchy – and Diane de Poitiers, muse from the get-go and inspiration to cougars everywhere – she was 38 when she took up with the already-married (to Catherine) 19 year-old Henri II – who transformed the gardens at Chenonceaux and the Château, building among other things the bridge and galleries across the river Cher (still called the Pont de Diane), perhaps the most distinctive element of the château. I’m going on about the Château, no? Well – let’s just say that I immediately got DelRae’s inspiration for this fragrance, which is pretty damned complex – peonies, bergamot, ivy, jasmine, sandalwood, patchouli, and iris, among other things – which already sounds more like a garden than a perfume. Diane laid out the garden as a series of diamonds and triangles in which she planted parterres of fruit trees, vegetables and masses of flowers – roses, lilllies, violets (one thing that’s not in the fragrance) and more. After Henri’s rather spectacular (according to legend -- you don't want to know) death, though, Diane was – big surprise – expelled and Catherine began her own program of building and planting on the estate (is that where the Italian elements in the fragrance come in? E.g.., what’s identified as Italian bergamot and Florentine Orris butter ‘Iris pallida’?) – so that what you get at Chenonceaux is this schizzy but nevertheless elegant combination of essentially two (really more) competing gardens – along with that Cher-(I want to say Cheri) spanning pont de Diane. Are you reeling yet?

The scent doesn’t necessarily make you reel (maybe that’s a good thing), though unlike the others, it does seem (again like so many contemporary fragrances) to have a pronounced secondary note or harmony – which is where the iris is most pronounced – perhaps inevitable given the scent's complexity. In her publicity, DelRae says that she was inspired simply by the painting in the Louvre, Diane Chasseresse, Diane de Poitiers as Diana the Huntress (and I think I know which one she’s talking about – possibly by Caron; definitely School of Fontainebleau – though there are more famous representations here; e.g., the Houdon sculpture – let’s just say I could take a hike or two with that chien); and that’s enough for me right there. No point in trying to save those foolish boys and their lances, right? You just have to take your dogs and hunting gear and go right back into the woods. Or something like that.

DelRae knew I would like the iris because I mentioned I sometimes used an iris-scented dusting powder from Santa Maria Novella on my shoulders during summer. (It’s fabulous. They also carry an oil or essence (or maybe it’s just an eau de toilette) that’s also pretty fabulous, but very intense.) She was right; and I have to say (for this reason alone?) I liked her immediately.

Is there a sisterhood of scent? I have to wonder – because what seems at first so superficial is nevertheless undeniably intimate and can come to almost define a relationship – a physical connection at its most basic level. I remember who first gave me a box of that Santa Maria Novella Iris dusting powder. It was one of my Italian (and closest) friends. She’s someone who really understands luxury and at the same time is very down to earth. I had seen it on her dressing table, and had probably smelled it on her before I even knew what it was. She somehow knew it was right for me – certainly at least seasonally – just as it was right for her. And I’m reminded a little of our bond, our connection, almost every time I brush it over my shoulders. We’re sisters under the skin and however completely wacked either of us gets (and we can both get pretty wacked), we know that on some level we’re both pretty much there for each other.

Scent – who knew? (But then you probably didn’t think I knew that much about French art, did you? Well, I did – as a college sophomore anyway.) I don’t think it’s just me, either. This landscape is changing – as you may have noticed from that piece on Maurice Roucel, the perfumer for Frederic Malle, in Thursday’s New York Times. People seem to be embracing the scope and complexity of contemporary fragrances in a way we haven’t for maybe a century. (I thought it was funny that the article made reference to ‘Proustian memory’; I’m not alone.) But you know that’s what this is all about: that hunger for memory and in particular a kind of sensual memory that envelops an entire world – whether of childhood, past or early sex or romance, or simply a particularly evocative place. New York in spring (or autumn); Paris – just about any time. Los Angeles – when the jacurandas are in bloom, or just about to lose their flowers. L.A.’s own l’heure violette (as distinguished from the Parisian ‘l’heure bleue’) or, gris-ged out under a smoggy mist, l’heure mauve. (At play-off time, I guess we could call it l’heure Laker bleue.) It’s Paris-gray here the last few days (I’m still on deadline); and I’m loving it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lost In Scent - 2

10 – 12 December 2009

How, you wonder, did we end up here? – the realm of the senses, as I put it a couple posts ago – and more specifically down to taste and smell. Before I finish up on this note (a little scent-appropriate argot for you there), we might be reminded just how powerful the synaesthetic and mnemonic properties of taste and smell are. Proust’s A la recherche du Temps perdu seemingly evanesces out of the fog of childhood memories brought into vivid focus by the commingled taste and fragrance of madeleines and chamomile tea. Listening to music (not necessarily those Beethoven or Bartok quartets I was talking about a couple posts ago, but certainly music at that order of complexity and sophistication) can occasionally evoke this kind of sense memory. And is there any city in the world that doesn’t have some distinctive olfactory association, even a kind of scent (albeit a very complex one)? Asked by a fashion magazine what his favorite fragrance was, Andy Warhol once replied, “New York in Spring” – and anyone vaguely acquainted with New York and specifically Manhattan knew instantly what he was talking about. (But then Warhol was genius that way.) There is a smell to Paris – and Saint Laurent’s sentimental and rather pedestrian rose-based perfume doesn’t come close to capturing it – that rises up full-blown in certain neighborhoods of the city – the Opera district, the Madeleine and rue des Grands Augustins, the right and left banks of the Seine near the Ile de la Cité, Saint Germain des Près, the rue du Bac. Obviously it’s so much more complex, and varies from one neighborhood to another. Yes, roses provide one note; closer to the mark, I think, flowering trees and various herbs; also bread and bakeries; tea, coffee, red wine; printed paper and the scent of various fabrics – both fresh off the bolt and lived-in attire; bath toiletries (which I suppose would encompass scent); human (and dog?) hair; the Seine and some of its pollutants. The smells of certain places make their own more specific impressions (or not). I don’t remember much about the Ritz, or even the bar there; but walking into the Crillon I was not exactly hit, or even enveloped, so much as veiled with a scent that evoked sheer august splendor. The only place for me that comes close to evoking that quiet, restrained, Louis-le-Grand grandeur of 18th century classicisme are the gardens of Versailles. Of course, there are a lot of other places in Paris that evoke a certain pomp and luxury in their scents. And I’m wondering if there’s a bit of Chanel No. 5 in that mix? (Hence my loyalty??) Probably; maybe a bit of Joy there, too; and some Guerlain fragrances. (L’Heure Bleue is said to be very city-inspired – and yes, you get that in the scent.)

A year or so ago, an artist mapped out New York by its various commingled scents and smells – an amazing kind of conceptual art piece. Jason Logan (a New York illustrator and author – who may be the artist I’m thinking of) wrote a piece in the Times summing up some of these neighborhood smells in brief olfactory word-collages. Under “Midtown,” amid some of the more predictable scents in the mix – e.g., garbage, urine, pretzels, etc.) were a few others that sort of let the reader know he really got it: e.g., “white wine sautéing ,” “salty Armani leather,” and a “touch of vomit.” Oh yeah, let me think – Lexington and 63rd, right?

So here I am at Barneys stopped for a moment at the Serge Lutens counter – a brand I’m vaguely aware of but not really familiar with – and I guess he’s evolving the packaging, the lines of the bottles and so forth. The titles of some of the scents are intriguing (again, speaking of those polarities) – some in a very basic, elemental way, some much more complex. Miel de Bois sounds wonderfully simple and fresh (though you wonder exactly what wood (as opposed to clover? or orange blossom?) honey would taste like). Then, speaking of les bois, there is (what the very charming sales girl describes as a Lutens classic) Féminité du Bois – which seems to be Lutens’ stab at a very complex harmonic – absolutely nothing simple about it. What it’s supposed to evoke, I’m not sure – a girl strolling or horseback-riding through the woods? (Dirt-biking would not be quite it.) Girls and trees? Girls in trees? Wood nymphs? This is one of those fragrances that combine florals, spices, slightly oriental notes for a completely eccentric registration. I mean that literally – it’s as if it were a fragrance that was trying to move past an olfactory harmonic into a kind of narrative. There’s a distinct and very edgy top note that’s both honey sweet and distinctly oriental, almost metallic, that then carries forward into the kind of floral/herbal mix that grounds it somewhat (I guess with your own skin chemistry). Then there are the kinds of fragrances that seem to really be striving for some kind of scent narrative on your skin. What exactly is Five O’Clock Au Gigembre about? (That’s the name – French and English – go figure.) I mean, what are we talking about here? Thai dumplings after (or maybe before?) sex? It is kind of sexy – at first – a less metallically edgy top note – very sweet, distinctly floral at first, then settling into its spice notes, the ginger (if that’s what it is) muted , slightly altered (but not by garlic, I assure you). And you know, it’s going to smell a little different two hours from now. This is what we seem to be getting in the world of scent. A two-hour movie – myth, fairy tale – with food, sex, atmospherics, incident – unfolding on your wrist or your neck. (Is that why they seem to be getting so expensive? Because in theory you’re getting at least two distinct scents in every bottle?)

Lutens has an interesting story – as designer, art director and perfumer – but I’m not going to go into it here. The scents were originally produced under the auspices of Shiseido, but are now under Lutens’ sole control. The more recent Lutens fragrances, however, are essentially the work of his current perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake. Looking at the Lutens publicity, you’re confronted with a library of scents, of variable olfactory (and seemingly narrative) complexity; and suddenly I’m reminded of – this is going to sound sooooo sophomoric – the fragrance ‘organ’ of Des Esseintes in À Rebours (or Against the Grain, in its English translation), the novel by J.K. Huysmans that more or less distills the essence of late Romantic Decadence in French literature. When you’re a college (well) sophomore, besotted in literature, art, philosophy (and, uh, drugs), it’s reassuring to think that people were living in their heads as much as you are 100 and more years earlier.

So – I continue strolling through the fragrance counters. The Chanel lady offers me a sample – and Chanel girl that I am, how can I refuse? – the new (I think) Eau Premiere – which speaking of veils of scent, more or less falls, I think, into this category. I mean, obviously they’re constantly adding to the variations and dilutions of the fragrance to sell more product; but sometimes it does seem a bit much. Closest analogy? The eau de Cologne or perhaps toilette, as mixed and/or decayed through the admixture of various cosmetic components that end up on the skin at one point or another. The salesgirl says something about a ‘powdery’ finish – and I agree with her; but wonder why you can’t just stick with the cologne and dusting powder after your bath or shower. (The cologne does have a slightly different ‘fade’.) Well. Something I suppose you could keep in a desk drawer for a quick daytime freshening. (Rrrrrriight – this from someone who rarely wears fragrance. Okay.) I have to go again – and we’re not quite there yet. Just one more stop – I promise. This is the pay-off, I’m telling you.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lost In Scent

7 – 10 December 2009

All right. The subject was Marilyn Minter – just bear that in mind, please, and remember that the first encounter under discussion here was with painting and photography at the Regen Projects second space. Okay? – because I know at least a few people – specifically Artillery readers (and goddess knows EVERYBODY should be reading Artillery regularly by now) – reading this are going to think – ‘Oh wait – you mean it’s okay for Marilyn Minter to do this sort of thing, but not Kenny Scharf?

First of all – bear in mind those Scharfs were paintings in a gallery and the discussion focused on the specific qualities of those paintings relative to other, generally speaking, commercial phenomena – including stuff that would fall into the context we now find ourselves – commercial, retail, mass-merchandised, utility/luxury/specialty goods – all of which are fine (and that applies to Scharf’s ventures out in this part of the world, too).

That said, the nexus here is a bit more narrow, more focused – and really not much of a stretch – certainly for MAC, if not Minter; and considering those colors in her paintings and photographs – of both cosmetic (and perhaps cosmetically enhanced) surfaces and flesh, as well as other physical phenomena – and the way they practically explode on the panel surfaces – variously pooling, eddying, sinking into and effervescing off the picture plane in varying densities and saturations – perhaps it’s not THAT surprising or unexpected that Minter might agree to collaborate on what after all are colors intended to be applied to the human face.

Okay – can we forget about it now? – because, as I said, MAC is no longer carried at the Barneys New York Beverly Hills store. But my disappointment faded rapidly amid the aggressive pre-holiday cheer – I guess that translates into salesmanship. Visiting make-up artists and stylists seemed to be everywhere and at least half the counters were busy with customers submitting themselves to full make-overs. Fragrance salespeople seemed particularly eager to show customers the new fragrances, holding out sleek new flacons and atomizers, waving engraved cards sprayed with fragrance – a retail phenomenon to which I’m ordinarily very resistant. (I alternate between two fragrances (when I wear fragrance at all) – the original blue-and-gold 4711 Cologne and Chanel No. 5 (the eau de toilette more often than the perfume) and rarely experiment with much else.) What can I say? It had been a long time since I was last at a make-up counter, much less a Barneys make-up counter. My resistance was slackened and – well, I can be very susceptible to the right pitch. And – let me put it to you this way – this was a pitch I hadn’t heard before. Frankly, this was a kind of fragrance I hadn’t experienced before – mostly because, whether awol (and Artillery) readers realize it or not, the world of perfume and fragrance has changed over the last few years. You’d have to be hiding down a black hole somewhere not to be aware of the extent to which the world of commercial and designer fragrance has exploded over the last 20 years or so. Sometimes it seems as if you can’t open a fashion or style magazine or even The New York Times Style pages without seeing some new fragrance – frequently not much less ephemeral than the celebrity whose face might be advertising it. Once upon a time, most any fragrance (obviously with a few exceptions) would have been composed predominantly of certain floral, non-floral (or musk, mineral, amber), spice, fruit or citrus essences with a small number or even a single essence dominating the scent. (E.g., the dominant note of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris is rose.) However complex the scent (and obviously something like Chanel No. 5 is pretty complex), it presented a kind of single dominant olfactory harmonic. But as every designer and finally seemingly every celebrity began get into the scent racket, this inevitably had to change. The world of fragrance and perfume was suddenly wide open. In recent years, people have been drawn in any number of directions, by any number of impulses, where scent is concerned. Some of us (that would include myself) tend to be drawn back to basics (I love some of the straight floral and fruit essences you find at places like Santa Maria Novella, for example). And others are looking for something altogether different.

Just how different I was about to find out. But you’re going to have to wait just a bit more to hear exactly what I found, because once again, I’m off to another event; and if I don’t post this now (as I’ve been trying to over the last three days), I don’t think it’s ever going to go up. So excuse this lengthy preamble (I’m on deadline anyway) – and I’ll try to get back to this before the day is out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stillness After Eruption: beauty recognized

6 – 7 December 2009

I did NOT drive straight to Barneys New York from the Marilyn Minter show at Regen Projects. I actually strolled down Santa Monica Boulevard to Robertson and the Margo Leavin Gallery to have a look at the Roy Dowells. They were paired (beautifully) with some absolutely fantastic new canvases (and panels) in pigment and collage by Brenna Youngblood. (There was also a trio of John Millers on one wall that for some reason (not simply the Op aspect) made me think of Bridget Riley (I keep thinking she’s done something almost identical to this sort of textural stress pattern in short oblique and vertical lines; though maybe hers were wavier). It’s interesting and occasionally refreshing to look at work by artists like Dowell who are still engaged with very basic, fundamental issues – the vocabulary and syntax – of empirical observation, reconstruction, deconstruction, decoding and re-synthesis – a kind of traditional (at least since the second half of the 20th century – a kind of post-Cubist analytic approach) way of working, painting – that is nevertheless clearly engaged with the world here and now. Working in a relatively small, self-contained format (about 16x12 sq.in., acrylic with collage), Dowell selectively ‘re-images’ a world or worlds and or diagrams over it, in a vaguely New Image way, variously paring away or making openings into an always ambiguous ‘external’ where illusionistic depth is always suppressed and the symbolic or semiotic elements, the ‘world’s’ flotsam are pushed to the rigorously ordered (or perhaps not-so) surface. It’s hard not to sound vague without going into specifics about one piece or another; but I really don’t have the time for that and in any case should probably go back for a second look. So many qualities that seem to allude to work both past and present (e.g., classic Cubism; a kind of poetic Minimalism, and more contemporary, graphic, even conceptual work).

Against this sort of backdrop it becomes all the more exciting to look at work by someone like Youngblood, who is similarly engaged with that external ‘world’ – its photography and illustration – its re-configuration and framing (literally – she plays with the frame and has absolutely no problem violating it) – but in a much more immersive, consuming way; unhesitant to radically re-order, almost obliterate it, only to unearth something very new yet true to the empirical experience. You sense (in the titles, too) this push towards a kind of narrative that has been thoroughly hashed out and all but thrown out, exploded – pushed into a crucible that leaves us with its essence, zooms in on the most crucial elements. It can be both very subtle and slightly crude. Youngblood is at her best when she pushes the envelope – violates the frame in every sense. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s breathtaking. Again, I know I’m being infuriatingly vague – but I can only recommend you go have a look.

So ANYWAY – (panting a bit here – are we out of breath yet?) – I hooked up with my pal, Angel Chen, and her dog Romeo for a second look at the Marilyn Minters – and boy did I need it. Do you remember those fragmented, quasi-portraits in the back gallery? Well, I didn’t either – that’s how fast I went through it the first time – insane. And who did you think the subject (as almost always, based on a photographed subject) was? Maybe you thought it was someone like, oh say, Patricia Arquette. (There was one – that was a photograph, a large C-print – 3-4 portrait with the hand drawn up to the face – that looked more than a little like Isabelle Huppert, albeit an Huppert of at least a decade ago.) Uh-uh – take a look at the checklist. That face (in one of the paintings) pushed to the shower head isn’t called “Wettest Pam” for nothing. That’s Pamela Anderson! And she’s, uh, beautiful. I don’t mean Pamela Anderson pumped-breast sex-queen gorgeous. I mean, just – quite beautiful. And probably somewhat younger – yeah maybe a decade – looking. (Memo to Pam: You can take it down a level, doll. And you still have that rack. So.)

Minter is wonderfully self-exposing about her methodology and techniques. About half the works on view are straight C-print photographs – already rich in tonality and incident – really astonishing. The paintings – huge, expansive (108x180 sq.in.) – simply take it to the next (and the next and the next) level: the explosions and eruptions – of colored, flavored carbonated beverage, of caviar eggs (or looks like it anyway), colored sugar or granules (or, as in the Pam Anderson panels, simply water or spray), take on a painted life of their own, a heightened aura. (These large panels are mostly fragmented faces – noses and lips, tongues, barely-there eyes, mouths open to catch the bits of food and drink tossed at them.) Areas of pale, vari-colored or deeply pigmented flesh elide into quasi-abstract passages that yet meld with the depicted elements and the picture as a whole. (Richter, among others, seems influential here. But then his influence is ubiquitous.) They’re spectacular. But then we sort of knew they would be, right? What’s new and interesting here, is that smaller, just slightly more focused (or simply portrait-straightforward), quieter image: the Pam Anderson portraits. They are extraordinary. And Anderson is simply beautiful.

Okay – so after Angel has taken a flock of photographs of Romeo posed in the middle of the gallery in front of a couple of these amazing paintings, we regroup in the carpark to talk clothes and make-up (I guess in my case that means face-lift) – no seriously, make-up. It turns out Minter has minted (sorry) a new line of colors for MAC. Why are we not surprised? But still! Girlfriend! So – I’m heading over to Barneys straightaway to have a look (yeah, I know – NOW – I should have just gone over to Robertson – and I was right THERE – but, okay, I didn’t. So shoot me in the leg. Besides, I had to have a look at those Dowells and Youngbloods. So anyway, after a few detours, I head over to Barneys. And – well you probably know – no MAC counter (there hasn’t been one there for a few years). So…. but you know – I’m just going to leave it there for a minute. Because I have to get back to my research for my Artillery deadline. (I’m working on it, Tulsa – honestly.) I mean I really do. And then…. (ohhhh you have no idea)…. Back soon, I hope.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Enduring Enigmas

5 – 6 December 2009

Before I descend utterly into the realm of the senses – specifically, those of taste and smell, I have to say that I’m still under the spell of something that went far beyond the olfactory and well into the realm of the idea pure (and never exactly simple), or simply figure, beguiling and ultimately enigmatic, all the while drawing us whole and sensually into its sonic architecture, ‘narrative’, tapestry – long before Duchamp served up his own ‘anti-olfactory’ and, against all protests to the contrary, stubbornly retinal, enigmatic art.

Listening to the Beethoven string quartets once, twice – and we can go on from there – always reminds us that we must listen to many of them again – though when exactly we can never say, and sometimes that day threatens to never return. It’s like re-reading (or simply finishing for some of us) Proust, Shakespeare, Mann, Joyce, etc. We never seem to get around to it. Fortunately, they appear from time to time on the radio, pulled out from stacks of CDs, etc.; though moving, through one’s everyday tasks or agendas, our attention may be drawn away – which is why there’s nothing quite like hearing them in one focused sitting, or sometimes better still, in live performance. Last night, it was the Opus 131 C-sharp minor quartet – that slightly rambling (though intense) essay (I want to say ‘quasi-fantasia’ – as with that other famous C# minor work) through several loosely related, sometimes simple but infinitely subtle themes, variations and moods – as performed by the Takács Quartet. I’ve had Handel on my brain a bit lately, as I’ve noted here; but listening to something of this scope, intensity and invention reminds us that the leap from Handel (or Bach) to Beethoven (a relatively brief time span) is like that from Newton to Einstein. Also, how, in that wildly free-form classicism that is his alone – how utterly modern Beethoven remains here and now in the post-serial/atonal/polytonal landscape of the 21st century; a fact brought home by the Quartet’s dazzling performance of Bartok’s polytonal/atonal (frequently near-atonal in its complex chromatic harmonies) String Quartet No. 4. The Takács Quartet has a special affinity for Bartok – especially his predilection for the pizzicato (an extremely percussive pizzicato, I might add) – and the quartet’s incidents and inversions, call-and-response thematic schemes and rhythms and and chromatic symmetries were aired with intensity and dazzling clarity.

Fun, huh? (The program – speaking of that ‘Newton-Einstein leap’ – began with Haydn (Op.71, No.1 quartet in B-flat major.) As readers of this blog are probably aware, this recital was part of an on-going series hosted by the ACE Gallery – at their Beverly Hills gallery – in its main, central gallery – an excellent, intimate, if acoustically imperfect space for this kind of music. The art on the walls right now is John Millei’s – about which I won’t say anything at the moment if for no other reason than the show hasn’t actually opened (at least I don’t think it has). It’s impressive; but – well you tell me – Duchamp (or Rembrandt or Raphael, etc.) would have a hard time standing up to the Beethoven Opus 131.

I went there straight (or almost) from Barneys – no shit – where I’d gone to look for a special edition of colors for MAC produced by…. Now that I’ve gone on, still under the spell of late Beethoven (and a beautiful gray afternoon in Los Angeles), I’m going to save this for later… oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking – at least those of you who read Artillery. “Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot”? as they say in military parlance (has everyone read the front page piece of the Sunday New York Times?). All right. Well, I’ll tell you. Later – it’s not as simple as you think (it really isn’t). And so I like to look at shoes (believe me it’s more looking than buying) and furry hats – so what? Okay, gotta, uh, finish reading the papers.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Case Against Cute

29 November – 5 December 2009 [preview draft]

I’m feeling distracted over the last day or so – even more so than usual (I must say the kick-off to the national holidays of greed and gluttony really did me in) – blowing past a couple deadlines, dropping a couple of books in favor of the Sunday Times and some fashion magazines, ignoring the toxic disaster of my apartment and skipping off into the autumn afternoon. And ya know what? – I’m just going to go with it. So I’ll talk about the beautiful mini-retrospective of Dora de Larios’s ceramic sculpture I just saw at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum another time. And of course, after shlepping off to Regen II to have a second look (my first was about 3 minutes long) at the Marilyn Minter show, I found the gallery shuttered for the holiday week-end – so that has to wait anyway. So – here’s my problem….

Except it’s not even really a problem. Cute. C-U-T-E. I live in L.A. – a city that might have been founded on cute – except it wasn’t; Anaheim, an hour or two south of here – home of Disneyland, at whose doorstep much of the blame, I think, can be placed, is that city. James Wolcott (I think it was James Wolcott – who, by the way, I think is pretty cute) already wrote something about this in his Vanity Fair column a month or so ago, so I’m going to avoid re-treading that turf. I’m a sucker for Nara and Murakami (though it’s the stuff beyond the kaikai-kiki thing that pull me back into it) and all sorts of Japanese – for that matter Eurasian – novelties; have acquired libraries of children’s books for my nephews, nieces and kids of friends (and saved a few for myself); am utterly a child of Oz and Neverland (the Barrie one, not the Jackson – though I’ll always love some of Michael’s music); love babies and almost all children under 10 and pretty much all quadruped animals. And greater than quadruped (I LOVE spiders). And no – there is absolutely NO truth to the rumor that I was the model for Eloise. I’m Madeline.

I’m still a child. But I’m not exactly innocent – if children ever are entirely. And like any other child, I’m voracious, insatiable. The cute and cozy is all well and good – but tell me MORE. And more and more and more. I have to see more, visit the dark places, look at what’s on the other side(s)… and then things change; stuff happens. ‘Cute’ suddenly seems stillborn, frozen in a moment for which we can’t even summon up a nostalgia – because there wasn’t enough there in the first place. Do you remember your first trip to Disneyland? Or (assuming you might live in some proximity to one of the parks) your second? (Was there a third?) I think I remember each of my three visits to the original Anaheim park – the first (naturally) and third being the most memorable. The park has changed significantly over the years; but I have never had any desire to return to it. There was nothing regrettable about the experience. I wouldn’t say there were any particular thrills – even the faster, more rollicking rides seemed relatively tame; but the park’s amusements were fun and entertaining – variously novel, charming, clever, creative, sensational, mystifying and, well, amusing. In retrospect, some of the hokiest, most dated amusements (e.g., from “Frontierland” and “Futureland”) bring the most delight – experiences and specimens pulled from a time capsule that recall not only the shows or amusement rides themselves, but the way we saw the world then – framed within a moment of time, now seen with historic perspective, from a child’s (not necessarily unthoughtful and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated) viewpoint.

But that’s half the point – or maybe the whole point. Once outside the park gates and past its initial charms, what the child inevitably realized (sooner rather than later) was how much was left out of the experience, how diluted (to say nothing of deluded) it all felt in retrospect, how much richer, more enthralling it might have been, rather than the sort of ice-cream-parlor-with-sideshows stroll it turned out to be. And then on the other side, when you recall that some of the hokiest things turn out to be the most memorable, you recognize what was most authentic, committed, among the entertainments – where the Disney Company gave itself over most completely and committedly to its slightly looney “Imagineers” vision.

Even Walt Disney and Co. weren’t always just about the ‘cute’. The earliest incarnations of Mickey Mouse have a much wider (and darker) expressive and affective range. Even in some of Disney’s consistently saccharine animated vehicles, the most interesting characters are frequently the villains or – proto-feminist touch here – villainesses: the Wicked Queen of Snow White, Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty, Cruella de Vil. (A girl could practically make role models out of these.)

Why did it have to stop there? Why should it ever stop there? What the child – selfish, greedy, curious (and yes, by degrees, innocent, even cute) – wants is nothing less than the world, or at least some world – drawn from the physical world, or invented whole-cloth out of the imagination. These are worlds of conflict and contention, competing social order and disorder, searching, striving, evolving ethics and nascent corruption, reason and chaos, logic and absurdity, wit and arabesque, delight and enchantment, magic and mortality. Corruption, chaos, absurdity, and finally death – yes, welcome to kiddieland. It’s a place I’m always happy to re-visit – through the mythos of certain fairy tales, the absurd, surreal Wonderland of Alice, James Barrie’s Neverland, Narnia, the mad, mad, mad, mad world(s) of Oz. (And sure – I like Paris and the Plaza Hotel, too.)

I’m not sure what triggered this particular blow-out on the subject: something uncharacteristically (and sooooo inauthentically, untruthfully) cheaply sentimental trod out by one of my siblings (made even more dishonest by his protest); the unrelenting and oppressive parade of ‘stupid pet tricks’ in one form or another that are a constant of the background chatter in the office where I work – from the ‘cute’ to the merely witless; the latest e-mail ‘cute’ cat video from a relatively intellectual pal who nevertheless gives me grief for my political vigilance (and, yes, occasionally the vitriol that ensues); the sort of oppressively cheerful, American greeting card viewpoint of far too many people (especially in this economy – what? it takes another Depression to bring them back down to earth?); or maybe the flood of good (and fairly superficial) reviews for a film (gee, that’s a shock) that, however charming (in the most superficial way), however clever (by very small and mostly technical degrees), whatever the merits of the story on which it was based, was really not much of a film.

The film I’m referring to is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s animated film based on the story by Roald Dahl – several of whose stories have been successfully translated to the screen (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and its earlier musical incarnation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; The Witches; and more). Though not far from the story (which is frankly not one of my favorites from Dahl), the film seems to alter its sly spirit, becoming slightly overbearing where the story remains quite light, yet if anything minimizing the real danger to Fox and his family. (There is never any doubt that Fox will somehow prevail, no matter what the dangers, how the odds are stacked against him, or how grimly determined and vigilant his enemies. (Perhaps a problem with the story: Fox’s enemies are never particularly clever, merely dogged and in fact quite stupid. Fox is by far the most clever of any of the characters – and knows it.) Wes Anderson knows he’s clever, too – and dogged – you’d have to be to pull off such a feat of animation; and that’s not the worst of it. It’s as if what he really wanted was to graft The Royal Tenenbaums onto the Dahl story, while re-making Fox into his avatar – really a kind of narcissistic homage – right down to his half-size-too-small bespoke corduroy suit. And voicing the characters? Forget about the predictable Bill Murray or Owen Wilson – Fox and his wife must be voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep (a pity the script should be so pallid with talent like that).

It was actually self-professed comedy-hater Opera Buddy who was initially eager to see the film. Why not? I thought, fan of Charlie, Willy Wonka, et al. that I am. For a screening audience, I thought the reaction was pretty enthusiastic. People seemed to laugh (a little too heartily) at all the jokes in all the “right” places, be touched by the picture of Fox and his family, and cheer them on. I could tell Opera Buddy was trying to muster some appreciation for the film – certainly it coaxed a few yuks, a smile or two out of us. But by the movie’s end, we were ready to dash for the exit, eager to be as far away from it as possible; and we each turned to the other to ask the question we always ask in situations like this: “Whose idea was it to see this???”

What was it the audience found so laugh-out-loud funny, so worthy of engagement with these characters (gee and I thought I was the sucker for furry friends both real and manufactured), so worthy of cheering? Forgive me, but I have to be just a bit suspicious of that kind of enthusiasm – I mean that as well in the 17th century Restoration sense, as in the sway of an almost religious fervor, rapture, a kind of blind faith; in other words, setting aside critical judgment. I can hear the other side of this argument: ‘well, for chrissakes it’s just a children’s animated film, right?’ Yes, but (speaking only for myself) the children’s stories, plays, films and animated cartoons that sustain my engagement take us to something and through something, ultimately showing us something in a way we may not have seen it before. (The story, cartoon, whatever doesn’t necessarily have to be that serious or sustained: I can think of many Warner Bros. cartoons that, in a few minutes duration, are completely satisfying. To say nothing of classic fairy tales.) As far as the end-point here, I can’t blame that entirely on Anderson – I think that’s straight from Dahl’s story. But it’s taken for granted that an original film will take some liberties with the underlying text – maybe a great many. And perhaps that’s the ultimate frustration here – the constraints we feel, not simply from the painstaking animation of the three-dimensional characters, but parallel to this, the scope of the characters’ actions and behavior: you want them to take more liberties.

This is what nags at me as I smile through the ‘cute.’ Is there a ‘flip-side’ to ‘cute’ – both the response or impression and the overall aesthetic? And why does that ‘flip-side’ seem to partake of something akin to fear and repression? Why does ‘cute’ ultimately seem like an obstacle or ditch along the steeple-chase to something more fully realized; something much more expansive or phantasmagorical? Over the last 30 or so years since the political right wing – here and elsewhere – largely hijacked the political dialogue and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the cultural dialogue (they will NEVER be able to constrain it entirely) – have people become more fearful of liberty?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Making Honey While the World Burns

28 November 2009

After the immense disappointment of NOT being seated for the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel’s Tamerlano with Placido Domingo – ever seeking new operatic challenges – taking the role of the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet, and the reportedly (at least from the buzz we’ve heard to date) amazing counter-tenor Bejun Mehta (as well as the very talented soprano Sarah Coburn as Asteria), Opera Buddy and I trekked out to console ourselves over sweet potato fries, spinach, tapas and a velvety Malbec at Kate Mantillini’s – accompanied by college football highlights on ESPN (one of our new favorite things) – then walked across the street to the Laemmle Music Hall to see Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse – which is also a valentine to the lush monument to French opera, dance, spectacle and sheer grandeur that is the Palais Garnier itself. Wiseman takes us literally from its deepest foundations where carp and minnows swim in shallow canals, to the cupola with its lyre-screened windows that light the company’s rehearsal studios and audition rooms. La Danse is above all a portrait of the company – a kaleidoscope of its many seemingly randomly arrayed facets which, taken as a whole, assume an organic unity – the cultural institution as a living organism, and its symbiotic habitation in the Palais Garnier. I never knew that there was a fully operational apiary atop the Palais – a fascinating detail – but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Wiseman shows us the Palais as an intense hive of activity – choreographers (including Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor) constructing their ballets by all means necessary, intently shaping, pacing, and articulating their supremely capable principals; soloists rehearsing difficult step sequences, dramatic pantomime; dance masters rigorously, passionately training their budding stars and whipping their corps de ballet into shape – as well as the many workshops – art, costumes, hair and make-up – that support the theatrical production; and the kitchens that fuel this army. The viewer could almost be forgiven for assuming that Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s formidable Director and Administrator, is the queen of this hive – her receptive but willful and sure-footed guiding spirit seems omnipresent – but the real queen here is always, as the title plainly states, the dance, the finished work, as well as the institution itself. Opera Buddy ducked out early – the unrelenting French (which of course I can’t get enough of) was getting to her; and it has to be said, in spite of the drama and polish of some of the finished production scenes (including a graphically bloody Medea), the last 45 minutes of the film flag somewhat. Still, I found it almost inexhaustibly absorbing and – jettisoning half that last 45 minutes – would have gladly sat down for a second helping. L.A. may not be the cultural desert it was 30 years ago; but we still starve for dance in this town; and, even the slender smorgasbord of Ek, McGregor, Nureyev, Balanchine and Pina Bausch on view in Wiseman’s film can be richly satisfying after a long fast.

For a fan of Handel opera (and, really, all Baroque opera) like me, it really hurts to miss something like the L.A. Opera Tamerlano. I take some consolation in the fact that the production (by Chas Rader-Shieber, with art direction by David Zinn) sounds absolutely dreadful – blackshirts, black suits, and a proto-Nazi scheme (with the exception of Bazajet and Asteria, who are inexplicably done up in period costume) against a stark staging. What could be more clichéd, more tedious? Ugh. Obviously, the singing is all that redeems it.

As usual, I’m going on – this isn’t even what I sat down to blog about – or not the only thing anyway – and now I have to jump. [While I've been writing this, I’ve been listening to the NPR news – the week-end program hosted by – speaking of tedious – Scott Simon; and wanted to throw in a few comments on that endless blather while he and a couple of interview subjects were chattering on – not unrelated to a couple of my other items; but it will have to wait. (Thank goddess for Daniel Shorr.)] It’s a bit off-topic, anyway, and – just to forewarn the itinerant blog-reader – political. Well. Hey – and while everyone’s going nuts over the State dinner gate-crashers at this past week, let’s just be happy that the Obamas have restored a bit of luster to the after-hours White House. (How glamourous Michelle looked – that’s something I think everyone, regardless of partisanship, can agree on.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Michael Govan's Baby and other Thanksgiving Follies

24- 26 November 2009

Okay – I really didn’t think it was going to be quite this long – but I’ve been having problems both trivial (relatively) and serious – and all of them disabling – with both my desktop AND my laptop; and things have been just crazy enough in my office to sideline whatever impulse I might have had to post from there. (It’s not always like that – but sometimes more so than others – like, uh, recently.)

Anyway, much as I would like to, I’m not even going to begin to retrace my steps (which are many) and just jump in with what’s in my scope at the moment, what’s on the table right in front of me, and generally what’s on my mind.

What’s in front of me right now is an item from Bloomberg by way of the Los Angeles TimesCulture Monster blog regarding the status of that Jeff Koons boondoggle folly, “Train” – the full-scale 70-foot, mechanically functional 1943-vintage Baldwin 2900-series steam locomotive intended to be hoisted by an enormous crane and suspended above Wilshire Boulevard (or at least over the sidewalk, threatening only pedestrians foolish enough to attempt entering the museum through its main entryway). The status is, in a word, stalled; and maybe, to judge from the slightly resigned, pessimistic tone of the posting, a bit stale. Well, no kidding. Its sheer grandiosity made it stale before LACMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director, Michael Govan, managed to put into words just how stale it was – that is to say, stillborn – though Govan apparently doesn’t know this yet. Sometimes I get the impression that Govan is playing a museum director version of the Ira Levin/Roman Polanski character, Rosemary – as in Rosemary’s Baby – running here, flitting there, picking at this or that, all over town, unaware that the vision he’s gestating is something of an art world Antichrist – a monument to post-industrial and post-financial melt-down that may in fact be its singular (and single) artistic merit. Oh sure – go ahead and bankrupt the museum, squander millions that might actually be committed to real art with serious street-cred in and out of the critical dialogue, on and off the auction block – all for a $35 million folly (you read that right – yeah, I know the published estimates are in the $25 million neighborhood; but if you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you; oh and did anyone say anything yet about MAINTENANCE?)

As everyone knows, the same Wallis Annenberg who subsidizes Govan’s paycheck funded the feasibility studies on this project, but over the last year or so has reportedly lost much of her interest in it (a tribute to Govan’s persuasive skills that she mustered any interest in it in the first place) and wisely shifted her focus towards acquisitions of actual art and other LACMA programs. (By the way, if this posting should ever find its way to Ms. Annenberg’s transom, I am completely open to re-naming it Wallis Annenberg awol [On the other hand, I’ll have to check with my editor to see if she’d be willing to re-name my position Wallis Annenberg Staff Writer of Artillery Magazine.] I can assure her Foundation straight off that it would be a MUCH smaller investment than Govan’s subsidy. Frankly, the sooner the better – for starters, I could use some help getting to Miami Beach next week – no kidding.)

Setting aside the hazards – really an engineering nightmare, especially in a seismically active zone – of erecting such a thing in proximity to one of the most heavily trafficked blocks in Los Angeles – the thing at best reads as a monument to decline – and, in a way, a slap at the museum itself (which might not be entirely a bad thing); and I’m not even sure how apt such a notion really is – right now or 30 years from now or 130 years from now. (If Warren Buffett is suddenly bull-ish on trains and rail transportation – and we better be bull-ish on some alternative to the hopeless carbon monster our mass transportation is for the most part in this country – perhaps the train is not as much of an Industrial Age relic as the Koons project seems to imply.) Speaking specifically of follies – I mean in the classic sense – Govan is actually not stupid, and you have to wonder why he can’t seem to shake himself out of his monument-building lock-step and take the radical step of thinking small – or at least within the museum’s means, which so far, he’s pushed WAY beyond. I mean – why not an actual folly – something small enough to disappear in the rush of Wilshire Boulevard traffic – yet exquisite enough to conjure a rapture within the right perspective. He should make a research tour of some English stately homes and German shlosses to see how it’s done.

Of course, folly or whatever, then he has to find the right artist for the project; and I have to say I can't think of such an artist off the top of my head. But I'm pretty sure it's not Jeff Koons or Chris Burden. There’s more to say about all this – and a few other things – but enough for now.

Happy Thanksgiving, possums -- as Dame Edna would say.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Zombie of the Opera

31 October 2009

It’s Halloween – so I’m back to spook you. To scare you. Well, contemporary art and music (& movies, dance, theatre, etc.) should be a little scary. Maybe a LOT scary. (And NO – that doesn’t mean GROSSED OUT. It’s not about cheap EXPLOITATION. In fact it’s not about CHEAP – EVER! Nor for that matter EXPLOITATION – EVER! Have I made myself CLEAR? (Or am I simply confusing the Scientologists who may be reading this?)

So – no – I’m not going to go into an extensive re-tread. Everyone here knows my story (and it’s a sad one); so let’s skip it. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I’m as exhausted as ever. So here we go. Last night (30 October) I went to the opening of conceptual art legend Stephen Kaltenbach’s very aptly timed and titled show at Another Year In L.A., S’Fear. Certainly some aspect of ‘fear’ – or certainly a kind of intimidating mystery – and of course, simply fear and apprehension of the unknown, have played prominently in Kaltenbach’s work in the past: what is hidden from view, scarcely limned through its container or shell (or title – which of course is its own kind of container). And so it was here: more explicitly (and, in one instance, theatrically) than ever. The fear – and the sphere – and the implicit mystery of geometries of two, three and more dimensions. Theatricality to one side – which I find irresistible – it’s a thoughtful and elegant show. So go. Oh – and you might bear in mind that Another Year may be moving from its current landmark Deco building on San Fernando because of some MASSIVE pile of a high school(?) that is set to rise directly across the street. (We need another high school? Why not just make the ones we already have BETTER? As in through MORE, BETTER TEACHERS? A little (or a lot) MORE MONEY??) So – one more reason to hustle over there and see the show.

Thursday night (29 October), Opera Buddy and I went to a screening of a film of the Barcelona-based Fura des Baus production of Wagner’s Die Walkure staged in the (Calatrava designed) Palau de las Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, featuring Peter Seifert and Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde and Juha Uusitalo as Wotan with the the amazing Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana brilliantly conducted by the apparently indefatigable Zubin Mehta. (If you’ve forgotten how amazing he can be, I can recommend this filmed opera on that basis alone.) The production is heavily video and effects-laden – with the internecine dramatics of the first two acts a bit muddied by the staging – but redeemed by the climactic (always threatening-to-never-actually-reach-climax) third act and Brunnhilde’s agony – which reduced Opera Buddy (despite her reservations about the production overall) to tears, and me (after my exhausting workday) to simultaneous catharsis and paralysis. (I comforted OB – ‘hey Dads are like that. Ya try to make them proud of your battle prowess and they end up disowning you & you have to settle for them not letting anyone fuck you but a billionaire master-of-the-universe,’ Right?) Well. (I’m telling you, it was pretty fucking GREAT.)

Earlier that day, I had the great fortune of viewing a portion of Ann Janss’s extensive and eclectic collection of L.A. and other artists – which in addition to some phenomenal Michael McMillen pieces and an entire gallery devoted to an amazing H.C. Westermann series, See America First, provided me with an introduction to the work of Steve Galloway. (As usual, I have to ask myself – was my head stuck under a rock or something?). I’m not going to go into great detail at the moment; because I have to jet out to, uh, the Silver Lake Dog Park. (You think I’m joking, don’t you? Well think again.) If you see a zombie in the dog park, it’s just me. Back in a zombie minute. (That could be a few millennia, you realize.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Murmures des Richesses

9-10 October 2009

Oh who cares who was at the Burchfield opening at the Hammer? Annie Philbin, Cathy Opie, Marlene Picard, Mitch Handsone, Lydia Szamraj, television producers (Hey – I just wrote a treatment – have ya got a minute? I think I have a copy in the car.), models, investment bankers – all the usual suspects. (Never did fetch that treatment.) But let me tell you what I was doing (almost a week later!) before. First of all, there was a truckload of GREAT work at Bergamot Station, where I went to do a bit of reconnaissance. The Francesca Gabbiani show (the second part of a two-part show) at Patrick Painter was extraordinary. I’ve been a fan of hers practically from my first exposure to her work (which, speaking of the Hammer, I believe was through a Hammer Project space (or maybe it was in the main galleries, I don’t remember – but the Hammer gave her the exposure). But her work just keeps getting richer, denser – more elaborate, exquisite, too, of course – but always to a very controlled, specific end – the whole of the conceit, the composition, at the service of the unified effect. (Though it is impossible not to be drawn into the rich details of these ‘black mirror’ collage-tableaux.) In the work on view here, the artistic and decorative fashions of 18th century rococo pastoral are re-worked into a kind of swirling ecological cacophony ‘framing’ a black ‘mirror’ lagoon-negative space. But here the foliated and filigreed shells, flora and fauna of the benign 18th century pastoral-boiserie is given a more forbidding cast, veering into the depths of jungle or forest – barn owls looming over chameleons, reptiles and dense foliage.assembled into a slightly tempestuous froth. The effect is simultaneously haunting and enchanting. Trick-or-treat – Patrick: would you mind putting one of these in my candy sack? I could spend hours with any one of these singular pieces.

I’m jumping ahead a bit here, though (yeah, on a certain level, that makes no sense) – because on the prior Wednesday evening (that’s 30 September), I had the privilege of attending Ana Cervantes’ extraordinary piano recital – really a recital/recitation – a unique music, literary, and arguably even visual experience, almost entirely curated, commissioned and performed – I want to say breathed or launched upon the airwaves – by this marvelous pianist-performer. In the past, I’ve tended (a bit irrationally to be honest about it) to militate a bit against ‘program’ music – as a kind of coloration, literary or narrative, that the music doesn’t really need or support; that may indeed veer sharply from what the purely musical character delivers on its own abstractly. At the same time, I’m completely mad about film soundtrack music – as sensitive to score and sonic tapestry woven behind, through and surrounding film image, action and dialogue – the astonishing capacity a great score has to underscore, heighten or emphasize mood, prefigurations, undercurrents, suspense, climax – as I am to any other aspect of the film: script, dialogue, performance, direction, editing. I’m full of contradictions, I fully realize. Then of course we routinely, almost unconsciously, deal with the ‘literary’ bridges of popular and folk song, commercial music that bombard us daily, to say nothing of the heavy lyric and literary content of musical theatre (or could we stretch that to simply say theatre, period?) and, uh (GASP!) OPERA!

In other words, I guess I’m getting over such irrational biases. A good thing, too – because Ana Cervantes’s magnetic performance, which she titled Rumor de Páramo: Murmurs From the Wasteland effectively put to rest whatever reservations I might have had left about this nexus. (Which are really merely the reflection of my own interior tug-of-war between my literary and purely musical sensibilities.) To be introduced to great bodies of musical and literary work on the same evening for me is practically a formula ready-made for an ecstatic experience. By far the great literary inspiration of Rumor de Páramo is the work of Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo, one of whose principal works is the novel, Pedro Páramo. And as if he needed any endorsement beyond the genius (I think I can take the word of Cervantes, et al. here) of his work, Octavio Paz (a titanic literary hero for me, whose work alas I have only read in English and French), perhaps Mexico’s greatest man of letters, wrote that Juan Rulfo was “the only Mexican novelist to have provided us an image – rather than a mere description – of our physical surroundings.” (meaning Mexico itself). The only composer on the program with whom I was familiar was Arturo Márquez – who might simplistically be described as a Mexican impressionist, TKTKTK

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dandelion Whine

2-3 October 2009

Before I pick up where I left off – and yes, I’m lagging behind again – here’s a discovery. The Blue Whale is apparently a beached whale on Saturdays. This has always been the case to some extent, as I’m aware – the building has long been mostly devoted to design, architecture, textile and furniture showrooms catering mostly to the trade who keep regular Monday through Friday business week hours. But until recently, it seemed there was always something open (besides the restaurant) – or at least some special event that kept the doors open for some segment of non-trade customers or would-be clients trawling the interior design studios. Not so – or certainly not so anymore. When I returned early Saturday afternoon for a bit of reconnaissance (mostly Carl Berg), I was dismayed to be told by a guard that the entire building was closed. That, I said confidently to him, was impossible. There were art galleries on the second and third floors that should be open for business. Should be – but apparently are not. As we both made calls on our respective phones, it became clear that there was no one at the Carl Berg Gallery. I left a message; but there was no reason to expect an immediate reply. The building is apparently closed on Saturdays to ALL. You would think this might change, given the re-purposing of so many of these spaces for art galleries – but nooooo. The galleries will simply have to find a way around this. Here’s a shout-out to Carl: I think some kind of party or salon at some bar – say half-way between that area and Culver City (not the Mandrake – which is something apart and unto itself) – should take the place of the gallery’s Saturday hours – which, let’s face it, are as important to clients and collectors as they are to the rest of us art world shmos cruising for a free view, intel, and something to talk about at the next dinner, drinks or, uh, BAR.

So – Erin Dunn (half the reason I was there) will have to wait a bit. But let me just preview more extended comments by saying it is one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in some time. Carl Berg obviously agreed. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have essentially handed over an entire gallery – an enormous space divided axially into several smaller rooms or galleries – to this young artist, who only recently settled in Los Angeles after graduating from RISD, with only a few appearances in group shows to date. Obviously any artist this young (I’m not sure if she’s even 25) is still evolving and will probably veer some distance from what is on view here. But the assuredness of her vision (and its range) and technique – in addition to the exuberant, fantasist freedom with which it’s deployed – are truly astonishing.

The work is largely drawn from nature – but abstracted, heightened in color, composition and orientation, and scale to something that is a world apart – a garden of earthly delights transformed into a private fairyland of exquisite, almost monstrous creations. The closest comparison (in terms of both color and style) I can make is to the work of Odilon Redon. Some of Dunn’s flower paintings (I’m not sure what else to call them) struck this note most distinctly – but with slightly more immediacy, a more vivid charge. (And for the most part, they are larger than Redon’s typical scale.)

But it is not just the paintings. Berg did not just throw a gallery to Dunn. Her work – which ranges into collage/assemblage, objects, textiles – encompasses a world. It is something that requires this kind of space. I don’t mean to overstate or exaggerate, but it is visionary on an almost Blake-an scale. No, she is not a William Blake, a Bosch or Breughel, or – well perhaps it’s jumping ahead a bit to even put her in the same company with Redon. But it is a vision complete, compelling and coherent. Okay – let’s move on. I’ll come back to the Beached Whale. At some point.

This past evening (which now slips into the 4th) I’ve been to the opening of the Robert Gober-curated Charles Burchfield show at the Hammer – Heat Waves In A Swamp – which is something of a revelation viewed within the context of the past 15 or 20 years of Los Angeles art. I should say, with some embarrassment, a revelation to me – not obviously to Gober, nor to Ann Philbin. I had only the vaguest clue who he was – knew his work dated from some time in the early 20th century, knew he’d worked in Buffalo, New York, vaguely associated him with Ashcan School painters of upstate New York. As far as I knew (which was NOTHING), he might have just been another journeyman artist cum illustrator cum graphic artist (partially true – his work does have a graphic quality; and he earned his living for a time designing (with splendid success) wallpaper. Nothing could be further from the truth. In point of fact, he was the first artist given a solo mid-career retrospective at MoMA – which triggered an extensive correspondence with the redoubtable Alfred Barr. Edward Hopper singled him out for praise early in his career. (It was not long after that encomium that he was able to devote himself full-time to his art.) More recently (well, okay 25 years ago) there was a Metropolitan Museum show; still more recently (1993), a show at The Drawing Center. Well, we know where Ann Philbin was; but where the hell was I? Apparently sleeping under a rock somewhere – what? – my subscription to the Times had lapsed?

Of course, Opera Buddy (who I assumed had skipped in favor of the Resnais movies at LACMA) knew all about Burchfield. “Oh, of course – Charles Burchfield. He was a genius. I love his work.” (Am I awake yet?)

The work is not exactly a ‘wake-up call’, however much a revelation to me. Hopper praised Burchfield for his dedication to painting “life” or nature. But as a ‘naturalist’, Burchfield’s hand (and eye) are heavily stylizing – occasionally abstracting nature into a tapestry of interweaving ornament. It is at once schematic and elaborate – a simplified line extended and elaborated into a motif repeated or integrated within a composition of similar landscape elements – or ‘natural’ motives. And as much of a ‘naturalist’ as he was, he did not shy away from depicting the industrial landscape of the northeast and midwest U.S. It was easy to see how he could lend his talents quite successfully to wallpaper design – and of course, his designs were rich, fantastic. But it was a good thing he was able to get away from that business. His best work – mostly watercolors, or watercolors with goache, ink and graphite – has an almost ethereal quality – qualities he was able to sustain almost to the end of his career. One of the most amazing pieces – slightly monochromatic, almost grisaille – comes close to the end of his life (1961-65), Dandelion Fields and the Moon – silvery and shimmering.

In short (yeah, it deserves more than a ‘short’ – but bear with me for a bit), it’s a terrific show. Who was there? Oh let me get back to you about that.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Regarding Henry -- and Alicia

29-30 September 2009

Before I continue my little tour around the two new 'fine arts' floors of the Pacific Design Center, I want to take just a moment to remember two amazing individuals who had an enormous influence on me.

You may have already read that Henry Hopkins -- former (and first, as I recall) director of the Hammer Museum (as well as UCLA's Wight Art Gallery) and for many years, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, artist, scholar, teacher, mentor to so many here in California -- died Sunday here in L.A. I last saw him not two months ago at an art/nightclub opening that featured the work of a gifted former student. Although he looked well and was in so many ways his affable self, it was clear that he was in delicate health. I only learned the next day that he was still recuperating from major surgery, which made his appearance all the more remarkable -- yet so completely Henry. Intrepid, ever willing to stray from the beaten path, always on the look-out for the new thing (though never unwilling to take a second look at the 'old'), alert to fresh sparks, willing to take on all comers -- that was Henry. However infirm he may have been that early evening, his eyes were ever alert and alive. His always amazing eye for painting was very much in evidence that evening as we walked through the show (of paintings by Angel Chen) -- applauding the artist's colorism, singleing out especially strong paintings, or simply passages of paintings -- at once the teacher's teacher and connoisseur's connoisseur, and always with such grace and good humor. More than once he took me aside to steer me towards an artist or artwork or simply some art world 'person of interest', to impart some bit of news he knew I would relish. That he was always so open, accessible, informative and encouraging to me, personally (and he was no less encouraging to so many), is something I will always cherish.

The second passing I must take note of is only slightly more distant chronologically and geographically. Alicia de Larrocha died in Barcelona Friday; but like most great artists, she was a citizen of the world, and my associations with her are ineluctably linked with New York and Los Angeles. I had the privilege of seeing her perform many times in Los Angeles -- at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and the Hollywood Bowl -- both in recital and in concert with the L.A. Phil; and in New York at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. So much of what I have learned about classical form, and especially Mozart and playing Mozart at the piano, was shaped by her own precise and elegant playing. Brendel later became huge in my 'Mozart (and Schubert) universe' -- but Alicia de Larrocha was the original model, the template forever engraved in my mind whenever I listen or (still more rarely) attempt to play Mozart. And of course, she was my introduction to a world of French and Spanish music: Ravel, Granados, Albeniz. To this day I don't think she has an equal in her interpretation of the Spanish classics.

And, as anyone who attended her recitals can attest, her intelligence, poise and sensitivity, were manifest in almost every piece of music of played. She knew how to 'turn a phrase' and make it new every time, to make us hear it almost as deja vu and epiphany at the same time, to hear it written fresh as if the composer had just set the notes down. She retired only a few years ago -- a celebrated recital she gave with the Tokyo String Quartet at Carnegie Hall -- but for her many fans, her music-making lives forever.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Between Abandon and Atonement

28 September 2009

Back to Thursday night (24 September) – and Saturday night (26 September) – a little late, I know (I could have used that Town Car I was, uh, ranting about, since my venerable Volvo decided to take a powder not long after I had left Kristin Calabrese’s and Josh Aster’s “Itty Bitty” show at Circus of Books; on top of which I lost my cell phone somewhere in that neighborhood. One more expensive detour I really didn’t need.) I left off talking about Mark Dutcher’s sculpture, but didn’t really address the painting; and I have to confess it was difficult to address this painting – in other words, settle my eye, my focus, upon it. Where would I find my way into the painting? How to ‘scan’, to ‘map’ it if you will, to really make sense of the palette (which was dominated by blues – lots of cobalt, Prussian, lapis, sapphire, midnight tones; many textured (including velvet, as Mark pointed out to me)? It was a very large panel. On top of which – or should I say, to the side of which – there was a separate rhomboidal panel or flange flatly painted in blue, hinging or folding out from the main rectangular panel. If I was having a hard time finding my way into the painting, this element was not helping me, nor for that matter helping me find a way out.

That Mark will eventually find his way back into the kind of painting he wants to make (and out of the labyrinth of texture, incident and other painterly problems he seems to have created for himself), I have no doubt. Of the curators, Dan and Ryan Callis, I have my doubts. But then maybe it’s just me: I confess I grew impatient trying to ‘read’ Monique Prieto’s usually very readable text paintings in that trademark Stonehenge megalith font of hers. But at least with Prieto, there’s something to challenge the eye simply in terms of the painting as a whole. Ryan Callis’s painting certainly scanned easily enough – but then most pattern-and-decoration type painting does. Certainly this is the ground for this kind of painting, though more geometricized here, with a nod to the incidental, even figurative elements. But so what? What is it getting at?

[I’m a little cantankerous, right now, aren’t I? You can see why it’s easy to let a blog go. Unless there’s something really exciting to talk about, why bother? It’ll get reviewed eventually, somewhere – hopefully by someone less jaded than I – so why not just let it go without comment? But, you know how the song goes – ‘the best is yet to come’; and so it was this particular evening. It may not keep us blogging here in L.A., but it sure keeps us going out to the art openings, concerts, movies, etc., looking for that new new thing that inspires us in a way nothing ever has before.]

Ryan’s brother/husband, Dan’s work was even more derivative – couched somewhere between a kind of semaphoric colorism and and the aforementioned pattern and decoration. The color was refreshing. It would look good as a summer print, I thought – but then we’re dressing for autumn aren’t we? In other words, could you show me something in a, uh, … INTERESTING?!! I’m not here textile shopping for Marc Jacobs. Ya know what I’m saying?

[No, I’m not going to stop now – you’ll why see in a second.] The most interesting painting – and some of the pieces were not, strictly speaking, painting – was done by an artist named Matty Byloos, whose work I’d never seen before. Speaking of texture, I wanted to get closer to the paintings (there were only two) to get a better sense of its relative thinness or flatness, saturation, and so forth – from a distance the color appeared laid down fairly thinly, perhaps scraped down – but people (the crowd was pretty heavy) kept wandering into my sightlines and so I moved on to the black-and-white drawings – completely different in character from the paintings, and perhaps even more compelling, somehow deeper on some level than the paintings, which had a certain matter-of-fact finality to them. With a foreclosure being filed roughly every seven seconds here in the U.S., what could be more timely, I thought, than paintings of houses that appeared boarded up and abandoned? But really this only scratches the (thin) surface. Abandonment and isolation are certainly keynotes here; but there is something further quietly sublimated off these surfaces, something haunted, forlorn, trapped energies, unfinished business. (Or was I just tired? Ready to get in my car and fall asleep at the wheel?)

The black-and-white drawings – which looked as if taken from some collection of stock images or photos, or handbook illustrations (or perhaps Situationist graphic images – are mostly domestic interiors, situations and genre scenes, suddenly interrupted or intruded upon by black-out balloons or clouds, black mists descending upon the centers and obscuring some critical bit of the depicted transaction. They were, like the houses, haunting and mysterious; schematic ‘bad dream’ images, in which the central action (usually involving one’s own consciousness) is somehow self-censored. I later learned that Byloos is also a writer, which does not surprise me at all – not that there is anything particularly narrative about these pieces – but all of them, paintings and ‘drawings’ (or is it the other way around?) exude an acute psychological intelligence.

There’s more to report: mostly on the group show at Carl Berg and the special showcase space he’s created upstairs on the 5th floor of the Pacific Design Center (I somehow doubt that he’s permanently annexed this space – but its current inhabitant just might make him do it.) In the meantime, remember this name: Erin Dunn.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

RANT-ing and Raving -- but Still Here, Still Looking, Still Listening

25-26 September 2009

I’m big on preambles, as anyone who has ever dipped into this blog knows – but I’m not even sure at this point who, or if ANYONE will be reading this – so I’ll keep this one brief. Every once in a while – and lately, oh let’s face it, MONTHS – awol goes, uh, AWOL. Well, maybe that’s not quite the way to put it. It’s more like – awol goes OVER THE EDGE. The last few months – really the last year – have been like that; and – well, do I really need to explain it? I don’t think so -- but I’ll try to sum up. It’s called LIFE; and it’s a bloody messy business. There’s the economy that’s foreground and background to all of this. There’s the tapestry of emotional turbulence interwoven throughout, but perhaps more dramatically over the past year or so. There’s politics – of the public forum, naturally -- always troubling; of the private, professional and workplace spheres (and the art world, too – but where to comment, intervene? I’m not about to jump into that unless I have my facts in order); and then, quite simply, the demands of working and making a living in this kind of environment. And there’s the stream of practical obstacles, private tribulations and everyday disasters that clutter everyone’s life.

I fall ASLEEP. Okay? It's bloody EXHAUSTING. (And here’s a shout-out: anyone want the part-time job of helping me get up in the morning? I need an assistant for this, no kidding.) So sue me – or better yet, come work for me.

Okay – Thursday night (the 24th): very hot-town-summer-in-the-city. Except, of course, it was fall. Dressed autumnally (fawn wool crepe, Ferragamo, matching suede court shoes), running late from the Black Glass Ellipse of the Flynt Publications Building, I made my way to the International Klein Blue Whale of Pacific Design Center (parking a nightmare), headed towards melt-down of course – but what a way to go. My first PLANNED stop was RANT, a group show curated by Dan Callis and Ryan Callis (brothers? Husband and wife (Ryan I think can be a girl’s name)?) – I know nothing about either of them as artists, and if their own work is any indication, I don’t have much interest for the moment in learning anything more. (I WOULD have liked to know SOMEthing about them, artistically, curatorially; but there was no printed information available at the show – or for that matter a checklist of the work, artist bios (some of whom are well enough known – e.g., Phoebe Unwin, Monique Prieto, Mark Dutcher, Alex Couwenberg), or curatorial statement – not that I really need one. I’m assuming that the title will more or less telegraph what the emphasis is supposed to be.) Touching on that last parenthetical point, I’m not sure if the show quite reached that fevered pitch, but for at least a few of the artists, you could see it moving in that direction, some more idiosyncratically than others. (Monique Prieto’s work, needless to say, fit RIGHT IN – hey, I mean that in a good way, sort of.) And for the rest – well, it added up to enough visual (maybe aural, too) cacophony to get you revved up to that point, more or less.

And I needed to be revved up – I had no idea to what extent. A good part of the third floor (and parts of other floors above and below) is now given over to art gallery space leased cheaply to any number of galleries and independent kunsthalle-type ventures (e.g., Lucas Reiner and John Millais’s space just kitty-corner from the “RANT” space) -- a by-product of the imploded economy and collapsing real estate market both. Most, if not all of them were either opening shows or just open for the spill-over crowds/business. There was a LOT to see.

I confess that my first draw to RANT was my friend, Mark Dutcher’s new work – which continues to evolve in a number of new directions – most interestingly, at least recently, sculptural – painted, of course – Mark’s commitment to painting is firmly manifest, as any of his friends would tell you. But I think sculpture has become much more than simply a digression for Mark. What will be interesting in the future will be the way he ‘brings it all back home’ to the ‘two-dimensional’ painted work. He is working out problems in both structure and ‘narrative’, if you will (or perhaps more simply ‘incidental’ – I’ll elaborate at some point on). The sculptures – painted mostly in primaries – reds, blues, yellows – were vertical, allusive to the figure mostly in terms of their human scale, segmented in separate rectangular and oblong wooden blocks – a cross between a kind of Giacometti-esque David Smith and a Jenga set (does anybody besides ME remember (and MISS!) Jenga – those little odd, notched pieces of balsa-wood that you stacked and stacked and stacked until some klutz (ME!) would knock them over? A great game to play while drinking cocktails or just before sex). Many of them were topped off with what functioned almost as miniature platforms for further incident – smaller elements arrayed across the tops (capitals? – or other architectural influence).

I have to break off – YES, I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING. Just forget about it. Please. I’ll be back. I promise. It’ll be a few hours. HELLO! – it’s L.A. – it takes a while to get around this bloody town. (Oh, by the way, Paige – would you mind sending a car? My Volvo is having, uh, circulation issues. And it better be a Lincoln Town Car. Oh yeah, did I tell you the driver needs to be cute? S/He does. Preferably someone with a first name of either Jimmy or Cindy. Preferably Latino/Mexican -- black hair, chiseled features, beautiful, smoked-mirror-smouldering eyes -- someone presentable and .... Well ... my Volvo isn't the only thing that needs servicing.) (I do go on, don't I?) My first stop is the Circus of Books where Kristin Calabrese and Joshua Aster have curated a show of “itty bitty paintings” that, knowing what those two are capable of, is likely to be GENIUS. (ps – more about Josh Aster, later, too.)