Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough

26 - 27 June 2009

I hesitated to post one of my ‘quick-ones’ (thus making it not such a quick one, after all, no?) the other night (well my blasted computer and laptop had something to do with it, too); but having just come from Joshua Pieper’s opening at Rosamund Felsen (good show, by the way – conceptual/material handled with a very dry, delicate wit), where I had a conversation with Steve Hurd and friends on this very subject, I’m thinking I’m not the only person in the L.A. art world to have been similarly affected by the sudden (and still so very shocking) death of Michael Jackson – a genius entertainer and true pop superstar, whatever else you want to say about him.

Like so many of my generation (no – I can’t remember what that is exactly – (x + y + z)2, I think), I watched Michael Jackson’s career unfold practically from its inception. I listened and danced to Motown music, including many Jackson 5 singles, some of which struck me as Motown bubblegum, some which actually had an already distinct pop verve – a kind of fusion of Motown-style rhythm & blues and Lennon-McCartney inflected Anglo-American pop (“The Love You Save”; “Never Can Say Goodbye”; “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” – which seems in retrospect like the Motown precursor to his later “Wanna Be Starting Something” – that brilliant lead track off Thriller). I think “Ben” was actually my favorite Jackson 5 single at the time simply for its sheer perversity. (I confess that my early pop music tastes leaned in the direction of hard blues (Anglo-American, alas) rock and downtown/art/underground sounds (the two poles of which I’m thinking would be somewhere around groups like the Stones and the Velvets). In other words, this was a pretty white pop culture. There were outstanding exceptions, of course: Aretha, Stevie Wonder, to say nothing of scores of black jazz artists from Miles Davis to McCoy Tyner. But jazz and the classical world stand somewhat off to the side of the mainstream pop world. And it was that world that the grown-up Michael Jackson would take by storm and utterly transform within less than a decade from his first solo records for Motown.

That said, it was an explosion heard round the globe that somehow only penetrated my very white, punk downtown world when, inevitably, it penetrated almost every style of pop music being produced during the decade that followed – with its sheer exuberance, eclecticism and irresistible rhythmic energy. That ‘force’ had ‘a lot of power.’ Within a couple years of its release, there was no escaping it – and who would want to? I recall a hipper-than-thou loft party in SoHo sometime in 1982 where the dance music mix began and ended with music from Off the Wall. Everyone there was super-smart, punk or professional – or both, hyper-educated, informed, engaged, so cool we would have turned blue if the party didn’t start heating up – and it did. We tried so hard to be detached and dispassionate, clutching our scotch and joints (and checking each other out, too, natch) – but the sound system was very good and the music swept everyone away. There was no holding back. ‘Get on the floor and dance’ the music commanded; and we obeyed. Half-way through the Off the Wall tracks on the mix, the loft was swirling with movement – jagged, lyrical, undulating, pulsating – just like the music. It was pure joy. I don’t think I had sex that night, but I definitely had an orgasm or two.

A couple of years ago, I was on my way home from a late and very frustrating night at my Flynt Building office, feeling like death and wondering for the umpteenth time how I could possibly wake up the next morning for more of the same. I was spinning the radio dial between news, jazz, classical and indie-rock stations aimlessly, not even caring what I heard from one to the next, when the first bars of “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” – with those urgent moans of Michael’s – suddenly began seeping from my speakers. Something compelled me to turn the volume up. And up – the music poured from the speakers as if on an ecstatic wave (I have a great sound system in my car). At that moment, it was like a musical speedball – dreamy, ecstatic, yet pulsating with energy. I was in heaven. And I wasn’t going to stop ‘til I got enough – which meant a stop at Amoeba to pick up a CD (my vinyl copy bit the dust what seems like millennia ago). (Good thing, too, huh? Amazon reported that the entire Michael Jackson catalog had sold out. They’re going to have to bloody re-issue most of the catalog. Who knows? – Michael’s $400 million debt may be liquidated a lot quicker than any of us would have guessed.)

Beyond the music, what made Thriller magical – really a kind of pop miracle no different from one of the great Freed-unit M-G-M musicals – was its conceptualization as a kind of global multi-media entertainment package. The amazing dancing and choreography that may have been born out of disco and musical theatre but went so much further. There was Astaire and Robbins in it, sure – but also Fosse and something you can only call Michael Jackson. We were witnessing the birth of a superstar and it was something to see. Something you had to be blind not to see – you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

Thursday evening (25 June), I was out with Opera Buddy – looking at an opera on film natch – an amazing 2008 Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Claus Guth did the production and Bertrand de Billy conducts members of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Don Gio is a very powerful Christopher Maltman, but he is almost eclipsed by his amazing – and very sexy – Leporello, played by Erwin Schrott. It’s a strange, almost surreal, very contemporary production – but I loved it; and of course the music is sublime – more on that in a second if I don’t run out of steam.)

Anyway, we almost got into an argument. “Michael Jackson dead!” – she all but cackled. Well, there was no escaping the shock of it. “ … (yawn) Oh so what … another pervert bites the dust…. What was he going to do with his career, anyway?...” Well, setting aside the probable fact that, whether his tour or new material would have been successful or not, whether he would have actually succeeded in making a comeback that, to many, seemed something of a long-shot, there would have been much he might have offered as a producer or mentor for new talent – i.e., the role that Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and others had played for him; how, I asked, can you deny, not simply his manifest talent, but what he did actually produce. Joy, pure and simple. He brought joy to hundreds of millions if not billions of people all over the planet.

He was a strange cat – completely over-the-top-twisted, screwed up – issues for years. He did weird stuff and some terrible and probably out and out criminal things to some people (although regarding these incidents, you have to wonder: where were these kids’ bloody – more like blood-sucking – parents? – vultures.) And, come on for chrissake – nobody died. In fact they probably had a fabulous time (so they need a few years of therapy – at least we know they can afford it). Jackson was no Phil Spector – a complete menace to society who was a one-man argument for preventive detention years before he actually offed some poor girl.

Maybe Michael’s best years were behind him. Oh they probably were. But, like entertainment geniuses before him, he brought magic to thousands of millions. He brought us joy and will keep on delivering it as long as we can still hear music. No, he was not Mozart; and no we are not always in the right space, physically, emotionally, to enjoy what he offered us. But when we are – and we always will be at some point – it will seem like the amazing gift it is – a bacchant’s cry (and laugh) – a power of rapturous joy that we can never have enough of.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Hunger

17 June 2009

Just a quick one before I pick up where I left off (remember? Aaron Sheppard, et al.? To say nothing of Keith Tyson, Yayoi Kusama, Phoebe Unwin, Edward Cella, etc., et al.) – What’s the deal with museum, gallery or other art/culture events where the wine and/or hard liquor flow, or shall we say, are being poured with a heavy hand (a good thing, all things considered), but the food served is minimal to non-existent? Now, no one expects a gallery to hand you more than a glass of serviceable table wine or a spritzer at the run-of-the-mill vernissage. On the other hand, at what might be characterized as “special” events – special receptions, benefits, collector events, gallery events set off from the usual opening protocol, colloquia or other confabs, etc., where a slightly more ample libation might be offered; especially those events scheduled on ‘school’ nights at those somewhat ambiguous hours between ‘tea’, drinks and/or dinner – it might not be unreasonable to expect something to quell the hunger that, in the absence of an early dinner or a substantial ‘tea’, is surely swelling to a crescendo. Something perhaps slightly more than a breadstick (this is not a criticism of the fare at the Hammer, by the way) or a handful of salted peanuts.

EITHER OF WHICH WE (I speak for MANY of us) WOULD HAVE BEEN DELIGHTED WITH at the MOCA Contemporaries luau at the Catherine Malandrino Maison yesterday evening. In theory, the event was catered by the Malandrino café. In actuality, you could hardly call what we were presented with catering. In fact, you would have been excused for thinking it was a piece of performance art. Whatever it was, it was entirely surreal – the surrealism of it only magnified by the gathering haze of inebriation – inevitable if, like me, your last meal had been not much more than a light lunch and you had been hard at work for most of the day between 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. I should have guessed something was afoot when I was presented with a plate of half a dozen of the tiniest stuffed mushroom caps that were the first course of hors d’oeuvres to come out of the kitchen. It would be a long wait for the next plate (and I do mean plate, not platter). After a couple of surprisingly strong champagne & liqueur libations, I was really looking forward to something. As in ANYTHING. Anything appeared in the form of some microscopic-looking cherry tomato thing that looked tiny even on its toothpick. At this point, I was already practically drunk and wandered into the store to see what I scavenge. The wait staff had apparently retreated back to the kitchen again. Now what I saw was simply strategy: get the guests good and plastered and get them to drop a few quid BOTH on MOCA and on Catherine Malandrino shmatte. It made a bit of sense. The shmatte, such as it was, was fabulous. A beige-y draped cocktail dress beautifully draped and detailed in lace and netting would have fit me (once upon a (slightly more flush) time) brilliantly, and there was a quilted multi-colored mini-skirt that I seriously coveted. Unfortunately, my purse could scarcely budge for the parking valet – a situation that was moot because I was now in no condition to drive.

I was not alone. Clusters of guests were now huddling outside the kitchen door waiting to pounce upon whatever emerged from it. But you had to be very fast and very determined to get what there was to be had. The wait staff would rush out by-passing the beggars (us) outside the doors and rapidly fan back into the store – presumably to feed starving sales girls (or models? Presumably with a diet like this, you’d be ready for either the runway or the hospital.) By the second run, I was ready, and all but tackled one of the staff to grab my slightly-less-than-bite-size morsel of something vaguely resembling quiche.

Of course it wasn’t enough. By this time, I had joined a few other guests at the coffee bar, waiting for espressos and gnawing at the morning’s pastries and biscotti. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left. I didn’t think I could even manage trying on the clothes in my condition and had already schmoozed half the Maison. A lot of people were heading over to LACE for the Fallen Fruit opening and performance, but I was in no condition to drive any more than a few blocks to the closest emporium selling coffee and FOOD (which happened to be Urth Café).

Look – don’t get me wrong. The reception was lovely. The clothes were fabulous. The drinks were …. Well there was Champagne. How bad could it be? But people with empty stomachs, whatever their taste for contemporary art, fashion, or for that matter the size of their wallets, need something MORE. Some galleries really get it (I’m thinking of a few Culver City galleries; a couple in Santa Monica; Lawrence Asher on Wilshire – you know who you are); but too often these are the exception. PLEASE L.A. ART WORLD: go ahead and spring for the Trader Joe’s nosh. The art audience’s (and your customers’) good will is not something that can just be written off.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fractured but fabulous

14 June – 15 June 2009

Before I come at you with a truckload of accumulated notes (no – I don’t mean going back the last three months – just the last couple of weeks), let me just tell you what grabbed my attention this week-end. (I hope this doesn’t sound like a Facebook page, which has been a slight, though sometimes entertaining, distraction since the MOCA “Mobilization” dragged me into its web.) First of all, as more than one person has pointed out in a general way, I haven’t been ‘around’ as much as I was prior to my return from the New York fairs. As some of you know, I was dealing with a number of professional, financial, and personal ‘challenges’ that vacuumed away an awful lot of my energy and focus. And crisis or ‘challenge’ aside, I felt an acute need to psychologically regroup and refresh my focus. It’s an on-going struggle and I don’t see myself emerging from it overnight. The more pleasurable side of this is that I find myself spending a bit more time reading (that is to say, reading and actually finishing books and long essays or feature articles). Lately I’ve been researching India and the subcontinent and spent part of this week-end finishing Octavio Paz’s In Light of India – a brilliant, magical sequence of essays about India and his experiences there (he was an envoy, and not long thereafter Mexico’s ambassador to India); needless to say every page is touched with Paz’s special genius. Next up is Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. For pure pleasure I’m reading, Edna O’Brien short stories (she has a new bio of Byron that I’m sure is a hoot) and Colette’s La Retraite sentimentale – a sort of birthday book. (Am I revealing too much about myself? Yes – I guess that’s who I am these days.)

So you can see that ‘tales of the flesh’ might have an irresistible allure for me lately (‘spirit’ too, I suppose – but so much harder to sink one’s teeth – or eyes, ears and hands – into, no?). Besides I hadn’t been to Western Project in a while, I knew Carole Caroompas and Liz Young would be in the show; and – well, I had to go. One of Caroompas’s huge Before and After Frankenstein canvases greeted me as I walked in; and it was interesting studying its iconography for a moment and breathing in that almost hieratic, almost religious (albeit heterodox) quality it radiates. It could almost be an altarpiece, I was thinking for a second – only to turn into the main space of the gallery and be confronted with something that really was a kind of, well, shrine, a sort of devotional tableau – a shrine or an altar with a quasi-Chippendale pediment that – even from a distance – evoked cataclysm, catharsis (or at least a kind of baptism),transfiguration. I had to sort of hold back a bit. It was just a bit too much – with the ‘Chippendale’ topped frame giving way to extensions into the gallery space itself. I had to distract myself with Liz Young’s drawings and another Caroompas before I could really deal with it. (Caroompas – and Liz Young come to think of it – made me think a bit about Kaari Upson’s incendiary work again. What can I say? – the cutting, the re-configuration of flesh – gee, isn’t everyone obsessed with that on some level? At least in New York and L.A. Maybe all of America.)

And then it just happened – it was like I was just caught in some cheesy movie, helpless to resist its magnetic draw. (Upson again: how do you resist something as cheesy as the Grotto? You don’t. You just go with it. Enter that locus of utterly absurd insanity and just make it your own.) I felt the almond eyes of that slightly cartoon-ish, Fractured Fairy Tale Portrait of Dorian Gray figure upon me – to say nothing of that magical, mystical, ever so tactile frame, with its Munch/Jugenstil/Nouveau skulls and bones mouldings. And then of course, it’s there – like the wound of Amfortas in Syberberg’s film of Parsifal – those beautifully glistening labia…. “Don’t worry, Eve. You can always put that where your heart ought to be.”

Do you see what’s happening? Right as we’re writing/reading this? I’m coming apart just re-visualizing it, salivating a bit, even though it’s not strictly speaking that carnal. I’m not giving the artist enough credit. It’s much more articulate, developed – abstractly, symbolically, iconographically, narratively. Oh – the artist: his name is Aaron Sheppard. Like his Debutante in eclipse, or the fearful Symmetry of that transfigured scuba diver, he seems to have blown across the waters like Botticelli’s Venus on the half- (I was about to say clam – can you blame me?) shell. (Come to think of it, he does have a very Botticelli aura in person. Maybe it’s his long flowing hair.) In fact, he blew across the desert sands of Las Vegas (well, they don’t call it Vegas for nothing), which is where Cliff discovered him. And I’m so glad he did. Do you mind if I take a break? I need to eat something. I also need to say something more about Aaron Sheppard. Also about George Bolster, whose work I saw later the same evening at Chung King Project. (His “Madonna of the Tears” made me think of Barbara Hutton. “The bride wore black and carried a scotch and soda.”) In lieu of the Wooster Group’s Il Didone (long story – hopefully I can catch it this week).

Oh by the way, did anybody else notice (as if anyone couldn’t) the scaled-down New York Times Magazine this Sunday? Note to the Editors: BIGGER IS MORE.