Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Alien Day


The head has lost its condition
all the world has been bitten into
Tentacles smell like nasty ice
The back of the mouth has that battery-acid tenderness

The colors are what you see back-lit in fever
Not colors but fingers
Facelessness is the true expression
Particles inching into place

What you've always wanted
is to be defenseless
Primary, pulled into and out of the world
You crave the shape of things hiding inside

Stainless steel eyelids
You crave the love of a dog
But nothing else comes through
until your bones and muscles feel

That flush of loss
a disintegration
blurred into a furious coupling
reptile and rigor, motors and flab

The tissue always wins
in this world
metal inside a million little cells
tiny teeth biting and biting, chewing into

the one reality left on a planet no one knows.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Funk Machine


"Funk Machine" was the first song Prince wrote.  He was seven years old, and he did it on his dad's piano.  I always think of him writing and producing music just like that, all on his own, driven to make it all up even when he wasn't even aware of what a superstar he was going to be.  He seemed to be able to access that part of himself for most of his life, with or without attention or approval.  

The false trope of "outsider artist" is something I'm always thinking and writing about, that super-precious concept of super-precious "outsiders" or "savants" making super-precious art in seclusion or in places that have been created for them, and art collectors and academics staking claims on their "authenticity" and "strangeness."  As in:  "Is the artist autistic or just crazy?"  I heard that little gem at the NYC Outsider Art Fair a couple years back.  

But here's an outsider artist for the ages, without all that baggage and nonsense:  look at him up there, comfortable in his lair, water-coloring his next "funk machine," the world just a tug on his purple satin sheet.  His face is saying, "You better just leave me the fuck alone right now."  

That photo comprised one of the record-sleeves of his magnum opus, 1999.  The smoky furtive light, the neon pulsing heart-shaped heart, the bouffant hair, the seductive pose.  Lord have mercy. And it's a pose for sure, and yet the pose indicates creativity in a basement, solitude yielding something both super-secret and something to be super-shared.  He wrote for the masses, made music that crossed every borderline (race, class, sexuality, gender, religion, and son), and yet he was the king of the outsiders in the best sense of the word:   toiling away in his basement-kingdom (eventually enlarged and compounded into Paisley Park), configuring and refashioning what makes him want to be alive.  Obviously it was the creation of music.
   
Now that he's gone, I just want to remember him in that essence, that moment.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  I also want to remember myself buying 1999 in 1982, some freaky kid in a little town, poor white trash, drawn to Prince's style and music since stumbling across Dirty Mind.  I'd waited months for 1999.  And when I got home I played that thing over and over, getting in sync with his high-dungeon, punk-drenched super-funk, knowing this was his masterpiece.  There are moments all over that record that turn into trances, that invite you into his purple bedroom to witness the techno-purple majesty of his purple genius.  One of the best is "Automatic," the almost ten-minute song that starts the second record on the album. It's a Sodom and Gomorrah UFO full of synth-pop pleasures and vibes.  It makes you both elated and a little scared, a product of some dark laboratory filled with S&M apparatus and lavender light.

"Baby," Prince coos toward the end, right before a chorus of spastic/erotic screams and cries commences, "you're the purple star in the night supreme."

He had to be looking in a mirror when he sang that.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Raymondism

Raymond Thunder-Sky

David Bowie

Lindsey M Whittle

We're opening two shows this month at Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  "Radically Visible," featuring costumes, photos, collages, drawings, and other art by Antonio Adams, Sky Cubacub, Craig Matis, and Lindsey M Whittle, as well as a group show curated by Emily Brandehoff, "Bowie in the Basement," featuring about 40  or so works from a variety of artists, celebrating Bowie's life and art.  When I was pulling together news release info, I came across the above three photos, and they've stuck in my head, so that means of course a blogpost about Raymond, Bowie, and radical visibility, but also beyond that I wanted to reconstitute a little of Raymond's myth and menace and glory, conjure up his presence from back in the day, when people did not know what the hell to do with him.  And despite a lot of bull-shit he persevered, finding a way to be what he wanted to be, who he wanted to be.

Raymond had no choice really in that department.  For him, costume, performance, art, life, and being Raymond all intermingled into one sensibility that seemed forever eschewing conformity but also never flaunting the eschewment self-consciously.  I am what I am so just get fucking used to it -- that's all over his face in pictures, especially in the one up top.  He toured Cincinnati like that, all clowned- and construction-workered-up, silently going about his obsessive business of drawing from real life the destruction and construction people did to their surroundings, haters be damned.  And there were haters,  people who treated him like a freak without kindness or even just plain everyday manners.  I'm not going to go into those stories because they don't matter here.  He survived, created his own universe, found a way to make meaning out of what he wanted the world to be.  

He left behind those costumes too, which we've archived at his joint:  hard-hats, clown-suits, boots, overalls, clown-collars, hats. Shininess juxtaposed with burlap ruggedness, a show-off propensity pushed up against the need to be part of a team.  At the end of the day he merged show-business and working-class desires, furtively and yet also somehow loudly proclaiming his right to be a great big beautiful freak, while also trying to invent a job for himself.  (His construction-worker drag came from the fact that he truly wanted to be a construction-worker.  He actually started putting on the work-clothes and showing up at sites with his drawing materials because he couldn't get hired on as an actual construction-worker [he didn't have a driver's license so they couldn't].  He willed himself into that status through a sort of flaky and beautiful camouflage.)

The freakishness and the self-created celebration of the freakishness go hand in hand with Raymond. He was his own one-man band in many, hermetically sealed ways, but also willfully open-ended, walking and walking and walking in that get-up all over the city, riding buses, being a part of the world bubbled-off but completely in the maelstrom, a sort of Native-American-Shriner's-Clown-Working-Class Dandy.  

Nineteenth Century poet and philosopher Charles Baudelaire was always riffing on and refining his metaphysical takes on the "dandy."  He defined dandyism as an elevation of aesthetics to living religion, that a dandy in his finest fineries simply walking about the wretched city, shining like some self-created aristocrat, pisses off the responsible citizenry existentially because the dandy has paid so much close attention to his own existence and identity outside of the realm of their control, and their taste, their lives. 

Casting Raymond as a "dandy" kind of helps situate and contextualize what the artists in "Radically Visible" will be up to, as well as gives some backroom logic to "Bowie in the Basement."  In their work, Sky Cubacub is on a quest to reestablish the meaning of fashion and clothes as both demarcation and demonstration of the way someone should be able to live and love. Antonio Adams, one of Raymond's best friends, carries on Raymond's legacy through his own sense of kingly garments and a continuous reinvention through art of his own mythologized self.  Lindsey M Whittle takes silliness and freakishness in as forms of alchemical oxygen, breathing out little kingdoms of goof and color, and Craig Matis' collages use the circus, itself a version of over-the-top captivity and release, as metaphor for reconfiguring the struggle to be exactly who you need to be, no matter what constraints and condemnations.  

Then there's David Bowie, king of the dandies, shape-shifting his way from space-cadet to thin white duke to harlequin and beyond. Bowie has left behind a legacy of I-am-what-I-am-so-fucking-get-used-to-it; he managed to change the world by appearing not to be in it.  Somehow he was able to crack the code of all clowns and freaks:  be exactly who you are until the day you die.  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Work History



When I was thirteen, all I wanted was a job as soon as possible.  I wanted this job to separate me from my life and family somehow, maybe even from myself.  A job seemed almost romantic to me in that way:  weekly earned income, a place to go besides school, friends at work instead of the many a-holes I had to contend with at school, cigarette breaks, free pop, a uniform, saving up for a car.  I was not popular at school.  I hid from most everyone in either the school newspaper office or the art-room.  I was always trying to figure out how to get away from peers and cheers and everything having to do with "school" and "spirit."  At work you have to show up, clock in, do your job, go home; at school you have to go to class but there's all kinds of mandatory extracurricular crap, social events and activities and odd run-ins, PRESSURES that make life a lot more complicated, and basically at least from my purview miserable.

My family was working-class and poor, so maybe this hunger for employment and solidarity came from my not knowing any other way except escape through work.  But I knew that school wasn't really my thing, so I kind of understood instinctively that work would have to be.

And it was.

I got my first job at thirteen at a greasy spoon called The Irish Point.  The old couple who ran the place, Pauleen and Irving, paid me and some other kids out of the drawer at the end of the night, so it was a dream come true.  I didn't even have to wait for a weekly check.  Pauleen and Irving had an apartment above the restaurant where they lived, and at the end of the night, I would carry up the night's cash and receipts, and Pauleen would give me the wages for me and the rest of the crew -- usually just two other people, a cook and a server.  I was a car-hop and dishwasher at the start and worked my way up to grill-cook by the time I was 15.

The Irish Point was all roughed-up linoleum and fake-wood-paneling, frayed vinyl booths and a juke-box that seemed to always either be playing "The Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart or "Life's Been Good" by Joe Walsh.  I worked my ass off there, and found friends my own age who went to the same high school, but who would not even look at me in the hallways at school.  At the Point somehow we were equals, sharing shifts, duties, rushes, jokes.  One time, Pauleen and Irving had a health inspector come through and a shitload of citations were dispensed.  A bunch of us volunteered to come in and do deep cleaning on a Saturday to help them pass the inspection.  I remember I had a really bad earache, but I still showed up and cleaned out the tarry grease filters above the fryers and grill, because I knew everyone was counting on me.  All of us swept and mopped and painted and did all we could to make sure the place was as clean as possible.  Nobody got paid.

Irving and Pauleen were pretty old.  There were still a bunch of Bennie Goodman records on the jukebox from their glory days.  They were heavy smokers, and basically I think they were just running on fumes, trying to get by, their small apartment above the Point so overcrowded with furniture from the house they used to live in it was almost like a miniature Egyptian tomb.  That Saturday, though, we all cleaned that place like it was the House of God, and by the end of the day, my ear hurting so bad I wanted to cry, I felt a part of some weird, sad family, focused on our short-lived future together.

What I do now for work is try to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world with livable wages.  Many times this is a hard thing to do, because a lot of the people I'm trying to help and work with often aren't on the same wavelength I am.  I guess the "wavelength" I'm referring is the one I just wrote about above:  that need to have a job in order to know who I am, what I'm capable of, and to be a part of something where I'm equal to everybody else.   Also, to escape through that process of constantly showing up, doing what's expected of you, and feeling as if what I'm doing is if not important at least getting me closer to what is.  And yes that crappy job at Irish Point was a stepping stone to more crappy dish-room-smelly jobs at Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rax Roast Beef and Bonanza Steakhouse and TGIFriday's and so on so forth, but at least I kept busy, in a zone, and I made friends, and I found a way to find meaning in what I was doing, even if no one else could, or even wanted to try.

This isn't an Horatio Alger gig by any means:  I didn't pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I just worked, because I had to, and besides that I felt an almost primal urge to enter the workforce in order to leave behind stuff I found meaningless and annoying.  That excitement, even in the face of mop-water buckets and overloaded bus-tubs and the smell of fryer grease in my clothes, got me through because I knew I was doing something about my situation, even though it was not a dream come true by any means. In fact, often times it was a nightmare (alone, in a dishroom with a thousand bus-tubs stacked on the shelves and floor by the dish-machine, people yelling they are out of forks and drinking glasses upfront -- just try that one on for size).  No matter what, though, working that hard without a lot of payoff is, and really has to be, a nasty-smelling, super-exhausted version of hope. Not something you look forward to doing, God knows, but something you have to tolerate in order to create the momentum to go on to do something else, hopefully better.

Of course one of the biggest issues for job-seekers with disabilities is they often get stuck in that zone of "menial work," always at the bottom of the totem-pole, often in the dishroom or bussing tables or some other entry-level pigeonhole.  Ironically, though, if you don't start somewhere, then you don't have a platform to show what you can do.  And that desire even to start out menially sometimes gets squelched, ambition lost because there's no way up or out.

Trying to get beyond the issue of businesses and employers assuming that everyone we're trying to support is only dish-room-valuable is just the beginning though.  A lot of social-work-types and caregivers and teachers and others many times want to help the people they support by asking them about dreams and wishes, etc.  "What do you want to do?"  Instead of:  "What do you need to do?"   Dreaming is great and necessary, but I guess I also want to include in the conversation: what are you willing to do to make that dream come true? That's just as important, right?

The choices you have to make sometimes wear you out.  You have to make your own moves, piecing each phase together in order to make sense as you get there, improvising, pushing, trying, failing, trying, failing..., Hopefully laughing, getting through, with co-workers, family, friends.  And you'll need a lot of help.   But it's you at the end of the day who has to do most of the work, and most of the dreaming. You can't confuse the two though:  "dreams" are fuel for getting through what you have to do to take care of yourself, to be responsible enough to better yourself and contribute.

We have a huge amount of work to do in order to support employers and businesses to get over the prejudice of perceiving people with disabilities as only capable of certain kinds of work.  That systemic pigeonholing and scapegoating will only finally go away, though, when all people with disabilities who want to are given a chance to show they can do the work, put in the hours, have the ambition and grit to push through.  That Catch-22 is the core problem:  people with disabilities not given a chance to ascend, but also not wanting to try because they're not given that chance.  That self-fulfilling prophecy on both sides has sadly often become the status-quo.

Just to be clear, many people with disabilities in this area are getting good jobs, with and without anybody's help.  I don't want to end this on any sour notes.  I could tell you success stories till the sun goes down, but I want to focus on the many other folks who are floundering, trying to connect but a lot of the times giving up.  It's vitally important to remember what it takes for anyone to get somewhere:  ambition, sometimes foolish, sometimes tempered by reality, but always that ambition is an engine that allows you to push past frustration in order to see you're going to be okay, this is worth it, don't worry.  No amount of support and outreach to businesses and to people with disabilities works without confronting the fact that you have to want to work hard to get anywhere, and you have to have the opportunity to prove it, and for that proof to matter.  That last statement might be axiomatic for everyone entering the labor market, but it's truly profound for people with disabilities looking for work.

Which brings me back to the Irish Point, that Saturday when a bunch of us gathered together, no pay, to help out the old couple who owned the place.  I can still feel that ear-ache.  But despite that I also felt obligated not just to Irving and Pauleen, and the kids I worked with there, but also to that sense of myself as a part of something, contributing to something, connected to a purpose beyond myself and even a pay-check:  it was a sort of duty, I guess, informed by my ambition to grow up.  Get on with it. Make something out of nothing.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Untitled

(On seeing Rodney McMillian's "Untitled," in "Thirty Americans" at Cincinnati Art Museum)

That's the funk of 40,000 years,
right there,
every stinking moment
curled up in little bits of tar

ghosts after work
spreading from boots,
that exhaustion is the engine
of life

That's the fucked-up giant's
nasty petticoat,
the wife-beater on the floor,
lampshade off,
light like a baseball bat to the back of your head

Apartment complexes are carousels,
trees drip down into dreams,
that fountain of motor oil and
soft drinks,
sugar and poison,
grease-pencil R&B

Nervous numbers scratched close
to a telephone,
envelopes stacked, never opened,
that night we almost did it

Flares going off
like Jackson Pollock just does not give a shit
like Fred Astaire just puked
like Marcel Duchamp has the diabetes

And that smell, that bacon-gasoline
smell of hell
or plain old
night

We all get up and go,
nothing too interesting

A cozy haze the color of a dog,
clouds and pancakes,
pancakes and clouds,
the syrup all over the goddamn floor

Somebody got pissed, somebody always gets pissed

And then card games, Superbowls, toothaches, W-2s,  flat-lines, flunk-outs, birthday cards, car trouble, back flips.

This shit is untitled,
this thing here,
it's not much to go on,
but it is
everything we got.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Christine's World

 
 
Watching Louie Anderson perform Christine Baskets on the FX dramedy/comedy/hell-I-don-t-know-what-to-call-it-really Baskets is not actually about watching someone perform:  it's watching someone be.  Anderson is so damn good you lose track of what he's doing, and you find yourself completely enmeshed in what Christine is doing, saying, acting like, thinking even.  It's the kind of acting that can only be seen on TV because you need several episodes of it for the whole process to sink in, and then suddenly an epiphany happens and it's there:  we're witnessing brilliance.  Let's call it "art."  Why not? 
 
The epiphany for me came in the third episode, and my adoration just grew from there:  Chrisitne curled up on a couch, covered in a shimmery quilt, talking about the beauty of the curly-fries.  Louie is in drag in the scene of course, in the whole show, playing Zach Galifianakis' somehow inert and yet completely overbearing Republican mother, Christine, who lives in a suburban dreamhouse in Bakersfield, California stocked with Costco items of every sort.  The drag is really just a way to get there:  not a lot of makeup, simple hair, blowsy, beautiful, no-nonsense, older-lady clothes that are only noticeable because they are designed not to be (except for the incredible Easter bonnet Christine wore in the Easter-themed episode, which is probably the best Baskets I've seen so far).  Christine seems to have stepped out of someone's actual life, stumbling Purple-Rose-style onto the FX platform, ready to go.  It's effortless, what Louie does, and yet his contribution has the nuanced, steely-eyed essence of someone really knowing how to make shit matter.  
 
Even though the show focuses primarily on Galifianakis' inept clown-wannabe (he went to a French clown school only to flunk out and return to Southern California to be a rodeo-clown), and that's OK, it's Christine who is the center of the show's universe.  The atmosphere and ethos of the show emanate from Louie's way of being her, a style that cancels out style but somehow manages to be better than stylish:  it's drag without camp.  Instead of parody and mockery, Louie, and the writers/creators of Baskets (Galifianakis, Louis CK, and Jonathan Krisel) seek homage in the bleakest and most banal of places.  The show gets off on absurdity, but not the kind that makes people look weak and worthless; it's absurdity that somehow saves people from themselves, even while they figure out how shitty everything is.
 
Christine is not really brave or incredibly intelligent, or really worth our time.  She just is.  And her existence is significant because it's not.  She lives in her own bubble of Ronald-Reagan wishes and Costco dreams.  She doesn't seem mean-spirited, but she is sort of gnarly and vindictive in the best of ways.  She can do a passive-aggressive one-off with the best of them, and yet you truly believe that she loves herself and the people she chooses to love.  She seems to have a heart made of two-by-fours and vinyl siding, and that's a compliment she would approve of I think.
 
I keep thinking of Raymond Carver when I think of Christine too, and Louie's way of pulling the whole thing off.  Carver wrote beautiful blunt and nuanced short stories about nobodies, most who live in California.  His stories have the same rote, sweet no-nonsense intent that Louie gives Christine.  Baskets totally benefits from that sensibility.  What could have been a Galifianakis lark about a down-and-out rodeo-clown with French inclinations opens up to become a minimalist and stark meditation on what it means to be a nobody in a world of nobodies, with Christine the empress of it all, a queen driving around in a maroon Chevy four-door sedan going to pick her elderly mother up for church, or eating a hotdog at (yup) Costco, commenting on how inexpensive it is, and you also get a drink.  Carver's stories opened up from closing down, and Louie's sense of timing and shaping of scenes, the way he uses his face not to register feeling but thought, is that same process of closure being the door to something else:  he's writing a book of short stories about Christine Baskets every time he enters a room. 
 
So here goes:  Louie Anderson is now a genius in my book, and while Baskets is funny and sweet and filled with odd and off-kilter laughs (as well blessed with another great performance by the gorgeous deadpan Martha Kelly as an insurance agent with a broken arm and a humble need to go missing), it's really not the show as much as Christine's world I'm interested in.  And I don't want a spinoff ala Laverne and Shirley or The Jefferson by any means.  I'll watch Baskets just for those few minutes when Christine appears, saunters through, says something stupidly on-target, and then goes back to hosing off her driveway.   


Friday, February 19, 2016

Corny

Mr. Cornell
 
Joseph Cornell is one of those peripheral and yet totally important figures in contemporary art history who haunts and informs a lot of what is made and seen today.  He passed away in 1972, and yet his influence and the scope of his ghostliness illuminate a lot of what has happened artistically and aesthetically in the 20th and now 21st Centuries.  He was humble and yet ambitious, ingenuous yet sophisticated, "outsider" yet completely in sync with his contemporaries, including the Surrealists and everything after.  He lived in a small, unremarkable house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, taking care of his brother who had cerebral palsy, and working a lot of odd jobs to sustain his household that included both his brother and mother.  He basically spent his lifetime outside of those activities making intricate, oddly meaningful "things" out of materials he lifted from life:  postcards, fabric, toys, bottles, glasses, etc., all usually aligned poetically and ominously in shadow-boxes.  He also made movies, created hefty dossiers devoted to movie-stars and waitresses, wrote, and even collaborated with his brother on a series of delicate drawings/collages that merged fairy-tale wishes with a scratchy/gorgeous obsession.  In fact, most of what Cornell did seemed burnished by an overarching obsession to find meaning in what is already in front of you, as if a junk-drawer in your kitchen is a primal resource for reinvention and even transcendence, every little doodad and left-behind nothing a reason to daydream, to travel while remaining still.
 
Our next Thunder-Sky, Inc. exhibit, “Utopia Parkway Revisited: Contemporary Artists in Joseph Cornell’s Shadow" (opening February 26, 2016 with a reception 6 to 10 pm and closing April 9, 2016). features beautifully and incidentally Cornell-inspired works by Jeff Casto, Marc Lambert, Christian Schmit, Matthew Waldeck, and Matthew Waldeck Jr.  They all make art that both mimics Cornell’s approach (collage, sculpture, assemblage, and appropriation), as well as the spirit involved in his vision, creating and recreating an aesthetic universe based in nostalgia, obsession, and pop culture.  Casto's works are the closest in spirit and materials to Cornell's boxes, but he also has his own sense of deadpan whimsy and ache, as if he's taken in Cornell's need to make something out of nothing and pushed resources and dreaming to their limits.  Lambert's works featured in the show respond to Cornell's use of everyday materials (Lambert paints on ceiling tiles), and also to his starry-eyed sense of cinema and history.  Lambert meticulously recreates universes collaged from movie-scenes and folklore, juxtaposing Sasquatches with pyramids, pterodactyls with UFOs, a psychic boyhood embellished with a sense of sentimental ache and poetry.  Waldeck, Jr.'s drawings have that same sense of longing for Utopian context.  Executed in magic-marker on 8" X 11" sheets of paper, they function as a sort of illuminated manuscript informed by television, solitude, and a search for more than is there.  Waldeck, Sr. creates funky, frenetic dioramas (and other contraptions) made from machine parts and other junk.  They playfully reference space-travel, carnivals, and miniature civilizations, in a Cornellian flourish and flicker.  Schmit's one piece in the show is truly masterful, and acts as both a comment on, and a rapturous biographical portrait of, Cornell, constructed with a painstaking accuracy and ingenuity pretty much akin to everything Cornell accomplished.
 
It's going to be an incredible show.
 
A lot of times I argue on this blog that biography often handicaps the way we see and consume art, that knowing that the artist has a diagnosis or hardship or whatever shouldn't get in the way of feeling and understanding the art for what it is and can be.  You don't want to lose focus or respect by attaching charity and other kinds of condescension onto the whole shebang.  But Cornell's work and life intermingle in ways that go beyond "diagnosis" and "charity."  From limited means and a "small life," he forged an incredible body of work that somehow captures lightning in a bottle every time you witness it.  He dedicated his life to minutiae and what it means when you take the time to excavate it, to reinvent and reimagine it.  He discovered vast planets inside the smallest of boxes, and allows us today to take such endeavors completely seriously. 
 
 
Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Jr.

Matthew Waldeck, Sr.

Jeff Casto

A wall of Jeff Casto works
 
A wall of Marc Lambert works


Marc Lamber


Marc Lambert

Christian Schmit

Jeff Casto