Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Let's Talk about Disobeying"

Let's start with Jean Dubuffet, the guy who kind of started it all (at least in my head):  "Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to go incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called."
Amnesia is a good thing in a universe always starved for commemoration, status, brand.  The "universe" I'm getting ready to jabber about is "art" in all of its manifestations:  small-town, big-town, art-school, self-taught, blah and blah and blah. 
Everything has to have a name on it, not just a title or the media or the dimensions, but a name:  who did it usurps the purpose of its construction and eventual adoration.  When you take away all of that demarcation and you just look at something for what it is, what the hell happens?  I don't know.  Maybe you just see it.  And that's the most complicated process known to man or woman or whatever.  "Seeing something" without extrapolation, untethered by biography, connections, credentialization, format, institution, organization...  Just looking at the thing and going off on it, "finding" it inside yourself, unspooling from its atmosphere into yours.  All of that is what I want to happen when I go to art-shows.  That's why I hate opening receptions for the most part, because the social aspect disrupts the poetic.  I know that sounds grumpy, but that's the deal, and nobody really cares anyway, but still -- looking is an art too.  "Purity" means something in that moment, and that's why the white clean box of a gallery exists (outside of commodities, sales, branding, etc. of course).  That blankness and clarity outlines the thing(s) being exhibited, and gives you that simple moment of serendipity you live for, that connection beyond connections, when you and it have a little party, all those associations you've bottled up pouring out, landing, pooling, and then it's over.  Sounds like sex, I know, but it's not.  It's not even a version of sex.  Sex is all the other stuff.  This is prayer, and I know segregating prayer from sex is probably old-fashioned, maybe even stilted and officious, but they are completely different, just like seeing and pretending to see are.
So here's the deal:  breaking art away from art, looking at something and understanding it's only yours, not even the property of the one who made it.  That's love.  That's what I want to feel when I go to a gallery or museum, like I've stumbled outside of myself and all other selves, and it's the time between memory and ego, the space between love and saying "I love you." 
Up top are photos of anonymous art made by people we don't know and given away to Goodwill as donations. 
Dumpster diving for tossed-aside artworks is not a new procedure by any means.  There are whole galleries and even a museum or two that specialize in this activity, and more power to them.  Love the idea obviously.  I wanted to do a Goodwill show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. under the umbrella of not giving a shit about identity, about separating art from the ever encroaching and totally minuscule idea that "art is a career."  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.  But gazing at stuff that has been dislocated from any conscious effort to be claimed as "art" is truly about finding value and worth in life and lives outside of the ongoing diorama of careers and namedropping and scholarly endeavors and art-fairs and so on.  Without that apparatus what does art mean? 
I'm totally interested in this because the way I entered the art-world (and continue to stumble through it) is through non-profit little "alternative" spaces where artists often got together to show work without a connection to prestige or fortune:  white-boxes as experimental spaceships, filled with oddness and fever, not built to please, just built to take off and go three or four inches forward.  And when I decided to make art a parallel activity to supporting people with developmental disabilities, "outsider art" became that spaceship, but then again it also became a big black hole. 
Identity for "outsider artists" is pretty random and ransacked, based on the market controlled by buyers with good intentions, but also on a concept that artists who are labeled "outsiders" don't have careers, don't have ambition, and that makes them "precious" and "pure."  Still, however, there's those market forces, and in that market the more "precious" and "pure" the artist is (or the artist is seen to be), the more value accrues.  "Outsider artists" shouldn't talk; they should just make cool weird stuff in little romantic hovels, preferably in a sepia-toned, cobwebby Europe in the 1930s or 40s.  That gloss, that sense of majestic "outsiderness," wipes out any sense of equality and inclusion involved.  There are the actual artists with careers and the "outsider" ones who do stuff without thinking about any of that stuff. 
And within the context of that pretty reliable binary in steps the sensibility that no one's biography and credentials fucking matter.  How about that?
Walls and pedestals displaying art donated to the Goodwill seem like the best next step in trying to unravel all that distinction, all that pomp.
While we curate the show (titled "The Goodwill Biennial" debuting in late August), I'll be thinking about all of this, and examining all the exposed ambition and thought and dream involved in the production of art that does not make it, an art disassociated and almost formless, paintings and sculptures and drawings and whatever else populating that universe of amnesia, set aside and bleak, but also waiting to be discovered for exactly what it is.          
One of my best experiences in dealing with all of these thoughts in an art-world context came early last year, when we went to New York City to see the retrospective at PS 1 of Mike Kelley's life and work.  Kelley killed himself in 2012, so he made himself kind of gone from the equation from the get-go, and yet suicide probably has made his prices go up, right?  He was famous for being reticent and DIY-difficult, but also for being a totally prolific genius.  His works, resplendent with a Goodwill-harbored sense of the tossed-aside (dirty stuffed animals are one of his main contributions to artistic culture), spoke volumes to me about the desire to escape authorship and bull-shit.  PS 1 was overwrought with Kelley work, sculptures, performances on video, films, drawings, ephemeral collections, a whole suite dedicated to building miniature versions of comic-book kingdoms, all of that stuff and thought presented not as biography exactly, but as production, as manifestations of the obsession to make something, anything, that allows you to escape what you think is going to happen, even if it does (did).
Mike Kelley:  "I chose art, not to become successful, because you couldn’t make a living from being an artist at that time. It was a profession I chose specifically in order to be a failure."
That "failure" I guess is what I'm talking about.  I think Kelley used "failure" as a synonym for "disappearance," that beautiful state of elevated nothingness that allows everyone to actually see the universe without being in it.  "Failure" as a synonym for "art."
"The Goodwill Biennial" opens August 28, 2015, reception 6 to 10 pm at Thunder-Sky, Inc. 
Mike Kelley banner in the PS 1 2014 show in NYC.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Machinery Disposes of the Words Like They Weren't Even Spoken"


I'm rereading One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.  I do this every few years just because I love the velocity, complexity and artfulness of the prose and hope it rubs off on me.  But also I revisit the book because its meaning seems to expand more and more every time I go through it.  Upon first reading it way back in the day I loved the brash radical bravado of McMurphy, the way he swoops in and tries to save the day, only to be  vanquished by evil Nurse Ratched.  In that reading, it's almost a classic fairytale in its use of simple, willful tropes:  big bad lady nurse/administrator/jailer vs. big brash redheaded lumberjack/gambler/anti-hero.  Other readings though revealed for me the slightly silly counter-culture swagger, the moments built to humiliate just for the hell of it, the self-congratulatory feeling sometimes involved in pitting such elemental examples of "good" and "bad" against one another (not to mention the overarching racism involved in the "black boy" orderlies, and so on). 

Still, every time I read it I come away with an odd respect for its sense of urgency, the burning need to get at something profound and devastating in the simplest and yet most harrowing language and style.

And much of that style is manufactured because Kesey uses Chief Bromden as his narrator.  You could argue that placing Bromden on the periphery and giving him the chore of narration is a form of racism, of framing McMurphy's story through the eyes of the oppressed so McMurphy's oppression can be heightened to the point of Beatnik glamor, but this time reading Bromden's voice really truly got to me, in a way it hasn't before.  That exact moment of total connection for me came on page 182, when Bromden is at the end of a flashback concerning a time when he was a little kid living on the reservation, and he's outside the house he lives in sprinkling salt on salmon he and his dad caught.  A group of speculators and government workers pull in.  They are visiting the reservation in order to talk to his father about buying the land the reservation is on for cheap, so they can build a dam.  These characters, like many in the Cuckoo's Nest, are grotesque versions of people Kesey obviously found disgusting -- bureaucrats and landowners and other bourgeoisie types stomping around the world looking for every opportunity to screw it up.  But somehow in this moment the grotesque enlightens and does not obscure, and the oppressors glide through the reservation, ignoring Bromden, who wants to tell them he can understand the horrible things they are saying to each other, that he is not invisible.  But when he does speak to them, all they do is ignore him. 

This is the passage that truly got to me:

I can see the seams where they are put together.  And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don't have any place ready-made where they'll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken.

How amazing is that?   A simple, calm and very accurate summation of what it means to be someone totally on the outskirts of meaning, totally trying to rectify a situation that can't be rectified.  This flashback lets us know the origin of Bromden's philosophy, his use of the "combine" as metaphor for way the world works:  the "machine" must be fed and constantly repaired, and if you can't cut it as part of the machine, then you to have to be "fixed," have to be institutionalized, tinkered with, eventually de-brained. 

Maybe my sensitivity to this moment in the book comes from what's going on in my work-life and -world.  I keep going to conferences and  meetings about how to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world, in effect often revamping the way they and the people who love and support them often see what they are capable of.  Sometimes in those meetings and conferences I can almost feel that sense that Bromden felt that day outside his house when the government workers come to pay a call:  everyone is talking and talking, and filling in the blanks, but no one is listening, and no one is trying to understand how all of this talking contributes even more to the sense of victimhood and powerlessness and futility.  Helping people who have developmental and physical and other disabilities be a part of the world, to get employed and be able to contribute in vital ways, is one of the most complicated and scary enterprises you can attempt not only because of the skills the people you're trying to support may need to acquire/work on to get a gig, but mostly because of the way they are perceived, the way they are ignored, and mainly the way they are institutionalized almost as soon as they get a diagnosis.  Even the systems meant to "help" them group them into categories and statistics in order to manage their care, and once the systems take over the words just "don't fit."  Like Bromden I'm seeing the "seams" all the time, and that sense that when the words are found not to fit the "machine disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken."

How do you disrupt the machine?

I don't think by screaming or pleading to it.  The machine does not give a shit.  It's simply by sticking to your guns, I guess, never allowing yourself to be mechanized or put into place inside that ongoing machine.  You don't talk.  You don't show off.  You don't make speeches.  You listen and you move forward and you make things happen outside of the machine, in spite of it.  

At the end of the book, even though McMurphy is the symbol of what it means to be alive in a cookie-cutter culture (or maybe it's because of it), he is lobotomized and brought back into the institution on display for everyone to see.  Nurse Ratched wins.  And yet Chief Bromden escapes the institution that same day, bursting through a window and running into the wild.  His voice in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, beautifully desultory, matter-of-fact, brutally poetic, drives the story home to the point he can no longer live in the place he once called "home." 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Just Thinking Out Loud

"Have a Bandit Day," Avril Thurman

"The Vocabulary of Carpet," Steve Paddack
Bill installed “Any Given Day:  New Works by Steve Paddack and Avril Thurman” at Thunder-Sky, Inc. yesterday.  I went in and helped a little, brought him something to eat.  You can’t really be there with him too long when he hangs art – you just get in the way.  I helped a little with ordering the show, but the way Steve and Avril’s works just kind of fell into place was magic to behold.  (By the way, “Any Given Day: New Works by Steve Paddack and Avril Thurman,” opens with a reception 6 to 10 pm April 24, 2015. The exhibit closes June 12, 2015.)
Steve is an artist we met back in the day at 431 Gallery in Indianapolis, and his vibrant, unnerving works have a distilled, ghostly quality.  Witnessing each vignette you feel like you’ve fallen into a spaceship-museum that travels across the American landscape sucking in dream-like moments and then framing them and installing them on spaceship walls.  There’s something dangerous and ominous looming in Steve’s universe, a gigantic invisible snake maybe or brain at the bottom of a lake, but also that Surrealistic danger has a calm seductive veneer that makes you feel almost nostalgic both for danger and for the quiet right before the gloom becomes a strike.  His sense of color has a vibrant, phosphorescent heat to it, cooled by the exactitude of his rendering, the strictness of his lines.  His paintings are lush, droll exercises in luxury and also in the opposite of luxury, as if you're wasting an afternoon staring into space and then suddenly realize you've discovered Heaven.
Through a surreptitious system of codes and odd materials that blossom into visual and sometimes disturbing poetry, Avril’s language/object assemblages find strangeness in the everyday, and an everyday-ness in the strange.   They label the absurd and then somehow transform that absurdity into profundity, without losing that initial sense of contradiction.  Her chunky words and clunky materials function like doodles and tags transforming into important corporate logos for corporations ran by crazy geniuses currently setting up shop in tree-houses all over America.  She writes poems that seem to occupy that nether region between abstract and concrete, as if William Carlos Williams’s little red wheelbarrow has suddenly pushed itself into reality, and there you are stuck with it and its strange new voice. 
While Steve primarily deals with imagery and Avril with language, their works intermingle in ways you have to see to believe, and “belief” might be a key to what both they are striving for – that sense of the outside world being pulled into the interior for both inspection and worship.  They have a similar sense of dexterity; both artists know when to quit, never trying too hard.  Their works speak volumes without screaming or even whispering.  Just thinking out loud.  It truly is a pleasure to see such disparate approaches finding ways to coexist without elaboration or discourse, just being there together, all weird and alive.
A graduate of the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, Steve has been a working artist for over 30 years. Thurman is a graduate of the Art Academy in Cincinnati.  We’re happy to host their visions.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Lime Aid

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Charity creates a multitude of sins."  One of these charity-created sins happened on Twitter this past week, when Gwyneth Paltrow showed off her expertise at being poor in order to win a contest to raise awareness on how much money and smarts it takes to be a gourmand using a SNAP card.  Turns out, Gwyneth wasn't as snappy as she'd thought she could be (she wound up being three days short on her week of kindness), but the snarling trolling masses sure gave it to her and then some.  I happen to be one of the snarling trolls, so this post isn't going to be about how "we should give sweet Gwyneth a break!  I mean, even when she's trying to do something good people destroy her!"

I'm thinking the "doing good" part is exactly what she needs to be snarled at for.

The decorous, glamorous charity industry for which Gwyneth might be the poster child is a machine like any other machine, and while it is obviously necessary it usually (like Gwyneth) does not get the job done, "the job" being solving problems like poverty, hunger, fill in the blank.  It's an ongoing  saga.  We raise awareness, get aware, have a charity ball, do a charity stunt, raise some cash, and it's all still there, right?  Poverty, disease, hunger.  Charity becomes a part of the process, not a solution, just another box to check, and part of that sense of complacency is only aided and abetted by the Paltrows of the world, who seem to think a glossy take on something as serious as not having enough to eat is a sort of tricky little parlor game to play, to Instagram, to tweet, and then  now move on to the next issue, next trend, next product. 

I know it's like I'm gluttonously unloading on Gwyneth but I'm pretty sure she doesn't give a shit.    And I'm also pretty sure that she's genuinely decent, but also impossibly arrogant and privileged to the point she felt she could shed light on a big problem by doing something stupidly small and then taking a picture of it with her I-Phone.  Look at that mess up there, those goddamn limes.  It just infuriates me because even if she did get the hunger thing right, what would that do?  Would the food-stamp issue be solved?  Would we be closer to Utopia?

What that silly cornucopia up there is about is Gwyneth, not hunger, not awareness.  At the end of the day it's just another form of her ongoing branding campaign.  Gwyneth as green goddess.  Gwyneth, Queen of the Limes.  Her esoteric take on something as bluntly obvious as not having enough food-stamps is so horrible because it perverts the situation to the point that you stop giving a shit about the whole thing.  She has done the exact opposite of raising awareness.  She raised a big stink and now nobody wants to know.      

Sunday, March 15, 2015


"Now Here:  Theoretical Landscapes" is a show currently up at the Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky, curated by Matt Distel.  It opened on Friday, and I'm telling you what, it was a blast, lots of people, lots of art...  Just great.  Matt pulled together such a disparate collection of works that it's hard to figure out what makes the show so fantastic, outside of the fact that the inclusiveness inherent in the curatorial decisions expands ideas instead of claiming them.  "Theoretical" and "landscapes" are both loaded little terms that could have backfired pretty easily.  They evoke a starchiness somehow, a staid attention to what "art" is supposed to be, and yet every choice Matt makes in "Now Here" overturns that sense of preciousness.  It's a 6- or 7-ring circus, this show, and in a totally good way.  (One of the highlights, of course from my POV, is Bill's suite of Alice-inspired works/collaborations with Meddling with Nature's Jeremy Johnson, Sharon Butler and Bob Scheadler, a horrifyingly joyous set-piece comprised of his Technicolor paintings, a dead dryer, dead leaves and dead animals that comes off like a fever-dream/nightmare but also invokes the sad innocence of abandoned amusement parks.)   
Matt has created a weirdly cohesive, poetic plurality in "Now Here" by assembling all these artists and all these works made from every media you could think of (including duct-tape, the aforementioned taxidermy, cardboard, and cement, just to name a few, as well as the old oil and acrylic standbys), and when you walk through the whole shebang you feel as if your brain-space is being expanded so that all this cool stuff can get in.  Then you remember the topic (landscapes, theory, the now and the here) and you get the joke, while also understanding the serious and beautiful punch-line each piece evokes.  It's like Matt is taking you on a hot-air balloon ride over a little subdivision called The Land of Art, effortlessly educational, a little elevated, but totally storybook sweet, even while grounded in exactly what it is. 
And speaking of sweet, at least for me, I got to hang out with Kathy Brannigan, one of the artists (along with Krista Gregory and Jamie Muenzer) who were a part of a wall drawing escapade that truly feels magically delicious.  Kathy's drawings of airplanes and spaceships anchor the exercise, beautifully smudged graphite depictions that somehow feel both nervous and stately, like doodles done in a boardroom.  Glitter and geometric flourishes play back-up singers to these intimate aerospace drawings.  Somehow the whole enterprise feels like a microcosm of the rest of the show:  astute, wide open, frenetic, but also friendly, aligned, and just plain pretty.  Kathy (pictured above next to some of her graphite hieroglyphics) was one of the first artists Bill and I ran across when we started pulling together Visionaries + Voices years back, and she still hangs out there, but Friday night she was a part of a whole new landscape:  an astronaut finding a wonderfully temporary home.

(Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)

At the end of the day, I don't think I can love pop music more than I love Chic's oeuvre, circa late 70s, when disco was booming and then when disco was chased down and stomped on in a baseball stadium, rolled over by steamrollers, set on fire, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Remember those idiots in back in day at Comiskey Park in Chicago?  "Disco sucks" t-shirts and a racist/homophobic nastiness thinly veiled in pride of country, pride of Bob Seger.  In fact, one of Chic's most significant and ferocious hits, "Good Times," made it to Number One during that whole bull-shit "Disco Sucks" era.  The power of that song, and all the songs Chic produced and played from 1976 (when Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards first formed the band) to 1980, comes from an intentional hard-won joy that bursts forth and hardens into silvery passion.  Their songs ARE the dance-floor, the lights, the satiny clothes and smoky eyes, the extravagant furs and jewels and high heels.  The attitude and the sophistication comes from a spied-on elegance inside each song, a knowingness that glamor is a planet you'll never get to, but it sure is fun pretending you are already there.  Take, for example, "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," a song so infectious and crazy-happy you can't help but understand what it means to lose it all in the name of having a good time; that is the key to all their music actually, a strange glorious abandon constructed on top of reality, so buoyant and skillfully manufactured you can get rid of all else.  "Dance, Dance, Dance" was one of the first singles I ever bought, and I listened to that thing in my little white-trash nowhere bedroom over and over, trying to figure out all kinds of things, and yet also that song is a lullaby to people like me (like us), star-gazers, freaks, feelers of deep feelings and yet also in on a joke we just can't explain, can't find the punch-line to.  Chic uncovers that secret but the secret is simply three words, followed by three words in parentheses:  "Dance" to the third power, and "Yowsah" to the third power as well.  "Yowsah," by the way, means "wow."   
From 1978 (the year I turned 13), "Le Freak" spilled forth like an angry anthem, which it was.  Grace Jones invited Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards to Studio 54 one night, and the pissy little disco-gatekeepers would not let them in.  So they went back to their apartment and banged out a tune with the refrain "Fuck off."  To be more radio-friendly, they capsized the cursing and came up with the Frenchified "Le Freak."  Still you can feel a punkishness inside that disco swell, a pissed-off grandeur that outshines itself to the point you can feel yourself dancing and stomping until both become the same thing:   love and hate combine into a new and gorgeous enterprise. 
That's Chic's true legacy, that sense of transcending the world through disco and at the same time understanding the predicament of never being able to escape who you are and what the world can do to you.  What they accomplished in a few years echoed in all kinds of ways musically, including Nile-Rogers-produced epics by David Bowie, Madonna, B-52s, and so on, but also I think they were instrumental in developing an attitude inside cultures that thrive outside of the Main One.  Their music, joyful and polished and honed to glitter and a little guile, powered by a knowingness and worldliness, has survived because it needed to, a soundtrack to all kinds of struggles never mentioned but completely and truly felt.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Help Me I Think I'm Falling

A few weeks back on a snowy Saturday afternoon Bill and I had a cocktail or two and listened to Joni Mitchell's Love Has Many Faces, a compilation of her music fashioned into a quartet of CDs.  Each suite of songs, or "acts," as she calls them, is titled and juxtaposes songs from all of the albums she's ever made.  It was a breathtaking experience.  Snow deepening, Joni's voice traveling through time, and a little vodka to wash it into perspective:  Joni from the early 70s, trilling and silvery and triumphant, melodic to the point of otherworldliness, all the way through the late 70s and 80s, when she's getting world-weary and the voice is thickening, turning plush, cigarette-jazzy, to the two albums she did in 2000 and 2002 in which she covers classic pop tunes, along with many of her own, backed up by a lush orchestra, the voice voluptuously what it is, husky, full, ready to dream.  There's no reason to the way she pulls songs side by side, except in her own head, which makes the whole endeavor beautifully random and yet somehow super-concentrated and very, very pleasurable.  You're inside Joni Mitchell's mind, feeling her feelings, and also basking in her glow, a light so warm and brilliant you're kind of in the presence of a god, or goddess, or whatever.  It's the music, though, that sends it all the way over:  subtle and rich and blatant when it needs to be, and the words, chronicling her love of travel and shady men and all the friends and family she leaves behind on many hejiras, only to feel more connected with them once she makes the split.  You need to hear all 4 quartets to really get it, as well.  There's a hardback book housing the CDs, with a long, personal essay by Joni that is self-indulgent and kind of silly, just the way it should be.  She goes through the list of songs one by one, explaining their meaning and polish and joy, but all you really need is the songs, and I think she knows that.  She has to.  Almost 50 years of making music has given Joni a luster and a swagger you can't make up, only earn.  She's the ying to Dylan's yang.  And Love Has Many Faces is a Bible for anybody who yearns to examine what it all means and what it does to you when you realize you can't figure it out.