When I was a thirteen, my mom used to work at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, downtown Anderson, Indiana. Some days I would ride with her to work, and spend the day downtown, usually riding a bus back to the K-Mart near where we lived and walking home from there, or waiting around and riding back with her after her shift. The main reason I wanted to go downtown was that across the street from the KFC where she worked was a huge Goodwill store. And especially that summer when I was thirteen, the Goodwill was kind of like an oasis. I had a weekend job at a little restaurant called the Irish Point and I'd save whatever money I made (the elderly couple who owned Irish Point and lived above it in a small apartment paid me out of the drawer because I was too young to go on payroll) there so I could spend it at the Goodwill on stuff that caught my eye. I wasn't into clothes or anything, but there were records, toys, books, knickknacks, and other crap, all of it of course used and kind of ghostly, and it was that mystery of past usage and continued afterlife that somehow made whatever I came across glow.
I discovered Velvet Underground there, as well as Joni Mitchell and an 8-track tape of a Richard Pryor concert that I played over and over. Don't forget Emerson Lake and Palmer, ELO, and Frank Zappa. In the book section, there was a dog-eared paperback by Hubert Selby Jr called Last Exit to Brooklyn, the short stories of Tennessee Williams, all those trashy-great novels by Jacqueline Susann (starting with Valley of the Dolls and ending with The Love Machine I think), as well as John Knowles' A Separate Peace, Agatha Christie novels, and multiple copies of Catcher in the Rye. It was a random assortment of hothouse configurations: I was getting at culture by digging up buried treasures I had no idea were treasures, but just wanted to soak in whatever I could. And somehow as I listened and read I found a way to incorporate all of that stuff into my dreams and desires and the way I thought about things. It was kind of like a self-acquired education that didn't make any sense, pulled together from scraps and non-sequiturs that somehow snowballed into a sensibility, even a taste.
I was total white-trash, so I didn't have a lot of access to what culture meant, or even what ambition was. But there was a mildew elegance in those long odd mornings at Goodwill. And everything was so cheap in there I could buy a bagful of books and records and tapes for almost nothing and spend days absorbing it all.
So now I'm fifty, and flash-forward to this:
Bins of set-aside home-made art people have donated to the Cincinnati Goodwill. I came up with this idea last year: partnering with Goodwill so at Thunder-Sky, Inc. we could sponsor a parody/appropriation of the Whitney (and all those other contemporary art) Biennials. It's called of course The Goodwill Biennial, and it opens final Friday in August at the gallery. As with almost everything I try to do creatively, it's a joke and it's not.
By that I mean, the whole purpose of working with Goodwill on this project was not to take any of it seriously, and yet to completely take everything (all these hand-made paintings, sculptures, whatever else people deem not worthy of keeping) seriously, in order to find some kind of meaning/redemption in the works that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm I don't know a word or phrase for. Dreamy incoherence? The brutal glamor of art people don't want anymore? You strip away biography from the whole enterprise when you do something like this as well; suddenly these works have a blank disconnection from the planet we're living on, as if they've been beamed into this world from a place that no longer exists.
Vanessa Cornett, the very kind Goodwill rep we worked with, initially set aside the works from the mountains and mountains of donations Goodwill received daily. The only direction we gave Vanessa was that whatever she pulled should be "hand-made," not a print of color-by-number set, no shellacked jigsaw puzzles, etc. Just art. Whatever that means. Vanessa did a great job. But still we wanted to not react to the sad-sack nature inherent in each piece (Poor thing, look at you, totally forgotten, who made you? and so on), but to each pieces' strangeness. By "strangeness," I guess I mean "worth." For example this painting below Bill's holding. I'm not really sure if it will make it into the final stretch to be accepted into the Biennial (Matt Distel and Melanie Derrick, two wonderful curators in town, are helping us with the final selections in a couple weeks), but when we came across it I just knew it needed to be in contention. It has an awkwardness to it, a delicacy that seems somehow ironically ham-fisted and emotionally raw, kind of like if DeChirico got sick of taking his time. "Sick" is another adjective that might work to describe what we were looking for as well -- a fevered impatience helping the picture snap into itself. This one below truly seems finished. Every part of the picture-plane has been contended with, formulated, turned creepy. And that grayish blob that kind of looks like rope completes it all somehow, like a David Salle affectation bled of affectation.
I could go on. But that's the reason for all of this, to kick your imagination's ass by showing it something so off-kilter, not acquainted with rules and aspirations, but just some weird object hand-made and kept around the house for a little while until it has worn out its welcome.
Come to papa.
This thing here. Cookie-Monster/amputation/shiny-frog. It's a ceramic haiku.
More ceramic haikus below. On the clay pieces we cheated a little by including this skull-mold in the mix, but come on: hearts and flowers stamped willy-nilly across a skull is just something you need in your life. And the lion holding the lamb right next to it. And there in the middle that 3-D Philip Guston gig, some cartoon but sinister janitor watching TV after work.
This painting here I don't need to go into. You get it. Instant nostalgia, the blonde hair from some early 60s daydream, the eyes staring right at you, the lush anonymous green backdrop....
And her here: enough said.
And this basket of Martian flowers from the hospital gift-shop.
This is Vanessa Cornett from Goodwill, along with Bill.
The sign taped to the bins of art Vanessa rescued from all the other stuff donated:
The final selections Bill and I chose, over 125 pieces in three canvas pins, covered in funereal cloth.
I guess, to me, art has always been some kind of odd connection with posterity and anonymity, a cross-section of ambition and the knowledge that whatever you do creatively isn't going to stop you from disappearing. But here are works that appear to us (in the Goodwill warehouse) without any clue as to how they were produced, who did it, why. It's just stuff to look at, dream about. Which is maybe what art is supposed to be most of the time.