Tuesday, September 23, 2014

WetLand

In 1968, J. G. Ballard wrote a novel called The Drowned World. It is a science fiction where London is underwater and all the famous landmarks peek out above the famed city. Londoners have always feared the Thames. This sort of dystopian future may have been with us since Noah and the Flood. The Dutch have lived with rising tides and floodplains forever. In 1953, the dykes failed. Holland was inundated by a massive storm surge. That is why they stay well ahead in planned protection of their “coastline.” New York City had no such mindset in 2012. Then along came Sandy, a hurricane that may have been (for many) the first indicator of significant climate change.
From my comfortable perch in the Independence Seaport Museum library (where I have been researching naval battles of the Great War) I watched artist, Mary Mattingly and friends’ six week Fringe project develop. Eventually, it dawned on me that the off-kilter shack growing on a small house-boat (circa 1971) was sculpture. What else could it be? Unless it was a project from the This Old House crew on acid.  The Do It Yourself ethic is definitely there. The use of salvaged and re-cycled material is there. Self-sufficiency is the watchword. In this case, the builders were living on site!
Admittedly, my activist beginnings are benign. As they say, if you lived through the Seventies you probably can’t remember most of it. As a member of the original Save The Planet crew, I do recall the first Earth Day. It was nearby. Future Shock was on my reading list as was Orwell’s 1984. Atom bombs were expected any minute aimed at the Empire State Building. Smog, acid rain and nuclear winter were terms used a lot. The Clean Air Act passed unanimously in 1970! No squabbling. How things change. Other things not so much. Many years onwards the problems are more pressing and contentious. History itself seems to have paused. Similarly, the end of civilization is now more ubiquitous. So commonplace are disaster scenarios that whole generations are formed by them. This spectacle encompasses several familiar tropes: zombies, viral plagues, radiation beasts (my favorite), demon hackers, transformed computer droids. Flying sharks now jump themselves.
But seriously, we are in deep shit. We just don’t know from what. Perhaps they will work it out today at the United Nations. Lighting the top of the Empire State Building with green light will undoubtedly help. Technically speaking, apocalyptic futures and climate change may not amount to the same thing at all. For some, petrol engines, coal use and greenhouse gases are the main culprits. For others running out of crude is the problem. I’m in the middle on this because I would like to drive my ‘73 Pontiac Lemans into the last hurrah (whether fiery comet or tidal wave) blasting Ozzy Osbourne on eight track. Is that old school or what? My main worry (beyond climate disaster) is the Singularity given character by writer, William Gibson in his cyber-punk phase; he gave it up when all his prophecies came true. Putting micro-chips in our heads and linking human kind with machine? Haven’t proponents of this future prospect seen Terminator? The acting isn’t much better in Gibson’s Johnny Neumonic!
In my favor, I compost and recycle. I don’t own a clothes’ dryer and I wear unlaundered, worn out jeans because it looks more Ramoney. Still, who am I to decry dedicated artists who live to educate the public about eco-systems and co-operative work. Some use homemade bread, brew and beards for style. I am envious because I wouldn’t last a day without my television. Still, I want to believe. The series of questions raised by WetLand as experimental sculpture, performance and sustainable living space are vital and the interaction with Penn’s Landing crucial. Each visitor will leave with a different message. Subsistence on this crowded lump spinning in space is key whatever the danger. This link between ‘Earth Art’ of the near past is re-assuring; Smithson’s obsessions derived from post-industrial wastelands of New Jersey in particular. We see echoes of that tradition in Mattingly’s work. She also stress’s the burgeoning local businesses going green together in a positive way.
Millennials do this efficiently armed with charts, graphs and wiki-facts. Mary Mattingly has done this before on the Hudson River aiming somewhere between Buckminster Fuller and Robert Smithson. Mattingly’s Waterpod  (2009) is much more retro-futuristic. Geodesic domes and such. Life on Earth as art? Why not? On the Delaware, the house boat’s mismatched wood (think Philadelphia’s Dumpster Divers) is downright charming. Inside the cabin, on loan from a dismantled vintage gym floor in Iowa, these panels have a lovely pentimento echoing thousands of Converse All Stars; a conservation of past events. Always way ahead, artists are natural re-cyclers. The solar panel on the roof updates the whole thing, while the chickens at the back keep a rooted barnyard feel. Did I mention the bees? Fresh honey from Hives in the City and eggs! Sounds like heaven. Dinner on board was delightful, made with local produce by visiting artist, Mollie McKinley. The yoga teacher brought the local shrimp and I brought a South American Pinot Noir. Fresh herbs filled the air. They came from the floating farm. The experience was not like a Viking River Cruise. Occasionally, the wake of a passing ship would rock the boat reminding us all we were on a river. The Delaware is not the cleanest of waterways so drinking/cooking water was carefully collected rain or carried on board. A hose was set up for the vegetable farming. On hot sweaty days, the crew resorted to showers on Admiral Dewey’s historic cruiser, Olympia docked nearby! Edwardian comfort on a coal-eating monster!
The project’s proximity to warships (USS New Jersey guarding Camden) and frivolous riverfront entertainment was intriguing. Initially, from my vantage point in the Seaport museum (in the shadow of the Hyatt) I couldn’t quite make out the shape of a sinking house, Mattingly’s fine metaphor for the state of the world both lyrically and in reality. The shape developed slowly into a distinct wedge reminding me of a chunk of organic gouda with a bay window.
Social awareness of both art and ecology is oddly similar. Broadly speaking, the ‘public’ doesn’t seem to have a clue about future or past and the crucial connection between them. Can you have one without the other? The WetLand, floating art installation stood out in the excellent 2014 Fringe Festival and presented the city with a great conversation piece about environmental issues. I am told the environment may find another home soon. Possibly at another hidden refuge, Bartram’s Gardens – John Bartram was America’s first Botanist – on the Schuykill River in South West Philly. That would give the autonomous living system a different sort of historical and popular resonance sorely needed these days. Failing that, the East River by the United Nations would be appropriate. WetLand will successfully address all that and give a distinct, personal touch to fundamental issues relating to World’s End or a new start.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Good Riddens: SUMMER 2014



Sorry, I have been away time traveling to great new solar systems where they played cassette tapes of one hit wonders from the early seventies. I was in heaven. The chord struck by Guardians of the Galaxy was perfectly timed and became the high point of my summer. The music ideal for road trips, it reminded me of a time when we were all on the same planet listening to the same FM station. Most of us anyway. My daughter loved the music by the way if you think this is an old dude flashback. While the Earth struggled with the same infighting and demographic disasters, it was encouraging to realize someone at the Military-Entertainment Complex (Marvel/Hollywood) still knows how to divert us and deliver a first rate spoof that resonates.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Forgeries?

A few weeks ago I found an ancient half finished painting on an old panel in the basement. It was from my MFA course way back before Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This bugged me because the series of WW2 tanks and planes were good. There just wasn't very many of them. I'd never painted over it because I ceased using oil paint. If I paint now, it is with acrylic or ink and found materials. So, I bought three tubes of oil and started to re-work the picture. It was already a limited palette. Soon after starting, I was rather pleased with the results and how I felt. "Like riding a bike," I thought. And a little bit of what people now refer to as time travel. The painting (when begun) resembled 1930's modernist work (New Image was in, baby) so re-working it now is a double blast from the past. It is also full of irony since I have spent so much time to escape the noose of painting. I plan on selling it when it is finished as a forgery of my own work.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

THE BREAKS?

Where have I been all my life? Trying to work out a problem of my own creation? Yeah, well, maybe but some things clear up with experience. I have returned to my novel with renewed interest since there is a convention coming up in town next weekend. I needed to review the elevator speech for WORK SHY which I'd nearly forgotten: Artist dies then becomes famous with an old friend working as a glorified PR man. The project goes to Hollywood and implodes. It is a solid premise. In the meantime, I sell cool records in yard sales. I have a lot of cool records. Last week I found a Kurtis Blow 12 inch single "The Breaks" in my neighbors trash.



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fountain Art Fair, New York, March 2014


My first visit to the sixth annual Fountain Art Fair this March was overdue – sorry about that. Not only was it held at the original 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington surrounded by cool army trucks and humvies, inside was a super varied collection of art by young emerging artists and galleries of all types. These people wanted to talk about their work to an unassuming critic from Philadelphia. I felt like royalty, something I’m not used to at larger fairs where gallerists figure courting some shady on-line review is like pissing in the wind. Enough said. I was not planning to review the show but after a few conversations I changed my mind.

The Sculptors Guild from Brooklyn has been a stalwart institution since 1938. Included was an ex-MFA student of mine from Moore College of Art, Laura Petrovich-Cheney. It is always wonderful to see artist’s work and career develop. Her carefully constructed wood assemblages of found objects have a complex role. The piece, Washed Up, was part puzzle, part environmental comment and something re-utilized. Subtly arranged blue cast-offs formed a larger field of color, a perfect mix of painter’s eye and weight of sculpture. I wanted to own it but agreed to keep a look out for derelict doors for her in the meantime. No effort for a scavenger like me! Chuck Glicksman’s and Ginger Andro’s lumiscope, Jumping Hurdles was a carnival-like take on Eadweard Muybridge’s jumping horse. That crazy Muybridge was trying to prove horses fly! The piece was a reverse carousel where the moving images were projected on the outside rather than glimpsed through spinning old-time arcade amusements. The result was a reflective merry go round or “optical” flipbook, we all agreed, “Was it Vermeer, Plato or prehistoric man who’d first thought of the camera obscura?” Our discussion of optics continued with the bar staff at Molly Malone’s on Third Avenue after the show.

Around the corner, I ran into Dave Tree of the Murder Lounge, a Boston art collective. Fantastic and fitting title for a pop-up gallery or anything for that matter. He was responsible for hanging the entire center aisle of several cubicles with his cohorts. His own work was at the entrance and so was he. We had an interesting conversation while he summoned his inner salesperson. I asked if he’d sold anything after three days in New York and was stunned by his answer. “No? That wooden cut-out print of diseased, hormone-rife corn is only 150!” I said, “New Yorkers smoke cigars that cost more.” He suggested slyly that I might start the ball rolling and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not just a pretty face. Another artist joined us, David Hollier from the McCraig+Welles gallery booth nearby. His work was right up my alley: paintings of celebrities (new and old) from a series called ‘Imago Verbosa.’ The portraits were formed entirely from verse or prose, the words carefully painted, some even typed on an old Smith–Corona. Most of the celebs were from the “27 club,” pop-stars whose lives ended at 27. Jim Morrison was opposite Kurt Cobain completing a not so serious history of rock. Jimi Hendrix was missing, as was Janis Joplin, thank goodness. They both get overplayed, don’t you think? A dark, smaller picture of Amy Winehouse snuck up on me, a super creative stick of self-destruction. It almost made me cry. There is, no doubt, something inherently dangerous about being 27. Mr. Hollier, a charming, bearded man originally from Wolverhampton, England lightened the theme by adding Gandhi and Rodney Dangerfield. Quite a sensible contrast. 

With a similar pop zeitgeist, artist, Marianne Hasenoehrl-Obsieger of Vienna had a whole booth to herself and was thrilled to have finally secured representation in America. It is possible with the right sort of perseverance! I asked about her interest in old film stars. I had mistaken Grace Kelly for Ingrid Bergman – I should know better! These accessible graphic design-ish, paintings reminded me of eighties Warhol. That re-assured me. The best lessons of Pop & POMO weren’t completely dismissed after 6 or 8 years of heyday. Emotional, we hugged goodbye, wishing each other success. I thought of Andy’s oft over-used adage about fifteen minutes of fame. It used to mean just that. Now, it seems to refer to a cultural flattening where everything and anything is of equal import; the bar both lowered and raised. What’s the diff: temporary high profile or low level permanent obscurity for fifteen seconds on social networks? There is nothing left but to proceed, success or no.

Judy Mauer’s beautiful photography also impressed me. At first they appear to be large collages or Photoshoped city-scapes with figures but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be reflections in shop windows with reality depicted in front and behind the photographer all taken in a single moment. This created an uncanny sense of multiple trompe-l’oeil where the models and buildings fused to create ambivalence. Before I left, I noticed a Baroque-ish painting in an ironic and gaudy frame by a young artist, Michael Hurt. It showed a young Asian woman lit by an incongruous 18th century lantern. Clearly there was a personal rather than mythic tale being represented in this series. Lost lovers? It was here my review began to solidify. The street art angle of Fountain was merging seamlessly with an academic sense of art history, twisting every which way. The picture had just the right amount of irony and apprentice-like panache. Had it been better crafted it would have lost all pathos and meaning. At first, I thought he was referencing George De La Tour because of the dramatic internal candlelight. My Baroque is a little rusty. We discussed Caravaggio as major rock star. Did he die at 27 too? No, but Basquiat did.  Everyone began packing up. I’d forgotten the dreaded time change had occurred the night before. Klutz! The impulsive Dave Tree thought he’d go out with a bang: an impromptu suicide on the floor with one of his hilarious gun constructions, half flintlock, half semi-automatic pistol. As I departed, they were drawing a chalk outline around his body.  


Monday, March 24, 2014

PRETTY VACANT!


It is sad to realize that many in Middle America missed the punk phenomenon entirely because they didn’t live in an urban environment or a college town – punkers often started off in college or art school.  The same could be said for the early part of the whole Post-Modern moment. Some call it the Eighties. The authentic anarchy thing in the UK was not missed by anyone however. In Blighty, the power chords of the Sex Pistols shook the nation, their name splashed across every tabloid like a break out of plague. They are still heard on pop radio as a form of nostalgia. From this heyday emerged thousands of musicians, fans and artists with their own badge collections, posters, flyers and ticket stubs. These fans of punk music raised little punk families. School children all over the world have festooned their cute shoulder bags with myriad buttons ever since 1977.

Pretty Vacant is a must see for artists especially young creative’s who need a crash course in Do-It-Yourself design. An anthropological gold mine, the exhibition illustrates a defining moment in civilization; the fleeting moments that can be so impactive then disappear into the ether of time like gunslinger myths, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the Clash album with cover of garish dead cowboy and hungry vulture says it well. Joe Strummer and band cottoned on to the power of image from the start, subtext: outlaws. At Moore, a massive fly poster for the Clash sent me into a nostalgic reverie emoting New York in 1980. This was for the release of the ambitious Sandinista triple album with its infusion of reggae and dub. I was wandering around awestruck, wondering what to do with my life. Music or art? The posters were everywhere, announcing a brand new invasion. If only I’d chiseled one off the side of a building. Too bad. Before I knew it, I was getting an MFA and reading Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for myself. I discovered there was a bookworm precedent for all the madness. First stop was Dick Hebdige’s wonderful book, Subculture. To borrow Hebdige’s own twist on ‘out of context’ Althusar’s teeth gritting whole, we are held in a nearly happy stasis just shy of class conflict. Thus the tension is created to “stick it to the Man,” and dress accordingly. Millions of suburban twerps like me actually formed a subculture? Yes; a massive one that now buys cars and holiday homes.

At Moore, there was a poster for Joy Divisions’ second album. I’d never seen the advert and it made me shiver. The music haunts me to this day. It is, in fact, a touchstone in my fledgling novel (plug) about an artist’s disastrous life in the same era. One simply cannot describe the powerful symbiosis between creative life and this music. Many designers like Jamie Reid borrowed liberally from their dusty art history books, first crazy Dada poets, then more constructivist artists like Malevich. Imagine that? Anti-Branding! Malevich matched the Buzzcocks perfectly. If only Kurt Schwitters had lived! The German uber-collagist could have been made rich designing ransom notes for bands big and small. His Merz continues to encapsulate the scrapbook prevalent in Michael’s art stores and has a distinct parallel to contemporary greeting cards. This is unlike the slick rock and roll merch and downloads of today. Not another CD and a tee shirt with skulls and dystopian imagery! We still see punk creeping through the hardcore rap (as the musical backdrop) and myriad spin-offs of Electronica that creates euphoria without drugs.

As for theoretical underpinnings, French writer, Guy Debord was absorbed.  Perhaps, unknowingly, Joey Ramone singing I’m Against It demonstrates the Situationist theory. The impresario behind the Pistols, Malcolm McLaren (after sucking up the Ramones and the downtown NY scene) played an updated Warhol and pulled fashion strings. He commodifed Debord’s methods, literally. Uncanny?! That is what the Sex Pistols have in common with the under-acclaimed Monkees.


Last week, after a particularly frustrating day, I was only relieved by listening to the Ramones’ Road to Ruin, 1978. This prized record is a bright yellow vinyl. Sounded fresh as ever particularly I Wanna Be Sedated. They don’t write them like that anymore. Unfortunately, we don’t listen to music in the same way. Music and art are less important.Of course, as an anachronism, I am dedicated follower of records. I still perform a fairly decent English accent and imitate Mark E. Smith iconic stuttering, singing in his band the Fall. Late and beloved Radio One DJ, John Peel called them, “the Mighty Fall.” The band played his fiftieth birthday.


Pretty Vacant can give the viewer pause to mull the connections between the USA and Britain. Two strands of anarchy, as it were. The California brand (hardcore and skin-headed) made the Sex Pistols look like country gentlemen. See scary film The Decline of Western Civilization for documented illustration. Nihilist heaven! The Dead Kennedy’s lead the charge on the West Coast with California Uber Alles. Not everyone had an ear for the stripped down sounds of Black Flag and the Germs. Possibly, X’s superb punkabilly was acceptable! This went on while most Americans were still vegging out to the Grateful Dead. It took Nirvana (much later) to wake us all up in great numbers. Kurt Cobain was not prepared for the commodification. It should be noted that we were invaded again by Young British Artists a bit later still reading Debord’s, Spectacle. Their leader Damian Hirst knew what he was doing. He had serious mentors at Goldsmith’s College and produced upsetting concepts (art sharks) with a mind to overturn the stuffy established order. They did. In simple terms, this was the theorist version of punk. By the 90’s, it led to a sophisticated (commodified) Cool Britannia, the invaluable Tate Modern and Oasis, the band who adored being adored.

Kudos to the Galleries at Moore and collector Andrew Krivine whose keen eye made this vivid history lesson in design and anarchy possible.  And bless their hearts for the unique Karaoke, an opportunity to sing to a live punk band at Vox Gallery. We kicked out the jams that night. I was only disappointed that there weren’t more young folks living or re-living the dream with studded leather coats.  Perhaps resistance isn’t fashionable anymore.



Monday, March 17, 2014

Reading & Re-reading!

How many books have you ever read twice? This is not counting the Dr. Seuss marathons when you were a kid. I have read maybe 4 or 5 twice; an appalling record. One was Umberto Eco so that is several points. Right now I am reading The Maltese Falcon, which doesn't count either because I have apparently never read it! It came out in 1930! I have read other Hammett. Perhaps I thought I'd read the book because I'd seen the film version (1941) oodles of times in small chunks. John Huston got an award for the screenplay and the film got an Oscar for best film. Sidney Greenstreet, in his film (age 61) debut, won best supporting actor! Go Sydney!