Monday, December 27, 2010

The Balance of Power appears at SWI

I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday. Before we continue with this post, please enjoy Foster Brooks slowly drinking himself into a stupor with the gifts given to him by his "true love" over the
course of 12 days. What partridge? Why, it's always been a duck.

I have a new post at Speak Without Interruption (SWI). It is a work of fiction, titled "The Balance of Power," which I've posted at SWI--a venue that champions free speech. Truth be told, I've had a difficult time getting a journal to accept it. Here's an excerpt. You can decide its value or lack thereof for yourself now that it's out there for consumption. Perhaps they will add another few pages to my government dossier over it (Yes, I suspect I might actually have one somewhere, thanks to the popularity and subversive nature of this story, "December 15, 2012"). First, an excerpt from "The Balance of Power":

"Inside the hanger was a large cinder block partition, and around it were low-hanging lights that illuminated the hanger with bluish pools of fluorescence. These drop lights were covered by saucer-shaped shades that resembled tin pie pans. They reminded him of the poultry farm he had been to on the campaign trail. “You raising chickens in here?” He laughed, making a showy display of teeth and looking at the guard next to him. The guard did not respond, even, to the president’s surprise, out of deference. The guard’s face, which was blonde, freckled, and the color of boiled ham, remained rigid with purpose and pointed straight ahead. The president looked at the other guard and saw his reaction was equally stern. He then cleared his throat, smiled reflexively, and causally felt at the knot in his tie. Their lack of humor confirmed his sense that he was among zealots. A sudden sense of fear rose in him, making his neck tingle and goose flesh appear under his shirt, where it could not be seen. This should be shut down, he thought, instinctively. We don’t need this place. We’ll open up the flats to tourists."
Read the whole story here.

And while we're at it, check out Chris Hedges' fascinating relationship of both Huxley's and Orwell's visions of dystopia to contemporary culture posted at Truthdig. Check it out here: "A Brave New Dystopia". Excellent, interesting commentary.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Writing at Speak Without Interruption

I've begun writing for Speak Without Interruption, a blog site dedicated to free speech in a society that is growing increasingly intolerant of freely expressed political and religious ideas. While I haven't posted about politics or religion, I did post about the artist John Baldessari. This first post appeared today.

Read the whole post by clicking here.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt:
"The man has nose enough for both himself and the woman he is moving towards. In fact, this feature alone becomes an entity itself, snuffling towards the woman’s smiling features as if it were a hog seeking truffles. Meanwhile, on the right hand side, the gun– generally a menacing object, even in the symbolic sense when it has no power to wound–has no impact here. It even recedes into the background, playing second-fiddle to the yellow, eminently honk-able nose of the man holding it. A line travels from the giant nose on the left through the woman’s smile and into the arm holding the gun on the right hand side. So, we wonder, is Baldessari equating that giant nose on the left with the weapon on the right? And by that rationale, just how devastating would a sneeze from that nose be? In each of these images there is a reserved chuckle to be enjoyed, a whispered you must be joking."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unpacking a Tiffany Advertisement

First, new publication news: my review of Wood Street Galleries’ exhibition Audiospace appears this week in Pittsburgh City Paper.

Second: let’s talk about this Tiffany & Company advertisement, which appears on the back of last week’s New Yorker magazine. It apparently also runs as a double-spread in the December issue of Town & Country, which is where this image (sampled here from another blog devoted to an actor who plays the male role) comes from.

When I teach English, I like to look at the messages hidden in essays. For example, what are the underlying assumptions? What can we understand about the author or the author’s agenda through the language used to persuade the reader or to convey a call-to-action? In my literature classes, I usually bring in advertisements contemporary to the composition or publication date because this allows students to understand some of the prevailing attitudes, both projected and imposed. For example, when I teach the 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I bring in images of period women so that the students might understand how women figured in the popular imagination. What should a woman be? What is reflected back at ladies and what must they measure up to? These notions of the "ideal woman" drove the main character in "The Yellow Wallpaper" mad.

I also pass around images of corset ads, like the one pictured here. Why? Because corsets are a manifestation of the same psychological circumstances Jane, whose name is purposefully mentioned only once in Gilman’s story (think “Jane”, as in “Jane Doe,” the anonymous everywoman), finds herself in as a doctor’s wife and new mother suffering from post-partum depression during the late Victorian era. Corsets are as symbolic of uncomfortably repressed flesh as they are of repressed desires and aspirations. They are the reason for fainting couches and the cause of miscarriages. Check out the image (below) of what the corset does to a woman’s internal organs. Are these not somehow like the Chinese foot binding rituals that were intended to reveal fortitude and submission as much as it was to prevent the women from actually running off (or sneaking away under their own power) with other men? In China, a small foot was more valuable than a beautiful face because it revealed obedience to parental wishes, which in turn indicated a similar willingness to uncomplainingly obey a husband.

Anyway, back to the Tiffany advertisement. Let’s unpack it, shall we? First, there is the image of the nuclear family. The mother has provided two heirs, one a daughter and the other ostensibly also a daughter. Two and done, we can surmise. And although every suburban soccer mom can project herself into this woman, she is still a figure of fantasy. How so, you ask? Let’s look at the particulars: she is slender, chic, and trouser-wearing. She is still long haired, but women’s-movement-conventional in appearance, reminding me of those Enjoli commercials from the 80s, whose jingle began, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” The woman is, from all appearances, a Manhattan mom, living in high fashion—but of course with traditional tastes—in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Other women may begin to think beyond the boundaries of this ad. Here's the internal monologue I imagine: I bet she has a reliable baby sitter or some kind of daycare. I bet she goes to parties with her husband. And there is probably champagne there. Oh, the dresses. I wonder if she owns one with sequins. I bet there’s in-home daycare. A nanny. I mean, her husband buys her Tiffany jewelry—there’s got to be a nanny. Sure, I could handle that life.

In the ad, the woman is receiving a kiss from her husband (or partner, but most likely a husband). He is carrying the famous turquoise-colored bag. The kiss and the bag say: “darling, you have done well. Here is your reward.” Because she is holding the baby and he, the bag, a sense of control still seems to exist in the fibers of this metaphorcial fabric: I will give you the reward when I am ready (perhaps on Christmas Eve, but who knows). I will not allow you to wear it out of the store like a pair of new sneakers. You must be patient, darling, and wait until gifts are granted.

But then again, maybe the contents of the turquoise bag are for his own mother. And wouldn’t that be a kick in those dark trousers? Indeed it would.
What's my point? Well, isn't the underlying message here something about the ideal and its physical manifestation--this is, to some degree, what the ideal is supposed to look like. But exactly whose ideal is it? Perhaps it is that of an anonymous and long-suffering soccer mom, eternally strapped behind the wheel of minivan (as noted above). But the ad agency has upcycled old social archetypes (think a post-modern June Cleaver and her white picket fence having gone a penthouse on Park Avenue). And by doing this the agency has attempted to implicate Tiffany as part of this ideal (an old-garde ideal). Here, they are not so subtly indicating that if you have the "perfect wife", she deserves something amazing (and overpriced) in a small turquoise box. And if you don't do at least that for her, you don't measure up, you cannot be considered a "perfect husband." (Even though being a perfect husband involves so many things that do not come in a turquoise-colored box, really that aren't even tangible).
Yet, do we even consciously realize all the messages that are sent to us, and that we readily accept as truth, as fact? No wonder antidepressants are, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the most perscribed drug in the US. (Which is, by the way, what my story "American Soma" is all about.) Who can live up to the expectations people have, which are fuelled in part by products we do not need? Ay!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Henry Miller and onto Brassai

While I’ve been working on my book review column, covering a multitude of reference guides that I brought with me in a giant file box, I haven’t brought with me (to Pittsburgh) my regular 'fun' reading material. However, the shelves in the Pittsburgh apartment are always full, so I picked up a book I read long ago in graduate school, when I still had the yen to run away to Paris. It was Henry Miller: The Paris Years, written by the photographer Brassai and excerpted largely from Miller’s letters.

I won’t deny that I’ve been a fan of Miller’s, although I sometimes find his writing crass and misogynistic (I know, I know. This word may make people roll their eyes because it is so closely intertwined with a rabid kind of feminism, but it's a word that fits--there is a kind of cruelty in his treatment of females. Sometimes it is sexual.)

Brassai explains that Miller’s friend Alfred Perles, whose dour little appartment Miller often crashed in before he met Anais Nin--who set him up with an apartment (and, presumably, an allowance) when they began their relationship--often shared everything, including their women. This, Brassai said, was essential to Miller and Perles' friendship: the belief that everything should be shared. I suppose the women went into this arrangement willingly, and we have to know that these were somewhat conventional, if casual relationships--not sexual transactions, since Brassai indicates that both men were so destitute they often waited hours at cafes and bars hoping someone would come by who could pick up their tabs. (Moreover, it was indicated that Perles owned but three things of value: a English-made tweed suit, a straight razor for shaving, and a solid gold pen and pencil set. Miller, by comparison, arrived in Paris with $10 in his pocket and little else. June, his legal but feckless wife, was often the breadwinner by means Miller could hardly stomach imagining, since he was hopelessly captivated by her—although my theory runs that he was captivated by her only because he could never fully own her. Near the end of her life, beautiful taxi-dancer June slipped over the edge into insanity.)

Anyhow, I have read several of Miller’s books, and I’m not talking just the Tropics or Black Spring here. I’m talking Crazycock and The Rosy Crucifixion, which both feature June and her particular brand of sadism, often involving disappearances, excursions to far-flung destinations with lovers of both sexes, and her sudden return with gifts and cash to sustain the Miller household. And then, there are Miller’s pornographic writings, usually done for money. One I’ve got in mind right now is Under the Roofs of Paris, which was so bad that I put it down and didn’t pick it up again, although it's still somewhere among my books. Granted, the stories in Roofs were pornography written for money, so by necessity (or definition) there is rampant congress (some of it involving truly disgusting stuff--think: hairbrushes and animals) on most of the pages I read. Yes, I know: who wants plot when they're reading pornography? Pornography is action, not human drama. Or if it is human drama, it's drama of a different kind.
Still, because of that book, I didn’t want much to do with Henry for awhile. You see, I began to recognize in the Tropics too much of the disgusting transactions that occurred in Roofs. The book gave me too a keen a view into the state of the furniture in Miller’s mind, and I found there was mildew on every cushion, a kind of greenish-gray decay I couldn’t stand the odor of. There was no longer just an expression of fury and disgust with humanity, a constructive nihilism (an oxymoron, I know, but not when you're writing), a shouting against all the vile things in the world. Instead he was, in part, a source of some of that vileness. He was not denouncing it, he was producing it. So I left Henry's furniture, and I didn’t sit on it again for a long time.

But, but, but….there is Brassai. He, the “Eye of Paris” as Miller dubbed him in a laudatory essay. There is Brassai, yes.

Brassai captures the down-and-out figures in the Parisian cafes of the 1930s, where--despite financial ruin--men’s hair is still pomaded to a fine gleam; women’s nails are filed and painted red with white half moons and pointy tips. Their hair is plastered to the side of foreheads in spit curls and stiff permanent waves. There are sometimes beauty marks, which aren’t yet in the vogue they will be by the time Norma Jean becomes Marilyn Monroe. And everywhere in these cafes are mirrors, which expand the smallest bistro spaces to broad ballrooms of opportunity. Oh, glamour! Here the subjects are revealed from multiple angles, no part of their face is hidden from us—grimaces and furtive uncertainties are laid bare. And even while they are exposed, they carry a kind of regality that we contemporaries don’t have—these people are real and flawed, but they don’t apologize for it. They live fully in their bodies and take up space proudly rather than abashedly.
So, understanding that there is a different ethos in Europe—I know this well—how is it that we are so bereft, so lost in our imperfections that we can’t simply be as the people in these photos seem to do so well, even in one of the worst economic circumstances of the last century? Where has our regality gone or am I just seeing this through the golden glasses of retrospection?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Olga Choubaroff and Other New and Exciting Things

So! It was a good weekend, with a kind of goodness that is spilling over into the week.

Who's that lady? Well, read on, read on, dear Kinder and you will learn that it is a Russian Princess. Isn't her expression just precious? Dig the uncomfortable hand positioning. Who posed this poor darling anyway?

Now, about that lady: Michael and I went to Three Rivers Auction in Washington, PA, where they were selling off the estate of a one-time Russian Princess, Olga Choubaroff Clark, who was the wife of (well, she was wife to five men) the admiral of the Yorktowne, "Jocko" Clark. We happily carted home two oil paintings, a water color, a pink alabaster bas relief of one of Olga's great, great grandfathers, who fought in The Caucasus. He is now above my head as I type, looking as robust and resolute as a Ceasar.

Michael also got a hand-carved skull pipe, a kind of Hamlet-ian momento mori. And now on our book shelf is the Thai lightning goddess...we're thinking she's very likely Mekkala, although we are not certain of this. We were also very lucky to get a sculpture of one of the seven lucky Taoist gods, although it took some reasearching on Michael's part for us to learn who the little bearded fellow with the staff was (he came with no description at all). Michael believes he is either Jurōjin or Fukurokuju, two figures who are easily confused because they sometimes inhabit the same body, according to Taoist belief.

On Monday, I went into Pittsburgh to take my first sewing machine class at Cut & Sew Studio, which--I have to say--is just awesome. While I have my own sewing machine, in the past, I've had a terrible time figuring out how to get it working properly. Never mind the fact that my father could sit down to it and make an absolutely beautiful row of stitches. I, on the other hand, previously pulled up my chair, gently pressed the pedal, and made a rather impressive knot. Now, understand that my father had no prior experience with sewing machines, except maybe watching my grandmother when he was young. He undid the knot, rethreaded the machine and began sewing another lovely seam. I was stunned. My dear father was wearing bib overalls. How can you sew a perfect seam in bib overalls? Doesn't the machine know that pink pajamas are the thing to wear when sewing and long strands of sewn cloth should just ripple out of the machine with as much ease as teletype paper from Jack Kerouac's typewriter?
Well, come on now. Really.

Now, though, after yesterday's class, I finished a pillow I had started by hand-sewing the seams a few weeks ago. And this morning, I began stuffing it with polyfil. Woo, indeed! In between grading final papers this morning, I've also been sewing together vintage napkins to make a table cloth (because why let those old lovely napkins go to waste?). I'm on my way to making some lovely patchwork skirts, like this fantastic Etsy seller, JaneElizabeth's, where I've gotten beautiful things.
Have I mentioned that I have an Etsy addiction? It's true. Too true. And I am not ashamed of this fact. Crafting is the new cottage industry.

So, there is a whole lot of awesomeness going on in the Guz 'holler'. And, there will be a more substantial and maybe even scholarly posting tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's Going on Right Now, This Moment

I'm back after an extended Thanksgiving break, during which I made pies, decorated for Christmas, and went with Michael to see the insanely people-packed Vatican Splendors at the Heinz History Museum. The sheer fortitide necessary to navigate the crushing tides of people in the exhibition reminded me of the blockbuster Vermeer show that I handled VIP passes for while interning at the National Gallery in 1996. Richard Gere requested the Vermeer rooms be closed so that he might see the show without the crush of humanity around him. Jeffery Weiss, then assistant curator in the 20th Century Department, said, as he stood outside his office, shoulders slumping in disgust: "Tell him to talk to the Dalai Lama."

This morning, I just finished a review of the excellent Burning River book by Jim Meirose, titled Crossing the Trestle, which I submitted to Gently Read Literature. The review will appear in the January issue. Yesterday, I also finished a review of Scale, guest curated by artist and CMU instructor Ally Reeves, who recently returned from a Fulbright to India. There are some itneresting ideas and tacit statements there. She helps to define a contemporary ethos, which is growing out of and fighting against to the thatch-thick detritus of commercialism (something that is, lest we forget, a not so distant relative of fascism).

Also, I have a new 'memory story' called "Foreigner Among Foreigners" up at Dan Waber's That reminds me hypertext project, which writer Chris Bowen also contributes to. The project is fantastic, allowing writers to stretch their expressive capacities, overcome blocks, remember in words their previous experiences, which is both cathartic and creative. It also creates a reading experience full of pleasant surprises, and is kind of like opening the doors on an Advent calendar, although of course, it has nothing to do with Christmas. It the joyful discoveries behind each click that are so exciting.

I have class today, my second-to-last before my semester ends. We go over the final today, meaning that most of my heavy lifting is over, although I will soon have a raft of final papers and final exams to grade. But, next week, my entire daytime energy and efforts will be devoted to writing, something about which I am very excited.

What am I listening to right now? Arvo Part's gorgeous, soaring contemplations on (what seems like) the infinite. You can hear them here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Hypertext, New Work, Edward Hopper, & Clowns

Some good, no great news, although possibly you've heard it already via Twitter or Facebook or both. I've started taking part in a hypertext project, called "That Reminds Me..." started by writer Dan Waber. My story, "Italy, 1990" appears as part of the project now. It does not load automatically, however. In Dan's initial story, about a terrible waiter, you must click on the words " a trip to Italy" and it will take you to my tale (partially true) about European technicians and hardware salesmen I knew as a girl.

Hypertext is a kind of "choose your own adventure" story--remember those? I made reference to them before in my review of Matt Bell's Wolf Parts (which appeared here in an earlier posting). Choose-your-own-adventure stories usually had sentences like these at the end of cliff-hanger segments: Turn to page 120 if you want Jim to return to the space ship or 350 if you want him to swim the phosphorescent canal. I was always amazed at the architecture of these stories--how they were put together, where the narrative paths converged. I was constantly flipping between segments, trying to determine their path, their trajectory, to see if they ultimately lead to the same outcome. I don't remember what I discovered. I just remember they were a revelation. I even remember, back when I was painting and making images of brightly colored cadavers (no, not macabre--never macabre because there were sequins) on canvas, I conceived of an exhibition in which a pulley system moved a series of canvases around the lower half of a gallery wall. The canvases that hung from this line would feature the legs, tails, or escaping vapor of monsters. The top canvases, which defined faces and torsos, would be static, but visitors could choose the combinations they wanted to see. I had been planning to call it the "Choose Your Own Adventure Series". (I'll have to admit this idea was inspired in part by a box of long fireplace matches my parents' bought in the late 70s. You could move the lid and get different dress combinations for the men and women--long yellow muumuus of the women might soon become purple bell bottoms that had previously belonged to the man on the adjacent facet of the box).

So, let's talk about art now that we're on that subject. Specifically, let's talk about Edward Hopper. To the right is Soir Bleu, painted in 1914. Her was 32 at the time of its execution. It was after he'd sold the painting Sailing (1911) at The Armory Show and moved to Greenwich Village.

Here, the lasting influence of Impressionism in the Japanese lanterns, the gauzy atmosphere and the low skyline (and Post Impressionism--is that one of Van Gogh's potato eaters on the far left, sitting with the seltzer bottle?) is evident, as it is in many of Hopper's earlier works, where he admitted to having difficulty finding his own style. But it is the characters that are so arresting here: while the woman might be the focal point the first time you look at the work, since she rises like an Amazon over the horizon (and the longer one looks, the more one asks whether this is a woman at all), the white clown is what my eye is drawn to on the second look. It is his sheer unsullied pallor and the dangling cigarette that says to me: this is the real subject, and while not a genuine self portrait of Hopper, it is the portrait of the artist, even...the writer. We perform and make other laugh or cry or feel, but we, too, are full of cynicism and addictions (and here we are again at the cigarette, the drink). Here, a Pierrot, smoking. Before him, a glass with yellow-green liquid. It could be absinthe--the water is there, but I see no slotted spoon or sugar cube. Perhaps that part of the ritual is done.

Is that Van Gogh across the table from the clown, and who sits with epaulets and short-cropped hair next to him? Here, Hopper reaches into Toulouse-Lautrec's world, into the green-glowing gas footlights that colored the faces of Degas' second-rate, scandalized actresses. Here, friends, is beautiful blue bohemia. Here, Hopper has not yet met wife Jo, who will bring him into the brown, ochre and black of the Ashcan School where she grew into artistic maturity herself. Then Hopper went from the clown (a la Hamlet's dear Yorick) to the King of Melancholia.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From what I am writing now....

In lieu of a more thoughtful posting, a passage from what I'm writing right now:

"I was a student of people’s habits, and I learned the ways of men, especially foreign men, who eyed my mother even as they passed around pictures of their children, wallet-bound photographs that included their reluctantly smiling wives. These wives, at the exact moment my mother’s gray eyes rested on their features (whether doughy or sharp), were most likely lying awake under thick featherbeds five hours advanced from us, listening to the cracks and ticks of their sleeping house, instinctively knowing their husband was in a hotel bar thousands of miles and many times zones away. It was the not knowing with whom that rose like bile in their throats, that kept them awake. Other women simply slept, knowing but not caring."

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Zurich, 1989" Goes Live at Litsnack

I've been pretty fortunate this week. Not only did "The Fascinator" go live at Necessary Fiction last Wednesday, my story, "Zurich, 1989" is now live at Litsnack.

What appears at Litsnack is actually an early version I sent out shortly after I wrote it. I later revised the story to read more fluidly and to deepen its implications, but when the original version was accepted by Litsnack, I was thrilled. And I still am. Below is part of the revision I was toying with just before the initial version was accepted:

"I feel his eyes again, and I look back at him with impulsive boldness, a daring I do not recognize as my own. I have not received this kind of attention before. It chases away my headache and causes me to sit up straighter, to feel slightly more alive. His gaze appears level, earnest, if somewhat cloudy and unfocused. He looks down in the direction of my parents. My mother has her chin on her hand, listening to something said by someone at the end of the table. My father is equally absorbed in the conversation and notices none of what is happening where I sit, none of the intent gazing, which brings the blood rushing up to my face. The men beside me continue talking and have turned towards the subject of work, while the man named Peter leans forward and asks in a low voice, “What room are you in? Or are you with them?” He nods sideways in the direction of my parents. I smell the alcohol on him, which wafts towards me in a volatile billow as he speaks.

I shake my head. I tell him I have my own room. He nods, smiling. “What’s the number?” he asks, his left hand still resting against his face. “Tell me the number,” he whispers again. “Please.”

I glance quickly at my parents once more. “215,” I answer, looking down at the table cloth as I say it.

He nods. Fear is rising in me, but excitement, too. I do not yet really understand the power I seem to have at this moment, or even that it is a kind of power. And I am certainly too young to recognize that it will end up being weakness, too...."

And so, you ask, it's written in the first person. Is it true?

What is true is that in 1989, I was 14. But it wasn't until 1990 that I was in Zurich, a temporary stop between Milan and a smaller town in Austria, whose name I no longer remember. By the time I sat at the table described in the story, I was 15. And what's true is that there is a red haired salesman named Peter, who (along with so many of these hardware and machinery salesmen I met during these business trips) got outrageously drunk each night at the semi-formal dinners. Another thing that's true is that Peter was apparently having trouble with his wife. But Peter never laid a hand on me. Frankly, if he had, my mother would have disembowled him with the fish knife mentioned in the story.

No, what actually did happen to me was more meancing, something I was saved from (actually, by my mother). It was a rescue for which I am grateful and still consider myself very lucky. It occurred in Rapallo, Italy at the Grand Hotel Bristol (a picture of their swimming pool, where I swam in the spring of 1990, appears above). There, I had a room adjoining a stranger's, with only a flimsy locked door between us. And, after a brief interaction with the man who occupied that adjoining room while I was heading to the elevator, the menacing began. But that is a story for another time, maybe even for another piece of flash fiction.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Fascinator appears at Necessary Fiction & Small Press Holiday List

On Wednesday, my story “The Fascinator” was published at Necessary Fiction. Fellow writer T.C. Jones asked what the story’s inspiration was. Here it is: in the spring, when I was teaching primarily Saturday classes, I had a great deal of time to write, and I began search for prompts and anthology themes. Because horror writing pays, I began scoping these submission calls in particular. One of these open submission calls asked for stories involving Appalachian folklore. I found several interesting leads while researching just what constituted local folklore. One of the most interesting notions was that of “Jettatore di Bambini” (a.k.a. Fascinator of Babies). This was a fear primarily held by Italian immigrants, who were convinced their children would be harmed by people with the so-called “evil eye.”

I realized, though, as I was preparing to teach Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” a few weeks ago in my English class, that the opening segment of “The Fascinator” is so much like the arrival of the bible salesman (who later steals Hulga’s prosthetic leg) in O’Connor’s story. I didn’t consciously realize this when I was writing it, but certainly, because of the subject matter and the location, I realize that most of my stories involving Appalachian characters seem to channel Flannery. Moreover, there are many stories from where I now live that seem to defy reasonable explanation. They are fabulist in nature or the characters themselves are so emphatically bizarre or amazingly quirky, they seem unreal. They might well be unbelievable if I were to write them as they actually happened. I have a stash of stories to last me years, but they must be handled with care, so their theme can be communicated honestly and purposefully without the subtle ironies being lost in reader skepticism.
The crow in "The Fascinator" is a kind of homage (<--I can't think of a better word here, although it sounds pretentious to my ears) to A.S. Byatt's story "The Conjugal Angel," part of the two novella collection Angels & Insects. A character in the story holds seances to connect with her first love, to whom she was engaged before he died unexpectedly and to whom she feels bound to by guilt, both projected and self-generated. It was an amazing story, filled with the kind of delicious descriptions I crave. The aforementioned woman owns a crow, who perches near her at the seance circle, occasionally preening itself and sometimes disturbing the spell created with a flap of it wings that is akin to editorializing. Its eyes are not sulfrous as my crows' eyes are, but I thought this acidy yellow, in conjunction with sulfur's association with the odor of hell would be appropriate under the circumstances.

In relation to "The Fascinator", I want to thank Necessary Fiction Editor (and The Bee-loud Glade author) Steve Himmer for his careful review of the story and his suggestions--without his input and feedback, the story wouldn't be the solid work I feel it has now become.

Excitingly, Karen Lillis has begun to put together a multi-part Small Press Holiday Recommendatons list, which features the small press titles recommended by fellow writers. My choices, along with those of writer Michael Kimball, poet Margaret Bashaar, writer Jesus Angel Garcia, and the owners of Pittsburgh-based store Awesome Books weigh in on some excellent titles to stuff stockings (or wrapped boxes) with. Read our selections at the hyperlink above.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shome Dasgupta's "Writers On Reading" Series & Other News

Writer Shome Dasgupta, author of I Am Here and You are Gone (Outsider Writers Press, 2010), kindly invited me to write a little something about reading's importance to me and to my writing process. I'm honored to be in the company of writers like Heather Hartley, Blake Butler, Jason Jordan, and Howie Good. Read my response here.

In the meantime, an excerpt:
"My favorites are Tin Drum and The Flounder, translated by Ralph Manheim in 1961 and 1978, respectively (my copies are badly dog-eared). Both are like that really good first shot of bourbon, which seems to brighten and sharpen the look of the world."

The young lass here has been busy lately. Teaching yes, but also writing. I just finished a review of Audio Space, an exhibition at Wood Street Galleries by interactive media artists David Rokeby and The Pogues co-founder Jem Finer. I'll be visiting Wood Street's sister gallery, SPACE, in a week or so to see the exhibition "SCALE" by guest curator Ally Reeves.

An article about the exhibition DIY: A Revolution in Handicrafts, currently on view at Pittsburgh's Society for Contemporary Craft, will run in the March/April 2011 issue of American Craft. I'm very grateful to be part of this publication, which I remember devouring as a college student during my study breaks in the library.

Image, above right: Kate MacDowell, "Taking Root" (2009) from DIY: A Revolution in Handicrafts

Here's a little preview-excerpt:
"Johnston’s sterling penannular bracelet Did Dolly Dream of a Bio Mom?, 2010 makes witty reference to the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired Blade Runner. Her work’s helix-shaped band – ending in the bounding front halves of two fuzzy ruminants ­– alludes to the extraordinary leap taken by cloning sheep DNA. "

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jem Finer's Longplayer, one of the 234 Bells

Today, I purchased one of the 234 Tibetan "singing" bowls that provide the sonorous tones of Jem's Finer 1,000-year score Longplayer.

Purchasers are allowed to request a single word appear on their bowl, and so I requested "SchrollGuz" be inscribed on the side of standing bell number 2.6, which is part of the permanent installation. Michael's and my bell is in the Alto key of 'E' and will eventually go to Tasmania and several other venues for live play.

And while I call it "our bell", it's actually property of The Long Player Foundation, which will ensure the continued performance of the non-repeating Longplayer score, composed by The Pogues co-founder Finer.

Above left, a Tibetan "singing" bowl, part of Jem Finer's "Longplayer"

Although Finer conceived of "Longplayer" between 1995 and 1999 as a response to millennial angst, the work was brought to fruition in 2000 with help of a grant from Artangel, a London-based nonprofit that has financed other amazing works like "Seizure" by thirty-something artist Roger Hiorns. (For "Seizure", Hiorns filled an abandoned council flat with copper sulfate and allowed royal blue crystals naturally populate the walls, floors, and ceilings of every room. The effect is stunning, and started a daily pilgrimage to the site. The work short-listed Hiorns for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2009. )

at right: "Seizure" (2008) by Roger Hiorns

On September 12, 2009, at London's Roundhouse Theatre, Finer's "Longplayer" was performed live, while a similar "happening", titled "Long Conversation," took place in another portion of the building. Listen to Long Conversation. It begins with British author Jeanette Winterson , who speaks with writer and psycohanalyst Susie Orbach, author of Bodies. You can also take a look at a video of their conversation here. Other author discussions follow theirs.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Photographer David Graham's Eccentric America: An Interview

David Graham’s photography exposes an invisible tension in our culture. Simultaneously, his work depicts the America of commercially nourished mythology, while also representing the America that actually exists. Yet, Graham continually reveals the unpolished, authentic America finding sustenance in these repurposed pop culture figures and historical fairy tales.

above, left: "Camille Terry as Marilyn Monroe, Palisades Park, NJ"

A series of Graham’s photographs, on display at Pittsburgh’s Silver Eye Photography Center in 2008, revealed the persistence of eccentricity in spite of (and sometimes because of) America’s relentlessly homogenizing and gentrifying forces. Many of these striking oddities, like the gold-tone statue of Lenin that greets customers like Ronald McDonald in the parking lot a Dallas burger joint, have trickled down from popular consciousness to become pristine examples of local kitsch.

Graham’s human subjects likewise appear passionately consumed by their interests, even if these inclinations tend towards the surreal. There are, for example, Graham’s photographs of Liberace impersonators dressed in suit jackets made of tinsel garland. And there are his many early 1990s portraits, like Randy Allen as Betty Davis, Philadelphia, PA and Bud Burkhart as William Penn, Levittown, PA. These photographs reveal the pop culture reservoir that Americans draw from in their search for personal expression.

In an interview conducted via telephone, David Graham explained his enduring notion of America, his thoughts on icons, his undying interest in photographing Americana, and his conceptual and technical evolution as a photographer.

SSG: What’s your definition of America? Or what is the America you attempt to capture in your photographs?

DG: America is a chunk of land, but it’s also a bunch of people. The land doesn’t know it’s named America. It’s the people, who are very friendly, expressive and, I find, enthusiastic. And the part that I’m interested in is the outward, 3-D manifestation of what they do. I’m interested in what somebody does to their car, if they paint it a funny way or if their front yard is full of things or if they’ve built some odd shed behind their house — anything that goes beyond simply going inside and watching TV. Really, how they express themselves.

SSG: The inside worlds that come out.

DG: Yes, that’s right.

SSG: So how often are you on the road each year, exploring America?

DG: It all depends. The way I generally get on the road is that I either have a project of my own — something I want to do or a place I want to go — or preferably, I get a free plane ticket from a magazine. And that’s what gets me where I’m going. I go a little early or I stay a little late and shoot whatever is in the area. I’m not like a National Geographic guy who’s out there for months at a time, but I probably do eight to ten small trips every year.

SSG: Do you actually take pins and randomly stick them into maps as a method of finding where you’ll go next?

DG: Yes, I have actually done that. For one project in particular, I had a big map and pins all over the place, and when I’d get a bunch of pins in one area, I would go there.

SSG: With the exception of Ay, Cuba!, nine of your ten books focus on American subject matter and still lives. What keeps you photographing America and not another country?

DG: Cuba was amazingly photogenic. It was the most photogenic place I have ever been. But I find that whenever I go somewhere else, I don’t have as much insight into the culture. You can drop some people into, say, a country in Africa, and they see everything that’s unique and new. I get dropped into some place new, and I see what’s superficial. I grew up in this country, and I just know it better.

SSG: You often photograph impersonators, from Ben Franklin to Marilyn Monroe. What is your view of icons and what role do they play in your photography?

DG: What I’m always looking for is an iconic photograph. I want every picture to be that, to be straightforward and to have an inevitability. In terms of the impersonators, I would go back to the idea of how Americans express themselves. Those are people who use their own bodies to express an inner passion, interest, or love — whatever it happens to be. And once you start photographing people who do those sorts of things, you hit on powerful icons such as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. Actually, the ones I think are more peculiar and funny are the ones that are esoteric, for instance Midge Mattel, Barbie’s best friend. Or there’s a guy around here [Buck’s County, Pennsylvania], who does the Quaker naïve painter Edward Hicks. Nevertheless, going to an Elvis impersonator’s convention is always good fun. I’ve been to a number of these. It’s a way of meeting the people, and it’s just a riot to see ten different flavors of Marilyn Monroe, a Philippino Elvis, or a black leather Elvis.

SSG: Do you feel your photographs tap into or dispel an American mystique?

DG: I think they tap into it. A big problem for me is that there is a real ‘blanding’ of the American culture. As everything becomes more homogeneous, it becomes a lot less interesting and a lot harder to find things that are more personal. For instance, when you’re on the road, it’s interesting to see some Mom & Pop restaurant that’s sitting by the road side. Say they’ve had a great idea for a sign, and they got the local sign maker to build it. But increasingly, there’s a Red Robin or a Cracker Barrel in their place. So many of these pre-fab franchises use the spirit of archetypal American restaurants, but they make it into a formula. And I find all that very difficult.

SSG: Your newest work deals with Post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi. What did you go down there to look for?

DG: Initially, I wasn’t going to go down to Katrina because, although I had photographed a number of floods before, this one was a real disaster. With the others, water came in, people lost their water heaters and their cars, but nobody got hurt. Katrina was completely different. A student of mine went down there and brought back pictures that showed two things: one was the way that emergency workers would put ‘Xs’ on the sides of houses and used numbers to denote different things, like when they were there, how many bodies they found. This had an amazing gestural quality and finality to it. A friend of mine later told me about a particular Wal-Mart, where the entire contents were blown into a forest behind where the building had stood. And I thought, “Wow, that sounds amazing — the juxtaposition of strollers, beach balls, and whatever in the trees.” So, that’s what got me interested in going down there. In addition, I thought, that will be my way to help. If I took a lot of pictures and was able to get them out there — as a means to reinforcing the need for people to be helping — then that would be a great thing.
at right, above: "St. Bernard's Parish, Louisiana"

Then, once you actually have your subject matter in front of you, you forget about the subject itself, and you become interested in the visual forms. You’ve got to construct a rectangle, a square or an oblong shape in an intelligent way.

But for me, the most astonishing image was driving along I-10 at 70 mph at night, knowing that you’re driving through a city, but it’s pitch black and empty. There were just miles and miles of empty houses — even during the day they looked like nothing in particular happened to them when you were going at that speed. It’s when you drove down the streets that you realized that you soak a house in water for months, it’s worthless.

In the end, I went down twice. The second time, I went down with my daughter, who’s 21, and she took pictures and helped people rebuild in a Native American area that’s 45 minutes south of New Orleans. When we came back, she organized a symposium at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where five of us presented what we had seen and experienced and passed along information about where people could volunteer and donate money. So I figured that was better than me, who can hardly pound a nail into a 2 –by-4, trying to rip out drywall for five days.
SSG: Critics have characterized you as a humorist because of your photographs’ dry wit and attention to incongruous detail. Has the Katrina experience changed your definition of America at all?

DG: It was kind of weird that there were many of the same elements, but the humor was not there. Part of humor, when it works really well, is its surreal quality — you often jump from one idea to another unexpected idea. With Katrina, the same mechanism was at work, but it just wasn’t funny. My new work is trying to use the Katrina photographs that have a more surreal feel — as opposed to the sense of outright disaster — and weave them in with some of my other pictures. So you’ll see what you would normally think of as The United States, plus a slightly darker side — because, in fact, that was what was revealed.

SSG: Are you working on a new book then?

DG: I am. It’s called Almost Paradise.

SSG: I like the title.

DG: Thank you. I’m really terrible on titles, but I like Taking Liberties, too. Someone reviewed a book of mine, and they used that as the article title. I thought, “Oh that’s great! I’m stealing that for my next book.” But the editor at Aperture, Michael Smith, came up with the title for Land of the Free.

SSG: Speaking of that, you seem to have found a kindred spirit in writer Andrei Codrescu. How did you find each other, and was it your photographs that resonated with him or his writing that resonated with you?

DG: We had one of those six degrees of separation deals. My friend’s college roommate’s wife, knew this guy, who was making a film with him. And he said, “You know, David Graham has photos you’d be interested in.” So, we were hooked up through these mutual acquaintances, and when we were doing Road Scholar back in 1992, we did some traveling around together. It is really fun to travel with him because, if you’re familiar with his NPR commentary, it’s just one--stop commentary after another. That’s what he does. We got along great and had a lot of fun, so he suggested we do the Cuba book [Ay! Cuba] together. Later, he did the introduction to the Land of the Free. We’re actually now republishing Road Scholar in Romania, where he’s from. And we’ve been talking about working on another project, but he’s just so busy. He’s the busiest poet I know.

SSG: Let’s turn to technical issues now. Did you begin with black and white film because that was, traditionally speaking, the accepted choice for fine art photography?

DG: Yes. The joke is, Ansel Adams said: “Black and white are the colors of photography.” When I first started shooting in the early to mid-seventies, there was hardly anyone doing color. I learned in school to do color, but everything was black and white until the later seventies.

SSG: Did you gravitate towards color because it seemed to happen organically, as a result of your interests or because it seemed to better define the places you visited?

DG: Actually, it was because I started shooting with an 8"x10" view camera, which makes an 8"x10" negative. I was shooting black and white, and I was taking boring, old-fashioned pictures. And really, it was such an ordeal to take a photograph that way instead of walking around with a 35 mm camera, so I figured I wanted to get more bang for my buck, more information. I thought if I shot in color, it would give me another layer of information. I wasn’t enlarging them at the time. They were infinitely sharp. So using color was just a way of putting another set of concerns into the picture. One thing led to another and that’s how it happened.

SSG: Do you work with digital formats?

DG: I do. It’s inevitable. When I do freelance work, for a publication or a landscape architect, it’s usually digital. But I still shoot film for myself. I’ve been doing it forever.

SSG: Do you develop your own film as well?

DG: I don’t do that. A lab does that for me, but I do make the prints from the negatives. I have a color dark room. It’s very…20th century.

SSG: How do you select your commercial projects? I’ve seen a correlation between the creative and contract works on your web site. Are they often serendipitous matches between what you’ve photographed and what is needed?

DG: A web site is always a little misleading. You don’t put the boring work on there. You just put the ones on that look great. (laughs) Those are the ones where it really worked out, but I get tons of projects where I take pictures of guys in offices. I mean, you gotta pay the rent. A lot of times they are exciting and interesting, even if the pictures themselves aren’t. For example, I just photographed Kelly McGillis recently. They just wound up being simple pictures of her walking her dog, but it was a great way to spend a day. I photographed some banker in East Stroudsburg [Pennsylvania] a couple of weeks ago, and he turned out to be a really fascinating guy.

SSG: So really, you’ve lead us right back to your concept of America — you show us what America is by photographing the types of people that comprise it.

DG: Yes. You’ve got it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

American Soma Story Coming True

The story, "North American Twlight," included in the anthology American Soma, was excerpted at The Nervous Breakdown last December. In the story, Edward Boone--previously an oil man and corporate opportunist--sells off his rigs and refineries so that he can purchase water rights to the land around him.

"Water," Boone says, "is the new oil."

Read "Edward Boon and the Angel of Death" here.

I made water one of the major symbolic elements in American Soma for a reason. Water (or lack thereof) will fuel tremendous civil unrest unless we are able to arrest its depletion. It is a more vital resource than oil has ever been, since he who controls access to water, controls all of life.

Of course, in my story, Edward Boone was one of the figurative apocalyptic horsemen. It could even be argued that he was two: famine and war. But I thought of him more as famine, an effect I consciously created when I juxtaposed him with the thirsting cattle and the wilting soybean fields:

"The following summer, Lubbock disintegrated to a scorched husk. Plants curled their leaves against the sun and bent over under the weight of the heat. Cattle suffered and stood around their troughs, lowing hoarsely for water. A drought left the land little more than escaping dust. The winds aided its flight by contributing gusting eddies that eroded fields and further parched the earth. In the cities, a water emergency was in effect. Local reservoirs had dipped so low that residents were encouraged to boil their water before drinking it. Boone imagined his profit margins climbing. "

Frighteningly, my story isn't so far from fiction anymore. According to the article, "The Ten Biggest American Cities that Are Running Out of Water" at Yahoo Finance , urban aquifers are drying up. The article's authors, Charles B. Stockdale, Michael B. Sauter, and Douglas A. McIntyre, underscore the gravity of the situation in the first two paragraphs:

"Some parts of the United States have begun to run low on water. That is probably not much of a surprise to people who live in the arid parts of America that have had water shortages for decades or even centuries. No one who has been to the Badlands in South Dakota would expect to be able to grow crops there.

The water problem is worse than most people realize, particularly in several large cities which are occasionally low on water now and almost certainly face shortfalls in a few years. This is particularly true if the change in global weather patterns substantially alters rainfall amounts in some areas of the US."
(Stockdale, Sauter, McIntyre)

There are three Texas cities on that list. Frightening indeed. In light of the government's current fragmentary nature, would we, as a nation, be a strong enough to weather the civil unrest--possibly even the civil wars--that would potentially follow protracted water shortages? It's certainly something to think about.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Carnegie Museum of Art Begins Open Dialogue and Exciting Revision

True to its new spirit of transparency, The Carnegie Museum of Art offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of exhibition production, and its many complexities, on Thursday, October 28th. The presentation, which involved Carnegie MuseumDirector Lynn Zelevansky, Curator of Education Marilyn Russell, and Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Dan Byers, described the process of conceptualizing exhibitions and making these abstract ideas work within designated spaces. It is a process driven by creativity and educational objectives but subject to the demands of budgets and allocations.

Last night’s panel was the second installment in a three-part lecture series concluding next Thursday, 4 November 2010. This final presentation will explore the relationship between museums and living artists. The panel will feature Pittsburgh photographer Duane Michals.

While the entire presentation was illuminating, offering insight into the many people involved in exhibition production, perhaps the most fascinating idea came early in the conversation. The idea dealt with the role of the art museum as storyteller. And this idea in itself is not new. Certainly, museums, which make the sometimes inaccessible and otherwise untold open to the widest audience possible, are always storytelling, educating, interpreting. Yet, it was Director Zelevansky’s addition of the tacit adjective ‘revisionist’ that was thrilling. So, by this implication, the Carnegie Art Museum has indicated that it is willing to both advance and alter (by means of expansion) the traditional art historical narrative.

What does this mean, you ask?

Art history (as an academic focus, especially) generally offers a very linear interpretation of the art world and its many currents. This “story of art,” found in every survey book (whether chronologically broad or limited) has a tendency to flatten complexities. Once petrified by too-frequent telling, the story becomes solid but incomplete, ultimately offering a limited perspective. With the same tale retold for generations, the heterogenic intricacies of every period (along with many significant, if under-recognized artists) are lost, perhaps forever. Moreover, in the traditional story of art, certain artistic agendas are advanced above others. Frequently, these long-standing inclusions still appear because of antiquated selection criteria. A perfect example is the history of art that largely omitted women painters and sculptors. This old-garde version of art history is still being mended by today’s revisionists, and sadly, there is still a kind of segregation of women artists from the broader historical timeline.

Yet, this notion that art museums can rewrite art history, even perhaps undo past wrongs, is exciting, forward-thinking, hopeful.

In 1996, when I worked the phones as an intern in the National Gallery’s (NGA) then 20th Century Department, I realized that there was a great deal of hatred leveled against large institutions by artists themselves. One artist repeatedly phoned the department from the guard’s desk downstairs and railed against me because I was unable to connect him with a curator. “Why,” he asked, “do you only ever show dead artists? So many of us are living and making things now.” He seemed to press the receiver closer to his lips. “Your museum,” he continued somewhat ominously, “is as dead as your artists are.”

His anger, of course, stemmed from the fact that he felt ignored by the mainstream. And it wasn’t entirely true that we featured only dead artists. We had many works by living artists, but I understood his point. To him, these artists were not a vital part of the culture of the now, of 1996 or the nineties at all. Those artists had already achieved notoriety. NGA was, in his eyes, merely repeating sins of omission, looking backward, repeating what was already known. When I naively suggested he try at one of the local galleries, he slammed the receiver into the cradle. This was not what he wanted to hear, and I had not meant to be condescending, only helpful. I felt for him. At the time, I was an artist, too, struggling to find a place for my work.

Did I think that the NGA was the appropriate place for him? No. The NGA was tasked with offering retrospective looks at art—art on which we had the appropriate amount of time for reflection. Do we truly know something’s value immediately? Sometimes we do, but more often, it takes a careful backwards gaze to understand a definitive artistic moment and properly assess its value to the story of us, as people or as the dominant sentiment of national culture.

Still, many artists see larger institutions as part of the problem with the art world. The museums, they insist, have it all wrong. It’s so one-sided, focusing on those people who have ‘made’ it, those who have already enjoyed plenty of attention in their greatest periods of productivity. So, what, these forgotten or ignored artists ask, are we any less representative of our time than those who have been taken up by the art historical narrative?

It’s a question that artist Paul Thek likely asked in his later years of productivity, when he, too, felt forgotten. Carnegie Museum Director Lynn Zelevansky--who made the initial indication that she intends to make the Carnegie a place that expands the traditional narrative, pushing its conventional boundaries, figuring out how some artists are relegated to the margins while others are largely celebrated—has worked to redress Thek’s previously unacknowledged plea. Her retrospective, co-curated with the Whitney’s Elizabeth Sussman, is titled Paul Thek: Diver, and is currently on display at the Whitney and coming to Carnegie Museum of Art in 2011.

More to come on Paul Thek and the exhibition in a future post.
(Photo of Paul Thek, above left, by Peter Hujar)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preoccupied with Decay (Part II): Beautiful Decay

In 1999, Floria Sigismondi--perhaps best known for her exquisitely macabre music videos and the more recent feature film about the all-girl band The Runaways--released a photographic compilation, titled Redemption. Among these pages, containing intensely colored, satin-sheened publicity photos for musical artists like Tricky and David Bowie, are young, peroxide-haired waifs who bathe in the square metal tubs of hospital burn units. Decrepit Nurse Rachetts load steel syringes and ready surgical instruments in Victorian hospital wards. Sigismondi includes shots of The Mutter Museum's bizarre collection of human physiological anomalies. There seems to be little redemption in Redemption, and a great deal more sacrifice. The book offers a glimpse of a percolating cultural fear that expresses itself through decaying environments and elliptical horror.

Sigimondi appears interested, too, in expressing both psychological disintegration as well as physical collapse, as evinced by the image of the characteristically pale-featured but ink splattered Marilyn Mason (above, left), whose thin frame slumps against browning walls covered with graffiti. This frenzied, claw-like writing gives the distinct impression that it is actually Manson's scribbling, perhaps done during the period when his arms were free of the straitjacket. Here again, the horror is present but an oblique narrative. The decay is obvious. Its capture, smoothly seamless and expressed in a two-dimensional beauty across pages bled-to-the-edges with full color. It looks dirty, but we can touch it without fear. It cannot hurt us--its immediacy is removed, even (can I actually say this?)...dreamily romanticized. No, not the romaticization of flowers and candy, but there is a quiet solitude rather than a frenetic energy that seems to have preceded the shot. Moreover, Manson seems deep in thought, far behind the cotton batting of his own morbid lunacy.

In some ways, I find myself drawn to the grime and fright of these images, but only because they are safe, wrapped in a figurative plastic. No threat here. And here, you see, we are presented with a premier example of Decay #1: Beautiful Decay. I'm not talking ravishing sexiness or traditional, flawless beauty. I'm talking sumptuous decay that incites the approach/avoidance mechanism nascent inside in every human: we want to look, to analyze, to see everything we can, but if it is too real, we invariably run from it (even as we look backward through our fingers at it).

In 2005, Sigismondi produced another anthology of photographic work and video stills called Immune. It's an interesting title choice, considering the ongoing theme of decay considered in her work. One example, featuring a diptych of a filthy bedroom beside a defaced picture of a swimsuit model decoupaged with an image of Castro, seems to move more towards political, even human rights commentary, at least as I read it. Is she commenting on the quality of life in Cuba, pointing to the country's perhaps inaccurate associations with sandy beaches when the everyday reality of its people under Castro's long rule has been comparatively bleak? And how does this relate to the title, exactly. Are we "immune" to this sight, to this brand of false marketing? I don't think so.

To the left, another diptych. The face of the woman pictured is darkened and obscured. She is obviously clad for warmer temperatures. Yet, next to her is a bleak-looking cityscape, seemingly covered in ash and comprised of decrepit buildings and a gray, smoggy skyline. Perhaps this, too, is Cuba? Here, Sigismondi seems to allude to the potential difference (or, perhaps, the similarity) between the dying urban area and the vital, faceless beauty whose body is more prominent than the face. She is positioned against a scarified wall, suggesting this is a detail of the larger city pictured: is she perhaps somewhere among the urban alleys, is she perhaps another hooker forced to make a living by walking the streets? And are we then supposed to detect decay lurking somewhere inside her apparent vitality? Or this, too, might be a fashion shot, might it not? So then, is this a commentary on fashion--the horror of the commodified woman, or maybe the location shot with emphasis on the body alone--because in fashion, that's what it's all about anyway, right? The walking mannequin, the feminine automaton ("And darling, don't talk please, it will ruin the effect. Just wear the clothing and walk).

In the next post, we'll look at Decay #2: Disorder and Asymmetry, as considered by writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Preoccupied with Decay (Part 1)

In 2000, when I lived in Washington, D.C. and worked, for a brief period, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I began an independent, quasi-philosophical consideration of Decay in our culture.

I wanted to know: what role does Decay play in aesthetics? What types of Decay are represented? And what does the inclusion of Decay in our visual lexicon reveal about our national mind-set?

I’m starting to think about this again, almost 11 years on.

First, it’s necessary to define Decay—too loose a definition allows for too wide an interpretation. Of course, there’s genuine decomposition and putrefaction. Is that what I mean? The gooey green byproduct of organic breakdown? No. That’s a step too far. But it’s close. I’m talking about mind-reeling disorganization, as well as the romanticization of physical collapse, more specifically fragmentation and disintegration in its early to mid-level stages. With fragmentation (speaking in the abstract), there's discord, disharmony--visual chaos. With disintegration, there are (speaking in concrete terms) abandoned buildings, peeling paint, wasting figures. And yet, these last few items come with very different associations. Abandoned buildings have a quiet, haunted majesty that speaks to something fundamental and superstitious within us. Thinning bodies, depending on how dramatic their appearance, incite a trainwreck-worthy fascination in viewers.

For the essay, I broke down Decay into three subsets:
(1) Beautiful Decay, or the glossy, seamless photographic capture of romanticized disintegration
(2) Fragmentation and Asymmetry, or the abstract disorganization that the mind generally flees from.
(3) Pure Decay, or decadence expressed by way of deteriorated materials, like trash.

One of the artists that I interviewed for the essay was Rina Banerjee (pictured above), who uses discarded materials in her installations. One of her works, produced at the time, employed the severely stained blue prints for a New York City hospital onto which she drew a Hindu-inspired figure more monstrous than devotional in appearance. This 1999 work, titled "An Uncertain Bondage is Deserved When Threatening Transmission," (pictured at right) appeared as part of the exhibition Bodies of Resistance, a benefit for the contemporary art organization known as Visual Aids.

When discussing her intent, Banerjee explained that her work was—at the time—concerned largely with identity, notions of foreignness, and the idea of contamination. The nation, she indicated, fears infection by foreign bodies and is afraid of surprise eruptions from within. That which is foreign may be waiting to strike a vulnerable area.

I interviewed Bannerjee months before 9/11, yet how prescient her remarks turned out to be.

Still, at the time, she wasn’t talking about those surprise attacks. She was referring to the slow, steady supplanting of a homogenous cultural identity with another cultural element. It is why one culture constructs “otherness" because this visualization, this classification creates a clear delineation between what belongs to one identity and what are characteristics of the unfamiliar, the Outsider. Here, what we are, (or perhaps what we should be). There, the genus and species of what does not belong.

Americans, whose ancestors were colonists, whose distant forefathers destroyed a series of vital native cultures, unconsciously fear a similar domination. Like a T-cell, we create a concept of the “invading” body, so we can identify (and sometimes, if necessary) eliminate it. We reject Postmodern Colonialism, if we are not the colonists. But what contemporary culture does not resist domination? What contemporary culture would willingly cede its authority to another invading body?

Banerjee's use of trash, generally regarded as unwanted and dirty, contributes a significant conceptual element here, since it plays directly into our notion of outsiders, particularly immigrants (And know this is relevant not only to America. This is true of many cultures; in Bavaria, for example, I was tested for numerous diseases--including tuberculousis--before I was granted a student visa because I might have "brought in" something unpleasant and would subsequently propagate this unpleasantness among the "healthy" German citizenry. Moreover, these were tests applied specifically to Americans, whom the Germans viewed as promiscuous. Really, this is what the blood-drawing Gesundheitsamt was all about).

Ultimately, Banerjee's work fits neatly into Category #3, “Pure Decay,” using decadent material to represent decay. And in doing so, she points to one of the facets of our culture’s obsession with decay: are we not, with Decay #3, holding up a notion of what is unacceptable so that it might be understood as that which undermines us? We fear cultural demise as we fear bacterial and viral infections, as we fear influenza and the similarly varied strains of hepatitis. What will kill us, we ask? Letting the Other in, we answer. (Never mind the fact that we seem to be killing ourselves just fine without anyone else's help.)

A similarly topical consideration of category #1, Beautiful Decay, will come next, with a an example of the work of photographer and videographer Floria Sigismondi.

In the meantime, read more about Rina Banerjee at Art India Magazine.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Truthdig Interviews Stephen Elliott

Rumpus-founder Stephen Elliott, who came to read from his book, The Adderall Diaries, in Pittsburgh earlier this year (thanks to the determined efforts of Pitt student Vessa Yankevich), is releasing the "true crime" book in paperback. The book has now been optioned by James Franco for a film.

You can read the Truthdig interview, called "The Art of the Overshare" by Sheerly Avni here.

The now notorious James Frey (of A Million Little Pieces) chatted about Elliott at Gawker before. Read that here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Admiring Julie Speed which leads me, as everything does, back to Gunter Grass

Just a few words today....and instead of so many words, I offer an image of an oil-on-panel painting by the marvelous Julie Speed, whose retrospective monograph I reviewed several years ago. The painting below is called "Adrift".
Even as Speed seems influenced by Surrealism, by High Renaissance devotional images, by didactic conceptions of damnation a la Michelangelo, she is also commenting on contemporary mankind's condition. And this is what I find so fascinating. The image leads me back to one of my favorite novels, one by Gunter Grass, titled The Flounder....the connection may seem strange, but the woman fishing is like the 1970s Feminists who pull the flounder (who allows himself to be caught by a woman after millennia of instructing fallible men how to seize and maintain power) from the water and put him on trial for crimes again humanity. Really, you need to read the book. It more than just a tale of food: its a tale about food's use in power relationships, from the dawn of mankind onward.

“I write about superabundance. About fasting and my gluttons invented it. About crusts from the tables of the rich and their food value. About fat and excrement and salt and penury. In the midst of a mount of millet I will relate instructively how the spirit became bitter as gall as the belly went insane” -- Gunter Grass, The Flounder, Penguin 1978 (p. 8)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Before & After the Carnegie Library Reading

I had a fantastic reading at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. today. The crowd was warm and gracious and interested, which allowed me to open up and get into character for the various voices I needed to put on, while reading. I started out with the Pushcart-nominated "Essential Wreckage," a story about Lincoln's death and his spirit's temporary exile to the battlefield of Blakely, Alabama--the last official battle of the Civil War, which was going on just as Grant and Lee were at Appomattox. It was also fought five days before Lincoln was shot. I also read two of the shorter, more humorous stories from American Soma, called "Tonight...and beyond!" and "A Salesman Reborn". I then read "The Fascinator," which will appear at Necessary Fiction in November. After I learned everyone was happy to hear one more story in the final 20 minutes, I ended with "The Fountain"--you know, the one involving the fountain of youth accidently discovered in the scummy toilet of a dive bar.

Both Bun and I totally forgot to take pictures of the actual reading, so we've got before and after shots here, along with some photos of the house (remember the gas meter that I painted yellow and stenciled with bees? That's here, too.) And, we start out with Bun dressing, while Jasper Johns paces behind him. Laundry baskets? Check. Pile of clothes on the Queen Anne Chair? Check.

This was an after picture, yet the look has nothing to do with the Big Azz Margarita mentioned below.

The garden, kids. Just part of it. She grows every year.
Ha! The gas meter. No sedate green for me...instead, a butter yellow with bee stencils (in honor of the bees coming to our hobby farm in May).

Home Sweet Home, but with 2 of 3 newly painted front porch posts, done by Yours Truly. How brightly they shine.
My $3.99 Ollie's Bargain Barn roses. My, how they've grown.

Yeah, we're still looking for my cell phone. It'll turn up.

This was after the reading but, believe it or not, before Mad Mex's so-called "Big Azz" margarita: