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:

Friday, October 15, 2010

On Inge Grognard and Her (unwitting?) Revelations

Entirely by accident, while looking for some images by artist John Baldessari, I found the make-up work of Inge Grognard, captured by her photographer husband, Ronald Stoops.

Her website features a slide show of models posing for the camera, including a handful of face-painted young boys, who alternately smile or stare into the lens with proto-machismo while bearing a primitive form of brightly colored camouflage from forehead to neck. Other images depict models whose features are scotch-taped, even wired into unsettling configurations. A few bear strange polypropylene disks containing what looks like stuffed toy fur. Almost every one of the adult females is deadly serious, often bluntly regarding the camera as if it were an adversary.

The website’s music, a driving and repetitive classic blues riff, starts out with a rasping bass and a digitally manipulated harmonica that, together sound like gravel caught inside hubcaps—it is all smoky dives, hard liquor, and men in red-dusted denim with dirty cowboy boots creased so deeply they might be cracked cleanly through. And then the singing begins. It is half Tom Waits, half Nick Cave: “Man with gun running…man take off in the dark…I peel out after…Sally yell out” etc. The music seems so serious about its rough tone and gritty intention that I begin to suspect it is not entirely sincere, that it might be some gun-toting poser’s personal (and internal) soundtrack, which starts as soon as he gets out of his car. Now, the first image after the music starts? A thin woman who covers her mouth with a hand bound by shiny black electrical tape.

Okay. You have my attention.

Now, the effect of this auditory and visual synergy is unexpected, and whether the response I describe was Grognard’s intention or not, I can’t be sure. The music, together with the images of models bearing feature-distorting prosthetics and implacable gazes appears to question the seriousness of fashion. It also seems to point out our conventional notions of beauty, but neither of these concepts is new. What I was floored by went slightly deeper--beyond the skin and into the psyche: Grognard made me realize how self-aware, how seriously we take ourselves, how we expect to be tough, to look uncompromising. It was a painful recognition, this intense gravity tinged with a nearly imperceptible uncertainty. But it’s there, especially in the protruding clavicles and atrophied musculature of many of the women. Oh, they might look hard, but underneath all this is a decaying spirit, caused by a terminal form of insecurity.

And even though Grognard is not using Americans or speaking specifically to Americans, it should resonate through every urban subway stop, every community college hallway, every turkey shoot at the local Grange Hall in the heartland of America. It is our popular expectation as Americans: we want to be perceived as tough and uncompromising—we absorb this from film stills of John Wayne, of the Marlboro Man, of Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio (the bold stare, the stark look of fearlessness that conditions us to believe a ruthless gaze is stunning, that this is what defines worth and beauty). And here, Grognard—maybe unwittingly-- reveals us to be fatally self-aware. Like the masks and Scotch tape over her models faces, we are bound by a painful awareness, we are hemmed in by a sense of absurdity and our desire to escape it—and this armor we wear does not defend us, does not bring us long-term protection from a further sense of foolishness. It becomes ridiculous itself. Yet we put it on each day. We fail to smile. We sometimes neglect to be civil. We turn up our woofers and press our accelerators. And all of this is a kind of armor that becomes senseless.

So, in this rotating slide show, I see us: humanity as we are now, as we have been taught to behave. By popular culture? Yes, probably. We act strong, even dangerous, trying every fa├žade, painting ourselves into a false sense of belonging to something…anything, even if that something is the ever more crowded 'periphery' of so-called rebels (rebels without causes, rebels that consume rather than produce). But this behavior makes us no more sure of ourselves, does it? And, still, we put on this same armor every day, repeating the same behavior again and again. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Click here to find Inge Grognard and Ronald Stoops' new collaborative book here.
Ronald Stoops/Inge Grognard
ISBN 978-90-5544-984-2
Publisher: Ludion
190 pages; 170 illustrations

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sure, this would be okay....if it had sound

So, I found that I can make YouTube videos with the newish computer. Therefore, I experiment. Yes, this would be some kind of cool if I could actually create videos as a method of story distribution, but sound is somewhat important to this equation. And sound, I have not--at least in the three videos I tried to make this afternoon. Now, it may be that I have cracker crumbs in the microphone. Who knows? I know I have all my volume controls correct. Yet, she speaketh not, only mouths the words like Milli-Vanilli. Sad? You bet. Tech support? Clearly needed here.

And something else I realized while watching this? Girl, you got to tone down the Tammy Faye. I mean, exactly how many applications of blue eyeshadow did you make this morning? And blue? No, I mean, blue? What's wrong with a healthy earth tone? Let's back it down to brown, girl. How about a nice conservative sienna? Nobody needs neon on their eyelids. What? Well, that's what it looks like, girl. Neee-oon, honey. Light-Your-Way-to-the-Toilet bright. No, child, not sassy. And definitely not classy. And don't even get me started on the hair, Little Miss Blow-Dry-And-Push-It-Back-With-A-Headband. Girl, you need a haircut...baaad. Mmmm-hmmmm.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Quick Posting Between Review Compositions

Oh, baby, I got news. News, news, news. First, "The Fascinator" has been accepted by Necessary Fiction, which makes me one happy girl (see, the young lass above? That's me waving my hat). The story should appear sometime in November. Makes me feel like part of the lit world again, getting work out there. I know, silly girl. You are part of the lit world. But still, when there's a lag and a silence, it slows my production a little. You know: you falter, you question yourself. Does anyone care to read my nonsense? Naturally you have to make a reader care (I preach this in my classes all the time), but if you can't encourage the appropriate amount of interest, what then? What then, indeed.

It's inevitable, thinking that way. Michael told me this is, in part, what The Shining deals with--about a writer losing his mind because of the impediments and rejections he faces. (Note: I haven't seen it, so I don't know the details. Pet Cemetary was quite enough for me, thank you very much.)

More news: I'll be reading at The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh this Sunday (2 p.m., kids), old and new works--we might go all the way back to some goodies from The Famous & The Anonymous....more on these details in the next post. See, I'm stealing time away from writing my reference book review column, which is due on Thursday. And I've still got papers to grade for this afternoon's class. And showered or dressed yet? Are you kidding? I know it's 9:30, but duty does not call until 1 p.m. So, soon, soon.

Oooo....Look, Ma, I'm in the Post-Gazette. Yay!!

Okay...back to it here....

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Weekend, Painting Projects, Rage of Achilles

Well first, some news: my father made it through the first stenting procedure well. He's back home, resting comfortably. He now has three stents in his anterior artery, which the doctor said represents a lot of metal. But two significant blockages: a 95% and an 85% have been cleared. Dad has to go back in about a month to have a right artery stented. One artery at a time, the doctor noted. The surgical procedure puts too much pressure on the kidneys otherwise.

It was a more difficult than expected day for my father because he had complications from his cath the previous week. Apparently, he is too skinny for the dissolving polypropelene element they used to seal the vein they entered last week. The doctor had no idea why he was so bruised, and we sat until 1:30, while they ran tests to be sure it was okay to perform the operation. The sales representative for the "cath plugs" actually came to look at Dad's situation to see what might be done. When they finally took Dad into surgery, Mom, Michael, and I all fell asleep on the straight-backed chairs in Dad's cath-lab/ICU room, only to be woken by the doctor, who thought our exhausted slobbering was highly amusing. (We'd been up since 5:30 a.m. in order to get the Baltimore for the 8:30 check-in, and by the time the doctor came around, it was 3:30 p.m., so we were bushed).

When we thought the worst was over, when Dad was back and resting, Michael and I went to get Mom a coffee. We figured it wouldn't be long until they wheeled Dad into his overnight room, and Mom could get settled in with him. By the time we got back with the coffee, I saw three of the cath lab nurses clustered around my father, while my mother was leaning with a pained expression over his face. Dad was literally white--even his lips had no color, but his tear ducts and the pink framing his eyes looked as if they were lined with coral lipstick. His blood pressure had plummeted, and blood was pooling under his skin at the surgical site. The curtain was closed, and Michael and I were sent to the waiting room, although Mom was able to stay to help Dad relax.

The nurses got my father stabilized, and Jill, our cath nurse, stayed and applied constant pressure to the wound (to prevent a recurrance) for most of the late afternoon. It was a pretty frightening experience, one that makes me realize and fear so many things.

We were very happy with Sinai, which none of us had heard of before Dad was assigned to have his procedure there. It was wonderfully clean and filled with benign, contemporary art (by benign I mean nothing with a pointed message). One of the works is a striking, three-story black slate wall over which water cascades. Most importantly, the nurses were very caring, capable, and dedicated, which is, in addition to the doctor's talent, one of the most vital parts. We'll be back there to do the second procedure in about a month or so.

In other news, I've got garden pictures. I've got plenty of painting left to do, but here was the start of some of it. In a spirit of complete perversity, I also painted the rusting gas meter a buttery yellow with orange bee stencils (sadly, not yet pictured here):

I also just wrote an Amazon review for Terry Hawkins on his excellent book Rage of Achilles. Here 'tis. I mention the sex part here because another reader-reviewer panned the book for its inclusion of what she termed "soft-porn" scenes:

"In Rage of Achilles, lust and wrath are closely intertwined in the psyche of Hawkins' vividly-depicted protagonist. The direct inclusion of sexuality, while possibly objectionable to some, is actually more period-authentic than either Classicists or prim academicians might like to acknowledge, since sexuality is an integral part of recognized mythological narratives. While the popular imagination may hold antiquity to a sublime ideal--with its influential rhetorical strategies, momentous architecture, and definitive dramatic models, it cannot purge the more untidy stories, like Io, a nymph seduced by Zeus and subsequently turned into a heifer, or Leda and the Swan, which (regardless of 16th century artistic depictions) was a forced rather than consensual encounter perpetrated by Zeus. From Leda and Zeus's union came Helen of Troy, who contributed to the outbreak of the Trojan War.

With his depictions, with his sharp attention to detail, Hawkins gets to the heart of Greek mythology. At its center is an unremitting cycle of sexuality and wrath that defines Classical history.

Hawkins prose is perceptive and powerful, offering penetrating glimpses into each character's ambitions and darker motivations. His characters are far more believable, far more tangible than the original men and women described by Homer, who are as two-dimensional and ascetically profiled as any red-figure pottery painting. (And I certainly don't intend this as negative commentary on Homer's work. Just indicating that the styles differ, and Hawkins' vivid detail facilitates our understanding of their deeper nature). Hawkins' images are vividly observed, and his characters are cinematic in their actions. His scenes are brilliantly defined. Here, the heroic figures--even gods--of antiquity are defined by baser, more authentic human considerations, while still being bound by pre-determined fates they cannot escape.

While it does contain adult material,
Rage of Achilles is a highly absorbing, character illuminating read that reflects the complicated nature of a period from which popular understanding now expects only transcendent abstractions and heartening philosophies."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Der Wald by Gunter Grass and Emotion and Language

At Alex Galleries in Washington, D.C., the works of Gunter Grass are on display. (Click here to see them all....don't be surprised by the "mushrooms", however. Oh, mon ami, they are exactly what you think they are.)

One of the images, which I've included at right , is "Der Wald", a lithograph from 1984. 'Der Wald' means forest, and while we see just one tree--a gnarled, arboreal Leviathan--it might be a forest of words that Grass' title alludes to. Here is a tree whose protective texture is not produced by hardened cellulose, but by a flowing pattern of language, which (at least in this image) I cannot make out very clearly. The beginnings of tender branches shoot outward from the broad trunk as single, slender sentences that reach upward for light and recognition.

To a certain degree, there is a Northern Renaissance feel to Grass' tree....In Grass' work, I can see the tortured shape of Christ as he appears in Matthais Grunewald's triptych, the Isenheim Altarpiece. And although Christianity's dissemination began by way of images (fish, for one) and although the religion has been so dependent upon symbols and icons, it is still defined by way of parables and correspondence, whose basis are words.

John 1: 1-14 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

I remember, in a college course called Senior Value Studies, the theology professor who headed the class asked me (and I paraphrase here) if words preceed emotion. Does emotion exist without words? ThenI thought, as I still do, that of course emotion exists without the ability to express its detail or depth. Babies feel anger and desire and have no words to express themselves. Therefore, they cry. So, too, with children--who fight each other when they are angry. Of course, this extends to adults who have limited capacity to express themselves. (Think of Melville's Billy Budd, who could not defend himself with words and therefore physically lashed out at his accuser, an action that worsened Budd's already difficult situation).

Without language do feelings exist? Of course. But without language can they be adequately understood, examined, measured? Of course not. Do words affect emotion? Absolutely. Still, I started to think of an existence where both emotion and words are irrelevant, and I came up with this. Thanks, Gunter. Looking at your pictures has started something new:

"Belinda had not been born with the gift. Nor had her parents. They were simple country people: the mother’s edges were worn smooth with running the house and dealing with the children who tugged at her stained apron and coarse-ticked skirt; Belinda’s father was a laborer, who traveled to town every day to work in the mill. His fingers were swollen, knobbed, and arthritic. When he spread them, they would not straighten. His pale gray eyes looked down, watering, the lower lid heavy with time rather than emotion. He was a man of few, if any words. His responses were guttural or composed of soundless shrugs and single nods. Words for him, were superfluous. Words were used to express need alone: hunger, thirst, but never desire or emotion. Feelings were largely irrelevant to his daily life.

“Feelings are a luxury for the rich,” said Belinda’s uncle, out of the blue, lifting a chipped glass and inspecting the sediment that floated like pipe tobacco in the amber-colored liquid. Belinda’s uncle appeared often when she was young, too young to help her mother but old enough to know to stay out of the way. The uncle was waiting for his brother to come home. His chores on in his brother’s barn were done, and he was content to drink his brother’s liquor and pest his brother’s wife from three o’clock onward.

Belinda’s mother expressed herself largely by glances, angry or sullen, rarely loving. Even rarer was her use of words. A grimace passed across her features. “Feeling,” she said, spitting the word at the floor as if it were a sliver of rotten potato. “You can’t eat feelings or pay for flour with feelings. Feelings don’t wash clothes or put gas in the car. What do you care about feelings?”

“I suppose I can’t afford to have any,” he chuckled and sipped his whiskey, laying down the glass hard.

“Feelings are for idlers,” she said and was silent. She was peeling potatoes, expertly unspooling thin ribbons of their brown lizard skin into the sink.

So lessoned, Belinda lived in a largely silent world,and eventually found that words came to her not as one long cord of fluent phonics, but untethered, even broken. "
* * * *

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Things, Recent Preoccupations

Listen to this. Beautiful. Beautiful.

Who dat? Well dat's me, pony-tailed and serious about something I no longer remember. This was taken in our living room (on an auntie's hand-me-down couch), which has become my new office. I do all my heavy thinking here.

Sure, I still sit at the desktop in the back room I painted a purple to match a public service/ lightbox Metro-stop advertisement I did for a Smithsonian Libraries' exhibition back in 2001, but for the most part, I work while looking out the front window at the bird feeder. I grade papers, I prepare lectures, I revise fiction on this sofa by the light of our Depression-era floor lamp, which you can see in the glass of one of our prints--and yes, Mom, the lamp is re-wired. Occasionally, I watch the UPS man drop off boxes of books to review for Library Journal. He knows I don't answer the door, so he never bothers to ring anymore. Why do I not answer the door? Because of things like this. And this. The Dalai Lama could stand on our porch, but I won't open that big wooden door unless it's my husband or my father.

To the left? Those are apple dumplings (a.k.a. last night's dinner...see the bowls?) I made them when I got home from work and after I submitted a few stories.

About that....I'm back to writing daily now. At least an hour every day, shutting out all the other distractions. I revised "The Fascinator" once more, so we'll see if it's accepted this time. I've revised it twice at the suggestion of one editor. The story still involves magical realism, but the characters' specific motivations are now more sharply illuminated. What started out as a horror/folklorish tale, written for a yet unpublished anthology, now contains as much human drama as it does surreal detail. We'll see...we'll see...whatever will become of it.

About a year ago, I purchased a slender volume of essays on Flannery O'Connor, including one by Guerilla Girl Alma Thomas. I'm enjoying that right now. I'm a great fan of O'Connor because I recognize in what might be perceived as caricatures, in the dark parables, something more genuine than reality, which too often flickers with misleading illusions. O'Connor references these illusions, but lays bare the less noble motivations that fuel them. Also, O'Connor does not resolve the conflicts, nor does she offer tidy endings, knotting loose ends or flattening complexities to ease comprehension. It is this that makes her work authentic, genuine, and fascinating. When she says "Don't let anything take you away from your words", I hear, and I heed. I excavate my brain for memory fossils that should be collected and examined. Here, a story, there a vital detail. Observe, collect, and organize.

My father is going to have two stents put into his coronary arteries--ones behind his heart--this Friday. The doctors will be inserting just one this week, and the second during another, later surgery. He is taking it easy this week, since he is not allowed to do anything that would increase stress on his heart. I have sent him music, Max Richter's beautiful Blue Notebooks (in which I can hear the landscape of Bavaria, almost as if it's sliding by train windows as I travel past). He is reading Carl Sandburg's biography and talks about it excitedly when we chat on the telephone in the evenings.

Now, back to preparing the lecture for my evening class (at right, one of my two supervisors, sleeping on the clock again). I'll have some updates about some upcoming appearances in the next post. In the meantime, the last paragraph from "The Fascinator":

"Lorraine’s chest, which felt, over the previous days, as if it were filled to her collar bones with lead shot, was struck now by a sharp burst of white heat, by a sudden alertness. She wobbled as she lowered herself towards the floor and knelt reluctantly beside Kitty, who was already mouthing a nearly inaudible prayer and pushing the charms into the baby’s flaccid, ashen flesh. When Lorraine looked at her mother and saw that she, too, gazed open-eyed and without praying at the pine boards beneath her, Lorraine knew that Buella was thinking the same thing. Behind the heavy dread they both carried, out of the sudden radiant terror Lorraine experienced, there came an expectant relief and a damnable hope for freedom."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some thoughts on Wallander

First, some recommended listening for this post:
Marsen Jules
Couer Saignant and Ludovico EinaudiTracce

Last night, I watched Wallander, a BBC adaptation of a fictional detective series written by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell. It’s been liberally hyped on public television every Sunday, and honestly, I was lured not only by the long-angled, abstract beauty of the Swedish landscape where the action supposedly takes place. (Still, this is a vital element, contributing to the narrative power—symbolic are the disorientingly high and flattened horizon lines, the broad expanses of wheat and goldenrod that spread out on either side of unpaved rural roads, the bright opacity of the Swedish skies, which seem to perpetually threaten inhabitants with torrential downpours).

No, there was another reason I was interested, although this was, quite honestly, a secondary concern to my interest in the set and the narrative structure (I’m always looking to see how these mysteries are set up, how information is revealed, when the guns come out and under what circumstances). See, I used to have a thing for Kenneth Branagh, the Branagh of Henry V days, when he was all gold and ego.

Allow me to digress for a moment, while I explain this "gold and ego" comment: this was the early 1990s, and my quasi-obsession with a blonde was fairly unusual. At the time, I was into the Andy Garcia types, the Ken Walls. I went more for the strong Latin and Italian features over the lantern-jawed Nordic or pale Celt. Since that was part of my family lineage, I’d already seen quite enough of it and was looking for something different, something warmer. But Branagh had a charisma, even cockiness (The man wrote his autobiography at 35, called Beginning). He was swaggeringly self-aware in a way that seemed obvious, even to me, who was all of 17 when I first saw his performances.

In Wallander, there is little left of Branagh’s blonde. His hair is a faded gray. And he is haggard. Of course, this is part of the character, but I would say it is attributable to an energy tapped directly from some internal, previously unhewn psychological gorge. (Remember, there was the business with wife Emma Thompson, with lover Helene Bonham Carter, for whom he threw Thompson over. And then there was his total eclipse by both women’s careers. Ouch, indeed. But there's been a resurrgence....he's supposed to appear in Thor, or so I've heard.) Still, there is something else, something deeper: a fatigue I did not recognize before. His eyes, anchored by the puffiness of insomnia, bear pupils that narrow to the size of pinpricks in the cloudy intensity of the Swedish landscape. They are a pale blue that looks washed away, even ghostly... no, haunted.

While I have no comparison point, since I have not seen the European version (I’m fairly certain there is a TV series featuring another actor), I like Branagh's portrayal because I can identify with him so closely. He drinks. He cannot sleep. He works unremittingly. He worries, but does not remain in one place with his thoughts. He moves. He kills, but not without reason and not without sincere remorse afterward. Unarmed, he walks towards a loaded gun as if his balls were made of industrial grade steel, as if he believes a mortal wounding is appropriate penance for the damage inflicted on others. He says, “Enough” when the cavalry arrive and after he tells them to lower their guns. He says it just once, a form of individually emphatic punctuation, perhaps not loud enough for others to hear it, but it means a great deal: it means an end to the killing, the deception, the neglect of his own father—an artist whose dementia leads him to periods of extreme violence—an end to the case, an end to his career.

And here, in last night’s episode, there is evidence of Wallander’s own advance towards dementia. It lingers on the periphery, and he struggles to keep it there. Moving uncertainly through a carnival outside a bank he surveils, he becomes disoriented. The intense sights and sounds, which blur as the camera moves, appear to confuse him. They become overwhelming impressions of color and noise only. He enters the bank with wide eyes, his breathing labored, a perfect good-God look on his face. It seems sincerely felt by the actor himself.

His character is honorable: we are supposed to like him, and we do. He cares. He wants to do right. Will he go insane like his father? Most likely. Is he alone? Absolutely. But aren’t we all, when we get to the stripped-down and unvarnished truth; this is the fundamental nature of all physical and metaphysical knowledge. I quote from Henry V here (when Branagh as ‘Hal,’ identity cloaked by a hood, roams around the camp the night before the battle of Agincourt and takes the temperature of his troops, eventually running into a dissenter, to whom he politely ascribes personal responsibility): “Every soldier’s soul is his own.”

And then: the white horse. Bursting from its stall following the murders, running down the farm lane by moonlight, its surreal nature shocks Wallander when he is on his way to the crime scene. But it is free, loose, returned to the wild, running in the fields by day. But it is an existance it cannot ultimately handle. In the end, it is hit by a car and glows with a tranquil, phosphorescent magnificence under the moonlight. A powerful ending, indeed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories

My review of Janet Frame's post-humously published anthology, Prizes, appears at Gently Read Literature this month. Check it out here.

I found Janet Frame when I was in Germany, actually on a day trip to Hamburg, when I was still living in student housing at the University of Kiel. Pushed beyond my comfort zone and strung out on the continual uncertainty of whether my nouns should be in accusative or dative case, I craved English, although not spoken English...I wanted to glide silently over familiar nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs and not be required to offer any appropriate response, largely because I was beginning to have trouble with English, too. My friends and I used to lose the English words for an object or activity and simply insert the appropriate German word, and we all understood each other. Of course, this method of communication, which we dubbed Germlish, worked less effectively during my telephone calls home, but Mom eventually figured things out based on contextual meaning).

So, in a bookstore in Hamburg, I went to the foreign language section and exhaustedly gazed at all the covers. Not the titles. Not the author names. My tired eyes rested on Frame's first fiction collection, The Lagoon and Other Stories, the slender book that saved her from a lobotomy (although I did not yet know this defining detail). The collection was in paperback form, luring me with its silvery-blue, utterly calming beauty (the exact cover appears above). This mirrored body of water, flanked by a spikey, otherworldly flora that looked simultaneously petrified and alive, caused me to pick up the book and carry it to the register--without so much as flipping to the first page. At that time (I was 22), the cover spoke directly to my projected (and admittedly narrow) understanding of mysticism and its unfathomable nature. (Incidently, that offers a case study on a book cover's power. Sadly, I judged, but happily, I was not disappointed by the contents.) Most importantly, though, the book was in English, and it was just the balm my linguistically fatigued mind needed. (Later, I found Irvine Welsh, whose work was so depressing that it drove me from my apartment to roam the streets of Munich at night....but that's another story.)

This is how I came to know Janet Frame, or at least Janet Frame's work. It was her personal history that fuelled my continued interest in her, especially her statement about the expression "For your own good...", which I made reference to at the beginning of the review. This statement appeals to me every bit as powerfully as Orwell or Huxley's works. It a reminder of the various forms of totalitarian authority I brooked, but survived as an elementary school student, the cruelty of adults and children.

Her evolution as a writer is most evident in Prizes, and it's definitely worth picking up. Her escape from mental death (literally) thanks to her recognized talent informs all her subsequent work. Her wits are honed to a rapier sharpness as she develops and expands her notions of freedom and innocence, subjugation and worldly knowledge.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A New Attitude towards Writing

Just got done publicizing the excellent news about Collagist (And Dzanc Best of the Web) Editor Matt Bell and Hobart Editor Aaron Burch coming to read at the October TNY Presents Event. Unfortunately, I can't be there for the reading because I teach a night class while TNY Presents is going on, so I've temporarily handed over my emcee-duties to Kris and Scott until my semester ends.

Also of important note is Jason Jordan's story "Wolverine", which is currently up at New Yinzer Fiction. Check out his own explanatory blog post on the story here!

Today, on my "day off", I've been doing a little writing. I took part in the nth Word's six-word contest. Example #1 (based on the image at right): Preserved Delphic Oracle roams cities, paranoid. Example#2 (below):Outside Eden, Lilith offers the apple. Talk about an exercise in what I preach to my own students: brevity with precision. I don't know if I achieved that, but it was a nice warm-up for longer work today.

I just found Margaret Bashaar's post about coming to terms with making the writing life work. It is insightful, wise, and affirming--and it resonates. Especially #2, where Margaret explains that she has stopped being so concerned with becoming a "successful" writer, which is to say, "well-known" or at least "recognized". I've found that desire for career success and, by extension, affirmation for my writing has led me to dead ends. My experience with producing American Soma was a process ultimately so disheartening, so filled with wheel-spinning, unexpected monetary outlay, and negative experiences that I became extremely disillusioned. To what end was I pounding my head against the wall, exactly? (I want to be sure to add that I am extremely, extremely grateful to the fellow writers who turned my experience around. Huge thanks are due to Terry Hawkins, Jen Michalski, Jason Jordan, horror writer D.L. Russell, and Iconoclast Editor Phil Wagner, who reviewed the book and helped spread the word. I am really very grateful to them, too, because they reminded me that great, positive energy exists in the writing community. And this keeps a girl going. I, in turn, have been trying to pay it forward as much as possible. Let's keep that good energy rolling among us!

I've realized that writing is less about notoriety and much more about steady creativity and regular sharing. As Margaret Bashaar says in the post above: "I'm a poet now. Which means I write poems. Period."

I so agree. In fact, it's my mantra now: "I'm a writer now. Which means I write stories. Period."

Thanks to Margaret, too.