November 14, 2007

Rehash: The Lost Tribe

[Here is a follow-up to The Loser Tribe. But don't think gloom; it's a higher vibe.]

by Jerome du Bois

I found Joe Baker's essay for "Remix," now on exhibit at the Heard --though he ain't no mo. I read it on Hearsight, and copied it immediately, since the website seems aphasic. As for the essay, I don't know if it's been edited or not, but the point is moot, it should be taken out and shot. A misbegotten thing, it manages to be at once turgid, stentorian, disjointed, and ridiculous, like a man intoning a nursery rhyme while standing in two buckets of manure.

I won't wade in with a total fisk; it's a waste of time, and I'm no masochist. I'm going to focus on what Mr. Baker says about four of the pieces in the exhibition, and I'm going to ignore all but the first of his sudden autobiographical digressions --"The year is 1957"--"It is Ash Wednesday"-- thrust into the reader's precarious attention like a bum lunging out of an alley: "Hey, come back heah, I gotta tell ya--" with no transitions, linking sentences, or explanations as to why the vignette is right there at that point in the . . . thing. Baker does warn the reader: "With Remix, as I've listened and observed, seeking to feel the mood or temperature of this artists' collective, old stories have emerged, re-invented themselves,and become relevant again." Relevant to him, maybe, but they don't do anything for me. And these easy careless airy phrases: just how did the stories "re-invent themselves"? What bullshit. Basic anthropomorphism, Baker. Only people can invent and re-invent stories; the stories just sit there until revision. I understand poetic license, too; I just think he's operating without one. And it really isn't an "artists' collective," is it? It's just a cull from the Rolodex based on a cliché.

The guy's a blowhard and a hypocrite, big surprise. Who do these people think they're writing for? Answer's easy: each other. Anybody else, they don't really take seriously, because they think they can talk over them, using words like "challenging" and "transgressive" and "hegemony" and "other" and "colonialism," rolling them toward you like juggernauts. But they're just papiér mache Hollywood boulders, echoing hollow when you knock them out of your way. Here's Joe:

I would never presume to use an artist's work to illustrate a concept or idea.

Sure. Get me up off the floor. As I wrote in "Dazed and Confused In The Glittering World," that's exactly what he did with Steve Yazzie's Monument Valley driving and drawing stunt, by vamping "The Vanishing American" over it. And his motivating idea, another big surprise, was as old and dried up as buffalo chips.

Mr. Baker, the drum is trying to tell you that it's tired.

Mr. Baker, the horse's ghost is trying to tell you that it's dead.

Mr. Baker and his crew think writing is a disagreeable chore --and it is, when he and his simpleminded thumbfingered numbskulls attempt it. And they think reading should be the same way. The hell with that. As the music-loving Emperor of Austria once said, "Let's have some fun."

In the last piece I mentioned in passing a Joe Baker howler: "Whatever the case, mediocrity no longer held my attention." It was about him watching an old house being torn down and a new --a newfangled-- house being built down the street from his parents' home in Dewey, Oklahoma, when he was a kid. Just before that, he writes:

Perhaps the events unfolding then [the house construction] were some kind of rite of passage, an inevitable coming of age played out during the cold war period following World War II. Or perhaps creativity was being unlocked in me, propelling me toward an attraction for the original that still moves me today. Whatever the case . . .

Guy's as swoony as a hothouse flower. What wonderful unseen force, arriving from somewhere, was "unlocking" the sleeping beauty of his creativity and leaving behind an unerring compass toward the original? This is all retrospective, remember; no eleven-year-old phrases his thoughts and feelings that way. Baker reminds me of Richard Papen, the twenty-year-old protagonist of Donna Tartt's college murder mystery, The Secret History. In the opening paragraph, she perfectly nails the hyperventilating self-involved romanticism of the young:

Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

Am I making fun of Joe Baker? I don't think I have to, he's doing fine by himself.

This is the house that moved him so much, by the way: the Comer House. Photo by Jack McSorley. Okeydokey. Whatever floats your spaceship, man.

I have to assume that he showed drafts of his essay to others; or maybe he didn't have to; maybe that's why, for example, the sentence

How could contemporary architecture illicit such angry responses of disgust, outrage, suspicion?

slid by everybody involved: nobody read carefully. That's illicit editing, idnit?

I'm dwelling on this story because it's relevant, not to "Remix," but as a clue to the kind of cultural profile Joe Baker wants to project --edgy, avant-garde, brave. Apparently the Comer house elicited

incidents of vandalism, and letters to the editor of the local newspaper referring to the residence as a monstrosity, an eyesore. The Comers themselves were rumored to be Communists, Progressives, individuals to watch out for.

Then we "fast forward" to 2006 and the third season of Artspeak at the Heard Museum. Artspeak, presumably curated by our hero, got generally good reviews, but . . .

Letters to the museum director employed declarative language to say, "Shame on the Heard!" Rumors questioned the authenticity of the artists and the squandering of valuable museum resources on "claptrap." Accusations that the curators supported political propaganda were common. I took to wondering whether I might be accused of espionage.

I myself question the authenticity of the old word "claptrap" but what the hell, there are probably plenty of wised-up geezers who care about the Heard. And who says employed declarative language to say ? Isn't that about three words worth of redundancy? And do rumors question anything? He's squandering valuable word meanings. And the sarcastic reference to espionage, evoking the McCarthy era, falsely collapses the distance between then and now, as if there has been zero progress. A lie. But now Joe Baker has the aura of pushing the envelope, no mediocrity here.

Really? Just before he begins his descriptions of the pieces in the exhibition, he sums up the approaches of the artists with a quotation which he obviously thinks is a real zinger:

Perhaps they relate to Fab Five Freddy's fabulous summation of postmodernism and the hip-hop aesthetic: to "take a bit from here and a bit from there and bring them all together . . . yet not forgetting history."

How lame can you get, Mr. Baker? Is this you laying out your street cred? Shouting out your props to your peeps and all that other stupid debased lingo in a pathetic attempt to appeal to youth culture, not exactly the avant-garde of any society. Sheeple, more likely. Are you not six decades old, sir?

Mr. Freddy's sentence is not a fabulous summation of anything, but a typical example of mediocrity in all modes: in concept, formulation, and expression. Clueless Freddy is simply describing a normal human's thinking life. Baker's impressed, but I see a toddler who thinks he invented walking.

Enter Exhibit One of these bits from here and there:

Bernard Williams’s Charting America provides a clear and direct example. Art historian and critic Kathryn Kramer observes, “These cultural charts evoke a nonlinear historical consciousness at odds with the notion of a progressive evolution from past through present to future that marks the historical consciousness of Western nations.”

Actually, Ms. Kramer, progressive evolution is not a notion and not part of anyone's consciousness; it's inextricably tied to the arrow of time and to social organization. You know: people improving their lot. That's why satellites supplanted smoke signals, dig? And if you follow the symbols on the wall, they do describe a natural timeline, with sailing ships at the beginning and TVs and computers at the end.

Black cutouts resembling silhouettes—art for the common people in colonial New England—arranged in horizontal bands against a white background provide cultural clues to Western expansion and the societies that have inhabited North America. The cutouts move across the visual field like streaming text messages in Times Square, creating a new language of postcolonial cultural mixtures.

Objection to the use of the word "language," which is a far more complex entity than this mélange with no structure, grammar, or syntax. Baker is trying to float Williams's flatfooted wall.

Williams has researched the myth of the American west, combing archives, museums, and historical societies throughout the United States.

I'm confused: is he researching the "myth" or the history of the American West? Or is he confused? Now I'm more confused.

His studio, on Chicago’s Westside, is itself a vast archive of references, books, and publications.

None of it online. Thanks, Mr. Williams.

Charting America, embedded with narrative symbols of a collision of American Indians, Hispanics, Africans, and Europeans rewrites American history. The viewer is reminded of a story unfolding, with all the tropes of colonial exclusivity giving way to a more complex tale of past and present.

Selective more than complex. Notice he has room for plenty of guns, for example --two M-16s?-- but no room for airplanes. I guess Kitty Hawk was in Europe somewheres, huh? How about the light bulb, Mr. Williams --the one over Tom Edison's head-- so that we may illuminate your silly wall? I'm reminded of a story, all right, the same old anti-American crap that's been coming out of the academy and the art world for over twenty years. What's new?

And hey, Mr. Williams, what's it like out there on the ragged edge of acceptance, struggling, sweating, scraping, fighting white racists every bloody step of the way, trying to overcome the continuing crushing legacy of the white male hegemony? You poor bastard! But you won't share Louis Sullivan's fate, will you? though you pick your way through his black curves and marching patterns like a bower bird after its booty. And you won't die alone and broke in a Chicago hotel room, thanks to progress, the evolving law, and the USA. He only has immortality; you have tenure.

Baker describes Exhibit Two, Kent Monkman's gay Indian riff, which I won't even go looking for an example of:

Playing on the voyeuristic tendency of how Native people are perceived by the art establishment, Kent Monkman’s installation Shooting Geronimo doesn’t hold back. The painted tipi, perhaps a stand-in for an adult video booth, features sexually charged cowboys and Indians acting out in a highly eroticized scene, complete with a Monument Valley backdrop. The cast, including Thosh Collins, Quetzal Guerrero, and Alex Meraz, masterfully fulfills the dominant culture’s every fleshly desire of the exotic “other.” Caramel to cinnamon and buff, they subvert and dislodge society’s appetite for the sensationalized Native. . . . His earlier series of paintings, The Moral Landscape—appropriations of the romantic landscapes by 19th-century American painters Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, George Catlin, and Paul Kane—have challenged Christian ideologies and the notion of Manifest Destiny. According to Monkman, the paintings “investigate the relationship of sexuality to conquest, xenophobia and imperialism. In my versions, the familiar players in North American history (Indians, explorers, and cowboys) are reconfigured in provocative and humorous sexual vignettes set against sublime landscapes. Emulating the context of the original paintings as ethnological documentation, or pictures from a travelogue, my paintings play with power dynamics within sexuality to challenge historical assumptions of sovereignty, art, commerce, and colonialism.”

We didn't see the tipi, thankfully, but we did see his tiny antiqued photos of himself in (really bad) drag, and a painting of a guy leaning off his horse to embrace another guy. I quote all the above because I want to tell you that Kent Monkman leaves out the most important part of what it used to mean to be Native American, tribal, and homosexual: you were a shaman; you were Berdache. You were the bridge between everything the tribe knew and everything else. You were a door and a doorway, the one --the only one-- who stepped boldly into a darkness blacker than night. You were honored and envied, your status the equal of even a war strategist like Crazy Horse.

It is absolutely no suprise to me that Kent Monkman and all these newfangled Indians are running like the dickens from spirituality: it would hand their own hollow hearts back to them, and they might have to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. For now, for them, what's important to foreground is provocation, play, and low humor; they avoid like the plague the uncanny mysteries of the real Other; life is but a joke, and there's a hole in the sky where God used to be.

And the gay thing is so old, you guys. Most people in the larger world don't care what's going on in the back of Geronimo's Cadillac. It's so over that it's done and gone.

Exhibit Three --Anna Tsouhlarakis's video "Let's Dance"-- we wrote about in The Loser Tribe, but now we have more information:

. . . was created during a residency at . . . Skowhegan . . . where, over the course of thirty days, she danced thirty dances with people from diverse cultures. The multiplicity of traditional dances, including the hora, Indian two-step, Harlem shake, and Irish jig, allows the artist entry into “other” space, while placing the “other” into the artist’s space. Through this out-of-joint participation, Tsouhlarakis constructs a kind of pictorial grammar, creating a certain time-out from cultural identity. She creates a radically neutral time.

In other words, she becomes even more of a lazy talentless nobody than she was thirty days previously. Sorry, Mr. Baker, but all the huffing and puffing, all the juking and jiving, won't keep this tired idea hoofing. As we already noted, she insults all the dances and all the traditions: by not rehearsing, or preparing, or respecting them one damned bit. This is art? This is preparation? This is postgraduate thinking? This is cleaning an idea? This is an idea? I'm truly floored: The "other" talk is a decrepit skeleton on crutches, stumbling and crumbling into busted-up dust, yet it still gets some pretty big bang for its limpydoodle buck.

As part of our recent Gershwin-era kick, we got hold of some Fred & Ginger movies, including "Shall We Dance." The scene where they sing and dance and tap dance --on roller skates-- to "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" required 150 takes. Of course there's no comparison, but Ms. Tsouhlarakis didn't even try to master just one of those dances.

Now the reader's asking, Why does this guy bother? Good question, because I don't get a damned thing out of it except the grim satisfaction of not letting people get away with bullshit. You know, on Sunday somebody(s) from The Heard Museum spent more than two hours on The Tears Of Things, reading what you would expect. We don't know who it was. Did they comment? No. Did they send us an email? No. Did they try to engage in dialogue with us in any way? No. So, yes, we see you, you multiculti cowards, not only your hideyhole hypocrisy and your eagerness to bayonet the wounded, but your embarrassingly obvious inability to challenge idea with idea, reason with reason.

So why do I bother? Because they're accountable. They're out there in the world, making moves, making claims, dropping their rap, dropping names. It's my world, too, so I call them to account, because I think they're warping the culture into a worse than disagreeable state.

Exhibit Four is the well-known Hector Ruiz, who we also wrote about in the Loser Tribe. Here's part of what Baker has to say about Ruiz:

Shunning mechanization to create his provocative wood sculptures, the artist carves away the façade of rhetoric and language and cuts to the core of inequity and divisiveness in the human race. Revealing hidden histories in which racist acts today are linked to those of the past, Ruiz underscores the reality of racial oppression as a clash between Western thought (power/superiority) and indigenous culture. For Ruiz, identity is symbolically played out on the streets, in the museums and cultural institutions, and in the bedrooms of Phoenix every day. Art critic Lara Taubman notes, “Ruiz’s work encompasses the broad, complex, and often painful world particular to the Arizona and neighboring Mexican landscape. United States and Mexican border issues, immigration, conflicts of gender and sexuality, and urban development oblivious to the needs of the individual and the landscape create a combinative world that is seen through Ruiz’s own emotionally critical lens instead of through a universal one.”

Sorry to inflict Taubman's inflated rhetoric on the reader --a "combinative world?"-- but this is what comes out of the head of an independent curator who's part of the problem, so you get what you get.

When Baker writes,

Ruiz underscores the reality of racial oppression as a clash between Western thought (power/superiority) and indigenous culture

he's telling a couple of lies. First, Ruiz is so racially oppressed that businessman Treg Bradley, a product of Western thought, bought up his whole Heard show not long ago, and Remix will give him more mileage and cachet. While Ruiz is badly carving satirical statues of white businessmen, and generally making anti-American, anti-capitalist gestures, he (and Bradley) benefit from the whole American system. Ruiz isn't blind to it; he's laughing at the gringos behind their backs.

Second, Baker, who elsewhere makes much of cultural oversimplification and stereotyping, actually wants us to think there are no power/superiority "issues" in indigenous cultures, as if they live under a bell jar in Eden, without conflict, without envy, serene and superior to the rest of us.

I said four examples, and there they are. I've made my points, so now I'm off to work on something else. I don't want to drag this on--

but there's just one more thing. Joe Baker is now gone from the Heard as a curator, and Brady Roberts is gone from the Phoenix Art Museum as a curator, and Jim Ballinger mentioned on Hearsight resolving their "curator issue," and Robert Sentinery is always casting about for themes for JAVA, so why not a Curator Issue?

Once again, you can thank us later.

Posted by Jerome at November 14, 2007 11:30 AM | TrackBack