January 26, 2004

Matthew Ritchie: See the Glory of the Royal Scam

by Jerome du Bois

From Ralph Blumenthal's review of Matthew Ritchie's big Houston show:

HOUSTON, Jan. 19 -- You don't have to know that Astoreth is a hermaphrodite and the lover of Stanley, a one-eyed card sharp also known as Satan-El, and that both are members of the Gamblers, who occupy a party suite at the Brockton Holiday Inn just outside Boston on Route 24 the moment before the Big Bang. (Tuesday, 1/20/04 NYT)

People seem to be very easily impressed these days with anyone who sounds like they can recite the alphabet all the way to L. I've written about Matthew Ritchie before, as one example of quasi-scientific thinking -- and image-making -- smuggling its way into art. (It was in my long essay New Eyes: How Darwin Clears the Day So You Don't Have To See Forever -- the first part of An Aesthetic First Aid Manual For Artists™, to which this present piece is a second installment.) In the meantime, physicists present truly mind-blowing theories (and findings) in cosmology and quantum mechanics; evolutionary biologists and psychologists are mapping the brain; Darwinism is turning out to be a powerful tool in all the sciences of human nature.

But artists would rather create gimmicks like glowing rabbits or private worlds, or even parodies of private worlds, than really examine what the sciences can contribute to strengthening the meaning in artworks by getting artists to look at the real world.

The quotation above doesn't qualify. It's part of Ritchie's vaunted 7 x 7 matrix of characters and notions, a spreadsheet of wannabe archetypes he cobbles together and runs through the permutations. It's videogame-generation mutual masturbation, chopped-up moments in an endless card game (he uses actual cards), endlessly reshuffled, and boundlessly meaningless. (Then again, he said, "maybe it's entirely possible I've got the wrong idea.") And everybody's impressed:

"It all makes sense," said Virginia Mohlere, a medical copy editor attending the show. "It's a combination of alchemy and mythology that can only be done in art." She said people shouldn't get too hung up on the content. "Even if it doesn't stand up to linear knowledge," she said, "it makes great art."

Linear knowledge is such a drag, it's so restrictive, it's so . . . hard. Holland Cotter earlier, in 2000, NYT: engaging, even peppy to look at, densely coded and encyclopedic in content . . . The results smack equally of medieval scholasticism and molecular science, with an air of epic-poetic grandeur keeping the whole thing afloat.

Patricia C. Johnson, Houston Chronicle:

[the show transforms the museum] "into a fun house of graffiti . . . Ritchie is very persuasive in illustrating the idea of a universe in which everything happens at once in a seamless continuum of space and time."

Back to Ritchie's rich narrative:

. . . arriving visitors are given a card from his deck representing any of his 49 characters, including Beelzebub, also known as Bubba, who is eviscerated by his fellow Gambler Lucifer, known as Lucky, who is in turn decapitated in an evil deed exemplifying the deterioration of everything.

I was just about to say . . . Lynne Herbert, senior curator, continues:

Purson (the Timkeeeper and the seventh gambler) shows up and carries away Lucifer's head. This action represents the integration of energy, light, material and time (E=mc² ), or as Ritchie states, the basic conditions necessary for art making.

Basic. Another excerpt:

There was a crowd in the [Extrocomputer] center; some bright heads playing Prime against the Extro (and losing), and Spangland's popular broadcast serial, The Rover Girls. We chased the kids but we couldn't chase the broadcast: Serious Dick, Fun-Loving Tom, and Sturdy-Hearted Sam are now cadets at the Pentagon Military Academy (after their transsex operations in Denmark) and are buying pot, poppers, googies -- Wait, whoa, my mistake, that's really an excerpt from Alfred Bester's 1974 sci-fi novel The Computer Connection. How did that get in there?

Can we get serious, people? Mr. Ritchie is one smooth, savvy operator -- "The Fine Constant," "The God Impersonator," "The Proposition Player," dice made from the anklebones of prehistoric elk! -- but his whole glossy Sintra-clad machine don't do nuthin, don't go nowhere. And we've been there. Artist Mark Tansey once said, "A painted picture is a vehicle. You can sit in your driveway and take it apart, or you can get inside it and go somewhere." When you take apart Ritchie's enterprise -- examine his M-Theory references, his angelic hierarchies, his spacetime geodesics from event horizon to event horizon -- he's just another card sharp who accompanies his cartoon surrealism with some clever patter delivered by his "infinite battery," his "engine for building imagery," as he once called his system. (Sounds like Keith Tyson's artmachine.) And what does it end up like? It doesn't end up at all. Nancy Princenthal, Art in America, May 2001: " . . . every stable ontological and material category becomes as slippery as mercury, and every kind of data seems headed for translation into another." Back and forth, round and round, deal the cards, pay the man, see the glory of the Royal Scam.

Consider the backstory to this silver film of science overlaying his work:

An indifferent student at St. Paul's in London where the alumni include John Milton, another avid cosmologist, Mr. Ritchie won a scholarship to study art at Boston University. He traveled cross country by bus and landed a job as a building super at 107 Mercer Street in SoHo.

"The great thing about being a super, you get to read a lot," Mr. Ritchie said. He read discarded science textbooks left behind by New York University students and wrote hallucinatory tales that read like Alfred Döblin on LSD.

This sounds apocryphal to me. Nancy Princenthal called Ritchie "an accomplished autodidact" in M Theory. I doubt it, not by the above method -- M Theory (including string theory), according to the pros, is the most complicated physics there is -- but these days you can't say As I was on the road from Athens to Sparta, I came upon a two-headed snake, so people mythologize with the material around them, I guess.

Ritchie's matrix can be see as an artist's attempt to trap, or record, or display, the overwhelming complexity of knowledge, the impossibility of assimilating it all. To me it represents a profound surrender of reason to a cynical marketing strategy based on public ignorance. (A medical copy editor, one would think, deals with rigorous language every day. Yet read her reaction.)

I see his matrix as mere justification for ignorance -- or, not so much ignorance a kind of polyglot database of information in which no one piece of data or drama is more important than any other, but it's pretty or it glitters or it's hinky or it's kinky, so it flies for awhile.

Meanwhile, we're sailing through the sea of stars. The real world only moves forward, and we are all timebound, myopic, going concerns. Should I spend (check the etymology) my precious time either reading this proposition player's dense nonsense narratives, or marveling at the meticulous meaninglessness of his shaggy-geometric wallworks and extensions?

Consider, for example, George Dyson's well-developed notion that we cannot help helping our machines -- mostly the information ones -- evolve, and connect, and network, and mutate:

In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.

I think about what a different Tom Sachs than the one we have would have done with that idea. Dyson himself -- yes, he's from that family (father Freeman, sister Esther, and his lesser know mathematician mother, Verena-Huber Dyson) -- is a true autodidact, and his book Darwin Among The Machines is the partly autobiographical story of how a self-taught polymath kayak-builder who lived high up in a tree house in British Columbia for a couple of years developed a futuristic theory about computers by reading Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Butler and Erasmus Darwin, for the luvvapete.

Consider, for example, physicist Frank Tipler's Omega Point Theory, in which everybody who ever lived is going to be resurrected at the end of time. It's probably mistaken, but it's rigorous, exciting, and derived from respected foundations; so that reading the book he wrote about it -- The Physics of Immortality -- is a basic education in physics and its big ideas. Sometimes all you need is one or two to start a whole new line of thought. For example, if we know the universe is going to last 100 billion years, why are we only studying the first 20? Tipler took seriously the question of the far future, which led him to another assumption, the Universal Life Postulate, shared by many brilliant physicists (including Freeman Dyson): let the universe be such that Life -- "the society of intelligent living beings" -- continues on forever, literally until the end of time. And he was on his way. And the result was clear, understandable, and, most importantly, testable. (The OPT is now waiting for the heavy Higgs boson.)

Finally, because it has to do with cards, in a way, I'd like to mention a really esoteric theory, which is discussed in Lee Smolin's Life of the Cosmos. It is definitely not Smolin's own theory -- cosmic evolution -- which I think is on the right track because it extends Darwinism to universal scale. I wrote about that -- with an extended, beautiful quotation from Smolin -- in the New Eyes piece.

No, physicist Julian Barbour asked a different question, but it shows what happens when one focuses and reasons. Barbour wondered, Can time exist in a simple universe, or does time demand complexity? In other words, time may not be fundamental to the universe's structure. (I won't go into the middle part.) What he ends up with is what he calls the heap -- the universe as discrete moments, or time capsules, all piled together like photos in a cigar box -- or cards in a deck. They get sorted out because the world (the universe) is highly organized.

Now, I'm not asking artists to be scientists or to restrict their depictions to reflect scientific truths. I am saying their art would be stronger if they did, and their minds would have stronger, stranger imaginations. Investigating these questions, learning about the million-year-collisions of galaxies -- as if in some celestial demolition derby -- and the wondrous things those crude collisions create -- or how someday our descendants, who may be individual/collective living entities as large as solar systems, will bend the gravitational shear to point us toward Heaven -- well, that beats deciphering the antics of Ritchie's Stanley and Lucky anytime.

Let me close with an extended quotation from Richard Feynmann -- I call it "The Dance of the Phosphorus" -- spoken at a lecture in 1988, but sadly still true today, I say:

Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific article may say, "The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks." Now, what does that mean?

It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of the rat -- and also in mine, and yours -- is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.

So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago -- a mind which has long ago been replaced.

To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out -- there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.

Posted by Jerome at 11:10 PM | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

Jon Routson and What's Wrong With The American Male

by Jerome du Bois

I just found out (nobody tells me anything) that Bret McCabe (whipcrack name, eh?) of Baltimore's Citipaper Online has a piece about ripoff-artist artist Jon Routson, which quotes my earlier piece, Stealing Is The New Appropriation. (McCabe's piece is well-researched and well-written, and way too sympathetic; in fact, I think he's been played like a banjo, but I'll get to that below.) Greg Allen -- yeah, The Greg Allen of greg.org -- even has a new comment in that earlier piece, which I briefly reply to there.

On his own blog, he refers to me (without linking or a name) as a "wannabe playah with a weblog." Typical ignorant arrogance: if Mr. Allen read even one of my essays (or Catherine King's), he would know that the last thing we need or want to be is "playahs" of any kind, especially in the empty-headed games he and his cohort (I refer to the sociological term) promote (hence the title). We are totally independent, deeply backgrounded, highly motivated, beholden to no one, and grinding the ax of truth -- and we're not afraid to swing it.

Back to the title. I detect the scent of synchronicity. Ms. King had discarded her essay Jon Haddock and What's Wrong With the American Male, which you can read about here; but then we realized that the commenters on our Jon Haddock walkout -- Franklin Einspruch and John Spiak -- were actually helping Ms. King with her project: they were, in their own ways, writing parts of this essay. And so does Gregory Sale, from the Appropriation piece. And so does Greg Allen. And so does Jon Routson. We'll be gathering those threads together in later posts, but for now . . . From McCabe's article:

He is the last person to ask about the meaning of his work. Not that he doesn't know, just that it's not always fully formed.

"I don't really make art in the proper way," Routson says. "The bootlegs aren't profound or have anything to say -- like I didn't make them because I was trying to say some big idea. The meaning of the work never really comes together for me until later, until after the work has been finished, after it has been shown, after it comes down and I'm back at home thinking about it, and it's like, 'Oh, this was about this.'"

And this: "I guess I still have this naive idea about art," Routson muses. "I started making art just to make friends. People would come see the work, and then we'd have something to talk about. And I guess in a way I still do. I know I will eventually have to make work I can and want to sell if I want to make a living as an artist, but I can't really think about creating the work for that reason. It's just not the way I work." [This guy's had a good, well-paying, steady job of one kind or another since 1987; he's not some struggling artist.]

Routson also has a photo-album type series wherein he hires mall Easter Bunnies for portrait photos. Well, that's an easy one to extend -- mall Santas, Birthday Clowns, Sci-Fi-Con Attendees, Ku Klux Klan members -- no, wait, that's been done. (There's also some new guy named Christian Holstad being promoted by another new guy named Daniel Reich. One of his . . . pieces consisted of photocopying every NY Library reference to "homosexual" and displaying it someplace. Thin concepts like these make Tyler Green's Wal-Martists seem positively profound.)

McCabe reports on Routson's Bunnies in an earnest way, and Routson comes across as a media-soaked, post-slacker male puzzling out his troublesome relationship with this lifelong audiovisual flood. What horseshit.

This guy has been in and out of art schools and the art world for about fifteen years. He worked for Vito Acconci's studio. He's got degrees. He worked five years doing records management for the Justice Department. He's competent. And empty.

There is no hunger in Routson, no lack, no dissatisfaction. He's found a gimmick, a shtick, and he's working it. He's smug, and fashionably rumpled in every way, and he knows his lines -- that is, he knows that for art-world "playahs" to understand him, he has to come across as dumb as a bag of elbows:

"They [Koons, R.Prince, Richter] make art that's kind of about art, but not in a very pretentious way," Routson says. "It's coming from some conceptual somewhere. All work, even painting, it's always based conceptually first. It's funner. It feels like you're doing something, instead of just making something to be looked at."

Ah, well. Keep it coming, fellas, we'll make What's Wrong With The American Male an occasional series here at The Tears of Things, where we continue to read it and weep.

[By the way, for now I'm herding every guy I've named above, except Richter and Acconci and myself, under the umbrella of the title. I doubt that, after more research, I'll change my mind about any of them. We'll see. Upcoming: Matthew Ritchie -- another one of 'em. ]

Posted by Jerome at 10:48 AM | TrackBack

January 20, 2004

The Silence of the Zombies

[The title refers to this post, which new readers will need for background.]

by Jerome du Bois

Artist Hiedi Hesse has apparently declined to address our questions about Jon Haddock’s recent slide presentation, which dishonored 9/11/01 at WTC among other tragedies, and why she didn’t have any problem with it. She had previously emailed a response to us about another story which had another disagreeable truth she didn’t want to look at; the response simply said “remove please” in the subject line. (Probably because Kathleen Thomas of Studio LoDo told her to.) So we didn’t bother her thereafter; but we felt, in this piece, that we had to, in the interest of fairness, give her notice. So we did. The response: “REMOVE PLEASE” in the subject line. Nothing else, except directions to her website.

I have no idea if Ms. Hesse read our remarks, but I do remember hers from her facile and insensitive “U.S. Citizen Handbook” presentation. The word “vacillation,” which she used about herself, comes to mind: she’s wondering whether to become a US citizen. Word of advice to Heidi Hesse: don’t bother. We need people with backbone here.

Curator John Spiak has, I believe, blocked our IP address and joined ASU Professor Neal Lester -- another academic obsessed with hair -- in a spidey hole. At least, we got bounced when we emailed him on the zombie story; we never got bounced before. And nothing since. Somebody else with only virtual backbone. Our questions stand.

Jon Haddock: The culprit at the center. Zero response. We’re pretty sure he’s been keeping up with the discussion, but we have no idea. It’s all-stop-quit-quiet with him, and has been from the beginning.

For the rest of the silent ones out there in Scottsdale, Phoenix, the fat and sassy Valley of the Sun: let’s not forget that the discussion began with an image that no one besides us so far has challenged, not even Haddock’s hosts at Rhodes College in Memphis; Rhodes.edu, who checked in again this morning.

This image. Never forget.

[I have posted my response to Franklin Einspruch -- who is not silent -- on this subject in the comments, below his, to All You Zombies Read This.]

Posted by Jerome at 05:53 PM | TrackBack

January 18, 2004

Zvi Mazel is a Mensch

by Jerome du Bois

From LittleGreenFootballs yesterday:

The Israeli ambassador to Sweden [Zvi Mazel]completely lost it at the opening of a new exhibition at Stockholm’s Museum of National Antiquities, and smashed an exhibit glorifying the Islamic Jihad mass murderer who blew up the Maxim restaurant: Ambassador wrecks suicide bomber exhibit in Sweden.[actually an update of original story. Also, LGF now has links to video that show he didn't really lose his temper, but calmly dismantled the piece.]

Located in the museum’s courtyard, “Snow White and the Madness of Truth” depicted a smiling Hanadi Jaradat, the Maxim restaurant suicide bomber who killed 21 patrons and staff as well as herself on October 4. Her photograph was placed on a little boat floating in a basin filled with water dyed red.

From today's New York Times:

"When I saw it, I became a bit emotional," Mr. Mazel said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. "There was the terrorist, wearing her perfect makeup and floating on the blood of my people."

You can see a photo there on the page, and above the little boat the two bozos -- Gunilla Skold Feiler and her husband Dror -- that made the thing. Interestingly, Mrs. Feiler couldn't seem to keep her homicide/suicide bombers straight:

Mrs. Feiler told Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, that the work was not intended as "a glorification of the suicide bomber." Instead, she said, "I wanted to show how incomprehensible it is that a mother of two — who is a lawyer no less — can do such a thing," apparently conflating the Haifa bomber with an attack carried out on Wednesday by another Palestinian woman.

Who can blame her for her confusion? The murderers are busy these days.

The Feilers are typical of many contemporary artists who still think they are somehow special, that what they have to say is important and original, and that the appellation artist still carries some automatic ineffable cachet. So they think they get to operate with impunity outside the bounds of civilized society, spitting (and worse) on people, and getting all indignant when you call them on it. [Sounds like recent events on this blog.] And, since most people go along, and their teachers have never taught them anything, we now endure the dictatorship of artistic mediocrity, where the only tool they can deploy anymore -- since they lack talent, imagination, and sensitivity -- is shock. That adolescent tactic is almost a hundred years old, and it now carries the further insult -- beyond merely irritating the complacent bourgeosie -- of artists sitting contentedly in gore and offal, happily splashing like spoiled babies in the blood of the innocent.

And everybody's smiling.

It's no accident that it took someone completely outside the Swedish artistic sphere to raise a righteous ruckus about this outrage. And, after what we witnessed (and didn't witness) at SMoCA last week, I wonder if anyone there that night, seeing the Feilers' piece, would have so much as lifted a stenciled eyebrow.

[Update: For a completely different, and mind-boggling, take on this incident, go check out this post at Franklin Einspruch's artblog.net, which opens with these sentences:

It is my wish [!] that the problems in the Middle East end in peace, not fire and death. I also expect political artists to know what they're talking about. It therefore discourages me to hear today that an Israeli diplomat misinterpreted a bad piece of art by clueless artists in Stockholm and went apeshit over it.

Misinterpreted. It's not the Stockholm artists who are clueless, it's those who think they are. The Feilers know exactly what they're doing.]

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January 14, 2004

Jon Haddock Has No Bottom

by Jerome du Bois

Last night Catherine and I attended the first "Slide Slam" at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, where

Arizona artists talk informally about their work, then participate in a group discussion moderated by collectors, followed by light refreshments and . . .

-- but we didn't get that far. We sat through Heidi Hesse's awkward presentation (how do you forget the obvious name of one of your own artworks? how hard is it to work a laptop computer?), then it was Jon Haddock's turn.

Standing at the podium behind the laptop, Haddock explained that he was working on a series (in a visual media that he did not identify) that depicted traumatic, violent events as Thirties-style, black-and-white cartoons, using dogs, cats and rats instead of people. He also said he tried to pick events that were relatively unknown, or older, such as the Zoot Suit riots. Then he started showing images:

(bink) "Bobby Hutton, Black Panther, shot by police."

(bink) "The murder of a transsexual."

(bink) "The murder of a transvestite."

(bink) "World Trade Center --"

Whap! went Catherine's pen on her notebook. We looked at each other, stunned and horrified, as Haddock went on -- (bink) "West Bank suicide bomber" --

"Let's go," Catherine whispered to me, reaching for her coat. We grabbed our stuff and walked out. As we crossed the long, wide lobby of The Scottsdale Center for the Arts, no one else of the thirty-five audience members followed us.

We had seen enough of Haddock's work over the last three years to be familiar with his project of callously trivializing violence, and with his wearisome and thoroughgoing contempt for human dignity. One of the first pieces of his we saw -- In John Spiak's "Survival" show at some designer's apartment -- were little clay figures held by dowels in midair off a white wall, one pair from movies, the other pair . . . the other pair jumped, hand-in-hand, from one of the Towers. (It's a famous image; creeps like Tucson artist Mark Rubin-Toles, as he once told us, couldn't get enough of it. "They play it over and over again on Mexican TV," he said, smiling.)

Here again Haddock conflates single murders with mass murders (thus denigrating both), but he must humiliate the doomed victims leaning out the windows even further by turning them into dogs, cats, and rats. This pimp has no bottom.

Now I'm really looking forward to Catherine King's upcoming, comprehensive and deeply researched essay, Jon Haddock And What's Wrong With The American Male.

[UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments, where we hear from John Spiak, and reply.]

Posted by Jerome at 07:31 AM | TrackBack

January 13, 2004

Einspruch's Artsfeed

Franklin Einspruch of artblog.net has gone and done all art bloggers a valuable service:


A collection of syndicated feeds from arts and culture blogs brought to you by Franklin Einspruch, author of Artblog.net. "You syndicate, we aggregate."™

It's a great idea -- syndication, aggregation, congregation -- and it's going on our blogroll for sure. Check it out.

Posted by Jerome at 03:37 PM | TrackBack

January 05, 2004

A Lived Life

by Jerome du Bois

On November 5, 1997, Christopher Hitchens delivered an address at Columbia University which, when it found its way into print (in Salmagundi 118-119, S/S 1998), was called "Secular Values and Republican Virtues: Resisting the Virtual and the Vicarious." (Not available online, sadly. It's a gold mine.)

If you're wondering about the subtitle, the essay is full of examples, but I want to use one that Hitchens gives towards the end. He quotes the Hungarian writer Georg Konrad (one of Hitchens's favorites, but not mine). Now, remember that Hitchens was speaking in 1997, when "online diairies" were just beginning, and that Konrad wrote this ten years earlier, in 1987, in a time and place where there was hardly any internet at all -- still only samizdat -- much less a blogosphere:

Have a lived life instead of a career. Put your days in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. If you don't like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.

It seems odd but true to me that the evanescent, electronic blogosphere -- prickly, fermenting, resisting categorization, sprouting eleventeen heads every minute -- is anything but virtual, anywhere but vicarious. Bloggers wrestle their lives into words and then present them on the screen. To me, it's the Great Conversation my teachers used to talk about in high school.

And Catherine and I are proud to be part of it.

Posted by Jerome at 02:17 PM | TrackBack

January 01, 2004

We Are The Universal People

by Jerome du Bois

I first came across anthropologist Donald E. Brown's List of Human Universals in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (1994). Pinker later reproduced it, with extensions and updates, in The Blank Slate (2002). (Both books are simply sublime.)

In The Language Instinct, Dr. Pinker introduced the list this way:

. . . Brown has tried to characterize the Universal People. He has scrutinized archives of ethnography for universal patterns underlying the behavior all documented human cultures, keeping a skeptical eye out both for claims of the exotic belied by the ethnographers' own reports, and for claims of the universal based on flimsy evidence. The outcome is stunning. Far from finding arbitrary variation, Brown was able to characterize the Universal People in gloriously rich detail. His findings contain something to startle almost anyone, and so I will reproduce the substance of them here.

Pointing to Dr. Brown's list, before this first day of the new year is over, is my gesture of hope for all of us. According to the best evidence, beyond politics and ethnicity and religion and socioeconomic status and educational level and a lot of other things, this is what we have in common.

Have a good year.

Posted by Jerome at 06:41 PM | TrackBack