November 25, 2007

Let's Get Verbal

by Jerome du Bois

To repeat:

In the last posting I made an error in judgment with a derogatory comment about Amy Young and food. I apologize to her now. I'm sorry; I shouldn't have written that part, and I've taken it out of the posting.

Prompted by a local slam poet, Ms. Young wrote a long comment about us and that posting on her new blog. After Catherine read it, she said, "That really hurt her feelings," and we decided to take out that one sentence. It's just that we thought someone who hangs out with body suspenders and holds her own with roller dykes might have thicker skin.

Now, moving on--

Maybe Ms. Young should go read how personal Stephen Lemons got when he attacked Catherine on his blog. Maybe she already knows what he wrote; he's probably one of her many friends. Nobody came to Catherine's defense, including Ms. Young and the local slam poet.

But that trash Lemons was talking didn't actually hurt her feelings. Not at all like the pain of being minimized and blackballed. Because for Catherine, it's always about our work and our philosophy --not about her person. She says, "I hope Ms. Young will agree with me that the important subjects are Art and Culture, not how many years I have or how much size she has. Let us try to overcome our psychological baggage (surely I outweigh you in that department), and talk about Art and Culture."

Yes, let's get verbal. We have several questions for Amy Young (and anyone who agrees with her). Questions about art and its practice.

On November 20 the local slam poet posted a short comment on Ms. Young's blog calling attention to the Real Good For Free posting. She replied this way (with my interruptions as we go along):

Well, you knew that had to happen--as much as they say they're done writing about art in Phoenix, it never happens.

We changed our minds. Why is that a problem? I'm guessing it's because despite her edgy image, she's psychologically brittle and conservative, something she maybe learned in school: "But you saaaaid . . ." And as we read further down in her comment, she complains more than once that she wishes we would write about art. Which we do, of course, all the time. She can't have it both ways. (It had to never happen? Hmmm.) So it's got to be about the fact that we had the gall to change our minds. The local slam poet has the same mindset. They're so uncertain about their own legitimacy that they need people to keep their places. But that's their problem; we know who we are.

It's constant hypocrisy --if someone posts a derogatory comment about his wife, he acts as if the world crumbles . . . yet he always resorts to commenting on what people look like, how they dress, etc.

Except for Amy Young (see apology above) and Stephen Lemons, who will never get an apology from us, and a couple of others, our derogatory comments were and are directed generally, and will continue when relevant. As for the photo of the spandex boys, well, hell, they posed for it. And of course our world doesn't crumble. We're out in that world every day. It's a grand and glorious feeling to be living. It's a serious, grown-up world, too, so we dress for it, and we'll keep on calling out those adults who think the world is a playground at recess, and dress like children.

The saddest irony of this culture is the way they project the illusion of being oh-so-edgy and diverse while adopting a dress code as rigid as any fascistic regime, with at most a half-dozen approved looks. For reference, proceed directly to Ret Lab. These so-called pomobohos are even more conformist than the Fifties they worship in furnishings. They manage whatever microchanges happen in uncanny coordination, like schooling fish, and when the world gets too close, there's always near to the trembling hand the stuffed animals and retro windups to soothe the neosoul.

I'm not "resorting" to commenting on the way people dress, which implies that I have nothing important to bring up about other aspects of the person or their work, and saying that they must know Dress Barn by heart is the only thing we can come up with. Naturally this is wrong, as Amy Young herself knows, being the subject of a couple of our posts which said nothing about the clothes she wears but plenty about what she does and the kind of art and culture she promotes.

The derogatory comments about my wife were not about her wardrobe, but attacked her personally --her person. If you didn't get that distinction before, Amy Young, you'd damned well better get it through your head now.

For someone who supposedly cares so much about art, why not be talking about art?

Since late March, I count eleven postings specifically about an artwork or exhibition or which uses artworks or proposals to ask aesthetic questions: our Steve Yazzi piece, Donald Lipski's Doors, The Lunaphiles, Theo van Gogh vs. Bat Boy, Space is the Place, five15's Stinky Skool show, four pieces on The Arizona Partnership for Innovation and Creative Capital Foundation, The Loser Tribe and its followup, our proposal for The Blessing Room, Ringing True Among The Tone Deaf, and Real Good For Free. Each one had questions questions questions. That's writing about art.

I'm choosing to do so in the fashion that I want to, and I'm not reading that site, haven't in ages, because it's generally always the same.

Meaning that we're consistent in our principles, our passion, and our commitment to the future. Also, let's examine that phrase "choosing to do so in the fashion that I want to." This is code for "you can't criticize me." No doubt it's her blog and she can "fashion" it any way she wants, even if most of the time one shirttail is out and the collar's askew and the buttons are misbuttoned and its front is covered with old stains. But the thing is out in public and therefore subject to criticism. We've been handling criticism and vicious attacks for ages --over four years-- so deal with it, Ms. Art Attack.

You get handed a venue most freelancers never get --a blog already set up on a major newspaper, with nearly unlimited disk space-- and you treat it as if it was nothing more than a reminder bulletin board, or the front of the refrigerator, dotted with tiny decorative magnets, and with casual jottings and sophomoric "what rocks your world" questions. You could do better, and you should.

I just don't have the time to sit at the computer and take shots at people just because they live in Phoenix and are part of the art activities that occur.

That last is weird phrasing, no? as if the activities arise spontaneously and the passive human artists merely receive them gratefully. And we don't criticize people "just because they live in Phoenix." She should know that's an empty sentence, just more of that code that wants to stifle criticism. This is our city --not Tucson or Waukeegan or Kalamazoo-- and we're working to make it a better one. That's why we criticize corrosive local artists --because of their work and their behavior, not because of the city they happen to live in.

I'm preparing for a Miami art fair in two weeks where I will get to showcase art and dialogue with many artists, curators, arts journalists and appreciators--and that, to me, is much more exciting than trying to tear someone apart. Forever predictable. What would be way more intriguing was if he was using his knowledge of art and its history to actually talk about it.

I'm pretty sure there will be no shortage of people tearing other people apart in Miami. That's predictable. You'll do fine in Miami --you already have the connections with other operators and you've obviously adopted the correct dispositions. Oh --but if you really want to impress those big shots while you're "dialoguing," try to avoid the mistake we've seen you make so often in print: it's media, OK? not mediums.

And we're not interested in being "intriguing." We have questions. Let's start with an example. It may seem like an extreme and unfair one to most readers, but I'm sure Ms. Young can take it in stride.

I refer to a Colin Chillag painting of a shotgunned face, taken from a photograph, which was shown at the overpraised and anti-American "Warlike People" show at MonOrchid awhile back. Lots of people praise Chillag, and nobody objected in writing to this obscenity, as far as we know.

I'm going to make a giant leap and assume that Amy Young doesn't really have a problem with this painting. If she does, she can just substitute any of the depictions of cruelty, misogyny, humiliation and degradation she has hosted at her own gallery.

We remember reading somewhere (probably a self-interview for New Times, Java or the Republic) that Ms. Young was going to pursue a graduate degree in Art History. If that degree is going to mean anything, she's going to have to be writing lots of papers, and a thesis. She's going to have to stand and deliver. Phrases like "I just like it because" and "It's ineffable" will not cut it.

So. Questions. What is the aesthetic and moral defense of this painting? Is it good? And I don't mean technically. I mean, is it there for good? for inspiration? If not, why is it worth . . . anything: money, exhibition, mere existence?

What was the inspiration for those pieces? I believe I remember reading that Colin Chillag painted another series from anonymous discarded family photos. I'm wondering where he finds meaning, if he does at all. Do you know, Amy Young?

We feel that the body in death is sacred, and should not be used for entertainment. And so we also want to know what it is about true crime snuff photography that attracts so many of these local artists, gallerists, curators, and collectors. Do you know, Amy Young?

If it's okay to display snuff of a stranger, how about death photos, paintings, art of someone you knew? Specifically, what is it about corpses and pain that is so entertaining?

Other questions:

What about all the stylistic copying going on? Everyone is either riffing on that creep Murakami, pseudo-religious folk art, or bug-eyed cartoon people. It's as if it's not only comforting to copy each other, it would be, so to speak, concerning if an artist stepped away from these tropes and practices. And will this art still "rock your world" ten years from now, Miss Forever Young?

Finally, what are the distinctions between highbrow, lowbrow, and newbrow? (And where does that leave nobrow?)

Enough for now.

* * * * *

Coda: We received a kind comment in the last posting which said, in part,

The Phoenix art scene needs as many historians as it can get. I've always thought that your views help balance many of the more-uncritical art reviews around town.

Catherine adds: Maybe some artists, gallerists, curators, collectors and museum directors are feeling uneasy because Jerome and I are writing the definitive literature, so far, on some of their careers and exhibitions. Being intellectual cowards won't change that. They can influence their profiles in art history by producing art writing that is as comprehensive and thoughfull as ours. But they have to write, be verbal, tell the truth.

They have to step up and speak up.

Posted by Jerome at 04:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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 11:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 06, 2007

Ringing True Among The Tone Deaf

George Gershwin ca. 1936, 1925, 1927.

"What comes out of that piano frightens me."
--George Gershwin

"He was the only man I knew who could make a piano laugh."
--Abram Chasins, about Gershwin

"The World Is Mine."

by Jerome du Bois

Last week we went to see and hear Hershey Felder reincarnate George Gershwin for a couple of hours, and then Frederic Chopin for a crystalline twenty minutes. It was beautiful, impeccable, and inspiring, and Felder's obvious love and passion for a specific human imagination loosened the kudzulike vines of misanthropy that try to bind and smother me in these cruel times.

Felder has been staging this piece, George Gershwin Alone, for six years, while also developing and staging two other "movements" for a kind of career-arc "sonata," as he explained it on stage, with Beethoven at the beginning, Gershwin in the middle, and Chopin as the final movement. This master of the piano's magic knows what it can summon from dedicated human talent. Even after six years Mr. Felder is clearly still charged by and in charge of this portrait of a genius who was gone far too soon.

His physical phrasing is as elegant as his vocal phrasing. In the middle of the piece Felder as Gershwin says goodbye to Kay Swift, a love lost forever, by rotating an armchair about eight inches, and then, slowly, with his spread right hand --that complicated hand that rewove the reverberations set up by Irving Berlin, the black composer Fletcher Henderson and his crew, Jewish cantors like Harold Arlen's father Samuel Arluck, and the Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms he learned in his youth-- with that golden doomed hand he caresses the satin back of that armchair upon which her fine head must have rested many a night while listening to him play . . .

This is my bell ringing, ringing true. This is what I want to see and hear. (And I speak for Catherine as well.) While other theatergoers --tone-deaf fools in our estimation-- may chase the gratuitously cruel, the silly, or the atrophied, we choose among the too slim pickings of works with heart and without irony. We were glad to see that the night we went to see Mr. Felder, near the end of his run, the place was damn near packed. Word must have gotten out around town among those who share our feelings: don't miss this guy. It sure made us feel less alone. (This doesn't mean we insist on or prefer pollyanna sunshine stuff. I myself have called for some playwright or screenwriter to get to work on the murder of Theo van Gogh.)

Quick aside: we two are precisely the kind of arts patrons the arts administrators from city and state who have been shunning us should be cultivating. We attend from six to twelve major arts events every year --not free gallery visits or art walks, but plays, operas, musical events, major museum exhibitions and other venues you have to pay money to get into. But we're not season ticket holders or contributors to museums, though we could be. We just can't stand most of what's out there, and we won't give the scene our blind trustful support. (If I was somehow forced to back a Martin McDonagh play, I would burn the theater down and damn the consequences.) We're picky.

But we're serious, too, and eager to fill in the blanks in our cultural backgrounds. Neither one of us knew very much at all about George Gershwin, just the general vague humming and handwaving and how did that tune go? (Remember what Watson said of Holmes in the very first mystery, A Study In Scarlet: "His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.") When we got the flyer about the theater season, Felder's Gershwin piece was the only one that tugged at us, that we could identify with. So we bought the tickets.

But we didn't want to go unprepared, so we got hold of Michael Feinstein's very first album, Pure Gershwin, and Wilfred Sheed's new book The House That George Built, and some other things, and had a lot of fun with our research. 'SWonderful to revisit a time which, though it had its share of human cruelty and God's mysteries --from the abbatoir trenches of WWI to the tumor which took half of Gershwin's brain-- still those times had not been infected with nihilism and its smirking cousin irony, which have turned people mean. It is not nostalgic to work to resurrect and revitalize those times. With our postmillennial wisdom about the dead end of postmodernism, we can step around ranting distractions from the tin-eared self-loathers, we can recover the past, and introduce it to a much better future. Felder's work helps us get there.

Where else have I heard my bell ringing lately? Catherine heard it first, actually, late last year, which led us to The Heard --Museum, that is, downtown. And we'll revisit those visits, and discuss much else besides, such as fake poetry and "flogs," as we promenade, as we meander, as we now leave Hershey Felder and Gershwin's ghost at the theater, Chopin's final notes drifting around us like snowflakes and falling to melt on the warm late October Phoenix sidewalk . . . .

[While we're strolling down the street, I'm reminded of another quick aside for market researchers: you've seen pictures of parts of Catherine's wardrobe, and some other things, such as our customized coffee table. Just about everything we have acquired over the last half-dozen years or so has come from local merchants of vintage furniture and resale clothing, all within a two-mile radius of our house. We almost never pay retail. Some of these independents come and go, like fireflies, and sometimes they're hard to find between relocations. But we admire their tenacity and gumption. I can mention two because they're gone now --Pink on Central and Johnny's Metropolis. We found some great bargains --you would absolutely faint, dahling-- at both places. As for the rest, find them yourselves.]

Here's the scheme of this piece I'm writing right now: there are a million different ways to divide the world into two kinds of people, and here I've chosen the images of those who can hear the bell ringing true and the tone deaf, who cannot. The template is not limited to music. I'll be giving several examples, beginning with a short comparison of the movie "The Illusionist" (TI) with the movie "The Prestige" (TP).

Superficially they're both about magicians, with two principal male characters and a strong female role. But TI is elegant, wise, and heartfelt, and TP is bombastic, obvious, and pugilistic --a Hollywood answer to a Hollywood exception. In TP the two rivals take turns maiming each other, mugging their handsome features for the camera, and corrupting the entire enterprise of magic; in TI nobody dies except the main bad guy, and he kills himself. Everything and everybody else is redeemed. It is a brilliant movie in which a savvy outsider uses the Austrian class system against itself in an extended series of multifaceted moves to secure his treasure, a life with the woman he loves. It is not enough to just gallop away with her in an escape which guarantees pursuit; instead, he must disappear with her in such a way that pursuit would be absurd and unthinkable --the final distraction. And yet, just before he brushes past us into history, he leaves a clue behind for the cop who's been dogging his case, and redeems him, too, though he doesn't really have to. (Paul Giamatti's face during this sequence becomes almost angelic.) That's how generous the Illusionist was, and the movie is. And one more thing: just before the third act, to get out of a legal bind, the Illusionist goes to the window at police headquarters and speaks to the crowd below, who believes he can raise the dead, and tells them and the audience the key secret of the movie, in essence revealing the end of the story, and we don't hear it, we don't see it, we don't get it. After the movie, as you're walking away or talking about it over a drink, you suddenly do the take. It's amazing, and you don't feel manipulated, you feel grateful to the moviemakers, but it's because of that heart and that generosity. Unlike, for example, at the end of The Usual Suspects, another smoke & mirrors movie, where the viewer feels mugged and left ugly by Keyser Soze.

Before we get to the Heard Museum, travelling in my mind, I see the Phoenix Art Museum, and I'm reminded of another clear example of ringing true versus tone deaf: the big black shiny bulgy-scoopy Anish Kapoor sculpture in the new big Somebody's Name room there. We didn't get the title, but it should be called Nothing But The Wow Factor. The museum acquisitions people, if they had any music in their heads at all, would have done much better to buy a Martin Puryear --just about any one of his big pieces. The differences between the two sculptors couldn't be more obvious --Puryear's hand reaching for the saw or the sander, Kapoor's reaching for the phone-- so I won't belabor the point.

And mounted outside the museum right now is another example of tone-deaf aesthetics, British artist Julian Opie's umpteenth LED crudity, anemic as hell but probably a cash cow for the artist, and for the museum an easy purchase with a veneer of hip. For the viewer, hunger city. I mean, try to see it from a car:

[Photos taken November 4, 2007, travelling west on McDowell Street.]

Here's a better one, which I found on Hearsight, a new local flog (that's not a typo) that I'll be focusing on later on in this piece:


Nice picture --if I knew who took it I'd tell you [Update: a reader emails that it's Ken Howie; thanks]-- but it doesn't improve the idiotic thing, which just shows the two reductive figures endlessly walking in place; he may think he's avant-garde, but he and these two bozos are on the road to nowhere, regressively backpedalling over Muybridge in the process. Opie's processs is to reduce actual video footage of real people to crude pixels. He makes much of preserving individual quirks --these came from actual people!-- but the heads are zeros, and so is Opie's, and whoever at the Museum finally signed off on this piece.

I bring it up to contrast it with our much better outdoor video idea, The Collective I. Again, I won't belabor the obvious differences, just list a few: the Opie piece is just another acquisition, a static object; our piece was a continually changing and growing stream of images and words, delivered through different screens publicly and privately, all organized and instantly accessible. It was an edited YouTube before there was YouTube. The Opie piece has nothing to do with Phoenx or Arizona; The Collective I has everything to do with both, and it would open the Phoenix Art Museum up and really let the world in, everybody ringing their bell. Because the World is theirs. (Setting up a bike repair shop or a curry kitchen or a chocolate factory in a gallery or museum is a desperate attempt to make the art world relevant to people outside its orbit, which hasn't happened yet, no, not yet, not by a very long shot.)

Finally, the Opie piece is a deliberately crude throwback to early technology, thumbing its nose at the availability of full-motion video (affordable to museums) to try to hide the fact that the action is simply stupid, an inflated version of a crosswalk signal. He has nothing to say and he is saying it and it is nothing.

So --finally!-- there we were at the Heard Museum, almost a year ago now. As we made clear in our earlier piece on Steve Yazzi's dumb go-kart trundling, and later in The Loser Tribe, there is plenty of excellent "indigenous" art at the Heard which is both contemporary and free from postmodern irony. It also honors high quality and the hard work of the human hand. True bells ringing in all the halls. We have hundreds of photos and thousands of (so far unpublished) words to prove it.

At the end of our first visit we got our first glimpse of the pomo stuff, with the de la Torres brothers' Olmec Head / trashy trailer with TV eyes. It's an ugly confection which manages to debase several cultures over several millennia, tribal, ethnic, and modern. As if an Olmec god would dream of a doublewide and a dish! As with so many modern artists, these guys just want to cut humanity off at the knees at every opportunity. They're tone deaf to the long music; their low calling is snicker and caricature, and they're certainly not alone out there in the wider art world, where fellow humanity-trashers Lara Taubman and Joe Baker found them.

And speaking of Mr. Baker, who is now --zoomo-- over at ASU's Herberger Design School as Director of, dig this, Community Engagement-- we finally got hold of his essay for "Remix," online on Hearsight. We found it worth examining in detail, and writing about, and we'll be posting about it soon. For now, a tidbit, a hilarious but outrageous lie: "Whatever the case, mediocrity no longer held my attention." Thus spake Baker.

Now to the local flogs. Wikipedia defines them as fake blogs or flack blogs, and it's the latter meaning I refer to here. They're thinly-disguised marketing tools. Downtown Phoenix Journal, Phoenix Art Space, and Hearsight are all flogs, bankrolled by big realty companies, developers, rich artcult boosters, museums, and galleries to promote themselves in the guise of short, bloggy-looking entries, always flanked by columns of adlinks. Pretty thin advertorial infotainment. By the way, when Creative Capital did their recent survey, we were the only art website mentioned, though both DPJ and PAS were online during CC's research.

Most of the copy is pap, or press releases, or, in PAS, short breathless "reviews" written less to convey information about what's in the galleries than to convey that oh-so-gritty ultra-urban atmosphere of downtown Phoenix.

Hearsight is new, and appears to be sponsored by SMoCA and the Heard Museum, among others, but who's to know, there's no masthead, no "About Us." All we know is that Scott Andrews is the editor and there is a shifting roster of contributors. Some of the contributions, such as Joe Baker's "Remix" essay, are simply cut-and-paste from other sources. There's an excerpt of an interview with Jim Ballinger of PAM taken from the November JAVA, too. (I bring that up because I haven't been able to find a copy of JAVA from our usual sources; it makes me wonder if Robert Sentinery has had to cut back production and retract his distribution area. He's never gone online, I know that. [Update 11/7: I stand corrected about the online presence. Congratulations, Mr. Sentinery:])

Hearsight also has a blowhard speculation section and a fiction / poetry section. The first features mercifully-short obfuscation with quotations from authors ten people have heard of. The second recently featured a couple of so-called poems from Kade Twist, but you know what, I just now checked Hearsight's website because I was going to tear him a new one and --dammit!-- the "fiction+" section had no plus, no archives anywhere, just a stupid new comic from the website's lameass designer, Kevin Richardson. Jeez, man, no archives, no scrolling, no comments. Photos the size of Polaroids. A pimply-faced kid posting emo on Blogspot has got better chops than this tonedeaf dude.

Still, I'll try to recover the gist of the Kade Twist pseudo-poem, because it made such a neat ending, and damned if I'll be cheated of that. It was basically a single sentence about watching a fat Pima man with a poodle on a leash running an obstacle course holding an egg on a spoon. Obviously some Pow-Wow vignette. But Twist pretentiously and without reason and definitely without rhyme strings the words down the center of the page in little clumps and spaces, as if that would make them more significant. Big deal:

The other day
In the orange twilite
I saw
The grim reaper
And guests
In a MiniCooper
In the HOV lane
A jack-o-lantern
In the rear window

No, that's mine. Kade Twist's poetry is but sounding brass, and rings as false. And, you know, when I found out the guy was a Cherokee, after I saw his hyperpretentious word-projections at ASU and the Heard, I wanted to scream at him: Sogwai! Why didn't he at least write the words in Cherokee? I mean, Jeebus Anonymous . . . . Oh, never mind. Look it up.

Long ago I read a book called The Poetry Circus (1967) by a prolific poet and scifi author named Stanton A. Coblentz. He made the convincing argument that the restrictions of rhyme, meter, and rhythm, like hammer, anvil, and fire, forged better forms, because it made the poet work hard for the best words. I have always agreed. The crap from Kade Twist and many others is not just a matter of tomayto-tomahto, potayto-potahto. Oh, no, when the bell rings true, when the music's behind it, there's a reason why the word drops off right there:

For we
Know we
Need each other so we
Better call the calling off off--
Let's call the

Hear what I'm sayin? See you soon.

Posted by Jerome at 08:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack