All posts filed under “Art

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (2015)

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I’ve been ambivalent about Sally Mann’s work for a long time — to put it kindly — and probably wouldn’t have read this if Wendy hadn’t gotten it for me for Christmas, but I’m really glad she did because I really enjoyed it. This is not to say that I’m any more enthusiastic about the work than I was, though. In fact, I’m probably less interested in the art than I was before, which was not much, but I’m a lot more interested in the artist.

I never had trouble with Mann for the reasons others did; the idea that she’s a child pornographer is ludicrous. I always thought she was more of a class pornographer, race pornographer, and history pornographer. The feral children eating homegrown food from roughhewn bowls and playing in the mud by the river seem to argue for the beauty and purity of an Appalachian noble savage existence, but always reminded me that those must be some pretty rich white kids to be getting their picture took with an 8×10 view camera, and that a lot of Appalachian kids are running around with no clothes not because of their parents’ theories on parenting but because they don’t have any fucking clothes.

Mann marches right into The Help territory in her memoir when it comes to her point of view on her race privilege:

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

It’s interesting, I think, how her diction gets all gee-whiz vernacular and her syntax turns baroque here; it’s almost like she’s trying to not quite say what she’s saying. Further, almost funny, certainly sad, is Mann’s description of her current project, which consists of hiring black men as models and then taking their pictures. Such a project seems unlikely to cause Mann or anyone else to learn much new about power dynamics between blacks and whites. Now, if she paid black photographers to take her picture, that I might be interested in.

Then there’s history. I’m sorry, I know this is an insane thing to say, but anyone that makes a picture of anything with wet-plate collodion process, especially south of the Mason Dixon line, is playing on the viewer’s deep, semi- or unconscious attraction to nostalgia and historical amnesia. Any contemporary collodion photograph, in addition to whatever else it is saying, also says, “Don’t you long for the old days, when things were simpler and everyone knew their place?” Everything that Eggleston did to prove that the South exists in Kodachrome color, and contains automobiles and swimming pools and freeways, can be undone or at least undermined by a single sepia Mann landscape of a mournful live oak in its misty shrouds of Spanish moss.

So I don’t seem to be such a Mann fan; why did I enjoy the book? I had no idea what a character she is! And it’s a lot of fun finding out. I’m almost sure I’d find her immensely irritating close up — she’s self-absorbed, histrionic, and touchy, the kind of person who would cause you pain and find a way to make it your fault rather than hers — but she’s fascinating to observe from a distance. Smart as hell, full of feeling, with deep gusto for a good story, and such a huge and powerful sense of ambition that I can’t help but feel awed by it. No matter how you feel about the pictures, you’ll find this an irresistibly weird and engaging memoir.

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Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

8b1087fc_9780060936228_custom-a17e6811a0d8658b75998dc86873b2a4b060d9f2-s6-c30-1.xxxlarge_2xPatti Smith offers a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, and the story of her famous friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with appealing simplicity and humility. It’s always been what’s vexed and excited people about her, I think–the contrast between the primal wildness and impiety of Smith’s art and the sober, earnest, humble artist behind it. And then of course Mapplethorpe, whose work was so violently and willfully misunderstood and misrepresented that it may never recover and be seen for what it actually is.

Smith’s prose style is almost naive in its simplicity; she reports on the mad rituals of the 70’s downtown tribe without a trace of sensationalism. Not that the book’s a dispassionate ethnography, though–there’s not much reflection or analysis at all. It sounds more like Smith was a stranger in that strange land, just trying to survive and do her art. It mattered to Robert to see and be seen. To put it mildly. But not Smith; she was happy to have a job at a bookstore, a donut for breakfast, and paper to write or draw on.

If the book’s account and tone are to be trusted, it seems pretty bizarre that these two kids managed to accomplish what they did. It helped, of course, that they had no student loans and monthly rent bills in the low three digits. These days, a jejune poète maudit wanna-be with no money, no degree, no connections, no safety net, and vague artistic goals would last about ten minutes in New York before she was forced to move back to Jersey. Five.

It’s a lovely, sweet book, but weird too. I sometimes got a little frustrated with Smith’s decorousness and discretion, her refusal (or inability) to convey, or even much acknowledge, the enormously chaotic character of the historical moment she’s writing about. But that’s also what makes the story so sweet. It’s not a cultural history of 70’s NYC. It’s just kids.

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Ketchup

KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”

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The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (2013)

flamethrowercoverMany contemporary American novelists write novels to mansplain contemporary America to me which is one reason I tend not to read many contemporary American novels. Rachel Kushner starts racking up points with me from page one on the basis of her chosen subjects and settings alone; I cannot recall ever having read a novel set in the New York art world of the 1970s, industrializing northern Italy in the 1950s, or leftist Italian movements of the 1970s, much less all three.

The novel opens with our protagonist, Reno, a young would-be artist, using a fancy Italian motorcycle to make a mark on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Everyone else present is there to marvel at the power and force of machinery; Reno is there to make a drawing of impermanence. The novel ends (don’t worry; only the mildest of spoilers to follow) with an Italian would-be anarchist using a set of borrowed skis to make a mark on the side of Mont Blanc as he flees the police pursuing him for crimes he’s committed against the Italian industrialist family who manufactured the fancy Italian motorcycle aforementioned. You begin to see the layers of theme and association Kushner’s built up. The novel is about the rise of industrialized postwar capitalism, its early roots in Futurist fetishization of machinated speed, the ways in which its apparent hegemony was undermined by anarchic movements artistic and political, and the ways in which those movements began to fail.

At what point did modernity start to seem other than purely glorious? Everyone’s got a different answer for that, depending on where and when you come from. 1914, 1945, 1967 — you can make strong arguments for any of these, of course. You don’t hear hear 1978 very often, the year the Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro. Have kids these days ever heard of Aldo Moro, or Baader-Meinhof? There’s probably a band in Bushwick named Red Army Faction. God, that’s a depressing thought.

Anyway, apparently Kushner (b. 1968) is old enough to know and young enough to be able to reimagine those “years of lead” when the ideologies of the 1960s turned into the uprisings of the 1970s, and then everything went to hell.

I’m going on about politics because that’s the part most interesting to me, but Kushner’s evocation of the New York art world at this moment is actually the most entertaining part of the book. The implicit but never enforced idea is that the revolutionary movements in art going on at the same time as these attempts at political revolution and anarchism are just as exciting but finally just as overheated, under-baked, and doomed to be remembered more as zigs and zags of fashion than agents of actual upheaval. The characters Kushner creates in the Soho of the early 1970s are wonderful, and it’s fun too to guess who’s supposed to be representing actual artists of the time; I think I may have spotted William Eggleston? Can that be right?

There’s some unevenness in this book — some scenes can feel like they were only written because Kushner had to get someone from point A to point B — but there are some sequences that are genuinely thrilling in their cascades of association which seem both truly surprising and absolutely inevitable. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s the best work of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a long time.

I’ve got one other line of thinking that doesn’t make me very happy. Our protagonist Reno is a young woman from nowhere (Reno) trying to navigate all the sophistication and sophistry of the rich, the urban, the Italian, the artistic, etc. I wish she had in the end, or even the middle, found something to be other than a girl who looks to men to define her, and something to do other than react to situations. She begins the book with an idea about an art project; Kushner doesn’t let her do anything with it, and by the end, we’ve pretty much forgotten that she ever had any artistic ambitions at all. Is that supposed to be a comment on the fate of female artists of the time? That seems like an interpretive stretch. Anyway, I’m just saying that I felt more interested in Reno’s artistic aspirations than she seemed to be herself.

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William Eggleston in the Real World, Michael Almereyda (2005)

It’s dangerous to learn too much about the weird puny humans behind the artworks you love. Bill’s a little lovable in this, but he’s also petulant, selfish, drunk, and stupid.

I was interested in his process, though, which seems to involve taking a billion pictures and then guessing which of them are wheat and which are chaff. I say “guessing” advisedly; the resistance to valuing wheat over chaff is exactly at the heart of Eggleston’s achievement in much the same way it’s at the heart of John Ashbery’s. I’ll also go so far as to say that just as you can’t write a contemporary American poem without invoking Ashbery’s presence or absence as you do so, you can’t take a contemporary American photograph without similarly admitting or excluding Eggleston.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the recent lawsuits involving Eggleston’s estate making additional prints of images that were supposed to be limited editions. These cases seemed to me delicious and hilarious in their irony. Eggleston is all about surfeit.

Finally it was interesting to realize, watching this, that though the South remains in many ways foreign and mysterious to me despite my dozen-odd years here, there are some character traits, attitudes, social strategies, and modes of dissimulation I have come to recognize as characteristic of a certain set of the populace here. Men both dreamy and mean, lost and ambitious, needy and oblivious, mournful and contented. And the inscrutable women who mix their drinks and then pretend to scold them for being drunk.

Anyways. It made me a sad in the best ways.

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Touching Strangers, Richard Renaldi (2007-)

20130703-lens-renaldi-slide-1BCB-custom1It’s not a fancy idea. Renaldi approaches people, asks them if they’re willing to pose touching a strangers, and then he photographs them with his 8×10 view camera. But I do love a lot of these. Moral of the story would probably be something like it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. The series is here.

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Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro (2012)

imagesWhat are we supposed to think about Gregory Crewdson? His photographs, some of which I’ve seen in person, are overwhelming, incredibly-detailed large-format prints of Hopper-like (sometimes more Stephen-King-like) scenes of small-town life. The melancholy rag man pushing his cart, the melancholy waitress exhausted after her shift, the melancholy working-class family sitting down to their melancholy supper. It seems to be about 1972; the downtown single-screen movie theater is still going, folks drive Dodge Darts and wear girdles, no one has a computer or a cell phone. It’s always either dawn or early evening, the light is diffuse violets, blues, yellows, oranges. They’re interesting to look at, very engaging visually, tons of details to observe, and the figures are often found in slightly mysterious acts, peering at each other in ways that are strange, or ignoring each other for reasons we can’t know. So fine, right? Not super interesting, but interesting enough, right? Well, there’s a bit more to the story. Crewdson’s probably less known for the images themselves than he is for the processes by which he obtains them, which are, in a word, insane. Entire soundstages are constructed, entire towns are brought to a standstill, when he decides to make an image. He brings enough infrastructure to make an entire movie, but he produces only a single frame. Looking at the pictures, I can’t help but have this sense of their extravagant staging present in my mind, and that massive assertion of artifice becomes, for me, a part of the experience of the work. Now add in the fact that the people and settings of the images are generally working-class and low on luck, and the aura of the artwork gets even odder. I’m looking at a hugely expensive, extravagantly faked depiction of a sad little invisible domestic drama on a dead end street in a dead end town, and Gagosian is going to sell it for probably around $100K. I’m upside down trying to figure out the political ramifications of this process. Is Crewdson a hero for suggesting that so much depends upon a tired waitress it’s worth spending three days paying a crew of dozens to set up a shot depicting her? Or is Crewdson a creep along the lines of the rich Swiss scumbags in Detropia (review coming soon) who have come to Detroit to enjoy themselves by admiring the city’s decay? Is he empathizing or exploiting? My guess is that he himself would have no idea how to respond to these ideas. Judging from his presence in this documentary, he’s not a terribly self-aware person. He has pictures in his head and he wants to put them on the wall, and this is how he does it.

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Diana & Nikon, Janet Malcolm (1997)

A collection of previously published exquisitely perceptive essays on photography and photographers from one of my favorite writers. Really helped me contextualize the pas de deux of photography and painting from the 19th century through the 1980’s, and also brought a number of the great photographers to life for me. Criticism of the highest order in that it both fully engages its subjects and ramifies beyond them, all in prose to die for. Thanks!

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Zhang Haiying, Antivice Campaign Series (2008)

I admire these paintings by Zhang Haiying of photographs of prostitutes caught up in anti-corruption sweeps in Chinese cities. I think they quite movingly capture the plight of these women, who are victimized both by criminals and by the law. They remind me of Degas’ ballerinas, noble and strong but also objectified, commodified, used. A large group of them can be seen here. (Note: slow load from China.) I first saw these paintings at Jeff Hamada’s booooooom, which is pretty much my favorite site for discovering new painting, design, and photography.