Friday, May 30, 2008

Dallas Trip I

Tonight I drove the 60 miles or so to Dallas to attend the opening reception for a couple of new shows at the Contemporary. The big show was a collection of photographs by various (mostly female) artists, but my real reason for making the trek was to see a smaller show of works by a former student of mine, Shelley Hampe, who is pursuing an MFA at TCU. She’s working through some tricky iconography involving childish images (teddy bears, assorted plush toys, etc.) rendered in an over-the-top, ultra-fem style. It’s potentially a very cool aesthetic gambit, but there’s the danger that she’ll be casually dismissed as some too sensitive girl artist making sweets. The gauzy thread drawings I saw tonight, though, had the resigned tough mindedness of someone beyond anger. Imagine a girlie take on the Humphrey Bogart character in African Queen as he climbs back into the leech-infested river, knowing he has to do it even though he fears leeches more than anything. Okay, that’s not possible, but I think she may be aiming at something like that.

She still has some progress to make on tightening up her vocabulary, ridding herself of stuff extraneous to the visual statement. It’ll be something to look forward to.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Barbecue II

The ribs were good. We ate very well tonight. That's a picture of some of them above. I smoked them for about 6 1/2 hours at 225 or thereabouts. A couple of times the pit dropped below 200 when the coals burned down too much, but they were most tasty all the same. I also made smoked chicken, a Mexican style coctel de camarones and a grapefruit and avocado salad with mint.

Sal was here. So were Susan and Michael and Vaughn and my sister. Susan brought tons of food that she'd made at her house -- potatoes, brisket, more ribs. Sal brought a young scholar who is visiting Cow Hill from Australia. I don't understand the visit, but it's not mine.

At one point this evening, I did an impromptu demonstration of smoker pit procedures for Sal and Vaughn's SO Carolyn. Well, they asked. Here's hoping it wasn't all error.


I’ve got ribs in the pit. At 11 they looked like this.

The ribs have been rubbed with a mix of ancho chiles, chipotles, cinnamon, coriander, and salt and pepper.

The plan is to smoke them low and slow for about six hours. I'll make a sauce in a little while. The sauce will be based on orange juice with ginger, soy sauce, lime juice, chili powder, cinnamon and molasses. I'll update later with another picture.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


"Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. . . . Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

RFK 3-18-68. He had less than three months to live.

Here's a video.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Obama's still not a Muslim

Well somebody has to say it fer cat's sake. Okay, these guys said it, too.

Julian Schnabel "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

We rented Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and watched it a couple of days ago. Wow. The guy can make a movie. I’ve used “Basquiat” in the classroom to discuss issues of authorial identity (reportedly Schnabel made all the pseudo Basquiat paintings in the film) and cultural expectations about artists. I saw “Before Night Falls” a while back. And now this one. He’s getting better.

The film begins with an extended series of point of view shots establishing the world of the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who has suffered a horrible stroke which left him unable to speak or move. He is only able to blink. His mind is fully functional (we hear snippets of endearing, sometimes sarcastic internal dialogue throughout), but he is imprisoned in a useless body—the diving bell of the title. I found it remarkable that the merciless POV at the film’s beginning was so emotionally and conceptually successful. It so easily could have failed, slid off into crummy cliché. Instead we get confusion, helplessness, fear, impotence, the internal voice silently commanding a doctor to stop while we see the lids of a bad eye sewn together – see the procedure from inside.

Bauby’s therapists determine that he can communicate by blinking – once for yes, twice for no – and set up an alphabet system (the most common letters earlier than the less common in the series) that enables him to dictate words, sentences, and eventually a book. Before his disaster, Bauby was editor of French Elle, and not exactly a nice guy in his relationships with women. As he dictates to an amanuensis provided by his publisher, we see her affection for him develop. It’s not exactly a seduction, but there is a kind of love between them.

Schnabel did a wonderful job telling the story. What could have easily devolved into a maudlin tale of a pitiful victim, or (perhaps worse) some inspirational bit of instruction about coping with life’s unkind blows, instead approached its subject with unflinching attention and care.

I never had much love for Schnabel’s paintings. But this film convinced me that he really is a great artist.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Obama's not a Muslim

Since I was looking pretty shaggy last week in advance of a speaking engagement I was committed to in Kansas (see below), I visited the barber shop for my regular non-do. Although Commerce is a tiny town, it ain't exactly Mayberry on several counts, not the least of which is the total dissimilarity between the barber shop on the square here and Floyd's place on the Andy Griffith Show. The guys who cut hair locally are loud, opinionated and aggressive. Usually I just shut up and tolerate their nonsense.

Not last time.

As he bent into his job, clippers brushing my right ear, the barber asked me casually whether I was ready for a Muslim president.


"Obama's not a Muslim," I said, struggling to remain calm.

And so began a maddening dispute in which neither of the shop's proprietors were willing to accept any evidence against their cherished conspiracy in which Obama's membership in a Chicago church, his public statements about his Christian faith, the baptism of his daughters, his marriage in a church and all the rest was merely an elaborate cover for a secretly held commitment to Islam.

I was reduced to telling them "You've been lied to. He's not a Muslim," repeating it like a mantra, like a catechism, like a devotional.

This isn't the first time I've heard the Muslim allegation locally, and it bodes ill for November if the conspiracy theory has the traction elsewhere that it appears to have in this spot on the hinterlands. I wonder if maybe Jon Stewart should lead his Daily Show report with some sort of corrective every night from here on out: "Day 56, and he's still not a Muslim," and so on. I wonder if every newspaper and TV station in the country should do the same. I wonder if it would have any effect? Snopes didn't have any effect. Neither did

Why should the facts get in the way of bullshit? Xenophobia will out.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Currin is Creepy; so am I

What does a reasonable person with a sense of social responsibility (RPSSP) expect from socially engaged artworks? What about artworks that appear to be miles away from social engagement, perhaps even socially irresponsible – I mean what does a RPSSP expect from them? The issue arose for me Saturday afternoon at a very enjoyable panel discussion among arts professionals that I was invited to join. The format was a slide show of recently (meaning within the past decade or so) significant artworks for the four of us to respond to. Each artist got one picture and usually four opinions. It was all fun and illuminating for most of us – panelists and audience alike.

Just to get things up and running, I suppose, the organizers began the event with The Bra Shop by John Currin. What’s an art critic to say about this embarrassing image? We were asked to give Currin a fast thumbs up or down with a quick rationale for the verdict. I jumped in: “Thumbs up because he creeps me out.” Well he does. There are a couple of pictures he made of middle-aged men in turtlenecks with buxom babes looking on adoringly that have made me resolve never, ever to wear a turtleneck again. Never. He’s created a club that I’ll never willingly join.

But two impossibly proportioned, wide eyed and dewy young women rendered in an archly retro cartoonish style, their faces splotchy with gobbed-on paint, their breasts considerably larger than their heads, their attention riveted to the task of measuring one sexpot’s boobage! How can this be anything of value? And what can an RPSSP make of it other than a thin, ridiculous parody?

One of the panelists said the painting offered little beyond parody. “The personal is political,” she said, a reprise of feminist analyses from my younger days. This got me thinking about the intersection of individuals and wider political movements, but my sluggish brain came up with nothing beyond saying Currin creeps me out during the discussion on Saturday.

Now comes a bit of l’esprit de l’escalier two days late and in the wrong place, to boot.

What follows from the utterance “the personal is political?” Which direction does the claim lead us? Somebody like James Dobson of Focus on the Family would certainly agree that our personal lives are political, and yet he follows a political line that works against feminist politics, against reproductive rights, against gay rights. The personal is political and therefore one’s sex life is subject to containment, especially when it deviates from the norm espoused by his political faction. He’s ground zero for a particular kind of patriarchy. And patriarchy is itself a highly personalized politics to the extent it is an internalized worldview, and one (I’d argue) that, as a force in American politics, is guilty of terrible things, up to and including the macho debacle of the Bush foreign policy. The personal is political and therefore my penis is the decider in matters of war.

Dobson’s politics are not congruent with my colleague’s line of reasoning, of course. And yet it is there in the political life of America. The intersection of gender identity and political identity, hugely complex though it may be, has been neatly determined by preachers and politicians and popular culture. When a panelist at an art event says the personal is political, it is likely an objection to the hegemony of patriarchy on the part of an RPSSP.

Popular culture is saturated in patriarchy, perhaps because of an anxiety about how vulnerable it is. Take the Discovery Channel’s lineup of macho programs, for example. I don’t think it’s still running in the regular schedule, but the series “American Chopper” with its relentless, bullying, alpha-male displays on the part of daddy Paul, Sr. was truly horrible to watch.

Desires and genders are complex, maybe even impossible to fathom. Patriarchy makes them simple, easy to understand. When women showed up on “American Chopper,” they were as physically different from men as imaginable. One might ask if they’re members of the same species.

Kind of like Currin’s girlie girls.

I have no idea whether Currin’s thinking goes this way, but I can imagine reading an image like his Bra Shop in terms of an excessively gendered culture, one in which desire has been deformed by hegemonic patriarchy. Deformed like those absurdly hyper-feminine bodies. But deformed as it may be, there is still the fact of desire. Bodies can be desired and are desired. Should Currin not desire his women? Should I not desire them? If the answer is yes, then how is this different from Dobson et al. forbidding other kinds of desire? How personal are politics?

So what ought an RPSSP expect from socially engaged artworks? Can artworks change patriarchy? Does the daddy on “American Chopper” attend panel discussions on contemporary art? Today, at least, it seems to me that looking at a painting and at a latent absurdity made obvious is good enough.

I want them and I’m ridiculous and I know it and I still want them. Little wonder I’m creeped out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It’s been two days since Robert Rauschenberg’s death and a day and a half since I read his obit in the New York Times. My friend Morse has posted about him twice on his blog while I fretted about finding the right words.

Here goes.

Like Morse, I once met Rauschenberg at an opening reception. It was in Houston on the occasion of a three-museum retrospective of his work. If anyone needs evidence of the man’s importance and astonishing output, the bald fact that he filled the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, and the Menil Collection all at the same time should suffice.

Then there was the art gallery which showed his most recent work at the time – big vegetal dye prints combining art historical and mass media imagery in endlessly inventive compositions. It was there, at Texas Gallery, that I spoke to him. Of course, I was so star struck that I mostly stammered, but he was gracious, having experienced muttering, babbling fans before, no doubt.

In art school many years before we spoke on that gallery porch in Houston, I’d devoured Calvin Tompkins’ Off the Wall and The Bride and the Bachelors, two gossipy and thoroughly inspiring artworld books about Rauschenberg and his lineage. That he’d determined to collaborate with his materials was liberating. That he’d combined junk with an exquisite sense of design opened my eyes to a world of aesthetic possibilities. That he’d once thrown most of a gallery-full of assemblages into a river resonated delightfully with what I knew of the Buddhist practice of non-attachment. That he’d erased a de Kooning drawing deliciously enacted the oedipal conflict among generations of art heroes, and effectively nullified it by making it so explicit.

But the erased drawing was more than aggression and its effacement. It was a clearing, an opening up, a talisman which pointed to a new beginning for art and art’s possibilities. Rauschenberg cleared the path for Philip Taafe to restate Barnett Newman in terms of decoration. He cleared the path for Richard Prince to re-present the Marlboro cowboy in terms of our desires. He cleared the path for techno-nerds who make techno-nerdly art works. He cleared the path for scores of artists (Morse and me included) who operate “in the gap between art and life.”

I got to see the erased de Kooning that weekend in Houston right before it was confiscated by Harris County constables serving a misguided judgment on the part of a Houston judge. (There was a dispute about commissions with a dealer up in Austin, apparently.) Although I’ll never be privy to the subsequent machinations, it’s amusing to imagine the moneyed and powerful individuals who took action that night to void that judgment. Houston is like that.

The erased de Kooning was back on the Menil’s wall within a day and in time for the opening that night. Houston is like that, too.

Also in the Menil were other seminal early works – the combines, the blueprints, the illustrations for Dante. Bed was there, as was Odalisk. Near the entrance sat a tire sculpture made of glass, which I assume was the inspiration for a Texas-based online art magazine’s name. If it wasn’t, they’re missing a damn good chance.

Among the MFAH offerings that weekend was the ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece – a huge, continually evolving concatenation of images, materials and sensibilities that I found impossible to bring together into a coherent experience. Ordinary artists settle for sketchbooks. Not this guy.

Over at the CAM, I found the strange stuff—the bubbling table of mud (a big hit with a preteen boy who watched it belch and burble with me), the motorized glass disks covered with images which allowed viewers to redesign the work's formal and poetic interactions as they saw fit. Or just to play with a gizmo with motors and switches.

Like other, smaller Rauschenberg shows I’d seen before and I’ve seen since, the whole of the Houston gig was generous and downright friendly. There were elements of sorrow and regret and remorse, to be sure, but you got the feeling he liked us and wanted us to like what we saw. He seemed certain we’d like it if only we could see it with fresh awareness and delighted eyes. It’s all around us if only we’ll take the time to look at it. And it’s ravishingly beautiful.

And that was his great accomplishment: He helped us see.