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Mark Mellon's story "The Favor," an excerpt from his World War II novel-in-progress Hammer and Skull, appears in the e-zine Behold. We got a soiled glimpse of the Russian side of World War II in the movie Enemy at the Gates, a moral black hole where commanders shoot their own troops if they don't advance and everyone's spying on everyone. My favorite parts of Hammer and Skull are set in this human wasteland. Mellon learned Russian in the U. S. Army and he's done quite a bit of research to transport the reader convincingly to a time and place most of us know very little about. From popular culture we have a good sense of how the war played out in the West, but no Red Army equivalent of Hogan's Heroes.
It should be mentioned, sadly, that the novel is appealing not so much because it allows us to feel smug about ourselves vis a vis the former Soviet Union, but because it mirrors our own increasingly callous society in the era of Enron, a bought Congress, and endless proxy wars. How does a person armed only with an internal moral compass navigate this wilderness of sleaze and heartlessness? Answer: look to ordinary Russians; they've been living under such conditions for quite a while.
Jessica 12502, ink on paper, 45" X 34"
New "miscellaneous" pages have been added to this log (click here) and The Doris Piserchia Site (click here). They are weblog-style pages that serve as footnotes, or notes for future posts, on the respective sites. For example, if a New York Times article is discussed here, the relevant section can be found on the "miscellaneous" page, sparing the reader a link that would require signing in at the Times. On the Piserchia page, I've sampled some of the great writing on the author's work from other websites (because you never know when they'll disappear), as well as some posts from the Piserchia page at Yahoo! Clubs, which is now practically unusable since it's been rolled into Yahoo! Groups and saturated with banners and pop-ups. Also recently added to my writing archive is a piece on Drew Dominick's "psycho-garage-mechanic" show from 1996.
Gerhard Richter, painter of emotionally-distanced images and even-more-emotionally-distanced abstraction, is currently being rehabilitated as Gerhard Richter, warm and fuzzy lover of children, pets, and beautiful women. First came the portrait of his infant son, clutching a spoon and cutely smeared with baby food, on the cover of the January 2002 Artforum. Then came the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective (which opened last week), emphasizing portraits over abstractions and quality over quantity. Then came Michael Kimmelman's gooey New York Times review, comparing Richter to Vermeer and waxing sentimental over the painter's family pictures. (Postscript: Strangely, none of the skepticism in Kimmelman's contemporaneous New York Times Magazine profile--which made Richter out to be a freak on the family level--found its way into his review.)
MOMA curator Robert Storr has chosen to focus the viewer's attention on individual "masterpieces" rather than highlight Richter's relentless, factory-like production. In an interview in the same Artforum, Storr expresses a preference for "the many things that can be said about individual works," rather than "the few things that could be said about large groups of paintings." This contradicts Richter's own view of his work, which can be divined from various early catalogs, the artist's self-produced catalog raisonne, and most importantly the Atlas--an encyclopedic, gridded compendium of photos, abstract brushstrokes, and studio experiments, which filled an entire floor at the Dia Foundation a few years back. In the latter work, as interviewer Tom Holert describes it, the "single picture vanishes in the ordering system; the grid, the context of the images, reclaims the individual work."
Atlas: Panel 8, 1962-66
This more radical--and accurate--view of Richter could have been conveyed by including more works in the retrospective, and by hanging them less respectfully: by using the Atlas as a model, in other words. In the past, Richter has shown his 48 Portraits, grisaille images of mathematicians, writers, and other dead white dudes, in an imposing grid; at MOMA they wrap spaciously, in two rows of 24, around the inside of a stairwell, exactly as they might be seen in a institution that meant to celebrate them. Richter did scores of "color chip" paintings in the '70s, elegant enlargements of the gridded colors you find in paint stores, and it would be hard to find better icons of ambiguity towards the work of modernists such as Mondrian and Kelly. Presenting, or interspersing, a profusion of these paintings (or more abstractions in general) among the other works would have given the show the clinical, confused feel that it is the paradoxical essence of Richter: the artist as lab technician, studying image overload and seeking its underlying "rules." Instead, MOMA showed only two color chip paintings (one big and one small), presumably those the curator thought were "best."
Storr's hanging led directly to Kimmelman's treacly review, which fawns over Richter's "tender" brushwork, traditional subjects (landscapes, portraits), and eye for the beauty "that's still out there" after one "strips away the cliches and false rhetoric" of mass culture. Not a word is said about Richter's compulsive use of the squeegee to smear and eradicate imagery--one gets the impression that it is used only as a tool to make abstractions. Kimmelman ascribes to one work, Richter's painting of his father Horst holding a dog on his lap, the quality of being "under water," like a memory "surfacing but being sucked back down." But couldn't one could also say that Richter attacked the image, by dragging the half-dried paint across the canvas, as if trying to scrape away that same "memory"? Or perhaps that his father was just one more smeary image in the overcrowded mass media darkroom?
Richter's 70, and a big gun in the art world, so late-career flattery and hagiography is inevitable. Thus, it was extremely refreshing to read Donald Kuspit's artnet piece criticizing the show. Of course, Kuspit's a grouch who lately judges all art on the basis of whether it has "healing power," but he's also knowledgeable about contemporary German painting, and after Kimmelman it's exhilirating to hear the Great God Richter described as "the dregs of the German Wave, the last ripple in what once seemed a riptide." Discussing Richter's East German-ness, and the presumption of authenticity it gives the artist in rich Western art circles, Kuspit reminds us that the East was also a zone where state-sponsored "Socialist Realism" thrived. This leads to a discussion that raises far more interesting questions than the Storr/Kimmelman attempt to reinvent Richter as a humanist:
Kuspit omits to mention that Richter, early on in his career, attempted an ironic reinvention of Socialist Realism for the West, calling it "capitalist realism." Whether this was an ultra-serious form of Pop or "Socialist Realism in Modernist drag" is a question still worth debating. It may be, as Storr says, one of the "few things that can be [discussed] about large groups of paintings," but surely it's more interesting than talking about Richter's search for beauty in the face of his own pessimism.
Richter's work takes Socialist Realism as its point of departure and continues to be Socialist Realist in modernist drag. Socialist Realism is people’s art. It uses the styles of the acceptable past, cutting them down to the reproductive terms that are comprehensible to the people. Their vision is cancelled in the name of the Great Cause--the People--and they are banalized into instruments of ideology and propaganda. Richter does the same thing with abstraction and representation. They are reduced to dumb shows of art--a kind of visual mummery--or, to put this another way, a visual sound and fury signifying nothing, whatever its subject matter. They are reduced to people's art, simplified and trivialized. All one has to do is to look at his mock Mondrian to get the point. It is people’s abstraction, just as Richter's Abstract Expressionist paintings are the people's platitudinous idea of Abstract Expressionism--a Socialist Realist scam on Abstract Expressionism.
New York painter Jack Featherly has a show opening March 22 at Team Gallery. His work has gotten a fair amount of ink over the years, but none of it (so far) has adequately accounted for his mercurial shifts in subject matter: is he an appropriator? a "color field painter"? a dj? (well, he did paint turntables a couple of times). With that in mind, and as a kind of warm-up for a brochure to be published next month by the gallery, we conducted an interview online that ranges over his career to date. The text for the brochure, a short critical essay condensing a number of topics discussed in the interview, appears here. Below is a reproduction of one of Featherly's newer paintings, Barbiturate (enamel on panel, 72" X 60").
The teenage synth-goth duo Shell made its debut at Team Gallery in New York in January 1999. Marianne Nowottny (right, in the picture below), who also has her own solo career, performed with her friend and sometime songwriting partner Donna Bailey (left). The pair brought an entourage of their high school friends, who hung out on the periphery of the much older, black-clad art crowd. Shell's concise, minor-key ditties, played on cheap Concertmate keyboards and echoing early-'80s neuromantic pop (with a major dose of goofing around) were a hit with the audience, and the girls went on to play a number of New York area venues, including Tonic and Maxwell's. They're living in separate cities now and future gigs seem unlikely, but fortunately a number of their songs were documented by the Abaton Book Company on the CD Shell is Swell (available through amazon.com).
Below is a retroactive design for their CD cover. I did the drawings a couple of years ago with MSPaint as a bit of spontaneous fan art (working freehand from photos by Mark Dagley); they were considered for the CD cover but ultimately rejected by the girls (sob) in favor of a drawing of Marianne's. Abaton came up with the idea of abutting the pictures and centering them on the cover. I added the type recently and suggested the alternate title ("Mausoleum" is one of Shell's more characteristic songs). The package looks a bit indie-corporate for the pair, but the drawings were a true believer's way of conveying his enthusiasm for two swell musicians.
Back in 1999, Angstrom Gallery in Dallas asked me to participate as an artist in a group show devoted to Op art-influenced painting. Hard up for an exhibition title but wanting to be cheeky and up-to-date, the gallery came up with (ouch) "Optopussy." I had just been re-reading Rosalind Krauss's book The Optical Unconscious (see these excellent notes for a summation) and told them that the title might not be as dorky as it sounded. This led to the following text, which went out with the press release (and was greeted with the usual dismal silence from area critics):
"Although 'Optopussy' is, on one level, a double-groaner based on one of Ian Fleming's most desperate book titles, it is also intriguingly consonant with some recent theory on the subject of vision. In her book The Optical Unconscious, art historian Rosalind Krauss discusses how optical art was the undoing of the rationalist model of seeing, rather than its apex, as many people believe. Tightly-spaced parallel bands, stereograms, and depth perception experiments exposed glitches in the visual apparatus (for example, 'internal colors' generated by the body in response to scintillating stripes, or pairs of distinct images 'assembled' by the brain into awkward 3-D composites), which led to our current view of the eye as an organic computer constructing reality piecemeal--instead of merely reflecting it, like a camera, into the disembodied Cartesian mind.
"Krauss makes a persuasive case for the carnality, or what she calls the 'cuntishness,' of vision, in contrast with Clement Greenberg's view of it as something cerebral and asexual. She praises Marcel Duchamp--with his vibrating colored hearts (Couers volants), lewdly pulsating rotoreliefs, and most especially Etant Donnes, his shrine to voyeurism now permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum--as an early proponent of this view. Based on an analysis of the latter work--a not-very-convincing simulacrum of a splayed female nude, visible only through a peephole--and its elaborate system of perspective, the French theoretician Jean Francois Lyotard argues that there is a symmetry of viewpoint and vanishing point (a pair of inverse, intersecting cones), which places the voyeur and vulva in a kind of parity. 'Thus, when the peeping eyes think they're seeing the vulva, they're seeing themselves.' Lyotard concludes that the piece is another arch joke by Duchamp on the history of optics: 'Con celuit qui voit (He who sees is a cunt).'"
The New York Times has an article this week on Japanese animation ("anime," or as the Times helps us pronounce it, "AH-nee-may"), timed to coincide with the release of the new Rintaro film Metropolis (thanks to dratfink for catching the essay). The piece, by Dave Kehr, is aimed at non-initiates but gets into some of the theory (it mentions Susan Napier's book, which was discussed on this page a few posts back). The following excerpt, however, is problematic:
"Though Metropolis emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naïve figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn't unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime. Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime--like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones around the same time--uses fewer drawings per second than the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs and greater theatrical exposure. Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky, discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood product.
"But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable. Accustomed to manga--the massive comic books published in Japan for adults as well as for children--the Japanese public does not favor movement over composition as a principle of expression. As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints--themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural--published in 19th-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement--crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon--in terms of static line drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.
"Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings with moving details. Even a film like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series like Angel Tail. The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading. Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life, Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures, or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action cinema; it remains its own stubborn self."
My thoughts on the above excerpt: "vintage" Disney and WB cartoons may have more frames per second than the average anime feature, but the character animation in current Disney products such as Beauty and the Beast and Hercules looks just as cheap as Hanna-Barbera, computer or no computer (when a character's head turns, the mouth moves a split second later!). I strongly disagree that the hallmark of anime is "flatness": the action often takes place within dizzyingly deep, perfectly-realized perspective spaces. The phrase "jagged, flipbook quality" also somehow doesn't nail it. It's more like a slide show, where the "camera" pans across frames, slows down to a crawl so the viewer can absorb a given drawing, and then suddenly speeds up into a lightning-fast action sequence. As one animator (I think it was Toy Story's John Lasseter) observed: "No one does action better than the Japanese."
Kehr finds the attempt in Metropolis to integrate hand-drawn figures with artificial-looking, Tron-like computer graphics to be awkward--and he's right, it looks terrible--but then says more conventional anime has the same clumsy disconnect between foreground and background, which just isn't true. Hand-drawn figures and hand-painted backgrounds work well together, it's only when the animators cut into the frame to show off all the cool wireframe stuff they can do that problems crop up. Computers may be useful for generating continuity drawings in conventional-looking animation, but whenever the programming calls attention to itself, as it does in Metropolis or even a smaller-scale project like Richard Linklater's insufferable Waking Life, it's distracting.
Elsewhere in the article, Kehr talks about anime's underground popularity in America. No joke! Someone's buying those $29 tapes off the racks of every chain book and record store in America. I think the average consumer's about 16, and each has put up a web page devoted not just to a particular show but to his/her favorite character. Anime Web Turnpike has an amazing collection of such fan pages, although dead links pop up frequently. (Junior-san goes off to college, Mom stops paying the host server...) I'm fortunate to have a video rental place nearby with a huge selection; some titles I've enjoyed are: Armitage III, Cowboy Bebop, Ranma 1/2, Gunbuster, Iria: Zeiram the Animation, Evangelion, Blue Seed. I've even done some fan art! (See above.)