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Charles Stagg lives in a home he built for himself in the woods outside Vidor, Texas. A Klan stronghold near the Louisiana border, Vidor (pronounced "vy der") is also the ancestral home and namesake of the Hollywood film director King Vidor (pronounced "vee dor"), who filmed Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Like Howard Roark in that movie, Stagg has a vision and is willing to go it alone until it's recognized. For years he has been working on his house, a domed cathedral of sheet metal and stucco, populating its interior with amazing sculptural forms: giant tapering towers of neatly cut tree-limbs, that resemble at once DNA strands, curling ram's horns, and minimalist structures a la Tony Smith or Robert Smithson. (The photo to the right shows a couple of these structures he built outdoors; the inside of the dome has hundreds of them, some as tall as 20 feet) The late artist Italo Scanga, who introduced me to Stagg's work, described him as an "insider outsider." Stagg is East Coast educated and very aware of contemporary art movements but returned to the land his parents own to work in seclusion, in a high-ceilinged vault without electricity or running water. On the inner walls of the dome, dozens of bundles of cut limbs--raw material for the sculptures--hang from slings, meticulously sorted by size and length. The design of the sculptures is simple: Stagg crisscrosses four limbs at right angles, like the foundations of a log cabin, stacks another group of four on top of the first, and so on, until a tower is formed; the foursomes gradually diminish in size and eventually the tower comes to a point. He holds the structure together with four lengths of cable running vertically through the corners of the crossed limbs, threaded through holes cut in the wood. Gravity and various structural irregularities determine the towers' final shape. The picture below shows the house's exterior; in the background a tower stands by itself in the trees. The strands depicted in the detail above can be seen sticking out of the top of the tower.
UPDATE: Below is a more recent photo of Charles Stagg in his studio (inside the dome). The photographer is John Fulbright. More information can be found in the comments to this post.
UPDATE 2: Another website is referenced in the comments with photos of the Stagg house. This (from the 3rd Stagg gallery on that site) is how I remember the studio looking 15 years ago. He has since painted many of the sculptures but I prefere them "raw" like this:
Anime Diary. Titles rented recently: The Wings of Honneamise, Video Girl Ai, Patlabor 1, more Blue Seed. Saw my first bloody nose (in Video Girl Ai), a "uniquely Japanese [symbol of] sexual frustration," according to Clements & McCarthy's Anime Encyclopedia (the book's example--to the right--is from Tales of Sintillation, 1990). Wings is fantastic! Slow-moving but insanely detailed depiction of an alternate, Nippon-like world. Lovely score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The Omake Theatre segments at the end of Blue Seed are often more interesting than the show itself. One features Momiji lying around her apartment in her underwe4r on a rainy day. P4nty shots aside, it's a moving, wordless meditation on nature, and loneliness. On the big screen: Escaflowne, Metropolis, and Vampire Hunter D. Escaflowne scores highest for visual poetry: shots of the Magic Moon (Earth), partially occluded by a Luna-like moon with a giant hieroglyphic eye, looming over the film's parallel Earth; scenes in a pristine mountain village that sparkle.
Techno Diary. Geogaddi, the new Boards of Canada CD, is good, but I actually prefer their four-track release from 2002, in a beautiful place out in the country, with its herky jerky rhythms and subtle allusions to David Koresh and Waco. The standout track from the new CD is "1969," with its Stephen Sondheim-like vocoder duet, ending on the repeated phrase "1969 in the sunshine." Meaning "1969 basking in the cathode rays cast by a dreary after-school special from the Canadian Film Board, waiting for the Big One to drop." Three late ('97-'98) CDs by Larry Heard, "house music's one true bona fide genius"--an assessment from Mixmag I'm inclined to agree with. Heard processes Sly Stone, Pat Metheny, and Happy the Man's Kit Watkins through house's 4/4 thump and arpeggiated loops, pulling the warmest imaginable sounds from those machines of his in Memphis. Heard rules! Finally getting around to early '90s Alec Empire, when he was still a My Bloody Valentine-meets-ambient groove machine. Limited Editions 1990-94 is highly recommended and still available. The first third of John Tejada's Backstock is a nice self-mix of his own tracks; gets a little dull and then perks up at the end. More consistently exciting is Roni Size's mix of recent Full Cycle tracks on Through the Eyes. Yes, I still like Drum and Bass. Some stuff bought blind off Forced Exposure: Electronic Cosmetics on Salo (a nice comp of recent, tuneful Berlin techno) and Monolight's Free Music, a bit more abstract but very listenable selection of three-synths-and-an-effects-deck chittering.
Below is the Artforum ad layout for my upcoming show with Gregor Passens in Munich. In the finished ad the artists' and gallery's names will be italicized, the dates will be changed to May 3 - June 14, 2002, and the type will be legible.
[ad removed for remodeling]
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").