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Scott Speh's review of the Whitney Biennial 2002 is right on, and not just because I'm listed as an also-ran. Yes, the big New York critics all trashed the show, but their reviews aren't helpful because none puts forth an agenda any better than the Whitney's. "Why no Elizabeth Murray instead of Vija Celmins?" asks the Times. Puh-lease. I get the feeling that those bad reviews are curator Larry Rinder's "Welcome to NY" hazing, and now he'll be with us for decades. A few years from now these same critics will be saying "Mr. Rinder got off to a rocky start with his first couple of shows, but he's shown great improvement, blah blah."
What Rinder attempts to do with the show is actually fairly interesting: a kind of Mondo 2000 vibe, emphasizing the high-tech on one hand and the primitive, handmade, and "tribal" on the other. Yet in order for a vision to leap wildly from mind to mind it must have what Robert Storr once called "the juice," and as every critic of the show noted, that's sadly lacking.
Speh has a somewhat different take: he believes there's been an upswing in good, new abstract art that the Whitney flat-out missed. I wish he had made more arguments for that position, but even the long list of people he supports shows more focus than the major media critiques of the show. Also, he's much better than Schjeldahl, et al, in conveying the boredom-bordering-on-disgust the show inspires. Those Detroit banners by Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw are awful, aren't they? Talk about forced zaniness. Two rich art stars reliving their art-garage-band youth, presenting clunky mural-style paintings of John Sinclair, MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, Sun Ra, etc...
And notably, in a show that so badly wants to be current, the boomer-centric time-line in the banners stops about 1982. When many people think of Detroit now, they think of techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson (and later, Carl Craig, Underground Resistance, Drexciya, DJ Assault...): all musicians who stayed in the city and created a scene--one that got worldwide attention. Whereas Shaw and Kelley bailed, made it big on the West Coast as artists, and now are getting all nostalgic. They love Motor City, but not enough to live there.
Strange Words has a nice essay on visionary science fiction this month, concentrating on the great Cordwainer Smith. "Scanners Live in Vain," written in 1948, is still mind-blowing in its depiction of a highly militaristic post-human society. Before the space program it wasn't unimaginable that outer space could be a place where travelers experienced great physical pain. Smith describes a caste of humans who go up into the vacuum called "habermen," mostly convicts and social misfits, who have their spinal cords cut and machines inserted to control motor and sensory functions. Their only means of perception is vision, which is unaffected by the Great Pain of Space, as it is called; otherwise their bodies are so much unfeeling meat. "Scanners" are volunteers who undergo the same surgery, but unlike the habermen, they are equipped with control boxes that allow them constantly to monitor readouts of their own heartbearts, adrenaline levels, and so forth, as well as those of other scanners. These elite space pilots live entirely through their eyes, except when "cranched," a procedure that temporarily restores hearing, taste, touch, and smell. They speak in a lofty, ritualistic language by means of lip reading, light flashing, and a "talking nail," an extended digit used for marking on a chalkboard; although they are completely disconnected from ordinary human experience, freaks really, they consider themselves highly rational supermen. The story concerns the discovery of a new form of space travel that will make Scanners obsolete, and their conspiracy to kill the inventor. In 1948 the idea of living a completely optical existence probably seemed a lot stranger than it does now. Click click click click...
Another unforgettable Smith story is "A Planet Called Shayol." On this prison world, nature metes out punishments worse than death: when released into the outdoors, the prisoner is immediately hit by a swarm of "dromozoa," a kind of flying one-celled organism that causes intense, crippling pain. Within hours the dromozoa-afflicted body begins growing "spare parts": a hand attached to your neck, say, or a string of baby heads coming out of your abdomen. One inmate turns into a giant foot, another has organs on the outside of his body, others have been voluntarily lobotomized and burrow into the dirt like crabs. And it gets worse: once a month, an attendant comes out and harvests the body parts for transplants and other surgical needs. To remove the parts, he administers extra doses of a powerful painkiller called super-condamine; fortunately for the prisoners, their attendant is kind and gives extra doses of the drug. The protagonist of the story spends decades (he's not sure how long), alternately blissed out on the drug or screaming in agony, while his body goes through every kind of obscene mutation. It's Dante for the space age, sure, but without the moral framework. In Smith's vision, Shayol only exists because it's in the backwater of a very large, very decadent bureaucratic system that goes for millennia without reform. There is no purpose for the punishment except meaningless cruelty. And I'll refrain from commenting on our own incarceration industry in the here and now.
Nancy Burson was a digital imaging pioneer (art gallery variety) and her omission from the Whitney's BitStreams show last year was just one more example of that show's 30-something parochialism. That said, she kind of lost her way when she started taking photos of people with craniofacial deformities (can you say...exploitation?), and looking back at her classic work, it appears that the tech world has passed her by. Nowadays anyone with Photoshop can combine a man's face with a gibbon's (e.g., Will Self's Great Apes book cover from a few years ago), or give someone a bulbous forehead. And I always thought her "aging software" was a bit of a scam--taking what a police sketch artist does intuitively and dressing it up with pseudoscientific bells and whistles. Nevertheless, her morph of Reagan and Brezhnev (with a pinch of Thatcher, Mitterand, and Deng) is still a grabber. Also noteworthy is her Ordinaires CD cover, where the nine band members merge into a blandly smiling whole.
A website for her current retrospective is here, slow-loading Flash intro and all.
From a Salon Premium piece today, arguing that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy should recuse himself from the case on mandatory school drug testing:
Before the court was a school district's regulation requiring drug tests of students involved in any extracurricular activity. Although there was no reason to suspect that the plaintiff, Lindsay Earls, had ever used drugs, she was called out of choir and tested -- specifically, ordered to urinate under a teacher's supervision. Earls passed, but brought suit against what she believes was an invasion of privacy and an unconstitutional search.
"Most surprising," said the New York Times, "was Justice Kennedy's implied slur on the plaintiffs." The justice imagined a school district with a "drug testing school" and a "druggie school," and told the lawyer representing the Earls family that no parent would send a child to the druggie school "except maybe your client." This was remarkable in two ways. First, it was indeed a slur: Lindsay Earls had passed the drug test, and her cause was not drugs but the Fourth Amendment. Second, the very irrationality of Kennedy's remarks, coupled with his demeanor -- the Boston Globe described him as red with emotion as he launched his "bitter verbal attack" -- betrayed an uncontainable anger toward a litigant that is entirely absent from Supreme Court arguments on even the most heinous murder cases.
Evidently Kennedy's fixated on the perceived moral failings of high school students right now. According to a recent article on cnn.com, he was disappointed by the "lack of moral outrage" of some Muslim students following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. He also disliked hearing that other kids (presumably non-Muslim) thought the 9/11 attacks were payback for some very bad U.S. policies abroad. Therefore, he's created an American Bar Association-sponsored program, in partnership with First Lady Laura Bush (so much for separation of powers), to teach kids about "fundamental values and universal moral precepts." The program sends lawyers and judges to high schools to talk about "core democratic values" in light of the terrorist attacks.
Yet if there are high school students who can see the connection between 9/11 and US support of oppressive regimes abroad, thankfully, there will be high school students who can recognize a pompous, belligerent, propagandizing hypocrite when they see one. Should they should listen to a member of the 5-person Supreme Court majority that installed a president by judicial fiat on the subject of "democracy"? Should they take the advice of a man who insults kids--in a red, slobbering rage--when they actually stand up for their rights? Perhaps, when he comes to their schools, they'll stand up again and say that maybe their "problem" isn't so much a lack of moral values as disagreement with his.
New additions to my artwork archive have been added this week: several pieces from 2002 (from scans of polaroids--eventually I'll get slides made), and "Volume One" of my early, photorealistic work (and other images, ranging randomly from 1978-94). Also, my review of Ross Knight's 1999 solo show has been added to the writing archive.
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.
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