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Is it possible Jonathan Lethem is a better critic than fiction writer? Motherless Brooklyn aside, his essays on popular culture, especially comics and science fiction, seem more urgent and hilarious to me than his books. I'm thinking specifically of his essays in Bookforum on the secret shame of being a Marvel Comics fan and the sometimes anticlimactic ecstasies of discovering old Philip K. Dick paperbacks in used bookstores ("Vulcan's fucking Hammer! I'd found it! Of course, then I had to go and read the damn thing."). Even in Motherless, some of the highest spots were the little vignettes on pop culture, e.g. Prince ("The way he worried forty five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition [Tourette's]") and Mad Magazine's Don Martin ("Mad often held the concluding panel of a Martin cartoon to the following page, and part of the pleasure of his work was never knowing whether the payoff would be a visual pun or verbal riff or merely the sight of a man in a full-body cast falling out of the window into the path of a steamroller."). The following recent thoughts on Marvel Comics in the London Review of Books are also good, despite being framed by rather ordinary juvenile reminiscing:
In Marvel's greatest comics, [writer Stan] Lee and [artist Jack] Kirby were full collaborators who, like Lennon and McCartney, really were more than the sum of their parts, and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions. Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone - deeper into psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation - while Lee resolutely pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage dating problems, pregnancy, and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of New York. Kirby threw at the Four an endless series of ponderous fallen gods or whole tribes and races of alienated antiheroes with problems no mortal could credibly contemplate. Lee made certain the Four were always answerable to the female priorities of Sue Storm - the Invisible Girl, Reed Richards's wife and famously 'the weakest member of the Fantastic Four'. She wanted a home for their boy Franklin, she wanted Reed to stay out of the Negative Zone, and she was willing to quit the Four and quit the marriage to stand up for what she believed.After reading this careful, historically accurate exegesis I'm still mystified why Lethem flubbed some of the references in Fortress of Solitude (see earlier post). Let's save for another time why reading about our (I mean, my) pop-cultural past strikes a deeper chord than revisiting the day to day agony and boredom of 7th and 8th grade. (hat tip to Travelers Diagram for spotting Maud Newton's spotting of the essay)
I seriously doubt whether any 1970s Marvel-loving boy ever had a sexual fantasy about Sue Storm. We had Valkyrie, Red Sonja, the Cat, Ms Marvel, Jean Grey, Mantis and innumerable others available for that. We (I mean, I) especially liked the Cat. Sue Storm was truly invisible. She was a parent, a mom calling you home from where you played in the street, telling you it was time to brush your teeth. Not that she wasn't a hottie, but Kirby exalted her beauty in family-album style headshots, and glimpses of her, nobly pregnant, in a housedress that covered her clavicle. The writers and artists who took over The Fantastic Four after Kirby and, later, Lee departed the series, seemed impatient with the squareness of Sue and Reed's domestic situations. Surely, these weren't the hippest of the Kirby/Lee creations. Nevertheless, if you (I mean, I) accept my premise that the mid-to-late 1960s Fantastic Four were the exemplary specimens, the Revolver and Rubber Soul and White Album of comics, and if you further grant that pulling against the tide of all of Kirby's inhuman galactacism, that whole army of aliens and gods, was one single character, our squeaky little Sue, then I wonder: Invisible Girl, the most important superhero of the Silver Age of comics?
Paul Berman, a so-called "liberal hawk," is back on the New York Times op-ed page today selling his particular brand of snake oil (annotated version here). You'd think this ideologue, whose left-leaning pro-war views were often sought out by editorial page editors in the run-up to the invasion to balance...well, all the right-leaning pro-war views, might be hanging his head in embarrassment at the current debacle. But no, he urges us to stay the course to combat his particular bugbear, Islamofascism. Based on his scholarly "discovery" of a sort of Islamic Mein Kampf written by an obscure theologian named Sayyid Qutb, Berman believes that all the diverse Muslim peoples (Arabs, Persians, Pakistanis) can be--are being--united by a paranoid millenarian philosophy that will eventually overcome all sectarian, nationalistic differences and cause Mohammed's followers to goose-step as one. So powerful is this "death-loving" cult that it even includes secular states such as (the former) Baathist Iraq.
By inventing a Unified Menace to replace the Soviet Union in the popular imagination Berman was helping, prior to the invasion, to do the intellectual heavy lifting for a belligerent and not-so-brainy Administration; now his role is to develop the fallback position after our failure to find WMDs. Which is: although Saddam wasn't involved with 9/11 (and wasn't an Islamist) he contributed to the Islamofascist "atmosphere" that made the attacks possible. Just so it's clear: we went to war and have lost almost 700 soldiers and killed 10,000 Iraqis because of the "atmosphere" emanating from the country. In his polemic for imposing liberal democracy by force, Berman never gives a hint that Muslims might reasonably fear people who offhandedly refer to actions in Islamic countries as "crusades" or have a military presence spanning such territories called "the footprint." Or who abet the taking of Muslim land by signing off on egregious policies of settlement, wall building, and "annexation" in the West Bank.
several more new drawings here (click thumbs for enlarged versions).
My Complete Musical Works in MP3 Form
1998 - present
1. Scratch Ambulance [3.75MB]
2. Phil's Revenge (TM vs Ectomorph) [2.65MB]
3. Brakin' 1 [1.86MB]
4. Brakin' 2 [2.03MB]
5. Calypsum (TM vs M. Mayer) [3.27MB]
6. Migrant Song [2.29MB]
7. Streetsong (TM vs 8BCS) [2.84MB]
8. Eins Zwei Drei [1.37MB]
9. Eins Zwei Drei (Melody) [1.05MB]
10. Monster Scales [1.25MB]
11. Robot Landscape [3.5MB]
1. Arpeggiasm [1.76MB]
2. Dance of the Nematodes [2.18MB]
3. Lament for a Treefrog [1.22MB]
4. Life in the Mortuary [0.75MB]
5. Pass the Amphetamines [1.03MB]
6. Spring Has Sprang [0.83MB]
7. The Organist Died [0.59MB]
Digital Nendo (Digital Clay) - 3D Bitmap program from '97 by Hideki Nakazawa. Be sure to check out the animated screen shots. I haven't downloaded the program--the Japanese online store is a bit daunting to this lazy American surfer--but would be interested in seeing any gifs made with it. That "octopus ink" is awe-inspiring. [via]
Notes on the 2004 Whitney Biennial
1. If you like work made with a jigsaw, painted, and stuck at right angles to the wall, this is your Biennial.
2. Started on the 2nd floor and worked up to 4. "Is this the fey, twee Biennial or just the fey, twee floor?" ("Fey": everything from Banks Violette's black, stalagmite-infested drumkit to Elizabeth Peyton's pale, perpetually red-lipped popstars; "twee": the preponderance of little craftsy cut out-y things in the show. Sensitive boys meet sensitive girls and ignore each other for their respective playworlds.)
3. Stood gaping at Assume Vivid Astro Focus' busy, businesslike post-psychedelic installation for a long time and finally said, though gritted teeth, "I don't like this."
4. Bad painting, and not in a good way: Mel Bochner's happy, colorful "word art" channelling Jessica Diamond, Kay Rosen, et al. Laura Owens' fake-zany, fake-clumsy giant tree with birds, etc.: uggh. Cameron Martin: boring!
6. Too many installations!
7. Wanted, for curatorial malpractice: Shamim Monin, Chrissie Iles, Debra Singer. Crime: Placing Cory Arcangel/BEIGE Nintendo clouds piece next to brilliantly lit mirrored room, washing out the lower right corner of the video projection. If they did this to a Barnett Newman they'd have old men with cigarettes hanging off their lower lips and romantic stubble sending them critical letters the rest of their lives.
8. Too clever by half: Golan Levin's interactive piece on the popularity of numbers. Does "3" beat "89908" for the most uses out there in the world? And what are those uses? Scroll and see! If this is a satire of the computer nerd's relentless drive to quantify everything, it's pretty good; if it's a celebration of that same tendency it's the world's most elaborate executive toy.
9. Having said all this mean stuff, the show was still fun: better cumulatively than object by object. Even mass infantile regression beats Larry Rinder's earnest, tedious 2002 effort. It helped seeing it with a large audience of toddlers, teens and bus-tour seniors: through their eyes, it was an adventure. If only that sense of awe & enthusiasm could be piped into Chelsea's dreary classist environment.
10. Best of show: the films and videos. Sue de Beer's two-channel piece, discussed here earlier, works even better in a small room than it did in Postmasters' big cube. It was great to see the Jack Goldstein loop, an undersea travelogue missing only a Film Board of Canada soundtrack and boomy male voice saying "When lava pours out of the sea mount, islands are formed..." For positive things about these and other artists, please see Sally McKay's report.
UPDATE: Here's one explanation for all the "youthful exuberance." I'm told that in setting up studio visits outside NY, the curators asked to see "young artists." That sounds like pimp talk. Hypothetical local museum director: "Are you looking for someone good?" "No, we're looking for someone young."
Ralf Hutter of Kraftwerk. The second most influential pop group after the Beatles is touring in support of Tour de France Soundtracks, their first CD of new material in 18 years. While not as aggressive, funky, or strange as their earlier work, it's good: kind of shimmery and ambient and yes, they can still write hooks. "Vitamin," "La Forme" and the remixed 80s hiphop classic "Tour De France" are quite hummable. They sound as if they spent all those years tracking down every trace of hiss and hum in their studio and then carefully mastered every millisecond because it's an amazingly clean, refined production. One thing they still have over the generation of electronic dance musicians they inspired is great technical finesse, and I'm guessing machines expensive enough to produce sounds and textures beyond the budgets of most basement producers. They don't flaunt it, though; the music is very understated. More tour photos in addition to the ones above, by Swedish photographer Henrik Larrson, are here. A review of the Brixton Academy show is here.
Proposal for Abstract Expressionist Wall Projection (Party at Bill Gates')