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Yesterday a friend and I drove down to Philadelphia to see the Barnett Newman retrospective, the Duchamp collection (my first time), and the real, lowbrow impetus for the trip: a rare screening of Dario Argento's 1980 slasher masterpiece Inferno. Here's my Amazon review of the film, from 3 years ago:
Although the acting is fairly poor, the dialogue stilted, and the plot non-existent, this movie--as the Re/Search book Incredibly Strange Films notes--is about as close as one gets to the flow and feel of a dream. I would attribute the mood to the bravura visuals--classically composed still shots a la Peter Greenaway; planes of saturated color winking on and off as characters move through a outrageous deco sets; swooping lens movements worthy of Sam Raimi's "wraithCam"--working in tandem with the gorgeous, occasionally incongruous prog-rock stylings of ELP keyboard whiz Keith Emerson. Scenes of great formal beauty are intermittently jarred by stabbings, immolations, strangulations, eyeball-gougings, and rodent attacks, all fairly gratuitous (just like in real life!), and Emerson's synthesizer flailings are equally prone to erupt without warning--often to miraculous effect. The music that accompanies one woman's taxi ride through the rainswept streets of Rome is wild and offbeat and sticks with you, and the Gregorian finale--the repeated incantation "Suspiriorum, Lachrymarum, Tenebrarum," referring to the "mothers" (all of them witches) who cause the film's mayhem--sounds like a rock opera version of Orff's "Carmina Burana" (it's hokey, but trust me, it works!). I have also seen Suspiria, but prefer this film on the level of pure, macabre experience.Seeing the film on the big screen for the first time was fun and terrifying, especially in the company of a couple hundred Argentophiles, laughing and screaming in all the right places. The print left something to be desired--the glorious, saturated colors had sadly faded, and the sound was all in the squawky midrange--but that was more than made up for by all the extra detail you just can't see on the video: ghoulish carvings on the walls of Mater Tenebrarum's New York digs, the extent of the decrepitude and ruin in the "hidden" parts of the house, the fleshy reality of Mater Lachrymarum's beautiful, frightening face. Also, seeing the film with a large group made me realize how carefully paced and audience-friendly it is (for a non-linear film depicting bizarre senseless murders). Like Hitchcock, Argento follows super-traumatic scenes with tension-relieving laughs: usually non-sequitur lines or strange behavior from his Euro-weirdo actors. For the record, the strongest audience reaction came in the scene where housecats viciously attack Daria Nicolodi: several moments of utter, primal mayhem as the felines jump on her head and tear at her skin and clothing, accompanied by huge close-ups of claws and teeth and hellish animal screaming on the soundtrack. Why would anyone want to see something like this? To be ready when it happens to you, of course!
Revisionism runs rampant these days: first we had Gerhard Richter as loving family man and now we have a non-creepy Spider-Man. (I haven't seen the movie yet, but please let me critique the hype.) First Scintillatin' Stan (Lee), Spidey's co-creator, gets a crack, in a New York Times op-ed: "I have often thought Spider-Man's worldwide appeal also owes something to his costume. Sharp-eyed fans are sure to have noticed that Spider-Man's costume covers every inch of his body. There is absolutely no skin showing beneath his oh-so-trendy red and blue fashion statement. When Steve Ditko first dreamed up our hero's threads, he created one of the most unique designs in comic-book history. But more than that, Spidey's costume is completely user-friendly. Any reader, of any race, in any part of the world, can imagine himself under that costume — and fantasize that he himself is Spider-Man." I'm not sure friendly, user- or otherwise, is the word I would use to describe those malevolent, pupilless eyes, muscle-hugging cobwebs, and black widow between the pecs, but Lee's "big, sloppy heart" (as Jonathan Lethem calls it) tends to make us forget such details. While you wouldn't expect the creator of a lucrative franchise to admit that it has any dark underpinnings, what's critic David Edelstein's excuse? Here's his take in Slate: "The Marvel Spider-Man comic was born at the beginning of the Pop Art era—its colors are primary. Unlike Bruce Wayne's Batman and Bruce Banner's Incredible Hulk, Peter Parker's Spider-Man has no metaphoric component. The spider persona doesn't emanate from any aspect of Parker's troubled psyche—it's just a cool conceit." C'mon, the kid looks like a Mexican Santo wrestler, creeps and crawls around buildings, has connections in the underworld (remember "Patch"?), spurts semen-like goo out of his wrists--sure, Lee and Ditko made him a lovable everyman with personal "hang-ups," but let's face it, the appeal of the strip was the "normal" kid flirting with the Dark Side. This was never stated by the Marvel's merry men (who were ever mindful of the Comics Code) but the message came through loud and clear to us 8-year olds who enjoyed the strip back in the day.
Another early-'60s creation that artfully mixed the heroic with the macabre was The Scarecrow, played by Patrick McGoohan, before he was the Prisoner or even the Secret Agent. This Disney-produced mini-series (later released as the feature Dr. Syn and the Scarecrow) had good guys fighting King George III to save the public from punitive taxation, but in costumes guaranteed to keep sensitive children awake at night. McGoohan's raspy voice and crooked smile, Hellspite's "leatherface" mask, and Johnny Banks' Evil Barn Owl get-up were the stuff of pure black nightmare. By day McGoohan was the mild-mannered Vicar Syn, hanging out with the aristocracy; by night he roamed the marshes on horseback, robbing the King's supply caravans. Today we would call him a terrorist, though all the violence in the show was implicit. The Scarecrow's specialty was psychological warfare: in an unforgettable scene his band of masked men judge and "hang" a traitor: at the last minute he is cut down, his near-asphyxiation serving as a warning. I saw the film in my late teens and was a bit let down but my childhood memories of the show are potent: I recently discovered a website devoted to the character [since disappeared] and got a case of goosebumps that wouldn't go away.
Installation shots and opening night photos from my exhibition in Munich with Gregor Passens are here (page and text of this post removed for remodeling). The exhibition opened May 3, and runs through June 14, 2002. An earlier homeroom exhibition, "Some Things Matter," is documented here.
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.