Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Cometbus starts with Morris “Moe” Moskowitz, whose bookstore Moe’s is legitimately legendary, and his brief partnership with Bill Cartwright, who opened Shakespeare & Co. across the street after their turbulent falling out. Those are the places that I started my relationship with Telegraph, and in exactly that order, in 1996 when I was an 18 year old kid crashing on the dorm floors of friends going to Cal, which is what locals call UC Berkeley. At the time, I was languishing at a crummy Cal State school in my home town of Northridge and figuring out what to do next after market forces chloroformed my teenage enterprise Feature Magazine.
Back then I was jealous of the vitality of the Bay Area, and Cometbus’ history gives a brilliant encapsulation as to why. On that one block of one street, you not only had Moe’s and gimpy, jilted ex Shakespeare’s. There was Amoeba Records, which was the greatest record store I’d seen up to that point in my life. Across the street from that was Cody’s, a huge and well-regarded independent bookstore. Moe’s was next to Cody’s and beside Moe’s was Reprint Mint, a poster shop spun off from the failed partnership that was Print Mint – one of the first, and most important publishers of Underground Comix. Shambhala Books was next to that, and it was still there when I started visiting Berkeley. Shambhala started out in a corner of Moe’s and went on to revolutionize a corner of the book business by developing a model for retailing and publishing new age books. I’m not gonna step on Aaron’s story anymore, because it’s really good, and you should buy a copy. But it did get me thinking about what a powerful force the Bay Area, and the East Bay in particular, has been in my life and in the life of the comics industry.
Back in ‘96, Comics & Comix was still there, kitty corner to Shakespeare & Co. on the next block of Telegraph. By then C&C was there in name only, but there were plenty of former staffers around, many of whom went on to be players in other important enterprises, who would tell you about how it was back in the heyday.
Comics & Comix was established in 1972 by John Barrett, Robert Beerbohm, and Bud Plant. The latter just last summer announced his intention to retire from running an amazing mail order comics and art book retail business. Wikipedia tells me that those guys put on Berkeleycon, the Bay Area’s first comic book convention, on the Cal campus a year later. At the same time, across the bay, Gary Arlington’s San Francisco Comic Book Company was a focal point for artists and fans of the flourishing Underground comix scene. You can be certain that every major underground cartoonist we revere today set foot in Arlington’s store. Last Gasp was going strong by then, as was Don Donahue’s Apex Novelties, and the aforementioned Print Mint. Dan O’Neill instigated the infamous Air Pirates collective, and was beginning the fight of his life against Disney around the time that Berkeleycon opened its doors. I have no idea who was at that show, and I don’t know that I’d believe anyone who claimed to remember the guest list either, but if local talent did show up, you could have seen anyone from Crumb to Spiegelman to Trina Robbins, Rick Griffin, Spain, Greg Irons, Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, S. Clay Wilson, or any of the dozens of incredible artists who lived or passed through the area at the time.
Even though the underground comix business fell apart in the aftermath of the 1973’s Miller v. California obscenity test, comics never left the Bay Area. When I finally moved there in January 2000, it was home to three of the country’s most influential comic book stores: Comic Relief, Comix Experience, and Flying Colors of Concord being the most established and iconic at that time. Isotope had either just started, or was just about to start out in the Sunset district in San Francisco. And the place was as lousy with cartoonists then as it was 30 years prior. I hung out at the local art nights, which we’d now call Drink & Draws, I guess, and you’d see folks like Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, Jesse Reklaw, Ben Catmull, Erik Nebel, Trevor Alixopolous, Shaennon Garrity, Fred Noland, Andrice Arp, Andrew Farago, Thien Pham, Gene Yang, Shannon OLeary, Derek Kirk Kim, Laurenn McCubbin, and others I’m not including either because my memory sucks or because I’m not sure whether they were in the area then or moved in later.
Within a few months of moving there I was working days for Derek McCulloch, the comic book writer and co-founder of the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, doing word processing at a science firm, which, for the most part, meant that we typed about dirt. At night I was hustling freelance working for Comicon.com’s The Splash, Calvin Reid’s quarterly PW Comics section, and anywhere else I could sell an article. One day Ron Turner from Last Gasp called me at work on a matter related to an article I was developing, and I answered “Word Processing.” “I could use some of that,” he said, and so I picked up a first shift night job as a publishing assistant for Ron as well. Back then, the Bay Area was the kind of place where you could go and, as Alec Longstreth is fond of saying, “comics will love you back.” It certainly looked after me, albeit in that low wage way that is enough to satisfy a young person who won’t be dissuaded from pursuing a certain path.
Probably no one looked after me better than Rory Root, the founder of Comic Relief, who I still deeply, deeply miss. Rory was cut from the same cloth as Moe Moskowitz, and like Moe, was a true Berkeley character. If you never met him, he looked exactly like a cross between Oski, the Cal Golden Bear mascot, and the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons, but with longer hair and fewer teeth. Moe presided over his store, sitting by the window chomping on a cigar and lording his domain. Rory perched himself on a stool outside, wearing his ubiquitous hat and a worn out oversized Comic Relief t-shirt, while chain smoking Camel Filters and guzzling gallons of coffee from a travel mug bearing a very well-worn Beanworld sticker.
Rory loved talking what he called SMOF, or Secret Masters of Fandom, stuff – deep comics art and business calculus. To this day there still isn’t a single person who moves as freely between retail, creative, industry, and library circles as Rory did. The job title on his business card was “schmoozer.” That guy knew everyone, and he made you believe he knew everything. He knew a lot, he loved to share it, he loved to learn more, and he gave a damn. His style of giving a damn was to be voracious in all things. If you were a cartoonist or enthusiast, he’d carry your book (on consignment, of course), and if you needed work, he’d probably try to accommodate you. CR’s creator alumni list would make an acclaimed anthology: Ed Brubaker, Landry Walker, Eric Jones, and Dylan Williams, to name a few. He wanted to carry everything, especially if he could brutalize you on the discount. For all the pejorative tales of Rory’s thrift, management weaknesses, and gluttony, however, most people I know have fond memories of the time they got to spend with him, and of the contributions he made. Rory really established the model of the comic bookstore in the United States, and was a champion of all kinds of comics. There are artists who have only become viable since his death that he took an inventory position on when they were first starting to make comics. That’s pretty admirable. I miss the late nights we’d spend sitting in his shop after hours smoking cigarettes and drinking Bushmills, and still appreciate the times when I couldn’t afford a decent meal that he’d make up a reason to take me out for one. He wasn’t a saint, and there’s plenty of folks who’d tell you that, but he was a genuinely sweet man who was a true believer in comics and the people who make them.
That’s the thing about the Bay Area: it invites true believers, it pushes them into each other’s company, and then it gets out of the way and lets things happen. Rory came from Best of Two Worlds, the store Beerbohm opened after Comics & Comix. So did Brian Hibbs. I’ll let you ask Brian about those days, but certainly something was in the air that those two guys would go off and open up stores the way they thought a comic store should be run. And damned if they weren’t right.
Diana Schutz came from Comics & Comix, where she started in 1981 by working behind the counter, and within a year moved up to establishing and editing The Telegraph Wire, a bi-monthly 32 page magazine distributed at the seven C&C stores. Her hardcore work ethic and insightful interview questions put her in contact with some of the most important creative people in the business and set the stage for them to think of her when opportunities arose on the editorial side of comics. She’s since gone on to be one of the best, and most important, editors in the field.
Larry Marder likes to talk about the time, back in 1984, when Berkeley hosted the sole Petuniacon, a Cerebus and alt comics focused show that he credits as his “Passage From Virgin to Bride” where he walked in a fan and walked out a pro. The talent there was something else: Dave & Deni Sim, Los Bros Hernandez, Gary Groth, Jim Valentino, Chris Claremont, Trina Robbins, Mike Friedrich, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, and others. Check out this scan of the program, you’ll plotz. Larry may have been one of about 9 fans who walked in. Sometimes there’s magic in disasters because a vital community has gotten together, and the fact of getting all those people who believe together is what makes the moment special.
Sure, these things could have happened anywhere, but in the Bay Area they happen so frequently that it defies the law of averages. Something else is at play. In highlighting one small block of Berkeley, Cometbus was able to demonstrate how a few personalities can change the world, and how that area is able to facilitate their doing so. There’s something in that place that behaves as a kind of life force for art. It ignites torches that are passed down and able to burn long.
And the fire, thankfully, continues to burn.
Last weekend I was talking to Eric Stephenson, Image’s publisher, about the Cometbus story. I told him he needed to read it, because now he was a part of that history. “That’s a weird thought,” he said. But it’s true. Image is the latest publisher to take root there, and to attract true believers from the community to make things happen. Eric has some incredible members of the Comic Relief diaspora on his team: Ed Brubaker and Derek McCulloch on the creative side; Todd Martinez, Branwyn Bigglestone, Sarah Delaine, and Tyler Shainline in the office. Bay natives Erik Larsen, Jimmie Robinson, and Al Gordon are part of the company’s creative DNA. Image has been named best publisher in the East Bay several times, and is part of a history that includes Print Mint, Apex Novelties, Star*Reach and Last Gasp. They’re part of the current generation of what makes for singular Bay Area publishing.
This weekend they’re having a convention I’m glad to be going to -- Image Expo. The show’s conceit is that it’s a celebration of creator owned comics, honoring Image’s 20th Anniversary, for the local community. I dunno if it’s gonna be another Petuniacon, or if it’s gonna be the birth of a hit, like the first few WonderCons back when Joe Field & Mike Friedrich were putting that show on. Either way, it will certainly be one hell of a gathering of incredibly interesting people, where I’m sure lots of new ideas will be born, and I’m sure at least a few folks will walk in fans and walk out pros. You just can’t have a show like this in the Bay without lighting some fires.
Eric’s disquiet at the notion of being part of the history Cometbus wrote leads me to a pretty solid statement Aaron popped into his conclusion: “By the time you’re ready to take on your elders as equals, they’re dead. That’s the deal. I get it. But, every time I enter Moe’s, I wonder why it took so long to ready ourselves. Was I – and the rest of my generation – coddled & slow, or were Moe and the rest of the ‘colorful characters’ so patronizing and so generous with their judgment that they never gave us room to grow.”
I’m glad I came from comics and not punk, because I didn’t have that problem with my elders. Hell, Rory, Ron, they made sure I had work, food, alcohol, and company; they shared their knowledge; they nurtured the flame. But for me, probably for Eric, by the time you’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with those elders as equals, they’re out of the scrum. So what you’re doing is ensuring the flame doesn’t go out. You’re paying it forward.
Who knows what the next chapter of the Bay Area’s comics, art or cultural history will be? I do believe that it’ll be positive. Way too much interesting stuff has happened against incredible odds. Too many interesting people have settled or passed through there and done influential things. When I’m at Image Expo this weekend, I’ll be thinking of the time I lived there, of the friends I’ll never see again, and I’ll honor them by keeping an eye open for the next generation coming through with that spark in their eyes. I’ll do my best to pay it forward. That’s what those guys did for me. That’s the least I can do for them.
Image of Rory Root & Brian Hibbs, presumably at the grand opening of the second Comic Relief location, was ganked from The Savage Critic.
Monday, February 20, 2012
I first walked into this wonderful establishment last Saturday when I was hungry and assumed they'd have something good and healthy. They certainly did -- their Yakitori is superb, especially the scallop, the asparagus, and the shrimp. It was brimming with a mix of Japanese speakers, college students, and quiet middle aged men reading at the counter. The music was a loud mix of 60s Asian pop and 70s big horn hustle disco. I pulled out my netbook to noodle with the piece I was composing, figuring they'd try to rush me out when I was done with my meal, but on the contrary, they kept refilling my green tea and were chuffed that I was writing there. One of the grill cooks, Yasu, was sad I wouldn't drink beer with him, but was really excited to learn I was writing about comics.
It's a really friendly place, and after 1 all the kitchen guys were guzzling beers and razzing each other in a kitchen language that oscillated between Japanese and Spanglish in a sincerely genial way. Earlier tonight the fellow below asked if I minded whether he put some plates on the counter above me. "Of course not," I said. He spied my computer and asked, "You writing?" "Yeah," I answered. He lit up and said, "Cool!"
This is one of those extremely rare gems that makes New York worthwhile. The food's cheap, and good, and honest; the staff is friendly; and the atmosphere is colorful and inviting.
Village Yokocho is located at 8 Stuyvesant Street in New York, just off of St. Marks & 3rd Ave.
Friday, February 17, 2012
I'm not talking about the homogenous cookie-cutter corporate coffee experience that Starbucks or regional chains like Peets or Caribou offer. Those places are fine if you need a decent cup of coffee, and some kind of baked good. I'm not a snob - I'll use those places for those purposes. But they are to the coffee house what Subway is to the delicatessen. Yeah, they'll feed the body, but they completely misunderstand the soul of the thing they do.
What I'm speaking of are the quirky, funky places, almost uniformly staffed by scruffy young people, that invite creative people of any stripe to come at all hours in order to loiter, to read, to work, to perform -- to engage in the things that make for the artful life. They're harder and harder to come by. Here in NYC, there's fewer than a dozen of them that are open after 8 PM, and there are exactly four that I'm aware of that are open past midnight, only two of which go all night. In this place where the beats, and the abstract expressionists, and the hippies, and the pops, and the punks, the new wave, and so many other defiant groups of creative people came to be, that's a real shame. Here in NY you'll find no shortage of bars, but clear headed work doesn't happen in bars.
I'm an inveterate coffee house person. It started when I was a kid, sitting outside of Common Grounds, a coffee house in Northridge where every night my high school buddies and I would sit outside and smoke things and drink coffee and bullshit the night away until Jesus, the cook and cleaning guy, would tell us it was time to go and we'd help him carry the chairs in. When I moved to San Diego if it wasn't Wired, where I basically lived, it was Bread and Cie, or Gelato Vera. Oakland found me at the Temescal Cafe every day. Northampton gave me JavaNet. And New York gave me The Verb and Think Coffee on Mercer.
Here's what I saw while I was working at Think last night:
They were playing the Brandenberg concertos. It was planned a few days out. Now, I don't go to coffee houses for entertainment, but I love the fact that the staff of college kids who work at this place is able to say, "Sure, you can have your underground classical gig here." That sure won't happen at a Starbucks.
I'm not opposed to corporations in a militant fashion. They're a fact of life, and many of them do things to be good citizens. But there is a rape of homogenization happening in America, where I worry the soul of this country is being lost. And by soul, I'm speaking of the creative individuality of small business. The ability for people to build places that reflect the character of the folks who work there, and speak to the spirit of the patrons who come in the door. I'm talking about a world built by people for people, not by entities for consumers. Some things are more important than money. The human spirit is intangible, and cannot be bought or sold, but it can be nourished and destroyed. Don't believe anyone who tells you it isn't worth far more than money.
The coffee house is just one facet of our culture that's endangered, and it's one that's important to me. And we'll survive without them. But it shouldn't have to come to that.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I hadn't thought about Bush for a while. I've been doing my best to look away from the current carnival of clownish fuckery that some are charitably referring to as the 2012 Presidential Election race. Because every time I look, I simply feel disappointment and despair. I never realized that I would become nostalgic for the anger I felt towards George Bush, and the way he managed the country. In those days, it really felt like a wrong turn had been taken, but that we could correct it with proper civic engagement. Maybe I'm old, maybe I'm tired, or maybe I'm lazy, or maybe it's all of those things, but watching what passes for political discourse these days makes me think that nothing will change absent a slate-wiping event that would make Travis Bickle proud.
It prompted me to look back on this piece I wrote about Bush in 2005, shortly after Hunter Thompson killed himself. There's a lot I still believe in here. The worst part about it is that I really do believe that George Bush, as wrong-headed, incompetent, and awful as he was, really did believe in what he said and did. I don't believe a word of the current slate. And those diminishing returns are what's truly horrifying.
Here's the original 2005 piece, unedited:
Last summer, on a tear through Ohio I happened to run into George W. Bush. It was the damnedest thing, really. I was meeting a colleague at an upscale downtown hotel and so I hung out in the bar drinking whisky and waiting. A detail of spooks in black suits and ties and glasses were already in the place eyeing me up and down as if I were some sort of x-factor. The bar was filled to capacity with fat old men in three piece suits all waiting for some kind of fundraiser that was going on upstairs. I sat for a half hour and watched the place thin, after a fashion leaving me lonesome on the stool with just a few couples sitting at cocktail tables around the restaurant. My friend came down from his room and we went out for dinner at some local steakhouse.
When I returned to the hotel we had a couple more drinks and he went back up to his room. It wasn't late, but the bar was dead. There was me and Gary, the older, reserved barkeep, and just a couple of spooks hanging out as unobtrusively as possible near the doors. They were eyeing me again, but I paid no mind and ordered another drink.
That's when W walked in, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and tie that you could tell he really didn't favor. He was taller than I imagined, and his eyes were more sympathetic than I ever thought they could be when looking at him on the television. That's the problem with villains: at the end of the day they're really just people and their capacity for evil has to be measured against the physical realities of indigestion, and fatigue, and worry about the family and the dog. Which doesn't excuse any of the problems I have against Bush, but it made it hard for me to transfer my visceral intellectual hatred of the President to the tired, average looking man who was walking up to the bar.
One of the spooks walked over to me and asked to pay my tab and for me to leave. "No, hell, that's all right, let him stay," Bush said. "You're a citizen just like me," he said, sitting three stools over from me, "You got every right to have a drink in peace. What're you drinking anyway? I'll get your next one."
"Maker's Mark," I said, "But I'm all right, I just ordered one. Thanks anyway."
"That's very wise," W said, settling onto his stool. "'Be not among wine bibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags. ' That's from the book of Proverbs." He ordered a Coca-Cola then turned to me and said, "So lemme ask you what you think about this race we're in."
"Well, John Kerry's running a terrible race," I said, after lighting a smoke.
Bush let out a loud Texas guffaw. "That's what I keep saying, let's just hope he keeps it up!"
"Actually, I hope he gets his shit together," I said. "There's no way I can give you my vote."
His eyes went steely for a moment and then the composure returned. "And why's that?" he asked.
"With due respect, I think you're running the country all wrong. I was with you on Afghanistan, but the way you've managed Iraq is all wrong and it just keeps getting worse."
"And with due respect to you, I don't think you have all the facts," Bush answered. "Saddam Hussein was a terrible, terrible man. He turned his weapons on his own people, he defied the world community, and he aided terrorists. How could we stand by and let him continue?"
"Yeah, I read the news and I've heard all that, but all I'm seeing is that your guys had a plan to get in there and depose Saddam, but you had no idea what you were gonna do afterwards. So good, you broke it, Saddam's out of power, and the whole country's on the verge of anarchy."
"That's just the way that freedom spreads," he said. "The terrorists are fighting us because we represent the march of freedom and every single act of terrorism is proof of how scary these people think freedom is. They know it's coming, and that their days are numbered and so they desperately defy us, but we will destroy them, because we know we're right."
"Save it," I said. "You broke faith with a tradition of American foreign policy and led us into a war of your choosing, that's not what the United States is all about. A lot changed with 9/11, I'll grant you that, but it doesn't give us the right to unilaterally invade a foreign country that isn't directly threatening us, and to do so on shoddy evidence."
"And I suppose you're one of those people who think that we should have waited until an American city was in ashes before taking out a man who had proved time and again to be a threat."
"No, I'm one of those people who thinks the United States should stand taller than the world's bullies, act with unimpeachable integrity, and lead by example. We could have employed military force if you exhausted diplomacy..."
"Diplomacy wasn't working..."
"And neither is your military solution. Come on. Abu Ghraib. You should be ashamed of yourself. As an American, I'm certainly ashamed. How can we persuade the rest of the world that we've got the best answer if we behave like bullies and thugs?"
"I am ashamed of what happened in that place. But that doesn't change the fact that we're doing God's work and spreading freedom. That's the calling of our nation, to spread freedom, and to conquer oppression, wherever it lives. That's how we'll destroy the terrorists."
"Jesus," I said, exhaling smoke, "do you ever listen to yourself? We're losing because we're winning, the terrorists are attacking us because we're going to win. Don't you know how retarded that sounds? Freedom isn't occupying other nations without the sanction of our allies. Freedom isn't flouting the Geneva Convention. Freedom isn't cultivating a nation of fear under freaks like that Attorney General you dug out from an election lost to a dead man. Freedom is behaving in the best interests of your citizens, admitting when you made mistakes, and building constructive bridges. Not continuing on some homicidal domination adventure."
Bush withdrew and took some rapid sips at his drink. "Well, I can see we're just looking at the world from two different points of view. That's what makes America great, the fact that we can sit in this place and have this conversation," he said.
"You couldn't be more right about that," I said. "Look, I love America. I think we've got the greatest constitution in the history of the world. I think we're capable of great things, but I think you're handling it badly. And the thing is, I can't tell if it's some cynical geopolitical power grab or if you really believe in what you're doing."
He looked away from me, angry then disgusted. "I can tell you, I'm nothing if not a man of faith and conviction. I believe we were put on this earth to spread freedom and that God wants me to be where I am doing his work." He extended his hand. "God bless you, young man. One day when you're older and you can see how we've spread God's promise of freedom, I hope you'll think back on this conversation and recognize that what I'm doing is right."
I shook his hand and watched him walk away. I was filled with all kinds of weird emotions bordering between anger, sadness, and disgust. Face to face, he really didn't seem like a bad man. But in person he was every bit as arrogant, every bit as irrational, and every bit as unreflective as I feared he was. And I recognized that if we can't come up with a candidate who could beat that, then this country was spiraling horribly out of control. I hoped for Kerry to do the job. Now, every time I think back on that strange night in Columbus, I feel sick because he couldn't. And I recognize that we're deeper in the shit than we can ever realize.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Probably I've forgotten more of what I've done in this man's company than I remember, which is an endorsement.
If you follow him online, or met him at a convention, you'll see that he advertises a propensity for consuming alcoholic beverages that is only rivaled in history by the likes of Hunter Thompson or W.C. Fields. This is truth in advertising. If life were a comic book, and bars were planets, Ben McCool really would be Galactus, except probably he wouldn't wear the dumb skirt.
If you read his Twitter feed, you know that he is a monster for sport. Ben taught me everything I know about the rules of American Football, and drew out my appreciation of both that venerable sport, as well as its European counterpart. He's patient, smart, and encouraging when it comes to these things. He's also aware how patently strange it is to be equally versed in the ways of sports and the ways of nerd culture, and eager to induct new people to both tribes. I say we get him a football shaped toaster oven for his 40th.
If you read his comic books -- and if you don't you're missing out on a terrific wellspring of incredibly good storytelling -- you see that he has a singularly twisted mind. Ben writes compelling stories about characters with soiled souls who are striving for a grace they know they're unlikely to achieve, but who still possess the drive to try.
Which leads me to the things you probably don't know about Ben McCool. Beneath the jovial beer monster, within the fierce Villa fan, coded in the stylish language of his stories, there's a youthful, exceedingly genuine, well meaning man who tries each day to make himself better. Like me, like you, some days he succeeds and some days he doesn't. But that well-meaning sweetness, that desire to lift up his brother, it is the fire in his furnace, and it's a rare, beautiful thing.
Happy birthday, you magnificent bastard.
Monday, February 13, 2012
That was the first one I saw when I got off the subway this morning. They should just call this campaign "Necrotic Girlfriend."
Then, on the way to the gym tonight there was this abomination:
Yeah, I see the humor. But Jesus Christ, it's such a venal sentiment that I sure as hell wouldn't want to advertise my product in that fashion, much less put it on my building.
There are days that I tire of this world of dollar signs, erotic challenge, and low standards. This is one of them.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Duchamp. This would later be revealed as a step on the path to Etant Donnes, but at the time it was just the cover of a surrealism exhibition. Any day I get to see an original Duchamp is a good day.
Tetsumi Kudo produced this haunting sculpture that I read as a surrealist meditation on the persistence of sexual desire through the process of physical decay.
I'm not 100% certain this rude drawing is by John Currin, but it sure seems like his approach. I love the line here, especially in the way it portrays the frankness of the figure's facial expression. It's beautiful, intimate and without shame.
The Andrea Rosen Gallery is located at 525 West 24th Street in Manhattan. This exhibit is on view in Gallery 2 until March 24.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Fishman creates large, aggressively colorful paintings on stainless steel that transcribe scientific imaging data, such as EKG and EEG graphs, as well as bar codes and other technological forms. These paintings capture life, motion, vitality and time in a visually stunning, psychedelic, but static form. Alongside these paintings were blown glass sculpture pieces Pill Spill and One A Day, which are painted sculptures of prescription pill capsules. The paintings and sculptures combine to comment on the ubiquity of pharmaceuticals and technology in 21st century life, and acknowledge a surreal, psychedelic dimension to the legal, industrial drug culture that flourishes in the modern era. This is art that couldn't exist except right now, and may prove to be a cohesive statement of our time and values for future generations. Donald Kuspit wrote an insightful analysis of her work here. The gallery's exhibit site is here. And below are a few of my snaps from the show:
Galerie Richard is located at 514 W. 24th Street in Manhattan.
Friday, February 10, 2012
For instance, here's the first piece you see when you walk into the main exhibit space:
I'd stumbled into the opening of Friedman's show New Work, which includes sculptures, paintings, and drawings across a wide variety of genres, addressing concepts of technology, nature, perception, and scope.
Across the room from the silver pisser was this mind bending god's eye view of a man flying a kite:
The kite is so high and so small that it stood above this guard's head, and was basically impossible to shoot.
My favorite piece hung from the ceiling, and you'd miss it if you weren't looking up towards the kite:
This styrofoam and paint Space Station reminds me of Enki Bilal designs. It's awesome. Here's another view, both from the gallery website:
Walking into the back room, Friedman scattered these styrofoam and paint apples, which all contained unique and persuasive impressions of bite marks:
The back room had this beautiful piece that had to be maddening to construct. It's styrofoam, paint and paper on board:
Friedman is all over the place, and that's his charm. He's as likely to make a beautiful form that provides retinal pleasure as he is to make a piece that questions the rarefied atmosphere of the gallery. His work displays a vast level of patience, particularly the pieces using styrofoam as a material. Not pictured in this blog post, but included in the exhibition link, are a couple of abstract and conceptual pieces that use word placement on paper to evoke images, and hand-made sculptures and paintings commenting on the hardware that makes video. This is art that is as smart as it is smart ass. It's worth seeing.
Tom Friedman: New Work is on view until March 17 at Lurhing Augustine, 531 West 24th Street in Manhattan.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I first heard him as a voice in the dark, coming through on a cheap AM radio, speaking of the doomed love between an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman. Beneath the high concept was something else, though: extraordinary use of language, and an honest accounting of the emotional lacerations encountered by everyone trying to make a relationship last. The next time I heard him, I recognized the voice, but this time he was conveying the first person complaint of the biblical Joseph, describing in pained detail the tormented jealousy and rage he felt towards the God who decided to make him an eternal cuckold. The voice, at once deep and soothing, but speaking of profound loneliness and emotional violence would leap fearlessly between stories, and, as I’d listen to more of his work, between monologues, phone conversations, found scholarly lectures, and music to create vital tapestries of human experience that were honest, and completely unique. There’s no one like Joe Frank, and his work is worth the effort to seek out.
He came through New York last October, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. It was his first time in the city in 24 years, and for the first time on the stage, where he performed the monologue “Too Close To Home.” It was the second time I saw him perform - the first was at Largo in LA a few years back. That time I actually flew across the country for his show. This time, I didn’t need to travel so far, but I still came with the spirit of a pilgrim, to pay respect and draw wisdom from an admired mind. Frank didn’t disappoint.
He’s ancient now, and his body is frail. His hands shake when he turns a page of his script. But he shoulders this with dignity, and his voice booms, and his eyes shine with clarity and authority.
That show was an exploration of mortality - the indignities of old age, the spiritual suffering of physical decline for both the fading and the survivors, and the yearning for grace and connection. Frank blends autobiographical detail with invention, fantasy, and observation, and creates a sense of surrealism by describing mundane details one strives to ignore with precise, cutting language. A room of elderly women with identical blonde dye jobs becomes a fantasia of Joe looking for his mother, being surrounded by her facsimile but unable to reach her. The cheap, mean dinner table where his step father and mother masticate their meal puts us in the narrator’s shoes, and we feel his mingled revulsion and empathy. There are moments described where the desire to connect is trumped by the fear of destroying what fragile life force remains. A desperate mid-day jog becomes a botched bargain with God. An elderly woman’s memories of fleeing the war as a small child but feeling so full with life are juxtaposed with her self-loathing and sincere desire for death, because she is disgusted by her condition of being a burden. “Too Close To Home” portrays a desire to reconnect not merely with lost youth, but with the pure vitality that permits us to nourish and be nourished by our connections with each other.
In recent years, Frank suffered a great deal of physical indignity, including a near-fatal kidney failure, and it's taken a toll out on him. But when you watch him, he doesn't look like a martyr. He holds himself with grace, and he tells the truth with a style that's arresting and moving.
There’s no one like Joe Frank. Probably there never was and never will be again. I hope he gets a serious victory lap, and that he gets to publish in as many venues as he'd like for his writing. He's earned it by creating a body of work unlike any other, and all on his own terms. To me, he's the rarest of artists, and as such, a unique and honest human treasure.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Within a window on a quiet street in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, Michele Basta-Smith has produced a powerful installation that reaches deep into the spectator's subconscious mind and creates an arresting fascination that lingers long after he has walked away. It is part of the installation series fittingly titled: "Haunts of Strange and Far Places." It is a captivating work of art that drew me back to visit it five times in my travels. Here is the artist's portrait of the full tableau:
The work creates a whole from Basta-Smith's recent output, including the charcoal floor, the central sculpture, "Companion," and the illuminated background "Love Letter 1 - 8."
The floor consists of charcoal drawings simultaneously evoking a surreal sea-scene and cave painting. An octopus, insects, ancient boats, and flying dragons are roughly drawn upon the space. It looks like a message from a distant human relative that either hasn't acquired or has, perhaps, abandoned language. I didn't get a very good picture of it, so here is a picture from the artist's website that captures an earlier use of the same space:
A pedestal rises from this ground, dried paint evoking water flowing off of it, and the sculpture "Companion" stands. This chimera contains human, dog, and reptile features. I'm not sure how the body was constructed, but the skin was definitely executed with encaustic on top of something else, papier-mache maybe. Photography doesn't do much justice to the work, which first draws you in through the expressive eyes of the animal portion, and then into the human's distant gaze, and at last the tortured imaginative physicality of the sculpture as a whole. Here is the best I could do, in terms of the order of vision that drew me into the piece:
The background components, Love Letter 1 -8, are panels of wood, fiberglass and resin frames containing panels locking vegetables, fruit, flowers and cuttlefish in resin, and then illuminating them from behind, creating a ghostly effect of life trapped in amber.
The installation, taken as a whole, evokes a powerful meditation on life forms, and the life force within them. The chimera's animal eyes are warm and compassionate, while the human appears shocked, dazed or vacant. The body of Companion, viewed from different vantage points, shows an accurate portrayal of the component anatomies fused together. This establishes readings that include the depiction of a moment within a long process of transformation captured in time; a comment on the co-dependent relationship of man and beast; or merely a surreal and disturbing vision that reminds the viewer of man's underlying animal status. The panels and floor capture life in a way that taps into distant sense memory, evokes something we don't remember with our civilized mind, but recognize deep within our animal one. Basta-Smith succeeds in creating ghostly, beautiful, and surreal figures that look like they inhabit a post-human spirit world.
Basta-Smith is making some very interesting art that is worth examination. Please go check out her website, the rest is equally striking. If you live there go see it. This art is worth your time. It will surely be in a museum one day, so see it now before it is a legend.
"Haunts of Strange and Far Places" is located at 3214 Burgundy Street.
Monday, February 6, 2012
When I came to visit New Orleans before Christmas, I stumbled across a Pecha-Kucha event attached to the Avant-Garden local arts market where I heard for the first time about something called The Music Box in a neighborhood called the Bywater. It was one hell of an interesting and ambitious project, phase one of an art project called Dithyrambalina:
The Music Box is an interactive musical village in the city of New Orleans. It was built by over 23 artists. Each structure houses an invented instrument that investigates the notion of playing a house. The sound artists who made these instruments are experimenting with musical architecture. They are preparing for Dithyrambalina, a full-scale musical house collaboration with the artist Swoon.
This temporary installation can be explored by visitors of all ages who are encouraged to play the town. The Music Box also hosted a three-part series of performances. The Shantytown Orchestra was comprised of a changing roster of world class musicians under the conductor Quintron. During these performances musicians took their stations amongst the shanties and shacks where they played invented instruments for sold out audiences.
I knew it was closed for the winter, but I was still curious about what I'd see, so last Tuesday I took a walk up to the Bywater to see what I could. I'm glad I did, because that whim of a walk introduced me one of the most interesting artistic neighborhoods I've had the fortune to encounter since I fell in love with Williamsburg in the late 1990s.
If you want to see good pictures of what the Music Box looks like when the gates are open, I strongly encourage you to look at the links above. But even when it's shut, it can be quite striking.Here's the front gate:
And another view:
And here's what you see when you peek through the wall:
I hope to be back when it's open -- this is an extremely beautiful structure with conceptual ambition unlike anything else I've seen in my recent travels.
The Music Box is on 1027 Piety Street in New Orleans.I walked down Piety towards Burgundy to see what else the neighborhood had to offer. The houses were pretty and colorful shotguns, and in between were a variety of small restaurants, coffee, and art studios. The first art studio I encountered belonged to Christopher Porche-West, a photographer who has been shooting New Orleans for 30 years, and makes mixed media assemblages that encompass his photography with found objects. His work is interesting because he finds objects that each contain an aura of use, or of decay, or of otherwise having lived, and marrying this old photography to the pieces creates a tactile presentation of lost time regenerated as memory or art. It's very effective work. Here's his window display:
His website has a lot more stuff, and a lot of it is pretty interesting. Porche-West's studio is at 3201 Burgundy Street.
As I walked on towards the end of the neighborhood I saw a number of other examples of interesting homegrown art and design. I really liked this design, affixed to a traffic sign:
Down the street there was this piece of cautionary art, and yes, there is a mugger in the neighborhood right now, so be careful:
I got to the end of the road and started to turn around, walking back towards the quarter and enjoyed the art on this tattoo studio:
I also liked this graffiti across the street:
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. There was a beautiful wooden sculpture on St. Claude that looked like a ghostly bird or ship, but that I couldn't get an adequate picture of. There were houses painted with such care that they may as well have been art. There were artisan restaurants and junk shops assembling the creative detritus of the neighborhood's last forty years. And the people tended to embrace a genuine Bohemian spirit that is unusual in this slick, careerist era.
There was one more piece that blew me away completely there, but it's so amazing it's getting its own post. In the meantime, I strongly encourage a walk through this neighborhood. Interesting things are happening here.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I've spent the bulk of the past week working at Flora Cafe in the Marigny neighborhood. I love it here. It's low-key, the baristas are extremely nice, and sometimes Devin, the lady working behind the counter this afternoon, will take a break from the register and play piano in the back. There's a pleasant creative atmosphere here, and it's definitely established itself as my favorite place to work in New Orleans. They also make an extremely creditable black bean burrito.Today as I was revising an article for the CBLDF there was the distant thump of a trombone, and then some drums. Next thing I knew, everyone in the cafe raced outside to watch the troupe marching our way. Here's what I saw:
Flora Cafe is located at 2600 Royal Street in New Orleans.