Discussing with an architect whether there were any distinctive art movements in Atlanta with potential for conceptual growth. I allowed as how [in that wording lies a meaningful digression that I shall forego for the moment] there had been individual artists, any number of them, who had developed a conceptually rich and certainly distinct way of thinking, working, and making. But even though they fitted into larger cultural currents, they were so idiosyncratic that even the ones who have gone off to national recognition seem to exist in some curious sidestream.
Chris Verene, to take only one example, made sense in the 2000 Whitney Biennial because of his photographs of scruffy middle-aged men in camera clubs photographing naïve teenage models, who are dimly seen out of focus behind the balding heads and Hawaiian shirts that dominate the foreground of Verene’s photo. As with his long documentation of his family’s roots in Galesburg, Illinois, nobody had thought to take quite that perspective on a commonplace phenomenon. But Chris established his base in New York shortly before he made it into the 2000 biennial, and I suspect the New York art world doesn’t quite know what to make of a happily married heterosexual who engages in photographic gender-bending exercises and runs self-esteem salons that are such mixtures of serious psychobabble and obvious tomfoolery that we can’t ever be sure when the boy is off his head and when he’s just funnin’ us. Everybody in the museum world liked him much better when he was, oh, “interrogating gender and class issues,” like normal folks do. Doing a stint as a magician who does Houdini-esque stunts is not the way to advance a career as a conceptually oriented photographer.
I am tempted to engage in what would be a genuine digression about how the African-American artists who came out of the Atlanta College of Art in the early 1990s are the most distinctive group of Atlanta artists, joined by more recent arrivals from elsewhere such as Charles Nelson. (Radcliffe Bailey is the best known of the artists who stayed in Atlanta, joined by Kojo Griffin, whose route to the Whitney Biennial was a little different. But Kara Walker, who left, turned out to be the one on the covers of numerous global art magazines.)
So I shall stay more or less on message for once, and respectfully call your attention to the ridiculously inserted Southern vernacular in the above paragraphs. Obviously I grew up, as anyone educated in America does, learning the lingo of various regions and social classes. And I am fascinated by the strategies of those who grow up surrounded by seriously divergent dialects. I love it when the Finnish student of Japanese whose blog I follow goes off on her dorky hometown of Kauhava, and I comprehend, even though I can’t understand the language, the motives when she occasionally stops writing in fluent English and points out some absurdity in her regional dialect of Finnish, which she then quotes in extenso.
And it is this kind of cultural tension, which functions similarly in countries all over the globe, that accounts for my fascination with how we structures our lives by stories, and by the kinds of language we use to tell those stories. It is part, though obviously only part, of why I return again and again to John Crowley’s Ægypt cycle, in spite of wishing to get on to other things almost as devoutly as I suspect Mr. Crowley does. (One’s crowning achievements so often tend to get recognized in years when one would really rather be thinking about some other topic.)
Hence the post that readers of joculum.livejournal.com will find following this one, but those reading this part on counterforces.blogspot.com will not. (I know how to cross-promote my divergent web journals, y’all.)
Anyway, I once compared the ironic humor of Southern intellectuals with that of Central Europe, not least because I have frequently been happiest in the company of folks who hail from Mitteleuropa, though some left rather early in life. But there is something far more antic about Southern irony. Not for nothing did utopyr a.k.a. Grady Harris find himself for years in the Czech Republic (teaching English in the city best known for Semtex). But all of us seem to have alternated in our younger days between studying the Western intellectual tradition one year and living in wildly disparate environments the next. That much was commonplace, and I guess most such folks born between 1942 and 1962 also alternated between a cabin in Alaska and a houseboat in Amsterdam, or seminars on classical literature and factory work and being given a gun in Montana and told they would have to engage in wildlife poaching.
But there does seem to be something about growing up around Southerners that encourages a sense of irony that involves wildly contradictory versions of humor and seriousness alike.
Last night I went over to Edgewood for “Viva la Frida,” Susan Bridges’ exuberant tribute to the Frida Kahlo centenary. The art was, like Kahlo’s, simultaneously subtle and in-your-face. The show marks the return to visibility of Red Weldon-Sandlin, another of those artists whose pieces are in national museum collections and whose identity is spread across too many different media and markets to make sense to the orderly art world out there beyhond the provinces.
The opening night included a performance piece by a retired radical professor who paid homage to Frida’s political side by reprising a piece in which she (the professor) dresses in a costume that combines burqa and nun’s habit and leads the audience in a call and response of a text drawn mostly from old-line Marxism. (Hegemony is good to think about, but surplus labor value is what affects those makers of rubber bathmats of whom Joe Bageant writes; no Gramscian-Althusserian coruscations here.) Then three members of the Dames Aflame burlesque troupe came out in appropriate fiesta garb and did a Frida-homage strip show.
At evening’s end the culturally and generationally diverse crowd shared in the astounding Frida Kahlo birthday cake, one of those pieces of sculpture that leaves one astonished that anyone other than Jean Tinguely would put so much visual elaboration into a thing meant to be destroyed in a few hours’ time. (Ice sculptures come to mind, of course.)
The serving capacity of the cake brought to mind the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and though it probably wasn’t consciously intended, the communal consumption of an edible statue of Frida was exactly the sort of secularized communion (Tom Altizer would call it “radically profane” but he's just that kind of guy) that would be ritual-creators try to invent, but rarely succeed in so doing.
I’m sure there were Frida Kahlo birthday parties all over America that were just as delectably bizarre in their juxtaposition of thought and frivolity, but there was something about “Viva la Frida” that left me thinking once more about regional distinctions even when we are celebrating things that everybody shares.