Friday, December 21, 2007

new and very, very old

I did not invent the Internet, and Al Gore never claimed to have done so, either, but three decades back I was hanging around a doctoral candidate at Emory who had arrived there full of the almost entirely untranslated work of a philosopher named Jacques Derrida, and determined to translate and annotate his most esoteric volume on Husserl as his dissertation (p.s.: he did).

Not all that many years later, the guy’s dissertation director (and mine) wrote to me about having been asked for yet another survey article on deconstruction, with the observation “When the nuns and the Republicans want you to explain it to them, you know it is over.”

By that standard, Tokion magazine is not over any more than Juxtapoz is, but when Abrams puts out a handsome anthology from the one (titled Revisionaries) and artists from the other are featured in museum retrospectives, one begins to wonder if the political conventions can be far after. On the other hand, it has taken forty years for Mike Huckabee to fantasize about having the Rolling Stones play at his inaugural ball, so perhaps Tokion is safe for another thirty.

Juxtapoz, though, comes out of an aesthetic that is as old as the emergence of deconstruction, and it is only its relentless pursuit of its codified aesthetic that keeps it outside the realms of respectability. It took fifty years for Jack Kerouac to appear in the same archival format as Walt Whitrman’s barbaric yawp, though it took less time for Howl to be read for class at the military academies, presumably with the prim asterisks still in place in the umpteenth City Lights edition.

But I was going to write about the Abrams volume of Tokion artists, including the biennial-worthy Marcel Dzama, the all grown up ex-Atlanta graffitist Jose Parla, and many, many more. And there is indeed a consistent aesthetic of transgression to gladden the heart of old Paul McCarthy.

Perhaps it was the recycled psychedelia tucked away here and there in the volume, but I suddenly remembered the aesthetic associated back in the day with the late great San Francisco Oracle…not that there is a blessed thing in common with the copulating couples in yab-yum postures and the Day-Glo evocations of Aubrey Beardsley, but rather the sense that the edge at any given historical moment contains a few visual seeds that will grow into lasting legacies and a lot of crap that will someday seem as embarrassing as paisley and patchouli. (Those of us who were ostentatiously searching for the incredibly rare Beat Generation artifacts of only ten years earlier already turned up our noses at patchouli and paisley. We wore a lot of black and talked about European movies, but both were very hard to come by in most places.)

The skat8punk aesthetic, and graffiti, and the assorted schools of hip-hop have shown greater staying power than psychedelia and acid rock ever did, or even (apart from niche markets) reggae. Hell, it looks like the longest-lived phenomenon of our time is death metal, which just goes on into the third and fourth generations. But skateboarding and graffiti, also, are now raising up the grandchildren of the first-generation founders.

And that sense of tradition is pretty impressive, given how in 1968 hardly anybody celebrated the hipsters of 1943, or remembered the Zoot Suit Riots. (Woody Guthrie was something else, of course, and there was a certain nostalgia for the Old School Authenticity of the Great Depression.)

I, as I say, was crossing the continent to find the tiny number of Tibetan sculptures to be seen in California museums, and modeling myself after the poets of the great Six Gallery reading about which almost nothing could be learned except from battered copies of Evergreen Review. And I still pride myself at being as out of step with the culture as possible; though it is hard to know what to look for these days, when reasonable replicas of zoot suits can be seen on the bods of trendy art dealers and collarless Greek wedding shirts are still best reserved for the anniversary celebrations of yesteryear’s Greek weddings.

I may have found a few things that just about everybody who is either hip or mainstream-tasteful considers embarrassingly awful, so watch this space for further developments.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

good news and more

apparently LiveJournal users can now use their LJ i.d.'s to comment on Counterforces. this may help confirm my suspicion that while a few people read joculum regularly, no one at all is reading this.

So I feel free to remark on Marcia Wood's relative gutsiness in presenting Monica Cook's new well-nigh photorealist paintings of nudes with unpleasant or ambiguously experienced physical substances. (Pumpkin scrapings and honey, in particular.) On the one hand, Atlanta is relentlessly literalist, but on the other hand, this is why people are disturbed. They feel that folks just shouldn't mess with stuff like that, even if they can't quite say why. Were we not in need of being brought up to date on the condition of the 21st century (which has displaced bodily sensation with splendidly replicated smoothnesses onscreen that also bear little enough resemblance to the gush and spill of the world's tactility), one would think a refresher course on Vienna 1900 would be in order.

Cook, a SCAD grad who made good in NY, is showing on Walker Street through...oh, look it up, will you? (and if you don't feel like looking it's January 14)

Monday, December 10, 2007

encyclopedic surreality

The politics of the image is a topic that has been often noted; the appropriationists of the 1980s selected details of already existing photographs, or replicated famous images in their entirety in a new context, to bring new implications and new emotional baggage to pictures already sedimented into history or into popular culture. (And Richard Prince is currently engaged in a major conflict with a commercial photographer who is horrified to realize the photo he took for anonymous publication in a Marlboro ad is now thought of as a Richard Prince photograph. As Prince remarked, "I've never really thought of advertising photographs as being by anybody," which of course is the point Prince should have been making all along.)

Images become strange when their cultural context falls away; the surrealists not only juxtaposed strangely unrelated objects as per Lautréamont's chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table, they delighted in the unexpected strangeness of the remnants of one historical epoch when encountered in another; the shop windows of the endangered arcades of Paris, full of outdated merchandise in arrangements left unaltered for decades, and the signage targeted at the respectable bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, sentimental and absurd fifty years later in the traumatized waning years of the Third Republic. All the mythologies of objects that were not apparent to those who took them at face value were laid bare when the images that supported them were recycled by the hip artist-technologists of France circa 1920.

Hence the value of a map detail of Portuguese Africa put next to the soldiers and fighter pilots of Eisenhower's America the year before the Marines landed in Lebanon and more or less peacefully defused the situation in 1958. Hence the intrinsic interest that lies within the act of disassembling the diagrams by which "young people" were meant to learn how the relations of the world worked.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


"Encyclopedia Studies," the show currently at Atlanta's Beep Beep Gallery, consists of photographic overlays created from the illustrations beginning with "A" in the 1957 World Book encyclopedia.

That was a year when the 1957 Book of the Year published in 1958 would have been as important as the encyclopedia. Airplanes outweighed Africa, as has been observed, in part because the runup to decolonization was not amenable to encyclopedization. Ghana independence was as big a story as Sputnik. And the decolonizing floodgates were open; within a year, the French Community was formally free, with Guinea declining de Gaulle's offers of a sort of commonwealth, and going it alone.

So between the sudden birth of independent countries and the birth of the Space Age, the 1958 and 1959 editions of the World Book faced visual updating, big time. It would be interesting to compare entries and see if pictures kept pace with text, and if text kept pace with history.

1956 had seemingly solidified the postwar world with the failure of the East European revolutions. Sudan's path to independence, and Morocco's, would have been noted in the 1957 book, maybe. But with Tangier reverting in October '56 and Moroccan independence only happening in April '56, it's more likely that the text edited in 1955 and the pictures chosen even earlier would have stayed put.

Good to have images of how a world about to change beyond recognition was being presented. It would be intriguing to jump ahead to the entries for "French Indochina," which had ceased to exist in 1954 so the existence of North and South Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia would have had to be dealt with on some visual level.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

thinking out, writing off the top of my brow

AccessAtlanta offers a cover story about several shows in Atlanta that reflect the Lowbrow movement's interest in less than respectable topics, combined with the bargain-basement style of transgression that Pop Surrealism champions over the refined outrages of their European forebears:
"DEDICATED TO HOT RODS, pinup girls, graffiti, monsters and other pop culture subjects not typically recognized by mainstream museums, the lowbrow movement is like the punk rock of the art scene. With backgrounds in comics, tattooing, rock music or graphic design, these artists often draw from what they know rather than what they've been taught. While high art galleries might still shy away from lowbrow and its more fantasy-based pop surrealist cousin, the movement has gradually gained national credibility thanks to artists like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Frank Kozik, Mark Ryden and Tara McPherson."

Of course one has to add such artists as Dave Hickey's protegé Gajin Fujita. His work is prominently on display in the Las Vegas art museum that is run by Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin, but Fujita also has gotten ample New York gallery play prior to this presentation of Hickey's various MFAs who went off and made good, or made good money.

I guess you can have an advanced degree and still be lowbrow; my curator friend Susannah Koerber and I once wanted to do a show called "Self-Taught Artists with Doctorates." (I am one, Susannah is another, and the Polish microbiologist who did traditional paper doilies, who inspired the show, would be a third. We were questioning the stretched definitions of "folk and self-taught" at the time. "Lowbrow" seems headed in the same strange directions, just as classic graffiti artists now sell for up to six figures depending on the size of the stretched canvases on which they do their graffiti.)

My question, I suppose, is also the fine line between lowbrow and simple appropriation of childhood memories, or popular images in general. There was nothing particularly lowbrow about the 1957 encyclopedia from which Bean Summer's show at Beep Beep Gallery derives its visual raw materials; it takes on an air of hip retro irony because yesteryear's middlebrow fount of intellectual enlightenment is today's fount of amusingly innocent and/or stupid images. (Appropriating cartoons from whenever one was ten years old oneself is also a technique that dates back to Roy Lichtenstein, and followed by generations of painters since; and art history aside, after a certain infusion of Deleuze and Guattari, how much can one claim that one's borrowing of, say, World of Warcraft imagery still has a validly popular level of immediacy? when do the Mille Plateaux become Messrs' D and G's particular notion instead of...well, you get the idea.)

Bean Summer's (Ben Worley's) ironizing approach carries over brilliantly in his appropriation of a sponsors list that includes the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. He rescued the signage from the trash at Georgia State University where he is pursuing his own Master of Fine Arts degree with the work now on exhibit at Beep Beep.

I like the last-named gesture particularly; it reminds me of Kierkegaard's parable about the shop where passersby who see the sign in the window reading "Laundry Done Here" will find, if they walk in with their dirty clothing, that the shop is selling the sign itself, not the service it advertises. Here, the sponsors list is a piece of the artwork in the exhibition, not information regarding the sponsors of the exhibition.