Monday, September 1, 2014

Books About Comics: Heroes of the Comics and Ed vs Yummy Fur

Robert Boyd



Heroes Of The Comics: Portraits Of The Pioneering Legends Of Comic Books (Fantagraphics Books, 2014) by Drew Friedman. There is a nice irony in the title of Drew Friedman's new book. For many, the "heroes of the comics" are figures like Batman and Captain America--fictional characters who have become over time little more than corporate brands, cash-flow generating properties, occasionally revitalized by the "talent" that gets parachuted in to inject new life into them and thus to perpetuate--in a legally-binding sense--the companies' valuable trademarks. Friedman, on the contrary, has always been interested in the grungy side of the entertainment business (his past books have dealt with z-grade celebrities and borscht belt Jewish comedians), and this book continues this obsession by focusing not on the superheroes and funny animals that typified comic books of the 30s through the early 60s, but on their creators, who were paid peanuts by crappy publishers to create some of the most enduring characters in American popular culture.


Drew Friedman, portrait of Wally Wood from Heroes of the Comics

And even given this premise, "heroes" is an ambiguous word. Many of these figures were not "heroes" but journeymen, just doing a job the best way they knew how, and some of those in the book fall more on the villainous end of the spectrum! But Friedman treats them all more or less equally--a full-page portrait facing a brief, one-page biography. What the reader is left with is a powerful sense of how the comics were the result of actual people whose own stories are worth knowing. Friedman honors these artists, writers, editors and publishers by giving each of them a beautifully rendered portrait in high Friedman style.


Drew Friedman, portrait of Harvey Kurtzman from Heroes of the Comics

And the book includes many portraits of artists I consider to be real heroes of comics, including the three pictured here--Jack Kirby (on the cover of the book), Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman. Why are they heroes while astonishingly talented artists in the book like, say,  Russ Heath and Mort Drucker are not? Because they had a vision for comics as a means of artistic expression, as something more than a mere entertainment product. Their visions were consistently thwarted throughout their creative lives by the demands of the market, by censorship, and by a public that wasn't ready to accept comics as art--they are each tragic heroes in their own way. All the more reason to honor them.

The world of contemporary art has abandoned many of the old functions of art, of which portraiture was a primary one. It's now left mostly to photographers. But there are still a few great illustrators who choose to honor their subjects with psychologically intriguing representations done in pencil, paint and occasionally pixels. In addition to Friedman, I think of Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui, for example. Portraits of the quality that Friedman does here are real tributes to their subjects. They aren't commissioned portraits of some rich guy--they depict persons from a history that is meaningful to Friedman. And that's at least part of why they are so good.



Ed vs. Yummy Fur (Uncivilized Books, 2014) by Brian Evenson. Nowadays, we aren't surprised when books like Fun Home or Weapons of Mass Diplomacy just appear on the shelves, complete unto themselves. This used to be pretty much unheard of. There were comic books and comic strips and book collections or graphic novels barely existed. When Chester Brown, one of the key cartoonists in the alternative comics movement of the 1980s, started his comic book Yummy Fur, it was first as a self-published zine and later as a traditional 24-page comic book. The comic book commenced publication in 1986, reprinting the contents of the mini-comics initially. He continued the comic book for 32 issues, then started a new title, Underwater which ran for 11 issues, followed by Louis Riel, which lasted 10 issues. Material from these various comics was collected into five book collections. For his latest book, Paying for It, Brown skipped serialization and published it as a complete whole--this has become pretty typical for art comics. The age of the "comic book" is pretty much over for art comics.

When Chester Brown started Yummy Fur, he saw it as an open-ended comic about his protagonist, Ed, that he might continue indefinitely--not unlike a mainstream comic like Spider-Man. He thought he might occasionally collect issues into self-contained stories, but while doing this he would continue Ed's serialized adventures, as Hergé did with Tintin. In short, he started off with two older models of comics publishing in mind just a few years before those models started to come apart. He eventually published a definitive version of the "Ed" story from Yummy Fur called Ed the Happy Clown: a graphic-novel.

Ed vs. Yummy Fur examines this transition--how did the mini-comics differ from the comics, and how did the comics differ from graphic novel? This is an interesting case because we can see parts of the work that were redrawn, rewritten, excised, and changed. This sort of transformation is of great interest to critics, literary historians, art historians, philologists, etc. Evenson mentions Henry James' Roderick Hudson, a book James continually revised during his life, leading to four different published versions. Evenson describes the types and meanings of the changes Brown made between the comic book and the graphic novel. (However, he does not enumerate every single change--this book is critical, not encyclopedic.)

 
The plot of Ed the Happy Clown hinges on America's growing shit problem

In doing so, he discusses some of the themes of the book, particularly scatology and sacrilege. It has to be remembered that when Yummy Fur appeared, its content was shocking. There were massive amounts of shit, lots of fucking and masturbation (including masturbating saints), Ronald Reagan's head on the tip of a penis, and so on. The work was surrealist, and like the Surrealists, Brown reveled in blasphemy. Ironically, the "back-up feature" in the comic were two relatively straightforward adaptations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Yummy Fur repeatedly faced censorship during its run.

But the basic idea of his book would apply to many other contemporary comics--Love & Rockets and Maus both underwent changes from their initial forms to their final (or at least most recent) book collections. The changes that Yummy Fur underwent to become Ed the Happy Clown are fairly drastic but not unheard of, particularly for works conceived and drawn in that transitional period in which the comic book is declining while the graphic novel is ascendent.

The publisher of Ed vs. Yummy Fur is a very small press specializing in art comics (they published the two most recent Gabrielle Bell books, for example). This is the first of a series of short critical books about comics being published under the title Critical Cartoons. Scholarly writing on comics has been slowly increasing--the University Press of Mississippi has been a leader in this. I'm happy to see short critical books like Ed vs. Yummy Fur being published. I look forward to more from Uncivilized Books.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Several Comics from Around the World

Robert Boyd

I'm still trying to catch up blogging about comics I've read this summer. You can see more reviews here as well as my guide to Jesse Moynihan's Forming. This time around, I'm looking at some comics from Argentina, Belgium, France and Japan. Aside from their shared non-American origins, they don't have anything in common. Or one could say that the only things they have in common are things they lack--there are no superheroes in these books, no fights between good and evil, etc. This doesn't mean that they're good. Your mileage may vary. Mine did.



Macanudo #1 (Enchanted Lion Books, 2014) by Liniers. Liniers is the pen-name for Ricardo Siri, creator of the daily comic strip Macanudo. He and his wife also run a small publishing house called La Editorial Común, which publishes some very high quality Argentine, European and North American alternative comics. His drawing style is excellent, and his strips have great "timing." He often employs "silent" panels to provide a "rest" in the rhythm of the gag. Because are stand-alone strips, the gag is important. Liniers humor is more wry than laugh-out-loud funny. Many of his strips involve taking classic, cliched humor situations and tweaking them (as in the two examples below).





My problem with Linier's comics is that they really aren't all that funny. They're a little funny, sure. I don't hate them--I just don't love them. But I think that a kid, maybe 10 or 11, might find these hilarious the same way I found, say, B.C. hilarious at that age. So perhaps I'm the wrong audience for Macanudo. In any case, one can't deny that it's a very well-crafted comic strip.



White Cube (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) by Brecht Vandenbroucke. This seemed right up my alley--comics about art and the art world. The title refers to the classic modernist white cube gallery (as well as the well-known contemporary art gallery, White Cube). White Cube stars two identical male protagonists who look at art, buy art and make art with absurd results. The style of the art and the humor recalls the classic Belgian comic Cowboy Henk by Kamagurka and Herr Seele. But unfortunately, White Cube is far inferior to Cowboy Henk.


Brecht Vandenbrouke, White Cube p. 25

This witless and cruel joke typifies much of what is in the book.  It's nasty without being funny. It seems almost unfair to mention it in relation to Cowboy Henk. Here's a Cowboy Henk strip for comparison.


(from Smoke Signal, Desert Island's in-house comics tabloid.)

Only one Cowboy Henk book has been published in English, Cowboy Henk: King of Dental Floss, and that was way back in 1994. Yes to Kamagurka and Herr Seele; no to Brecht Vandenbroucke!



Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (SelfMadeHero, 2014) by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain. This is a rather bizarre book, but I found it captivating.  Lanzac is the pen-name of a French diplomat, Antonin Baudry. Baudry worked for the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin during the run-up to the Iraq War, and France was being hectored by the U.S. to join its "coalition of the willing." France wisely chose not to participate in this foolish war. Now one might expect someone like Baudry to write a memoir of the experience. What no one would expect is that he would fictionalize it in a graphic novel, Quai d'Orsay (retitled Weapon of Mass Diplomacy for English speaking readers). In the book, the low-level protagonist is a speechwriter named Arthur Vlaminck (it's confusing, but I think Vlaminck=Baudry=Lanzac) is hired to work for the foreign minister, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms. Vorms is de Villepin, and there are many additional fictional equivalences--Khemed is Iraq, Jeffrey Cole is Colin Powell, etc.


Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain, Weapons of Mass Diplomacy p. 21

Vorms at first seems to be a distracted blowhard, utterly dependent on his staff (especially his deputy, Claude). Cristophe Blain's artwork serves the story well here--Vorms is a hurricane of urgency, shoulders always backed up, gestures always emphatic. It's actually quite clever how it draws you in, thinking that the whole thing is a comedy at the expense of Vorms, as in a sequence where he compares a good political speech to Tintin.


Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain, Weapons of Mass Diplomacy p.45, top tier

But as the story progresses, you learn quite a lot about diplomacy as it is practiced at this level. And the story climaxes with a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, taking place after Cole has given his speech "proving" the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Khemed (this is based on an actual speech by Powell to the U.N. which has subsequently been proven to be false in all particulars). Vorms gives a stirring speech explaining why France cannot support a U.N. resolution against Khemed that amounts to giving the U.N. approval to war. Again, this speech was actually given by de Villepin. Obviously the opposition by France (and other countries) did not prevent the Iraq war, but it did prevent the U.N. from backing it. Somehow, this often wacky comic book manages to effectively depict the importance of that moment. I recommend Weapons of Mass Diplomacy highly.



Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan and Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) by Shigeru Mizuki. Shigeru Mizuki is in legend in Japanese comics, best known for his comics dealing with yōkai, supernatural beings from Japanese folklore. This series of books (two of which have been published in English, with more to come) tell the history of the Showa era, which lasted from 1926 until 1989, during the reign of Emperor Hirohito. Mizuki intersperses his own life story with sections of more-or-less straight history.


Shigeru Mizuki, Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan p 273

The auto-biographical sequences, such as the above where his grandmother dies, are drawn in his typical "cartoony" style. It's a style that feels very personal, very much his own.  The historical sections, on the other hand, often rely greatly on photo-reference. 


Shigeru Mizuki, Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan p 130

The distinction between these two styles separates the two sections and gives the memoir part a more subjective feeling while giving the history part a more objective feeling. But the problem with these books is that the two parts don't really mesh. Obviously Mizuki's life is affected by what is happening in his country, as when he is drafted in 1942. Mizuki would ultimately lose an arm in combat. But most of the time, there is a feeling that life in his small town is more-or-less unaffected by the politics of Japan happening far away in Tokyo.

It would have been better, then, to split Showa into two separate books--one a memoir and one a history. As it is, the two sides of this story of modern Japan are an uncomfortable fit.

The Best of Pan: No Seriously, What’s the Matter With Rice?

[This is the last of our "best of Pan" posts. Tough choice. Betsy Huete has written a bunch of good posts, and I almost chose her great review of the Wols retrospective at the Menil. Two other posts considered were Virginia Billeaud Anderson's visits with Perry House and Nathanial Donnett--they brought a personal connection with the artists that is generally lacking in reviews. But there can only be five, and I chose this post from March 2014 because as a Rice graduate, Rice's ambivalent relationship with art education has long troubled me.--Robert Boyd]

Betsy Huete

 
The building formerly known as Art Barn ready to be disassembled

Rice University’s recent decision to raze the Art Barn has caused quite the stir. (Well, possible razing—the Brown Foundation at present is discussing the possibility of moving the building to the Fourth Ward—because deconstructing, moving, finding land, and rebuilding is apparently a much more financially viable option than simply maintaining it onsite.) Although it has done little for the arts beyond sitting next to the Media Center for decades, proponents claim that it has symbolic and rich art historical and architectural value for not only Rice but Houston at large. While these claims may absolutely be true and the Art Barn’s demolishing very sad, as arts writer Devon Britt-Darby, Matchbox co-curator Jessica Fuquay, and Glasstire commenter Lisa Hardaway among others have made abundantly clear, this is just one incident, one symptom of the systemic failure of Rice University to take its arts program seriously.

And it’s easy for us to point finger, isn’t it? Yes, where the powers that be choose to direct—or not direct—their funding is certainly one culprit, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But the truth is Rice’s blatant lack of respect disguised as nonchalance towards the visual arts has far reaching tendrils that are deeply entrenched within the arts department as well as the greater student culture.

 
Edward and Nancy Kienholz, The Art Show, 1984 at the Art Barn (from Finders/Keepers catalog, 1997)

I’d like to start by saying that I didn’t even know what the Art Barn was until I got to grad school, nor was I aware of its dense, luxurious history and connection to the Menils. I thought it was just the corrugated metal building for Continuing Studies that happened to look an awful lot like the Media Center. Now sure, we can chalk that up to my own ignorance and lack of curiosity, but it begs the question: why is the school across town discussing, educating, and celebrating Rice’s art historical significance when Rice isn’t? Why did it take nearly a decade out of school to understand how amazing it was to be able to take a class with Thomas McEvilley? And why were there only three people in it? Why did Rice Gallery, one of the most exciting spaces in Houston, turn their backs on its students and deny them a senior show?

To be clear, Visual and Dramatic Arts department (VADA) has a lot of great things going on. When I was there, the faculty was excellent, and as people like George Smith, Bas Poulos, and Darra Keeton have retired, it seems they have found excellent replacements in Chris Sperandio and Natasha Bowdoin, and I’m sure they will find someone great to fill the sculpture faculty position. Rice’s decision to team up with the MFAH and have a constant influx of Core Fellows as adjuncts was stellar, and I can say first hand how formative that was for my undergraduate experience. But there have also been missteps within the department, like alienating probably the best lecturer I’ve ever had—David Brauer—because students complained that he graded too harshly. What the hell? Has anyone heard of Rice students filing a petition against their chemistry professor because, gee, he’s just too tough?

And this brings me to the student culture. Rice’s student body consists of the most creative, innovative, quirky, nerdy, funny, open-minded people I have ever met. This is why I found their indignant attitude towards the arts as a discipline, towards its power as an instigator of critical thought so confounding. I remember the sideways glances, the thinly veiled looks of contempt upon telling anyone at school I was an art major. I mean, how impractical is that? What kind of job would I get? And I think a lot of that doubt and even shame pervaded students within the department. It is common for students at Rice to double, even triple major, but it says something when every student in the department is a double major. In fact, I distinctly remember being the only student in my class who only majored in art. Why is that? There’s no way to be totally sure, but it certainly speaks for a lack of confidence in art’s purpose as a discipline and rigor within the department.

To be completely fair, I’m pretty old; I graduated nearly a decade ago (Martel ’05). It’s quite possible many things have changed since my time there. I hope they have, and there are obvious indicators to suggest times are indeed changing within the department. The development of grass-roots student run and alternative spaces like Matchbox and the Emergency Room have become exciting mainstays not only for the campus but for the Houston arts community in general. The Cargo Space is an innovative mobile residency, one of the very few mobile artist residencies in the country, at least that I’m aware of. Unfortunately, these endeavors were done in spite of Rice’s support, not because of it.

And that brings me back to the powers that be: what propels Rice’s blasé attitude towards the visual arts? Just ask Rice’s PR rep, B.J. Almond, and he’ll retort, citing the university’s public art program and its plans for the Moody Center of the Arts. The argument against plop art is too easy: as pretty as it is, it doesn’t tangibly affect the students and their education. The Moody Center of the Arts is a little more difficult; it’s harder to criticize an institution that doesn’t even exist yet. As exciting as it seems though, the evidence suggests that the Moody Center is more interested in garnering public attention and collecting donations than fostering an excellent visual arts program. The vice provost for interdisciplinary initiatives, Caroline Leveander, was quoted in Rice News as saying that “there’s a trend in elite higher education to build art centers on campus and raise awareness of the arts” and that “the new center should help recruit highly talented faculty and students in the visual and performing arts.” Call me crazy, but I think a good way to recruit exceptional talent would probably be to establish an MFA program for them to be able to attend. OR A BFA PROGRAM FOR THAT MATTER.

While the “Harvard of the South” continuously turns up its nose at its own artists, it is interesting to note that actual Ivy League schools like Columbia and Yale not only support their art students and faculty, they are among the best in the country. It seems that those universities are dedicated to the utmost excellence in all disciplines, not just the ones that the people running the show deem most important. So I think the real question isn’t why Rice doesn’t support the visual arts, but rather why isn’t Rice embarrassed that it doesn’t support the visual arts?

I hate to say it, but perhaps the demolishing of the Art Barn is a good thing. It seems to be shining a light on issues subsumed within yet simmering at Rice University for a very long time. Maybe this is what VADA needed: maybe this will somehow inhibit people from settling for the university’s PR placations and instead ask it to nurture its students and faculty that are trying so hard to make their program better.

The Best of Pan: Dallas Is a Jewel

[In 2012, I took a big road trip across Texas, visiting museums and srt spaces in San Antonio, Marfa, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. The upshot was a series of posts, including this three-part post on Dallas (here are part 2 and part 3). The post comes off as quite critical of Dallas, but the fact is that I loved Dallas and its art, and have been back several times and encountered more of the vibrant alternative scene there.]

Robert Boyd

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC 9 at night
Well Dallas is a jewel oh Dallas is a beautiful sight
But Dallas is a jungle but Dallas gives a beautiful light
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC 9 at night

Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down
But when you are up she's the kind you want to take around
And Dallas ain't a woman who will help you get your feet on the ground
Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down

(bridge)
I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind
I came into Dallas with a dollar and a dime

Well Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes
A steel and concrete soul in a warm heart and love disguise
A rich man who tends to believe in his own lies
Yeah Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes
"Dallas" by Jimmie Dale Gilmore

I arrived in Dallas not by DC-9 but after a non-stop drive from Odessa. My hotel, The Belmont, was on top of a hill overlooking some warehouses, a dollar store, and, off in the distance, downtown Dallas. The Belmont is an old moderne-style hotel built in the 40s and rehabbed fairly recently into hipness. And the neighborhood it's in, Oak Cliff, has undergone a similar transformation. When I arrived in Dallas, I went to a superb restaurant in Oak Cliff called Gloria's with my friend, Todd Ramsell. Todd gave me a tour of the Bishop Street Arts District, a part of Oak Cliff. From what I can tell, Oak Cliff's story is similar to that of the Heights in Houston. A charming neighborhood that became a slum, which made it cheap enough for some artists to movie in, which gave it some hip cache, which caused it to gentrify. The Belmont Hotel is an example of this and is a beautiful reuse of already existing architecture. Driving around, Oak Cliff felt a little like South Congress in Austin. Hip but commercial.

Ramsell told me that some Oak Cliff residents are so loyal to their hood that they try to get the city on their drivers licenses to be shown as "Oak Cliff" instead of "Dallas." (Oak Cliff tried and failed to secede from Dallas in 1990.) But trying to put Oak Cliff on your driver's license is not just an expression of Oak Cliff pride--it's an expression of being ashamed to be from Dallas. As hard as it is to believe about a city that swaggers and wears its self-importance on its sleeve, there are people who cringe at being from Dallas. And for good reason--people from other places really dislike Dallas. Ramsell related to me that occasionally when he tells someone he's from Dallas--especially someone from Austin--their first response will be to say with false solicitousness, "Oh, I'm sorry." I mentioned this to my sister who lives in Austin, and she sent me the phone photo below, which proves Ramsell right.

 
How Austin views Dallas

So what is Dallas? A self-confident art colossus with huge museums (and malls and football stadiums) housing fantastic art collections? Or a place of meek, embarrassed artists who might prefer to be from somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is only Oak Cliff? I think it's both. Dallas has a bit of an inferiority complex, and this manifests itself simultaneously in grandiosity and "cultural cringe." (And look, lest anyone think I am picking on Dallas, I think this is a common complex for provincial art towns, including Houston. I have an artist friend here who is constantly comparing Houston's art scene unfavorably to San Francisco's, for example.)

I was in Dallas for a few days. This was my first extended trip to the city since I was in college. Recognizing that there is something dubious about a critic parachuting in for a few days and then pronouncing judgment, I offer the following disclaimer: this post represents my first impression of the Dallas art scene, but hopefully not my last.

One thing that struck me as weird about Dallas was the way that everything is a "district." The city (or someone) seemed desperate to brand any given part of Dallas as this or that "district". There is the Arts District downtown, the Design District west of downtown, and in Oak Cliff, the Bishop Arts District. (Never could find the Hobo District, though.) In terms of visual arts, the Bishop Arts District seems largely aspirational. According to this gallery map created by Douglas D. Martin, there are only four galleries in this district, compared to a bunch over in the Design District and a large number scattered in other neighborhoods like Deep Ellum. (BAP offers plenty of places to shop, though.)

I started off in Deep Ellum. I wanted to see Kirk Hopper's gallery in particular because I had corresponded  with him briefly about Forest Bess (he runs the big Forrest Bess website, an invaluable resource). He wasn't at the gallery, but I was pretty impressed by the space itself. It was late sumer and late summer is a time for more eccentric art shows. Kirk Hopper was showing Amerwarpornica, a two-person show featuring the work of Kara Maria and Eurydice (yes, she has a one-word name, just like Cher or Sting). Both of them incorporated pin-up/porn images in their work. Eurydice's was notable because it was embroidered.


Eurydice, George (Washington) Gets Hot, 2010, hand-stitched with silk thread on hand-dyed silk, 52: x 43"

The centerpiece of the exhibit was a massive embroidery by Eurydice called Bathers. Here, she provides her take on a classical erotic subject. The bathers are, as far as I can tell, taken from pornographic sources and "collaged" together. They don't quite seem to be occupying the same space as one another, even though they are layered and recede n the distance. This strange "collage" effect may remind viewers of another artist who copied mass-produced female images to create vast populated landscapes--Henry Darger. Even the color of the underlying canvas recalls the somewhat yellowed paper of Darger's original art.


Eurydice, Bathers, 2012, hand stitched embroidery on unprimed canvas and vintage silks, 8' x 28'

I'm interested in the work, but when I walk into a gallery like this, I often wonder who the theoretical buyer is? (Assuming there is one, of course.) Who would hang a 28-foot wide tapestry of porn girls in their home? I'm almost more interested in the potential owner of this work than the work itself. Given the time of year, Hopper may have been assuming that no one would spend $60,000 for Bathers, but that it might draw attention to his gallery. And that seems like a pretty reasonable late-summer strategy.

Barry Whistler Gallery is right around the corner from Kirk Hopper Fine Art, but it was closed when I went by. But I did find something that was to characterize my Dallas trip.



I saw this sign for Health Care Art Consulting and felt instant cognitive dissonance. How do these words go together? But apparently, this is a company that supplies hospitals and other health care facilities with art. And thinking about it, I am not surprised such a business exists. But think about the art you see in hospitals and doctors offices. It is so unmemorable, so staggeringly banal, that it barely exists. And yet here is a business devoted to providing it. I'm sure this service is available in Houston and elsewhere. But until I came to Dallas, I never saw someone advertising this service. And in Dallas, it turns out, such advertisements are common.

 
Art for every occasion

In fact, Dallas has a whole part of town devoted to this kind of thing. It's called the Design District, and it's where you go to buy furniture, decor and art. As you can see in the gallery window above, you can buy art for your corporate offices, your medical clinics, your hotels, and for your home--one-stop shopping! This whole district was confusing to me. There's nothing like it in Houston. No doubt we have retailers of business furniture and interior designers who work to fill hotels and corporate offices with eye-pleasing decor. We just don't have a neighborhood devoted to it.

The Design District has its own sign

I spoke to Danette Dufilho at the Conduit Gallery (a very good gallery in the heart of the Design District), and she told me that at one time, this had been a strictly B2B area. Interior designers, acting on behalf of corporate and individual clients, would buy the furniture and decor they needed here. Apparently, vendors here realized there was money to be made by opening up to the public.

 
Corporate decoration or art? You decide!

The problem I see is that there's no clear demarcation between the galleries that sell corporate decorations by the square yard and the galleries that sell art qua art. Indeed, having such a district where these distinctions are blurred helps remind one that all art in art galleries, no matter how cutting edge it is, is merchandise.

Still, as I noted, there are galleries in the Design District selling interesting work which would be unlikely to be bought by an interior decorator for a corporate office. Conduit Gallery is one of those, and when I visited them, their front gallery was full of beautiful, dangerous-looking objects by Gabriel Dawe (who had a very cool installation last year at Peel).

 
Gabriel Dawe, Pain Series no. 23, 2012, deconstructed shirts and pins, 22" x 11" x 9"

 
Gabriel Dawe, Pain Series no. 28, 2012, shirt collars, sequins and pins, 11" x 8" x 6"

These sculptures, made of pins and fabric, make one think of iron maidens and other medeival torture devices. Or dangerous S&M devices, or things used by the bad guys in a horror movie. Pain Series No. 28 made me also think of primitive carnivorous creatures with maws filled with razor-sharp teeth, waiting for you to swim too close. In short, there is no way someone would put one of these elegant, deadly things in a hospital or corporate office. And in this way, Coduit Gallery separates itself from some of its peers in the Design District.


piece by Rex Ray, oil, acrylic and mixed media on linen

On the other hand, they were also showing colorful, pretty work by Rex Ray in the back, so perhaps they hedge their bets.

Other work I saw in the Design District that struck me as more than mere corporate decoration were the paintings of Benjamin Terry and painting/photos of Bonny Leibowitz at Cohn Drennan Contemporary.

 
Bonny Leibowitz, Streaming Consciousness, 2011, photography, encaustic, monotype on kozo and and pigment on cradled board, 30" x 30"

The two artists seem strikingly dissimilar, and I wonder why they were paired for this show, Blurr. But I liked Leibowitz's quasi abstract pieces, and while it took me a few minutes to get past my feelings of "ugh--paintings of hipsters," I warmed to Benjamin Terry's paintings as well.

 
Benjamin Terry, Over and Over Again, 2012, mixed media on panel, 75" x 74.5"

And over at Holly Johnson Gallery, there was a very likable show of Al Held-like abstractions by Tommy Fitzpatrick.


Tommy Fitzpatrick, Close-up (left) and Structural Components (right), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 13" x 17" each

 
Tommy Fitzpatrick, Techtonic, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 40"

 
Tommy Fitzpatrick, Unbuild, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 45"

So while there is something bizarre about having these high-quality galleries crowded in among the generic corporate art galleries, it's no surprise that there are plenty of good galleries in Dallas. (And let's face it--corporate decoration art galleries exist in Houston--they just don't advertise themselves so nakedly. Dallas's corporate galleries should be given points for their honesty.)

But what about more alternative offerings? I saw none and I attribute this primarily to my unfamiliarity with the scene and briefness of my visit. I plan to search that stuff out the next time I'm in Dallas, and I invite any Dallasites to school me about what I missed. But one problem I can see for the grass roots is that the best art school in the area is in Denton. The University of North Texas, like many colleges with large, high quality art departments, spins off a lot of artistic energy. It's like the University of Houston in that regard. The big difference is that UH is inside the Loop--it's near where artists live and work and exhibit. UNT is 40 miles from Dallas and about the same from Fort Worth. Does this inhibit the artistic interaction between Denton and Dallas? It must.

Christina Rees recently wrote an article for Glasstire that dared young Dallas artists to use their very marginality as a license to go crazy without worrying about what anyone thinks. She wrote:
[...]There is no real economy for your art being made here in DFW. Almost none. Not enough to make a living. And there isn’t a mainstream press, like there is in NYC and London, to cover your career if you made a commercial leap anyway. And that’s okay. Because this kind of vacuum is when it’s time to fuck things up. This is a magic hour, a once-in-a-lifetime chance when you have nothing to lose, and the place that you’re in—your neighborhood, your city, your region—if you get busy, can get really interesting.
I’m picking on you lot because you aren’t painters (another breed entirely), and you aren’t makers of pretty things and decorative objects. Your brains are wired the right way to fuck shit up. And I’m not writing about Houston or Brooklyn or Silver Lake either. I’m writing about here. ["Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
This got a huge number of responses, many defensive or dismissive (or both at the same time). The article and the responses suggested that there was something wrong with the local scene as far as young and/or cutting edge artists go. The comments were very interesting. I especially liked one by Douglas Martin, who provided a capsule view of the art scene (nice to have for an outsider like me):
What is made obvious in this passionate tirade is that our art scene is currently segmented: You’ve got your old artists that did not go to art school that are either bitter or not, depending on their interpretation of their own status in the scene they are still passionate about being included in (yes, I sometimes take the time to Google the names of commenters I don’t recognize). You’ve got your old artists that went to art school here and maybe got their MFA’s. Of these, some of them stuck around to teach and some left Dallas and maybe returned disenfranchised by the uninviting art scenes of NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. You’ve got the new generation of art students (the whippersnappers) who are blessed with a seemingly unequaled set of passionate and educated teachers who either cut their teeth locally or brought their MFA’s or PhD’s here. There’re the (gutter)punks that think they can make art, the street artists, and the life-time art students who befriend these whippersnappers. Professionally, there’re the gallerists that somehow survived the passage of time selling their abstract glass and brass sculptures and 2-inch thick oil paintings and the gallerists who encourage challenging, often local contemporary artists. And then there’re the staff of the local art institutions, the independent curators, and the journalists and art critics–all of which most people don’t know. What remains are the collectors, the casual buyers, and the simple fans of art (and/or free wine). Maybe I missed some subgroup, but that seems to be the scene. [comment by Douglas D. Martin, "Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
And he followed this Dallas taxonomy with a diagnosis of the problem that Rees was addressing.
With maybe the exception of visits during the Art Fair, upper level staff and trustees of the art institutions and collectors rarely make it to see any emerging art shows. And, as I mentioned in my comments on The State of the Arts and on the “research results” of Creative Time, neither do the competing gallerists. This disconnect from the scene is important to note. Older teachers and writers may hang with whippersnappers and wax philosophically over drinks at Amsterdam or Meridian, but because of their institutional ties, they are afraid, as Jenn Gooch mentioned above, to criticize in print, and often they miss shows.  [comment by Douglas D. Martin, "Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
Rees's article, in light of Martin's comment, seems almost nihilistic. It's as if she's saying, "Since no one cares anyway, do whatever you want." Is it any better in Houston? I think a lot of big time collectors are very hesitant to buy from local artists (unless they have the sufficient cultural capital, as bestowed by museum shows, blue chip gallery representation, and out-of-town critical recognition) or even to slum in the scene. But some young Houston collectors I know are willing to engage with the work of younger or more difficult artists. It's far from perfect, but if what Rees and Martin are saying is true, it's a lot better in Houston than in Dallas for young whippersnappers.

Indeed, it's not artists one thinks of at all when one thinks of Dallas and art. (And this despite having an interesting art history that goes back at least to the 30s, including two of my favorite Texas artists, Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters.) One thinks of big institutions and big collectors. I can't remember where I read it, but the statement "In Dallas, the man who owns the art is more highly regarded than the artist" is something that has always stuck with me.

That's the next part of my Dallas trip--viewing the mega-collections.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Best of Pan: Green Blob saves Cello Fury from Naked Tutus (NSFW)

[Dean Liscum had been blogging for Pan for a while when he wrote this post. He had even started blogging about performance.  But his humorous appraisal of this anarchic show seemed to prefigure his later writing on performance art in Houston. He was an eager participant, willing to allow himself to be moved by what he was seeing and experiencing, but also willing to have a laugh. Dean's performance posts have been some of the most popular in the history of the blog--possibly because of all the nudity in them, but I hope all those people searching for naked performance artists took the time to read Dean's great writing.]

Dean Liscum

In the dead center of summer in Houston, Tuesday's are dead. Monday's are even more livelier because it's industry night and you can buy drinks for you favorite bartender and s/he can remind you what a lousy tipper you are and how lame your game looks to the rest of the bar.

In the art world, they're even deader. So, when one of the members of Continuum forwarded a FB invite to Southmorehouse's event Naked Tu-Tu Tuesday #27. I glanced over the invite (excerpted below), reviewed my desolate social calendar, and clicked Join.
This is a ballet themed NT so bring your naked self and your Tutus to Notsuoh on Tuesday July 31st for an evening of ballet, music, and audience participatory performance art featuring Cello Fury from Pittsburg, PA (that does not mean "Prince Albert", folks) and Continuum, a local Houston performance art troupe (who will also lead a movement workshop).
To get such a sweet spot we have already volunteered to do an exhibitionist improv and definitely goofy dance routine while they play. Just kidding - maybe...
The phrase that caught my attention (and inspired my attendance) was "audience participatory performance art featuring Cello Fury." What the hell, I thought. I like Cello Fury's music, and even though I've never participated in a performance art piece before, I figured that I could undulate to the rhythm in a way that would make my white boy ancestors proud or at least play the equivalent of a performance art landscape prop.

I also discounted the theme spelled out in the title due to three facts:
  1. The invitation included the following disclaimer: "...There will be lots of people wearing clothes. Please, no pressure on them. The idea of NT is to make everyone comfortable with whatever their choice of attire."
  2. Although we're not technically in the Bible Belt, we are below it. Even though the dirty south may be on the down low, we don't admit those kind of things or show them in public.
  3. And finally, I took the line "PA (that does not mean 'Prince Albert'...), as an implicit guarantee that come what may, I wouldn't have my frenulum staple-gunned to my thigh. (At a place like Notsuoh, it's a good guarantee to have.)
Tuesday arrived and so did I. The show was on the second floor of Notsouh. I opened the door and raced up the stairs into a re-enactment of Marina Abramović and Ulay's Imponderabilia by two Continuum members. The performance art piece involved a naked (except for a stocking cap) male and a naked female on opposite sides of an entrance. Anyone who wanted to pass through the threshold had to walk between the two naked figures. Because of their presence, the entrant had to turn sideways and face (and come in contact with) either the naked male or the naked female.



Members of Continuum re-enacting "Imponderabilia"

This performance greeted everyone who showed up to the audience participation training. I was perplexed by the choice before. I was also fully aware of the political-social-sexual implications that I was forced to ponder. So rather than make a decision, I made multiple decisions and passed between the performers sometimes facing the male, sometimes facing the female until, like a over indulgent child at a free carnival ride, I was asked to let someone else take a turn.



I was mostly worried about stepping on their toes with my boots.


I could have ridden that ride all night but someone threatened to get out the staple gun.

On the second floor, it was a pretty sparse crowd. Maybe 20 people, half of them naked Southmorehouse regulars wearing more smiles than tutus.

The remnants of the first performance was being cleaned up. It featured Christine Cook fully experiencing her cake and ending in what any foodie (or your id) would enviously label a "foodgasm."



Have your cake and wear it too (photo copied from southmorehouse FaceBook page)


photo by Hilary Scullane

Next on the agenda, Continuum members, Sway Youngston and Jonatan Lopez re-enacted another Abramovic\Ulay performance piece, Light/Dark. This work started with the two artists sitting cross-legged across from each other staring into each other's eyes.



boy sees girl Abramovic-style

They then took turns slapping each other, tit-for-tat or rather whap! for wham! as the blows resonated in the space.


slap and ...


(tongue) tickle

The exchange evolved or devolved into a wrestling embrace. Both performers remained seated, but managed to lock arms and hold-grapple-pull-twist each other climaxing in an embrace-kiss. For the denouement, they then re-established the separation and the slapping until the piece simply ended.


Continuum members varying interpretations of the naked tutu

After pondering that painful performance (a metaphor for relationships? romantic love? the life of an artist? Continuum dues?), the audience drank beer, took photos, and lamented the fact that Texas has 367 miles of coastline and one clothing optional beach, which is Hippie Hollow in Austin. (At this gathering, I observed that naked people talk about being naked and nakedness issues as opposed to the geopolitics such as the war in Syria or the economic crisis in Spain.)


Rosario and Rosalinda plead with artistically inept

Around 9 p.m. instructions for BalletSutra began. I was excited. After all, this piece inspired me to show. Not because it was entirely new (Lopez had previously performed YogaSutra), but because it aspired to make the inartistic (namely the inartistic me), artistic. I figured if they could turn me into a performance artist, who knows what other transformative powers their art might possess.



The piece began with an introduction of our teachers, Rosario and Rosalinda, who apparently hailed from some undisclosed latin american country or a Jorge Luis Borge short story. Rosario explained that we would perform this sutra in front of the band Cello Fury as they played one of their sets. Rosalinda explained that the philosophy of BalletSutra involves a "dominate" and a "submissive," which seemed a more accurate description than just having a lead and a whatever that other person is.



The R's then walked the participants through the 5 movements of BalletSutra. There was twirling, flapping, kneeling, and something like a pirouette. It felt like a cross between tango, two-step, and ballet, but mainly it was slow and deliberate and the intentionality gave it gravitas. We performed the 5 movements until it appeared that either we had mastered it or that if nothing else we were more likely to injury ourselves on an out-of-control spin than a member of Cello Fury.



Beware: BalletSutra in progress

Our instructors congratulated and dismissed us. Then we waited for the band and their fans to arrive. Neither of whom knew that a group of naked tutu-ists, newly schooled in the art of BalletSutra and eager to show off our mad skills, was awaiting them.

They arrived and their presence inspired some to frolic frenetically on stage and ...



all around it. The roadies looked a little flustered. Cello Fury's fans did some jaw dropping, but the stayed and everyone settled in. The opening act started playing and everyone relaxed...or at least relaxed as much as they could if you were at a family gathering and uncle Leo refused to put his pants on.



Then Cello Fury took the stage and began to play. BalletSutra did not commence. Turns out that Notsuoh's upstairs stage is not quite as big as the members of Continuum thought. So out of safety concerns and\or in deference to Cello Fury (who wasn't warned of\invited to\ approved of, or collaborate in the whole BalletSutra thang), Continuum called off the performance leaving several of its supporters dressed in tutus, primed for dominance and/or submission, and without an expressive or creative outlet for their 5 new dance moves.



So Cello Fury jammed on (in a similar fashion to the video but this is not the performance), encouraging audience members to dance, and some did. But, no one BalletSutra'd as they boogied.



Meanwhile, 4 members of Continuum regrouped in a space next to the crowd and performed the "Green Blob." This performance consisted of a constantly moving, changing amorphous mass of green humanity.



Faces, feet, hands, and haunches protruded and then receded from the giant green organism as it slithered, shivered, and undulated across the floor. I was mesmerized as my mind tried to identify the creative anatomies that were limned in green. How could a thumb-nose-hip be in that configuration? And before I could puzzle out the pose another emerged.



The piece lasted for several minutes until the exhausted members emerged to applause. The consensus among those who'd seen it performed at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair and Bar Boheme during Continuum's turn at Cultured Cocktails was that this performance was a 'great' Green Blob.



Continuum members and their supporters. What you looking at Willis?

I left the evening tutu'd, artistically un-transformed, but better for the experience.


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