Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, November 28, 2005

Voluptuous ghosts at Sarratt

For a few more days (through the end of this week) Sarratt Gallery is showing work by a Belgian painter, Roland Delcol, who has been active since the 1960s and comes with a recommendation from Gilles Deleuze. The basic pattern here is a painting in highly realistic style that includes a youthful, sexy nude female figure with other characters in full dress, put in either an abstract dark space or an out of place setting like a garden or jungle. The nude and dressed characters occupy different spaces in spite of their proximity. First off, they either look through or past each other, or have reactions that don’t go together, fragmenting any dramatic mis-en-scene. Light and color also place them in a space outside of the setting. The human flesh in these paintings is rendered in a limited palette of browns, with even the eye color toned down in comparison to the more vibrant color of the clothes and whatever the setting is. Because the clothing on the dressed figures participates in the more dynamic color range of the remainder of the painting, it is the nude who seems most out of place in the setting, a voluptuous ghost. Some of the paintings borrow the groupings of classical paintings like Manet’s Olympia or other iconic figures like the RCA dog listening to the victrola.

The paintings are well-done and worth a look, and they certainly offer easy pleasures of the attractive figures. There’s a psychological interpretation for the proceedings, mixing the super-ego and id, the structures of social restraint and hungry sensual desire residing uneasily in the same space. This work also puts you in mind of a cosmopolitan Europe-centered cultural world several decades gone, when the recollection was still strong of the age when French surrealists ruled the visual arts. For some people, the recombinations of stock characters will have a stimulating effect, a form of geometric extension of images, but for me it felt too much like someone running through variations on familiar formulas.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sheryl and Lance at Halftime

I’m a big fan of football half-time shows. Part of it is waiting for the fiascos and disasters that occur with regularity, like Janet Jackson flashing the nation or the time a house of cards fell on the Orange Bowl Queen, and she had to kick her way out of them cussing and spitting. Unfortunately, very often the shows go on without a hitch, but even then we can enjoy the weird way they throw together completely unconnected cultural signifiers.

Today was Thanksgiving, big football day, and Sheryl Crow sang at the halftime of the Cowboys game. I like a lot of her songs, and she seems like an actual musician. Of course, being a halftime show, they couldn’t just put her and the band out there – I think that’s a real issue, trying to produce enough visual activity to occupy the large space. So in front of the bandstand were the Cowboys cheerleaders, dancers in “60s” costumes, ballerinas, children with streamers, and guys waving flags. There was an orchestra behind them, completely inaudible on TV, but they seemed to be working hard, and the bandstand shot off fireworks and sparklers. Oh yeah, it was meant to honor the Salvation Army, so they had some big red kettles set up. Obviously none of this made any sense together, and Sheryl Crow’s whole vibe is not exactly Vegas showmanship. She’s going for something more laid back, and at times the cheerleaders were thrashing around frantically at a completely discordant tempo. Maybe it was a tribute to Conlon Nancarrow’s piano rolls.

The strangest thing was that the TV kept cutting away to pictures of Lance Armstrong sitting some place with his kids watching the show. They weren’t in the stands, but clearly had been positioned for the purpose of being in these shots. Of course everyone knows Lance and Sheryl are an item. But think about it. The entertainment isn’t just the performance on stage (and the marginally choreographed mess all around it), but the tabloid-ready celebrity romance. It’s multi-media, with Lance and the kids as part of the act, but they are there to perform the celebrity gossip. And this was in Texas, so the shots also remind you why Sheryl Crow is singing at the Cowboys game. Since she’s going out with Lance, a bona fide Texas icon (unappreciated by the evil French people), that gives her a legitimate connection to the state, and we couldn’t have a singer here who didn’t have anything to do with Texas. In fact, I think the performance was mostly about Lance Armstrong – look, it’s Lance’s girlfriend singing – and it didn’t matter what she sang or what the song had to do with anything, and so it didn’t really matter what tempo they picked for the cheerleaders’ routine or what the ballerinas were doing.

And finally, since this is Thanksgiving, a time for family, and for divorced families that means splitting time somehow between the families. Doesn’t Lance need to get the kids to their mother’s house at some point in the day? Maybe she gets them for Christmas. Unless the publicists need them for another gig.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dillingham and Mosvold Senior Shows

The latest round of graduating senior shows are up at Watkins now. My favorite pieces there were one by Amanda Dillingham called Blossoming Bodies and Gillian Mosvold’s Too Close.

Amanda’s piece is a series of botanical drawings on communion wafers. Communion is such a strange ceremony, with its consumption of the Lord, and the Catholic practice of making specialized wafers accentuates that. Little featureless discs designed to receive the Godhead. When Amanda draws plants and flowers on them (and these drawings are very finely and cleanly done), the wafers go to seed, but every other level of the transubstantiation transaction gets pointed in other directions. The spiritual feeding by the Savior gets connected to the everyday food provided by plants. The sacralization of the wafer extends to the plants, hijacking communion for a more thoroughly immanent concept of divinity extending to all forms of life. And the title makes this a piece about girls becoming women, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs and such like, and the female body features in Amanda’s other work in the show.

The use of communion wafers is the latest in a kind of food obsession at Watkins students. In Amanda’s work you’ve also got honey in a couple of pieces, and it seems like several other artists have used that, and there’s a video piece that is projected on a pile of sugar. In other shows by other people I remember chocolate and tapioca at least.

The piece by Mosvold I liked best was a series of small drawings that could be parts of a nude body viewed way up close, and framed in some wax. She projects a sound from the ceiling, of water gurgling. The sound covers you more when you get closer to the drawings. The sound, which could be the sound of water in the plumbing system, gives you the sense of having violated the privacy of the forms in a way that’s hard to define. A nice effect, which she achieves through a very simple mechanism. This sort of thing is the artistic equivalent of an elegant mathematical solution.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

If only we could all be like Truman Capote

Went to see the biopic on Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood last night. The movie’s gotten uniformly good reviews, and I don’t have any reason to dissent. Philip Seymour Hoffman does an amazing job of convincingly being Capote even though he doesn’t look too much like him, and he does a version of the Capote accent without devolving into impersonation.

The movie concerns itself with the greediness at the heart of art. Capote insinuates himself into the lives of the killers in order to feed the demands of his book. He knows he can write a great book, a groundbreaking book, if he understands the men who killed the family in Kansas. The process of trying to understand the men, one of them in particular, looks like extending himself in friendship. At root Capore’s interest is about providing the material for this book, but it is complicated. He has to be able to empathize as well as analyze, and part of his empathy and his reason for wanting to spend the time writing this story resides in genuine interest. Whatever its motivations, the exchange involved in the writer’s investigations bestows benefits. One wants to feel understood. It also feeds Capote’s subjects own sense of grandeur to be known by a famous person, to be of interest to him.

In the movie, the William Shawn character tells Capote that his book will change the way people write, and this is right. With In Cold Blood Capote found a way to use non-fiction in a novelistic way, a character-driven narrative. Writing that aspires to follow that pattern now constitutes a huge part of literary output. One might argue whether literary non-fiction is a good development, but if you had a measuring system I imagine this genre would come up like most things, responsible for plenty of marginal stuff but capable of producing something worthy as often as any medium.

In the movie, Capote is shown to be aware nearly as soon as he finds the mention of the killings in the newspaper that he can write a great book on this topic, and that it will break ground. This interests me, how Capote could see so clearly that he was on the track of something great. At least as the movie shows him, he was insufferable but right. Does that well-placed self-confidence feel different from self-deluded illusions of grandeur?

The fact of being right about how good this book would be, plays into the big moral dilemma of the movie, whether Capote’s cultivation of a relationship with the killers violated their trust. The film shows Capote alternately agonizing over it and not, and implies the trauma of this experience led to his inability to produce another book in the remaining 20 or so years of his life. But what choice did Capote have, once he became aware of what he could do with this material? He could have kept his distance from the men, leaving himself with missing pieces in the story, or withheld parts of the story, in either case protecting the men’s privacy. With the result of no book or a lesser book. No, it seems the world is significantly richer for In Cold Blood having been written. The author makes a kind of moral self-sacrifice, compromising himself in order to produce something that readers will get more out of. It’s a grandiose idea, every artist as a kind of Christ or scapegoat, but it seems like you can’t really get away from grandiosity when making art. Modesty lends itself better to other enterprises.

A final point about the movie. It shows a time when there was glamour associated with writers. The writers were stars, hung out with movie stars (Arthur Miller marrying Marilyn Monroe), and there was public interest in what they would do next. Maybe the movie overstates it, or maybe there still is this kind of intense interest in NY, but I don’t think so. I doubt it’s any great loss to writing for people to do it outside a celebrity culture. But it is quaintly pleasurable to see it depicted in the movie.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

More Airport Art, This Time Seattle

OK, so I better start by admitting I’m not getting out much due to the day job. Which leaves me with my default art experience, whatever I find in the airport. Then, this week it’s an airport that’s kind of over-the-top with its art, Seattle-Tacoma. They’ve always had a lot (there’s this Frank Stella painting that for a while seemed like they’d forgotten they had it), but there’s been a bunch of new construction and the airport and there’s even more.

Airports have a way of surprising you. It’s easy to go several years between visits to the same airport, and when you get back you can find that there’s been a massive construction and replacement project in the meantime, and you find yourself in a completely different space. Isolated as you are from the surrounding land except for a few glimpses, there is no practical connection between the place you find yourself and where you were before when your ticket had the same airport code.

I’ve had that experience a couple of times. I flew to Alaska after a couple of year lag, and they’d built a whole new airport (named after Ted Stevens of course). And then this trip west I found out Sea-Tac had added a whole new concourse.

So Sea-Tac has always had art, and they’ve probably got some percent for the arts program for all public projects. It’s the kind of town that would do that. There is talk from time to time of getting the Council here in Nashville to do that, but I don’t know what the status is with that. The result in Seattle is not just art hung on the walls in rotating exhibits, but art built into the structure of the place ( And not just exhibits in glass cases, but ceramics in the bathrooms, sound pieces in the drinking fountains. There’s a set of thick columns in the new concourse covered with mosaics, each by a different artist. There’s one by Rudy Autio, one of the pioneering potters of the last few decades, others with an environmental political message (a quasi-photographic one by Peter DeLory of the blasted remains of a former champion red cedar), Franz Marc-y forest animals by JoAnne Hammer, a tribute by Amy Cheng to her father that crawls dragon scales up to the ceiling, highlighted with blue and gold. There’s a kinetic sculpture by a guy named Trimpkin that runs monkey-driven train-like contraptions along a single track next to a moving walkway. There’s something around every bend.

This display has a couple of effects. It is extravagant and prolific. It lets you know this is a wealthy city that can afford to cover its airport in art. We would never feel like we had enough in the budget to do something comparable in Nashville. It also brags on the city, it says this is an interesting place filled with interesting people – and by comparison different, probably from wherever you got on the airplane. But it also has an undeniable stimulating effect. It makes it worth your while to pay attention to your environment. So often, the institutional corridors of airports and many other spaces in our cities are blank, devoid of features. They encourage you to zone out, the way a parking lot does where there should be a building in a city. I don’t really know if the people who run things in Seattle see this, but towns like this are rich in details. There are interesting shops on the corners, details worked into the sidewalks, thoughtful plantings in the margins of the sidewalks. Some of it is sponsored by the government, but the businesses and residents seem to pitch in and make something of shared, public spaces. It’s hard not to believe that this is part of a complex of mutually reinforcing systems that promote a mix of economic and intellectual creativity. Wealth – of all kinds, not just economic – allows the conditions to encourage more wealth. The legacy of poverties becomes hard to break.

I’ve got one more trip in a long series of trips, but pretty soon I should be back to looking at art in the usual places more regularly. I appreciate a few hours in the Seattle airport, but it’s a tease when you’re on a layover.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Movie Night At Ruby Green

Ruby Green has fixed up the back room of their gallery and is going to use it for screenings, performance, and discussions/lectures. They're outfitting it with a bunch of couches, so it should be like hanging out in the living room. They inaugurate the new space this Friday with what looks like a really good set of underground films. The headliner is “Who is Bozo Texino” by Bill Daniel, a documentary on hobo and railworker graffiti. Apparently there are legendary graffiti artists on the railroads, and the tradition goes back a long way. It makes sense that this art subculture would exist, it’s just one of those things outside my experience. This film is built around the discovery of the identity of one legendary railroad artist. Daniel is going to be at the showin – this is part of a tour he's doing with the film. The other films on the bill include a documentary from 1970 on the hippie houseboat culture in Sausalito, and a film by Vanessa Renwick that assembles footage of children in South Dakota shot in 1938 and sets it to a newly composed soundtrack. Renwick’s film has won several awards for experimental film. The press on the showing says the doors will open at 7:30 and the films will show at 8:00. They’re charging $6 admission.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fugitive On the Road Sort Of

For quite a while several members of the Fugitive Art Center in Nashville have been planning a traveling show as the next step in the development of that group. This became even more of the focus when the fire marshal shut down their gallery space on Chestnut Street – for which I have some responsibility since an article of mine on the group prompted him to check out the place.

The traveling show, with Fugitives Patrick DeGuira, Greg Pond, and Jack Ryan and fellow travelers Steven Thompson and Melody Owen opened this Fall in Sewanee, and then moved to Rhodes College in Memphis where I caught it last week.

I haven’t seen a lot of Owen’s work. This show has several collages and some videos, actually video collages. I liked the videos quite a bit, both of which borrow Hollywood material. In one, clips the MGM lion, in B&W, when he roars. Out of his mouth pop colored jewels that hover for a second in the air and then float off the screen. The lion turns his head in their direction, like he’s watching them. On the one hand you’ve got this vision of the Hollywood studio as spitting out gems. Real gems in their own eyes, aesthetic and commercial, maybe fake gems in the eyes of a critic or consumer. It also seemed like a line in a sutra – “his breath is pure gems of enlightenment.”

In a piece called “Waiting with Guns” Owen splices together images from movies of exactly that, people (maybe all men) with guns waiting or just in the moment before they fire. The clips include Westerns, war movies, crime and detective films. It’s a catalog of the delay before the gratification of action or destruction. An extended tease, a kind of sexual play. It also draws attention to these as moments of potentiality. As the men wait to fire, events could still turn away from the inevitable, from death to forgiveness or grace. These are the decisive moments.

Greg has several pieces here, and the one I responded to most is “Sugar Candy Mountain: The Final Resting Place for the Soul of Saint T.” Greg has created a frame of heavy wire forms like three peaks of a mountain that sit on the floor. Several bunches of small yellow and white plastic flowers (one of his signatures from other recent works) have been clipped to sticks attached to the metal frame. And a whole series of small speakers also poke up from the frame, forming a bed of speakers that play a clip of one yelp of Bruce Springsteen yodeling. Like a lot of his pieces, Greg gives form to the idea of the Western landscape (and the West, and the country, and the world) as constructed artifice that is taken as natural, or as a scene in which the natural has been replaced by constructed approximations – a metal mesh that looks like mountains, flowering bushes created by cobbling together plastic and sticks with metal clips. What set this piece apart for me was the clip. The yodel sound is direct, human, and emotional. I picked up the reference to Springsteen from a review by Joe Nolan in Number – when I heard it I thought it was from a Native American ceremonial song. This little clip could be from a field recording, which gives it resonance and universality. The emotion this sound brings into the piece, with its enactment of construction and substitution suggests that inspite of the apparent damage inflicted, it is also what humans do.

Patrick DeGuira installed his piece “Life Flower” which has in the Fragile Species show at the Frist. At Rhodes, the piece is installed in a room with a glass wall to a hallway and a doorway access. The piece includes filling the space with green and yellow paper strips, so you have to look at the piece from outside. There is a photo element and a sound element. At the Frist there was one access point from which you could take it all in. Here at Rhodes if you look through the door you can hear the sound but only see the photo in reflection on the windows, or look at the photo through the hallway windows and not hear the sound – so the work gets fragmented and there is no point from which you can take in the entire thing.

Jack has some of his typically brilliant drawings on mylar, combining iconography of Ted Kaczynski, snow owls, and Western geography. Also, a simple sculptural piece using a skull which reminded me of a recent piece by Patrick. Thompson also produces very fine work based on drawing, one of which is in this show. He builds up pieces from layers of what looks like tracing paper with drawing that I think is on both sides of the material, clear plastic strips, bits of paper and small wood sculptural elements, some of it marked with graphite. There are also two oversized felt suits, but I still get more out of the drawings which have a seemingly endless amount of detail to dig into.

This show is going to Austin sometime after it closes at Rhodes in December, and I think they are looking for other stops. I expect there will be plenty of interest in more iterations of this show.