Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Crispin Glover

November 27, 2010

Crispin Glover performed at the Bijou Art Cinemas in Eugene last week. The first part of the show consisted of a slide show in which he read passages from old books that he had rearranged into stories. The stories were surreal, mysterious and funny. (One of the books Glover used is titled Studies in Rat Catching. I will have to add this to my reading list.)

In the second half he showed a film he had made entitled It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. The film was written by, and starred, Stephen C. Schwartz, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. It is basically about a man with cerebral palsy who fantasizes about having sex with women and then murdering them. That’s pretty much all there is to this film. (Oh, and he fantasizes about necrophilia as well.) The movie is a little over an hour long, but watching it seems like an eternity.

Glover did a question and answer session after the film was over. I would have stayed for this, but it was getting late and I had to get up early to go to work the next morning. Instead I read an interview with Glover in the Eugene Weekly. The interviewer asked him about another film he made, titled What Is It?, which employs actors who have Down’s Syndrome:

    Much has been made, and I’m sure critics have been divided, about the issue of using actors with Down syndrome in the films. How would you weigh in on this debate? Is it your intention to shock your audience or to make the viewer uncomfortable?

    Most of the actors in What is it? have Down syndrome, but the film is not about Down syndrome at all. The actors in the film are not necessarily playing characters that have Down syndrome. It was and is extremely important to me that all of the actors in the film were and are treated respectfully. What is it? is my psychological reaction to the corporate restraints that have happened in the last 20 to 30 years in filmmaking — specifically, anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is necessarily excised or the film will not be corporately funded or distributed. This is damaging to the culture because it is the very moment when an audience member sits back in their chair, looks up at the screen and thinks to themselves, “Is this right what I am watching? Is this wrong what I am watching? Should I be here? Should the filmmaker have made this? What is it?” And that is the title of the film.

    What does it mean to the culture when it does not properly process taboo in its media? It is a bad thing when questions are not being asked because these kinds of questions are when people are having a truly educational experience. For the culture to not be able to ask questions leads towards a non-educational experience and that is what is happening in this culture. This stupefies this culture and that is of course a bad thing. So What is it? is a direct reaction to this culture’s film/media content.

    Steve [screenwriter Steven C. Stewart, who died within a month after filming on It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. was completed] had been locked in a nursing home for about 10 years when his mother died. He had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, and he was very difficult to understand. People who were caring for him in the nursing home would derisively call him an “M.R.,” short for “mental retard.” This is not a nice thing to say to anyone, but Steve was of normal intelligence. When he did get out he wrote his screenplay. Although it is written in the genre of a murder detective thriller, truths of his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography.

Well, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE did make people uncomfortable. There was nervous laughter throughout the film, and I could hear people squirming in their seats. Some people got up and left, though they eventually came back. The film is disturbing because it was clear that Schwartz was acting out his own resentment and anger towards women, and this anger and resentment were were intimately bound up with his having cerebral palsy.

This brings me to an important question: is it sufficient for a work of art to be merely disturbing? (I would argue that the best works of art are disturbing on some level.) The world offers us an abundance of disturbing images, disturbing events, disturbing arguments, etc. Art that is merely disturbing just adds to the noise.

Subtract the shock value from It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE and you’re left with nothing. The film doesn’t even succeed on a purely technical level: the acting and direction are amateurish, and the sets and costumes look embarrassingly cheap.

Glover should stick to doing slide shows.

The Beats: A Graphic History

August 13, 2010

Non-fiction graphic works are a relatively new development. Harvey Pekar has been a pioneer in this field, with among other things, his history of the SDS. The Beats: A Graphic History, written by Pekar with Paul Buhle, Ed Piskor, et al.; shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre. Although it is overall a compelling portrait of the Beats, there are some aspects of it I found unsatisfying.

The label “Beat” has been applied to a wide variety of writers and artists from the mid-twentieth century. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a hostility to convention and to societal restraints. Pekar believed that they paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960’s. Interestingly, they tended, with the notable exception of Burroughs, to come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds: Kerouac’s mother was a factory worker, Kenneth Patchen was the son of a steelworker, Slim Brundage’s father dug ditches, Diane Di Prima’s grandfather was an anarchist, and so on. They tended to be left-wing in their views (though Kerouac and Burroughs were politically right-wing). Another common characteristic among these writers was an attraction to Buddhism. Allen Ginzberg became a devoted practitioner of the religion. Philip Whalen went so far as to have himself ordained as a Buddhist monk. (William Everson, however, became a Dominican.) Pekar doesn’t try to explain this attraction. Were these people merely rebelling against the churches they were brought up in, or was there more to it than that? Sadly, Buddhism didn’t help Kerouac with the severe alcoholism that led to his untimely death. (The Buddhist writer, D.T. Suzuki, tried unsuccessfully to get him to give up alcohol for green tea.)

Pekar devotes the largest section of the book to Kerouac, Ginzberg and Burroughs. Characteristically, his portrayals of these people are unromantic. He shows their faults as well as their achievements. His portrait of Burroughs is actually disturbing. (I remember during the 1980’s, Burroughs enjoyed an eerie popularity. All my would-be hipster friends regarded him as the quintessence of cool. Of course, all that was shot to Hell when Burroughs appeared in a Nike commercial.) Some of Pekar’s portrayals of other Beats are too short and perfunctory. The effect at times is a bit like reading trading cards about Beats.

Most of Pekar’s contributions are drawn by Ed Piskor, who draws in a very traditional comic book style. The result is a bit predictable and becomes monotonous after a while. The contributions by other artists (Jay Kinney, Nick Thorkelson, Summer McClinton, Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener, Jerome Neukirch, Anne Timmons, Gary Dumm, Lance Tooks and Jeffrey Lewis) are more visually adventurous and therefore more satisfying as well as more in keeping with the spirit of the Beats.

I wish Pekar hadn’t relied so much on Piskor. However, this book is still a good introduction to the Beats.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

July 24, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop is brilliant. It’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen about the art world. Some people have claimed that this film is a hoax (a “prankumentary”). Even if this is true, the film would still be the best documentary about the art world. It would be an example of what Picasso called “a lie that reveals the truth.”

The film tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, who is obsessed with videotaping things. His cousin is a French street artist who calls himself Space Invader, through whom Guetta becomes interested in the shadowy world of street art, also known as graffiti. He videotapes his cousin making art on the streets, often at the risk of arrest by the police. (The film makes it clear that part of the attraction of street art is the element of risk, including the risk of injury.) Through Space Invader, Guetta gets to know other street artists, and he persuades them to also let him videotape them making their art. He films such people as Shepard Fairey, Buffmonster and Borf, surreptitiously making their art at night (and sometimes in broad daylight). Guetta eventually meets the elusive Banksy, the most famous figure in the street art scene. He videotapes Banksy and gradually earns his trust. Banksy is concerned about the growing acceptance of graffiti in the high-end art market. He urges Guetta to make a documentary out of his videos, so people will have a record of what street art was like in the early days. Guetta spends six months laboring on his film. When he shows it to Banksy, it turns out to be an incoherent mess. Not wanting to be too negative, Banksy suggests that Guetta try doing street art himself. Guetta returns to L.A., where he does as Banksy suggested. He styles himself, “Mr. Brainwash”. Soon, he wants to have his own gallery show like all the other street artists. Guetta is not much of an artist, but he turns out to be a genius at self-promotion. His heavily publicized opening is a huge hit. Collectors eagerly buy up his pieces, oblivious to the fact that they’re all derivative of other artists’ works.

Exit Through the Gift Shop touches upon several themes. Most strikingly, it’s about how hype shapes people’s perception of art. A clever promotional campaign turns an exhibit of mediocre art into a huge sensation. The film is also about how the art market has transformed the world of street art, which started out as an art of rebellion, but has now become part of the mainstream.

There are street artists here in Eugene, however their works are not appreciated by the Eugene Police. A few years ago, a couple of University of Oregon students were arrested in their dorm room for having done street art. The EPD are apparently unaware that in UO classes students are taught that graffiti is a legitimate art form, worthy of admiration.

From what I gather, the police in much of the rest of the country have the same attitude as the Eugene Police. Last year, the well-known Japanese pop artist, Yoshitomo Nara, was arrested in New York for doing graffiti. A newspaper article reports:

    Nara, 49, who lives and works in Tochigi Prefecture, was in New York for a solo exhibition of his work at the Marianne Boesky Gallery that runs Feb 28 through March 28. The online edition of Art in America magazine said Nara was caught tagging a graffiti portrait of two Japanese friends in the subway station and he was optimistic about his two days in lockup.

    It was ‘‘a nice experience in my life,’’ the artist was quoted as saying. He said the environment in which he found himself was like something in the movies.

Well, I suppose if you watch enough movies, eventually everything will seem like something in the movies.

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

July 17, 2010

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Harvey Pekar, one of my personal heroes. I knew he had been having health problems for a long time, but still the news of his death came as a bit of a shock. I was hoping that he would still be with us for quite a while.

Pekar’s American Splendor comics broadened the art of storytelling. He had a remarkable ability to find humor and poignance in every-day situations. His comics make “minimalist” short story writers look pathetic. One of the things I like about him is his willingness to talk about what it’s like to work in a mind-numbing, dead end job and about what it feels like to be poor. These are things that usually aren’t talked about in our culture.

I can’t quite recall how I first learned about Harvey Pekar. I dimly remember being aware of who he was back in the 1980’s, though I’m not sure exactly how. (I didn’t see any of his appearances on the Letterman show until years later.) When I lived in New York in the 1990’s, I would read jazz commentaries of his in the Village Voice. However, I didn’t really become deeply interested in his work until I saw the film, American Splendor, several years ago. I then plowed through a chunk of his comics as well as the books, Unsung Hero and Ego & Hubris. I realized in retrospect that the film had somewhat depoliticized him. It also glossed over some of the darker aspects of his writing.

I just finished reading The Quitter, and I was struck by Pekar’s unwillingness to romanticize or justify himself in any way. In one anecdote, for example, he admits he deserved to be fired from a job. He also recounts a humiliating incident that led to his being discharged from the Navy. There is something bracing about this kind of honesty.

Pekar will be missed.


June 19, 2010

I went to see the British film Princess Kaiulani, which tells the story of Ka’iulani, a member of the Hawaiian royal family, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Ka’iulani was a remarkable woman whose life story could make for an interesting film. Unfortunately, writer and director Marc Forby apparently had no idea what to do with it. Most of the film is concerned with the time that Ka’iulani spent living in England. Her life there is depicted as a combination of Dickensian morality tale and Harlequin Romance. She is sent to a private school, where she is tormented by an evil headmistress who could have stepped out of a Disney cartoon. She falls in love with an Englishman who is obsessed with bicycles. In the film’s climactic scene, she has to make a choice between marrying Bicycle Boy or dedicating her life to her people. It doesn’t get any cornier than that.

This film has a made-for-TV look and feel to it. To let us know that a scene takes place in New York, the Statue of Liberty is ostentatiously shown in the background. The film becomes downright surreal when we’re shown the White House in the middle of a forest. (I swear, I’m not making this up.)

There are so many things this film could have dealt with that would have been interesting. For example, Ka’iulani was an accomplished painter. Here is an example of her work:

There is no mention of her artwork in the film. She knew Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a poem about her. Again, there is no mention of this in the film. Though the film does acknowledge that the annexation of Hawaii was a great crime, it doesn’t show what this meant for ordinary Hawaiians. Instead of giving us a thought-provoking and entertaining film, Forby opted to serve up a bunch of Hollywood clichés

Blowing My Own Horn

January 10, 2010

Since I’ve never shied away from shameless self-promotion (just ask my friends about this), I’ve decided to give myself a plug. A couple of photographs of mine can be found on an online journal, Unbound, on pages 28 and 29.

I took the photos over a year ago in Springfield, Oregon. (Yes, this is where the Simpsons live.) They had started building a housing project there just before the economy tanked. There were streetlights and sidewalks and “No Parking” signs, but no houses. At night, the streetlights would all be lit up, which, with no houses being there, made the area look eerie. The place also struck me as an ironic comment on the economy. (I haven’t been by there in a long time. I should go to see whether any houses have gone up since.) I went out there one night with a camera (the photos were all taken around midnight). I took very long exposures to try to emphasize the creepiness and loneliness of the place. I hope one day to do an exhibit that will include all the photos I took there.

Shepard Fairey – The Final Act

July 28, 2009

On July 10, The Boston Globe reported the denouement to Shepard Fairey’s legal troubles in Boston. You may recall that Fairey was facing 13 felony charges for doing graffiti in Beantown. The Globe reported:

    Fairey consented to a plea deal that will prohibit him from carrying stickers, posters, wheat paste, brushes, and other tools of the graffiti trade while in Suffolk County for the next two years. Under the arrangement, Fairey pleaded guilty to three vandalism charges and must pay a $2,000 fine to one of his adversaries, Graffiti NABBers for the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay.

Back Bay, as you may recall from my earlier post, is one of the richest neighborhoods in Boston. So, Fairey was forced to pay $2000 to a bunch of rich people just for putting up some ‘Obama’ and ‘Obey’ stickers. I think it worth repeating what I said in my earlier post on this matter:

    This strikes me as a peculiar form of capitalist alienation. It’s okay for companies to put their advertisements all over the place, but if someone unaffiliated with a corporation puts up signs or images, they are automatically considered eyesores, regardless of their content or aesthetic quality.

Reading the blog that accompanied the Globe article online (you can find it here) confirmed for me this observation. The hatred that some of these people showed for Fairey was just amazing. From what they wrote, you would think he was a child murderer. Here is one example:

    it is just graffiti and nothing more! He is a litterer and a public menace! I say lock the idiot up! He has no right putting that crap up on public space – I should not have to look at it!

However, most people either defended Fairey or said the whole business is silly (which is my own view.) It’s nice to see that some people have refused to buy into the hysteria whipped by some rich snobs in the Back Bay.

Shepard Fairey Again

March 14, 2009


Shepard Fairey is in the news again. Fairey was arrested on February 6 in Boston, because some of his images have been showing up in that city’s streets. He has been charged with one misdemeanor and with 13 felonies. (That’s right, felonies. Graffiti is apparently on the same moral level as robbing or killing somebody.) His attorney says that the Boston Police are pursuing 19 more charges.

These images apparently included his “Hope” image of Obama. The New York Times quotes Anne Swanson, of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Boston) as saying, “This is clearly just chronic vandalism. I voted for Obama, too, but I still don’t want to have to remove his face from 30 traffic signs.” This strikes me as a peculiar form of capitalist alienation. It’s okay for companies to put their advertisements all over the place, but if someone unaffiliated with a corporation puts up signs or images, they are automatically considered eyesores, regardless of their content or aesthetic quality. I don’t care much for Shepard Farey, for reasons I’ve explained earlier, but it seems to me that we should support him against the anal-retentive police in Boston.

Shepard Fairey

February 15, 2009


I suppose people have heard about Shepard Fairey. He is the graphic designer and street artist who designed the “Hope” image of Barack Obama, which is now ubiquitous. This image is said to have played a role in Obama’s election. One would think that the US ruling class would richly reward Fairey for the service he has done for them. Instead, Associated Press is suing Fairey, claiming copyright infringement. That’s gratitude for you.

Personally, I don’t think the AP has a case. Fairey does not actually use the AP photograph in his work. Rather, he constructed the image based on the photograph. If AP wins this case, it could have a chilling effect on artistic expression in this country.

I was all set to sympathize with Fairey until I read his biography in Wikipidia. There, I read this:

    Fairey has come under criticism for appropriating others’ artwork into his own while failing to provide attribution for the work used. However, he has threatened to sue artists for the same technique. Austin, Texas graphic designer Baxter Orr did his own take on Fairey’s work in a piece called Protect, with the iconic Obey Giant face covered by a respiratory mask. He started selling prints through his website marketed as his own work. On April 23, 2008 Orr received a signed cease-and-desist order from Fairey’s attorneys, telling him to pull Protect from sale because they alleged it violated Fairey’s trademark. Fairey threatened to sue, calling the designer a “parasite”.

Does the h-word come to mind here? Part of the aesthetic of street art is the free appropriation of imagery. Apparently, nobody explained this to Fairey. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia notes that some people don’t consider Fairey to be a street artist. The article includes a photograph of Fairey wearing a business suit.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine spray-painting graffiti while wearing a Brooks Brothers suit.