January 14, 2013 · Print This Article
The Home Depot is to many contemporary artists in 2013 what the art supply store was in 1913 – a place to wander aimlessly when ideas aren’t coming, hoping for a Eureka. To this day a Home Depot excursion still raises my heart rate like a dog about to be let out into a new park without a leash. Only, in New York, the excitement is partially offset by the maddening chaos within.
A glance into the parking lot of the Red Hook, Brooklyn Home Depot will tell you just about everything about the routine chaos: shopping carts strewn about its potholed lot and neighboring streets, some overturned, others stripped of their hardware; cars parked without regard for painted spaces, hatchbacks popped open selling everything from tamales to batteries to magazine subscriptions; desperate bands of unemployed laborers swarming for work. If anyone at the Red Hook Home Depot has any patience left after navigating the hazards in the parking lot, that patience will dwindle precipitously while fighting for position inside. It’s an environment that rewards the strongest and most brazen, and as a result, Red Hook Home Depot has evolved into a place where only the fittest endure. And so goes New York in general – for all that you relish about the diversity of ideas, people, food and culture, who isn’t amazed that the city doesn’t occasionally slip into some kind of Hobbesian free-for-all? When that melee does break out, my money is on the Red Hook Home Depot as ground zero.
My last trip to the Red Hook Home Depot was the final straw. I was there to get a half-inch piece of 4 x 4-inch plywood cut into 16 equal pieces – a job that in the right hands should take 10 minutes. Only, the employee who manned the ripsaw willfully resisted helping me for half-an-hour. When I finally badgered him into cutting the wood he did the job so haphazardly that it was kindling grade when he gave it to me.
Meanwhile, my Home Depot in Grafton, Wisconsin is laid out and maintained with the care and precision of a Prussian military unit. Not a single Toyota Sequoia, or Ford Escape SUV is parked out of place in the parking lot. Even the bags of street salt are stacked by the entryway with OCD attentiveness. Shopping carts have proper alignment, are in one piece, and always sorted into distinctive subsets – carts, separate from lumber trucks, separate from flat beds.
Two weeks ago I decided to head into that temple of a Home Depot for those 16, 12 x 12-inch squares that were mangled by the guy in Red Hook. Music was immediately audible on the PA system. In New York there is only the din of a thousand languages in an angry competitive blender. It was so quiet I could identify the song with Shazam. If you’re curious it was “Drops of Jupiter,” by the band Train. I grabbed a shopping cart and celebrated the calm by popping some Evil Knievel wheelies down the lighting aisle. Compared to the Red Hook disaster zone, Grafton is the Bonneville salt-flats; open, hazard free sailing.
Hazard-free except that every orange-cloaked employee insisted on helping me until it hurt. For all the Red Hook aloofness and apathy, the Grafton team is a community of customer service fiends, hell-bent on delivering home improvement to its customers. I couldn’t even load a 4 x 8-foot piece of half-inch plywood onto my flatbed before a dutiful employee intervened clumsily, grabbing the bulky slab and insisting on dragging it to the ripper. I told her I needed 16, 12-inch squares and she disappointedly informed me of ‘blade loss.’ I tried to tell her it didn’t matter; that I just wanted something better than an arbitrary Red Hook butchering I got the week prior. With willful altruism, she went on measuring and cutting my wood with the care of lung surgeon. An hour later the simple project had turned into a solipsistic crusade.
“Yeah, it’s tough given the blade width…you get a lot of loss. I’ll go find some scraps and we’ll see what we can do for you”
“Yeah, but for my purposes, what you’re giving me is more than fine…”
“Have you tried Fillingers in Milwaukee?
“I don’t need anything that professional for these test panels, really, because I got a guy in New York who makes the real ones…”
“Fillingers is the best, though…let me get you their number.”
I told her not to worry, but she was gone in a flash and so was most of my afternoon.
Eventually she came back with a slip of paper with a number on it.
“A. Fillinger Inc. 414-353-8433″
And before I could finally break her tackle, she launched into a story about her brother, an artist, who paints wildlife, but on canvas, and time passed slowly.
In the end, Grafton took every bit as long as Red Hook, only I got a stack of wood panels. So I had that going for me.
I was driving from Wisconsin to Brooklyn a few weeks later, as I do three or four times a year, panels in the back seat, and I got to daydreaming. I imagined the car cruising along this fake customer service continuum between Wisconsin and New York, kind of like the Griswolds’ Woody in the original Vacation. It occurred to me that there should be a place in Eastern Ohio equidistant from Grafton, Wisconsin and Red Hook, Brooklyn, with a customer service sweet spot. With all the politeness and personal care of Wisconsin and the naturally selective, catch-as-catch-can rigor of New York.
With the help of an iPhone, I calculated this mythical Arcadian Depot to be in Streetsboro, Ohio: store #3859. As I drove, I imagined I was Francisco Coronado looking for a lost city snow shovels, window glazing and table saws.
As I dreamed further, I could almost see it, a mirage in the distance as I cruised along interstate 80. Yes, there it was: a glowing orange sign signaling a corrugated monstrosity rising from a tower of basalt, knifing through a deep, gorge that somehow managed to cleave a nation, founded equally of helpers and fighters, givers and takers. And inside that warehouse swarmed a team of stoic, but still dutifully conscientious employees who wanted to help me just the right amount.
December 10, 2012 · Print This Article
My art department’s field trip this semester was to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the Chazen Art Museum. Like many museums, the Chazen’s permanent collection unfolds chronologically, progressing through art eras room-by-room, with the preponderance of work representing the modern and contemporary at the end of the tour in the biggest galleries. A funny thing happened as my class and I strolled through a millennium of art history; somewhere between the gilded altarpieces of the 13th century and the identity politics of the 1980’s, I realized that much of the impact of early modernism was lost on my students, and, for a while, on me as well.
I spent my college years an abiding supporter of reductive visual evangelists like Roger Fry, Adolf Loos, Clive Bell and others who set out to strip the western world of the ornament and excess of an outmoded academy. My students on the other hand grew up mostly without art as a significant influence in their lives. Yet they and I gravitated to the same works at the Chazen that afternoon: folksy melodramas by the pre-Raphaelites, John Steuart Curry’s hearty regionalism; Cossack-filled canvasses by 19th century Russian academics, and an exhibition that would have sent me running for Montmartre 20 years ago: “The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910.”
After a century of steeping in insignificance, these outliers finally seemed strange enough to pass for contemporary. Next to the forgotten neoclassicism and bizarre watercolors of the early 20th century I considered the possibility that the modernist gospel – the Manet through Pollock narrative – might be a bit overdetermined, perhaps baked too long in the ivory towers of art history departments. Conspiring with my students, to whom Piet Mondrian paintings read as clumsy academic pranks, and for whom Andrew Wyeth is an unassailable visionary, I dwelled on the legitimacy of a history subordinated by the modernist narrative; the Kenyon Coxes, the Franz Xavier Winterhalters, and the Jules Bastien Lepages. And for a while, Fernand Leger’s work had never seemed so tired, and Thomas Hart Benton’s never so improbably contemporary.
A few weeks later, I attended a program in New York City called “Culture Shock 1913” at the Greene Space with some friends. It recounted the events that rocked the cultural world that year, including the Armory Show, Arnold Schoenberg’s first atonal symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade. MoMA curator Ann Temkin persuasively made the case for 1913 being the most pivotal cultural upheaval of the century; a time when civilization hung in the balance, its future up for grabs.
In terms of art I might have quibbled, but with the assist of music and literature, I was reminded of the reverberations and residue of that formal remodeling project. Listening to Erik Satie next to Stravinsky next to Schoenberg, and considering the formal inventions of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, Picasso and Matisse started to laugh at me from their graves.
The question inevitably arises from such panel discussions as to what the next big thing in art will be. Are we doomed to languish in cyclical postmodern ennui, or does our ever-unfolding society always unpack a new paradigm at every dead end? Ms. Temkin was sure there would indeed be an “it” and “it” would be something birthed from technology and social media. Even with Picasso snickering, I had to wonder silently whether “it” might still be a wholesale reevaluation of the modernist project, dredging up an alternative history to coexist alongside the one we’ve taken for gospel.
On Monday, back in class, I decided to serve up some Rite of Spring to my students to gauge it’s impact. Before the music could even set in, one of them blurted, “it sounds like a soundtrack to an intense science fiction movie.”
“An old one?” I asked. “No one in the theaters now.” I agreed that it did, but pressed no further. They were squirming and ready to flee as freshmen do when class time is up.
I looked up at the clock and confirmed that class was ending. Only as they scrambled out the door did the institutionalized simplicity of the clock strike me. “The stripped-down and reductive spawn of 1913, ” I thought. Twelve sans serif black numerals stark on an ornament-free white metal disk covered in curved Plexiglas. Vladimir Tatlin himself would be proud of the legacy. And modernism ticked along implacably as the students moseyed on.
We may all be moving past modernism, but its ghost haunts us whether or not we’ve been listening to it rattle its chains against the tile floor of the institution for the past 50 years.
November 26, 2012 · Print This Article
My wife and my new daughter and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Cedarburg last week in the manner her family has for decades; by dressing up as pilgrims, Indians, and a single dubiously distinguished guest donning a turkey costume. As I held my daughter in that turkey costume, I wondered how tasteful or relevant the pilgrim/Indian myth was in 2012, but bit my lip in order to avert a sensitive issue.
Instead, as my child ramped up to a feeding, right when we were sitting down to eat, a heated discussion about breast vs. formula feeding leaped into the vacancy that would’ve been more comfortably filled by an argument about stereotypes and outmoded mythologies.
Having lived the past decade in bourgeoisie precincts of Brooklyn, I was unprepared for the onslaught from my older relatives. I’ve never been exposed to an enclave of formula supporters – everyone I know who’s had a child in the past decade has opted for breastfeeding with the righteousness that one might a when opting for a reusable shopping bag or when signing a petition to end human trafficking. If you listened to any segment on New York’s NPR station about the city’s plan to offer free formula to new mothers, you’d have thought that the city was offering them Four Loko.
But apparently there is another side to the argument. And it was made at our Cedarburg dinner table by my older in-laws as they paused periodically to help themselves to canned cranberry sauce – a side dish I dismiss as totally as they do breastfeeding. The pros they presented were scattered and grasping, in the manner that rituals persevered by fashion and habit often are. Still, I would never dismiss an practice simply because a few of its practitioners defended it incoherently. There’s usually an underlying logic to any ritual, even when none of devotees can remember what it is. I know this from years of having to defend contemporary art to students.
Defenses like: ‘breast milk makes a child gassy’; ‘mother’s get anxiety about not producing enough milk, which affects their relationship with the child’; ‘the child may be susceptible to the effects of the mother’s sherry consumption.’
As the excuses flew scattershot over the dinner table, I fixed my eyes on my great-uncle-in-law (a staunch formula supporter) slicing the shapely gemstone of canned translucent cranberry into perfect coins. Another neat medallion was shaved from the dwindling cranberry cylinder by a great aunt whose pro-Similac pitch beamed through the metaphysical prism of the jellied side-dish and split the resounding argument into its fundamental components.
“Why wouldn’t you want something that was measured and the same every time you served it? That’s why they call it formula.”
Yes indeed. F-O-R-M-U-L-A. As regular and unwavering as any myth meant to sort out the unknown and uncontrollable vicissitudes of chaotic reality into manageable pieces.
As the Similac-supporting crew whittled down the cranberry plug, they unwittingly revealed their deep appreciation for an entire age when cylindrical foodstuffs – the Primary Structures of food – signified industrial and technological progress. And conversely, an age when eating a farm-raised, grain-fed bird or a bundle of gnarled, irregular carrots was represented a wanting or lack of access to the post-war bounty of articulated metal and mass production.
The discussion dwindled after a half-hour and the drama of the Lions game took its place. The wedge of cranberry finally toppled as the hand-made cuts took their toll, its concentrically ringed ass ending up in the air. Still close to perfect from behind though. Take the plate away, put the glassy, scarlet disc in a white cube at the Green Gallery 50 years ago, and it would’ve been a minor masterpiece. A sweet ‘n tangy Craig Kauffman, perhaps.
I’m sure none of the cranberry feasters know or care who Craig Kauffman or Donald Judd is, but their taste lets me know that they do in a deeper sense. They lived the same fantasy of industrial routinization exulted by Harley Earl, Kauffman and Judd alike. They helped shape and were shaped by a cultural milieu a half-century ago that has given way to one that yearns for the past they relinquished. One with dusty farms, knotty wood and fresh churned butter. And one with breast feeding. They left behind an untamed and less-regular past for one that could guarantee perfect cylinders of gelatinous, processed fruit that tastes either like irrefutable progress or oversimplified reality depending on who you ask.
November 13, 2012 · Print This Article
I left New York City for Wisconsin just as hurricane Sandy was barreling up the East Coast, and I returned in the middle of the nor’easter that came to salt the wounds that hadn’t yet healed.
That means I was in Wisconsin to observe the aftermath of both the election and the hurricane. It was the first election I spent outside of New York in over a decade, and, despite being in a place that rallied behind a lesbian senator and prides itself on its artisanal cheeses and beers, the sense that I wasn’t in Brooklyn was palpable.
Romney/Ryan signs dotted most of the manicured lawns of the bedroom communities in Ozaukee County, one of the most republican enclaves in the state, indeed the country. Cedarburg, where I stay with my in-laws sits smack in the center of the county, and happens to be the place where John McCain and Sarah Palin chose to launch their 2008 presidential campaign, which didn’t even think about coming close enough to Brooklyn to see its forearm tattoos.
When ensconced inside Cedarburg’s city limits one begins to understand why its citizens gripe about the federal government. Look around and you’ll see a community that seems from every vantage to have figured things out. Not in some kind of sinister, Ayn Randian, elitist disengagement either, but in a real, communitarian, bucket brigade, do unto others way. A way that leads many of those who don’t leave the place to wonder why a bunch of bureaucrats 1000 miles away should be shaking them down for money to pay for social and cultural programs that they manage just fine on a community level.
In Cedarburg, if you needed food, you could walk up to any restaurant and they’d give you a meal. That’s welfare. If you were sick, the doctor would see you. That’s medical care. If you were pregnant and 16, the community would politely shame you and gossip about you for the rest of your life, but would also see to it that your child was cared for. That’s social services. That’s also the police.
My dad-in-law – who happens to be named Sandy – is one of a majority in his community who if allowed would shrink the entire federal government into a 24-hour help desk whose phone number was buried so deep on the website that you’d have no choice but to use the on-line chat to reach them. But as he watched New Jersey and New York plunge into darkness and not immediately light back up, I watched his conviction waver. And as he watched his beloved Chris Christie lay olive branches in front of Barack Obama, I thought I saw a little pan-American Esprit de corps bubble up from inside and pierce his usually impenetrable exterior.
Seeing Christie and Obama together, he muttered, “This must be a dire situation because it’s not easy for someone that big to kiss an ass.”
We stayed up late talking about Jacksonian versus Hamiltonian democracy as the disaster unfolded over cable news. We didn’t agree on everything, but it was wholly amicable. I gave him a copy of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” which he didn’t immediately throw into the fire or back at me, a gesture as tender as a hug if you knew the man.
He liked it when I riffed about how the media’s job is to locate scapegoats where they can and to create them when they can’t. I did a shtick about natural disasters in Chris Rock’s voice and then played him Rock’s bit about why people blame music and video games when kids go on shooting rampages at public schools.
“What ever happened to CRAZY!!??”
“What ever happened to BIG, POWERFUL, IMPLACABLE, UNAVOIDABLE, NATURAL FUCKING DISASTER!!!?”
He roared like a kid telling dirty jokes on the playground. He said all journalists were like hyenas but with less loyalty, and then told me an old one about a blind stewardess and a couple of donkeys for good measure.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to galvanize people.
The day after the election, I caught Sandy out in the front yard taking down the Romney/Ryan and Tommy Thompson signs. He like the rest of the town was emotionally hungover from the political orgy of the past few nights. In fact, earlier in the day I actually saw a guy crying at the gas station about the election. It could have been for other reasons, but I assumed he was pissed about either Romney or Paul or Tommy. After gathering and tossing the campaign signs in the trash we went inside where the 24 hour news droned on. It was Fox News and the subject was the fiscal cliff and the end of the Bush tax cuts.
Sandy yelled over one the pundits, “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!!”
“Of the host’s hair?” I added sarcastically.
“Of the SOCIALISTS!!”
“You mean of our democratically elected federal government whose taxes are roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product?”
“A quarter given is a quarter wasted and redistributed!! Protect my shores, deliver my mail, and get the hell out of my life!! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!”
Hurricane Sandy was back and no bucket brigade could stop it.
October 22, 2012 · Print This Article
Being a visual artist today is a vow of poverty. Few go voluntarily into art for financial reasons. And those that just happen to meet with financial success, probably would have done even better on Wall Street. From experience I know that the the vision quest toward understanding conceptual art strips most of their petty materialist needs.
When I was 15 I badgered my father to buy me a Chrysler Conquest if I got straight A’s. (It’s one of my last and most embarrassing secrets.) He wouldn’t have been risking much by agreeing because I was a poor high school student, but balked anyway for fear that I might make a miraculous turn-around. I didn’t, and by the time I did turn it around in college I had moved beyond sports cars and into the monastery of the conceptual art world.
I often repeat a line that I borrowed from a professor: “I don’t need to buy art. I own it when I know it.”
This distinction is problematic for those outside art world, those not privy to nerdy conversations in boozy studio visits. People who hear and read about paintings selling for millions of dollars at auction have a difficult time squaring art’s abstract concepts with its concrete price tags.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He asks me regularly “how is the art business is going.” He means “how much money do I make selling pictures,” but instead of opening my ledger book, I rattle off numbers from the Art Newspaper about weekend sales figures at Christies or Sotheby’s. I throw Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons in front of him like barrels in a street chase.
He likes numbers. He likes things more than concepts. Or he thinks he does. Father-in-law regularly sends us parcels filled with fun gizmos we don’t have the space to store: clunky media docks with LCD screens and radios to park and enhance technologies that we don’t use or have the inclination to manage. Sharper image gadgets that deionize the air, and stand-alone self-balancing coat racks that, should we use them, would injure us as we navigate to the bathroom at midnight.
This past week we received a package that contained what looked like an old-fashioned analog telephone but with an adaptor to fit into the speaker jack of a cell-phone. If worthless in its utility, the concept isn’t completely un-funny. After its idea is absorbed though, it is doomed to live life out in purgatory under the bed, not quite thing and not quite pure concept. like art, gifts have an aura that make their physical disposal unpleasant for its custodians.
The logic behind creating this novelty phone isn’t dissimilar from the logic that inspires much of the work in the sculpture studios of any MFA program. The difference is, in the case of the conceptual entrepreneurs behind that phone, they have no way of monetizing their creation other than mass-producing it. So they do, and it’s cheap, and my father-in-law buys it, sends it as a conceptual gesture, and finally I unsuccessfully try to curate it into my tiny apartment museum, wondering year-after-year what to do with it. Like my own personal Walter De Maria “Earth Room”.
My wife and I recently had a baby. This baby lives in our nuclear submarine-shaped apartment. So something had to give, and it has. Our museum of impractical gifts has been forced to deaccess. Ebay, Goodwill , regifting and recycling. Out with a wine rack that “whines” when you take a bottle out of it, out with the mounted fish that sings hillbilly songs, and out with the inexplicably hookless Green Bay Packers helmet-shaped head warmer that needs to be set on a shelf so as not to smash its internal hardware.
I disposed of these gifts last weekend, and as I did, my wife waxed nostalgic about the birthdays and holidays they signified. I told her, in true artistic spirit, she will always HAVE these gifts because she KNOWS them. That it’s the concept not the material that is the real content. If they were useful they wouldn’t be haunting the space under our bed.
She sighed unconvinced and I continued to jettison.
I felt a little less burdened by purposeless clutter afterward. But alas our new family still remains shoehorned into a 400 square foot railroad apartment, and in spite of my vow of poverty and material austerity, I find myself daydreaming of a big house, one with lots of closet space, a dining room not doubling as a baby’s feeding room, and maybe even a back yard with a swingset.
I will never need a McMansion out in a treeless subdivision, for I am an art monk, but does musing about concept make me an apostate? Maybe one day when UPS figures out how to ship rooms from suburban homes, my father-in-law will put one in the mail for us.