I was dying for some Thai food that would make my eyes swell and my forehead sweat. The kind that lets you know three hours later how often you pick your nose. I wanted SriPraPhai, or any of five neighborhood places that make me cough from the ambient chili in the air when I walk inside to pick up my order.
But I was in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where my ethnic choices are limited to nachos at a bar and grille, fried cheese curds and pretzel nibs (if those count as German,) or gelatinous Chinese from a restaurant that recently moved into a space occupied by a furniture store. Funny, there’s a jewelry store in town that inexplicably occupies a gaudily ornate and out-of-place Chinese Pagoda. I’ve always thought the two businesses should trade digs.
On my way to a lonely complex of box stores that rise like ominous commercial silos from the pastures along Highway 43, I spotted a promising option: “Noodles and Company.” I fantasized that it was a Phở restaurant as I drove past. Sure it was in a sanitized strip mall with a loopy corporate looking sign, but in Cedarburg one would put up a sign if they were selling weed out of their basement. It’s standard issue.
First, I went to the Michael’s hobby store, the only place within 20 miles to buy art supplies, salivating in anticipation of peppery noodles. In the aisles, kind ladies politely smiled and I charged past them machine-gunning head nods back, crazed by a jones for hot chilies and a fear of the dopamine-sapping low that overcomes me when I stay inside a large craft store for more than five minutes. Taylor Dayne’s 1987 hit “Tell it to my Heart” was playing, giving me even less time before I cratered. I overpaid for some matte medium and exploded out the building in under three minutes like a ten year old coming up for air after grabbing thrown pocket change from the bottom of a pool. I aimed my mother-in-law’s SUV, with its personalized plates announcing her by name, D-O-R-E-E-N, and headed for “Noodles and Company.”
Surprisingly there was a line. And there were siracha bottles on each of the well-spaced tables. Two promising signs. A teenager who would be played by Paul Dano in the movie about his life gave me a lukewarm smile with his fingers poised over a keypad to enter my order. Not a promising sign.
The menu featured “Bacon, Mac & Cheeseburger,” “Wisconsin Mac and Cheese,” “Beef Stroganoff,” and a couple of perfunctory pan-Asian style dishes, “Bangkok Curry” and “Japanese Pan Noodles.” I honestly thought Beef Stroganoff was something only my grandmother on my dad’s side made. I thought it was her own recipe. I grudgingly ordered some pan noodles, took a number and sat down at a clean table by a window looking out on a mattress superstore, recognizing that in the greater scheme of foody pretense, offering a beef stroganoff dish was a fairly advanced move.
Paul Dano’s girlfriend arrived with a disappointing stir-fry of bland noodles and sautéed vegetables, a pack of soy sauce and a fork and knife set. The plate was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, the cheap signifier for Asian food of any sort. Put sesame seeds on a bratwurst and it’s an “Asian Dog.” I had to go back to the counter to ask for chopsticks. Udon noodles with a fork? Really? When I did, Paul Dano looked at me like a dog does when you hide food behind your back.
“Do you have chopsticks?”
“Maybe…I’ll check in the back.”
Dano came back a few minutes later with a pair of basswood sticks in a paper sheath. The girl who brought out my tray was looking at me now, and so were two people waiting in line to be served. I felt like an alien troublemaker.
I ate my noodles alone without reading material. And my table was too far away from the others to see what others were reading, to look into purses, or to overhear conversations; all favorite New York pastimes that almost make up for having to dine like chickens in a Perdue plant. I thought of Ray Liotta’s line at the end of Goodfellas, “Right after I got here I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”
Four days later, I got my chance to eat like a penned chicken, when my wife and I tried a popular restaurant in Long Island City. It was really dark..either that or my cones had reset to Milwaukee dining light levels. I started talking to my wife in my loud voice, not realizing the lack of a 12-foot buffer between tables that I’m used to at my local fine dining establishment in Wisco. I ramped up into a magnificent polemic about a writer who wrote a lazy review of a recent exhibition. My wife moved my glass of water toward her in anticipation wild hand motions. Before I could reach my Al Pacino-scent-of-a-woman finale, a head appeared from my blind spot.
I couldn’t make him out in the dark, but my stomach jumped into my throat. I felt as found out as Rumpelstiltskin. My rant was wine-fuelled, ad-hominem and not meant for anyone who didn’t know me well enough to know why I hate riding in the back of pickup trucks.
“I overheard your, uh, conversation.”
I took my candle and brought it up to his face sheepishly. “JOHN! How much of that did you hear…and how much hush money do you want?”
“It happened 14 inches from my head, I couldn’t help it. I could taste your hostility in my root vegetable gratin. I’m kidding..Don’t’ worry, I’m on your side, but you have to know everyone’s reading over your shoulder on a New York subway in rush hour and hearing your conversation at dinner. That’s part of the fun of living like sardines.”
“..I always say penned chickens.”
February 20, 2012 · Print This Article
My late-night Bushwick experiences over the past seven years have merged into a single composite memory: I get dropped off by a gypsy cab on a dark street named after a Dutch aristocrat, search for a DIY gallery-opening in the basement of a basement of an abandoned warehouse that I heard about from a friend who heard about it from an art handler at his LES gallery, and afterwards I head to Kings County Bar and continue to drink Yuenglings until early in the morning and then walk back to Greenpoint along Morgan Avenue avoiding shadowy drunk strangers and feral dogs.
Given this surreal recollection, it felt very strange to go to an opening last Friday night in Bushwick at Luhring Augustine Gallery, held in a large, manicured, out-in-the-open building. The blue-chip Chelsea mainstay recently joined the East Brooklyn slummer party by opening a spacious franchise at 25 Knickerbocker Ave.
The venerable gallery hit the party scene running by hosting a blow-out opening reception of Charles Atlas video projections that was almost like watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” minus Clint Mansell’s score. As I milled about on the sidewalk I saw the the well-heeled segment of the art world having a midlife crisis. This was its Fiat convertible and the cool young mistress with forearm tattoos riding shotgun.
Bellwether or Outlier, one couldn’t help wonder. My friend and I considered the dissonance between the gallery clients’ Citarellas on the Upper East and the Dominican bodegas dotting the streets around us.
“Does this move mean that Chelsea is the new 57th Street; the Lower East is the new Chelsea; Bushwick is the new Lower-East and Ridgewood is the new Bushwick?“
“What would the New Ridgewood be?”
“A pile of bedbug infested mattresses behind a KFC in Hollis, Queens.”
“Maybe a sinking trash barge in Long Island Sound. Extra exclusive because the whole abject scene would be time sensitive; if you got there too late you’d be both out-of-the-know AND dead.”
“Funny because it’s not that far off.”
I didn’t end up at Kings County until 3 AM that night because I had to fly back to Wisconsin early the next morning to attend an art opening of a family friend at the Cultural Center back in Wisconsin. My mother-in-law was helping out with the decorations for the Medieval-themed art exhibition, complete with barrels of mead, monks, minstrels, and, despite my warnings that they were New World animals, oversized turkey legs.
Unlike most galleries in Bushwick, merely finding the Cedarburg Cultural Center isn’t edifying; It’s intentionally easy to locate and its target audience is anyone who can fit through its well-decorated doors with close-toed shoes. It has a large sign out front and amply distributed posters at every diner, curio and fudge shop letting everyone who passes through town, young and old, square and hip alike, know when a spectacular cultural event will take place.
That evening I headed from my in-laws house to the Cultural Center – not a three-minute walk even if I was obstructed by rogue dogs and drunken streetwalkers. When I arrived I chatted up several of the volunteers who were still prepping for the opening, rolling antiqued, walnut stained wine barrels and draping tables in scorched burlap to give the Sheetrocked and acoustic ceilinged interior the patina they must have imagined glazed the Middle Ages. It all seemed a bit like a stage production or scene from a Monty Python movie; even so, it was such an earnest and unpretentious spectacle that Guy Debord himself might have granted them amnesty.
Drinking from flagons and picking turkey from my teeth, I had to wonder whether such a charade, especially one which professed to be art, was without pretense. If pretense is false display, this exhibition was both pretentious and spectacular by Guy Debord’s own standards about represented reality. High crimes in some high-cultural precincts.
Throwing back the last of my grog and adjusting my coffee filter hat, I wondered whether it was more pretentious to prove how resistant one is to the spectacular by entering a race to the obscurest of bottoms, or to have an art exhibition in 2012 based on a theme lifted from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, especially when art has suffered through a 150 years of modernist purification and 75 of Frankfurt School warnings about the implications of received culture.
When the antiqued barrels were finally emptied of their spiced wine and the turkey legs were gone, me, a jester and a monk headed out for a nightcap. Looking down Main Street our choices were illuminated in the night: “C. Weisler’s” “R.J. Thirsty’s” and T.J. Ryan’s.” Their signs radiated like supernovae, practically beseeching our company. No secret doors, no back alleys. I imagined how weird our motley cast of bouzingots would have looked shuffling down a desolate Bushwick street searching unmarked doors for the one opening to a secret demi-paradise of artfully crafted drinks and conversations.
With all this on my mind I dropped a joke. “How many hip intellectuals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
A collective head shrug.
“It’s an obscure number you’ve probably never heard of!”
A collective ‘huh?’
Dave the monk ended the radio silence, “Did you hear about the artist who starved to death?….He didn’t have enough MONET to buy food.”
So obvious, I thought. So obvious, indeed.
A monk, a jester and an artist walk into a bar…
February 6, 2012 · Print This Article
Back in Brooklyn last week I met a couple artist friends at the Boulevard Tavern. Several beers into an informal and boozy summit to transform the mechanisms of cultural production, I made a comment about how faintly the art world registers in small town America. They agreed that this was generally true, but held that certain properties such as Jeff Koons were universally appreciated.
“Jeff Koons’ balloon dog guest-starred in “Night at the Museum” and he was married to an Italian stateswoman!”
“So what,” I barked. “If you set up an autograph table at a shopping center in Peoria and had Jeff Koons sitting there next to a B-list actor like, say, Harvey Keitel, a line would form in front of Harvey that would lead around the block and they’d think Koonsy was his assistant.”
Buddy #1 disagreed that Harvey Keitel was B-list, and I granted that he was a poor choice as an example. Buddy #2 wondered if and why anyone would line up at a shopping center for crappy celebrity autographs, and I granted that the scenario was a poor choice to reflect recognition. We were splitting hairs at that point, quibbling over semantics about what is “small town” America and what are the measures of “universality.” But even after accounting for the language slippages and fallibilities, we remained in disagreement over Jeff Koons’ esteem outside the cultural beltway.
In Wisconsin a few days later I decided to conduct a test of my hypothesis by posing the question to actual small townspeople. The test was completely unscientific; I chose my subjects from a single department of a Target store at 2PM based mostly on who seemed least likely to run away from me.
I asked a woman with a chain of Valentine’s Day lights in her hands, “Have you heard of either the artist Jeff Koons or the actor Joe Mantegna?”
“I can’t place his face but I’ve heard of Joe Mantegna. No idea who Jeff Koons is…should I have..is this a Target promotion?”
My first thought after she answered the question was that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the average person wouldn’t be nearly so happy to interact with an inquisitive stranger or to concede ignorance.
I repeated the inquiry with seven other shoppers, one man and six women. Five yeas for Mantegna and none for Koons. Though I have some reason to believe that at least two of the subjects were confusing the star of “Airheads” and “Searching for Bobby Fisher” with a famous football player, Mantegna clearly took the round.
I left Target with some padded envelopes, a sense of triumph, and still, a tinge of dejection that the father in Joan of Arcadia was infinitely more recognizable than the most prominent living visual artist in the solar system.
Those padded envelopes were for a residency application that I was trying to get out before 5PM. When I got home, I signed my letter, wrote out the addresses on the front with a sharpie, sealed the envelope shut and walked to my father-in-law’s office to steal some stamps. He caught me rummaging through his desk drawers and, after a semi-good natured joke about my freeloading ways, handed me a book of stamps, and I headed to the post box. It was only after I fished the book of stamps from my pocket that I realized that they were Ronald Reagan commemorative stamps staring at me like it was 1983. I came so close to adhering them to the front of the envelope, but in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to send them to what were most likely progressive liberals with personal vendettas against the Gipper.
I saved the letter for the next day, when I could buy some bells or forevers. On the way back I thought, “how self-conscious have I become that I would choose even my postage stamps with guile?” Then I immediately started resenting the art world for being shallow enough to justify my fears, knowing that a rejection due to the implications of a postage stamp was not far-fetched.
So, the question I’m proposing for the next shop-talk drinking session is whether eight Midwestern Target shoppers, ignorant to the genius of Jeff Koons, would ever think to politicize a postmark? And whether and to what degree I am paranoid.
January 23, 2012 · Print This Article
Sunday through Wednesday I maintain an art studio and flop with my in-laws in a pastoral town in Central Wisconsin, and teach art at a small Catholic school nearby. I fly back to Brooklyn, NY each Wednesday night on AirTran flight 511. I’ve become one of those guys who knows flight attendants and bartenders by name, and that Milwaukee has a “recombobulation” area to help make what is already a relatively breezy brush with the TSA that much more accommodating.
“You in Milwaukee on business?” the guy in the window seat always asks. It’s a fair question to pose to someone in a pair of semi-professional slacks heading to New York on a weekday evening with a bag full of paperwork. He doesn’t know that the papers are 20 ungraded art history quizzes that he would set the curve on if I gave him five minutes and the textbook. He doesn’t know that my 401(k) is twenty paintings sitting in a storage unit down by the Midtown Tunnel. I think Window-seat inevitably feels misled by these circumstances, expecting we’ll be connected by different nouns, but similar enough verbs to fill up a conversation that will last until the refreshment cart dispenses the Dewar’s. Like, maybe we both have to manage and coordinate, but thrillingly, I might apply those actions to retail distribution and he to digital networks. No such luck. Telling them I’m an artist, part-time professor and freelance art writer catches them off-guard and the conversation grinds down. The nouns and the verbs between us are different; that’s just too much inertia to overcome for the sake of pre-beverage chitchat.
I’m not a martyr for anything as petty as the drape of a pair of jeans, so I conform to the point that the locals in Wisconsin let me around their kids…and maybe just enough to take preemptive action against the Rob Reiner/Carroll O’Connor thing that seems to be brewing between my father-in-law and I. Those travel pants were purchased from the Marc Anthony collection at Kohl’s department store after someone outside a Home Depot took my slightly stained studio jeans for house painting clothes, and the same day my father-in-law (in whose attic I freeload and in whose fridge I store my beer) suggested I borrow some of his clothes before going to a casual restaurant. What I considered fairly unremarkable attire in Bushwick turned out to be downright avant-garde in Wisconsin. Incidentally, an orange hunter’s cap and an unkempt beard meets fashion requirements in both locales for a period of about three weeks during the fall.
On the morning of a recent return to Brooklyn, I slipped into the pile of clothes I left next to the bed, grabbed a coat from the rack by the door and departed for my studio. By the time evening rolled around I made the lazy decision to go straight to art openings without returning home to change. The show was at Allegra LaViola Gallery on the Lower East Side, and featured work riffing on (wouldn’t you know it) the fashion industry, by artist Andrea Mary Marshall. The gallery was packed to suffocating with young, beautiful fashionista-types that emphasized my Steve Carrell-meets-key grip couture. To see the work you had to slither in between the wall and rapt conversationalists…one of those scenes that mature spectators and those who don’t use cocaine tend to feel uncomfortable in. Halfway through a PBR I sought refuge in an old colleague from the Brooklyn Rail. Holding on to the conversation like a piece of driftwood in an angry ocean, we mused about being older and less effervescent than the surrounding bystanders. Maturity, like misery, loves company. When I convinced her I wasn’t lying about commuting between MKE and LGA, we traded art gossip and teaching stories until most of our beer had been jostled from our cans and onto the floor.
“Have a happy New Year,” she yelled breaking for the exit. “And, hey, don’t freeze your ass off in Minnesota either.”
“Minnesota?!” I thought, shocked. “Badgers, Packers, Brewers, Miss America, Muskies and Leinies!!!” Hometown pride??
Alone again, I tried to circulate. An epaulette on my jacket came undone when I pivoted into the crowd and brushed against a sexy transvestite who was pushing past. She spilled a few drops of beer that landed on my sleeve. I threw a frustrated glance at her, and she shrugged coquettishly before knifing into the crowd.
Off in one direction sprawled Minnesota, Wisconsin and all those dark fields of the Republic. In the other America’s incandescent cultural production center sizzled like a lit fuse. I stood flatfooted in a high-heeled crowd with an epaulette flapping like a Brooklyn flag above trousers the color of sand from Lake Winnebago, caught in-between the two.