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.