It’s April, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably been busy tying up overdue assignments and following instructions on how to properly label your JPEGS for this or that residency or fellowship application. As such, what follows is an excerpt from a much larger essay and curatorial endeavor I’m working on that considers alternative methods for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness – particularly for activist communities. Enjoy!
In 2003, artist and filmmaker Matt Wolf made a short-film called Smalltown Boys that features a fictional narrative about a young girl named Sarah Rosenberg who begins a letter-writing campaign to save the television show My So-Called Life from cancellation with a cohort of other fans organizing themselves online. Rosenberg, in Wolf’s film, is the biological daughter of HIV/AIDS activist and artist David Wojnarowicz, conceived through artificial insemination. Rosenberg grows up to be a young, disenfranchised lesbian that feels no connection to the kind of direct street-level activism for which Wojnarowicz is remembered. Interspersed throughout Wolf’s telling of Rosenberg’s trials to save her beloved television program is archival footage of ACT-UP demonstations and home-video footage of Wojnarowicz on a road-trip with friends, swimming in a pond, and pontificating on the life of a small bug crawling upon his finger.
Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt
Additionally, Wolf interrupts the flow of his film with self-shot footage of his disembodied arm spray-paint tagging contemporary subway advertisements for MTV sponsored HIV/AIDS benefit concerts with Wojnarowicz’s signature burning-house tag. These moments are coupled with other scenes of Wolf wearing a black-and-white Arthur Rimbaud mask while silently riding the train or attempting to hail a cab (as seen above). Rimbaud was Wojnarowicz’s favorite poet, and the images Wolf produces quote the look of Wojnarowicz’s own collection of Rimbaud mask-wearing self-portraits, entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79).
Wolf (and, indeed, Wojnarowicz before him) can be described as re-performing what theorist Elizabeth Freeman has termed ‘temporal drag’ in his wearing of the Rimbaud mask Wojnarowicz wore. It is an act staged for the camera on the actual city streets and subways of Manhattan that represent a moment, to borrow another term (this time from Lucas Hildebrand), of ‘retro-activism.’ Wolf’s act represents the theoretical proposition that affective messages from the past can pierce through chronological or normative time into the present, producing profound historical linkages that are, indeed, felt. Sensual, affective connection with preceding generations becomes not only an archival project, but becomes an embodied activist project.
Matt Wolf, Smalltown Boys, Excerpt
Films and actions like Wolf’s, or the well known out-of-time activist actions of Sharon Hayes, lead me to wonder how re-performance might participate in renewing activist outrage around issues – like HIV/AIDS – too easily and erroneously thought of as being in the past. At play, when actions are performed, just may be the sensual apprehension of our own situated-ness within historical pursuits of justice that stretch, or drag, into the present day.
Family was most certainly on my mind as I traveled to the Southwest this past month. My immediate biological relatives all currently reside in the Phoenix-metro area, where they’ve either retired or chosen to start new families of their own. As a single, unmarried, sorta-employed, queer, urban artist-type in my late twenties, the experience of visiting brothers and babies, parents and grandparents, is often fraught with self-conscious anxieties over belonging, and adulthood, and dependency, and mixed feelings of togetherness. While I am privileged to have my connections to blood-relatives be strong and loving, when left alone to wander I found myself not only imagining, but actually encountering, unconventional and affectionate familial bonds existent outside the heteronormative nuclear unit, outside of a romantic or sexual dyad, and even outside of this, perceived, time period.
Yes, I went to The Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace. Sure, there were obscene amounts of turkey legs and synthetic fairy hats. But, there were also inventive, and unusual, and entirely self-determined lives being lived by an all female group of traveling weavers, by a motorcycle posse displaying self-designed insignia, by the self-described ‘Family of Artisans‘ hand-making gorgeous moccasins as part of Catskill Mountain Leather Co., by the cute fire whip master being assisted by the falconer’s girlfriend, and even by the falcons themselves – rescued and rehabilitated by this hodgepodge group of folks. I met an older gentlemen carving wood spoons and thought to myself, despite my complete lack of artisan skill, that I could do that too. I wondered about apprenticeship as a possible alternative for the establishment of intergenerational connectedness. I encountered an oddball bunch of chainmaille artisans who looked at me knowingly, with love, as I admired their sexy two-tone halter top – the one with a silver women’s symbol subtly entwined with classic gold chain.
I neither want to reduce nor romanticize the profundity with which I felt the recognition of a feeling, and felt recognized by this feeling, from these encounters. It’s a feeling I’m attempting to call familial. It’s produced, in part, by observing the craft, the labor, of people doing things together, of living lives made possible because of that craft, that labor, that togetherness.
Angela Ellsworth is not only an artist I’ve worked with, but one that I’ve enjoyed knowing for many years. Much of Ellsworth’s recent performances and artworks (as with Lady Ties for a Line Dance, appearing at the top of this post) situates domestic handicraft, pioneer-era material culture, and visual archetypes of the Mormon sister wife within decidedly feminist, erotic, and often irreconcilable contexts. Her 2009-2010 series of pearl corsage pin adorned cotton bonnets (known as Seer Bonnets) produces this irreconcilability with great impact. These are glorious, textural, glistening objects – like fetishes – elevated through Ellsworth’s resourceful, laborious application of pins into cloth, producing heavy, dangerous, intimidating, and (thereby) thrilling compositions. Varying in height, sometimes connected by cotton, and altogether arranged into indecipherable arrangements, there is both uniformity and uniqueness amongst this work.
Ellsworth happens to live in Phoenix, and teaches at Arizona State University. Upon my arrival, much of my aforementioned family-visitation anxiety was quickly alleviated because of one simple invitation she extended; “Two words for you: Line Dancing.” Within 24-hours of my arrival to the Valley, I found myself at the wondrous, decidedly lo-fi lesbian bar Cash Inn Country literally able to enter, in unison, a queer, alternative context. Variation and variability was everywhere (in fashion sense, in gender expression, in age, in line-dance know how), and the silliness of dancing came with the relief of realization that this was, indeed, an integral, important, beloved part of Ellsworth’s uncommon art practice.
As luck, or a severe Chicago winter storm, would have it, a delayed flight allowed me to meet up with another craft oriented queer artist occasioning Phoenix for biological family, as well. LJ Roberts and I first met in San Francisco, when I was too young to truly realize how much we have (or would come to have) in common. I knew Roberts as the artist who in 2005, with great aplomb, re-added the word ‘Crafts’ – in bright pink furry yarn – to the signage announcing a reconverted warehouse space as the current, recently retitled home of the California College of the Arts. However, it was Roberts’ sprawling, dazzling work The Queer Houses of Brooklyn… (2011), that I had just recently seen at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, that was on my mind when we met in Phoenix. The piece operates like a soft, interactive map of radical queer lives lived politically otherwise both past and present. Appropriately, I was fascinated to learn that the work was produced while Roberts was living collectively in an anarchist household outside Richmond, VA. This added bit of information only helped make more clear what I already suspected about this work; it is a testament, a document and gesture, honoring the families we can choose – be them queer, Renaissancian, whatever.
Ian Curtis had epilepsy, and this particular disorder of his perhaps only exacerbated that self-loathsome something inevitably experienced by us all: our need and sometimes drastic dependency on others to calm us, support us, and keep us alive. Peter Hook, Joy Division’s bassist, was recently at MCA Chicago in support of his new memoir, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, and in the book he describes Curtis’ drive to keep playing shows despite knowing that doing so was, potentially, only worsening his illness. In interviews, Hook has stated that a major motivation to write the book was to better “humanize” the band, whose backstory (bookended with Curtis’ suicide in 1980, on the eve of their debut American tour) is often over fraught with doom, gloom, and eventual decay when relayed by outside biographers. Indeed, Joy Division’s dark, danceable post-punk rhythms and playful vocal intonations are, to my ears, incredibly sexy, and Curtis is as responsible for the music’s peculiar buoyancy as he is for its solemn, industrial ennui.
Joy Division, Isolation, 1980
I dwell on Curtis and Hook’s memoir because it helps make clear something sometimes difficult to admit; how darkness has sex appeal, how recognition of a mutual darkness in another can make us feel, in turn, recognized. I’ve recently become obsessed with the website SongMeanings.net, on which users can pontificate and extrapolate upon the lyrical content of practically any popular song ever recorded and released commercially. I adore this site because of the earnestness and tenderness with which users write; it is one of the only message boards I can think of where, instead of routinely attacking one another or a celebrity or whatever, people are vulnerable, and pensive, and surprisingly insightful.
My all time favorite Joy Division song is “Isolation” from their second album, 1980′s Closer, partially because of how Curtis appears to me in my imagination, spinning alone and manically happy. The song features Curtis repeating ‘isolation, isolation, isolation’ as the music builds its spanking beat and synthetic atmosphere, and I like to believe he’s relishing this temporary escape or solitude – particularly when, for Curtis, being alone wasn’t medically advisable. “For some reason,’ writes SongMeanings.net user The1AndOnlyMe, ‘I think Ian was also interested in classic literature, and having this sort of romantic-tragic affair was almost like a fulfillment.” The1AndOnlyMe is referring to Curtis’ love affair with a mistress and, indeed, how this may have allowed him some dramatic respite from the agonies and shame felt in ‘real’ relationships he had with his wife, his child, his mother, and his bandmates.
All of this is to say that isolation and promiscuity may be natural bedfellows. In his 1999 essay “Sex and Isolation,” ex-hustler and American chronicler of all things sexually subterranean, Bruce Benderson, laments the migration of cruising or chance encounter off the streets and onto the internet, saying; “The abandonment of the body is isolation, the triumph of pure fantasy.” Yet, fantasy wants to be recognized, and we depend on others for that. Dating or hooking up online is never really about getting to know someone, it’s about the desire to be known. Furthermore, it’s about the desire to be known as the person we’re writing and editing and framing and Photoshopping and staging for others; about the fantasy we believe ourselves to be and depend on others to corroborate. For Benderson, wary of how American entrepreneurialism and the Protestant ethic (myth?) of self-reliance has led to the shrinking of the public sphere and the routinization of social encounters, the internet represents some vague final stage; “Our minds spit our longings and obscenities into the atmosphere. And media have ensured that these ejaculations are everywhere. The self is now nowhere in particular, and, depending upon how you look at it, we have everywhere, or nowhere, to go.”
Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright, excerpt, 2010
Interspersed throughout these paragraphs, written late, are four videos by contemporary artists using internet fodder or found internet footage to translate something lonesome, and sexy, and humiliating, and hilarious, about desire and telecommunications. What struck me, in assembling these works (chronicling a decade’s worth of technology), was how each artist respectively appeals to something antiquated, something empty, something romantic, in order to build visual atmosphere and erotic tension complimentary to the sexts around which their works, ultimately, pivot. Like the ‘classic literature’ The1AndOnlyMe accuses Curtis of reading, these four artists seem likewise drawn to the pompous big feelings of carefully composed love and lust, yearning for and incriminating those that feel similarly.
Brittany Southworth-LaFlamme, Thank You For Submitting, 2012
In The Desert (2002), German artist Jenny Vogel edits footage collected from webcams and surveillance cameras into a moody, expressionistic tale of grey-skied, bored longing reminiscent of early film. Chicago artist Doug Ischar‘s exquisitely paced brb (2007) overlays the devastating, self-annihilating or aggrandizing text of two lovers atop an empty desert landscape captured by moving car, soft string music and melancholic imagery of a gay street festival interspersed throughout. Similarly, Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari‘s Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010) – recently collected and currently on view at MCA, Chicago – features the pithy come-ons and reluctant evasions of ex-lovers typed with caution on an old typewriter, exaggerating the time of careful self-interest while conducting such affairs. Lastly, Chicago artist Brittany Southworth LaFlamme‘s recent work Thank You For Submitting (2012) stages eight men in a pale blue tableaux vivant reading 100 ‘penis poems,’ often appealing to the effaced antiquity of iambic pentameter, that the artist requested and received via OkCupid from users everywhere, or nowhere.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
On view currently at Chicago’s Thomas Robertello Gallery are 15 pen, ink, and gouache drawings on paper by local artist, illustrator, and author of the Gaylord Phoenix volume of comics, Edie Fake. Titled ‘Memory Palaces,’ the exhibition is a stunning showcase of Fake’s exceptional, and exceptionally idiosyncratic, formal skills in composition, pattern-design, and color, as well as a moving meditation on loss. Specifically, Fake pays tribute to the passing of five friends, colleagues, activists, and artists (Mark Aguhar, Nick Djandji, Dara Greenwald, Flo McGarrell, and Dylan Williams) in a series of drawings titled Gateway, and to ten real or imagined spaces of queer congregation no longer, or never, existent.
Put simply: depicted are places Fake, or the rest of us, may never go. They are hopeful spaces vividly imagined by those living in a contemporary urban environment largely ravaged and rid of countercultural nightlife by neoliberal vice and zoning laws, class-targeted antidrug policies, and corporate gentrification efforts throughout the late 20th century. As such, the collection of building facades Fake depicts – described as a neighborhood – can only be psychically located between utopian fantasy and interpretive research. Doing so foregrounds how the imagination and it’s shadow, desire, propels individual or collective searches for heritage, lineage, and belonging. What might be made possible for someone whose very personhood and politics teeters on the brink of unviability by the realization that, yes, La Mere Vipere (a burned down gay/punk venue in the now-gentrified Boystown), Killer Dyke (a radical lesbian periodical), and JANE (a clandestine feminist-led abortion service) did, indeed, exist here in the 1970s? Comprehension of these disappeared, criminalized spaces and services entails not simply an intellectual recognition, but something much more sensorial and perhaps even spiritual when translated through the prismatic hallucinations offered by Fake.
The flatness of the paper Fake has drawn upon is only a format, as his palette of offbeat hyper-colors and remarkable geometric drawing skills translates a deeper, pulsating dimensionality, like the embedded optic phenomena of a Magic Eye poster and a horror vacui painting. A handful of the places recreated here include dance venues, sex-clubs, and art spaces, all of which Fake has foregone a faithful architectural re-approximation of in favor of getting at something much more enigmatic – the mind-altering life practices they facilitated. Representing nightlife from psychedelia through disco and punk, up to rave, Fake renders his spaces with the fluorescent sensibilities and colors of escape developed via dance-floors and acid-trips. Neon hues that should clash, but somehow don’t, cohere in vibrant mosaic facades Fake has lent to 80s voguing-hub Club LaRay and former host of 70s gay anarchy nights The Snake Pit. Seeming inspired by the hypnotic, transportive potential of repetition and detail in geometric art, Fake’s designs are infused with a mystical content in the style of Islamic tile work or Huichol yarn and bead art.
The evocation of non-Western, nondenominational, and anti-representational spiritual aesthetics acquires political significance upon realization of for whom Fake has drawn a Gateway. Fake has imagined entryways into the hereafter markedly more colorful, robust, lavish, and peculiar than the pearly ivory luster of Judeo-Christian concepts of the afterlife. Those mourned are imagined as entering a kaleidoscopic, palatial elsewhere, rightly undoing inherited notions of heaven too tidy, too conservatively patriarchal, for housing the spirit of trans-queer-feminist artist of color Mark Aguhar, the anti-racist feminist dance parties of Dara Greenwald, or the critically outsider sensibilities of punk/metal-comic pioneer Dylan Williams.
It is here where Fake’s project best comes into full relief; it is only through the physical manifestation of improbable psychic longing that another world becomes possible, knowable, inhabitable. After hours, off the books, and after life; Fake honors such phenomena, and those residing there, with an informed, aspirational intensity apparent in the meticulous, strange, gorgeous labor of his drawing.
December 14, 2012 · Print This Article
Upon entering the exhibition space of “Mythologies,” an excellent showing of artwork produced by six young artists at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries, the eye is almost instinctually drawn to the bold, blood red palette of Rashayla Marie Brown‘s video installation “Puro Teatro (Coming to Theatres).” Projected large upon the far wall of the gallery, the single-shot, still-frame video elegantly documents what appears to be the meditative staging of a soon to occur evocation. Brown’s hands extend from beyond the frame to light three white votive candles placed in a triangular formation on the red surface, later joined by the slow setting of a steel incense burner, rosary beads, and the black winding cord of a microphone. The video is accompanied by the tune “Puro Teatro,” meaning ‘pure theatre,’ performed by Latin soul and salsa singer La Lupe in the 1960s. La Lupe was a known practicer of Santería at the time of the song’s recording, and the romantic drama of her singing coupled with the ritualistic imagery Brown has produced certainly evokes the sensation of saints being summoned.
Indeed, preceding the video spatially are three artworks intent on making explicit the theme organizing the included artworks altogether: a contemporary consideration, and continuation, of black aesthetics from a political, art-historically informed subject-position. “Black Motif,” a 7 by 6.5 foot mixed-media painting on cotton by Cameron Welch, features a golden, protruding mask in the style of African ancestral objects (or commercial knock-offs thereof) surrounded by layered, clashing colors and patterns of different kente cloths that the artist has painted asymmetrically into a patchwork composition. Neighboring the painting is “All American (Banner Series)” by Alexandria Eregbu, a triptych of bedazzled vinyl wall-hangings heralding famed contemporary black artists Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas as though they are college sports stars. Mirroring these works is “Pomba Gira (Deja Vu),” an installation by Brown replicating the aesthetic of her aforementioned video in three dimensional form, but instead featuring a vinyl LP copy of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s hit song “Deja Vu” suspended over two self-portraits the artist intentionally produced in the style of Lorna Simpson.
Images of earlier, though none too far gone, eras permeate throughout “Mythologies.” Elsewhere in the exhibition, Welch paints black and white appropriated civil rights era imagery for the diptych “Misspelled Aggression,” hanging the companion artworks across from one another like mirror images. Scrawling the words ‘nigga please’ over a photorealistic rendering of civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael mid-speech, and the words ‘nigger police’ over an image of attack dogs being used against black protestors in the 1963 Birmingham, AL, “race riots;” Welch’s large-scale paintings of bold aggression (both state-sponsored and grass-roots resistant) make enormous and unavoidable the persistent issue of racial violence and the failures of binary ‘riot vs. revolution’ understanding. Photographer David Alekhuogie similarly investigates the mediation of racial violence, but with more of a critical orientation towards the marketing and mass-manufacture of stereotyped black male aggression. In a stunning photo simply titled “Beef,” Alekhuogie places a super-sized McDonald’s cheeseburger (and Monopoly themed bag) at the center of two posters hanging on a deep blue bedroom wall, one of Notorious B.I.G. and the other featuring Tupac as the star of the 1992 gangsta film Juice. The work produces a thoughtful visual metaphor for the corporate profiteering of engineered black-on-black violence. In the exhibition’s most contemporary reference, Alekhuogie places a mass-produced ceramic head labeled ‘Africa, Cameroon’ purchased from a local art supply store, featuring generically racialized facial characteristics, within a pale grey hoodie now indissociable from the image of Trayvon Martin for a photograph the artist provocatively titles “Self Portrait (Africa, Cameroon).”
It is a compelling commingling of artworks: expansive in its time-lapsing pastiche of (art-)historical and pop-cultural references, polymorphous in its inclusivity of art forms (video, painting, textile, photography) typically segregated museologically. Additionally, “Mythologies” adds an interesting, youthful dimension to conversations currently about the importance and relevancy of identity-themed group exhibitions at a time when post-structural criticality and neoliberal pipe-dreams of being ‘post-whatever‘ threatens to make irrelevant concerns over specific authorship. This is particularly so in the wake of the much maligned New York Times review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980″ at MoMA PS1 by critic Ken Johnson, who reductively oversimplifies the insurgent artistic strategies of assemblage (while assuming it to be an exclusively white tradition) and insipidly criticizes a portion of that show for perceived failures in the Modernist ideal of universal aesthetic communication, as though that’s the primary artistic motivation behind producing (and promoting), for instance, gnarly, gorgeous, challenging artworks made with detritus collected from the Watts Rebellion.
What the content of “Mythologies” seem to be suggesting, instead, is that the formation of group exhibitions linked to the theme of identity offers a powerful means by which to outline, preserve, contextualize, build upon, and (as this exhibition especially makes clear) assert one’s own artwork as participating within a specific aesthetic lineage. This is, perhaps, why Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Deja Vu” on vinyl (something contemporary being delivered through the media of an earlier era) makes for such an ample metaphor within Brown’s Lorna Simpson-quoting installation, and for the entire exhibition furthermore. It is why Welch’s and Alekhuogie’s respective aesthetic investigations of the evolving mass-mediation of racial violence transcend disciplinarity. It is also why the tongue-in-cheek cheeriness of Eregbu’s banners feels so sincere, if also abundantly fan-girl self aware. The works seem produced as knowing, generative gestures of willful apprenticeship derived from self-tailored canons of influence made available and immediate, at last.
“Mythologies,” featuring the work of David Alekhuogie, Rashayla Marie Brown, Alexandria Eregbu, Christina A. Long, Hannah Rodriguez, and Cameron Welch, is open now through January 8, 2013, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries (33 S. State Street, Seventh Floor).