Here is another blast from my blogging past: a looong (you’ve been warned) 2011 post about my experiences in New York City AND my thoughts on the “outsider art” People’s Biennial show that SMoCA put on a few years ago.
Seriously, though: it’s a good read, but it is long. So you might wanna grab a sandwich and an ice tea or some coffee before you take a crack at it. Or some trucker speed. That’ll probably do the trick.
The Psychosis Delusions Village: People’s Biennial at SMoCA
“BELOVED CUSTOMER: As it turns out, what I perceived as mere ‘glitches’ disrupting the service of this cart, was in actuality a black hole (or a portal in Mostlandia). This discovery was made while I was making the next batch of Universe ice cream. Therefore, I will be in another dimension until time & space brings me & the ice cream back to Portland (or Mostlandia) in some shape or form… I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Love & Friendship, Junior Ambassador.”
NEW YORK PROLOGUE:
It’s a Tuesday in August, the day after a play I’ve been passing out fliers for, Space55’s The Unhappiness Plays, has wrapped up its run at the 2011 New York Fringe Festival. My friend Kevin Flanagan and I are standing outside the American Folk Art Museum, waiting to meet up with our friend Ian Murdoch. The doors to the museum aren’t open yet; we’re early birds. We snack on food cart pretzels, the sky overhead is still gray after a weekend of heavy rain and the sidewalks are still a little slippery. Kevin’s been working tech for the play, while I’ve been on a museum-binge; my first time ever in New York, I spent it running in and out of the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan & MOMA. But for the both of us, this is the museum we’ve been dying to see, because the American Folk Art Museum is the home of the Henry Darger collection. Henry Darger, the creator of In The Realms Of The Unreal. We were stoked that we’re finally going to actually see his work, see the Vivian Girls, wondering if all 15 volumes of his work would be on display in the collection, all 5,084 pages of his life’s work piled beneath museum glass. We wanted to be in the presence of his work, as though In The Realms Of The Unreal was the severed, withered hand of a saint and we had come to pay homage to it and be healed. Once Ian arrived and the doors to the museum opened, we scrambled inside, only for the sad truth to set in: the Darger collection was in storage and not currently on display. Instead we were greeted by the interiors of a small museum displaying folk art quilts. Not a Vivian Girl or Glandelinian battle scene in sight. Just quilts. And a gift shop selling Darger post cards, which we bought and shuffled out the door with. When the hand of the saint cannot be reached, sometimes you have to settle for the fingernail clippings.
“I’ve got to find a way to end this illusion”.
I’m inside the Scottsdale Museum Of Contemporary Art, taking advantage of their free admission Thursdays, and I’m staring at a food cart art installation: Rudy Speerschneider’s “The History Of Junior Ambassador’s Food Cart: A Mostlandian Venture”. The cart has a bench in front of it (marked “do not sit”), a set of books and binders on top of it presumably describing the history of said food cart, and a set of drawn icons depicting the various ice cream flavors on the menu: coconut curry, strawberry chipotle, maple bacon strip tease & Junior Ambassador’s signature flavor, the Universe ice cream. The piece de resistance, though, is the apologetic “BELOVED CUSTOMER” sign on top of the cart. Looking at it, for a moment I imagine its not a piece of art, but that there really is a businessman named Junior Ambassador who conjures flavors like maple bacon strip tease into being. Perhaps he wheeled his cart into the middle of SMoCA through some sort of dimensional crack to stash it away for a bit. Maybe he’s on a smoke break and will swing by later to pick it up, in some shape or form, to take the ice cream back to Portland (or Mostlandia). Wherever or whatever the hell Mostlandia is.
“Do not fuck with that whiskey, Peggy Sue!”
I’m slowly working my way through the People’s Biennial (on display until January 15, 2012), an exhibition collecting the works of… well, I’ll let the museum describe it so you get the idea:
“Five very different American art institutions from locations as diverse as Scottsdale; Portland, Oregon; Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Rapid City, South Dakota are presenting The People’s Biennial. The show consists of works by five to seven “artists” from each of the museum’s participating states, and is traveling the nation. The organizers of this exhibition sought remarkable, under-appreciated work by anyone and everyone, especially people who may not be considered a part of the art world with the goal of questioning traditional conceptions of art, artists, professionalism and creative production in our culture in general.”
I felt uneasy seeing those quotation marks around the word artists when I initially read the description, but seeing the exhibition soothed my worries that it would be an exploitative, look-at-the-freaks art show. The first thing I saw was a collection of art created in a most unusual fashion: under court order. Judge Evans & the Portland Community Court have people atone for their crimes by assigning them art to make that’s relevant to the offense that landed them in court. Art as a form of community service. I wonder if the creators of “Portlandia” have heard of this, and if we’ll see future episodes of bail bondsmen chasing down convicts fleeing from their court-mandated post-modernist assemblage making. One piece by CJ Randall, “March 20, 2010”, stood out: the image of a lone female protester kneeling in front of a line of shield-bearing riot police with the words “Because the Democrat’s motto has been do what you want to me & apologize in the morning”. The painting seemed to be a portrait of any Occupy site in America, painted a year in advance.
And then there’s Presley Ward, who covered one wall of the exhibit with strange magic marker, graphite & crayon drawings. What stood out wasn’t the imagery as much as all the text doodled in the margins and emerging out of his characters’ mouths in word bubbles: “do not fuck with that whiskey, Peggy Sue!” “Blessed Are They That Believe In Technology, For The Computer Shall Inherit The Earth” “The Psychosis Delusions Village”. Some of his images were as haunting and strange as the words: one showed a man opening a book titled “Book Of False Religion” & floating out of its open pages on a beam of light is a jack-o-lantern, with what looks to be a black cat/demon/goat singing “Trust Me” while strumming a guitar. And then there’s the drawing called Pandora Jar, with a woman in a bikini inside the jar which has warnings affixed to it: “Don’t trust this whore! The First Woman on Earth”. The drawings remind me of the stuff Daniel Johnston does. I try not to assume that Ward has the kind of psychological problems that Johnston has, but then I look at the pictures and texts and wonder. Out of all his sentences, the one that haunts me the most is “I’ve got to find a way to end this illusion”. Does he mean the grand illusion that Stephen Dedalus refers to when he calls history a nightmare? Or is it something more close to home and private, a real nightmare?
“My hand and eye began learning how to pack my life into square-inch spaces”.
Private. That’s the word that describes why the Biennial is such an appealing show. So much of the art on display feels like portals opening into private dimensions. And in some cases, there actually are diaries on display, like the work of Arizona artist David Hoelzinger. His work, “The Accidental Artist: A Life In Pictures”, is a collection of over 2 decades worth of Finnboard desk ledger calendars. On each day Hoelzinger packed his life into square-inch spaces, doodling diary entries of symbols and phrases and evocative images to describe his day to day life. Not only are the tiny images lovely to look at, the mystery of them, the inscrutable private-ness of them, is so compelling. Why does one of his days has a snail eating butter on it? What’s with the cracked pink egg full of Cheerios? Why is there a spectral white face-less head wearing a hat under a day marked “Gram Parsons”? Does Gram Parsons’ ghost not have a face? Why is there a cluster of grapes paired with the word Fantasia? What’s with the day simply illustrated with the word BOOGIE in bold black lettering? And all the other cryptic phrases: The Land God Gave to Cain. Million $ Cowboy Bar. Ray’s Bruise. Hoelzinger’s work takes something as mundane as a desk calendar and makes it as exotic and mysterious as an untranslated Gospel. The Nag Hammadi Finnboard scrolls.
“Even if I am disappointed in or ruin the creation, I can still use it for washing”.
In another instance of something mundane transformed into art: the soap carvings of Bernie Petersen. Hands, feet, buffalo & a cat curled up into a ball, carved out of white bars of soap. Reading the description of the work, next to his neat utilitarian quote (if only I could use my crap-poems for something as useful as washing!), it was fascinating to discover that Proctor & Gamble, from 1924 into the early 1960s, used to sponsor the National Ivory Soap Sculpture Competition. Soap sculpting used to be a big enough thing that it could support competitions AND corporate sponsorship. The world gets stranger and stranger everyday.
PHOTO CAPTION: “Artist Paul Wilson and date Lee Oswald pose with carnival toy: ‘He won it for me in the strong-man contest! I fainted hard”.
There was rodeo photography. And spiral shapes made out of acrylic paint and computer parts. A pair of Pollack-ian canvases by Joseph “Sentrock” Perez” hung on the wall, next to a video monitor displaying how they were made (by b-boys with paint on their hands and feets breakin on top of the canvases, Jackson Pollack meets “Wild Style”). Star Wars Lego sets of spaceships, clone troopers and droids faced off in a glass box. Work from Beatrice Moore’s Mutant Pinata Show was on display near the entrance, including Mike Maas’ “Twilight”-hating vampire pinata. Artist Paul Wilson had neat collages and dolls and Lee Harvey Oswald themed work on display (he also exhibits his Oswald love at Deus Ex Machina right now for their “Dallas November 22, 1963 Awareness Month” show). And then there was Jim Grosbach and his clay city, a man who has built a civilization out of 2 and a ½ TONS of Plasticine and written 2 large volumes on the history, politics, philosophies & religious beliefs of his Claykind world (some of his journals were on display and I leafed through them, blown away by how insanely detailed they were: he’s written out world population charts, continental drift, lines of succession for politicians… and there was religious scripture, too!).
“10:00: FEMALE DAIRY QUEEN EMPLOYEE FOLLOWING YOU. 10:40: SHE’S NOT A REAL DAIRY QUEEN EMPLOYEE”
Moving on to the next room, I was struck by two pieces. The first was Sweet Spot by Jon Gitelson, who created a large graph chart chronicling four months spent riding the Chicago L train, monitoring where he stood, the temperature on the train, the number of steps he took. It was a precise looking and daunting collection of data over something that is, well, brain-meltingly mundane. The dedication it must have took to stick to that project for four months… its hard to conceive of. I don’t know if I would have it in me. Also on the obsessive front was the work of Deb Sokolow, who had on the walls drawn and intricately written narratives and maps of paranoia. One wall was devoted to time she spent exploring and mapping out the Denver International Airport, investigating rumors that the New World Order built their headquarters underneath the unusually large airport. She has a timeline written out of events that happened during her day of exploration, including a period of time in which she was being stalked by a Dairy Queen employee (which includes hilarious asides: next to FEMALE DAIRY QUEEN FOLLOWING YOU are three answers pointing to different conclusions- DOES SHE WANT TO BE FRIENDS?, NO THAT CAN’T BE IT, NO ONE EVER WANTS TO BE FRIENDS WITH YOU”). On the wall across from it is another drawn narrative, You tell people you’re working really hard on things these days, which mixes mafia stories with more conspiracy theory, lines like “Your Substitute Mailman is pretty disgruntled, too” and a pie chart with the legend next to it:
“March 16th: Spent 4 ½ Hours in Studio wondering: Does Richard Serra Have a Sense of Humor? No. You saw him in that Art:21 episode. Maybe. Probably Not. But You Never Know.”
NEW YORK INTERLUDE:
A few days before the disappointing American Folk Art Museum excursion, I’m alone and checking out a retrospective of the work of Richard Serra. At first, it leaves me cold. There’s an older, hammy guy walking with a younger couple (his son & wife?) and he’s cracking them up by making the same dumb-ass joke, walking up to each of Serra’s imposing black images and going “Oh, yeah, love the variety on this one, too”. Hearing those hyenas giggle each time he cracks that dumb jokes instills in me a burning desire to engage with the work, to see something in Serra’s black holes. And then I see Taraval Beach, one of his pieces that covers an entire wall, and it destroys me. Staring at it from across the wall, my immediate impulse is to walk towards it as slowly as possible. I want the black to swallow up. Seeing Taraval Beach was like seeing the void. It felt… perhaps psychedelic isn’t the best word, because unlike psychedelics, I didn’t feel like my being was being expanded, it felt like it was being diminished, like my ego was collapsing into a tiny ball and I just wanted to pluck that ball out and walk over to Taraval Beach and roll it into its thick black paint. It was like staring into the hollow sockets of the skulls dangling around Kali’s neck, like staring into an open grave in the dead of night, like getting a glimpse of what the Infinite Nothing looked like before God and/or a big bang that sparked creation into being. Pure black. I read somewhere once that the purest, deepest black can be found in the pupil of the human eye, which is why people abhor eye contact. Forget fear of intimacy, who wants to make lovey-dovey eyes at the abyss? But at that moment, I did. I walked up slow, like I was stoned out of mind, inching closer and closer to Taraval Beach, until my eye was as close as possible to that giant pupil-black, as close as I could get without raising the ire of a security guard. Then I slowly walked backwards, retracting from the gaze of Taraval Beach, then approached it again, then retracted, doing this five times before I felt that I HAD to walk away before I lost something in it. Before, some superstitious part of my mind whispered, it got hungry. Leaving that exhibit, I wondered what kind of man could create and live next to that darkness, who could stare into that void, who could midwife oblivion as often as all those black marks on the walls indicated? I imagine that he must be a funny motherfucker. A man without a sense of humor would have been eaten alive by that blackness long before he got a museum retrospective.
After I finished admiring Sokolow and Gitelson’s work, I noticed I’ve made a mistake: I had assumed they were a part of the Biennial. I was so absorbed in their work I had failed to see that I was in a new exhibition now, “Artists Tell Stories (Mostly About Themselves)”. It was an easy mistake to make, because though unlike the Biennial outsiders Sokolow and Gitelson have had showings in museums and are apparently no-questions-mark-necessary artists, their work betrays the same sense of private obsession that marks the most intriguing work in the Biennial. Looking at Sokolow’s work, I couldn’t tell if her work was a parody of conspiratorial thinking or if she had genuinely fallen through the looking glass. Their work inspired the same feelings I had looking at Biennial artists like Paul Wilson (does he really have that big a thing for Oswald?) or Presley Ward (is Ward as crazy as his art looks?). In some ways, they feel like spiritual descendants of Henry Darger, alongside Junior Ambassador, the history of Claykind & the Finnboard calendars. Next time I go to the Biennial, I’ll imagine that, having finally entered the confines of the respectable art community, the outsider “artists” have grown ravenous and started Borg-style assimilating artists into their fold, and that Sokolow and Gitelson are their first biomechanical converts.
NEW YORK EPILOGUE:
Kevin and I have talked a lot of shit over the years about things we’d like to do. Businesses that one or both of us would start, trips to be made, bands to be started. As we’ve gotten older, the shit we talk has gotten heavier, more grounded, as though instead of saying “let’s start a band” as a joke, we’ve hit that point of “no, really, why don’t we?” In New York Kevin enthuses and raves about how he’d love to get a grant and get the job of transcribing the entirety of In The Realms Of The Unreal. The fantasy of moving to New York for a year or two and just losing himself in Darger’s universe, chronicling it so that other people can get lost in it too. It seemed crazy to me at the time. From what I’ve heard, Darger was so anal in his world-building (the man did weather reports, for Christ’s sake, even tallying up death tolls for each battle) that to read THE ENTIRETY of his work seemed as appealing a notion as reading the mind of an obsessive-compulsive sand-grain counter. The fantasies of Darger seem like they’d be incredibly rich and satisfying in small doses, but diabetes-inducing, coma-inducing in larger quantities. But it’s started to make sense to me, that dream.
The appeal of artists like Darger, Sokolow and the Biennial obsessives is that they seem like religious figures. Monks who devote themselves to their art with an intensity and singularity of purpose that most of us can’t summon towards anything in our lives. We idolize artists who burn bright and fade away, the artists that toil in obscurity and gain pantheon status as their bodies rot, the artists that strive and eventually gain admiration in their lifetime… but what about the artists who build obsessively, who live and die and create worlds so private, so mammoth, so bizarre they can’t be commodified? Think of how hard it is to sell Darger’s bizarre vision to the world. How incomprehensible the two volumes of Claykind history would seem to most people. It’s art that’s so big, that’s so demanding, that it can’t be contained by critical appreciations, it can’t be sold in its totality in a gift shop, that even retrospectives and documentaries can only reveal fleeting shadows of its true form, like shaky cam footage of Bigfoot strolling through the woods. These are artists dominated by the most demanding and most giving of muses, who only ask “give us your world and we’ll give you another”. I like to think that my friend’s desire to transcribe the work of Darger is the same desire a monk has translating the words of a dead saint into a new tome: the hope of transmission, that the holy devotion seeps through the pages and into his figures, that his muse will make the same offer to him that Darger’s offered, that it’ll give him the strength to accept that offer. I think that, because when I go and see things like these, and absorb art and kick it around in my head and pull it apart, its because I’m desiring the same thing. I’m just waiting for a golden spear to pierce my breast, for the scales to fall off my eyes, for a pink laser to pierce my brain like Philip K. Dick and let me see in a new way. Every day I take one step closer to the true Taraval Beach awaiting us all on the other side of the room, and I can only hope that I leave artifacts as perplexing as Paul Wilson’s Dottie dolls and Junior Ambassador’s ice cream cart behind me when I go pupil to pupil for that last blink.