Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cranky little art-icle I wrote for a great pop-culture site:

The Top 10 Emerging Artists of the Decade, on

Enjoy - and if you do, Digg it (if you know what that means), share the link, comment away, all that stuff.

I'm hoping to write more for Heavy in the near future.  It's definitely worth checking out if you haven't seen the site before.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Native Americans (First Nations, etc) can't get a fair shake

One of the issues that we've talked about a lot in Rebecca's class over the last few weeks was representations of and by the natives in North America.  I'm going to post images from children's books that casually (and seemingly without malicious intent) reiterate embarrassing and damaging stereotypes about Native Americans, but in the meantime, let's head down to South America to check out this appalling Brazilian TV clip from 1989, featuring the kinderpop star Xuxa. (who was pretty much the #1 cultural icon in Brazil in the 80s, aside from perhaps the soccer player Pele).

"Playing like Indians"?

It's amazingly painful to watch for many reasons, from her feathered headdress and maracas to the bopping blonde teenagers in marching-band uniforms, and ESPECIALLY the massively condescending inclusion (and simultaneous sidelining) of "authentic" Ya̧nomamö tribesmen, who look confused and offended by the entire spectacle.

Amazonian natives are some of the most threatened tribes in the New World, what with their being based in rainforest that is disappearing at a rapid clip (due not only to expansion by the hegemonic Brazilian culture but also, of course, due in large part to Western industrial agriculture). It sort of makes me wish that the tribesmen would act like the "meanest people on Earth" stereotype levied on them by anthropoligists such as Napoleon Chagnon - whoever planned and actuated this performance might well have deserved to be beaten to death with a log and cannibalized.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The new landing page on the HEMA website incredible.

It plays with the "general store" concept, playing up just how broad a range of (useful and quotidian) objects HEMA sells.  It makes you pay attention to each object separately, but recognize them as part of a unified whole.  And it teaches me that the word for "highlighting marker" in Dutch is "neonstift."

I can only imagine that the people in charge of the websites for Target and Ikea are scrambling right now to catch up.

One problem I have, though:  the word they use for a portable stereo is ghettoblaster.  But then, this is the country whose version of Santa Claus is escorted to children's houses by his slaves:

Needless to say, as terrible as our country is at racial politics, this sort of Santa, and even that sort of phrasing for the portable stereo ("boom box"?) after, say, Reagan's first term, just wouldn't fly.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan

A few weeks ago, as part of an assignment for one of my classes, I visited a museum to which I'd never been before and built a curriculum unit around one of the shows there.  I chose the Asia Society's newest show, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, which was an excellent place to view artwork which questions the West's assumptions about the Asian Subcontinent, and more specifically about the devout Islam found in Pakistan.

My high school (grades 11-12) lesson plan, were I able to present it to students, would be a way to get them to ask themselves why it is that they make assumptions about individuals based on their assumptions about groups (i.e. what are the stereotypes they hold, and why do they hold them to individuals).

Essentially, the project would have four distinct lessons (each of which will be listed here in the present tense, for simplicity's sake):

ONE:  Students view several stock images of stereotypical people ("gay-looking" guy; African-American in what could be gang colors; white biker, posh white woman) and discuss what they assume about the person - what is the easiest way to identify the person, how do they act, what are their values, how do they get along with others, etc.  After icebreaking with several of these, students see a few images of Subcontinental and Central Asian Muslim men (who basically look like what we consider the Taliban to look like) and discuss those same questions, as well as the assumptions we have about the ostensibly monolithic culture to which the men belong.  Is there a difference between making assumptions about people within the U.S. and making assumptions about people outside the U.S.?

TWO:  Students visit the Asia Society's show and focus written attention on works by the following artists:

(note:  this image is made up of thousands of photos of the inside of a slaughterhouse)



The students pick one artist to write about and then fill out a worksheet with questions on two sides; on the first side, they are to answer the questions based on what they assume BEFORE reading any of the museum's explanatory text.  On the second side, they are to answer AFTER they've read all of the explanatory text, and reflect on how they were correct and/or incorrect.

THREE:  Students look at slides of works by Qureshi and Butt, who directly work with subverting our assumptions about Pakistani Muslims (Qureshi uses traditional Persian miniature painting to show devout Muslims engaged in nonthreatening activity; Butt depicts Taliban-lookalikes in dreamy, sort of homoerotic portraits surrounded by consumer goods and sci-fi-looking guns).  The students then each pick a type of person who is considered "threatening" to our mainstream American culture, and then (through a combination of photocollage and/or painting) show that person engaged in an activity which is so mundane, yet realistic for them to do, that it 'humanizes' the figure and somewhat undoes the threat.  As I said in the class in which I explained my project:  "Even Nazis brush their teeth."

FOUR:  Students consider the ways in which they've made and tested assumptions about other groups of people, and plan out a "portrait as they see me" - this is not a self-portrait, per se, but rather a portrait of themselves as the stereotype that they feel they are seen as by people who don't know them (and wow, that's a clunky sentence!).  Students will consider why they're stereotyped - it's likely not just their skin color, but also their mode of dress, their body language, their speaking volume on the train, etc.  What are they projecting intentionally and unintentionally?  What's being assumed about them, and what's being read accurately about them?  A teenager who feels that his skin color makes people scared of him might exaggerate that skin tone, depict himself as even more threatening.  The stereotyped version of him- or herself is then to be engaged in an activity that they themselves do, to show that each student has a life which is not the stereotype that they are often conveniently fit into by people who don't know them personally.  That same teenager might have a baby nephew who he dotes over, or be a gardener, or like to listen to Haydn's string quartets, etc etc etc.

I was very pleased to get to present this project in my class, and the feedback was very good.  It was pointed out to me that this lesson could be modified to work with other art shows (really any show of artwork which uses identity politics as a theme could work) and other grade ranges (depending on the students, of course).  I'm thinking that this will definitely be a project that I try to teach once I get a job somewhere and have a sense of the school and the students.

I'm really interested in getting students to recognize how they can intentionally represent themselves, through their artwork but also through their quotidian activities and their specific composure.  I'm also interested in getting them to deconstruct their own assumptions about other groups.  If I get the chance to teach some form of this project, I think it will be one which is remembered for a long time by the participating students, and I think that the artwork will be heartfelt, engaged and intellectually stimulating.

It might also be really angry.  So much the better.

The show at the Asia Society itself is really good, by the way, and totally worth going to (I think it's free on Friday nights, so you can go like a true New Yorker).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whiteness in the Art Classroom (and no, I'm not talking Bristol board)

Recently in Rebecca's class, I read an article entitled "Imagining Ourselves into Transcultural Spaces:  Decentering Whiteness in the Classroom" by Catherine Kroll (anthologized in Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom, Virginia Lea and Erma Jean Sims, eds., 2008).  I've been thinking a lot about this article and others, and agree with its central premise that "whiteness" is often considered as the norm and, as such, minority cultures and views are treated as "Others" and are marginalized in the classroom, even when the student body is composed of individuals from minority cultures.  If a student is only told about their specific cultural heritage as an example of Otherness, why would they feel connected to the class and its teachings?

To some people who aren't studying art education theory and practice, it may seem as if an art class isn't as important for defining cultural and subcultural identity as, say, a social studies class.  To others, it may seem that the easy solution is to make sure that an art class has (tokenist, simplistic) projects relating to African mask designs, Cinco de Mayo, Asian textile design, etc.

Kroll's article, as well as others I've read recently (most notably Olivia Gude's "Postmodern Principles") proposes that rather than ignoring multi- and interculturalism in the art classroom, or using non-hegemonic cultural manifestations as examples of the (wise, earthy) Other at specifically-demarked times, we can introduce other cultures' output by opening up what we consider art to be.  This is in keeping with the benefits that I see in studying "visual culture" in an art classroom; by opening up discussion to include popular culture as well as 'canonic' high art, we also open the door for discussion of 'traditional' arts, 'underground' art and culture, art from resistance movements, etc.

Gude proposes that the standard "7+7" curriculum for art in middle and especially high school, which focuses on the 7 generally-accepted formal elements (line, shape, value, texture, form, color and space) and 7 design principles (balance, rhythm, gradation, emphasis, harmony, unity, opposition - these are less generally-accepted than the formal elements) are specific to the Western culture.  They're presented as universal and foundational, however, and as such they are a perfect example of  'normative Whiteness" in the classroom. 

Gude proposes a set of "postmodern principles" (appropriation, juxtaposition, recontextualization, layering, interaction of text and image, gazing, and representin') which deal with the conceptual trends in contemporary art, and allow for students to more directly deal with expressive content in their own work.   She points out that most secondary art education curricula focus on what Clement Greenberg (1971) called "cold modernism" (Manet, Seurat, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso) - using these artists as springboards into discussion of the "7+7" before asking students to apply those principles to produce work which, often, is strongly guided by the images they've been shown from those "major" artists.  By contrast, "hot modernism" artists (Duchamp and the Dadaists, most notably) are most commonly cited as influences among contemporary artists, especially those whose work is loaded with specific meaning and identity politics.

Those "hot modernists" may have utilized their knowledge of the "7+7" in their work, but there was more to their work than an engagement of formalism.  There was content first and foremost, and that seems to be the best way to address art with teenagers in a way that makes them genuinely motivated by, and attached to, their artwork.

This semester, I've been student-teaching with a cooperating teacher whose curriculum, especially for the 9th and 10th grade 3-D class, is based strongly in the "7+7" model.  The teacher's planning is solid enough that the assignments work well with the classes.  I'm happy to get to teach with him, but this semester is starting to make me think of how I will teach classes when I'm in control of the curriculum - and I think that I'm starting to rethink the "7+7" model, even though I've used it for years in my pre-college classes for Pratt and SVA.  At SVA over the summers of 2008 and 2009, I co-taught with a conceptual artist (Eric Doeringer) and have so far presented the students with discussions of formal elements as a way to show them slides of artwork which I feel would interest them.  The projects they worked on, however, were based in concepts closer to Gude than to Arnheim.  If I'm able to teach again this coming summer, I think it's time for me to move further away from straight formalism, and will spend some prep time this spring making presentations and assignments more based in conceptual themes - identity, juxtaposition, emotional content - and Gude's proposed principles.

It's been a draining, work-intensive semester, but I'm very happy to have been in the school I'm in, working with the teacher with whom I'm working, while reading the articles I'm reading.  It's affected the ways I process what I see in the classroom, what I read for my graduate classes, and how I am starting to reframe my concept of what I can offer students through art education, and how.  The classes I'm taking, and my student-teaching experience, have easily saved me a year of running on automatic, teaching students with a 'cold modernism' curriculum and using assignments of the sort that I had designed before entering this program.

So: Robert Wilson's QUARTETT

The show was as cold as this image implies...

Last week in Rebecca Bourgault's class, we took a field trip to the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see a revival of Robert Wilson's 1987 play (play?  musical?  theatre piece?) Quartett.  I'm sure that we're going to talk about it in class tonight, and I won't be at all surprised if a lot of my classmates really hated it, for different reasons.  I heard one classmate saying a few days later "It was pretty clear that I'm not the intended audience for that show...when you looked at the audience, it was all old white people."

Maybe I'm just prepping myself for my inevitable old-white-guyness, but I really enjoyed it, even as I recognized that its story and aesthetic were, well, oppressive to the audience.  The play, written by Heiner Müller, is based on the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) and tells the story of two sexual partners in crime (Merteuil, played by Isabelle Huppart, and Valmont, played by Ariel Garcia Valdès) who use sex and seduction for destructive purposes, exacting revenge on each other and, basically, all of humanity and decency.  Wives and virginal nuns are seduced, used and abandoned.  Merteuil and Valmont are officially the only characters - they rant and rave and paraphrase everyone else's words, rendering their sexual conquests even more powerless.

Fine acting, attractive dancers, lots of talk about sex, absolutely no sexiness.

If you missed the show and aren't familiar with Wilson's aesthetic, imagine watching dancers made of translucent plastic, writhing in slow motion in front of a Robert Morris sculpture while someone bathed in red light yells in pitchshifted French about wanting to sodomize a nun. This makes for a stunning effect, and I mean that in an objective, not a qualitative way - the show stuns.  It hurts.  It's so lurid and yet its delivery is so cold.  It's overwhelmingly sexual and yet it is not at all erotic.

As such, it's definitely an acquired taste.  I happen to have acquired the taste in the mid-90s, when I saw Wilson's collaboration with Tom Waits, the musical The Black Rider.  My wife is an absolute nut for Wilson, and I've found myself attending nearly everything that he puts on at BAM (including the execrable POEtry, which was a few interesting sets and costumes forced into an embarrassingly childish and bad musical by Lou "Wrong Decade" Reed).

Here's a quick example from Quartett:

Perhaps this doesn't contribute to our class's attempt to move outside of Western art discourse...

Most of the audience seemed to really enjoy the oppression, but that didn't strike me as any different from the people at the Throbbing Gristle show I attended in April, or any other show of art or music (God knows I've seen hundreds) which uses confrontational aesthetics to draw a line in the sand between those who are "down with it" and those who aren't.

You'll find yourself intensely disliking both of these people.

Teaching this show, or others by Wilson and/or Müller (or, for that matter, Berthold Brecht) would be difficult in most high-school art classes, not only because of its content but also because of its length and the logistics of organizing an evening field trip to a theater.  However, I think it would be fair to use video clips or still photos from his productions as a way to show how formalism (and modernism and even minimalism) can be applied to modes other than gallery art.  The aesthetic may be shocking to a sixteen-year-old who's starting to learn about painting, but it could certainly be used as a way to talk about formal concepts like localized color, scale, and dynamism, as well as how to use those concepts to create specific moods and convey the students' intended meanings.

Who knows?  Maybe a minority teenager from Brooklyn or the Bronx would feel empowered to see images from a theatrical piece that is this severe, this angry.  If an old white guy can find an audience for his weird, angry art, why can't everyone?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My favorite example of localized visual culture: MASKED LUCHADORES!

Yes, I know, this is the sort of article that would have been absolutely groundbreaking fifteen years ago, but it's only in 2009 that I finally set up a blog (and it took a class assignment for me to do that).  Bear with me as I give a very basic introduction to a very broad topic:  the culture of masked wrestlers (luchadores) in Mexico.

(and yes, there will be a tie-in at the end to the concept of teaching art in a non-hegemonic way)

Maybe I'm just an easy mark, but acrobatic displays are much more interesting to me when they're in the context of masked superheroes pretending to beat each other up.

The first masked wrestler to perform in Mexico, El Enmascarado ("The Masked Man"), appeared in 1934 in Mexico City.  Professional wrestling ("lucha libre") had only been introduced to Mexico a year or two earlier, and up until the appearance of El Enmascarado, most of the wrestlers performing there were Americans.  Something about the mask clicked with the audience, and more and more masked Mexican wrestlers appeared on each wrestling event's 'card.'  The masks were simple at first, but even at the beginning featured embellishments which were recognizably Aztec in their aesthetic, and which as such spoke to the majesty of Mexico's past.  There is strong national and racial identity to be found in 20th-Century luchador design - costumes use motifs from jaguars, eagles, Mexican flag colors, Aztec and Mayan hieroglyphs, etc.

El Santo and Blue Demon, from one of Santo's many many action movies.

The first real star of lucha libre was almost indisputably El Santo - "The Saint" - who began wrestling under his trademark silver mask in 1942 (he'd been wrestling under other gimmicks and names since the mid-30s).  Over the course of a forty-year (!) run, El Santo remained a technico (a valiant good guy - the equivalent in the English-speaking wrestling world would be a "babyface" or "face"), won the vast majority of his matches, and became a genuine folk hero, appearing in almost fifty movies, a comic book which ran for 30 years, and, recently, a posthumous TV show which appears on the Latin American version of the Cartoon Network.  Typically, a masked luchador wears his mask in the ring throughout the life of the character - it's most common that a character is retired, that the wrestler moves on to another identity, once he's been unmasked (this happens most often in Mexico as a stipulation to a special match).  Throughout his career, El Santo took this to the extreme; for four decades, he remained in character, and in mask, whenever he was in public.

El Hijo del Santo demonstrates the typical appearance of a luchador when he's in character but not in the ring.   His real-life father, the original Santo, was buried in his mask when he died.

Santo's son, El Hijo del Santo, launched his own career under the same mask when Santo retired in 1982.  He's an interesting example of how things have changed - an early 'heel turn' (switching sides to become a rudo) so enraged the audience in Tijuana that a genuine riot broke out in the arena and spilled out onto the streets (by now, heel turns are much more commonplace in North and South America).  Not only is he a well-established luchador whose lineage is given the utmost respect - he's also an outspoken ecological activist, working with Wildcoast to protest ocean pollution and protect sea turtles.

El Hijo del Santo, Luchador, Ocean Protection Activist from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

El Hijo del Santo isn't the only lucha activist - there's also Superbarrio Gómez, who organizes labor rallies and protests in Mexico City.  He proclaims himself a "real-life superhero" -- and really, isn't that what every babyface/technico is to his fans?

Rudo tag team El Chivos play to the crowd

Up until recently, the characters themselves were pretty broad in lucha libre - a wrestler was either a valiant technico or a dastardly rudo - though that's changed a bit in the past fifteen years due, in part, to a syncretism between the different concepts of "face/heel" in American, Mexican and Japanese wrestling.  In the 90s, American wrestling in particular almost abandoned the traditional faces and heels, pushing 'in-between' characters like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, whose in-character mannerisms and attitude - from his way of speech to his moves to his willingness to cheat - would have made him a despised heel only a few years earlier.  Mexican lucha libre has reflected this change mainly in its rudos, who are now a bit 'cooler' than they used to be.  The crowd still boos them, but you now see teenagers in the audience wearing the rudos' t-shirts and masks.

Rey Mysterio was born in San Diego, but obviously represents himself as part of Mexican culture (note his tattoos and the cross on his mask, which tends to feature an Aztec sunwheel design on the back.)

There's also a lot more awareness of lucha libre in the U.S., mainly due to a few wrestling promoters in the 1990s who recognized that there would be commercial appeal to including highly acrobatic guys who dress like superheroes.  Most notably nowadays, there's Rey Mysterio (formerly "Rey Mysterio, Jr." in Mexico and the American indie wrestling companies, until the WWE signed him and decided that the "Jr." appellation would confuse its audience who didn't know the "Sr.").  Unfortunately, WWE seems to think that one luchador is enough at any given time, or perhaps that another masked high-flyer would dilute the marketability of their star.

"All fine and well," you may ask, "but how would you use this in a classroom as a way to have students create artwork which doesn't take white culture for granted as the default?"

If you do ask that, you're already a pretty tough audience.  Here goes:

It strikes me that lucha masks would be perfect for a middle school (and maybe Grade 5) art class.  I'd start by showing the students some Precolumbian Mesoamerican artwork (Aztec, Maya, Olmec, etc), especially the highly-stylized heiroglyphics.  Then I'd show them examples of lucha masks which intentionally use the same type of shapes and linework, and ask if any of the class knew what they were.  We'd discuss the masks, and the concept and depth of mask culture in Mexico, and then the students would design their own mask for a character that would be based on them - their interests, their culture, their heritage, their identity.   If the students are old enough (i.e. middle school rather than third or fourth grade), I would have each student research the traditional artwork from the culture that they consider to be their 'ancestral home' - be it Mexico, China, or Poland, there are specific aesthetics and motifs to use - and then adapt those images and motifs to be used in their mask.

Sangre Azteca keeps it real.

This would directly tie in to the way that lucha masks were first designed.  Besides teaching students a little bit about costume and character design as a way to represent aspects of a character through visual means, this would both help the students understand the way in which a masked wrestler could be representin' cultural identity as a Mexican AND help them understand the ways in which their own cultural identity can be used as an opportunity for them to represent as well.  Every student in a diverse classroom could produce a mask design based on their interests and their heritage.

I assume that the masks would have to be either drawn or made out of colored/painted paper - we wouldn't be likely to get to assemble them out of sewn fabric, as the patterning would be prohibitive even for me to do on my own, let alone with a few dozen students.    Perhaps the students could collage or paint the masks directly onto photos of themselves? 

Obviously, this sort of project would depend on the school culture, the boy/girl ratio (and type of girls) and probably the ethnic makeup of the class - I wouldn't presume to teach a class composed only (or mainly) of Mexican kids about lucha libre without looking like a clueless asshole.  However, I think that this would be a good way to get students to realize that everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone's heritage is valid, while also connecting ancient and traditional art to contemporary visual culture.

The characters could maybe even be used later as protagonists in a comic-book assignment that I've been thinking about.  I do love having one unit lead into the next...

They're not as comfy to wear as you might expect - like having an oven mitt strapped to your face.

Emmanuel P. Gill's "outsider art" comics

 All images by Emmanuel P. Gill, published by E-Lectric Comics, used with respect to the author

A few years ago a friend of mine (the cartoonist K.Thor Jensen) introduced me to one of the most amazingly out-there cartoonists whose work I've ever read:  Emmanuel P. Gill.  Gill's comics are obviously a labor of love - he writes, draws, letters, and even Xeroxes them himself, and apparently makes his own deliveries to the comic book shop, Jim Hanley's Universe, that sells his work on consignment (serious respect due to Hanley's for being so supportive of self-publishing cartoonists - most of the other comic shops in NYC give lip service at best to independent artists).

The comic that started it all a few years ago:  WESTONE PAGE #1

Gill's comics are centered around his main book (and character), Westone Page, but there are about twenty-five characters to keep track of, ranging from heroes like Page, Adonis McIntire, Post and Post Junior, and Ushadow -- to say nothing of Sniffer the PowerMammal, a superpowered dog -- to villains with names like Telephone, Airbrush, Milkshake and Coat.  The names, in general, seem almost stream-of-consciousness -- as if Gill came up with them arbitrarily by looking around for objects to use as names -- and at times it's difficult to remember that Crest and Donny Jones are in their power-human guises when they go by "Westone Page" and "Adonis McIntire," as those pseudonyms sound sort of like 'real names.'

The behavioral-engineering origin of the "Aura of Power"

The writing is fast-paced, very wordy, and, in general, bizarre.  The stories mainly take place in a futuristic version of New York City and all but ignore anyone who isn't either a "Power Human" ("superhero" is a joint trademark of Marvel Comics and DC Comics) or in a Power Human's immediate biological family.  The characters tend to give heavy exposition and call themselves and each other by full name, even in the middle of battles, which leads to dialogue like "JUST CALM DOWN PRICILLA ANN JONES...1) TELEPHONE IS PLANNING A FLIGHT WITH J.F.K. AIRPORT...2) REMIND PEOPLE WE'RE NOT RELATED HENCE YOUR SIR NAME." and my personal favorite, shown below:

To be fair, the superhuman characters in Chris Claremont's classic 1980s run on Uncanny X-Men often referred to each other by real names rather than 'superhero' names, and Claremont spent the first ten pages of each 22-page book giving exposition, both in dialogue and in narrative captions.  Gill's version of this type of writing may be a bit more blunt than Claremont's, but he's working within a well-established and accepted format of comic writing.

Notably, every character who mentions his or her father has a problem with his or her father.  Westone's father is an evil, scheming Power Human (for the first few issues, Westone is convinced that his father has murdered his mother) with a team of powered henchmen and a headquarters in Chicago called the "Empire Daddy Building." 

There's also a glorious amount of gratuitous sexual content - mostly it's just making out, and no nudity is ever shown, but there's one particularly mindblowing panel that finds a way to show a two men and a woman having sex without any of their clothing removed (and with nothing 'naughty' showing).

By the way, that shiny/glowing lady with her hand down Westone's pants?  She got her superpowers because her pantyhose was ripped when she fell into a vat of counterfeit-money dye after she QUITE her job.

This page introduces the new heroes "Open and Closed" and a fascinating subplot.

Emmanuel Gill can be looked at as an 'outsider artist' in that he is so clearly on the fringes of the comics world, but at the same time I wonder if he is as 'outside' as we may immediately assume.  As bizarre as his comics are, they're working within an established genre and with the ultimate goal of being published and read by an audience, and I'm sure that he'd love for that audience to be as large as the fanbase for Marvel and DC Comics.  Archtypal outsider artists such as Henry Darger and Francis Dec, from everything I can tell, worked without intentional recognition of an audience, or in cases like Dec, wanted an audience but had no interest in making "art."  Comic books are different - they really only really function as comic books when they're published (even if by Xerox) and read by an audience.  As such, Emmanuel Gill's body of work strikes me as "outsider" the same way that Genesis P-Orridge's does - it's bizarre and self-driven, but wants to be taken seriously in the long-running history of superhero comics.

Westone Page (on the motorcycle) and the rest of Teamwork For Power Humans 

I don't mean it to sound like I'm making fun of Gill and his artistic output - I'm a fan, and I'm really impressed with his drive to produce and distribute his work to the best of his ability.  He's clearly a hard worker (each issue features a colored-with-markers front cover and character bios, annotated and dated, on the back), his background influences obviously include many of the same superhero comics I loved most when I was growing up, and, well, I've been sitting on my thumbs planning a comic for years.

Emmanuel P. Gill's taken the plunge and DONE it, and for that, I salute him.  I just hope that Hanley's has more issues available soon!

(coming up on this blog as soon as I can get copies of the reprints:  Fletcher Hanks, the granddaddy of all outsider comic artists)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On violence in video games

For last week's Diverse Classrooms in a Visual Culture class, Rebecca asked students to bring in some facet of pop culture that could be discussed in terms of some of the issues that we've been discussing over the semester:  stereotyping, representation, identity, etc.  I brought a few Tintin books and a collection of Carl Barks' Donald Duck comics, as examples of colonialist attitudes towards non-Europeans so taken for granted as to be used in children's comic books (this is more the case in Herge's Tintin than in Barks' work).

It was good to get to expose some classmates to some of the best comics in history, I must say.  But Rebecca was clearly more excited about the fact that a few students took her up on her challenge and brought a PS3 into class, so as to demonstrate video games.

Far and away, the biggest event of the night was one classmate playing through the first fifteen minutes or so of a level from Call of Duty:  World at War, a WWII-era first person shooter that basically had every woman (and several men) in the room lamenting the ills of modern society.  The student pointed out that Nazis are pretty much the safest possible "enemy" to have in a game, in that only the absolute dregs of society would have a problem with their deaths being encouraged and celebrated.  Here's footage from the level - imagine this projected on a wall, HUGE, in a dark room, with lots of people loudly bitching about how nauseated they were.

The room was pretty much split between "HOW CAN YOU PLAY SUCH A VILE THING" and "WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL PEOPLE WATCH MOVIES ABOUT WORLD WAR II," with very little recognition of shades of grey.

I guess I inhabit that shade of grey.  This game was physically hard for me to watch, and I couldn't imagine wanting to play it on my own, but I'm currently (slooooowly) working my way through the next game that was discussed:  Grand Theft Auto IV.

(and really, there are a hundred billion comparable clips on Youtube, some of them set to the Benny Hill theme - I only chose this one because it showed up on a search that involved the word "carnage")

Why is it that I've got a weak stomach for a game in which the enemies are actual Nazis, based on historical military campaigns, while I find it to be a pleasant timekiller to play a videogame in which I can fire bazooka missiles into the Holland Tunnel and drop grenades behind me as I run away? 

Why is it that I'm kind of grossed out by the piles of bodies in Call of Duty but have enjoyed shooting zombies in Resident Evil 4, and am currently fairly impressed by the new 'blood' programming in the newest WWE wrestling game?

(the blood from one guy's forehead gets on the other guy's fists!  That's MUCH more moral than shooting Nazis, right?)

I think the issue is that Call of Duty presents itself as a simulation, and in fact the verisimilitude is pretty astonishing/repulsive.  By contrast, GTA4 is cartoonish, almost distant, and that allows for a player to casually dip in and out of ridiculously over-the-top destruction (anybody who trots out the old canard about how you can kill a hooker to get your money back hasn't played the game for very long -- there are many more interesting, even more ethically bleak things to do in the game.  Often while whipping through town on a dirtbike, firing an Uzi randomly).

The wrestling game's distance from actual, real-feeling violence is no accident:  no matter how 'realistic' the blood effects and physics on the figures is, a wrestling game allows the player to re-create a form of theater in which the end results are predetermined.  Roland Barthes wrote in "The World of Wrestling" (1957) that "Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque."  He went on to explain that wrestling was not violence so much as it was a ritualized representation of "justice" (of the "that bastard is gonna get HIS this weekend on pay-per-view" variety).

I've been a fan of pro wrestling for a long time, though lately I pretty much only watch decades-old matches or minor-league live shows.  It's a strange thing to admit that I have a hard time watching boxing but really like watching guys jump around in silly costumes hitting each other with folding chairs.  I couldn't watch it if it actually were 'real,' as it would not only be less dramatic, it would be less (low-)artistic, just a couple of guys getting beaten up.

So perhaps my issue with Call of Duty is that, no matter how artfully designed it is, how dramatic it is, it feels like there's no opportunity for escapism?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and the obliteration of Self

Both aspects of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge amalgamated as a Vitruvian "Pandrogyne"

I feel bad that I didn't get to see (or write a blog entry about) Invisible Export's show of artwork by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, entitled "30 Years of Being Cut Up," until the exhibition was literally in its final weekend. The body of work displayed on the walls was interesting not only on its own (the collages range in intent from Fluxus-inspired antagonism to magic spellcasting) but also as a facet of one of the most interesting, if at times perplexing, examples of defining and owning one's own identity.

Beauty is in the Eye, 2006.  

Red Well, 1999. 

Unless noted, artwork images are from the Invisible Exports show linked at the top of this article. 
More are here (very much Not Safe For Work).

In talking about P-Orridge, correct use of gender-specific pronouns will get very complicated.  Please bear with me -- I've tried to use the artist(s)' terminology and delineations wherever possible.

For those readers who aren't familiar with Genesis P-Orridge in the many phases of his (and now he/r) career, here's a really brief synopsis:  Born as Neil Megson in 1950; formed the performance-art collective COUM Transmissions around 1969; turned COUM into the pioneering electronic-noise/industrial music act Throbbing Gristle in 1975, recording and touring with TG until the bands' dissolution in 1981; that same year, formed another music group, Psychic TV, releasing music under that band name through to the present day; introduced the subcultural "modern primitive" trends of body modification and neo-paganism to the 'alternative' audience through the 80s and 90s; as Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and other musical acts, has released over 200 albums, including a Guinness-record-setting 70 in one calendar year (as Psychic TV).

But here's where it gets really interesting:

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (left) and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (right).  Image from New York Magazine's great recent interview

In 2003, P-Orridge moved to Brooklyn with his second wife, Lady Jaye, née Jacqueline Breyer, and began an ongoing experiment in body modification aimed at creating one pandrogynous being named "Genesis Breyer P-Orridge". The two began this project by getting matching breast implants, then approximately $200,000 worth of plastic surgery to resemble each other.  They dressed identically, copied each other's mannerisms, and both replaced the pronoun "I" with "we," "he" or "she" with "s/he," "his" or "her" with "h/er."  I'm going to use these pronouns from here on, both for simplicity's sake and out of respect.

Two Into One We Go, 2003 - moving towards a single being composed of two identical individuals. 

They became individual facets of a single, idealized being.  They abandoned the concept of Self. 

Lady Jaye died in 2007, and since then, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (a construct originally composed of Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye Breyer) has existed in the body of one person.  S/he ("they"?) declares in interviews and on the web that Lady Jaye still exists as a living part of the pandrogenous amalgam "Genesis Breyer P-Orridge."  The surgeries and hormone therapies continue, and the past few years have been busy for Gen - Throbbing Gristle have reformed and toured, MoMA has scheduled a lecture in March, 2010, and most recently, thirty years' worth of collages have been exhibited in a well-received gallery show in the Lower East Side.

Untitled (Mail art to Robert Delford Brown), 1975Gender fluidity is hardly new to he/r.

In many ways, the concept of Self that Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is now proselytizing can be seen as an extension of the decontextualization and reframing inherent in photo collage.  I'm not saying it's a 'logical' extension, but I see how spending most of one's life attempting to dismantle widely-accepted concepts - music, most notably, until now - could make one feel that the boundaries that separate people are tenuous and removable, especially when those people are in love.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A collaborative art project from an ethnically/culturally diverse group

...of toddlers.

I like to think that my son is responsible for the sweeping gestures in the center third.

This is a detail shot of a long fingerpaint-on-craft-paper panel, painted by the feet of the "Hummingbirds" (1-2 years) group at the daycare center at which my son spends five days a week.

I know that this is hardly "high art," but it's the piece of, stimulus? that I've been most struck by over the past few weeks, no doubt in part because of its associations -- my child is painting!! -- but also because of its beautiful colors and 'strokes.'  And considering that I'm more than willing to get visual stimulation from rust patterns and peeling paint in the subways, I think it's fair for me to post this.  I'd love to get a good-quality image of the whole painting.

At some point, it may be worth posting a collection of the best peeling-paint-and/or-rust patterns that I've come across (I have hundreds of photos).  Not much to talk about semiotically but, like this painting by toddlers, some of them are truly fascinating and beautiful to me.  Finding beauty where I can find it has helped me stay sane living in an at-times-standoffish New York City.

Artistic cross-culturalism: hard to pull off (who'da thunk it?)

In our class last week, Rebecca introduced us to a few artists via the Art:21 series.  The one who most struck me was Kerry James Marshall.

Kerry James Marshall's "Watts 1963," 1995

Marshall's work deals directly with his identity as an African American, while also directly engaging his position as a figurative 'narrative images on canvas' painter, working in a tradition that is directly linked to European painters such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and El Greco (along with African American artists such as Charles White and American folk artists of many ethnicities).

At the end of the 20-minute video on Marshall and his work, our class briefly discussed Marshall's use of imagery and compositions from European culture, and Rebecca asked the class why we thought it was that it's so much more common for minority artists to work within the hegemony's forms of art, rather than the other way around - Europeans looking for, and acknowledging, influence from non-Western/non-hegemonic cultures.  Jackson Pollock (whose exposure to Navajo sand painting early in his life likely affected his signature period of 1947-1950 or so) and Pablo Picasso (whose break from the 19th Century makes a lot more sense if you've seen African and Oceanic masks) were brought up as rare exceptions to the rule that cultural influence trickles downward more often than upward.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from the typical distinction that Western culture makes between "art" and "non-art" (which I address a bit in the first substantive post to this blog).  Artists tend to want their work to be tied into that great big millenia-long conversation that traces a long, convoluted line between the cave paintings in Altamira and whatever's happening in Chelsea galleries this month.  As such, it behooves them to explicitly draw from high art so as to say "My art belongs in this history."

Warhol put a Byzantine-style gold background on a modern-day icon. 

This graffiti, at 5 Pointz in Queens, refers to Rembrandt to say "I'm a High Art painter, too."

By comparison, explicitly referring to folk art, popular culture and/or 'non-art' in one's work may make it harder to be taken seriously by the art establishment.  Sure, the gallery scene may love you, and you may have a great couple of years of sales, but don't bet your paychecks on getting into the Art History canon.

Takeshi Murakami's pop-culture appropriations are probably not going to be in the equivalent of a Janson textbook in 100 years.

Another issue that I see deals with culture outside of the art world.  When someone related to the hegemony ("The Man") appropriates aspects of a non-hegemonic culture (even Picasso), there's often a feeling of, if not paternalism, at least noblesse oblige - like a representative from High Culture is deigning to give a nod to Low Culture's masses.  It's like seeing a white undergrad in a dashiki and cowry shells in his hair, whose knowledge of colonial-and-post-colonial African history comes mainly from listening to Fela Kuti records while stoned.

Maybe I'm just being grumpy, but I find Marshall's connection to The School of Athens to be much more interesting, and much gutsier as a statement of identity, than a contemporary painter in London attempting to draw a connection between his work and, say, Ellis Ruley.

Or, even worse, there's the condescending version of "acknowledging another culture," like this statue by Erastus Dow Palmer, Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


This is colonialist condescension at its finest:  a statue of a topless, ostensibly "Indian" woman, gazing thoughtfully and lovingly at the cross in her right hand, while getting ready to drop the feathers (representing her primitive, pagan religion, of course) in her left hand.  According to the Met's description, the allegorical sculpture symbolizes ""the Dawn of Christianity Upon the Aborigines … [and would] symbolize the first impression of civilization upon the native of this country."

Holy crap, wow!

And for what it's worth, I'm not so sure that Paul Simon's Graceland is free of condescension, either.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Myrtle-Broadway stained glass: a nice statement of local identity

Here are some photos I took recently of the stained glass panels on the above-ground subway platform at Myrtle/Broadway (J, M, Z) in Brooklyn.  They represent the rich and broad contributions of African Americans and Latin Americans to American musical culture.

Individual panels pay tribute to jazz...



...more drummers...

...with recognition of contributions from the Islands...

...and the South's position as the birthplace of the blues...

...but none of the panels make mention of hip hop.

"Daddy, I'm a bit confused."

In all seriousness, the lack of acknowledgment of hip hop makes me assume that the artist and/or the MTA folks who commissioned the panels don't see it as worth mentioning in a monument to African American contributions to popular music.  Which is odd, considering how quickly it's all but taken over the mainstream of pop music, here and abroad.  I wonder if that has to do with the general outsider's belief that all hip hop is about violence, drug-dealing and misogyny, or if it's the fairly common and well-documented disdain that the jazz community holds for hip hop (not only for what it says but also for the fact that it uses samples rather than live instrumentation, and sonic assemblage rather than traditional composition). 

This is a shame, as the panels are a really important esteem-booster in an otherwise dank subway station (and neighborhood), but leaving out the past 30 years of musical innovation keeps these from being as broad a statement of identity and pride as they could be. 

As an educator (-in-training), I try to remember that whatever my students' ethnicity or race, they're a member of many cultures and subcultures - and so I feel that giving a nod not only to the neighborhood's race, but also to the youth culture, would make this even more relevant to more people.

Subtle, guys.

Yesterday, I went into a Chase ATM on Myrtle Avenue on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border and saw about two dozen flyers for "ANACONDA Underwear."

Blatant in so many ways.  Let's give a quick list:

  • The oiled, well-muscled man has a sexy woman hanging off of him.  She's making eye contact with the camera (acting as the interlocutor acted in Renaissance paintings), as if she's flirting with the viewer rather than the muscleman.
  • The "ANACONDA" brandname and logo, to say nothing of the slogan "NOT FOR THE AVERAGE MAN," make it pretty clear that this underwear is being pitched as "only for real men" (more specifically, men with larger-than-average penises).
  • Both models appear to be of minority ethnicities (a label so broad as to be meaningless, I know) and look like they're on the 'young, cool and sexy' end of the spectrum of people that you'd see on the street in Bushwick or parts of the Bronx.  She doesn't have a generic 'model' face (her facial features aren't leaning towards Caucasian, as is the case with a lot of non-Caucasian models).  He's got two or three distinct and different tattoos visible:  over his pectoral muscles, a handlettered slogan (LIVE NOW, DIE LATER") and the outline of fire; around his neck and down his chest, a set of Rosary beads and cross.  This implies a  'tough but pious' persona and makes explicit reference to a Catholic background that's typical of Latino/as in America.
  • Back to that "NOT FOR THE AVERAGE MAN" slogan:  this could also be read as a statement that the target audience for Anaconda Underwear (Latinos and African-Americans, from the website's photos) has bigger penises than the target audience for other underwear (whites).  This alludes to the longstanding stereotype of more "animal" sexuality (and less intellectualism) which was ascribed by whites to minorities long ago, and which has in some ways been used against the hegemony which came up with the stereotype in the first place (once most people decided that there wasn't anything wrong with being sexual).
  • Black, red and yellow is pretty much the easiest, most basic, most high-impact color scheme to use in an advertisement or design.  Red and black is often associated with fascism, and yellow and black is an aposematic color scheme in nature - think of honeybees, snakes, poison-arrow frogs.  Perhaps the waistband, peeking up through a pair of loose jeans, would serve as a 'warning' that what's in the jeans is more than some women can handle?

More info about ANACONDA Underwear (marketing images, photos from the launch party, and ordering information) here.

On the other side of the flyer was this image:

Another ad which uses a pretty, sexualized Latina to sell a product that she wouldn't (necessarily) use:  "cigar wraps" (which are used to roll marijuana much more often than tobacco).  I'll give the copywriter the benefit of the doubt and assume that no connection was intended between the bikini-clad woman and the phrase "PASS IT AROUND."

The blog for this product is pretty remarkable, with such posts as "The slowest burning cigar is the wrap king cigar wrap. Its the best cigar used to roll a blunt.  It burns the slowest compared to other cigars. Slowest burning. " and "If John and Kate plus 8 goes on a date and smokes 3 wrap king cigar wraps that they bought in a local store. With 3 packs of wrap king 3 everybody rolls one"