MADDER LAKE ED. #20 : TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 2) by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

 LEFT TO RIGHT: ISABELLE GRAW WITH PAINTING; MERLIN CARPENTER WITH ISABELLE GRAW; GERRY SALTZ WITH PAINTING.

LEFT TO RIGHT: ISABELLE GRAW WITH PAINTING; MERLIN CARPENTER WITH ISABELLE GRAW; GERRY SALTZ WITH PAINTING.

 

TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 2)

By JAMES MERRIGAN  |  JUNE 15, 2018

 
There’s no such thing as a life – we only encounter it in a mediated form; its manifestations are always mediated.
— Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting, Sternberg Press, 2018
 
The whole is something else than the sum of its parts.
— Kurt Koffka, Gestalt Psychologist
 
You should always have a product that’s not just you.
— Any Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975

PART 2 [READ PART 1 HERE]

 

The fallout from Part 1 was, I bought the book. A hefty volume, The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium is a joining up of Isabelle Graw’s thinking on the interrelationship between product and person, labour and market, art and artist, life and world under the medium of painting. Reading the 350 pages over the course of two weeks, Graw's beliefs and values and, dare I say, personal mythology of painting comes to the surface in her personification of what she neatly terms the “meta-medium” of the artworld.

Painting for Graw is a manifestation of life. A mediated life, or a life mediated suggests that we experience life through others; through their loves and their desires, through their groans and their moans, even through their Instagram feed, which is discussed in quasi-seriousness during a conversation with artist Merlin Carpenter as having a “vitalistic” essence in its own right. But Graw wants to go one step further with painting, even though she is met by outright resistance in conversations within her circle of contributors – discussions which at times feel they are constructed for the sake of argument, having a “staged authenticity” about them like her critical observations on Martin Kippenberger's mock-serious art. But maybe art criticism always feels staged or theatrical because it's such a repressed expression in the artworld.

Graw willfully challenges frenemies that deem her “fetishistic” about painting's “aliveness”, or cast her as being overly “romantic” in her imaginary projections onto the painter's “lifeworld” by speculating, not ‘pronouncing’, as the dictionary definition of Vitalism goes: “that the processes of life [and painting] are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life [and painting] is in some part self-determining” (square brackets mine). It's the “in some part” of “self-determining” that is significant here. Painting for Graw ‘in some part’ resembles its creator: “not so much a genuine bearing of the painter's soul that we encounter in the painting but rather signifiers designed to [love this following turn of phrase] stimulate such an exposure”. 

Like Freud before her in his use of the mindfully and materially absent ‘unconscious’, Graw's repeated use of “quasi” before a stream of nouns and adjectives – quasi-person, quasi-human, quasi-presence, quasi-automatically, quasi-subject – is speculative not rhetorical. This book is a testing ground for “notes” and “sketches” (not dry and unread catalogue essays) that speculate on the quasi-nature of painting as a “living picture”. Here Graw gets to tease out her “vitalistic fantasies” in essay and conversation form against the logic of the market and the limiting logic of prose in the face of that most elusive but enticing of discursive mediums since, as Graw remarks, “Duchamp reframed painting as discourse”. Painting, in The Love of Painting, is a medium that is almost alive but never dead. There are no pronouncements here (as Jerry Saltz's pronounces); this is limbo theory that opens minds and mouths. 

Graw always carries a claw hammer in her critical tool bag but she doesn't drive pronouncements home; she taps them to see if they'll stay or sink. If they stay she claws at them until the steel bends and the concrete flakes. Her criticism is a sequence of acknowledgments, sometimes agreements, but mainly ‘buts’ and the interrogative “Yet” that Christopher Hitchens was so fond of. So Douglas Crimp's “The End of Painting”, Rosalind Krauss' “post-medium condition”, Clement Greenberg's art is the “essence of [its] medium”, Benjamin Buchloh's subjective friendship with the anti-subjective Gerhard Richter, and her own “authentic staging” of criticism within her circle of frenemies are put to the test. 

Some of the language Graw uses to mythologise her theories, like Karl Marx's and Sigmund Freud's nomenclature did in the service of money and the mind, Graw does in the service of painting. In this sense Graw is the lovechild of both Marx and Freud – bridging the socio-psychological and lexical gap between commodity and fetish, money and painting, subject and object. This results in a refreshingly analytical approach to the subject of painting.

Graw proffers many interesting ideas in The Love of Painting – the ‘The’ in the title suggesting a collective, cultural and historical love of painting and not Graw's personal love for the medium (which I argue is not the full picture). Alternating between essays and conversations that critically elbow and kick the blurred line between artist-subject and painted object, you end up with argumentation not pronouncement. Sometimes the forces of objectivity and subjectivity feel a little staged, but Graw's contributors toe the line between sham and truth, from Martin Kippenberger to Merlin Carpenter. 

Packing all of Graw's ideas on painting into this one review becomes a real mouthful, but the breadth of the book, materially and historically, spreads her ideas generously, that by page 200 or so you get where Graw is going. Graw uses one-to-one conversations as a way to level the discursive playing field – she has the same amount of airtime as her contributors. There's none of this on-bended-knee claptrap about the interviewer being invisible for the sake of the artist's visibility; thus the conversation is discursive, democratic, generous and most crucially, critical. 

Graw's essays (some real keepers), from one on Manet and his recasting of the “outside as inside” to my personal favourite on Frank Stella's Early Work wherein Graw discusses “The Force of the Impressional Brush” and sheds new light on Stella and his peers (Carl Andre and Donald Judd) in their utilisation of “symmetry as an antidote to composition” and an “appropriate means to attain pictorial force and directness”. As Stella stated almost too famously during a lecture at the Pratt Institute in 1960: “Make it the same all over.” Graw even tackles her reputationallyuntouchable countryman Gerhard Richter on his anti-subjective posturing, claiming “The artist [Richter] plays down his own subjectivity to amplify the subjectivity of his paintings”. According to Graw, Richter's withdrawal is in fact a projection of his subjectivity.

Graw's painting subjects, from Stella's early black and white paintings to Wade Guyton's inkjet ‘paintings’ are indicative of a critic who wants to explore and interrogate subjectivity in painting in the most intangible of places. She is not interested in the explicit expression of the brush stroke, like swirling paint upon the canvas. No. Graw wants to divine the artist's haptic touch in the most calculated and mechanical of processes, from painters who don't think of themselves as ‘painters’ but have been repackaged as such by the artworld (Guyton), to Richter who presses and drags a giant squeegee across his human-scale abstracts to obliterate the whispering parts for the louder whole. She does this by thinking of painting as gestalt, made up of the psychological, the performative and the market environs that are behind, beside and beyond painting but part of painting. Like in Gestalt Psychology, which considers the “whole child” within its environs and contexts, Graw treats the ‘whole painting’ in terms of “the value [and agency] of painting [being] always elsewhere”. 

So Martin Kippenberger's public persona is wrapped up in his paintings; but so is Richter's or Warhol's in different ways. “Painting” (Graw puts it to painter Charline von Heyl) “is a specific language that provides a variety of artifices, methods, techniques, and ruses to generate this impression of the absent author's presence as an indexical effect. And for these indexical effects to occur, the artist doesn't need to have put his or her own hand in the picture, guiding the brush or throwing paint on the canvas.” In summary: the painter can be latently present in the paint even, and especially in Graw's view, when it's not all brushstrokes at dawn.

If we bring it back to art criticism – a subject that Graw herself cannot let go of in The Love of Painting (probably because painting has a facility to absorb criticism and critique itself à la Sigmar Polke and Richter), Robert Storr is wrong when he says Dave Hickey is “not very good about art” (Read Part 1); but he's right that we tend to mythologise the Texan bad boy based on his colourful autobiography that stands behind, beside and beyond his writing on art in factual flashbacks and fictive accounts between Texas, Law Vegas and Mexico. Further, while you do know what you are getting with Jerry (Saltz), you don't know what you are getting with Hickey. One minute he is an artworld-spoiler-brut-brat like Jerry, the next minute a belle-lettres sensualist with a capacity for beautiful prose second to none in the artworld, even Peter Schjeldahl. Jarrett Earnest (what a fantastic surname considering the discussion) writes in LARB: “The positive and negative poles of his public self create a magnetic field, setting the stage for Dave Hickey the literary character.” 

The same goes for painting, but in more complicated ways – if you can get more complicated than the splitting that takes place in Hickey's “literary character”; and for that matter, Graw, whose The Love of Painting is primarily about the split personas and split loyalties of the painter vs. the artist (vs. the artworld): one bearing the weight of painting history and self image; the other finding methods to offload history and self image through a hands-off or mechanical approach and output. “For [Frank] Stella, to be a painter meant ‘to process one's own self-conception’. Self-conception here does not refer only to something individual, he added, but rather to an identity ‘big enough that everyone can participate in it’.”

Bottom line for Graw is, and particularly in the case of painting, “we must realise that value is not inside them, but it is always elsewhere”. That paintings are “not valuable as such” and they are discursively “open for speculation”: intellectually, emotionally, critically, financially, the whole gamut. As Merlin Carpenter cynically counters Graw's sometimes fetishistic, romantic, half-baked love for painting: “painting is a cover story”.    

Graw’s The Love of Painting reveals painting for what it really is – a human medium; and what it really does – get people talking. Throughout the book, in essay and conversation form, there's two voices fighting on every page: one voice that is head deep in institutional critique, from art market forces to critical agency; and a second voice that is heel deep in wobbly terminology such as “quasi”, “love” and “lifeworld” (a favourite of the psychoanalytically inclined art critic Donald Kuspit). Like Barthes, Graw's ‘voices’ engage “head and heart at the same time”. With regards to the first voice, Graw mentions the always credible Jew when it comes to art and money, Karl Marx, but doesn't mention that other incredible Jew, Sigmund Freud, with regards to the second voice, even though in one instance she terms the painter's palette as a “transitional object”. 

The absence of Freud and psychoanalysis as a noted reference in cultural criticism as a whole, as Adam Phillips observes, is everywhere, even though the language of Freud is everywhere, albeit, unacknowledged or ironically hidden. But as Freud remarks with regards to originary pleasures, money is a substitute desire, handed down by mam and dad, and something that small children are not interested in otherwise. But painting might be something every small child would take pleasure from without coxing or parental influence.

Graw is fighting with her inner messy child as she paints with money in The Love of Painting, concluding that painting and money have went hand in hand since the Renaissance. But that is what makes this book on Western painting so thought-provoking, a medium that has been conditioned by the world while also absorbing it since the fourteenth century: painting's permeability has always been two-way. Between head and heel there's real heart in Graw's sometimes cold prose but warm analysis of painting that creates a platform to talk, to argue, to partake in the possibility of another way of thinking and feeling and talking and sweating about painting. It seems that the stillness and silence of painting will always alert our primary instincts, even when the threat to painting is just theoretical, which in Graw's case, has always been in the service of the discursive, not the nail.


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #20 : TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 1) by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

 JERRY SALTZ (25 YEARS OLD, 1976), IN FRONT OF HIS DRAWINGS, BY CAROL DIEHL | ISABELLE GRAW (26 YEARS OLD, 1989), BY THOMAS RUFF.

JERRY SALTZ (25 YEARS OLD, 1976), IN FRONT OF HIS DRAWINGS, BY CAROL DIEHL | ISABELLE GRAW (26 YEARS OLD, 1989), BY THOMAS RUFF.

 

TOWARDS ISABELLE GRAW'S LOVE OF PAINTING VIA JERRY SALTZ (PART 1)

By JAMES MERRIGAN  |  JUNE 8, 2018

 
It’s about time for a book declaring ‘the love of painting’ to appear, after the aridity of postmodernism’s announcement of painting’s demise. Isabelle Graw’s argument in favor of this love turns on what she terms ‘vitalistic fantasies’: the perception of artworks as ‘quasi subjects’ saturated with the life of their creator. This notion of the work of art as a quasi subject relates directly to the philosopher Stanley Cavell’s consideration that ‘the possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic in the experience of contemporary art.’ To understand this we must ask: Why do we relate to works of art in the same way we relate to people? The Love of Painting works on this question—and does so with success.
— Rosalind E. Krauss, author and University Professor at the Department of Art History, Columbia University [ Blurb from the back cover of Isabelle Graw’s 'The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium', 2018.

PART 1

 

The name ‘Jerry’ is strange yet familiar, what Sigmund Freud would have termed ‘uncanny’, when something familiar from the past erupts into the present. As I write ‘Jerry’ here, as I tumble dry ‘Jerry’ in my head like wet runners, I fall into a brutal rhythm. JERRY! JERRY! JERRY! kathump! kathump! kathump! Or is it: JERRY! kathump! JERRY! kathump! JERRY! kathump!? The surname ‘Saltz’ doesn't do anything for the mouth, you just want to get it out, triggering a lisp in the world as it slides off a flat tongue. But ‘Jerry’ wants to stay put. In the saying of it you have to curl and lash your tongue; choo-choo your lips. To really get that hooked J and crashing rr’s you have to scrunch up your face as if disgusted by the idea rather than the taste of what's in your mouth. ‘Tom’ is a way better sounding name.

I’m sorry Jerry. I couldn't resist. I'll tell you why.

Lately I've gone from feeling sorry for New York Magazine's senior art critic Jerry Saltz to finding Jerry an irritant – you could contend that the former feeling is the bigger insult as being an irritant is everyone's fate in these chronically mediated times. I didn't like it when curator and Yale MFA Dean Robert Storr took successive digs at Jerry in 2015 on a Yale Radio broadcast. But now Storr's remarks seem more reasonable in the wake of Jerry winning the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the fallout being: Jerry got himself a brand new loudspeaker with a eunuch's pitch and punch.

If you listen closely to Storr's criticisms of Jerry they are not an attack on Jerry's writing ability, describing Jerry and his wife Roberta Smith as “punchy writers”. Rather his criticisms are based on what the Internet has done to art criticism in general and what art critics have done to themselves on the Internet in general. I cannot make a judgment about Jerry's current writing because I stopped reading Jerry Saltz proper over a year ago, and if I'm honest, I haven't taken Jerry seriously since Jerry took to social media full time, from first laughing with Jerry to finally not laughing at Jerry. I still respect and enjoy Roberta's reviews, contrary to what Storr thinks are the motivations behind the New York Times chief art critic's criticism. But not Jerry.

Jerry won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism last month. Jerry's better half used capitals, exclamation marks and the first-person plural pronoun “WE” to announce her matrimonial appreciation on Twitter.

 

MY HUSBAND JERRY SALTZ OF NYMAGAZINE HAS WON THE 2018 PULITZER PRIZE FOR CRITICISM!!!!!!!! THANK YOU ART, THANK YOU ART WORLD, THANK YOU NYMAG, AN AMAZINGLY SEA-WORTHY VESSEL IN ROUGH SEAS. WE ARE STUNNED, GRATEFUL AND ALSO ON DEADLINE.

 

It's a big deal, no matter what the naysayers tweet on Twitter. Sure, there’s better art critics out there but Jerry is “playing to the peanut gallery" (Storr). ‘What's left to play to?’ you might ask. There's only been four visual art critics who have won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism since 1974, three of them in the last decade, the era of accretive social media. Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globein 2011 “For his vivid and exuberant writing about art, often bringing great works to life with love and appreciation; Holland Cotter (whom Storr has only good things to say about) of the New York Times in 2009 “For his wide ranging reviews of art, from Manhattan to China, marked by acute observation, luminous writing and dramatic storytelling”; and Emily Genauer (Who?) of Newsday Syndicate (What?) back in 1974 “For her critical writing about art and artists.” Jerry won it “For a robust body of work that conveyed a canny and often daring perspective on visual art in America, encompassing the personal, the political, the pure and the profane.”

The Pulitzer’s hydra-headed alliteration of “personal”, “political”, “pure” and “profane” sounds out of place in this literary context, jokey even, like Jerry himself. Roberta has admitted many times she is not a good reader; and Jerry has claimed that he would love to write like the guys at ArtForum but isn’t up to the task. I don't believe them; neither their sincerity nor modesty. Jerry and Roberta believe the way they write on art is the best way of writing on art – in the rush and beat of experience and deadlines. And sometimes it is the best way; but sometimes it is not.  

It is easy to be dismissive of Jerry, and by association, the Pulitzer Prize, as so many lesser known American art critics (and artists) were in their responses to Jerry being crowned king of the very small and very exclusive circle of full time, paid, and, let's face it, widely read art critics. Twitter on that day of days helped infantilize some good writers and commentators on art. But what's new. We can snigger along with Art and America’s Brian Droitcour when he tweets that “jerry saltz won the pulitzer prize for being horny on main.” We can fist pump when critic-cum-artist-cum-critic William Powhida tweets “*Trump criticism.” We can whoop when critic Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal tweets “yes, hi, 911?” But it's all a bit spit-paper-straw behind teacher's back. At times Jerry possesses all those P’s that the Pulitzer tagged him with. Jerry on his best days is a better writer on art than all of us. But now I cannot get past the giant loudspeaker and the little man levitating it with superhuman flatulence. I think they called him “The Spleen” in that Ben Stiller film, Mystery Men.

The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism fallout on Twitter is not the reason why I am writing about Jerry here – and perhaps unfairly recasting Jerry's name in the dregs of a tabloid talk show. I am writing about Jerry for something Jerry tweeted three weeks after the Pulitzer announcement, when Jerry let this tweet rip:

 

“It's about time for a book declaring ‘the love of painting’ after the aridity of postmodernism's announcement of painting's demise.” Rosalind Krauss on Isabelle Graw's book. This from the #1 pronouncer of that demise to the #8 pronouncer of that demise! God I love the art world!

 

Executive editor Andrew Russeth at Art News Magazine was the catalyst. He tweeted an extract from the blurb – if a blurb wasn't shorthand enough – that was cut and paste from sternberg-press.com, the publishers of The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium, and the main publishers of Graw’s writings on art. Russeth just lay it out there for someone like Jerry (no, just Jerry) to take the bait. And Jerry did.

 

Jerry: Hah! Spoken by one of the great pronouncers of that demise to another major pronouncer of the demise! God I LOVE the art world!

Russeth: Same!

Jerry: xox So SAY it maybe next time! I don't have to be the only one thrown under the bridge! Xoxo

 

Aside from Jerry's back-of-the-bus mixed metaphor, which is water under the bridge at this point, Jerry took just four minutes to tweet a muscular version of Jerry's reply to Russeth on Jerry's personal Twitter account. This time, however, Jerry pulled relative standings out of Jerry's arse, ranking Rosalind Krauss “#1” and Isabelle Graw “#8” pronouncers of painting's demise. What got to me about this exchange was neither Jerry nor Russeth had read the book at this point, and Jerry was forming opinions on the book's contents based on one thing: the counter-intuitive title The Love of Painting in the context of the ‘theoretical’ track records of the two writers that grace the inside (Graw) and outside (Krauss) of the book, two writers who have critically and theoretically speculated for decades, with respect and poise it must be said, on an ever evolving, market-influenced artworld.

Like the Twitter tantrum over Jerry winning the Pulitzer, this was playground stuff in dirty nappies. Not being a reader, Jerry probably formed an opinion of Graw via Artforum's book reviews, and perhaps via Roberta, who partook in a combative but bizarrely complementary and entertaining discussion with Graw ‘Criticism in the Expanded Field’ at the American Academy in Berlin in 2014. But between you and me, Roberta is closer to Graw in critical temperature and temperament than both would ever like to admit. They might even be frememies (Graw doesn't do friends) if it wasn't for Jerry.

As someone who has enjoyed reading Graw on painting, I have never visualised a hammer-headed Graw looming over a coffin with nails in one hand and paintings in the other. On the contrary she has nurtured my personal love of painting. Graw has undoubtedly questioned painting's position amidst the logic of the art market, critical agency and against Krauss' 1970's pronouncement of the “post-medium condition”, but as a reader I have always come away with a feeling that painting will adapt and absorb time and progress because of its historical and what Graw terms “vitalistic” attachment to being human. If Jerry had taken time just to open the book, not read, just scan and flick through two pages, he would have found Graw's very human and telling dedication in light of her book's complicated title The Love of Painting... Love aways is.

 

For my mother,

Annette Eisenberg-Graw,

who loved music and painting.

 

*(PART 2) SAME TIME NEXT WEEK*


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #19 : TOWARDS A SOCIAL TRUTH (OR DARE)? by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

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TOWARDS A SOCIAL TRUTH (OR DARE)?

By JAMES MERRIGAN  |  MAY 10, 2018

 

HOLY SHIT THE SIZE OF THE GASH THE WING TIP HAD TO BE AT LEAST 150 TO 200 FEET WIDE – OH MY GOD THE NEXT TOWER JUST BLEW UP – THERE'S ANOTHER ONE – OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD – ANOTHER PLANE JUST FLEW IN – I FEEL THE HEAT THE EXPLOSION IS INCREDIBLE OH MY GOD OH MY GOD – ANOTHER PLANE AS WE WERE WATCHING – I DON'T BELIEVE THIS THE SECOND TOWER HAS EXPLODED – THE WORLD TRADE CENTER HAS BEEN HIT BY AIRCRAFT BOTH ARE IN FLAMES BOTH TOWERS OF THE TRADE CENTER ON FIRE…..THOSE PEOPLE JUMPING OUT OF WINDOWS I SEEN AT LEAST 14 PEOPLE JUMPING OUT OF WINDOWS PEOPLE JUMPING OUT PEOPLE JUST KEPT JUMPING JUMPING AND JUMPING AND YOU COULD STILL SEE THEY WERE ALIVE BECAUSE THEY WERE FLAILING AROUND…..WE SHOULD HIT EVERY COUNTRY THAT HARBOURS TERRORISTS AND NOT ONLY THE TERRORIST CAMPS I WANT THE FATHERS TO BE HIT I WANT THE MOTHERS TO BE HIT I WANT THE CHILDREN TO BE HIT…..Honey are you there, Jack, pick up sweety. Okay, well, I just wanted to tell you that I love you, we are having a little problem on the plane I just love you more than anything just know that it's a little problem so I just love you please tell them my family that I love them too Bye honey. 

Transcribed audio from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s montage of recorded newscasts, witness and victim accounts from his short film 11’09”01 SEPTEMBER 11 (2002).


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Towards Centra

 

WE LIVE IN AN EX-CENTRA (EX-SHOP). According to Google Maps we still live in a Centra. Friends on first visits always drive past. When we first moved in it possessed deep-green lacquered walls and clouds of black mould; shop counters that, when we shifted them, cities of gooey jellies and pennies sprung forth. We gutted Centra, we magnolia'd Centra in what became one big room divided with furniture rather than walls. Our kids cycle laps and throw hoops in it; we run laps of it every second day. It is a territory that we have made into the image of our lives. Sometimes it proffers new images. It's social. It's home.

I run to unpack my writing. Writing is a physical act, like making and experiencing art is a physical act. This physically confined territory in which I run helps me to elbow and knee dumb and circular arguments into submission so I can begin to write. Like Zooey and Franny in J.D.Salinger's Franny and Zooey the arguments can become bigger than the room that contains them. The bigger the argument the smaller the room the sweatier the run becomes. This week EVA International was my big argument. I sweated; a lot. Especially when I began to consider the curator, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ (depending on your social mobility) we all consider first when deliberating the pros and cons of a curated exhibition on the scale of EVA. 

 
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Towards the Curator

 

PERSONALLY I have always struggled with the role of the curator. I think all artists do. In the naïve days curators are distant and professional. Then you discover some are freelance, amateur, human, potential friends, before they are promoted to professionally distant. Artists whom I broach the subject of cold-calling curators usually squirm. It's a blind date with a therapist that knows your motives and desires before you do because you are an artist and as an artist have no clue how it socially or professionally works and the curator does because their job is to be social and professional and you don't have a job. The artist is the desperate salesperson on commission to the consummate consumer, the curator. It's a squirmy relationship on both ends so targets and apologies are misjudged, like receiving a handshake to the stomach when you have already committed to the hug. But curators are here to stay. They are more real than you or me. 

Very early on as an artist I knew that it was through curators that I would get the opportunities I needed to exhibit my work. Knowing this fact got me exhibitions. I do not know how it came to be this way but as an artist I did not ask questions. Those artists that questioned the status quo and did not acknowledge the power of curators were just drowning themselves in self-righteousness. Thing is (‘Thing’ being the operative word which I will discuss later) curators are always on the frontline: galleries, panel interviews, open submissions, residences, awards, over the phone, under-the-counter-ready with the sweetest jellies and shiniest coinage. They are the mediators of gossip and reputation at exhibition openings; they are easier to approach than galleries; they are more socially mobile than any of us. They are agents of agency.

As an exhibiting artist I never looked for a curator's response to the work; they picked the work and that was always enough. And I never subscribed to the curator's taste or judgment about art. For the artist it is their peers, the ones that know the medium, your medium, on an intimate level, that count in terms of judgment and respect. Being an ‘artist's artist’ is the One and only accolade for the artist. Curators, dealers, collectors, critics are a means to some vague end. The curator was both the way and in my way of exhibiting. They were an obstacle that I embraced. I would not go as far as calling them a necessary evil because I still hug some of the devils. 

The curator's role conditions if not exactly subjugates my role as an art critic. Curators make value judgments via the artists they select and the stable of artists they grow and nurture into the future. They provide the tableau, the themes, the research and the writing to support their artists and projects. They form strong bonds with artists and institutions, something the true art critic avoids if s/he wants to experience the illusion of true freedom as a writer on art. The most ambitious curators ultimately move on to bigger things, but we cannot blame them for that.

Like a marriage, this relationship between artist and curator sometimes works out brilliantly, especially when you get to see an artist in a different light; other times the artist's work is abused by the curator's overwhelming theme or context, like the way painting is sometimes trampled on by the socio-political jig of big biennials. From the perspective of this critic not everyone turns out to be a winner in the relationship between curator and artist; if ‘winning’ is just getting to exhibit the work, the one social privilege the artist has outside the isolation of the studio. If the artist is the vertiginous pimple on the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, blushing and immobile, curators are on their backs making territorial snow angels, far and wide.

Artists, curators, critics and dealers, we are all dealing in territories one way or another in our explorations of the marvellous and unmapped. Big curators curating big exhibitions will encompass the globe in one fell swoop; artists will dig deep to explore an undiscovered country to athwart convention; art critics will write their ‘theories’ – theory being another word for territory. We are all wrapped in maps. EVA International is wrapped in maps. This has never been as evident (to my mind) as in the current instalment, where territory is redistributed unequally among the 56 artists, albeit for the good of art at Cleeve's Milk Factory, but perhaps not for the good of art at Limerick City Gallery where the contested and the coy (or coyly contested) crowd surf in a socio-political free for all. Maybe it has always been the case with EVA and I have been ignoring the land grabbing. Come to think of it I used the phrase “land grabbing” in one of my first published articles to describe the hogging of territories in third level art education. While in another review I propagandised an equal opportunity pissing contest in the territorial title ‘Cock a Leg or Squat?’ So it's always been there, on my mind, territory and art. Obviously so. So obvious in fact that to think about it, to give it the time of day, never mind write about it would be a ridiculous pursuit. So here I am.

 
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Towards Distraction

 

THIS SOMETIMES HAPPENS. You are in the middle of writing something and you read something related but ultimately irrelevant to what you are trying to do but you cannot let go of the emotion that you feel after reading this related but irrelevant thing. You realise that the thing you were writing must not be that all consuming if such a thing, such an irrelevant thing (but increasingly relevant thing) could throw you off your game even when the game is 2000 words and counting. This is one of the reasons why I stopped reading most local art writing some time ago. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl advised such a recourse at some art school lecture in New York; and an observation from English philosopher Geoffrey Bennington to French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in one of their many beautiful conversations, that there is not enough time to read [or re-read for that matter] is always in the back of my mind when I commit to a piece of writing like I am asking you to commit to my writing here – if you've got this far. 

The piece of writing I committed to the other day was on Artforum online. It was not a piece of writing that took itself very seriously as the context was the opening of EVA International, so all was signposted before I began to read. But bear with me while I take it more seriously than the author, the editor or the context allowed, as it will be – considering it's Artforum – one of the most read pieces on EVA International in the coming months.

Like most art writing that flies in and flies out this piece of writing was in essence a travelogue wherein the writer is over or underwhelmed by the new environment they find themselves in to write on an exhibition as a welcomed outsider having an out-of-body experience. (Remember Centra? – good writing on art is a physical argument!) In this instance, like all instances like this, the disembodied writer ends up unpacking the Real environment against the unreal artworks so the border between the Real and the unreal gets a little muddy with neither the feel or smell of mud left on the writing. It was my fault entirely. I wasn't lured in with anything substantial. Artforum maybe, and curiosity regarding the subject of EVA International which my 2000 words was going towards. 

On a productive note, what this piece forced me to think about afterwards was, how do we as writers on art approach an exhibition like EVA International? Should we at all? Reportage on art exhibitions this size is an empty vehicle for both artist and writer unless the vehicle is mere self-promotion. If artists are happy with just the mention of their name in Artforum, if that's the standard, then what of art writing, art writers that want to do more? Do such empty vehicles free us up to write something more substantial and experimental? Seriously. I am just trying to consider something good, some essence of celebratory or ecstatic spirit in art that transforms the ghost of art criticism into something more corporeal and meets the artist half way – as Martin Amis invokes via Henry de Montherlant: “Happiness writes white. It doesn't show up on the page.” 

I do not care if the writer's written response to art is dripping with sincerity or irony or art speak or pretension or diffidence or all of the above. These things are a measure of the writer's insecurities and those insecurities reflect the society (and art scene) in which s/he fails and succeeds to divine some personal truth in art. Again, Martin Amis advises his students to not identify with the female or male counterparts in Pride and Prejudice as a male or female reader, identify with the author, Jane Austen. I think something can be learned from reading into the biases and blind spots, pretensions and posturing, and especially tones of the writer. Don't kid yourself – it's always personal.

If art just proliferates conventional responses then the art is not doing its job or the writer is just doing his job. At a time when we have to subscribe to newspapers online to read beyond the taster fragment; when verbal exchange on social media is comprised of poetry excerpts and short quotation; when we are overly conscious and determined by character limits and first sentences, speed and serial production, or highlighting fragments within fragments, this is the perfect time to write without constraints or obligation. 

 
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Towards a Mention Economy

 

WE MENTION. WE GET MENTIONED. WE SHARE THAT WE GOT MENTIONED. WE LIVE IN A ‘MENTION ECONOMY’ (A PUN THAT HAS MORE WORTH THAT ITS TWO WORDS FIRST SUPPLY – THINK ABOUT IT). Too many words beyond GREAT or AMAZING on social media and we might end up slipping on the Truth; a yellow banana skin that we’d rather keep wrapped around our bellies. What I am colourfully referring to here is art reviews that mention artworks in offhand and ‘positive’ ways in their negotiation of big curated exhibitions like EVA International. Some artists get a half-sentence interrupted by a semi-colon; others get a whole paragraph. Either way, both are ‘mentions’. 

There's been lots of ‘mentioning’ recently in the local and International art press concerning EVA. Sadly I've read some if not all of it, for no other reason than for the words I am typing here in response. A sadder fact is that the artists ‘mentioned’ share them, proliferating and facilitating the mention economy with a desperate economy. When did artists get so desperate? Where did artists get validation before the Internet? These questions are not rhetorical or performed, I really mean it; When and Where? Artists crib about the mainstream art critics being mediocre, and then as soon as they are reviewed in the ubiquitous 4**** review or CRITIC’S PICK in the Irish Times all is forgiven. A bit of self-respect PLEASE! Sometimes I think artists would prefer a ‘mention’ over a deep-seated verbal enema that trudges through all the bullshit that others throw with milky brown abandon against the virtual wall of Instagram, et al. 

Susan Sontag ‘apocryphally’ stated  “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” doubling up on her “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” thesis from her brilliant essay ‘Against Interpretation’, 1966. This little doozy by Sontag about a ‘thing being a thing’ is dealt a second time on a makeup mirror in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). The same way Iñárritu sneaks in Borges and Barthes into his Oscar winning box office hit, I have snuck in Iñárritu and his Birdman here because the Mexican director’s short film, 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 (2002), is – while we are talking about ‘things’ – a thing that I could not shift from my mind, my skin, my bones, after experiencing it at Limerick City Gallery. It's got a mention somewhere  – something about it being more a painting than a film: Heil Greenberg. While trying to forget that blinkered insight, Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11  – among other films that I will not do the disservice of ‘mentioning’ – but groan their way rather than babble through the Biennial in Cleeve's Milk Factory – are the real ‘spine tinglers’ in this exhibition: spine tingling being the true sensory difference – à la Sontag – between uncovering the sunny Truth and living with a cloudy compromise. 

 
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Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 is a film that does much with very little. 11 minutes 9 seconds long (for obvious reasons) the short is a telescopic trip through a starless tunnel – like the one that Don DeLillo said he lived and internalised Ulysses before he penned Americana – a place where electric light jabs the concussive dark. The overhand right is, this is 9/11, a number combination that, since its abusive inception, defines Americana the same way 7-Eleven did before 9/11. The Light here is anything but the Light we equate with goodness or holiness. This is a dark light, a light you want to close your eyes to but it comes up on you too fast – abusively fast. Iñárritu gives us slit-eyed glimpses of people falling to their deaths after ‘choosing’ to jump from the Horror above – way way way above. What were the jumpers faced with above to choose this godless leap of faith? It must have been a fate worse than certain death. Imagine: that's what Iñárritu proffers in the dark. Maybe the jumpers grew up on Superman clasping Lois Lane at the last minute from a similar cloud borne height. Considering Iñárritu’s recent declaration that superhero movies are “cultural genocide”, you would not be blamed for seeing these falling people as the director's cynical proof that superheroes are dangerous idols to worship in times of catastrophe. 

Like a falling miner and his jettisoned helmet that catches his terror in flashes and streaks of spiralling torch-light, Iñárritu leaves us in the dark for 99.9% of the 11 minutes and 9 seconds with the tremulous and calm voices of witnesses and victims. In the dark where superheroes were once possible and hard memories were forged when Knight or Soldier or God or Superman did not come to the rescue I revisited my mediated experience of 9/11. (This film will make you do that.) I was an art student living in a bedsit in Dublin with dollhouse furniture and mod cons relative to my 6 foot 6 frame when I switched on the tiny portable TV with the rotary tuner. CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK our 3 stations showed the same view of the Twin Towers up in smoke. I slouched onto the floor with my back against the dinky couch and stayed there stitched to the beer stained and beer fragrant carpet for hours like Gulliver and watched the scene unfold with yawning anxiety as I misread black dots on the screen for flies. 

 
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Towards a Social Truth (or Dare)?

 
Still falling
Breathless and on again
Inside today
Beside me today
Around broken in two
Till your eyes shed
Into dust
Like two strangers
Turning into dust
Till my hand shook
With the way I fear

Mazzy Star – Into Dust – 1993


THE GAME OF TRUTH OR DARE is a game of TRUST that will either end up forging relationships or breaking them. Choose TRUTH and you DARE to answer some TRUTH about yourself that is revelatory and impacts all concerned in the game; choose DARE and you perform some physical act that the darer defines, unconsciously or not, as the TRUTH, in both your acceptance or refusal to do the DARE. The DARE says as much about the darer as the TRUTH reveals about you. It's a vicious confession; a vicious concession. 

It was a social space, a classroom, a place where trust had been built over a year with some challenging content by artists, where I dared to screen Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 to a group of students. When the 11 minutes 9 seconds was up one student said: “I feel I have been inappropriately touched.” It was a visceral and honest response, one that took me by surprise at first, but it wasn't a surprise. The wariness I felt showing this work to a group of students was a symptom of the terrifyingly pleasurable catharsis that touched some primitive centre of my being when I first experienced it at Limerick City Gallery – what the late film critic Robert Ebert described as “unbearable empathy”. Further into the post-mortem discussion a student questioned the anti-Middle East sentiment in the bookended choir of voices – presumably Arabic – that is layered to mimic a prayer or chant; while another discussion unpacked the sentimental music injected into the last third of the film, where you find yourself emotionally stranded between Western victimhood and Eastern martyrdom. 

In 1967 Bruce Nauman stated in spiralling cursive neon that The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. I believe, if faith has any say in defining the Truth, that the true artist is searching for some form of truth, ‘mystic’ or otherwise. True artists don't always get to the Truth, however – if ever. Just because the true artist gives the artwork a name does not mean they have found the Truth. The true artist's journey maybe one of mediocrity, of middle grounds, of searching for the Truth while actively or unconsciously avoiding it. THAT’S THE TRUTH. Indeed, the true artist might land upon the Truth without knowing it, and paint on. Or maybe painting on is a way of avoiding the Truth's finality. What does the true artist do next when s/he expresses or expels the Truth? Go on compromising? Go on lying? Or maybe, just maybe, the Truth the true artist is searching for is not their Truth at all, it is the reader's Truth, and the reader's responsibility to see, to hear, to feel, to experience the Truth right in front of them. Your Truth is perhaps for other readers to behold, the Future to behold. In which case the Truth is reciprocal, it's social, it's timely, it's all the above

 

Gifs made from clips taken from ALEJANDRO G. INARRITU's feature BIRDMAN (2014)  and his short 11’09”01 SEPTEMBER 11 (2002). (11’09”01 SEPTEMBER 11 is currently on show at Limerick City Gallery as part of EVA International 2018.) 

 

Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #18 : TOWARDS THE UNDESIRABLES (STARRING ALAN BUTLER & SNOW WHITE) by Snow White

 
 
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EDITIONS

 

  ALAN BUTLER  THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE  VISUAL CARLOW  03 February – 27 May  2018

ALAN BUTLER THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE VISUAL CARLOW 03 February – 27 May 2018

 

TOWARDS THE UNDESIRABLES (STARRING ALAN BUTLER & SNOW WHITE)

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | APRIL 22, 2018

 

I am going to explain this to you very simply. All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers.
— Dave Hickey, Pirates and Farmers, 2013.
 

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THE NARCISSISTIC SPELL WAS CAST; THE DAILY JAUNT TO THE MIRROR TO ASK 'WHO IS THE FAIREST ONE OF ALL?' TOOK ON A WICKED ROUTINE. 

 

I HAVE KNOWN ARTIST ALAN BUTLER FOR A DECADE. I exhibited alongside him at TBG+S in 2009 and the RHA in 2011. I have written reviews of his work. We have invited each other to participate in art projects. We have talked over the phone. From afar I have always admired his ability to wield technology in one hand while in the other plunder the virtual and physical world with audacity. He lives up to one of art critic Dave Hickey’s “absolutes”, that the world is divided between pirates and farmers. You don't have to read between the lines that Hickey thinks himself a pirate, and if you have ever read him you will agree he is. Butler is also a pirate, and a good one at that. And being a pirate I have always wondered how his art would play out for him professionally if and when the Irish art scene caught up with what he has been doing for the last 10 years. But it seems the art scene has, following what is surely considered now and into the future one of Butler’s masterworks ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE shown at IMMA last year, a two-screen video installation featuring a synchronised presentation of Godfrey Reggio's KOYAANISQATSI (1983) alongside Butler’s frame-for-fame copy filtered through the video-game landscape of Grand Theft Auto). And then there's his current solo exhibition in the Digital Gallery at Visual Carlow where he explores the same Grand Theft Auto “subject through less photographic means... using sculpture, print, video and installation to delve into the relationship between technology and representation”. And not to mention next month’s opening of WHEN FACTS DON’T MATTER at St. Carthage Hall, Lismore Castle. 

 
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THE WATER HEAVED TOWARD THE SHORE, WAVES BUILDING AND BUILDING LIKE A LOST CIVILISATION OF MIRRORS BEFORE THE SLINKY SIMULACRUM CRASHED ONTO THE BEACH IN BITS AND PIECES OF YOU AND ME. 


For the last decade Butler has been perennially present in Dublin’s art scene (except for one year when he ignored calls to exhibit in Ireland). In chime with the contemporary artworld but ahead of his time in Irish art terms, Irish curators and especially Irish galleries have been generally cautious – Rayne Booth, Paul McAree, Ormston House, and more recently Green On Red Gallery the exceptions – buttressing his patch-eyed repurposing of present-day culture with other artists in group shows that tend to make farmers out of artists and pirates out of curators. In the early years you might come across Butler’s work hanging out on the fringe of the grazing herd, a badly camouflaged carnivore that might kill you with vinyl and technology if you entered fully into the digital fray.

 
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SNOW WHITE PULLED UP THE GOLD HEM OF HER BLUE AND RED DRESS AS IF THE SCENE BEFORE HER WERE REAL. SHE RELAXED INTO THE ARCHES OF HER FEET SO SHE COULD FEEL THE COLD GALLERY FLOOR BENEATH. 


My first experience of Butler’s work in a solo presentation was at TBG+S in 2010. One video work in particular presented something different: Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster (2010). Butler had performed a pirate job on a promotional trailer for the movie Sex and the City 2. I stood there watching it over and over and over again mesmerised by his seamless hijack of something that seemed too present-day-mainstream-ugh for a pirate to plunder. I immediately went back home and wrote about it, which became the first review on billionjournal.com.

 
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SNOW WHITE SHIVERED, IMAGINING A CHANDELIER IN A LIGHTLESS ROOM BELOW. SHE WISHED HERSELF INTO THAT DARK ROOM, INTO THOSE DARK PRISMS OF THAT DARK CHANDELIER, INTO THAT SO-SO SUBLIME OBJECT CREATED WITH EYES AND LIGHT AND VANITY IN MIND.


While the farmers among us stood back and considered images as mere surface, Butler hiked up his rubber gloves early on and went fishing in the plumbing of representation. This was no Victorian haunting or necrophiliac homage to some dead artist; Butler was possessing contemporary culture while it was still alive. Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster was violently alive and expensively talented. It was ecstatic viewing – when a warm breath becomes a hot gasp. I could see and feel from the work that Butler had fun subverting the material, so I had fun watching it. The secret labour could be acknowledged but was hidden through technical precision and nerd know-how, so my experience was a full experience. I laughed. I wondered. Everything else by Butler in that solo show (in comparison) was just farming. Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster exorcised a childhood memory of mine involving Carol Anne Freeling communicating with the white noise on the TV screen before she entered the ghost in the shell. This was surgical. This was Real possession. This was Real plumbing.

 
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THE ROOM IN WHICH SHE STOOD WAS AS DARK AS HER EBONY HAIR. SO DARK THAT HER ROSE RED LIPS AND SNOW WHITE SKIN BECAME MANNEQUIN-LIKE IN THE WANDERING DARKNESS. 


I think of Andy Warhol and Sherrie Levine when I think of Alan Butler’s hijacking of culture. At Visual Carlow Butler tips his cap to Levine by projecting the twin image the American artist's rephotographed Walker Evans’ portrait of Alabama sharecropper, Allie Mae Burroughs. This image is found in visual flux on a freestanding sculptural partition, flickering like some temporal gateway from the Original Star Trek through which the landing party and the 1960's TV audience was transported anywhere from down-and-out L.A. to Hellenistic Greece.

Warhol comes to mind here because of the relationship between production, invisible labour and representation in Butler's work. While American artists in the 1960s were fast asleep dreaming up tomorrow in the studio, Warhol was up all night on Speed – doing, doing, doing. But Warhol’s all-nighters was never visible in the work. Like Warhol Butler has always been a producer; unlike Warhol labour is very visible in his time-consuming ink drawings and cut-out vinyls. But Butler's production has never been just about the limitation of a medium, unlike e.g. the painter; or how far you can take the limitations of the medium before it collapses, controls you, becomes you, or you it. No. Butler has always looked at the medium front, back, sides and inside. Like a cat or odd child, he is an artist that flips the cockroach on its back to see what is inside the fleshy underbelly. Butler is not just a pirate, he's a mechanic, and he's got hot skills along with a burning curiosity.

 
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LIGHT-FILLED IMAGES AND INCANTATION GREET SNOW WHITE FROM CATER-CORNER DIRECTIONS. ONE BIG EDIFICE PROFFERS BOTH EXIT AND ENTRANCE WITH NO INVITE OR ESCAPE. THE IMAGES SEEM FAR AWAY, AS IF GAZED UPON FROM ATOP A WELL WHERE A PRINCESS MIGHT SHED HER TEARS.


The cliché that artists end up making a variation of the same work for a lifetime is probably true in most cases. In Butler’s case, born at a time when humans did not swipe phones at age two, he carries the generational baggage of liking things that possess texture, form, weight, and look like they were made. Whether a condition of being born in a particular decade before the Internet, or a product of an art school education, in the past Butler supplemented the invisible labour of his digital art with offline materiality. In the early years Butler’s ink drawings, paintings and sculptures looked like they had gone through a hard labour from online to offline, like Cronenberg's venereal TV giving birth to a condemning finger in Videodrome (1982). 

 
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SNOW WHITE THOUGHT THESE WERE NOT DREAMS AT ALL, IMAGES THAT WE REMEMBER IN OUR BODIES AND ON OUR BEDSHEETS WHEN WE WAKE. BUT MORE LIKE MEMORIES, THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS THAT WE WALLOW IN WHEN THE PRESENT BECOMES UNBEARABLE AND THE FUTURE UNDENIABLE. 


In Butler's recent work ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE shown at IMMA last year, and his work in his current solo show THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE at Visual Carlow, he has excoriated the concrete labour from his art production with a serial killer’s knowledge of bleach products. We cannot be sure ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE was a 17-month labour or ejaculate conception. The same way we cannot be sure in the dark ambience of the Digital Gallery in Visual Carlow that the large photographic portrait print taken with Grand Theft Auto’s in-game camera is just that, or a laborious process. I know the latter is the case. But the concrete labour of Butler's previous offline objects has given way to smooth and complete objects that I want to possess – just like the John Currin I wanted to possess as an art student. Butler might say and believe that “it’s not a fetishism for the art object, rather the genealogy of art and representation is my focus”, but the way in which he has inset his large prints into the gallery wall with the secrecy of a wall safe behind a painting, turns us all into fetishists. Me anyway. In fact fetishism might be all we are doing as viewers of art. It’s just some artworks tap-tap-tap on our desires and fears.

 
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SOMETIMES SNOW WHITE WISHED HER EYES WERE DRAWN ON RATHER THAN REAL...


For 30 minutes I lay back on one of the four gaming chairs in Visual Carlow with my two year old daughter, Lucy. Even at two she knew not to get too close to the artworks, steering my legs away when I did. But she also said “Don't look Daddy,” perhaps imagining something in the dark that might hurt us and by closing our eyes we would be safe. Butler’s world is scary, or what he searches for and identifies in our new world with a mechanical empathy. His subject is the city of Los Santos set within two editions of the action-adventure video game Grand Theft Auto. Los Santos is Los Angeles’ digital doppelgänger. Butler has been haunting this digital world through the Grand Theft Auto proxy for some time now. But as an artist who flips cockroaches onto their backs Los Santos proper would never be enough for Butler. So he looks beyond where the gaming action takes place, into the ‘Tenderloin’ environments and characters that have limited animation cycles and details but are somehow more real. Here, as our parents might say, live the “undesirables”. 

 

Alan Butler's THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE through 27 May 2018——And on the 26 May WHEN FACTS DON'T MATTER opens at St. Carthage Hall, Lismore Castle, Ireland.


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #17 : TOWARDS ✖️ EVA   by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 
 EVA '14 artist David Horvitz caught on camera just before our on-the-hoof conversation in Dublin's Phoenix Park, 2014.

EVA '14 artist David Horvitz caught on camera just before our on-the-hoof conversation in Dublin's Phoenix Park, 2014.

 

TOWARDS ✖️ EVA  

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | APRIL 18, 2018


In 2014 I was selected for EVA International by curator Bassam El Baroni. My formulated role within the Irish Biennial was Fugitive Art Critic, wherein I possessed the same exclusive access and privileges as the other EVA '14 artists. Equipped with this agency my objective was to get up close and personal with the EVA artists and curator so I could write in a deeper way to the sweeping arc of an art press subject to editors, word count, deadlines and so on. It was both an exhilarating and exhausting process that included writing, interviewing and presenting in public. So exhausting in fact that two years later I still couldn't bear attend EVA International 2016.

Last year I applied to EVA once again with a proposal. It was rejected. But I started to question (only this week) whether I could still make the work, or at least a version of the work. I began to wonder what becomes of the proposals that were not selected for EVA ’18 or similar open submission opportunities. Are artists just motivated by the ‘stage’ of EVA? Do proposals die a death after rejection or can they be resurrected on another stage? Or have artists become so dependent on the teat of wet-nurse curators and art institutions that PFOs are a death sentence? 

So I have decided to do something with my rejected proposal that will involve EVA ’18 (unofficially). For now I have pasted below my first 'address' to the artist Patrick Jolley written in 2014, which was posted on billionjournal.com during the first week of EVA ’14. 


18.4.2014.

#1/ ‘Dear Patrick Jolley’

 PATRICK JOLLEY,  This Monkey , 2009, Haryana, India (7m), 16mm, b/w col (film), EVA International 2014, Kerry Group –  former Golden Vale Milk Plant, Limerick City; photo: author.

PATRICK JOLLEY, This Monkey, 2009, Haryana, India (7m), 16mm, b/w col (film), EVA International 2014, Kerry Group –  former Golden Vale Milk Plant, Limerick City; photo: author.

 
If animal life and human life could be superimposed perfectly, then neither man nor animal – and, perhaps, not even the divine – would any longer be thinkable.

(Giorgio Agamden) 

 
man is a fatal disease of the animal

(Alexandre Kojève) 


‘Dear Patrick Jolley’ is the first of a series of textual responses which take the form of a review/letter addressed to selected EVA artists. It is left open to each addressee artist to respond in his or her way, or not at all. This textual component compliments and completes the ongoing ‘recorded conversations’ portion of +billion-’s discursive project for EVA International 2014. 


***

Filming in Delhi in 2012, Patrick Jolley suddenly died at the age of 47, just when his art was taking flight. Considering my discursive project for EVA is built around conversations with the curator and selected artists, Jolley’s art will have to speak for itself. The following is a response to This Monkey (2009) installed in one of multiple warehouse spaces at the Kerry Group Plant venue for EVA International 2014.

***

I never knew or met Patrick Jolley. To my knowledge, I never saw him from a distance. He was never pointed out in an art context that may or may not have interested or suited him to attend. He was never mentioned in lectures or by tutors or other students in art college. Strangely, there’s nothing much written on his work. A scattering of unfocused articles. A few blogs mention his films in a fanboy way. The ‘reviews and essays’ links on his website are ghosts. I know nothing of his emotional or physical makeup as an artist, acquaintance, friend. His gait? His ideology? His smile? His awkwardness on first meeting? His fears? Google offers a couple of head and shoulders portraits. Another shows him standing with his early career collaborator, Reynold Reynolds. Although his online persona is shy, there’s enough physiognomical information to tell me that he is the star of his own short film, Snakes (2009), one of my personal favourites, and an unofficial partner to his submitted film for EVA International 2014.

Why a favourite? Well, it’s like the crescendo of anxiety performed in his other film works has transitioned into a diminuendo of acceptance, as he lies on a bed, unflinching, while snakes rummage in his cheap suit and coil around his flaccid body: the tension that exists whilst watching is ours, not his. Snakes tells me that fear was something that Jolley exposed himself and the viewer to, time and again. Burning, drowning, falling are oneiric contemplations that temporally unwind the spool of his art. However, sometimes an air of despondency overwhelms the traces of humour. All stick and no slap. No tickle. Other times I am reminded of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, with the extreme stop-motion expressions and animated hi-jinks. Other times, again, I feel I am being dragged by the vestigial tail through the dregs of humanity’s apathetic self- and other-destruction. I make a point about humour because it’s as if humour is the one thing that fails to push through the grey unheimlic of his cinematic architectures. He threads those lines that separate laughter and fear, madness and sanity, human and animal, life and death. All of which seem to sidewind purposefully throughout the body of his film work.

Of course, emotional subjectivities are attached to watching his art and its future promise unfulfilled, casting an emotive spell that perplexes judgement. His seven-minute short, This Monkey, is one such emotive animal, that compounds those inherited and unavoidable subjectivities. On the opening night of EVA International 2014 the rumours were flying and mythologies were already being formed around the artist’s rarely seen short. Submitted by his estate, curator Bassam El Baroni admitted that, not only was he “blown away” on first viewing the film, but This Monkey suggested different curatorial avenues, other artworks, alternative ways of thinking about the exhibition. Those that visit EVA would not be blamed for thinking that Noah has come ashore in Limerick City. 

Whilst first experiencing This Monkey on the day before the official opening technicians were swarming the Kerry Group Plant and midges bunched in the red sun. No artwork labels, I was physically and emotionally sold before the credits told me Patrick Jolley was its author. Projected square, large and raised, alongside Hassan Khan’s complimentary but more irreverent The Dead Dog Speaks (2010), Jolley’s This Monkey seems to breathe textures; environmental textures that swap back and forth between belonging to the industrial tomb of the warehouse, with a great facility for holding the cold, to the implied heat of the rural and urban settings of Haryana, Northern India, where he shot the film in 2009. A sound dome localises the haunting composition by Brian Crosby in place, but not to the point that the overall ambience of the warehouse is not affected by the charango acoustics and charged foley.

What resonates long after experiencing Jolley’s This Monkey, in what seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke described as the camera obscura of the brain, is the enigmatic images that veer away from the norm. “The understanding is not much unlike a small room [un cabinet entierement obscur in Leibniz’s French] wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external and visible images; would the images coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man.” Jolley’s This Monkey is one such cabinet entierement obscur, albeit a disordered and discordant one. Surprisingly miniature and windowless playhouse corridors weave past the artist’s fidgeting lens. Corridors wherein rhesus monkeys flirt wearily with the camera as if in a cognitive experiment conducted by a dicky-bow wearing David Lynch or Jacques Lacan. Anthony Vidler (The Architectural Uncanny) writes via Leibniz and Deleuze: “So the closed room, itself a soul, has no windows. Its only furnishing, to use Bernard Cache’s term, is that of the screen, which represents the brain, a pulsating, organic substance, ‘active and elastic,’ ‘not unified, but diversified by folds’.”

Jolley makes us squint anew when rhesus monkeys are seen feasting on what look like beef jerky remains of humans with extra barbecue sauce. Facetiousness aside, these moments are anything but ironic. Given that we share over 90% of our DNA with the rhesus monkey – making them the preferred ‘soulless’ receptacles for experimental psychology during the twentieth century – Jolley’s involved vignettes rewind the brutal ‘pit of despair’ attachment and deprivation tests on our primate cousins, carried out in the ’70s by American psychologist, Harry Harlow. 

If you are not from the Indiana Jones generation, in which the rhesus monkey is the clever minion of the patch-eyed no-gooder, This Monkey portends to a steam of consciousness being emptied out before humanity wakes to a New World. A post-human world removed of human tinkering. In fact, humanity as we understand it – ethically and lawfully – evanesced. The science-fiction trope of post-apocalyptical existence, in which humanity is searching through the ruin of its own nuclear, ecological or technological mistakes, is replaced in Jolley’s This Monkey by a world perhaps absent from hubris, progress, history, philosophy. A Garden of Eden minus the apple monger. French philosopher Alexandre Kojève – to whom I will leave the last words before they vanish beyond readability and relevance in the wake of Jolley’s simian send off – writes that Post-historical man will be ‘reanimalized’ in his absence:

The disappearance of Man at the end of History is not a cosmic catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. [...] Practically, this means: the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions. And the disappearance of Philosophy; for since Man no longer changes himself essentially, there is no longer any reason to change the (true) principles which are at the basis of his knowledge of the World and of himself. But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc., etc.; in short, everything that makes Man happy.
 

*Thank you to Bassam El Baroni for the reference to Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal.


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #16 : TOWARDS AN EMPIRE OF DIRT by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 
  BRIAN MAGUIRE, ALEPPO 5, 2017, ACRYLIC ON LINEN, 290 X 387CM

BRIAN MAGUIRE, ALEPPO 5, 2017, ACRYLIC ON LINEN, 290 X 387CM

 

TOWARDS AN EMPIRE OF DIRT

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | APRIL 8, 2018


 
I hurt my self today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Nine Inch Nails, Hurt (1994)


BRIAN MAGUIRE'S ALEPPO 5 IS A BIG WARDROBE OF A PAINTING with its doors kicked wide open and somehow shuffled into a room at IMMA too small for its size or subject. It stands last and best in a series of large paintings that look out onto the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. But before we dare continue, let's erase our mediated experiences of Syria. 

Let's erase the online optimism for the Syrian Arab Spring in 2011, and the images of rose-bearing public protests that would ultimately trigger the unmerciful violence on the ground for the next five years across Syria. Let's erase the words – “It's Your Turn, Doctor” – spray painted on a school wall in the remote southern city of Daraa by a group of school boys who were arrested and tortured and in some cases killed by the former physician, Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Let’s erase the images of protests following their torture and death. Let’s erase the images of the tortured boys returned dead to their families. Let’s erase the calm cluster-bomb drops caught on shaking cameras against dusty blue skies; or the barrel-bomb targets sprouting clouds like children's pop-up books. Let’s erase the image of two starving children eating weeds on the side of the road. Let's erase the scores of children’s bodies that lined limestone floors like prison calendars. Let’s erase what New Yorker war correspondents referred to time and again as the “pancaked roofs” of Aleppo as if the language of metaphor had failed them faced with the now totally flat and burnt country that was once called the “cradle of civilsation". Let's erase the lionization of the Volunteer Syria Civil Defence Forces when the hand-held documentary The White Helmets won an Academy Award in a country that “dithered” on the side of the rebels. Let’s erase the father’s testimony that claimed the heroic white helmets wouldn’t treat his little boy until they photographed him. Let’s erase that very image of that little boy “in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust with blood on his face and clothing”. Let’s erase the image of the 2-weeks old baby delivered from the rubble by the white helmets after a 16-hours search. Let’s erase the image of the boy’s dead body face down on the shore in the lapping waves after a boat upturned in his family’s efforts to find refuge from the siege. Let’s erase the regime’s use of the chemical agent, sarin, and the convulsing and dying mothers and children drowning and flapping on hard floors, and so on and so on and so on...

 
  A CHILD SELLS CANDY FLOSS ON A STREET CART IN AL-BAB CITY IN THE NORTH OF ALEPPO PROVINCE, 2017. PHOTOGRAPH: ZEIN AL RIFAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A CHILD SELLS CANDY FLOSS ON A STREET CART IN AL-BAB CITY IN THE NORTH OF ALEPPO PROVINCE, 2017. PHOTOGRAPH: ZEIN AL RIFAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

If we erase all these mediated experiences that continue to be covered (and uncovered) to this day by the likes of Robert Fisk and others during the continued bombardment of Syria by Russia and the Syrian Government, Brian Maguire’s paintings become an exercise in formalism. Nothing more. Detached from their subject, their emotional spur, they become paintings again. Syria fully erased, we begin to notice that we have seen paintings like this before by art students who were sent out on field trips by lecturers to document the urban landscape, returning with drawings and photographs of car parks or construction sites or dilapidated buildings which the lecturer consciously suggested as conceptually relevant by referencing some contemporary artist or theory. The word ‘brutalist’ and ‘liminal’ enter the student’s vocabulary. A conceptual hook is made to hang method, to validate the mere stuffness of paint. (Sculpture lecturers just don’t get painting.) The idea of abstraction emerges in the dark cavities and transitory nature of these fugitive architectures. When the student graduates, the terms ‘non-space’ or ‘non-place’ decorate his artist statement because artist Liam Gillick or philosopher Marc Augé wrote it somewhere. The student wrestles with the greys of the world in his expulsion of the explicit. He becomes an artist that tows the line in a series of abandoned beginnings.

The last time I experienced a painting that approached the terror of its subject by deliberately acknowledging painting’s inadequacy in expressing such terror was Luc Tuymans Still Life (2002) – for me one of the reasons I shelved my brushes. But whereas Tuymans’ giant still life (his singular response to 9/11 at Documenta 11) elicited that inappropriate giddiness one regretfully hickups when confronted by sublime beauty or danger, my feelings towards Maguire's regiment of paintings at IMMA was mixed until Aleppo 5. Of course Tuymans and Maguire are different animals when it comes to their paint orchestrated sociopolitical subjects. Tuymans confronts Evil via the banality of his chosen subject matter, whether giant still life or child’s empty bedroom; while Maguire’s are painted propaganda to Tuymans’ uncanny. 

 
  LUC TUYMANS, STILL LIFE, 2002, OIL ON CANVAS, 347 X 500CM

LUC TUYMANS, STILL LIFE, 2002, OIL ON CANVAS, 347 X 500CM

 

Maguire makes his subject explicit in the titles Aleppo 1, 2, 3….. But by naming the geography isn’t the artist asking us to enter the tragic subject of Aleppo? Maguire hasn’t given us the choice to speculate on the whereabouts of this destruction, a choice that Mark O’Kelly gave us in 2014 in a painting strikingly similar in size and gesture to one or two of Maguire’s. But at IMMA we are not given room to imagine. Dresden? Warsaw? Tokyo? Hiroshima? Beirut? Mostar? No. "Aleppo". If naming the city is important to Maguire, is he asking for our engagement with the subject of his paintings to be in line with our appreciation of the stuffness of his painting? Is this a case of good object vs. bad subject? Can it be both? Just asking...

As laptop tourists dependent on our black and white mediated experiences of the good and bad world, how do we enter, how do we empathise beyond painting’s stuffness? I'm not saying we need to experience painting beyond its stuffness. As an ex-painter I experience and judge a painting as stuff before anything else because I know it intimately as stuff. But why name the paintings Aleppo 1 through 5? (I'm being difficult here so bear with me.) Is it all about bearing witness? ‘I bore witness, so now it’s your turn’ kind of thing. Bearing witness seems a masochistic ritual in a world where the scales of justice and power are always unbalanced. Perhaps Maguire believes the tragic elevates the mere stuffness of painting? That perhaps without the tragic painting is just stuff. That perhaps painting lacks a little something, a little more on its ownio. That perhaps painting needs a tragic subject to exist – something Piet Mondrian coldly dismissed in his glacial manifesto on painting’s "tragic plastic". Or does the tragic motivate Maguire to paint in the first place? If so, what trauma is the artist repeatedly returning to where painting’s lack has some personal gain? I enter painting as an ex-painter, where good or bad is not a moral or ethical measure or compass; good or bad is how paint is applied and placed, side-by-side. The stuffness of paint is always the message.

After enjoying the stuffness of Maguire’s Aleppo 5 I went home and didn’t enjoy watching The White Helmets on Netflix, something I had put off not enjoying for a long time. 40-minutes long, about the same time I spent before Maguire’s best painting at IMMA, I cried, actually sobbed when the Volunteer Syria Civil Defence Forces pulled the two-weeks-old baby from the rubble after a 16-hour search. I held my kids harder the next morning. It didn't take long before I tried to start a conversation about Syria with friends and family. I was cut short when I described the baby-pulled-from-the-rubble scene in The White Helmets. It was too much. If empathy is seeing the faces of your loved ones in someone else’s tragedy then empathy is what they did not want to feel. 

But in what way do we experience or empathise with Syria through Facebook and Twitter, through words and film, through visiting 'ground zero' (as Maguire did), through painting? How deep is deep? I have spent the last week engaged with nothing but the subject of Syria. I have come across some brilliant and heartbreaking journalism in the New Yorker and New York Times. It’s easy to source Syria online but mentally hard to get through: I could only digest the documentary Cries From Syria piecemeal, and the film footage of the effects of the chemical weapon sarin on mothers side-by-side with their children cut my research short. Too much. Too much. Maguire doesn’t think we experience the socially tragic world at all in the flitter and gust of promiscuous and moody 24hr news media. We react. We take sides. We move on to the next hashtag. Primordial fear is for history to remember and others to experience. We have just become bored, insensate. We latch onto the tragic because we have become technologically numb. 

 
  JULIAN SCHNABEL IN FRONT OF HIS  LARGE GIRL WITH NO EYES , 2001, OIL ON WAX ON CANVAS, 411.5 X 376CM

JULIAN SCHNABEL IN FRONT OF HIS LARGE GIRL WITH NO EYES, 2001, OIL ON WAX ON CANVAS, 411.5 X 376CM

 

Without our mediated experiences of social trauma we are free to bathe in Aleppo 5’s formalism. It's one hell of a painting. An art student might ask about the materials Maguire used and dream of the white whale canvas that his Aleppo 5 is mapped onto. An art historian or curator might reference Manet’s or Morisot’s or Goya’s paintings of women on balconies when they glimpse ringlets of metal curling from the upstairs ruins of the apartment block; or reflect on William Orpen’s licked-bone-clean war landscapes beneath summer blues shown last year at the National Gallery. A chef might comment on the buttery paint that’s spread thin on the building’s carcass; or what looks like grains of sugar gravitating in the paint as if the bomb dust hadn’t settled yet. It hasn’t. In front of Maguire’s Aleppo 5 I indulged in reference and metaphor with “The bomb-demolished building redacts the collapsed face of Aleppo like the juggernaut brushstroke that blindfolds her from us and us from her in Julian Schnabel’s Big Girl Paintings.” Just pretty words! We all have our stuff. Rarely does an artwork dethrone our narcissism to force us to perspective take on the stuff of others. 

On exiting the gallery a group of students enter and I catch the gallery attendant’s first introductory words to the walking mass: “...keep an eye out for the sand that the artist uses in his paintings…” I walk on. 


Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #15 : TOWARDS 🦇TONYA by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 
 Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the biopic  I, Tonya  (2018).

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in the biopic I, Tonya (2018).

 

TOWARDS 🦇TONYA

The dirty highs and lows of landing clean.....

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | March 22, 2018


 
“There is very little irony in the name Clackamas Town Center. Anything that goes on around here goes on at the mall. There are stores, of course, and also conference rooms where community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Egg Artists of Oregon meet. And there is the skating rink, which the developers put in to satisfy local requirements for recreational facilities."

Susan Orlean, Figures in the Mall, New Yorker, February 21, 1994.


 
“That's my secret, Captain [America]. I'm always angry”

 [ Hulk, Avengers Assemble, 2012. ]


 

THE STORM HAD LONG GONE. Still, mounds of dying snow undulated like moulted skin the breadth of the basketball court. The cold night ahead would prolong their exsanguination. 

After leaving the cinema – a 32-seater located in the Wexford sticks – the ice cold night and banished snakes and lanky basketball backboards signifying the socially and racially mobilising American sport, all seemed to point backwards towards the Lows and Highs that played out in the film I just watched, I, Tonya. As I made my way back to the car, past the empty basketball court, the dying snow, the MAXI ZOO sign that violated the rural idyll with an energy drink glow, Tonya Harding’s triple axel rotated in my memory like a spinning top that would never buckle or fall. 

As an ex-skateboarder I understood the feeling of landing a trick that necessitated leaving the brain behind to fully embrace technique and body in a pray-to-fuck leap of faith. I was doing a lot of praying-to-fuck at the time of the Tonya Harding/ Nancy Kerrigan ‘incident’ in 1994. I especially remember watching the Winter Olympics figure skating on TV through a snowy reception and then running outside to skate for hours on a rib of road with the surface of the moon. But these Olympians were making these godless leaps into the air in front of people and cameras, while I was just a kid with my elbow self-consciously sheltering my WIP drawing from everyone.  

 
 Tonya Harding skating in the Clackamas Town Center Hall in her home town. [The Library is in lights in the background, centre left

Tonya Harding skating in the Clackamas Town Center Hall in her home town. [The Library is in lights in the background, centre left

 

The locals I grew up with had the wrong idea about skateboarding: it was vandalism to them, even on apple crumble roads and curbs. I remember the aggression I used to receive from the GAA mafioso: “Why don’t you play football or hurling, you’re embarrassing yourself!" But what they really meant was I was embarrassing them. Odd upsets the nature and nurture of place. It threatens established identity. But if we don’t have odd all we are left with is the same.  

The day I decided to go public, in what I thought was a spectacular ‘grind’ across the full length of a bench in the village  (nothing sexual: there was no strip club unlike where Tonya Harding hailed from) I was met by disgruntled rubbernecking and finally arrested. But it was all worth it. When you landed a trick, even privately in your dad’s windowless garage, you were always surprised: your doe-eyed Bambi eyes would turn dot-punch junky. It was a feeling you wanted to experience again and again in a panoply of variations: goofy, regular, kick, hard, heel, pressure, one-foot, 180º, 360º, double, triple, back-foot, front-foot, switch-foot, ollie, nollie..... Tonya Harding’s face when she made that triple axel exhibits the ceiling of emotion and a fuck-you to everyone who was embarrassed for her or by her. 

 
 

In the days preceding, during and following the allegations made against Harding’s boyfriend after he and others were suspected of ‘taking out’ Nancy Kerrigan with a baton to the leg (but not Tonya at this juncture) the New Yorker sent a writer down to Harding’s hometown of Clackamas in a ‘Becoming Tonya’ long-form essay titled ‘Figures in a Mall’. The ekphrastic piece reads like a lover memorising every outline and crevice of their lover’s body as if for the first and last time. But in the writer’s anatomising of the environment that fostered the alleged assailants, prejudices and judgments are made in the selection and juxtaposition of certain elements that signify that Tonya’s home is not a very cultured place, like: "On the lower level of the mall, behind the bleachers, is a branch of the Clackamas County Library; a sign outside the door says, 'Yes! This Really Is a Library!'" For the local Fan Club, Harding's tucked-caterpillar-to-built-butterfly leap and landing was also their metamorphosis. 

The low and the high of this story (in life and film) is, female figure skating was High to Tonya Harding’s Low. Simple. As an art critic l am well versed in what I have come to define as the predictable relationship between high and low culture adopted by artists, as if one day the artworld appropriated the Low just to find some neither-low-nor-high middle ground. But Tonya Harding on ice in 1991 fused the physical, the theoretical and the sociological lows and highs in one moment of brilliant and brash artistry that floated high – so HIGH – above the petty prejudices of class or taste. 

 
  Good Will Hunting  (1997) "How do you like them apples."

Good Will Hunting (1997) "How do you like them apples."

 

Tonya Harding landed the triple axel, the first American woman to do so in competition, to the theme song of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) by Danny Elfman. How’s that for low and high. No pretence, no precedent, just fucking up the standard; a rare moment when art transcends the limitations of its definition to define what comes next. She also practiced on an ice rink located in a mall in her home town. While the competition favourite, Kristi Yamaguchi, skated to the music from the opera, Samson and Delilah. Fair enough, the standard. But in one fan-club member’s words: Harding is a “stud” to Yamaguchi’s “prissy”. Anyway, Harding landed the triple axel in front of a crowded stadium and nit-picking judges. “How do you like them apples” – another low-to-high filmic trope.

According to the critically vaunted biopic I, Tonya, Harding was the permed villain of the piece well before she chose Batman to skate to, and more significantly, before she was implicated in the “incident”. Like the MAXI ZOO sign expelling its bad breath here in the Wexford sticks, an object so at odds with the environment to make those familiar things more visible through toxic association, Harding threatened the winter wonderland of American figure skating and American identity with her “trailer trash” provenance. She was never going to wear the Red, White and Blue, it was already written in the star spangled banner. Superman and Batman never got along. 

 
DVX4Jhz.jpg
 

The film I, Tonya skates over the details of the ‘incident’ so we are none the wiser as to the degree of Harding’s involvement in the ‘incident’. This, in some critical assessments, is viewed as a clever conceit, reflecting the fake world in which we now live. I’m not so sure. In one sense the film is too clever for its emotive good. The facts are: four stooges (so dumb they couldn’t add up to the numerical exemplar of stupidity) planned and executed taking out Harding’s competitive rival Nancy Kerrigan in a horribly brutal attack. Harding’s ultimate punishment for hindering the prosecution was way more severe than the 100 thousand dollar fine she also received, way more severe than the short prison terms served by her ex-boyfriend and wingmen. Harding would be banned from skating competitively for life. Never again would she experience landing the triple axel in front of the world. That’s what I call a landing. That’s what I call Low.


Postscript: The next day after watching I, Tonya I went out and bought a cheap deck after 15 years off the skateboard. Recently I have started to explore and experiment with the physical doing of things in relation to writing. You know how you can’t really be an art critic if you haven’t been an artist. Fact! Anyway, one of the reasons I gave up skateboarding and applied to art school was my talent for snapping decks due to my six-foot-six frame. I couldn’t afford it; I still can’t. This time around I was rusty at first, but after three hours of Ollies and Kickflips I tried a Pressure Flip. I was the only kid in the village and surrounding towns that could land a Pressure Flip back then. As we say the trick is all in the back, wherein you press and scoop your back foot to activate the 180º flip while simultaneously lifting your idle front foot into the air. It’s a leap of faith. On my second try I landed it. Deck snapped. But it felt Tonya Harding good. Well, almost. 


Previous Madder Lake Editions

MADDER LAKE ED. #14 : TOWARDS ♫ GRACELAND by James Merrigan

 
 
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EDITIONS

 
 Mark Geary at  Subterranean Sounds , Waterford City. Sunday 18 March, 2018. Courtesy:  Subterranean Sounds

Mark Geary at Subterranean Sounds, Waterford City. Sunday 18 March, 2018. Courtesy: Subterranean Sounds

 

TOWARDS ♫ GRACELAND

An art critic walks into a bar... 

By JAMES MERRIGAN  | March 22, 2018


 
“...those that confuse rhetoric with reality, and the plausible with the possible, will gain the popular ascendency with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem”.

(from President John F. Kennedy's undelivered speech,1963.)


 
“I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for ‘Graceland’. He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. ‘Graceland’ is something new.”

(Joe Strummer, The Clash, 1988.)


 
“...all I have to offer is myself”.

(Chris Marker, avant-garde filmmaker)


 

SUBTERRANEAN SOUNDS is an upstairs manifestation of a basement ideal, promoting LIVE Irish and international music in Waterford City. Located up a narrow flight of stairs in Phil Grimes Bar, the venue visually drifts between dreamy opium den and Rathmines bedsit. Red Candles, yellow LEDs and pink velvet curtains are wrapped in a homemade banner wherein the two elegant A’s in SUBTERRANEAN look like a woman’s fingers. Longer than wide, the bar stools step-stone to the stage, upon which singles slouch and couples brace each other against the tide of bar and restroom restless. As an art critic the DIY aesthetic was a dialect I already spoke, the only difference here is ears are prioritised over eyes. But before Mark Geary’s voice and guitar took to the stage – the reason I came to be here in the first place for the first time – all I had were my eyes and memories to go on.  

 
 Mark Geary, Lisdoonvarna 2003, RDS, Dublin. Photo: Roger Woolman

Mark Geary, Lisdoonvarna 2003, RDS, Dublin. Photo: Roger Woolman

 

I was an art student living in a Ranelagh bedsit with my future wife in 2003 when I first experienced Mark Geary LIVE at the RDS. That day I remember the crowd getting off on the joyous camaraderie as Irish artist Glen Hansard and American artist Josh Ritter came on stage to join Geary – a 'shaver' in a big suit on a Brobdingnagian stage. Somehow Geary elicited joy from the crowd even though his Lyricverse is in no way near the orbit of the ecstatic. As one state-the-obvious Hot Press writer offered in a review of a Geary gig (we also attended) in Whelan’s in 2009: "[Geary] suffers the curse of the pensive singer-songwriter; he’s not vying for commercial success, yet he’s unable to pack venues without it”. Seriously? But I kind of get what the writer was getting at. In an interview with Paul Simon on Late Night with David Letterman in 1986 following the release of the critically and commercially successful ‘Graceland’ (Mark Geary’s beautiful rendition of the title track being the main compulsion to write here), Letterman equated artistic success with commercial success: 

 

Paul Simon:  “What I’m interested in is... well, actually, whatever I’m interested in (laughs). And in this particular case (keeps laughing) the area I was interested in became a popular hit. In the early days when I had hits with Simon and Garfunkel everything that I was interested in, or wrote, was also of interest to my generation so they were hits. Then you drift off into your own area and they are not hits. But in this particular case people liked 'Graceland' and South African music as much as I did.”

David Letterman: And it must have been very, very satisfying to you for several reasons... and I don’t want to belabour this, but it seems to me like, that after you’ve been doing it for twenty some years, to at this stage to be able to, you know, find that magic again, that must have been very exciting.

PS: Well, my point is that, it’s not like finding magic again it's just... I do my work because I’m interested in my work. You mean I found magic because it was a hit? 

 

One part of me loves Paul Simon’s response to David Letterman, but the other part sees Simon being overly defensive with a man whose job was to entertain the masses, averaging three million viewers in the mid-1980s when Letterman was the US television host with the populist mostest. Simon realises this too as he catches up with himself mid-interview with a smile of self-realisation. And anyway, can we really deduce from Simon’s logic that cultural synchronicity between the mined personal truths of the artist and the collective truth of the greater public is a card game of *SNAP* when it comes to artistic “magic” and commercial success? When on earth did these two things become a thing?

 
Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 06.12.24.png
 

Between songs in Phil Grimes Pub, Geary shared that he “sweat blood” for his lyrics and his mother was never as happy as when she was listening to sad songs by Tammy Wynette among others. There’s a strange optimism in Geary’s baggage. But it's the generous autobiographical baggage shared within songs and between songs that ingratiates Geary with his audience. 

Rooted in Americana, but more bungalow-longing than New York skyscraper tall, Geary’s tales perform as ‘You did this’ and ‘I did that’ tête-à-têtes. Geary has an uncanny knack for grounding his songs in an intimate setting were love is found or love is lost. It’s the small, dark, after-hours world that Geary spreads his lyrics and emotions, warm and dark. Whether in New York – his fable-rich home from home – where as a young man he frequented all-night cinemas after his bartending shift to experience the dirty makeups and breakups in the indigo A.M., or Wyoming, where he shared a story of escapism and desolate isolation, that all turns out darkly comic in the end. You had to be there I suppose. And that's the point – you had to be there. People that make the effort to experience singer-songwriters LIVE like Geary, go to experience it together. It's a shared experience; especially here in the upstairs underground of Subterranean Sounds. And with Geary embracing his songs’ lyrics like he is living them in the present, releasing a smile or an ache in anticipation of his sometimes exaggerated phrasing, you feel uncensored. Yet not enough to sing along. We are modern Irish after all for whom the jig is up. 

My eyes plugged, my ears open, I was there to get out of my own head and into someone else’s. I hadn’t intended to bring my words with me, which I automatically do on entering a gallery. This was a break from all that. That is until Geary sang Paul Simon’s Graceland. At first I didn’t recognise it, but Geary’s opening riff was familiar, very familiar, too familiar, so familiar that before I knew it I was a kid of the 1980s again. I remember listening to my brother’s copy of ‘Graceland’ rustling under the needle. As David Byrne of Talking Heads observes: “'Graceland' was a Paul Simon record that rocked a little harder than some of the ones just before that. The ones before of course had great songs; this one had a little more low-end going on.”

But back then the vinyl album was a low-end experience anyway – if 'low-end' means engrained noise and latent textures: the paper sleeve that buckled in the awkward extraction of the record, the lift of the arm, the drop of the needle, the scratch, the Saturn rings and ridges that measured time all the while impossibly divining music from a flat lacquered universe. In those days I stayed put when listening to music because I had committed to this material process that had a beginning, middle and end: no shuffle. I always hated the ‘Greatest Hits’ concept.

“I still listen to music from start to finish. I enjoy full albums. I mean, why would you only watch twenty minutes of a great film? So I still write like that, I write songs about love, songs about leaving, being in relationships and out of them.” (Mark Geary, interview, 2012)

 
 Simon & Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel

 

Geary singing Simon’s Graceland fits; more than fits. It felt complete the other night as the audience pressed their lips together to hmmmmmmmmm in mimesis. I won’t even try to compete by paraphrasing what Rob Tannebaum wrote in Rolling Stone in 1997 on the title track from 'Graceland': “And in the brilliant Graceland (a peak in Simon's career), Elvis Presley's gaudy, impenetrable home stands as a glorious symbol of redemption. The narrator, who's running from a broken relationship, announces he has "reason to believe" he'll be welcomed in Graceland. The knowledge that Presley died bloated, addicted and isolated doesn't deter the song's giddy faith in his legend.”

Breakups are a big subject in Geary’s and Simon’s poetics. I know nothing beyond the ‘You did this’ and ‘I did that’ relationships in Geary’s world, but Simon, since the age of 11, has spent a lifetime breaking up and making up with Art Garfunkel. And it’s no surprise that Geary has a song titled Battle of Troy, signifying the biggest mythological breakup in the ancient world among friends and countrymen, and all staged upon world-shattering LOVE.

But 'faith' also plays a part in Geary's and Simon's songwriting. Tannebaum refers to “giddy faith” in response to Simon’s Graceland, a word combination that has something uncanny lurking between; while Geary proffered “Come little fire, save my faith” upstairs in Subterranean Sounds. Between Paul Simon and Mark Geary there is a lot of ‘wanting to be saved’, to be redeemed. 

JFK never got to warn us of the perils of confusing “rhetoric with reality" because he was assassinated on the way to delivering his speech in Dallas in 1963. He was 46. His prophetic words chime with the contemporary times as we enter an increasingly rhetorical political and virtual present that seems more and more irredeemable. So I will leave you with Paul Simon’s words of individual redemption, in which hope is waiting for him on the horizon.  

 

Graceland

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
I'm going to Graceland
Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

I'm going to Graceland
Memphis Tennessee
I'm going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I'm looking at ghosts and empties
But I've reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Oh, so this is what she means
She means we're bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

In Graceland, in Graceland
I'm going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There's some part of me wants to see
Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there's no obligations now
Maybe I've a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland


Songwriter: Paul Simon
Graceland lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

 
 

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