1986 / by James Merrigan

Frank Horvat, Le Sphinx, Paris, 1956

Frank Horvat, Le Sphinx, Paris, 1956

 

Meanwhile in 1986 an art critic is sharing his opinion of another art critic with another art critic…


 

“…..The other thing I think is important about Rene Ricard is that he represents a kind of sordidness that it’s important for the art world to believe that it is still capable of. The art world is supposed to be alienated, to be on the periphery—and it’s not. In fact, it’s very much integrated into the mainstream of culture. It’s not that most people like art; rather, it’s that the art world has found a secure place in ordinary life—which goes against all the avant-garde’s claims to being adventurous and in opposition. At a time when artists bring in architects to design their lofts, a flaky character like Ricard is very important. He makes it more believable that art is odd and weird and challenging.” (Carter Ratcliff in Janet Malcolm’s A GIRL OF THE ZEITGEIST—II, The New Yorker, 1986)

 

 

This is 2017; just saying.

Now… in all the years writing art criticism I have never once used the word ‘seedy’: believe me I’ve checked. From childhood to adulthood I remember coming across seedy situations without the vocabulary or experience to name them; situations when you cross the threshold of quotidian cleanliness to dirty diabolical, innocence to experience.

For instance.

In the village I grew up in there was this back-alley video store that I hung out at, day in, day out. In hindsight the video store was super seedy on the spectrum of childhood innocence. You could spend hours there reading the film synopses on greasy-backed VHS video cassettes with their tacky images and tackier textures; those sheepish customers that you never heard asking for the under-the-counter-porn but were edging in the aisles building up the seeds and courage to ask: desire beats denial every time. Then there was the video man who was a god among men because he had delivered a resource and ‘release’ to the villagers that wasn’t drink or GAA-related.

My research into the question as to why seedy hasn’t ever entered my writing until now has brought me dangerously close to queer theory and thus Judith Butler et al. But I decided I wouldn’t get any pleasure splitting the phallus to cockfight academic theories of male heterosexual and homosexual ‘seedy’ against new-age feminist ‘safe’ even if I signposted them HORN DOG SEX SHOP and FRESH FOREST VALLEY OF ANN SUMMERS. Instead I am going to fall into the undergrowth and find my way through the thorns and muck and hopefully get some scratches on my kneecaps and war paint on my face.

The word ‘seedy’ came into my sights recently when I was trying to organise a location for the forthcoming book launch of Madder Lake. One of the artists involved suggested a nightclub or sex club, in keeping with the tone of the DEEP-SEATED series of public and private conversations that took place in 2016 at Limerick’s Ormston House, Cork’s Crawford Art College, and Dublin’s Temple Bar Gallery & Studios. (Long story short psychoanalysis was the base theory of the conversations which led us into all matter of things sexually and critically abject). Anyway, the art scene seemed a world apart from the undergrowth and muck we thrashed through in the conversations.[1]

There was something else too.

I recently read an article in The New Yorker—circa Down and Out in Beverly Hills(1986)—that primarily follows the trail of artist and writer, Rene Ricard. Ricard was a mover and shaker in the New York art scene after emerging from the Warhol Factory fabulously scathed. He was also a maker—through his writing as well as cavorting— of such bluechip artists as the One whom everyone loves to hate, Julian Schnabel, and the One whom everyone seems to love, Basquiat. Beside all that, Ricard was blessed with a Wildean wit and equipped with Cupid’s bow to deliver a line that kissed the mind and bit the lip. The author of The New Yorker piece gives us an image of the 1980s New York scene along with Ricard:


 

“On this night, the Palladium has been turned over to a party for Keith Haring, and it is filled with beautifully and/or weirdly dressed people from the art world and its periphery. I come upon Ricard in a room that is apart from the discothèque proper, called the Mike Todd Room, which has a large bar, small marble-topped tables, and wire-back chairs, and is where the celebrities of the art world like to congregate. Ricard, resplendent in a white sharkskin suit, is sitting at one of the tables, in a state of high, almost incandescent excitement.”

 

 

When you go a little deeper into the world of Ricard his exploits have a dirty romanticism to them when contrasted with the wholesomeness of, for lack of a better known quantity, our art scene. Saying that sounds like I’m placing some value on seediness for its own sake, and that the art scene is a big Ivory boner always auto-polishing itself to appear publicly toothy but privately decayed… Maybe…

…..I’ll get back to you on that if and when the undergrowth thins out and the war paint is less messy…

The only time the art world is branded seedy is when, in the global news media, there is a corrupt gallery director or art thief involved in some shady dealings. “That, sadly, is a market at work, and suppressing it would only bestow the seedy glamour of the underground.” (anonymous) In more general terms, seedy in the online world is situated on the event horizon of the deep web: seedy is dirty rather than dangerous. In the real world—if I can call it that now—seedy is decorated in sex tapes and pornstars… continuing… an Xmas tinsel boa around the neck of a hooker giving head to a homeless guy on a toilet that won’t flush. Or is that just #gross.

Taking into account that the meaning of words change over time, especially at a time of #meanings, ‘seedy’, even when #seedy is used on Instagram as the personification of being #dirty/#sexy, the word still retains the essence of those handed-down meanings; from originally defining a flower that has lost its vibrancy after shedding its seeds, to being the adjective that loiters around sex shops and back entrances to nightclubs. The city has a lot to answer for.

Personally I’ve never personified the word seedy in casual speech; the word has always been embedded in a setting rather than a person, like the word ‘uncanny’, i.e., David Lynch’s mise en scène. Sure, a guy wearing a stiff rain mack and greasy hair can activate seediness but the blinking pink LEDs from the sex shop also need to be in the frame. TV thought me everything.

Emerging from the undergrowth with kneecaps and war paint in tact I am still not certain why I have decided to side with seediness here. Perhaps it stems from it not fitting in; that it is the one non-site that art rejects. Strange thing is, I would call a lot of Bruce Nauman’s art seedy, but Paul McCarthy’s less so. And Bruce and Paul (sounds better Paul and Bruce) get me thinking about how art students sometimes embrace seediness but they never graduate into the art scene where expression is a little less raw and derelict because of the big Ivory boner polisher.

In my case it could be a case of being around too many white walls and artist statements that begin with the public announcement “My practice….” The Deep-Seated discussions opened up a discourse that was less concerned with discipline and impressing on the public a notion about art being public and wanting to be public. In a sense it was about reigning it all in; not shedding the seeds so the vibrancy and potency remain. There’s something intimate and close quartered about seediness that can’t go beyond the width of a video store in some back-alley in some backwater village.

I think what Glenn Frey of The Eagles said about Hotel California says a lot about continuums of experience and exposure: “It was a journey from innocence into experience.” It’s also like what pornstar Puma Swede says in her memoir My Life as a Pornstar: “Then, while the rest of the [porn] staff was eating dinner, we went over to US Video, a notoriously seedy porn shop…”.

[James Merrigan]