Table of Contents: Culture


Bright Young Things

From 1915 till about 1940 or so, the Brinkley Girl cut a feverish swath through the cultural imagination. As drawn by illustrator Nell Brinkley, she was like the Gibson Girl on an absinthe bender – exuberant line, riots of splashy color, and buckets of joie de vivre. Girls obsessed over her adventures, hairstyles and fashion shifted in her wake, and she was feted in songs, films and theater.

Nell Brinkley’s specialty was the episodic themed series. Golden Eyes and Her Hero followed our heroine’s exploits and derring-do during World War One. Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages, my personal favorite, featured a besotted glamorous couple in various romantic historical vignettes – intrigue in Southern plantation society, among Medieval troubadours, Phoenician swashbucklers, etc… The format begins to open up in the 20’s with sophisticated frothy flapper larks like the Fortunes of Flossie.

Fantagraphics Book’s wonderful new survey, The Brinkley Girls, collects these series and more, along with a fascinating introduction by the book’s editor, Trina Robbins. Aces.

Public Image Limited

In retrospect, the album cover designs of the early releases by Public Image Limited constitute one hell of a brilliant run. By his own admission John Lydon’s music has been basically a big conceptual media prank, playing with, subverting, and looting the whole notion of the public image. Therefore it’s no surprise that packaging and design figured so heavily in his work from the very beginning.

Arguably British tabloids were the closest things in the cultural landscape, both aesthetically and attitudinally, to punk rock, so it was fitting that Never Mind The Bollocks was designed like a cross between a tabloid and a ransom note (which, incidentally is an apt description of the record itself.)

With Public Image Limited, those influences and themes became more sophisticated and overt. The mock slick magazine design of the debut was an ironic riposte to the expected image of Lydon as a young savage. This was followed by the unprecedented, and justly buy vicodin here celebrated, configuration of 1980’s Metal Box – 3 12inch singles in a, um, metal box. After that came the aggressively sexy glamorous cover for 1981’s Flowers of Romance. Among other things, it strikingly prefigures the the snapshot aesthetic of current fashion and nightlife photographers like Nikola Tamindzic and, ugh, that skeezy doofus Terry Richardson. The sleeper of the bunch is the cover of 1983’s cynically bland cash-in Live in Tokyo – shot and composed perfectly. Dig the way the commercial riot of neon signage converges and perfectly frames the iconic PiL logo, interrupted only briefly by Lydon’s fab shiny suit.

What ties it all together is the same tension that animates the music – a constant flickering between art and commerce, sincerity and fakery, and, ultimately, what is false and worthless and what is true and enduring.

Public Image Limited: Public Image: [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_PublicImage.mp3]


Public Image Limited:
Careering (astonishing BBC version): [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_CareeringBBCSession.mp3]

Wonder Woman Costume Sketch

This, I covet. It’s the original costume sketch for the Wonder Woman TV series. It was designed and drawn by Donfeld, – Hollywood bon vivant, four time Academy Award nominee for costume design – who’s heyday spanned the 60’s to the 80’s. Besides the costume for Wonder Woman, his other lasting contribution to Western culture was designing Jill St. John’s costumes in Diamonds Are Forever. All this while dedicating himself tirelessly to keeping Jacqueline Bisset looking foxy – a great, great man. Anyway, in 2005 this treasure sold for $2,390 at auction (It was originally inscribed and given by Donfeld to his good friend, actor Richard Chamberlain.) I vow to you, if I ever make my pile, someday this will hang proudly on my wall.

On Language…

It is not by chance, or without a deep ground in his nature, common to all his qualities, both affirmative and negative, that Lamb had an insensibility to music more absolute than can have been often shared by any human creature, or perhaps than was ever before acknowledged so candidly. The sense of music — as a pleasurable sense, or as any sense at all other than of certain unmeaning and impertinent differences in respect to high and low, sharp or flat — was utterly obliterated as with a sponge by nature herself from Lamb’s organization. It was a corollary, from the same large substratum in his nature, that Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb, being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other, naturally detected this omission in Lamb’s nature at an early stage of our acquaintance. Not the fabled Regulus, with his eyelids torn away, and his uncurtained eye-balls exposed to the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun, could have shrieked with more anguish of recoil from torture than we from certain sentences and periods in which Lamb  perceived no fault at all.
– Thomas De Quincey on Charles Lamb

This excerpt of Thomas De Quincey’s operatically vicious takedown of the writing of fellow essayist Charles Lamb’s work is a treasure for three reasons. The first is the deliciously tight braiding of critical acumen and epic meanness. The second is the sheer melodrama of it all – Nature’s sponge !, the tearing of Regulus’s eyelids, shrieking in the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun. Unhinged. But. There is art and wisdom buried in this empurpled soufflé of brainy spite. It has, nested in the middle, one of the most eloquent formulations of the mechanics of excellent writing. – Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses… the structure of sentences… an indispensable sketch of the the engine that brings art to language.

Royal Bodies

Lose yourselves in this utterly engrossing essay by Hilary Mantel, currently free to read at the London Review of Books. Entitled Royal Bodies, it considers the construct of this utterly peculiar institution, it’s basest aspects and its most unworldly character, in Mantel’s typically direct, painterly, and slightly off kilter way — In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself… Royal persons are both gods and beasts.

Mantel wrote the incomparable historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, two thirds of a trilogy centered around Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and the founding of the Anglican Church. So skewed and revelatory is her lens, and so brilliantly constructed is her authorial voice that I waited for the release of the second book with an anticipation usually reserved for a new record by a beloved band — as much as I wanted to hear the story continue, it was the style of the writing, the sound of her language that I couldn’t wait to submerge in…

The essay caused, and is still causing, a retarded kurfuffle in the UK for her gimlet eyed assessment of Kate Middleton. Umbrage, in this case, relies on classic non-reading or a stubborn non-comprehension of the essay’s essential humanism. Read on here

Maurice Prendergast

So I finally went to visit the Barnes Collection at its new home on the Philadelphia parkway. My affinity for it has always been somewhat obligatory — I know why this art matters, but have appreciated it mostly as a bridge between older traditions I adore to modern currents I admire. As before, I find myself deaf to Matisse’s signals, and still feel an abject revulsion to Renoir — the smeary, overripe nudes struck me, this time around, like they were painted with bacon fat. Feh.

Revelatory though, were the few paintings tucked into various clumps throughout the collection by Maurice Prendergast. Each was a bravura demonstration of seeing, buy vicodin pain killers directly interpreted in painting. They were definitive and re-invigorating examples of the idea of impressionism as I understand it, painting animated by an exquisite receptivity of what it “felt like” to visually drink in a scene, its atmosphere, its flickering and transitory nature.

Later on, as I delved deeper into his work, scene after scene, I stopped thinking of them in terms of technique or theory but in terms of a kind of magic. He seemed to capture on paper an endless loop of the living essence of a moment, as if he could pin a a butterfly without stilling its movement or shimmer.

 

Hmm… That’s quite a drop.

The first page of the legendary comic Watchmen sold last weekend at auction for $33,460. Aptly described as the “Call me Ishmael” of comics, it’s one of the icons of the genre. All of the formal inventiveness that author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons established in their 12 issue 1986 masterpiece is prefigured here. (Fascinating to see it stark black and white – the page also came with an ace bonus, an annotated color guide. Gander here, and here at larger images) Notice especially the convergences between Rorschach’s psycho-noir-messiah narration and the visuals in each panel. This tight choreography between seemingly unrelated visual and verbal elements is one the the primary sources of the book’s tremendous impact. It adds a crucial layer to the storytelling, one uniquely rooted in the format of comic books – the ability to directly interweave elements from one part of the story into another and thereby elicit new interpretations, resonances, and meanings. Watchmen established Moore as a virtuoso of this technique. So, so good…

Great story behind the provenance of the comic page itself. It was bought in 1987, in a comic bookshop in Covent Garden one morning by a bleary-eyed, hungover Stephen “Krusher” Joule for $180. Krusher was an artist and designer who worked with Motorhead, Uriah Heep, Blondie, Sex Pistols, Hawkwind, and Japan. He designed the covers for Iron Maiden’s Live After Death and Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman. In 1982 he became the art director for the legendary British heavy metal magazine Kerrang! In short, he’s exactly the kind of wonderful freak who deserves to score the first page of the Watchmen one hungover morning for a hundred and eighty bucks.

Ryan Donnell’s Polling Place Project

Sure, the election hoopla has settled, with the reality based community the world over oscillating between exhilaration and queasy relief. But before we return to our regularly scheduled enthusiasms let’s celebrate an easily overlooked aspect of the the kaleidoscopic nature of American democracy – the polling place. Here in Philadelphia, for instance, you’re as likely to vote in a basement party room, mosque, roller skating rink, private backyard, body shop, or wallpaper store (all above) as a school gymnasium. For documenting these unlikely outposts we have photographer  Ryan Donnell to thank. Donnell, a pal, is a savvy, gifted journalistic & commercial photographer based in Philly. Behind the Curtain is his ongoing project documenting the nation’s unlikely polling places. He’s covered Philly and Chicago and just completed a swath of Los Angeles as well. Take a gander, here … and check out the balance of Donnell’s work, here.

 

O blue stewardess…

Her arrow-straight hair will not escape from its bow. Her glasses will never slide down her nose. From now on her base will be Boston. She will tell the passengers tied to their seats how she and our captain are going to be divorced. Her voice has made up its mind.

On Dumbo, a great grey beast, we head north towards Philadelphia, over an ambiguous fog where turtles swim in mud which is neither sky nor sea. The turtles are only four inches long. Their small paws are webbed. Their shells are surprisingly sensitive. We know which way they are going.

Who can tell what an elephant will do? In the hook of Dumbo’s trunk, Captain Wright swings like a broken bell, as if he’s drunk or piloting an invisible bomber running out of fuel. Soon his shoes will drop from his feet, two birds plummet to earth. O blue stewardess with red striped cuffs, we hope you enjoy your fight.

Phyllis Janowitz, Soon The Final Decree

Esquire Magazine, June 1977. Janowitz is a poet, and Professor of English, at Cornell University. Also, yup, the mother of Tama Janowitz, author of 80’s novel / artifact Slaves of New York.

Serielle Buchgestaltung

Serial cover designs by the German imprint Suhrkamp. Exquisite, masterful lessons in restraint and spare, deliberate composition. Suhrkamp is a 50 or so year old publisher of literature, philosophy and essays. A more, um, impressionistic description courtesy of a certain Siegfried Unseld and the inimitable Google Translate: On the question of how in the shortest form of the Suhrkamp publishing house was to characterize, I answer generally: Here are no books publish authors.

 

Unseen, Unpublished: Vivian Maier

A little late to the Vivian Maier party, which is fitting, considering Maier never made it to her party either – in fact, knowing her, she probably wouldn’t have gone if she could… Anyhoo – what’s the fuss? It’s that Maier’s photography was discovered in a thrift auction cache a couple of years ago, some 100,000 shots, most not even processed. What scenes! Masterful, poignant and supremely artful street photography, moments equal to and anticipating Eggleston, Winograd, etc… just moldering away in a storage locker on the South Side of Chicago.

Came across her the other day in Slate’s new photo blog, Behold. Besides the sheer impact of the photos, it’s also a nourishing lesson and reminder to anyone who works at making art – that while the desire to show, share and be recognized is a powerful one, the vast share of the satisfaction comes from the privilege of doing.

More of her work here, here, biographical info here, and a great article here. Enjoy.

The stars, my destination…

Amazing! So much purposeful human striving packed into one single frame – the bustling boogie woogie rhythms of daily life…

A fitting intersection, then, for our beloved space shuttle to cross – born of and built by the same energy and industry that powers the streets below. It’s endearing how much affection that ungainly piggyback elicits. The future was not the sleek finned swooped darts envisioned by Alex Raymond or Chesley Bonestell. The future was function begetting form – a spacecraft that looks as it must, to do what it needs to do, more Jeep than Jaguar.

Guided by technology contemporaneous with Centipede, Donkey Kong & Tempest, it broadened the perimeter of our everyday reach out into the edge of space. Because that’s the thing about the shuttle missions… they weren’t shots into the unknown, like Sir Richard Burton setting off to find the source of the Nile, or the Apollo Missions to the moon. They were meant to explore and colonize a frontier, like prospectors setting out westward to California to pan for gold, bend the direction of rivers, to make rockets and movies in the desert.

It’s why the spirit of Hedy Lamarr floats above this scene like a patron saint – a gifted, glamorous actress who, in her spare time, invented new kind of guidance system for torpedos to better fight the Nazis.

This photograph is a profound hymn to Los Angeles and the idea of California. Los Angeles will always be the most American of cities, defined by the lure of ambition and the blank canvas of possibility rather than the grids of Paris or London. Where hidden in the anonymity of deserts and stripmalls someone is manipulating the genome, making planes invisible, or writing Tootie’s dialog for an upcoming episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.

It’s where a young Gene Roddenberry would begin to write a series of TV scripts that used science fiction as a vehicle not only to boldly go where no man had gone before, but to explore the frontiers of the human condition – to muse on love, faith, friendship, and art.

It is no accident that the first space shuttle was called The Enterprise.

[Photograph by Stephen C. Confer]