The model and muse Pat Cleveland, challenged to explain why fashion (so frivolous! so repressive!) mattered, answered:
People hang on to fashion as it were the breath of life because it takes you into a world that protects you from the evils of boredom and loneliness and ugliness…. it lets you recognize beauty. And as long as you recognize beauty, you can have it in your life.
The musings of a model… it’s so easy to be cavalier and look past its implications. But a moment’s reflection will remind you that boredom, loneliness, and ugliness stretch eternally from the bedroom of the alienated kid to the killing fields. Thus reminded, you realize what Cleveland is saying is that simply being able to recognize beauty can make and save your life.
Cleveland’s quote is never far from my mind, especially nowadays, and I thought of it instantly when I heard that Dave Hickey – my favorite art & cultural critic – had died.
Because if Hickey showed us anything, across all his work and writing, it was that that art (or really beauty) is as plentiful and free as air. And like air (or really oxygen) it is both a nourishment and a fuel. And what it can fuel, quite literally if we care to tap it, is each and every one of us, alone and together; Hickey believed that art could fuel nothing less than a clean-burning, convivial, sustainable, self-replenishing democracy.
This wasn’t wooly aesthetic utopianism – to Hickey it was plain empirical fact. The boon and bane of being self-aware animals is that our beings require two types of sustenance, one for our bodies, the other for our minds. We live on bread and roses.
However, the quality of nourishment matters enormously – dirty fuel can make us run hot but will inevitably, over time, wear us down and out. The crudest fuels, like their terrestrial counterparts, spring from deep in our animal past – fear, tribal solidarity, worship. But, as we evolve another energy emerges — culture. Culture, as Brian Eno memorably defined it, as everything we do that sheer survival doesn’t require. This was, and remains, the lasting human miracle — our ability to self-generate interlocking, intersecting, interdependent federations of affinity.
It’s why Hickey riffed so much on small scale mercantilism – when he talked about “art” he really meant anything that could be appreciated and exchanged. And when he talked abut “beauty” he meant anything that moved and grooved you; You knew it when you saw it, it stimulated you and it formed a loose, joyous bond — for a moment or a lifetime — between you and any other single human who shared that groove.
Hickey therefore believed our happiest communal configuration was the marketplace, the gallery, the festival, the concert, the suk, or bazaar. In these sites of easy-going exchange and transmission curiosity can encourage among us what obligation or morality might sternly demand. What results is a stable, aerated, sloshy and unruly freedom for and amongst folk – a democracy.
But culture, as a vivifying fuel, is both potent and fragile. And, more crucially and fatefully, it is a direct and lethal threat to all the other modes of human motivation. Because free flowing culture and exchange dissolves and neutralizes our other major propellents: fear, tribal solidarity, worship.
It’s why, from the vantage point of the boot or the lectern, culture must be always be mediated, subjugated, tamed. The academy shrouds it in mystification; revolutionaries harness it to the movement; clerics denounce it as a false idol; reactionaries press it into propaganda… Mediated culture is always either a con or an expression of oppressive power – often both. These enduring, awful energies share a common ethos — to free us from freeing ourselves.
This, then, is where the Las Vegas princelings Siegfried & Roy burst be-sequined into the picture (or Waylon Jennings, or custom car culture, or, or…) and why Dave Hickey insisted they mattered. It shows how much we’ve adopted the framing of mediated culture that in death Hickey has been mostly presented as a caustic intellectual provocateur with some wacky low-brow tastes. Those above the common fray could cluck along knowingly as he shoved these preening Teutonic popinjays and their slinky white tigers back at the obscurantist priesthood of high culture.
Fuck that. Seriously – fuck that. Sigfried & Roy matter because they make certain people as deliriously happy as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jesus. And celebrating that, depending on your vantage point, is either an existential threat or the saving grace of our species…
Because to admit Siegfried & Roy into the palace of beauty and truth is to admit that grace and happiness are where we find them. That everybody’s got a thing and that is the beginning of our commonalities, not the end. That we will come into our own not by purification but by miscegenation. That we will find our best selves not by sniffing out the slightest bit of heresy but by honoring the merest flicker of common affinity.
Throughout his wild life Hickey undertook this fight with lusty joy and unflagging verve. However, towards the end we know Hickey grew despondent and depressed. The furnace of our current conflicts grows ever hungrier and demands a vast and ongoing subjugation of culture to feed it.1 Conscripted into tribes we recede more and more from direct, unruly contact with one another. Our ability to freely eat, dance, and fuck across our ingrown and proscribed borders becomes harder and harder. As walled gardens, moated citadels, and hermetic bubbles rise, thicken and harden all we hear in our heads is the beating of the drums. It’s all a giant fucking bummer, and Dave Hickey died feeling pretty fucking bummed out.
I sympathize. And it’s hard, really hard, not to buckle, subsumed and surrounded by this wasteful moronic inferno — but I will remain forever hopeful because I once had a vision of another possible future in, of course, Dave Hickey’s beloved city of Las Vegas.
Fremont Street is a covered open air promenade that houses the casinos and parlors of “Old Vegas.” Along its length a constant churning river of people flows in and out, around street performers, vendors, hucksters, entertainers. It is the very living model of a bazaar, of endlessly intertwining desires, appetites, talents & gifts.
I was parked underneath the gyrating caryatids atop the Coyote Ugly bar and began to take in the crowd. Spreading out in every direction was the single most organically diverse crowd I had ever encountered. To attempt a descriptive cataloging would be to instantly diminish the nearly psychedelic impact of human variety on display.
At the very end of the street was a stage on which a band was playing. The band was a Voltron robot of American mass-cult tastes – a hunky cowboy, a sexy belter, a toasting rapper, a goateed hipster, a scraggly hesher, etc… Everyone could sing and everyone could play and as they made their way through America’s pop culture songbook the band would reconfigure accordingly. And as each song cast its particular spell receptive segments of the crowd would begin to woop and shimmy while the rest amiably continued their rambles and their revelry… the vibe as groovy and genial as you could ever hope for.
Then, the sexy belter announced that they had one more song left – a really special song. “Do you like Journey?” she belted. The crowd returned a rolling roar of affirmation, enthusiastic but hardly electric. Sensing the need to take it all up a few notches she belted again — “Do you guys believe? Do you? Do you? Don’t! Don’t stop! Don’t. Stop. Belivin!!!”
And on cue the grand opening bars of the song unfurled, the band swung into it, and the whole crowd, seemingly each and every soul, together, boarded the the midnight train, together, going it didn’t matter to where, goin’ anywhere. And this mass, this disparate mass bloomed into a common moment, singing, dancing, bellowing in unison – strangers all, up and down the boulevard, among the streetlights, people, living… just to find emotion, somewhere… somewhere in the night…
I wept then, and I’m on the verge of weeping again just recalling this moment of pure total human communion. Because left to our selves we can be magic, just for a moment, just for 4 minutes or so. Which is just enough to save us. We could agree on one big, essential yet insignificant thing and feel rapture on earth, born aloft on nothing more than the fusion of loose human affinity. When the song passed so did the moment and people sifted back into their swirling groups with a glow verging on the post-coital.
Look — there will always be shit to do. There will be death and want, and riding along gleefully, there will be assholes trying to feed us their dirty fuel. But fortified by good cheer and good company mountains will move. It’s a beautiful feeling, happiness. Don’t stop believing.
Goodbye and thank you Dave Hickey.
1 This is why it’s so important to totally refuse conscription in the culture wars. To say, like Hickey, NO – Not even a little. Nope. Because it’s more than a bad strategy – it’s the anti-life equation itself.
It’s naive to ignore that in traditional war & conflict, once enjoined, culture plays a central role. It’s drafted, along with every other available resource, into the cause. What’s ultimately catastrophic is purposefully transforming violent conflict into cultural conflict. We toyed dangerously with this during the Cold War and are now fully sinking into it domestically and across the globe – the “weaponization” of culture itself as a direct proxy for combat and jockeying for power.
Because again, culture withers under conscription and captivity. In traditional wars this was collateral damage. When culture war is the war the psychic damage is primary… we’re literally driving ourselves mad.
This doesn’t mean the abandonment of politics and engagement. In fact, being able to draw on the genuine sustenance of culture and beauty can fortify us for the necessary fights for a just world. But if we burn up culture to fuel our politics, what exactly are we fighting for? What will be left? We need bread AND roses to flourish (This question is explored stirringly in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant and necessary new book Orwell’s Roses.)
Last year I had the distinct pleasure of making these collages for the interior of HomeMakers Bar in Cincinnati. Each collage spotlights a different era – 50’s, 60’s, 70s, playfully subverting the traditional iconography of homemaking, cocktail culture, and swank entertaining. In the words of their inspired founders Julia Petiprin, Catherine Manabat, HomeMakers Bar is “a slightly retro, mostly modern cocktail bar that feels like a house party.” While I can only admire the delightful food and drink offerings virtually, I can say that the space and decor is a showstopper. It is, I think, hard to pull of something fresh in a “retro” mode and HomeMakers Bar has clearly emerged as a singular creative and culinary statement that easily transcends its original inspirations. (More interior images can be found on the portfolio page, here.)
PLAGUE UPDATE: With considerable trepidation, I checked in on HomeMakers Bar recently and was ecstatic to see that they are rising to the moment with their signature verve and flair – sharing recipes, hosting cocktail hours, workshops, hangs, and general bonhomie. If you can support them in any way, do. Fucking bravo!
The pulpit beneath a carved depiction of the daily ecstasy and rapture of Mary Magdalene, The Basilica of St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • the pulls of a small organ in the same Basilica • a standard roadside boulangerie, the A52 at Roquevaire, Aix-en-Provence • Some opulence in the Palace of Versailles • some unruly triffids spilling out in the 7th arrondissement • a mannequin on the Rue de la Fontaine au Roi • I spy you up there, above the frieze, amidst yet more opulence in the Palace of Versailles • Welcome to the opulence of the Palace of Versailles! • a folio at Les Puces • Dior Barbie • A horn of plenty amidst the opulence of the Palace of Versailles • An antique pair amongst antiques, St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • Caryatids by Pierre Lescot in the Louvre • Marianne above the Place de la République
To be great, to be a man of genius, to be famous, to be much loved and much hated; to be much praised and much dispraised; to have a passion for creation and passion for women; to be descended from one of the oldest French families; to be abnormal and inhuman; to have sardonic humor and intense presence of mind; to adore nights more than days—to adore and to detest immensely; to squander much of one’s substance in riotous living, to have a terribly direct eye and as direct a force of hand; to be capable of painting certain things which have never yet existed for us on the canvas; to be angry with his material, as his brutal instincts seize hold on him; these, chosen at random, are certain of the distinguishing qualities of Lautrec.
Painted by by Harry Siddons Mowbray they were commissioned as part of a large decorative scheme for the New York mansion of railroad tycoon Collis Potter Huntington. Six of the muses are traditional, while Mowbray invented three new ones — Painting, Agriculture and Science and Electricity.
At first thier cumulative effect was somewhat disorienting – they’re mounted so high that they sit nearly past the terminal angle of the neck. I had to bend backwards to take them in fully. Once I could focus though, I was mesmerized. What a presence each possessed, enhanced by their slightly exaggerated perspectives. And what vivid style — watery and fluid coloring held taught by graphic contours — a gorgeous hybrid evoking academic painting, vintage advertising illustration, social realist propaganda and heroic comics. Make my muses Mowbray’s!
More information here. From the top: Muse of Electricity, Muse of Painting, Muse of Agriculture, Muse of Music, Muse of Lyric Poetry, Muse of Tragedy, Muse of Comedy, Muse of Astronomy.
[When the thought occurs, I like to take a peek back at the work of artists I’ve featured here in the past and see what’s afoot. I was sad to find that sculptor Christyl Boger just passed away a few months ago on June 17, 2018. She was 59. Her frisky & fetchingly accomplished sculptures remain a welcome delight and a personal favorite — a loss of someone so technically gifted and imaginatively big hearted is no small thing. In honor and appreciation of her and her work I’m reposting the repost of the original post with some additional images. ]
Swan Float, a sculpture by Christyl Boger was a highlight of a recent show at Philadelphia’s Clay Studio filled with strong work: Of This Century: Residents, Fellows and Select Guest Artists. While not pictured, it was of a piece with the work above – a classically elegant, expressive nude entwined with an inflatable beach toy. I was bowled over by its formal beauty, impressed with the perfection of its craft, and amused by its absurdity. The world is a richer place for art that can, without being glazed in snark, simultaneously recall Bernini, Meissen and Koons.
Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby! Behold! The hand of him who is like unto a god! Behold! The clutch of harnessed power — about to be released! Somewhere in the endless cosmos, the hand is opened! Somewhere in the swirling mists of space the power is unleashed! In the awesome vastness of infinity, in the panoply of a billion billion universes, where giant galaxies are ever born and ever dying, who will note the passing of a small and nameless planet? Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby!
(Selected panels from The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience, a 1978 prestige format one-off by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Absentmindedly pulled this off the shelf the other day and promptly lost my socks. Track this masterwork down, arguably Marvel’s first “graphic novel” and prepare to lose your socks, bub! — knocked clean off by the cosmic hand of Jack Kirby! Behold!)
Just virtually hanging this classic swatch of snotty amazingness on the virtual wall of my virtual blog. Virtually. Poster by Barney Bubbles the endlessly delightful design imp behind classic Hawkwind and Stiff Records. Check his monograph Reasons to Be Cheerful if you can score it.
While reading Charles Spencer’s lavishly illustrated biography of Leon Bakst and his design work for the Ballets Russes I came across his arresting manifesto for the vivid power of color. Looking at these intoxicating renderings and drawings the mind boggles at the lushness of the spectacle this must have been. Lush and lost. More on Bakst in an earlier post, here.
I have often noticed that in each colour of the prism there exists a gradation which sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and even bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. This can be felt and given over to the public by the effect one makes of the various shadings.
That is what I tried to do in Schéhérazade. Against a lugubrious green I put a blue full of despair, paradoxical as it may seem. There are reds which are triumphal and there are reds which assassinate.There is a blue which can be the colour of a St. Madeleine, and there is a blue of a Messalina.
The painter who knows how to make use of this, the director of the orchestra who can with one movement of his baton put all this in motion, without crossing them, who can let flow the thousand tones from the end of his stick, without making a mistake, can draw from the spectator the exact emotion which he wants them to feel.
Robert Smithson, Pulverizations, 1966 / Photostat, Collection of Virginia Dwan
Mr. Rossetti has been known for many years as a painter of exceptional powers, who, for reasons best known to himself, has shrunk from publicly exhibiting his pictures, and from allowing anything like a popular estimate to be formed of their qualities. He belongs, or is said to belong, to the so—called Pre~Raphaelite school, a school which is generally considered to exhibit much genius for colour, and great indifference to perspective. It would be unfair to judge the painter by the glimpses we have had of his works, or by the photographs which are sold of the principal paintings judged by the photographs, he is an artist who conceives unpleasantly, and draws ill.
Like Mr. Simeon Solomon, however, with whom he seems to have many points in common, he is distinctively a colourist, and of his capabilities in colour we cannot speak, though we should guess that they are great; for if there is any good quality by which his poems are specially marked, it is a great sensitiveness to hues and tints as conveyed in poetic epithet. These qualities, which impress the casual spectator of the photographs from his pictures, are to be found abundantly among his verses.
There is the same thinness and transparence of design, the same combination of the simple and the grotesque, the same morbid deviation from healthy forms of life, the same sense of weary, wasting, yet exquisite sensuality; nothing virile, nothing tender, nothing completely sane; a superfluity of extreme sensibility, of delight in beautiful forms, hues, and tints, and a deep seated indifference to all agitating forces and agencies, all tumultuous griefs and sorrows, all the thunderous stress of life, and all the straining storm of speculation.
Mr. Morris is often pure, fresh, and wholesome as his own great model; Mr, Swinburne startles us more than once by some fine ﬂash of insight; but the mind of Mr. Rossetti is like a glassy mere, broken only by the dive of some water—bird or the hum of winged insects, and brooded over by an atmosphere of insufferable closeness, with a light blue sky above it, sultry depths mirrored within it, and a surface so thickly sown with water~lilies that it retains its glassy smoothness even in the strongest wind. Judged relatively to his poetic associates, Mr. Rossetti must be pronounced inferior to either. He cannot tell a pleasant story like Mr. Morris, nor forge alliterative thunderbolts like Mr. Swinburne. It must be conceded, nevertheless, that he is neither so glibly imitative as the one, nor so transcendentally superficial as the other.
We at once recognize as his own property such passages as this:
I looked up
And saw where a brown—shouldered harlot leaned
Half-through a tavern window thick with vine.
Some man had come behind her in the room
And caught her by her arms, and she had turned
With that coarse empty laugh on him, as now
He munched her neck with kisses, while the vine
crawled in her back.
Or this: —
As I stooped, her own lips rising there
Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.
Or this: —
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties through the dirt!
Or this: —
What more prize than love to impel thee,
Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!
Passages like these are the common stock of the walking gentlemen of the ﬂeshly school. We cannot forbear expressing our wonder, by the way, at the kind of women whom it seems the unhappy lot of these gentlemen to encounter. We have lived as long in the world as they have, but never yet came across persons of the other sex who conduct themselves in the manner described. Females who bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat. writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers, must surely possess some extraordinary qualities to counteract their otherwise most offensive mode of conducting themselves. It appears, however, on examination, that their poet—lovers conduct themselves in a similar manner. They, too, bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and slaver, in a style frightful to hear of. Let us hope that it is only their fun, and that they don’t mean half they say. At times, in reading such books as this, one cannot help wishing that things had remained for ever in the asexual state described in Mr. Darwin‘s great chapter on Palingenesis. We get very weary of this protracted hankering after a person of the other sex; it seems meat, drink, thought, sinew, religion for the fleshy school.
Robert Williams Buchanan onDante Gabriel Rossetti
Contemporary Review, October 1871.
Comrades! Hello Cleveland!
I’m thrilled to announce a retrospective show of my work at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland. Part of the curatorial mission of the museum is to showcase art made by Ukrainians in the American diaspora. I have been preceded by an incredible parade of talented artists and am very flattered to have been asked to participate.
The show will feature a range of work from the past decade or so, loosely grouped under the title The Past Was Faster. It will be anchored by gouache paintings, some drawings and a cluster of collages. Much of the work can be seen here.
I will also be debuting large format photographs from a new series entitled Jane of the Waking Universe.
There will be some artwork for sale — a few original paintings, editions of photographs, 2 archival prints, and book collections of The Past Was Faster as well as Jane of the Waking Universe.
As stated, the show runs from September 22 to January 15th, 2018. There’s a shindig on the 22nd at 6pm. Do stop by if chance & inclination permit. Cheers!
The nuances of the cover to “From Cliche to Archetype” practically make it a little poem as much as bravura instance of typographic design. The font choices are perfection — Cooper’s proud plumpness giving way to the stylish severity of Univers. The rest of the covers, better known, are equally stunning and seemingly predict entire swaths of graphic design trend. Prescient cat, this one.
Outro from the magnificent The Courtesans — The Demi http://nygoodhealth.com Monde in 19th Century Paris by Joanna Richardson