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Arts & Culture

Coup de Théâtre

April 20, 2015 | by

An American in Paris leaps from screen to stage.

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Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. Photo: Angela Sterling. Courtesy of An American in Paris

About halfway through Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film An American in Paris, we glimpse a sign: À LOUER—APPARTEMENTS STUDIOS DE GRAND LUXE—RENSEIGNEMENTS AU FOND DE LA COUR. We see it in a courtyard through which Milo Roberts, the beautifully appointed parvenue, leads Jerry Mulligan, the scrappy, penurious painter; they ascend a staircase into an artist’s atelier that anyone would dream of. In addition to the essentials—a double-height wall completely of glass, new brushes and paints in every imaginable color, a sturdy easel—the room boasts a marble mantelpiece, fresh flowers, and an enormous sofa upholstered in red toile de jouy. That’s part of the allure of Minnelli’s film: it wrings every drop of naive charm out of the Paris of myth and cliché. Despite its legendary status, though, the movie’s charms are often enforced with a lead pipe—or perhaps a pipette of the kind geese are fattened with to produce foie gras. I couldn’t help but read too much, then, into that sign advertising rooms for rent. The movie itself can feel like a rented room; there’s plenty of space for someone else to move in, to make it deeper, better, more accomplished. That’s what the new musical on Broadway attempts, and—though not without its longueurs and contrivances—on many levels it has the film beat by a mile. Read More »

Still Golden After All These Years

April 15, 2015 | by

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A mask of Wordsworth made in 1815.

The most famous version of Wordworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” or “Daffodils”—that landmark of English Romanticism, a pedagogical perennial that’s inspired thousands of stock photos of daffodil fields—turns two hundred this year. Most of us remember it fondly; some do not. “I am sure it is a great poem,” one YouTube commenter wrote in response to a spoken rendition, “but every ten-year-old Indian is tortured and tormented by [it] … As a kid I remember I had to memorize pages dissecting this poem, but one question always remained—What the hell is a daffodil? No Indian kid ever laid eyes on that flower.”

The poem had its genesis in a walk Wordsworth took with his sister, Dorothy, on April 15, 1802, which she described in a journal entry with a moving lyricism that rivals her brother’s: Read More »

Teaching Twin Peaks at Sweet Briar

April 8, 2015 | by

Remembering a momentous semester as Twin Peaks turns twenty-five and Sweet Briar closes its doors.

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The Sweet Briar House.

In 2012, I taught a freshman comp class called Myths About Women. The primary texts were Antigone and Twin Peaks. This was at Sweet Briar College, and as it happens, the students from that class will be among the last to graduate from the 114-year-old women’s college this May. Last month, the school’s board of directors voted to close it at the end of this academic year because of “insurmountable financial challenges.”

I’d been trying for a few semesters to arrive at a reading list that would help the students think critically about gender—this was a women’s college, after all. But Sweet Briar, in Virginia, is not like its northern counterparts Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke. Sweet Briar’s official mascot is the vixen; its official colors are pink and green, a color scheme long synonymous with preppy fashion. And everywhere there are the trappings of wealthy, white Southern culture: among the student body, pearls are imbued with an almost totemic power. The campus bookstore sells Lilly Pulitzer handbags. Read More »

Feminist Fumes

April 6, 2015 | by

Anicka Yi’s miasmatic art.

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Anicka Yi, Grabbing at Newer Vegetables, 2015, plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus, 84.5" x 24.5". Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal. Photo: Jason Mandella

In nineteenth-century England, it was believed that the poor, foul-smelling parts of cities were points of origin for disease. The word malaria is from the Italian mal’aria: “bad air.” Cholera was believed to come from decayed organic matter, miasmata. Adherents of miasma theory followed their noses: bad odors, they thought, carried infectious disease. In The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population, published in 1842, the British social reformer Edwin Chadwick proclaimed that smell “generally gives certain warning of the presence of malaria or gases noxious to the health.”

The artist Anicka Yi plays with this amorphous, olfactory fear in her show “You Can Call Me F,” a meditation on contagion and femininity up through April 11 at The Kitchen. Yi’s media are bacteria and smell, and a sense of bodily invasion pervades the exhibition. She worked with cheek swabs from a hundred women—her creative peers, artists, collectors, curators, and the like—to form a bacteria collective that will grow for the duration of the show. It’s a sort of feminist ecosystem, powerful but fragile. Quarantine tents dot the dark, barren space, and the scent that permeates it is at once perfumed and antiseptic, redolent of a doctor’s office operating out of a woman’s bedroom. It’s almost pleasant, but it carries an undercurrent of danger: Where does this smell come from, exactly, and where is it going? Read More »

Only the Dreamer: An Interview with Victor Moscoso

March 30, 2015 | by

Photo: Greg Preston

Photo: Greg Preston

Victor Moscoso has, as he says, always ridden two, if not three, horses at a time. As an art student, he made fine-art paintings and did “art jobs,” such as hand-painting grocery signs. Later, he made paintings and posters, and then paintings, posters, and comics. He was one of the “big five” of design in the sixties—with Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin—and has been one of the Zap Seven since 1968. Yet Moscoso is every bit his own man.

Born in Galicia, Spain, in 1936, he emigrated with his family to Brooklyn when he was three. From there, he went on to study art at the Cooper Union, Yale University, and the San Francisco Art Institute. In San Francisco, he began making psychedelic posters for the burgeoning music scene—for groups such as the Who and Big Brother and the Holding Company and for venues such as the Shrine Auditorium, the Matrix, and the Fillmore. He borrowed from Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, LSD trips, and contemporary commercial packaging and rendered his elaborate, frequently abstruse compositions in hot, vibrating colors. These designs helped define the psychedelic era.

In 1968, Moscoso, Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson joined Robert Crumb on the third issue of Zap Comix. When Crumb founded the magazine, there was nothing else like it, and its seven contributors produced stories so bawdy and rowdy and inventive that comics would never be the same. Moscoso’s work for Zap is formally innovative as well; many stories are told by way of nonlinear, surrealist dreamscapes in which the imagery morphs and folds back onto itself. Moscoso made three wraparound covers for the magazine, the most famous of which appeared issue no. 4: an eye-bending, joyously vulgar transformation of a dancing Mr. Peanut into a dancing phallus. It is a masterpiece of graphic art that, as Gary Panter has put it, “will represent the twentieth-century imagination for centuries.”

Last year, Fantagraphics gave Zap Comix the deluxe treatment, reissuing the magazine’s four-decade run in a six-volume box set. And this month, a show of Moscoso’s drawings from 1967 to 1982, including his preparatory work for Zap comics and covers, opened at Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York. Moscoso spoke with me over the phone last month from his studio in Marin County, California, about learning to make art and then having to unlearn it all.

Are you on a cell?

I am.

They’re very convenient. Especially the ones with cameras on them, man. That is dynamite. I don’t have one, but my wife does. It’s a marvel. This may be before your time, but there was this comic strip called Dick Tracy, and he had this wrist radio with a little picture on it and a wire running up his arm.

Where did the wire go?

Underneath his garments, so that when he was getting dressed, he’d get the wire on. And he could talk to headquarters at any time.

I remember the wristwatch, but I didn’t know he had a wire running up his arm.

That was a detail kids like me were really interested in. And here we are. Jesus Christ, I’m living in a comic strip. Except everybody’s got ’em. Not just the cops. In fact, the cops gotta watch out.

Did you read Dick Tracy for the story or the art?

Mainly the art, because that was before I could read. Comics was one of the places where I learned to read, because the pictures interested me.

I remember at the age of three and half watching Hoppity Goes to Town, which I saw in Spain. I was blown away, as a little child, with the fact that drawings—I could tell the difference between drawings and live action—were moving. I saw that drawings were coming to life. I think that is when I decided, without realizing it, that that was what I wanted to do. Later on I saw comics, in particular Walt Disney comics. There is one artist in there whose name is Carl Barks—he was on design at Walt Disney, and he was an excellent storyteller. I used to wait every month for the new issue of that comic book to come out.

Eventually I went through all the comic books at the time, and I came upon the EC comics, and in particular, Mad. Read More »

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Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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