July 31, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.
Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.
Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.
July 29, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
My commute takes me past Paul Kasmin Gallery, at the corner of Twenty-seventh and Tenth, less than a block from The Paris Review’s offices. Every morning for the past month, I’ve paused there to stare at an installation through the window, a pair of illuminated silhouettes. I watch as one red neon man thwacks another with a red neon two-by-four. Every time, the second red neon man falls to the ground; every time, he rises again, on hands and feet, retracing the ungainly arc of his fall; and every time, the first red neon man thwacks him again.
Thwack, fall, rise, repeat. Like many forms of suffering, this one goes on ad nauseam—and like many forms of suffering, it burns itself into your retinas. I watch the cycle four or five times and then walk the two-thirds of a block to the office carrying an afterimage of neon trauma. I find this strangely buoyant.
Only today, after more than a month of doing this, did I decide to find out what exactly I’d been seeing. It’s Roxy Paine’s Incident / Resurrection (2013), which the artist’s Web site characterizes as “a visual loop of pure narrative movement”: Read More »
July 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
In 1899, Alphonse Mucha, a progenitor of Art Nouveau, published Le Pater, an illustrated edition of the Lord’s Prayer embellished in his sinuous, faintly occult style. Mucha, who was born today in 1860, made only 510 copies of the book, which he considered his masterwork. According to the Mucha Foundation,
Mucha conceived this project at a turning point in his career … [he] was at that time increasingly dissatisfied with unending commercial commissions and was longing for an artistic work with a more elevated mission. He was also influenced by his long-standing interest in Spiritualism since the early 1890s and, above all, by Masonic philosophy … the pursuit of a deeper Truth beyond the visible world. Through his spiritual journey Mucha came to believe that the three virtues—Beauty, Truth and Love—were the ‘cornerstones’ of humanity and that the dissemination of this message through his art would contribute towards the improvement of human life and, eventually, the progress of mankind.
Whether or not you buy into Mucha’s spiritual ambition—and I must admit that I don’t—his illustrations are striking in their depth and detail, with a certain haunted, diaphanous quality that would be imitated, if never duplicated, throughout the twentieth century, right on up to those ponderous Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” black-light posters that continue to grace all too many dorm rooms. As the artist Alan Carroll explains,
in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha’s early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904: “You’ve no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”
Something of that crushed-to-blood quality comes through in Le Pater, whose fascination with the otherworldly is predicated on a kind of desperation: There must be something more, right?
You can see more of Le Pater on Carroll’s blog, Surface Fragments.
July 23, 2014 | by Romy Ashby
A companion to yesterday’s piece by Edgar Oliver.
For a long time, whenever I visited Edgar Oliver on East Tenth Street, I would look at his mother’s wonderful paintings. They hung all over his crumbly walls and because it was always night when I visited, they were amber lit from the lamps sitting here and there in Edgar’s living room. Whenever I looked at the paintings, I would feel a pang at the thought that I’d never get to meet her. When I decided that I wanted to make Louise Oliver the subject of the third issue of my magazine, Housedeer, Edgar brought out portfolios filled with her drawings for me to see and we looked at them together, sitting on the floor. It seemed as though his whole childhood, and his sister Helen’s too, had been recorded in pencil by Louise. She must have drawn her children constantly, and she drew cemeteries and swamps and old houses and churches and ordinary people going about their business on the streets of Savannah, where they lived. Many of her drawings included detailed notes to herself on the colors of everything in them, so she could use them later to make paintings. Edgar told me that he and Helen were raised to be artists.
I wanted to ask Regina Bartkoff to do a drawing for Louise’s Housedeer cover because while she and Louise have very different styles, there is something about each of them that reminds me of the other. To my eye, the beauty of Regina’s drawings is in their mystery and their innocence. And I think if I had to choose one word to describe what Regina and Louise have in common in what they’ve made, the word innocent might be a good one. Honest would be another. When I told Regina what I wanted, it had been more than a year since she had done any drawing at all, the reason being that she and her husband, Charles Schick, had just finished doing a play by Tennessee Williams called In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. The play was put on in the gallery they have use of on East Third Street, and they had not yet come out of that other world. Regina and Charles love theater and they love painting (Regina loves drawing too), but when they do a play, it is all-consuming. Regina was still waking up as Miriam, her character in the play, and feeling the kind of lost that theater people often feel when the play is over. Read More »
July 22, 2014 | by Edgar Oliver
One of our favorite places to play, all throughout my childhood, was in cemeteries. We would go get fried chicken at the Woolworth’s on Broughton Street and go with our sketch pads to the Colonial Cemetery to picnic atop the family vaults that were all shaped like gigantic brick bedsteads. Helen and I loved to climb on these strange bed-shaped vaults and to lie there on the gently curved bellies of the tombs and play at being dead. And while we played, Mother drew in her sketch pad.
At the very back of the cemetery was a playground with old, rusted iron swings that shrieked when you swung in them. Helen and I loved to swing high and make the swings shriek mournfully—the cry of our flight. On the other side of the brick wall, overlooking the playground, rose the Savannah jailhouse—a tall old building with a tower topped by a red onion dome. High up in the jailhouse wall were dark arched windows where you could sometimes see the silhouettes of men’s heads—the prisoners watching us as we swung.
“You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother. You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world. And you cook such good food too.”
Mother made us say that to her over and over again—every day. And I think we said it sincerely. Mother almost never cooked—but when she did, what she made was always luscious. And I think Mother was a great artist. There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.
Over the years of our childhood, Helen and I were to become Mother’s most trusted and devoted encouragers and critics. Mother would call us in from the backyard to examine whatever painting she was working on. We would make our pronouncements with great authority. Read More »
July 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,
We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …
See more photos here.