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Eye Contact: An Interview with Gladys Nilsson

November 24, 2014 | by

1 Plant16

Gladys Nilsson, Plant #16, 2010, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 11 3/4" x 11 3/4".

2 Walk1

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #1, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

3 Walk5

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #5, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

4 Arbor3

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #3, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

5 Arbor6

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #6, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

6 Arbor 7

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #7, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

7 Arbor10

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #10, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

8 Arbor11

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #11, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

9 Arbor13

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #13, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

Gladys Nilsson was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, which she then attended from 1958 to 1962. In the mid- to late sixties, she was a member of the Hyde Park–based art group the Hairy Who and created exuberant figurative paintings using both acrylic on Plexiglas and vibrant watercolors on paper. While at SAIC, Nilsson studied with the art historian Whitney Halstead, who taught his students to look beyond Western art and also beyond traditional realms of art to more vernacular sources. Though Nilsson has periodically integrated cut-paper elements into her paintings since the sixties, she has recently begun to make heavily collaged works, in the series “Plant” (2010) and “A Walk … ” (2014). But perhaps none of Nilsson’s work exemplifies Halstead’s directive better than the collages currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery, in New York. The series, called A Girl in the Arbor” (2013), comprises thirteen lush works, each of a woman sitting on a brown chair under a blue arbor and surrounded by greenery. The surface of each collage is littered with tiny cutouts, some of which compose and adorn the large female figure; many others seem oblivious to her and are engaged in their own affairs. 

I met Nilsson the day before her show opened late last month, and we talked over the phone a few weeks later—she, in Chicago, where she still resides—about the intricacies in these collages, her experiences as a budding art student in the city, and the horror of trying on swimsuits. 

You visited the Art Institute as a grade-school student and then as an art student, and you’ve said that in that time, it changed from a nineteenth- to a twentieth-century institution. What did you mean?

What I meant when it changed from being a nineteenth-century building into a twentieth-century is that the building had been modernized. Things were hung in new places, and some galleries were configured differently.

When I was in grade school, a friend and I—she and I drew cows—would walk around a bit in the museum, and I remembered a catwalk in the back, over a large area that no one ever went to, that had large plaster casts of building facades and statuary from other times and other places. It stuck in my mind because it was a very curious area. So when I went to school there, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where this area was. But I couldn’t find it. At first I thought I had imagined the place, until I discovered old pictures in the archives of the museum.

Do you recall looking at Seurat’s painting at the institute?

Yeah, very much so. I wasn’t necessarily crazy about it. I liked it, but it wasn’t a favorite. But I found sitting and looking at it because it had a nice bench in front of it. That it was one of the most soothing things for me—not that I was in turmoil. It was just a very quiet experience, because Seurat has got a lot going on surfacewise. But then it’s also an extremely static painting. I spent a lot of time looking at it, and it’s probably the one painting that I remember most, aside from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which is a whole other thing. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Studies in Latrinalia, and Other News

November 24, 2014 | by

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Photo: Conway L, via Flickr

  • A 1950 letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac—“16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words” that inspired Kerouac to rewrite On the Road in a more breathless vein—is up for auction.
  • A chat with William Gibson: “I’ve always embraced the fact of any imaginary future becoming archaic. Imaginary futures are about the moment of their creation, they aren’t about the real future. Ultimately every imaginary future will be read as an artifact of the moment of its creation.”
  • The language of poker: Today’s players are the strong, silent types, “But many of the earliest tournament pros … were famous for blustery speeches, part of an aggressive style of banter meant to put their opponents ‘on tilt.’ And while these players were haranguing their opponents, they would watch closely to see what clues—‘tells’—leaked out under pressure.”
  • What’s the meaning of the writing on the bathroom wall? “The most common type of graffiti was ‘presence-identifying’ (just scrawling your name, for example), but men were identifying their presence more than women. Women, on the other hand, wrote more insults … When a woman goes into a women’s restroom and finds herself surrounded by only women (in a room full of mirrors, no less), she may very well become hyper-aware of the fact that she is a woman. People might be putting on makeup, performing their gender, and behind closed doors, they’re dropping their pants. Meanwhile, next door in the men’s room, dudes are standing next to each other at the urinal, aggressively not making eye contact, trying to ignore the miasma of testosterone that I assume hangs in the air like a fog.”
  • Are the British simply too polite to be any good at surrealism?

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In Case You Missed It

This Week on the Daily

November 23, 2014 | by

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Georgios Jakobides, Girl Reading, ca. 1882, oil on canvas.

Never-before-heard recordings of Maya Angelou, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder from our ongoing collaboration with 92Y.

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Why has Italian cinema lost its appeal abroad? Antonio Monda sees a pattern: “The films that speak to a world audience deliver a poetic or extreme image of Italy, or of an ‘Italy,’ that gibes with the image foreigners already have of it.”

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Lilly Lampe reviews “Teen Paranormal Romance,” a group exhibition inspired by the burgeoning genre of YA lit.

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Damion Searls hears haiku in the rhythms of American speech.

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A brief history of insect control: James McWilliams tells the surprisingly fascinating story of how pesticides came to dominate American agriculture.

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Plus, Sadie Stein on migraines, “the most glamorous of headaches”; some thoughts on vape, the OED’s 2014 Word of the Year; and Duane Hanson’s Security Guard patrols an art gallery in terrifying solitude.

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This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Staircases, Sister Mountains, Self-Help

November 21, 2014 | by

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A still from The Staircase.

In The Program Era, Mark McGurl illuminated postwar American fiction’s inextricable ties to universities and creative-writing programs; his new paper, “The Institution of Nothing,” undertakes a reading of David Foster Wallace in the framework of “the program,” and it’s one of the most thoughtful exegeses I’ve found of Wallace, whose work has enjoyed no shortage of critical insight. (Remember Wyatt Mason on Oblivion?) McGurl finds that the bulk of Wallace’s writing is fixated on institutions—it invokes them as a kind of safe harbor, a respite from the nihilism of the world at large. (This is borne out not just in his books but in his life, which he spent almost entirely in the thrall of institutions of higher learning.) In this light, a certain unnerving conservatism emerges in his work: what should be questions of sweeping political import are recast as matters of individual ethics. McGurl writes, “Clinging to the institutional order, clinging for dear life, Wallace’s commitment is … to a conception of therapeutic community in which what might have become political questions—and, by implication, motives for political contestation—are obediently dissolved.” —Dan Piepenbring

Natalie Lyalin’s poetry collection Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It has an intriguing title, but I’ve felt mildly daunted by the illustration on the cover—of a woman who stares straight into my eyes whenever I look at her. It turns out, though, that such feelings of discomfort aren’t inappropriate. Lyalin’s poems are weird, wide-eyed, and bold, and I feel uneasy reading them—in a good way. Like this, from “On the Beaches of Majorca”: “Aboard ships they snapped goodbye to their cities / They sparked like knives / And the oceans took them in with oceanic slurps / In a parallel moment we were on the beaches / Mute pastel puffs / Smoking around a cult-like fire.” Her poems remind me of Karen Russell’s fiction: at once familiar and otherworldly, tame and frightening. Lyalin’s “A Lemon Sweat Over Everything” is almost a poetic version of the title story from Russell’s Vampire in the Lemon Grove:

You can find my bones in the sister mountains
Identify me by the gold fangs
The fangs I showed you in the lemon orchard
almost two hundred years ago
You said they were sexy
The sun blinding you from my mouth
We were both smirking
and then I snarled 
It was very foreign
chasing you around the trees

Nicole Rudick

I could write about the addictive nature of Serial, the true-crime podcast from the This American Life team, but millions of others beat me to the punch. Instead, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Josh Lieberman, I advise you to fill these next two weeks until the next Serial episode with Sundance Channel’s eight-part documentary series, The Staircase. The crime saga follows the case of the novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion. Was the death an accident, the result of falling down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium—or was she murdered by Peterson? While the twists and turns are captivating and the series is filled with a cast of characters so interesting and bizarre it’s difficult to appraise anyone involved, it’s the fly-on-the wall–style of Jean-Xavier de Lestrande’s filmmaking that kept me going from one episode to the next. —Justin Alvarez

You might have heard that Sam Lipsyte used to be in a punk band called Dungbeetle. This Saturday night at Le Poisson Rouge, they’re reuniting—with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on drums, no less—as part of the launch party for Radio Silence, a lit-and-music mag that’s just released its third issue. I suspect magic will be in the air. Bring earplugs and a taste for the bizarre. —DP

I had never heard of Lorrie Moore when I tried to sit in on her M.F.A. workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was 2009, and I was barely eighteen. She kicked me out pretty quickly. Now, having spent the better part of five years recovering from the embarrassment, I have finally read Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of stories. About two-thirds are written in the second person, and this is both refreshing and compelling. It serves an almost didactic purpose in “How,” as Moore guides us, step-by-step, through the motions of dumping a (maybe) dying boyfriend. In “How To Be an Other Woman,” the second person puts a delightful twist on a recycled story: her protagonist struggles to find herself in (and as a result of) a messy extramarital affair. Witty and deft, Moore demands that her readers believe the story could be about them … not that it is about them, but that it could be. She blends comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that I found myself merrily caught between sadness and mirth, cynicism and optimism. —Alex Celia

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From the Archive

Magritte Shaving

November 21, 2014 | by

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René Magritte, Les valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952, oil on canvas. Image via SFMOMA

René Magritte was born on this day in 1898. Louis Simpson’s poem “Magritte Shaving” appeared in our twenty-fifth anniversary issue in Spring 1981.

The houses look at one another,
a language of windows.
The violin stands above the collar ...
sleigh bells in a blue sky.

How calm the torso of a woman
like a naked statue.
Reclining in an alcove
with curtains, the window gives
a view of earth ... yellow fields.
She has a blue leg and a green arm,
red arm, and leg painted saffron.

The orange sphere floating in space
in front of the blue canyon
has a face like a mask
with fixed brown eyes.
Directly underneath, on the parapet,
stands a shirt with a tie
in a dark, formal suit.

He has left his shaving brush
on top of the cabinet with doors of glass
that is merging with a cloud.

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Our Daily Correspondent

Head Cases

November 21, 2014 | by

An illustration from Les gens de Medecine dans l'oeuvre de Daumier. Via the Wellcome Library

Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world. 

But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:

The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.

Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.

It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable. 

So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn't realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.

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