Woke up in Providence, Rhode Island, but as I write this I’m zooming back to NYC on the Amtrak listening to an exquisite bootleg of Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Budokan, in Tokyo, on March 11, 1976. I arrived in Providence less than twenty-four hours ago for the local launch of Brian Chippendale and C.F.’s (a.k.a. Christopher Forgues) new books If ‘n Oof and Powr Mastrs 3 (both published by my own PictureBox) at Ada Books. The Ada event was packed and quite merry. I bought used copies of Jimmy McDonough’s Russ Meyer biography and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
McDonough’s biography of Neil Young, Shakey, is one of my favorite books, and so while I have little interest in Meyer, I figure I better read whatever is on McDonough’s mind. Shakey, for the uninitiated, is about as good a book about an artist as can be imagined. There’s Nick Tosches’s Hellfire, about Jerry Lee Lewis; Lawrence Weschler’s Robert Irwin–obsessed Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees; and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage on D. H. Lawrence. And there are more. But Shakey is the most important to me because it is as much about the field of humans and emotions around an artist as it is about Young, and this includes the author himself, who is conflicted and outraged as he tries to deal with Young on an aesthetic, intellectual, and moral (this last bit being the trickiest) level. McDonough wanted too much from his idol/subject, but in a way that is perfectly understandable. The problem, as Christopher would say, is that sometimes you have to turn your back on your life in order to make art. That doesn’t always make for nice human moments.
In any case, Shakey beats the hell out of the recent Keith Richards autobio, which is fucking brutal. I’m amazed he published it. Usually with these kinds of books, there’s some kind of arc to it, some realization or redemption after all the action. Not here. It’s mostly unremitting destruction: of himself, of the people around him, of his talent. It is, as Keith might say, a fucking bummer, man. At least Richards doesn’t really pretend there is romance there. But the level of unself-consciousness reaches staggering levels. What Richards leaves out (apologies, regrets, sadness) is as telling as what he leaves in (blow jobs, heroin, death). Then again, the descriptions of music-making are top notch and moving, in the sense that if you believe him, you believe this beast sometimes finds grace in open-tuned guitars and groovy chord sequences. But he’s a beast nonetheless.
Anyhow, last night after the Ada event, after some errands, and then after dinner and a noise show in an enormous abandoned factory (my requisite annual noise show—either in Providence or in Brooklyn, but always because of seeing the Prov guys), I fell asleep curled up next to a space heater in a room in Brian’s loft and woke up to a small stack of drawings I’d been rifling through, as well as little piles of comic books Brian left for me to peruse. What service. Spent the morning quickly gathering up prints and various artifacts I was taking back to NYC, took some photos (I have about seven years of photographs of that place in its permutations), and ran off to the train.
Brian has lived in Providence for twenty years, and Christopher maybe almost a decade now. I get up to Providence about once a year, sometimes more, and it always goes something like this: Someone picks me up; we go to Brian’s eight-thousand-square-foot space in Olneyville; I look at piles of artwork—Brian’s, his friends’, whatever; then I roam the floors, stumbling past enormous wire-and-knit monsters, papier-mâché mushrooms, at least one tepee, sundry plants, piles of records, and then just goddamn junk. There was a new addition this time: a fiberglass boat that Brian’s companion, Jungil Hong, has built and expects to have seaworthy soon enough.
A large part of what I do with PictureBox is built around Providence. Many of the artists I publish lived there and many know each other. They also stretch back to a kind of third stream in American art, which runs through Gary Panter and H. C. Westermann and Karl Wirsum and Peter Saul. As a site for visual action, nothing quite compares to Providence, 1996–2006, for the sheer quantity and quality of work. Among the better known artists (all of whom will be mortified to be singled out—sorry dudes) are Brian Gibson, C.F., Takashi Murata, Melissa Brown, Leif Goldberg, Jim Drain, Ara Peterson, Francine Spiegel, Joe Bradley, and Ben Jones. There are countless others at various levels and degrees of exposure in graphic design, animation, printmaking, advertising, and on and on.
Some of this activity was centered on the living/playing/art space Fort Thunder, which was founded in the Olneyville section of town in 1996 by Chippendale and Mat Brinkman. Whatever the place, the work can’t be easily categorized. Instead, I like to think of the disparate parts as connected by one or two of the following interests: image-driven works, op-art, obsessive drawing, noise, environmental phenomena, biomorphic sculpture, role-playing, fantasy, and anonymity.
The inhabitants of Fort Thunder, in particular, revolutionized music-poster design with a thorough integration of highly personalized drawing and typography, and reset the aesthetic bar on comic books by creating intricately packaged editions containing comics that used genre tropes and video-game pacing to communicate emotional and psychological states.
When I first began to see the comics, posters, and zines trickle out in 2000 I was twenty-three years old, and it was the first time in my life that I felt as though something was made especially for me. For me, man. This, despite an adolescence spent omnivorously devouring all the books and visuals I could find; it was always someone else’s stuff. Older kids, older generations, et cetera, but the stuff flowing out of Prov was and remains precisely what I want to look at.
Anyhow, that’s a heavy dose of context, but, well, Christopher and Brian are pretty much dominating my week, so I might as well introduce them. I leave Providence always wanting to return. But right now, I have to get back to New York to plan for Brian and Christopher’s Thursday night event at The Strand and catch up on a couple days’ worth of correspondence. Gossip Girl is on tonight, too, so that is something. No TV in Providence, and I really love TV.
Got back from Providence yesterday afternoon and caught up on a few shipping queries and such. More or less twenty percent of my time is spent as the customer service/orders guy for PictureBox. Thankfully, there is a warehouse and fulfillment company in New Jersey that actually handles the labor involved; however, if you want service, I’ve got your service. Spent the evening eagerly watching TV-shows-in-decline in marathon form: Gossip Girl (all plot, no characters left, but hilariously explicit sex scenes that are all fingers and hands instead of boobs and butts and whatever; all those digits unrolling and tearing and parting in tight close-up—it’s some gnarly soft-core soap-opera shit, but I’ll take it); Dexter (really needs to end now that there is no suspense left); Weeds (I’m embarrassed I still watch it, but I’ve watched way worse).
This morning, the dog got me up early in need of an urgent walk. My fiancée Rachel must’ve fallen asleep reading Jed Perl’s recent excoriation of Leo Castelli, Jeffrey Deitch, and co. in The New Republic because the pages were scattered all over our bedroom, as though in an art world–induced tornado. I don’t often read Perl anymore, but was heartened to see him grumpily weigh in with an articulate, historically minded take on art dealing, money, and the personality-and-spectacle-over-art disease that has savaged NYC and LA over the past ten years.
I ran errands and stopped off at a Japanese bookstore, looking to peruse a recent monograph on Tadanori Yokoo, the Japanese graphic designer and illustrator whose work defined pop graphics in the late sixties and early seventies. He remains an icon there and is semi-relevant here, in that he could be an example to today’s little art world exhibitionists. Yokoo put himself and his own visual codes into his graphics but as stand-ins for the peculiar situation of the Japanese avant-garde of that period. He was in the work, but not distracting from it by putting himself in front of it.
And now I’m home, catching up again. Wanted to listen to something new, so like any over-the-hill thirty-four-year-old dude, I went to NPR’s “First Listen” and am streaming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town outtakes record, The Promise. It’s almost excruciatingly annoying. I like the Boss in limited doses, and my favorite way to think of him is this: Springsteen, sweating it out on the treadmill in his enormous home gym, listening to Morning Edition, caring, man, caring a lot about his cardio. So basically I like thinking of him as a particularly bad SNL skit. That’s how I choose to view a lot of absurd, overblown things. Something about bravery and valor and all that.
Dan Nadel is the proprietor of the Grammy-winning publishing house PictureBox and the author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969 and Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940–1980 (both Abrams). Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.