Staff Picks: Dimensions, Defacements, Darkness


This Week’s Reading


Mike Kelley, Reconstructed History, 1989, ink and collage on paper, framed, in fifty parts, 11″ x 8.5″ each. © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

It is strangely relaxing to visit Frankfurt during the book fair, if you’re not in the book business. While actual publishers were staying out late and getting up early and speed-reading manuscripts on their phones, I got to visit Lucy Raven’s 3-D film installation, “Curtains,” at Portikus gallery, confirming my own suspicion that I do not, in fact, see in 3-D. (Everything was flat and red—or flat and blue if I squinted.) I also got to read the first three books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was my third attempt on Powell’s twelve-volume comedy of manners, and I could see what defeated me before—the fake-Proustian “philosophizing,” the unparsable sentences and cavalier grammar, the complete lack of believable erotic feeling, the endless talk about characters who never rise above caricature. The whole thing is amateurish in a way that only English novels like to be. And yet Powell has a genius for physical space. He can seat an entire dinner party so you remember who’s sitting where or show four friends walking down the street in such a way that you can tell, at all times, who’s walking next to whom. It’s magic. His characters may be strictly 2-D, but you always know where they are. —Lorin Stein

Last week I went to a show at Skarstedt Gallery to see a show of work by the late Mike Kelley. Kelley was a genius of an artist; to my mind, he is a genius of an artist, even though, of course, we will get no more new work from him. That present tense may be partly due to the fact that since his death, I’ve seen art by him that I hadn’t previously seen—like the installation at Skarstedt, which comprised fifty small, framed illustrations torn from American history textbooks and defaced by Kelley. The doodles are lewd and juvenile—he has Alexander Hamilton making a pass at George Washington and a signatory barfing on the Declaration of Independence—graffiti appropriate to the bored teenagers who likely suffered through the books. It’s a smart, astute work and very funny (a combination no artist does better than Kelley), but what really got me was the wall text, which was taken from Kelley’s introduction to a book of these images, published in 1990. This too-sober text turns an idealized view of American history and patriotism on its head: “Such childish resentment is the cause of the defacements presented here. The inability to accept their lower position in the order of things provokes these ‘artists’ to drag back to the surface garbage long buried–to sully, vandalize, and render inoperable our pictures of health,” he writes, adding, “Not that such a tactic is always bad.” —Nicole Rudick

“ ‘I get really affected by bestiality with children,’ she says … ‘I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.’ She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.” That’s Adrien Chen in the latest issue of Wired, looking at the vast labor force (“well over 100,000”) devoted to “content moderation,” the purgation of offensive material from our social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why your YouTube experience never shades into sadism or pornography, you have content moderators to thank. Our demand for a whitewashed Internet—an uncontaminated “content stream”—comes at a steep human cost. Imagine if it were your full-time job to watch pornography, beheadings, torture, hate: the whole gamut of id and primeval desire, eight hours a day, forty hours a week. As Chen describes them, these laborers—that seems to me the only word for them, even if they’re handsomely remunerated—are at once desensitized and permanently scarred; he’s not overstating things when he writes that they’ve been “staring into the heart of human darkness.” One wants to cry foul here: Is it really necessary to expose so many people to such constant atrocity? Chen’s reporting presents a Gordian knot of ethics and exploitation. —Dan Piepenbring

In the new collection Come Here Often?, Hunter Slaton reflects on his favorite bar, the Southern Exposure. A minor inconvenience: it’s in Antarctica. In 2004, Slaton took a job as a dishwasher at McMurdo Station for the adventure. There was once a bowling alley on the base, but residents always preferred its three bars, “the hubs of social life on the station; and which one you frequented said a lot about you.” Southern Exposure was the smoking bar, where the cooks and machinery operators “who couldn’t give two shits about being on Antarctica” went drinking on a nightly basis. From Slaton’s description—“the blond wood bar,” “scraggly Christmas lights,” “worn armchairs that leaned back just far enough so that you would think they were about to tip over on you”—Southern Exposure sounds like my, and anyone else’s, favorite dive bar, a reminder that no matter where you are in the world there is always a place nearby that feels like home. —Justin Alvarez

Chris Thile is a MacArthur Fellow known mainly for his mandolin playing, with multiple Grammys to his name; his bluegrass trio Nickel Creek cut their first album when he was twelve, and he’s recorded an LP with Yo-Yo Ma. But his current quintet, the Punch Brothers, is making perhaps his best music to date. Their third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is a masterful, impressively eclectic collection; it nods to traditional bluegrass while remaining catchy and contemporary enough for pop radio. And it boasts great storytelling. In “This Girl,” a Christian backslider begs a priest to hook him up with the town hottie; in “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a whimsical, high-strung intro and outro bookend a silly tale about a man who’s decided that monogamy isn’t for him. —Alex Celia