Staff Picks: Stray Dogs, Stereographs, Pepsi Sex Floats


This Week’s Reading

Detail from one of Jim Shaw’s “Dream Objects,” on display now at the New Museum.

Sleep doesn’t always come easy for me, so I was drawn to Linda Pastan’s new collection of poems just from its title: Insomnia. Pastan muses on the daydreams the sleepless have at night, the small histories that emerge as each day wanes. Her narrators sit up wishing their gnarled skin was as beautiful as an apple tree’s, or remembering the “fascinated nightmares” the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward inspired. They think about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the poet Roland Flint and the way asteroids resemble giant brains plucked from their skulls. Though the title suggests otherwise, Pastan writes oneirically, knitting gentle verse together with playful, if often somber, scenes. In “Counting Sheep,” Pastan writes of how restless the sheep are, waiting to be added up: “I notice a ram / pushing up against a soft and curly female … It’s difficult / to keep so many sheep / in line for counting … ” In “Insomnia: 3 AM,” “Sleep has stepped out / for a smoke / and may not be back”—I just love that. —Caitlin Youngquist

Jim Shaw’s “The End Is Here” is up through January 10 at the New Museum: three floors chockablock with thrift-store paintings, extreme Christian ephemera, and Shaw’s own distinctly outré drawings, paintings, and collages. J. Hoberman has written that “although [Shaw’s] obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic.” This holds true no matter how outrageous his images are: two aliens fucking on a UFO flight deck, Santa getting his dick bitten off. Shaw’s is a world where even an exsanguinated penis is nothing more than a lark; Freudians need not apply. Then there’s the artist’s collected stuff—from junk piles and yard sales, Shaw has compiled some significant American detritus, and his arrangements make it all more cohesive than you’d expect. Stick around long enough and even the titles for his dream drawings start to make sense: “I was drawing a Pepsi sex float … ” “In Reno there was a Titanic mockup where a girl … ” “I think I was half awake when I thought of this upright piano modeled after the cave monster from It Conquered the World … ” —Dan Piepenbring 

From the cover of Linda Pastan’s Insomnia.

I’ve been dipping into Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters—reading her stories between other things—and I’m always excited to get back to it. All of Campbell’s narrators are girls and women, and many exhibit a kind of grim humor. A husband leaves his dedicated wife for someone he met in his cancer-survivor meetings; a pregnant woman believes, during her baby shower, that her cheating ex has been reborn a stray dog. (“And then we will eat,” she thinks, “and then, only then, will these people go home.”) The stories aren’t funny—these are mothers and daughters, after all, so there’s worry and paranoia and uncertainty and absurd love. There’s a vulnerability that is particular to women’s relationships, which are complicated at once by utter devotion and a million tiny betrayals. It’s a contradiction that’s tough to get right, and Campbell does it effortlessly. —Nicole Rudick

In the 2010 documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, Sophie Fiennes—known for making the Zizek film The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema—journeys to Barjac, in the south of France, to witness Anselm Kiefer at work on his Gesamtkunstwerk, his attempt at total art. On thirty-five hectares of a defunct silk factory, an industrial wasteland, Kiefer pummels, hacks, burns, saws, and smashes his way to artworks that are both brutal and beautiful. Their simultaneous quality of vulnerability and violence is aptly captured in a scene where he shatters large panes of glass on the floor. His pallid, sandal-clad toes remain exposed; just after one pane shatters, he describes the jarring sound as “beautiful music.” Through an unobtrusive lens—there’s no narrative voice, and we only hear a voice (Kiefer’s) around twenty minutes into the film—Fiennes invites us to observe Kiefer at work and to reflect on the array of paintings, installations, bunkers, tunnels, and towers he created on the grounds of the abandoned factory. With a palette of tar, acid, liquefied lead, soot, and cement, and a repertory of artistic techniques involving a blowtorch, a forklift, and a drill, Kiefer makes this film worth watching. —Joshua Maserow

A still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

A fact-checking assignment took me to the NYPL this week, so before I left the Schwarzman building, I took a peek at “Public Eye,” a survey of the library’s collection that tracks photo-sharing technology from the age of the daguerreotype to the era of Instagram. There’s a lot to look at—the exhibition covers ground from Matthew Brady’s Civil War photography to modern photojournalism—but I found I was less interested in thinking about the history of documentary photography than I was in examining the displays of more intimate, ephemeral images: the cartes de visite, the scrapbooks, the stereographs. I eavesdropped on a docent explaining to a tour group how stereographs work. “Did you ever have a View-Master?” she asked them. I remembered putting those flat little disks with slides on them into the slot and peering through the binoculars to find a small, private vision of a 3-D landscape. You’d think, given the way we’re inundated with images in this day and age, that photographs and photographic tricks like that would have lost some of their power, but they’re just as magnetic as they were a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. —Hannah LeClair

You can’t fault Ta-Nehisi Coates for bristling when his admirers cast him as a sort of Twitter-era James Baldwin. As Coates told The New Yorker’s David Remnick, “Baldwin is my generation’s James Baldwin.” He’s right. I encourage anyone with a pulse and a decent Internet connection to retire immediately to that sometimes-great repository of ideas, YouTube, where are thankfully housed hours of footage of a man who, in speeches, debates, and interviews, said some of the most lucid and affecting words ever spoken on camera. Baldwin brims not with righteous indignation but with a desperate expressiveness that even at its most cutting sounds like love. “I’m both glad and sorry you asked me that question,” he says, in 1963, when asked by Kenneth Clark about the future of this country. It is impossible to understand how Baldwin must have felt to be asked a question like this, knowing for how many he spoke. “I can’t be a pessimist,” he says, “because I am alive.” —Henri Lipton

I watched too much TV in the early nineties, but I look back with fondness at the hours I wasted with a janitor-cum-spaceman and two robots while they mocked old B-movies in a darkened cinema from outer space. Surely you, too, remember Mystery Science Theater 3000—whose creator Joel Hodgson is crowdfunding for a series reboot on Kickstarter—in all its quasi-experimental, fourth-wall-shattering silliness. The premise—you watch three characters while they watch bad movies—anticipated a lot of stoner comedies and successful YouTube channels, and like them, it owes its success to approachability: it’s exactly like something you’d do with a friend on a slow Saturday night. I’d forgotten, until I revisited it, how smart the show was in critiquing dumb cinematic tropes. If you, like me, miss it, fear not: it looks like the Kickstarter’s going to meet its goal. —Jeffery Gleaves