Staff Picks: Stage Fright, Substitute Teachers, Skin


This Week’s Reading

Photo: Charlotte Strick

Alex Prager’s brilliant ten-minute film La Grande Sortie in its U.S. debut, is looping in the upstairs screening room of Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 23. Prager has imagined for us the marvelously grotesque descent of a prima ballerina into a state of hysteria provoked by our worst fears of stage fright. Witnessed through the shifting perspectives of the dancer (the remarkably theatric Émilie Cozette) and her ever more repulsive and hostile audience, the ballerina’s derangement reminds one of a desperate Mia Farrow surrounded by equal parts evil and camp in Rosemary’s Baby. Even on the fourth viewing, my heart rate surged in time with the stabbing string instruments in the film’s score, sampled from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and composed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. Layered under these orchestral notes is the amplified tap-tap-tap of scraping toe shoes across the wooden stage, the flapping of the dancer’s tulle skirt, and the noisy fidgeting of her restless audience. I marveled at Prager’s ability to create such a polished and darkly humorous examination of the extremes of human anxiety and artificiality. And the artist delivers up a panic-filled surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood horror flick. —Charlotte Strick

Type our education system into Google and Autofill will finish your thought: “is broken.” “Is outdated.” “Is flawed.” Any Joe on the street can tell you that. But Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are: for six months in 2014, he subbed for K–12 teachers in Maine. His new book, Substitute, is a close record of the hairline cracks and scotch-tape fixes that are comprised by a public education. Rather than fulminate or theorize, Baker offers a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard in the classroom. It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s seven hundred pages fly by, filled as they are with the mulch of student life: the iPad games, the idle chatter, the dioramas and worksheets and silent-reading blocks. Fans of Baker’s know he can elevate any subject—this is a man who’s written compellingly about vacuum cleaners—and the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends: “We all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise.” Or: “We were swimming in a warm, lifeless salt pond of geopolitical abstraction.” —Dan Piepenbring 


The September issue of Frieze contains an eight-page comic (or “special artist’s project,” to use the magazine’s parlance) by Gary Panter. Its narrative rests on a sort of bleak joke: one man opines to another about contemporary attitudes toward fine art as they make their way to an exhibition in which “98% of the museum contents of the 20th century” have been used for landfill. The man’s complaint is a version of Benjamin’s mechanical-reproduction argument: in the digital age, a work of art can be reproduced infinitely, so much so that neither the original object nor the myriad reproductions hold any value. By the same token, he warns that “mistaking the highest marketing structure as the main manifestation of art is sad.” But Panter’s smart critique is only one aspect of this brilliant comic; the other is the art. Panter drew it in ink without penciling or planning first (I’d guess the subject has been on his mind), then filled the panels with gem-hued watercolors and employed a rubber stamp and stencils to create areas of fake Benday dots. Last, he made occasional scribbles with a pencil. If the message is somewhat doleful, the art is a buoy. That balance may be what I love most about Panter’s work. —Nicole Rudick

Ten years before his retirement from music in 2009, the Silver Jews’s David Berman released a poetry collection, Actual Air. Berman’s poems, like his songs, aren’t showy—they’re precise and accessible, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being facile. “The Charm of 5:30” celebrates, simply, the feeling of having had a good day, when “even the headstones … seem to stand up and say ‘Hello! My name is … ’ ” Reading these poems is like turning over a rock and feeling like you’ve never looked at a rock before; Berman transmutes his sensitivities into verse that makes you want to look closely. But he can also be devastating: in “Imagining Defeat,” the narrator is woken by a woman who’s leaving him, her suitcase “like a little brown dog at her heels.” She asks him if he ever thinks of cancer. He does, “but always as a tree way up ahead in the distance where it doesn’t matter.” Then he slashes this sadness with the absurd. “To believe any of that,” he writes, “you have to accept the premise that she woke me up at all.” —Caitlin Love


The September issue of the tiny but esteemed photography magazine MATTE has pictures from Res about their relationship with their aging father. That I want to describe such a personal body of work as being, above all, formalist is a testament to the complexity of Res’s images. Rarely is anything where you expect it to be: a man’s face disappears behind the sparring shadows of sports trophies; an eerie, cloud-dappled sky peers down at a bleak and cluttered desk; aged skin emerges from behind the shimmering, out-of-focus loops of a chandelier. This formal rigor is essential to the sense we get that this is a family album turned deliberately on its head. The tropes are gone—the birthday parties, the posed and smiling faces—and they’re replaced with pieces of suburban banality that Res has transformed into scenes both unsettling and ecstatic. If the family album is, as Corrine Fitzpatrick writes in her essay introducing Res’s work, “a family telling itself the story of itself,” then these images conspire to blow the narrative possibilities of the contemporary family wide open. You can pick up a copy at the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 from September 16 to 18. —Sylvie McNamara