Staff Picks: Banquets, Bootleggers, Bumbling Entrepreneurs


This Week’s Reading

Ray Johnson, Untitled (Jasper Johns, James Dean with Coca-Cola), 1993, collage on board, 8 1/2″ x 18″. Image via Matthew Marks Gallery


“For more than thirty years Garland Bunting has been engaged in capturing and prosecuting men and women in North Carolina who make and sell liquor illegally.” Such is the modest first sentence of Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine, a book-length portrait of a backwoods law-enforcement genius. First published in 1985, this is old-fashioned New Yorker reporting at its best: funny, low-key, sneakily poignant—the kind of book that makes you want to read it aloud. In Garland, Wilkinson found a complex hero. He also found out a lot about the production and sale of moonshine, very little of it romantic, all of it intensely interesting. Somebody bring Moonshine back into print! —Lorin Stein 

This week, I caught the end of Matthew Marks Gallery’s Ray Johnson show, which closes Saturday. I’ve never seen so much of Johnson’s work in person—there are more than thirty collages on view, made from 1966 to 1994, the year before his death. He spent some three years at Black Mountain College in the mid forties and studied there with Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Alvin Lustig, and Paul Rand. His education in painting, advertising art, and graphic design comes through in spades in these collages, which deal in an appealing combination of repeating forms—both abstract and figurative—that run counter to one another but are never at war, never unharmonious. Johnson mixes imagery from celebrity and popular culture, art history, and his own symbology in a proto-Pop, proto-conceptual style that is funny, bold, and demure all at the same time. That said, my favorite piece is punk rock meets avant-garde: a pair of black-and-white saddle shoes, from 1977, with JOHN and CAGE stenciled on the toes. —Nicole Rudick 

From the first edition of Moonshine.

It’s a wonder that Vittorio De Sica’s Il Boom (1963) has only just arrived in the US, but perhaps it couldn’t be timelier. Showing now at Film Forum, the film is set in Rome during “il boom,” the economic upswing of the sixties. We follow Giovanni Alberti, a lovably bumbling everyman incapable of saving so much as a single cent. Drowning in debt, he pitches the same flimsy scam to every entrepreneur he comes across. With each rejection, shimmering skyscrapers and neon advertisements sneer; the composer Piero Piccioni’s jaunty guitars seem to mock him. Facing the threat of losing his family, Alberti negotiates his final deal, the sale of one of his eyes. A sharp satire of postwar capitalism, Il Boom runs the logic of the free market to its absurd end. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira

I love how often Ali Smith’s characters amuse themselves. The Whole Story and Other Stories, in which Smith’s talents are on full display, overflows with women who laugh to themselves on trains, in supermarkets, and at art galleries. See the deliriously fun “May,” in which a woman falls in love with a tree: “A tree, for goodness sake, I laugh to myself as I pay for a bag of apples in the supermarket … ”; and “Being quick,” in which a woman thinks she sees Death in King’s Cross train station: “I thought how funny it was of me to have imagined that the man who nearly bumped into me was Death. I laughed. The coughing girl opened her eyes and looked at me accusingly.” These charming bursts are evidence of how much time these women spend in their own minds. Are some of them mad? Maybe. But they’re also playful, cunning, quick, bright. You feel like an accomplice to their thoughts. (Best paired with Smith’s Art of Fiction interview, in our Summer issue.) —Caitlin Love

A still from Il Boom.

Long Ling, a government official in Beijing, contributed “Death at the Banquet,” the Diary column in the latest London Review of Books, and I can’t stop thinking about it: there’s something uniquely chilling about the notion of a fatality wrapped in so many layers of bureaucracy. China’s Communist Party, Ling explains, has a long and sordid history of lavish banquets; before reforms were passed, “senior officials frequently attended two to three banquets on a single evening. Sometimes banquets would be held consecutively, leaving the host to struggle home after five or six hours of drinking, but more frequently two or more banquets would take place in adjacent rooms in a restaurant, with the host moving from one room to the other to toast visiting dignitaries.” When Ling is coerced into attending one, she’s seated near an overweight guy who promptly drinks himself to death, literally: he keels over at the table, bleeding from the mouth and nose, and turns purple. The reaction to his death is a lesson in buck-passing, an unsettling admixture of superstition and lies of omission. It’s a haunting vignette, carefully crafted. I hope Ling has more of them in store. —Dan Piepenbring