“Eight Views of Paradise Interrupted,” an exhibition of paintings by Jennifer Wen Ma, is at Sandra Gering Gallery through July 28. Ma, who splits her time between New York and Beijing, paints with ink on translucent acrylic glass, giving her landscapes a sumptuous, shadowy dimension in which women emanate a golden light. The works here were designed to supplement an opera that Ma debuted at last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, inspired by Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In an interview, she noted that the word paradise is derived from the concept of a walled garden: “a wall, a border, has been with the idea of paradise from the beginning, to keep certain things in, to keep certain things out.”
In August 2004, my friend Joseph and I organized a trip to Dubrovnik before chartering a boat on the Adriatic Sea. A Croatian friend advised me of a tiny nearby island called Lokrum. It was popular with nudists, he said, and had perfect swimming coves.
I told Joseph about the island when we met up in the Dubrovnik airport, and the next morning, anxious for the sea and sun, our skin the color of too much office work, we rode the ferry toward Lokrum. Only then did I mention that it was a nudist beach. “I don’t mind,” Joseph assured me. “Me neither,” I replied. “I just hope some of them are attractive.” Joseph turned to me with a smirk. “No,” he said. “I mean, I don’t mind being naked.” I hadn’t seen much of Joseph in the past year. Now I was going to see too much of him—every inner-thigh freckle, scrotal wrinkle, and circumcision mark. Read More
- Every era has its fads and fashions. When the dust settles, will cultural historians look kindly on 2017, in which the citizens of Western metropolises roam the streets looking like we could go camping at any moment? I cannot say. But I think we should give ourselves some credit—even the most lamentable style of the past ten years, the red #MAGA baseball cap, looks sensible in comparison to the sins of the past. During Marie Antoinette’s time, for instance, there was a brief craze for caca-dauphin, a shade of brown that resembled the color of the new prince Louis-Joseph’s soiled diapers. In the most fashionable circles, people dressed to celebrate the royal bowel movements. As Michael Taube writes in a review of Carolyn Purnell’s new book The Sensational Past, this was but one example of eccentric Enlightenment-era trends: “This awakening of our senses led to some astonishing results, from sensible to senseless … The citronella-based drink Water of Carmes, which supposedly ‘stimulated memory and got rid of unpleasant fantasies,’ was popular for a time … A few relatively harmless drinks aside, the senses of the Enlightenment occasionally ventured into some strange territory. Take the brief rise of ‘prince poo.’ During the time of Marie Antoinette in France, wealthy individuals ‘spent the equivalent of thousands of dollars to wear the clothing the color of baby poop.’ This grotesque fashion choice was done ‘as a way to show their support for the monarchy and to demonstrate how fashionable they could be.’ There was also the cat piano. As the story goes, King Philip II of Spain brought his father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a ridiculous contraption in 1549 ‘with twenty rather narrow boxes, each of which contained a cat’ that would produce a ‘lamentable meowing’ when a key was pressed.”
- Corporations love to infantilize consumers, and they’re always looking for new and novel ways to do so. Take the new Kmart shopping bag, for instance—Vinson Cunningham has seen it, and he is afraid: “The bag, pristinely white, its surface marked by forgiving wrinkles, is set against a subtle gradient-blue background that looks like the sky. It might have been tossed away and carried upward by the wind. ‘Life is ridiculously awesome,’ it says, in two bubbly, bright-red fonts: a juicy cursive and a blocky, all-caps sans serif … Kmart adopted this slogan just last March, after several years of market share lost to Walmart, in order to attract a rising generation of millennial shoppers. The hope was to convince them (or, I guess, remind them) that consumption, retail-style, could, in the corporation’s words, be ‘fun,’ even ‘awesome’ … The hint of self-consciously campy nostalgia in its new ‘look and feel’ seems connected to the steady decay of the shopping experience that once helped to define, and to bolster, a wide swath of working- and lower-middle-class life in America.”
- Saeed Kamali Dehghan on the profusions and confusions of the Iranian publishing industry, whose cavalier approach to copyright makes for an abundance of shoddy translations: “If J. D. Salinger could see what was on the shelves in Iranian bookshops, he would turn in his grave. The Inverted Forest, a 1947 novella that he refused to republish in the U.S. for more than half a century, is widely available in Farsi in most Iranian bookshops … just one example of Iran’s messy, complicated, yet fascinating translation scene, which has long been undermined by the country’s failure to join the Berne convention on copyright … The popularity of foreign fiction and the difficulties of obtaining permission have exacerbated the problem of multiple translations of the same book popping up, with some translators exploiting the copyright vacuum—particularly so for bestsellers. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, for instance, has been translated into Persian by at least sixteen different people … In 2008, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee asked me to pass on a statement to the Iranian news agencies, one that reflected his belief that copyright protection was not just about money. ‘It does upset writers, justifiably, when their books are taken over without permission, translated by amateurs and sold without their knowledge,’ he wrote.”
- The English invented English, but Americans have perfected it. Or so we might assume, to judge by the number of Americanisms and loanwords that have infiltrated the once-impenetrable walls of British English. And the Brits are pissed about this—many of them would prefer their tongues unsullied by such American poisons as “no-brainer” and “elevator.” Reviewing Matthew Engel’s That’s the Way It Crumbles, John Sutherland writes, “We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism … One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution ‘wake-up call.’ The first use he finds is ‘in an ice hockey report in the New York Times in 1975’ … Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound ‘from the get-go.’ He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called ‘Git-Go Blues.’ And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean! … Britain in 2017 is, to borrow an Americanism, ‘brainwashed,’ and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.”
- In an interview with Ann Friedman, Chris Kraus explains how her novel I Love Dick emerged from an antipathy toward the relentless you-go-girl positivity that characterized the feminism of the nineties: “I never bought into any of the sort of positivity. I was of an era where New Age came along, and I found that so deeply repugnant, and I wrote about it. When I wrote I Love Dick, it’s not as if—I mean, I’ve never put myself forward as any kind of political leader or cultural critic or even cultural theorist. I was just writing a book … I felt like my goal was to put everything on the table that was transacted under the table. There’s this kind of gender romantic comedy on the surface of it, but really it’s about power. And not even personal dynamic power; more like economic power and cultural-politics power, and how things are transacted. I think the book asks literally in the middle, ‘Who gets to speak and why is the only question.’ ”
“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 Read More
In the refulgent early seventies, I owned, but was never fully occupied by, the Allman Brothers Band’s double album Eat a Peach. More than the hit “Melissa,” it was that soon-to-be-iconic cover, featuring a truck with a giant peach (Roald Dahl eat your heart out) that made the greatest inroads into my admittedly wobbly consciousness. I bought into the myth circulating at the time: that Duane Allman, who had died on his motorcycle, had been struck by a flatbed truck transporting Georgia peaches through Macon on their way to some orchard in the sky. The grisly truth regarding the crash was less inspiring, and a less-interesting conversation starter for visitors to my off-campus cottage, where the album held pride of place on the mantelpiece above my fireplace. Later I learned that the elegiac cover took off either from Duane’s admiration for T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or his euphemistic turn of phrase “Every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace,” which apparently referred to his on-and-off-the-road activities with local women who were hotter than Georgia asphalt.
Years—no, decades—passed. Sometime in the summer of 1996 my fourteen-year-old son acquired two tickets to an Allman Brothers concert at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts, a forty-minute drive from our home. He’d arranged to bring along a friend, a girl but not a girlfriend, and for some reason everyone involved, i.e., both sets of parents, were cool with letting them attend without a full-time chaperone. I would drive them to the concert, wait in the lot, and pick them up on their way out, the sounds of the last stupendous encore still ringing in their juvenile ears. Read More
- What can we learn from Crystal Pepsi? What does green ketchup teach us? That corporations, our gods, are as fallible as we are; that no amount of market research can prepare you for the brutal realities of the marketplace; that it’s okay to fail sometimes, as long as you can explain it to your shareholders. Above all, every expensive, high-stakes commercial failure carries in it the germ of our collective death, of whatever defect in our society will lead to our undoing. In Sweden, Dr. Samuel West, a clinical psychologist, has opened a museum of failure, where visitors can worship at the altar of every dumb letdown that’s ever graced the shelves of Walmart. It’s not about laughing, he says. It’s about reckoning with disaster. Alexander Smith reports, “They saw marvels such as the Rejuvenique Electric Facial Mask, a harrowing Jason Voorhees–style invention that promises in just ninety days to make you as beautiful as Linda Evans from Dynasty, who features on the box. The Harley-Davidson eau de toilette was rejected by bikers who felt it damaged the brand, the female-branded Bic pens crashed and burned for obvious reasons, and while the plastic bike didn’t rust, it also wobbled alarmingly while in motion … Other exhibits include potato chips made with the fat substitute olestra, which has the benefit of helping weight loss but unfortunate side effect of diarrhea … Tech giant Apple features in the museum with its 1993 personal assistant, the Newton MessagePad, whose poor handwriting recognition has earned it almost mythical status among the history of bad gadgets … ‘The media like to cover the museum because they get to show some funny stuff and write a clickbait headline,’ [Dr. West] said. ‘But the underlying message is definitely not a gimmick.’ ”
- Poor Mikhail Bulgakov. He worked and worked and got nothing for it. Boris Dralyuk writes, “A central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce—and at times even deduce—what was asked of him … We get a keen sense of this ambition from Bulgakov’s letter to his cousin, sent in 1921 from Vladikavkaz, where he first began to regard himself as a professional writer: ‘At night I sometimes read over the stories I’ve published previously (in newspapers! in newspapers!), and I think: where is my volume of collected works? Where is my reputation? Where are the wasted years?’ It is painful to consider how little he would be able to boast of after another nineteen years of back-breaking literary labor: one volume of fiction; journal clippings of feuilletons, short stories, novellas, and part of his novel White Guard (1925); as well as a handful of staged plays—many of which were quickly banned … Toward the end of his life he knew that his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was doomed to ‘the darkness of a drawer.’ ”