Monday, July 19, 2010

Kurt - They'll miss you when you're gone.

by Stephen Cummings with Christina Mesiti

Kurt at Seattle Art Museum

Michael Darling's parting gift to Seattle may appeal to the city's grunge nostalgia, but if you want to see a worthwhile look at some pop culture icons, I suggest edging next door to the Warhol show. Whereas Andy's portraits seem to lay bare the depths of his subjects, Seattle Art Museum's Kurt dances around its title character without really going anywhere.

Whether through big photographs, crude graphite, or loud noises, Kurt's efforts at introspection fail to do much more than point to an icon. (Look! he existed!) I mean, I guess the work does "cause viewers to question why and how Kurt’s visage and his gestures came to mean so much to a generation,” as Darling says, but that's largely because the visual ineptitude causes us to ask ourselves why we should be looking at this stuff in the first place. Grunge music may have rejected the flashy visual effects of 80's glam rock as unrelated to the music, but is this amalgam of half-baked drawings, half-realized installations, and juvenile tributes to Nirvana's lead singer rejecting the visual as unrelated to . . . the visual?

Art is more than that, of course, and much of the work in these galleries is clearly aimed at more than one of our senses, but be it auditory, visual, or the institutional arrangement itself, this show, more often than not, is limp. Upon entry, two of our first encounters are a series of photographs by Charles Peterson, and a sort of stage set / recording studio installation by Maxwell + Hadley. The photographs: better suited for a VH1 documentary than an art museum. The frozen frames of Kurt Cobain's drum-set jump, seen all together, slow everything to a plodding monotony where the end is known and the middle isn't very interesting. I suppose the large format printing was intended to make this work bold, but the slow, awkwardness of it all makes what must have been at least a mildly violent action seem strange and kind of pathetic. As for the Maxwell + Hadley installation, here I suppose the cacophonous crowd noise in that little space was meant to be overwhelming and off-putting — and it was. But the stilted arrangement of objects and lazy separation from the rest of the gallery ensured immersion was a non-occurrence, making a weird, loud, obtrusion nothing more than weird, loud, and obtrusive.

It goes on like this. In the next room, a blaring silver wall cries out, 'Look! Icon!', only to direct us to a sad little painting by Elizabeth Peyton. What Regina Hackett calls "lovely as a wilting wildflower," I call piddling and naive. Later on, Banks Violette reproduces photographs in graphite, to which I say, Why not just photographs? MoMA or not, this was an assignment I had in high school, and no more interesting, even with a gallery full of bad-ass wall decal blackness.

I could go on with more non-aesthetic paintings, and heavy-handed graphite, and bland photography, and a thing that gets in your way while it plays lots of music, but you get the idea. There are highlights: Scott Fife's big ol' head is sort of interesting, though it's exactly the same as his Elvis, and lacks the power of his T-Rex; and Jeffry Mitchell's Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain in the Style of Jay Steensma stands out as something worth seeing, but I have to agree with the assessment that it's a "hidden gem". Unassuming, this small painting doesn't scream for attention, so you'll have to look for it in what is otherwise a collection of mediocrity.

Remember though, this is grunge. The visual aesthetic is supposed to say "I don't care." (Not the nihilistic, revolutionary uncaring of Dada, mind you, but an angsty, teenagery uncaring that's trying really hard to show us just how much it doesn't care.) But isn't grunge dirty? Isn't it at least unkempt? Isn't it haphazard, or slightly dangerous, or something? I ask this only to say that all the the things I've complained about may have been effective if the setting wasn't the inescapable white cube. (May have.) For all the daring of putting on a show around such an odd subject, no innovation was employed in presentation. It's the same, antiseptic neutrality as always. Could it be that this work needs to function in a space that's different from that of Dan Flavin and Josef Albers?

With work deliberately unresolved, and often at odds with its surroundings, the viewer looks to the institution for explanations. It creates a perfect opportunity for the museum to explain to us why we should care, flexing its analytical muscle to prove the relevance of the whole endeavor. But the result is overly earnest wall text taking itself very seriously in a show ostensibly serious about being apathetic. Sort of. This could just be a serious attachment to grunge. The Kurt Cobain hero worship is way over the top, curators, artists, and many viewers complicit. It seems that the only reason to care about much of this is an abject embrace of all things Cobain. Why is that ok? A comparable James Dean show would never fly. Way too kitschy. The stuff of tents at arts and crafts fairs. But because grunge brings that edge of anti-aesthetic, this show is called important.

So the curators fail the museum visitor first by selecting work we shouldn't care about, and then by trying to make us care about it. Kurt is seriously flawed in its execution. But it seems to be a success — of sorts. Reviewers and visitors alike are enthusiastic, many — too many — professing a love for the whole half-heartedly grungy affair. I attribute this difference of opinion to an overdeveloped local pride. But the fact that there are fish in the waters around town doesn't make sculptures of schooling salmon any good. Oh well.

At any rate, if I had known my ball point pen drawings from ninth grade would be museum quality work in ten years, I would have saved my trapper keepers.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reading The New Yorker on the West Coast

by Sean Flannigan

Full of abstract comics, very specific advertisements aimed much to the East of me, and current-event-minded articles by big name intellectuals, The New Yorker arrives each week in my mailbox, with cover art to puzzle over while standing in my apartment building's foyer, scratching my head. A small joy explodes inside me. I look immediately inside the cover at the line-up. The first name I attempt to recognize is near the bottom, beside the word "FICTION" in those beautiful and regal New Yorker font characters. Near one of my favorite seats in the house sits a pile of them, The New Yorkers. I read through articles about new cancer drugs (Malcolm Gladwell, May 17, 2010), Balkan jewel thieves (David Samuels, April 12, 2010), the future of the electric car (Tad Friend, August 24, 2009) and the simple and paranoid genius of WikiLeaks (Raffi Khatchadourian, June 7, 2010), among other things. And, while these articles are extremely interesting and mind-expanding, the fiction is a true treat, the proverbial cherry atop the New Yorker sundae (or pie?).

As of late, I decided to look through my stack to personally appraise the stories I have enjoyed in the last few months. There are many. I narrowed and distilled my selection and will forthwith appraise and advertise them publicly, for possible enjoyment by others, by you. How about five? In no particular order, the following are stories I have liked and things I would like to say about them.

"In The South" by Salman Rushdie (May 18, 2009 issue)

I read this story July 3rd actually, out in the sun, while drinking a beer and listening to the groans of thousands of zombies (the Zombie Walk in Seattle's Fremont district, the purpose of which was to break the record for most zombies walking, I suppose). It, the story not the Zombie Walk, takes place in the South of India and concerns two old and crabby men, called Junior and Senior. They aren't related but one is seventeen days older than the other and they both share the same name, an unmentioned nomination which begins with the letter "V." The story begins, "The day that Junior fell down began like any other day..." followed by a poetic list of decorated descriptions which encapsulate the spirit of them and their region, including, "the traffic's tidal surges, ... a child's cry, a mother's rebuke, ... scarlet expectorations, ... the smell of strong sweet coffee..." Already a story of some variable impending doom. These old men live next to each other and speak nearly as one. They love each other in an unspoken way, with their spoken language being one of mutual dislike. Rushdie's prose, as always, is wonderfully poetic. I enjoyed the story itself but had more fun with the underlining of great sentences and phrases. I will list a few following this conclusion. Rushdie has written many great and lauded novels, two of the most notable being Midnight's Children and Satanic Verses. I have read only Satanic Verses, the book for which he had a fatwa placed upon his head, and I loved it. Midnight's Children is supposedly even better. I can't wait. I suggest him highly. Here are some lines and phrases:

"...after a lifetime of priding themselves on the quality of their teeth, they had both surrendered to the humiliating inevitability of dentures..."
"His days emptied out into tedious inaction."
"The great events of eight decades had managed to occur without any effort on his part to help them along."
"'We knew, let me say this, who we were. And now I am a shadow without a shadow to shadow. He who knew me knows nothing now, and therefore I am not known. What else, woman, is death?' 'The day you stop talking' she replied."

"Here We Aren't, So Quickly" by Jonathan Safran Foer (June 14 & 21, 2010 issue)

This I read on the couch. It was quickly read, not even two full pages. But good. Foer is a man of incredible prosaic fortitude. Vegetarian also. I like. This story is one of many stories in the 20 Under 40 issue of The New Yorker. It is about a relationship. You did this, I liked that. And on and on like that throughout. Through this simple literary mechanism he is able to weave a sweetly melancholic story of two people, a certain sad nostalgia. He folds the pronouns "I," "you," "we," they" and "he" back and forth over each other in a way that explains the lives of these people in so little space, sort of the main theme of poetic prose. Snippets will follow. Jonathan Safran Foer is most well-known from his book, Everything is Illuminated, and this is merely because it was optioned for a movie and it hit the big screen. Said movie was, as are nearly every book-to-screen adaptations, not as good as the book. The book was beautiful. His other book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was itself another wonderful piece of literature. Now, snippets:

"I was always never complaining, because confrontation was death to me, and because everything was pretty much always pretty much O.K. with me. You were not able to approach the ocean at night."
"They encouraged us to buy insurance. We had sex to have orgasms. You loved reupholstering."
"I was always watching movie trailers on my computer. You were always wiping surfaces. I was always hearing my father's laugh and never remembering his face. You broke everyone's heart until you suddenly couldn't. He suddenly drew, suddenly spoke, suddenly wrote, suddenly reasoned. One night I couldn't help him with his math. He got married."

"The TV" by Ben Loory (April 12, 2010 issue)

This I read while in the bath. Though it wouldn't top my list if it were ordered by how much I loved it, I still enjoyed it. "The TV" is a story about addiction, sort of. It is a story about observation v. action. Maybe. About laziness? Yes. It is essentially about a man who decides to call in sick and ends up watching his life being lived for him on the television. I don't want to give it away since it is a story of discovery, you and the man discovering what he is going to do next, both from the safety of your respective homes, you and the character. It was engrossing and I had to read it all in one sitting, or laying rather. Watch for this writer in the future, I say. Here is one segment for you:

"The man stays home from work again the next day, claiming to have the flu. The show is on again—his show. Yep, there he is, arriving at work. He is wearing the suit he bought last week at Macy’s. There he is, waving at the security guard he always waves at in the morning. Now he’s walking down the hallway toward his office, now he’s moving inside—there’s his desk, his chair, his in-box and his out-box, his stapler and his letter opener. It’s amazing; the man can hardly believe it. Onscreen, he sits down at his desk, looks at the clock, and begins to work."

"Extreme Solitude" by Jeffrey Eugenides (June 7, 2010 issue)

I read this in parts on my toilet. If you haven't read Middlesex yet, then go find a copy and read it soon. It is one of my favorite books. This story isn't that good by any means, but I enjoyed it. It stuck in my head a little and I love how he isn't afraid to venture casually into the world of sex. Centrally it concerns a girl, Madeleine, who finds herself falling for this mentholated-chew-spitting biology-philosophy double major named Leonard. They meet in Semiotics 211. Roland Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse" is the philosophical bible of love for this Madeleine. In the class she drudges through stacks of books of nearly incomprehensible theory — Derrida, Eco, Balzac, Handke, Van Vechten — before coming upon this Barthes, whose writing was finally beautiful and understandable. The two characters, Madeleine and Leonard, come from two entirely different backgrounds, rich and poor respectively, and it shows in their living situations, Madeleine with her weekly laundry day and Leonard with his empty and dirty apartment adorned with various milk crates for furniture. Their relationship consists mostly of talking, listening, eating and sex. She obsesses about love and he is much more philosophical and loose about such ideas. The story ends with what I see as an unresolved and confusing feeling. Lover's quarrel or the de facto end? The following is an extremely long sentence which should give a sense of the piece:

"But ever since the night they went back to Leonard’s place after watching “Amarcord” and started fooling around, when Madeleine found that instead of being turned off by physical stuff, as she often was with boys, instead of putting up with that or trying to overlook it, she’d spent the entire night worrying that she was turning Leonard off, worrying that her body wasn’t good enough, or that her breath was bad from the Caesar salad she’d unwisely ordered at dinner; worrying, too, about having suggested they order Martinis because of the way Leonard had sarcastically said, “Sure. Martinis. Let’s pretend we’re Salinger characters”; after having had, as a consequence of all this anxiety, pretty much no sexual pleasure, despite the perfectly respectable session they’d put together, and after Leonard (like every guy) had immediately fallen asleep, leaving her to lie awake stroking his head and vaguely hoping that she wouldn’t get a yeast infection, Madeleine asked herself if the fact that she’d just spent the whole night worrying wasn’t, in fact, a surefire sign that she was falling in love."

"Free Fruit For Young Widows" by Nathan Englander (May 17, 2010 issue)

I really loved this story and wasn't expecting that I would. I know nothing about this writer but if this story indicates his whole portfolio, he is good. It begins with an historical flashback, in the Sinai Desert around 1956. The French had previously been aligned with Egypt until it switched agitated with the Egyptian President's decision to take control of the Suez Canal, a major route for the West. This matters only because Israeli and Egyptian forces were adorned with the same French supplied outfits, and so couldn't tell who was who in the conflict. In the present of this story, a father is explaining to his son (both Israeli) why Professor Tendler doesn't have to pay for his fruit and vegetables from their stand. Tendler and the father (Shimmy Gezer) were in the military together during this 1956 happening wherein Tendler shoots and kills all of the soldiers sitting around Gezer at the outdoor mess, all of whom happened to be Egyptian. He saved his life. But he was a murderer. All the widows of slain soldiers also get free fruit, which the son could understand. Murder was different. He could have taken them prisoner. The father tries to explain the gray areas, context, and the son tries to understand yet thinks black and white, no context to draw from. Tendler survived the camps, hid in piles of dead bodies, scraped along as a ghost to survive to find a real life. How can one find morality in the face of such atrocity? I won't tell the whole story. It is very much worth reading.

"Etgar’s father explained the hazy morality of combat, the split-second decisions, the assessment of threat and response, the nature of percentages and absolutes. Shimmy did his best to make clear to his son that Israelis—in their nation of unfinished borders and unwritten constitution—were trapped in a gray space that was called real life."
"And from this pile of broken bodies that had been—prior to the American invasion—set to be burned, a rickety skeletal Tendler stared back. Professor Tendler stared and studied, and when he was sure that those soldiers were not Nazi soldiers he crawled out from his hiding place among the corpses, pushing and shoving those balsa-wood arms and legs aside."

These are some of the stories I gleaned from the pages of The New Yorker like precious gems. Many more await. You can find and read most of these stories and more at Enjoy!