Saturday, January 31, 2009

Liz Renay

Somewhere I read that the Surrealists had a guerilla-style method of moviegoing: in which they would enter random movies at random times, with no attention to the title or qualities of the films, & then leave when they found it uninteresting. This has always seemed next to impossible to do in our society. Without following current Hollywood films, the glut of advertising, journalism and tabloid fodder informs even the least attentive. I always have some preconceived idea about entertainments I would never otherwise approach, which I find intrusive & irritating. (One friend dealt with such information by simply taking sides - deciding what was meritorious or bad - without ever bothering to see the actual film, at which point he could argue his case for hours).

Still, at least in my memory, there is one moment where I somehow walked into a midnight movie, while at school, without seeing the title or knowing what it was I was going to see & it was John Waters' Female Trouble. It was both a surprise & such a delirious film, seemingly out of nowhere, that I think of it to this day as one of my formative cinematic experiences. I think of John Waters as comparable to a late 19th century aesthete - he is a keen arbiter of tastes. He is the opposite of a character like Andy Warhol, who valorized banality & consumerism. Waters is about appreciating the special, in whatever form that may take.

Also, reading Waters' book Shock Value, I first learned about Liz Renay (also her book title is cribbed in Female Trouble, when Divine's bandages are removed after having been disfigured with acid by her mother-in-law & someone utters the poetic phrase . . . .), & I found a paperback copy of her first book in a used shop on Woodward Ave. in Royal Oak, My Face for the World to See. This would have been circa 1979, which makes this more or less the 30th anniversary of my initial reading of My Face For The World To See, as well as the last day of the Liz Renay exhibit at Deitch Projects, which I was very happy to attend.

Liz Renay's story is both ubiquitous & unique. Her narrative of dreaming herself out of poverty, the uncannily beautiful daughter of Puritanical holy-rollers, who finds her own in sex, in movies, in dreaming of a better, more interesting life for herself, & being waylaid in strip joints, prison, etc. is ostensibly banal but given her amazing bravado in the face of continual adverse circumstances & her relentless resourcefulness, one sees instead not just a kitsch show-biz narrative, but an attempt to go further, to endow the processes of living something other than a passive acceptance. I think the best show biz narratives are by those on the outside or outskirts of "success." A successful Hollywood actor is a corporate robot who will never express the slightest honesty, The only comparable memoirists w/ Liz Renay would be the very disparate characters such as former silent film vamp Dagmar Godowsky (author, First Person Plural), & actor-turned-true-crime-writer John Gilmore. But both Godowsky & Gilmore had more Hollywood success than Liz Renay. I have seen her one major film role, in A Date With Death, & she is remarkably awful in it. In terms of Hollywood "success" Liz Renay is a remarkable failure, & not according to her memoir of shoulda, woulda, coulda, either. The delusional aspect to her memoir is its strongest kitsch element, yet one can't help but applaud her intrepid pragmatism in dealing with her circumstances.

My copy of My Face For The World To See is still beside my bed, in tatters. I can quote from it at some length, beginning with the opening:

The room spun crazily as I downed another glass of champagne. Oh no, I thought, I better watch out, I'm getting high again . . .

The mention of champagne is remarkable - I have counted at least 69 occurrences of the word in the book. I think semioticians would appreciate the book as pleasure, luxury & ambition are all presented as animated things. The ubiquitous luxurious glass of champagne, for example. Or on her way to a screen test: Banks of ivy lined the drive to Burbank.

The book is about the contradictions of life: fashion model becomes stripper out of immediate monetary need. hopeless romantic, mislead by several men, becomes her own author, as it were, in declaring her own desires & needs. down&out? renay finds a way out. model, actress, stripper, singer, writer, painter - it is all done with such earthy humor & conviviality. Although Renay is remarkably discreet in discussing her association with Mickey Cohen, I appreciate her kiss-&-tell attitude about dating Hollywood actors: on a scale of 1 to 10 Burt Lancaster is a 10 (of course) & Jerry Lewis is 2. & even her time in prison becomes dramatic fodder. Fighting off a bull-dyke's advances, Renay gets the woman to admit the genesis of a life gone bad: from the childhood loss of a pet chicken, Lil'Naked, which was unfortunately served for dinner in a time of need. Amidst chaos, Renay becomes her own heroine.

In her book Renay discusses her painting, which I had never actually seen before. For those looking for inspiration, in the book there's a remarkable passage about painting an entire show in one night - opting to paint abstractions for time-saving, & playing different kinds of music to put her in appropriately varied moods. The work in the show at Deitch is all figurative & shows a great range of fantasies. From Eve offering an apple to Adam to a platinum blond Marie Antoinette. In the book there are mentions of gallery openings on 57th street - I am trying to imagine what that was like.

I tried to keep myself aloof from the smoke-filled dens, but sometimes the moan & wail of the saxophone got to me, & my heart beat as one to that lowdown, bluesy beat. . .

Friday, January 30, 2009

William Eggleston @ the Whitney

As much as I admire the work of William Eggleston, I am perplexed at my disappointment in the recent retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Arranged in a counter-clockwise arrangement on one floor, the work was arranged chronologically by its initial execution, from mid-1960s black-&-white prints, to the images seen in William Eggleston's Guide and Alamos, video work now edited & entitled "Lost in Canton," the 5x7 images recently published & exhibited at Cheim & Read, images from the books Election Eve, the Graceland guide, the Democratic Forest, and most currently some images from Kyoto.

Other than a few vitrines of early catalogs which include images by Eggleston, some less-than-finished c-prints (in contradistinction to the radiant dye transfer prints matted & framed on the walls) & the luxuriant privately published 2-volume Election Eve, there is little acknowledgment of the important role of publishing in Eggleston's artistic trajectory, as well as the role of John Szarkowski & the Museum of Modern Art in establishing Eggleston as a serious artist/photographer. These are mentioned, but in a negligible manner. Instead the viewer was offered a stream of luminous prints - albeit in itself an aesthetic feast - with little notation beyond that. Frankly, the curating of the show seemed minimal at best. Work was simply there, without much context. Also, what was not mentioned is the recent printing & circulation of images initially made in the 1960s & 1970s (the black-&-white prints, the 5x7 images & video). Instead the work was presented as a seamless chronology, without any notation as to the actual circulation of the work, which is much more erratic than such a timeline suggests.

I did get a perverse amusement in the installation of the video of "Stranded in Canton" which is anarchic & meandering & rather dark in its excesses: it is common practice now to bring small unruly uninterested children to museums, evidently to instill a sense of high kulchur in the tykes. & to see the numerous small children watch as a nude guy w/ long hair tries to shove a liquor bottle up his ass while screaming "This is LOOOOVE!" had its own special moment for me.

My guess is that Eggleston, like others of his generation & orbit (Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand) has worked quite a bit, in general, & the organization of the material, it's perimeters as a body of work, comes later. This is a practice outside what is taught in MFA programs, or the expectations of what an artist is supposed to justify in public. In the films of Eggleston he is almost maddeningly oblique in his insistence on the priorities of formal graphic qualities, while to our contemporary eyes, his images are loaded with content: class differences, race relations, commodity culture, history rendered in minutae of home decor, suburbanization, anomie, great introspection & also a sense of withdrawal from a teeming world. By the same token, Eggleston really doesn't have to say anything at all & if anything, he seems all the more refined for not doing so. Aside from his taciturnity in discussing his work, I think there is still a highly sensitive engagement with the images. & Eudora Welty (herself a wonderful photographer) wrote about him: why bother to add on to that?

Perhaps the great Eggleston show will come in future generations when there is no gallery or Eggleston Trust to intercede or dominate in any exhibition. It occurred to me that there was a similar occurrence with the Whitney 1995 retrospective of Richard Avedon, which was dominated by dictates & demands of the Avedon studio, likewise in the later show of Avedon portraits at the Met. Or the recent Met show of Diane Arbus which had a party line of intense hagiography if not downright fetishization of her everyday set-up (including a reconstruction of her darkroom with an eternal enlarger light on). There's something to be said for the non-interference of long-gone artists in terms of organizing shows about him or her. Otherwise it is more advertisement, more spectacle, more hokum for us to swallow, at best.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bigger Than Life

The plot of Bigger Than Life can be read in simple terms: A middle-class family in middle-America. The father becomes ill & his subsequent medication has psychological effects due to his abuse of said medication. Ultimately he collapses as a result.

Made in the 1950s, Bigger Than Life also seems a harbinger of our own contemporary controlled & medicated culture. Science in the home as inevitable future. Bigger Than Life begins with what seems an absurdly pastoral post-WWII domestic landscape of single-family homes & struggles for upward mobility & the values of thrift & education. In a technicolor oddly parallel with the palette of Norman Rockwell illustrations we see a home worked for & "succeeding" in its perfection. From this point on Bigger Than Life negates such a reading & turns such plastic hopes into a private hell resembling German expressionist films more than the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

First & foremost is the casting of James Mason as a middle-class middle-American schoolteacher. He is an oddly aristocratic choice for such a role & brings to it a tragedy which can be seen in many of his other roles, from Odd Man Out to the remake of A Star is Born (in which he commits suicide!) to Lolita. His sonorous voice is impossible to separate from the darkness of the film - how else to give eloquent voice to the megalomaniacal speeches induced by his cortisone abuse? With his English accent and sophisticated manner Mason is a truly anomalous "everyman" for a middle-American suburbia, a potential for Nietszchian superhuman excess which translates to domestic evil.

The other characters, the dutiful wife, the colleague & best friend gym teacher-neighbor, & the son, look like stock characters, without much depth, in contrast to Mason's tormented character who has a choice of either medicated madness or death. The family house becomes a labyrinth of shadows & kitsch - everything in place & quite ridiculous, & also ultimately terrifying in its indifference, it's mausoleum-like perfection.

Entertainment can function as propaganda as well for dominant values, working as a mirror of ideals & values. How curious that Nicholas Ray could make such a dark film within a Hollywood studio system. My guess is it just seemed weird enough & also the exoticism of gloriously tragic James Mason as schoolteacher (also working part-time as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet) to get made. There is a "happy ending" which is uncertain & equivocal & seems delusional.

Perhaps, paradoxically, Hollywood,a conglomeration of feudal corporations, in the 1950s could still produce work such as Ray's (Rebel Without A Cause, In A Lonely Place) & Douglas Sirk's Brechtian melodramas, & other films which could be read as subversive of dominant values (Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, Vicente Minnelli's Home From The Hill), contra our now globalized economy in which movie studios are subsidiaries of larger companies & as such are controlled even more remotely & have the gravity of Coca-Cola.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at the Museum of Modern Art

This morning, under the misapprehension that the holidays were over, I decided, after the gym, to go to MoMA when it opened.

As a working stiff I forget about the nature of holidays for others (students, etc.). January 5 is still not a dull-normal day of the calendar year.

Pushing through the throngs at MoMA I gave up my initial intent, which was to look at the surrealist objects in the collection, simply to browse around where the least crowds were. I am rereading Andre Breton's Nadja - I thought the objects at MoMA would inform my current reading.

Breton's Nadja is a madwoman who offers to the author a quixotic re-arrangement of logic, in which she attains profundity, outside any societal conventions, outside the absolute tedium of the quotidian world. Breton's fascination with Nadja also includes his sectarian collusion with chance & coincidence. The book is illustrated w/ images of Paris, which denote sites & characters in the book: are we in a work of fiction wherein all could be fabricated, or what is this blurring of document & subjectivity?

I initially saw the slide show of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency sometime before it was published - I'm guessing 1983-1984 or so (terrible at years) in the backroom at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a bar across the street from the Maxwell Coffee ("good to the last drop") plant. Friends of mine lived upstairs.

At that point it was a somewhat obscure project. Nan Goldin came with 2 slide projectors, a dissolve unit for the projectors, & a boom box for the soundtrack on cassette. This was very ad hoc & potentially amateurish, which is exactly its strength, as well, as a piece of work.

My memories of the show at Maxwells are vivid but unspecific; the screening this AM at MoMA distorts my fragile, indistinct recollections. One of the curious aspects of The Ballad is that it is open-ended. It is updated periodically. MoMA acquired the Ballad in 2004 - in the credits there is a copyright date of 2006. What I saw today included images not in the initial Ballad, but also later work which can be seen in other books & catalogues, such as The Other Side, Love Streams, Vakat, The Devil's Playground. What I saw more of which I don't remember so well: guns, needles, pregnancies, babies, bodybuilders, famous artists, graves.

One perverse thought to occur was that the images of the empty hotel rooms (seen primarily in Vakat) are the most potent in their repression of the direct human activity in such spaces, which is made evident in the absence of people/characters/actors & yet evident in their lack - a sense that something has happened. This has an uncanny feel to it which is not part of Goldin's usual agenda. One of the simultaneous delightful & disturbing aspects to Goldin's photographs is that they are not meant to be artistic per se - they are very confrontational in terms of addressing issues of visibility, & also complicating it - these are emphatically not glib images which encapsulate existences. There is no decisive moment & no entry into any formula for "what is." The slide shows Goldin creates veer from the vernacular cliche of the family narrative into what is much more extraordinary & special. This is a kind of validation for what is seen, as proof positive of what goes on.

I am on the fence considering the updates & revisions of the Ballad. What was shown initially was a very precocious, tough document of a young person, in which everyone was young & feisty (except for the parents), & acting out a bit. In the update, one can see some of the same characters older, & also many who are not: in the credits I counted 27 names in "In Memory of" which gives the spirit of the initial Ballad a much more melancholic if not despairing tone to what was already an equivocal evaluation of being & relationships. What I remember in my dotage about my initial encounter w/ The Ballad, in the back room of a bar in New Jersey, was its sense of immediacy & its interrogation of the private photo - that there was something to say about need, compulsion, desire, impulse. This is entirely outside the realm of the art world - I think what she deals with in her work is outside gallery rhetoric, even though that is where it resides. One could question whether it becomes repetitive, or whether it could lapse into self parody. & I am curious as to the position of the anonymous viewer in looking at this work: how to evaluate it, how to comprehend it. As prints, or a book, the Ballad exists in a containable, distinct form, whereas as a projection it has a performative time-duration which is much more demanding. The Ballad has been an important interference in the trajectory of modern art/photography. I am curious how it looks to those who have not seen it before - I count myself out on this as I feel as if I have lived with it somehow, in my adult years, in various kinds of familiarity. When it first appeared the general culture was less totalized in media - now there is an endless stream of media in which disclosure & confession are kitsch & meaningless. TV-internet-news-entertainment are always speaking to us privately. Personal drama is now a kind of public performance & as such seems less direct or sincere somehow - it is too coiffed, too poised, too anticipated. During the projection at MoMA there were snickers at times at moments I found peculiar: during the sequence of hypodermic needles, for instance, or images involving various bodily fluids.

The Ballad was published as a book close to the same time that Twin Palms published Ken Schles' book Invisible City, which was also shot mostly in the East Village/Lower East Side of NYC, at approximately the same time as the Ballad, & involving loosely the same age-group as well as locale. Invisible City is made of of full-bleed black-&-white images. The photos are not diaristic per se but involve a journey of introspection - this is as much about the urban as it is the personal. The work is done with great craft & is informed with a great deal of knowledge about photography, photo books, urbanity, & design (which was by Schles). It follows great books such as Robert Frank's The Americans, William Klein's New York, the books of Daido Moriyama. The Ballad followed the publication of Larry Clark's Tulsa & Danny Seymour's A Loud Song, but with its use of color slides, it's machine-like lack of handicraft, it presented a photography informed as much with the home amateur slide show, although it is so unlike such material too.

One of the more curious efforts I have seen by students is to try to imitate Nan Goldin's style - what is usually presented are extremely uninteresting party pictures, about social fun & potentially excessive habits. Side by side w/ Goldin's images one realizes how harsh & emotional her images are, & how strongly they are actually composed. The slides can look haphazard in a projection (the earliest images have what seems to be shifting colors) - as prints they appear much more rigorous & painterly.

On a personal note I must state that I was young & living cheaply in the Lower East Side at the time. For me both books touched on the world around me, even if my experiences were not exactly similar. Both looked familiar.