Kerfuffle at Damien Echols’ Exhibit

A friend was in the know about a Damien Echols art show featuring work that he had done in prison. There was a ticketed opening reception with some of the funds going to the Dharma Friends Prison Outreach Project, and a group of us planned to go together, buying our tickets around Thanksgiving last year. Before the opening, I heard from somebody who had previewed the artwork that it wasn’t exceptional, not like the memoir Life After Death. So I wasn’t expecting much—just your typical art reception with an appearance from Damien Echols and maybe a few other celebs who supported his cause.

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Our group decided to grab a few drinks beforehand at the dive bar Nancy’s on Lispenard, not wanting to be the first to arrive at the party. When I’ve gone to art openings before in Chelsea, they’re always free, and each gallery will give out some sort of free booze. It’s usually beer (sometimes in teeny-tiny bottles that are cute but only contain two or three swallows), but once I went to one where shots of bourbon were given out. I had to be coached through that one, not being a regular bourbon drinker. If you’re really strapped for cash in NYC and want to go out, you keep an eye out for an evening with multiple art openings, and then you cruise the galleries and drink for free that night.

Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on that and could afford my drinks at Nancy’s, along with some fries. We tramped out of the bar and headed to the reception/opening at Sacred Tattoo an hour after it officially started. A narrow staircase led to the gallery, and our group of six ascended but was held up at the door because nobody was manning it and the security guard wouldn’t let us in. We patiently stood in the stairwell as the line built up behind us, but then a man in a shiny leather coat jumped it along with his girlfriend, saying, “I’m on the list.”

My sister’s boyfriend Ed is the nicest guy. When we’ve been out and about, I’ve seen him give up his seat on the subway for people who need it more and swipe people through the turnstiles with his MetCard when  they don’t have enough for fare. For some reason, though, he got mad at the line jumper and told him, “We’re all on the list,” since we had all paid for tickets. As we waited for the ticket person to appear, Ed got into it with the line jumper, who was really being an ass, saying things like, “Do you want to take this outside?” and “Don’t touch me,” when Ed shadowed him like a basketball player. The security guard had to keep them separated as tempers escalated.

The fight-or-flight response kicked up in me right away, and my initial response is almost always to flee. Whenever people are rude or cut in line, I am almost always passive—at most, passive-aggressive. I think the worst I’ve ever done is let loose a snide “Well, he must be a very important person” when somebody cut in front of me. I stayed, though, at the reception, and the line jumper was let into the gallery ahead of us. When the ticket person finally appeared, he said that the line jumper (or as we called him for the rest of the night, Mr. Shiny Coat) worked there or something. A friend of ours backed up Ed, saying, “He was being pompous.”

The security guard joked, “Oh, is that the first pompous person you’ve run into in New York?”

We had a good laugh over that, and with the tension somewhat deflated entered the gallery.

There was nothing to be in a rush about. The bartender was in no danger of running out of wine, and most of the artwork had already been sold, it appeared, before the exhibit even opened, though there were notes beneath many saying that limited edition prints were also available.

The title of the exhibit is “Moving Forward; Looking Back,” and the placard available said that all of the artwork was done by Damien Echols in prison using whatever materials he could get his hands on. The art all had titles displayed, but I would have liked a detailed list of the materials used for each. I’ve always found that fascinating at museums and other galleries when unusual materials are called out—say, mustard or soy sauce or mercurochrome. I could tell that notebook backs had been used for some of the art boards, but what would have been even more interesting is knowing what brand, how much they cost in prison, the magazines mined for collage images, etc. There was one work that opened as a book (it was apparently used during meditation), but only the part that served as its open pages was displayed to full advantage. What I found more interesting, though, were the images painted on its cover, which were impossible to view in full because of the way the work was presented.

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I think the best part of the exhibit/reception was people watching. We tried to keep our distance from Mr. Shiny Coat, but I was always conscious of where he and his girlfriend were in the gallery. At one point he expounded for a group of what looked to be three or four art students, but I couldn’t hear what he was talking about. There was a woman who looked like a real-life version of Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and she was very drunk. (The bartender gave healthy pours.) She ran into a display case nearly toppling it and propositioned my sister while she waited on line for the bathroom. Damien Echols came out later to make a statement and there was something involving a champagne toast that I couldn’t quite hear. I felt badly for him—at the moment fame looked really sucky. He seemed very uncomfortable at the front of the gallery surrounded by a huge mass of people with iPhones held aloft, snapping pictures.

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On our way out the door at the end of the party, the security guard called our group “rabble-rousers,” telling us to stay out of trouble. I’m not really, but it was kind of thrilling to be called that.

Pimping Out My Apartment

I love beautifying my apartment, and in the last year, my sister and I have kicked it into overdrive. The centerpiece of our apartment has always been ammo crate bookshelves. When Kristi and I were in high school, my mom would buy these ammo crates for five dollars apiece at a local store that had hideous things like camouflage overalls and fishing lures. She loves a sale and the ammo crates were a deal, but they sat in our garage for a long time. Kristi was the one who figured out that they made fabulous bookshelves when staggered and stacked up on top of one another. And each crate had rope handles on the ends so it was easy to move them by stacking the crates and lifting them up by the rope loops. The last time we moved and the movers saw all of the ammo crate bookcases, I thought they were going to pass out. I could see them mentally calculating how many crates there were and how many flights of stairs they would have to walk down with them. Then we showed them the trick, and suddenly they were all smiley faces.

Our ammo crate bookshelves.

Last year, I spent August in Berlin and had a fine time glutting myself on German art from the Weimar Republic. I picked up a few posters of artwork by Otto Dix and George Grosz, a couple of my favorite artists, and brought them home with me. Kristi and I also had a poster of one of our favorite Caravaggio’s from a trip to Florence a few years earlier, and we had never had it properly framed. I took the art to the Frame Shop at Pearl Paint when Kristi was working there, and she helped me pick out really great frames and mats and then had the great idea of using a circular mat for our Caravaggio shield of Medusa.

Caravaggio in our kitchen.

Once we had all this fabulous artwork to hang up, we wanted the walls to look festive, so we went to the hardware store and picked up a few gallons of paint—banana yellow for our kitchen and a really saturated turquoise for my bedroom. Around the beginning of the year, Susan Godfrey had a Kickstarter campaign for the last funding she needed to start her coworking studio, the Productive, and she had a set of drawings by artist Maya Edelman as a prize for a certain level contributor. I fell in love with one particular drawing—The Sadness of Not Fitting—and had to have it. I wanted to support the Productive, but I wanted to own this particular drawing even more. When I got the drawings, I had Kristi evaluate them once again and she came up with the perfect frame treatments, which cost under twenty dollars and look great against our yellow walls.

Maya Edelman’s drawings.

The ammo crate bookcases still look wonderful, but I was getting sick of the rest of our living room. We had used the same blue futon cover and curtains for several years, and they were starting to get dingy and yellow. Our friend Sarah was coming to visit in October for Kristi’s birthday, so this became the perfect time to fix up the living room a bit. I had it in my head that I wanted skull curtains, and Kristi, the master seamstress, said okay and that we could go pick up some material and she would stitch them up. We went to the Fashion District in Manhattan, where skull fabric was all the rage a few years ago, and found nothing but a chichi silk fabric with a very subtle skull pattern after visiting a half-dozen stores. One proprietor told us to come back in a week because the stock is always changing. We just couldn’t wait that long. We went home and Kristi found some nice-looking fabric online with the bold, dramatic skulls that we craved. We decided to take a risk and order it, and the fabric really did turn out to be lovely and worth it. Again, it cost less than twenty dollars, and Kristi whipped up these babies in an evening.

Our skull curtains.

In this same week, I also decided that I had to have a leopard-print couch—probably because I’m reading all these heavy metal biographies and autobiographies right now as research and animal prints are a big part of the style. Also, my mother started buying us leopard-printed things starting in high school. I have a leopard-print cigarette case from her that I use for my laundry card, and we both have matching leopard-print comforters from Christmas one year. Now, it’s turned from Mom buying me leopard to me buying it, so maybe the fetish is just something I’ve inherited from my mother—a genetic predisposition for leopard print. The leopard-print futon cover that I ordered online looks so nice, and now we have the old grungy blue one as a spare so Kristi can rip it apart and make a pattern for new futon covers. I’m imagining zebra print and snakeskin print, a skull print. Maybe we’ll change the futon cover every time a new guest comes to visit us.

Our new and improved leopard-print couch.

 

 

 

 

Me, My Mentee, and Rineke Dijkstra at the Guggenheim

A few weeks ago my mentee was getting ready to go to college on the other side of the country (she’s there now), so we got together for one last meeting that we wanted to make special. Danni picked the Guggenheim since she’d never been there, and I think it was a good choice since it’s such a unique New York landmark designed by the tempestuous Frank Lloyd Wright. Though she’d never been to the Guggenheim, she recognized it from a chase scene in Men in Black. That’s how distinctive the building is.

The last time I had been to the museum was for a lecture by Alexei Ratmansky that was part of the Guggenheim Works & Process series. The lecture was in a weird part of the building that I couldn’t find. I circled the building and came upon the front door where a red carpet event was going on. A couple posed on the carpet, which looked shiny and cheap to me, and went into the building. There was minimal paparazzi, but it still seemed like too much to me. I thought it was a little fancy for a lecture but tried to put some iron in my spine as I walked up to the door. My photo was not taken. Instead, the doorman asked if I was kitchen staff, in which case I needed to use a different entrance. I told him I was there for the lecture series and found out that I was supposed to be on the other side of the building. As I walked over, I could see people through the glassed-in dining room of the museum; they were all tuxed and glammed out for what looked to be a donor dinner or something like that.

I was feeling much more comfortable this time at the Guggenheim, waiting out front for my mentee in the sunshine, listening to all of the languages around me. A tourist family from the South approached the museum. The kids and mother charged ahead  while the father stayed behind studying the museum’s sign advertising the admission fees. “Wait now,” he said. “It costs twenty-two dollars to get in here.” Then he realized he was speaking to nobody.

Danni arrived and we got in line for our tickets. I had to get the full-priced admission, but with Danni going off to college, we were able to get her a reduced student rate after she answered a few questions (“What college are you going to?” and “What’s your major?”). We hadn’t paid attention to what exhibits were going on when we decided on the Guggenheim, and now we studied the signs and both agreed that we wanted to see the Rineke Dijkstra photography exhibit. We both really love photography, and our last art session had been the Cindy Sherman exhibit at MOMA so it seemed like we were coming full circle by seeing another exhibit by a female photographer.

We started with a series that Dijkstra had done with subjects in parks. There were enormous photos (all of her work is big) of children in Berlin’s Tiergarten, where I had been just a year ago. I tried to see if I could recognize anything, though I had only been to the Tiergarten twice and Dijkstra’s series had been filmed an entire decade before those visits. Some of the photos were obviously of siblings, and Danni told me how seeing pictures of little girls together creeped her out. It reminded her too much of the dead ghost girls in The Shining. I found myself more preoccupied with the fashions the kids were wearing and trying to decide if they dated the pictures or not—is glitter nail polish always in style?

We went down the spiral staircase of the Guggenheim, glancing at the other art but really hunting out the continuing Dijkstra exhibit that was tucked away on each floor. The next series that we ran into were images from the Buzz Club in Liverpool, England. There were three large portraits of very young girls in black, wearing heavy makeup, and one of them was smoking. I was a little reluctant to read the placards for the portraits, afraid they would describe the girls as teen prostitutes. Instead, I found out that the girls were dressed to go out to a teen club in Liverpool, England, called the Buzz Club, and this was their take on nightclub wear. Danni and I had very different reactions to the photos. I was appalled by the young girl smoking—“She can’t be more than twelve years old” (probably about the same age that I first tried a cigarette)—while Danni said, “She looks like she would kick my ass.”

In this part of the exhibit, we also saw the self-portrait of Dijkstra, which is supposed to be a crystallizing point in her career. Dijkstra had been working as a freelance photographer when she had a bike accident, breaking her hip. She had to undergo intense physical therapy, which involved swimming, after being bedridden for five months. She ended up taking this self-portrait after she was physically exhausted from doing thirty laps in a swimming pool. At this point, she became interested in photographing subjects right after they had experienced intense physical exertion. This led to series of swimmers along various beaches, mothers who had just given birth (one so fresh that blood is seen running down her leg in the photograph), and bullfighters in torn and bloody clothes.

There were a few rooms tucked away where videos made by Dijkstra were being shown on a loop. In the first room, we saw a red-haired girl who was being filmed as she drew from a Picasso artwork that the audience is unable to see. Instead, we get to observe the way that this girl, Ruth, observes Picasso. Trippy, but not nearly as amusing as the videos that Dijkstra took of teens dancing at the Buzz Club and Krazyhouse. She films these subjects alone against a white background, so it’s just the teenager and the camera. When the music comes on, they dance, according to their particular style. A girl with a shaved head is very intense, her arms held out stiffly in front of her, moving them as she tried to catch the beat. When she can’t quite get it, she cracks a smile, but when she has it, she lets it rip.

My favorite was the last dance video we saw before we left the Guggenheim. A heavy metal boy flails, lip-synchs, and headbangs in perfect synchronicity to the music. A lot of practice in front of the mirror was required for that performance. Danni knows about my heavy metal teen years and asked if I headbanged like that. I did, but I told her I was graceless compared to this kid. Plus, it gave me a headache.

Adventures in Life Drawing

I’ve always been able to draw well. My mom likes to tell about how my very first stick figures would have eyelashes, fingers, and fingernails unlike the other kids’ drawings in preschool. In my junior high and high school classes, the most life drawing I would get to do was pastels of still lifes or maybe portraits of classmates. At home, I ended up drawing my family, my shoes, and other things that were right in front of me. To me, real life drawing, or studies of the nude body, was very serious business reserved for classical artists.

First Exposure

Then I went to college and studied art with a concentration in drawing and printmaking. The backbone for that degree was life drawing, which was almost exclusively drawing from the nude figure. I started with the required class Basic Drawing, and I still remember my teacher Richard Merritt, a funny guy who made me laugh a lot, telling us that we would be having our very first nude model in class. The days and hours ticked by slowly until that day; I was as nervous as I would be if I were giving a speech. We were going to draw somebody naked. I had no idea if the model was going to be a woman or a man, but I hoped it would be a woman. I thought it would be easier for me since I had the same parts.

The day came, and the model was indeed a woman, a model who I would end up drawing often during my college career. I was relieved when it ended up being no sweat. The model was completely professional, wearing a robe between breaks and reading a book. When she posed, all attention was on her, not on me, and it was work as the class tried to get the pose down; it was not an erotic experience. Later, I had sessions with models who were not nearly as professional, who would walk around naked during breaks, looking at the drawings of themselves with a smile of pride on their faces. Me and other classmates would just try and pretend that they weren’t there. We were used to the model just sitting there and looking pretty, not interacting with us.

When I told my roommates and friends about my life drawing experience, a couple decided that they wanted to model, and all of a sudden, I found my shy ass being the modeling connection between them and my teacher Richard Merritt. He was the perfect person to introduce me to life drawing because he seemed to have no hang-ups and would tell us anything. I think the most valuable lesson he taught us was not to drink, drug, and draw. He told us about a night of heavy drinking or dropping acid or something like that and going to his studio to paint. He woke up the next day convinced he had painted a masterpiece, but when he got back to his studio, the canvas that awaited him was of a smiling tooth.

Drawing from my college days

Penis Fear

I had a real fear of drawing penises when I first started life drawing, so I would always sketch those in last, hoping time would run out on the pose before I got to that point, and if it didn’t, then I would try to do some clever shading. Anything to avoid having to draw that. One of my class’s first life drawing lessons was contour drawing with a twist. We were to draw the model without looking at him. Yes, this time the model was male, and he did a standing profile pose with hands on hips and everything on display.

A sheet of paper covered my hand so I couldn’t see what I was doing, but I dutifully traced what I saw as the line of the body. When I got to the penis part of the model’s body, I tried to gloss over that as quickly as possible. Because we couldn’t see what we were drawing, our teacher thought it would be funny to reveal our drawings and let everybody see what we had done. I flipped over the covering sheet and didn’t look at my drawing before launching off to see my classmates’ because I just knew it would be an incoherent mess.

I circled the room looking at everybody’s drawings, and they weren’t half bad. I could recognize the figure in most of them and even a few of the model’s distinguishing characteristics in some. I got near the end of our horseshoe of desks and saw most of my classmates grouped around a desk giggling over something. Then I realized it was my desk. I edged in and really looked at my drawing for the first time. The model was totally recognizable. His head, torso, arms, and legs were proportioned pretty well, and I had actually done a reasonable job of drawing his curly brown hair. It was his penis that was drawn completely out of proportion. I had drawn it in such a fashion that it jutted out of his body like a third leg.

After that, I realized that thinking about something too much was overkill. George Balanchine’s advice to dancers applies here: “Don’t think, just do.” It was best to just tackle each part, each line, each angle as it came and to trust that the drawing would come together in the end. It usually did.

A Typical Life Drawing Session

Life drawing always followed a certain formula. We would start out with very quick gestures that lasted for about one to three minutes, where the goal was to capture the entire figure. From there we would progress to ten- to twenty-minute poses and then to a final pose that might last as long as an hour. I always liked gestures the best. The thick, smudgy lines, the whip of pages and paper being turned—just letting drawings rip out of me put me into a nice groove. I did all right with the ten- to twenty-minute poses, trying to develop the face of the model more to get his or her likeness right, but I would get downright bored for hour-long poses, drawing in the walls, ceiling, lights, and whatever else was around the model because I was sick of futzing around with shadows, trying to get a muscle or dent to pop out right.

The longer the pose became, the more the poses would degrade, too. With one- to three-minute poses, there would be lots of action and standing, flexed arms and legs, thrown-back heads and shoulders. When the model had to keep a pose for more than ten minutes, though, he or she would almost inevitably stretch out their robe and recline, not a very exciting thing to draw.

A Different Kind of Beauty

After college, I took more life drawing classes wherever I happened to be living, and that formula was never broken. I found classes to be necessary thing for me. There’s something about life drawing that soothes my soul and makes me feel more hopeful about humanity. After spending a few hours drawing the human body and seeing all the potential and movement available to it, I go out on the street, and I see beauty in everybody and everything, but not the kind of beauty you might think.

With the artists I have worked with, the idea of a beautiful model was not exciting (drawing conventional beauty is quite boring really), but how a class would hum if we scored an unconventional model. At the Art Students League, where Madonna used to work as a nude model before she hit it big, there was an obese older model with long red hair who traveled from class to class with a suitcase full of props. There was real excitement when she came to pose, and students would get out their best supplies and paper, up for the challenge of rendering slabs of fat on paper. To us, this was far more interesting subject matter. A scar, wrinkles, and fat were much more fun to draw than flawless, youthful beauty. Whenever I leave life drawing, it is the odd beauty I see in front of me that I want to draw—the hooked noses, the disheveled homeless, and people’s fleshy chins.

I’ve gone from figure drawing at the Art Students League to life drawing at the Productive now, a session that’s aimed toward animators and specializes in the quick gesture poses and drawings that I like so much. This is a humbler crew than at the Art Students League, who work with whatever’s available—printer paper, mechanical pencils, ball-point pens—and there’s always a social gathering afterward at a bar or restaurant, where we talk about how our drawings and the poses went. I’m always blown away by how transformed and energized I feel after a two-hour figure-drawing session and so I keep on doing it.

Recent sketches from a life drawing session at the Productive

Wisconsin Death Trip

I like old movies because I like seeing the differences from say the 1950s to today. I remember seeing The Seven Year Itch for the first time and being struck by the attitudes toward drinking during that time period. Three gin and tonics after work were considered normal then, but now such a habit would be viewed as dangerous and might start some people twelve stepping.

Wisconsin Death Trip, compiled by Michael Lesy, gives a picture of small-town life in the Midwest during the turn of the century in the 1890s, and with the material accumulated, there’s no way to romanticize the past. Using short snippets from the town daily along with italicized sections from the town gossips and sepia-toned photographs of the area’s inhabitants, Lesy presents a bleak picture of provincial life.

There are men’s societies proudly having their pictures taken in blackface juxtaposed alongside stories telling how the law interfered when a white woman attempted to marry a black man. Impossibly beautiful girls pose for pictures (maybe something akin to high school graduation photos?) with great hope in their eyes and then there is news explaining how a fifteen-year-old girl committed suicide by eating the tops of matchsticks–three boxes’ worth–or was the victim of incest through her father or stepfather. Hard enough to deal with the event just by itself, but when the whole town knows? I think that would be unbearable.

Though Wisconsin Death Trip is not text heavy, it took me a long time to read the book. The problem was I grew depressed after reading a few pages, and I had to put the book away. There are only so many suicides by hammer that a person can take or horse killings committed so a destitute family could claim the insurance money on their livestock.

The pictures are much less brutal than the text, but I think I found them more disturbing. There are family portraits in front of family residences where each member holds their dearest possession–a gun, a fiddle, a puppy.
There are ten children spread out about and the mother figure looks tired, worn-out, and toothless before she’s probably even forty. The book has given me good ideas for the dream sequences that take place during the same time period in The Charm Quilt.

(Here’s a picture of Kristi with our weapon and Marlin, one of our favorite possessions.)

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

I grew up as a military brat, where my family moved on average once every two years to follow my father around the globe. Military brats take on special characteristics as a result of these circumstances. They become very adept at conforming to the new society in which they are placed and are often called social chameleons for their ability to blend into any group. However, it is difficult for them to develop long-term relationships because they think what’s the use? I’m just going to move anyway. They usually have a very black or white mind-set when it comes to authority, either embracing it or hating it, depending on how they feel about the rigid patriarchal society of the military. I’ve often felt that this is a good background for the superhero in training.

A week ago, Kristi and I went to see the the “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” exhibit at the Met, during its last week there. The exhibit was very crowded, but the people didn’t annoy me as often happens with the more highbrow exhibits, where conversation seems obnoxiously loud and designed to be overheard by other museumgoers. The “Superheroes” exhibit viewers were enthusiastic and younger on average compared to those I saw strolling out of the “J.M.W. Turner” exhibit.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. There were actual costumes from superhero movies and TV series–the main attractions–blended in with designer fashions on mannequins against bright, colorful backdrops of the superhero cartoons, which often overshadowed the costumes. One thing I noticed is that all of the male costumes (excluding Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 leotard) are about accoutrements emphasizing masculinity while costumes for women are almost plain, meant to showcase the female body almost exclusively. Sort of a peacock and peahen dynamic going on there.

There was Wonder Woman’s costume, as worn by Lynda Carter in the 1970s, with her poor blue star-spangled briefs faded to a shade of purple. Her bustier held up thanks to lots of sequins stitched onto the red silk to emphasize her boobage. With the Catwoman costume that Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns, it’s difficult to see how she even put the skintight creation on. The mannequin was posed in a crawling position so the zipper may have been hidden, or the costumers could have sewed the actress into her costume–Kristi said Hollywood is not above doing that.