Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lost Little Boys and Sad Little Girls: The Dark Surrealism of Gehard Demetz

I discovered German/Italian artist Gehard Demetz's wooden sculpture back in 2007 when I was working on a series of drawings involving trees and wood grains, and was looking for inspiration. His pieces floor me. They're terrifying and hypnotic, and you can't look away from them. It's a very contemporary take on surrealism, quieter and more unsettling. Beautiful.

I think Demetz falls into that category of artists who (either intentionally or unintentionally) build a mystique up around them. He's no Banksy, but he keeps a low profile. To my knowledge, he's never released any kind of a formal artist statement-- a brief interview with Luigi Fassi is as close as we come, and the information in that conversation is mostly referential to process, not artistic program or subject matter. Precious little is known about that, and about Demetz himself. We know he was born in Italy in 1972, and that he lives and works in Selva di Val Gardena, where he taught for a decade before becoming a full-time artist. He exhibits mostly in Europe, and I've never seen his sculpture in person, but luckily high-quality photographs of it are in no short supply.

Demetz has said before that memories of being "enchanted" by monumental religious statuary influence his work, as do ideas about good and evil, and their fluidity as we grow from infancy to adulthood. That's about as detailed as he gets, but I think I'm ok with it-- there's something appropriate about these nameless children remaining elusive.

The works are striking as a whole, for sure, but if you get up close to them, you can see where he's mixed polished and rough wood-blocks to make a patchwork ghost of a human being, silent and small and fading on the edges. These are the ghosts of children from a forgotten orphanage a million years ago, distant and strange like the gods of Egyptian tombs, but completely sentient. You know that chill you get when you see human eyes peering out from beneath a mask whose occupant is unknown? That's how I feel about Demetz's children.

P.S. Check out his titles. They're poetry.

I Hear the Spirit While I Whisper (2007)
The Mouth Full of Stars (2006)
Your Monsters Are Just Like Mine (2006)
My Headphones Save My Life (2006)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Ghost of Lee Friedlander

I used to think I hated Lee Friedlander's photography, but the more time I spend with his pictures, the more I think they're beautiful. Maybe it's the fact that his wife Maria is so obviously his favorite subject. Or that I think he forces himself to take self-portraits, despite hating his own reflection. There is no vanity in them. There is no imago, no hubris: the trajectory of the imagined self is decidedly downward, into the grit of city gutters, the chipped and peeling paint of airless motel rooms, the uneven tread of nameless roadside stopovers belonging to no one.
He navigates his imperfect world like Kerouac, all earnest exuberancec, but with the desperate melancholy of a man unconvinced of his own existence. Like Sylvia Plath’s doomed literary surrogate, he seems to chant as he wanders: I am, I am, I am. The images become the record of a search which has no resolution.

Friedlander gets thrown together with Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand a lot, probably because they were featured together in the 1967 "New Documents" exhibition. I don't think they're anything alike though.

Friedlander's work is governed by his feelings of being an intruder in his own world. In his self-portraits, he's slipping away- it's unclear whether the Lee on the page or the Lee behind the camera lens is the more authentic self. Roland Barthes called it a "micro-version of death."
I think it's hard to connect to Friedlander's pictures--especially his self-portraits--because we cannot fully inhabit them. A splintered reflection, a murky shadow; it cannot serve as proxy. We were not there, we did not capture, and we were not captured.
He's checking with every snapshot: "Am I real? Was I there? Do I exist?" It's a question that's never answered.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

And I Lost My Heart Over...

This song.

Poetry Wednesday


You were sitting naked on the rocks
and I
was walking down,
pausing halfway down,
and the sea was saying things,
and your shoulders were very white.

What the sea was saying
was in your ears
and I
was making no sound,
staggered on the rocks
and quiet.

The way we knew each other,
there on the edge of things,
was draining
and I
felt like water through a sieve
and you were water too.

It bled on the edges,
your whiteness,
into colors I couldn’t name
and I wanted to name them,
to count the colors of your going
I was the water.

Annnnnnnnd, something not-mine, which I love:

maggie and milly and molly and may
by e.e. cummings

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

James Clar: Lite-Brite For Grown-Ups

James Clar is one of my favorite installation artists. I'm a museum troll--I can go back and look at an artwork and be absorbed again and again. But the pieces that make me want to sit down--to BE with them for as long as I'm allowed--those are rare. James Clar's work does that to me though.

I'd almost always prefer to be by myself with his work, and I think that's the way it's best experienced. There are exceptions- one of my favorite pieces, "Starlight" (2007), lures the viewer's gaze upward, away from fellow-observers who are forgotten. It doesn't matter that there are other people standing under the lights with you- it's like wearing headphones to watch a movie in a theater with an audience full of people you can't see, can't touch.

So much light, so much quiet. The only sound is the soft, safe hum of the high-power lights. Take off your iPods- if you've got music, you're not alone.

The Art of Fort-Building

Everyone should engage in fort-building. Do it with somebody you like. Make sure you have twinkle-lights. Make sure you crawl inside and stay for a while.

Snow forts are also very nice.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let's Get Our Hands Dirty

What can I say? I draw on myself a lot. And in case you ever find yourself needing to remove permanent marker from skin, use acetone. Scrub-scrub-scrub.

The Pink Bow is Crucial

I love a good mix-cd. I really do. I get asked for them often, and I love to make them. By make I mean choose the music, order the music, put it on the cd, and then package the cd. The pink bow is crucial- who doesn't want a bunch of pretty songs tied with a bow? This is my most recent mix, made for a friend:

1. Die Young- The Sweet Serenades (If you haven't seen the music video for this one, you need to remedy that. If there's a man in a giant heart-costume, you've found the right one)
2. Speed of Light- Joseph Arthur
3. Rainbow Warriors- CocoRosie
4. Stay Golden- Au Revoir Simone
5. The Man Who Told Everything- Doves
6. Sprawl (Flatland)- Arcade Fire
7. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)- Arcade Fire
8. Cosmic Love- Florence + The Machine, recorded acoustic and live for RTE's Other Voices (This is, by far, my favorite version of this song, and believe me, it's a much-loved song. It doesn't have the range of the album version, and the first time I heard it, that bothered me a little. Listen again though- the restraint adds depth. I still love the album version, but this one is just better. What a sad song)
9. Flume- Bon Iver
10. Set the Fire to the Third Bar- Snow Patrol
11. Love Ridden- Fiona Apple (A lovely song for a broken heart)
12. Girl and the Sea- The Presets
13. Icarus- White Hinterland
14. A Cloak of Elvenkind- Marcy Playground
15. Stars- Warpaint
16. The Garden- Mirah
17. The Bleeding Heart Show- The New Pornographers
18. Bag of Bones- The Maccabees (I have a playlist on my iTunes called "Endings", which I can't really explain to anybody's satisfaction, but which makes a lot of sense to me. This song belongs there)

What is this mix good for? Nothing in particular. If I'm making a mix for someone who didn't request it, the music usually has more direction; Music to Cry To, Music for Mingling, Music for the Angsty Version of Yourself That Just Needs To Come Out Sometimes. Music for Sunny Days. Music for Driving in the Rain. Ya know.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bottle of You- Joseph Arthur, Guitar Angel

I'm gonna go ahead and start with a post about my favorite music-maker because, let's face it, it's a very good place to start. I can't remember where I was the first time I heard him play, but my oh my, he's seen me through some times. Times of all sorts.

Joseph Arthur is a Peter Gabriel protégé "discovered" by the Brit in the early 90s. He doesn't really sound like anybody else to me- the best I can say is that he has a melancholy that's similar to Elliott Smith, but the mood I'm in that makes me want to listen to Arthur is completely different from the one that makes me reach for Smith.
Arthur is this quiet, wonderful, lanky, ageless guy that hardly anybody knows about. Which blows my mind while making me very, very happy, because when I play him for people, I basically preface the music with "This is Joseph Arthur, he's mine." Mildly creepy? Probably. But also I just really really adore his music, and hope he never stops playing the way he does right now-- like the audience (if there is one) is incidental. I think I'd probably like to smoke a hookah with him.

Having a "favorite" band or a "favorite" song or a "favorite" singer is weird. It's like having a "best" friend, which is very nice in theory because people love to ask you what your "favorite" or "best" is, and having an easy answer is, well, easy. But one person or one song or one artist can't give you everything you need one hundred percent of the time. I diagnose people with music, probably more often than is polite. Have you ever just looked at a person and known that they need The Shins in their life? If you asked me right now who my favorite singer is, I'd say Joseph Arthur (and that usually holds). Band? Bon Iver. Song? Between the Bars (Elliott Smith). It might change in a few minutes though. I never give people a straight answer when they ask my favorite color either. What a strange question. "What's your favorite color?" You have to answer it with a question. "Right now?" Right now my feet are cold and I'm listening to Peter Bradley Adams and my favorite color is brown. In ten minutes, maybe my feet will be warmer and my favorite color will be green.

Woooo, tangent. So I saw Joseph Arthur live for the first time this past summer in New York City. The performance space was this little theater in the Rubin Museum, which houses, randomly, Himalayan art. They were doing this completely unplugged concert series. There was a theme, something to do with death, which basically meant that they projected slides of Himalayan funerary sculpture up on the wall behind good old Joe while he did his thing, looking over his shoulder periodically to laugh at a toothy wooden mask, blown up to 20 times its normal size and staring at him. There were maybe 70 people in the audience, including his sister and two young nephews, the latter of whom joined him on stage at one point before a fit of shyness sent them scooting off back to their mum.

The concert tickets were a 21st birthday present from a friend who wins the best-gift-ever award. After the show, Arthur hung around the lobby for a while talking to audience members, and I admit it, I totally bolted. Hey, seeing a "favorite" in the flesh will do that to a girl. In retrospect, I wish I'd sucked it up, but hopefully that won't be the last time I see him live, so on we go. During the twenty-block walk home, it started to POUR, breaking a six-week-long drought and completing my magical night. Best concert of my life, and I promise, that's not going to change.

I read somewhere that Joseph Arthur is "the Robert Downey Jr. of music" because he used to do a lot of drugs and is insanely talented. I don't really know what to do with that comparison. Robert Downey Jr. is a very good actor who makes very good movies. Arthur is singing to ghosts.

During the course of writing this post, my favorite song changed. It's now Billy Joel's Vienna. Told you, didn't I?

And for the record, this will not be a music blog. Music is just my favorite at the moment.