cover by nacrowe
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photo manipulations by nacrowe
in the obtuse documentary BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE (CITIFILMWORKS, 1983) by director HOWARD BROOKNER we are provided a rare glimpse into the mind and writings of the influential BEAT writer WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS through not only his narration, but interview footage with peers and acolytes such as ALLEN GINSBERG, TERRY SOUTHERN, LUCIEN CARR, HERBERT HUNCKE, BRION GYSIN, PATTI SMITH, FRANCIS BACON and JON GIORNO as well as his only son WILLIAM BURROUGHS JR (who passed on during the time of filming).
we follow BURROUGHS as he guides us through his past including his time spent as a child in ST. LOUIS as well as his time at HARVARD, medical school in VIENNA, his failed attempt to enlist with the OSS (now the CIA) during WWII and subsequent fall into HEROIN addiction in NYC which was around the time he made the acquaintance of JACK KEROUAC and ALLEN GINSBERG. this continues through his marriage to JOAN VOLLMER and brith of his son through her accidental shooting in MEXICO and his son's eventual death in his 30s due to the chronic effects of alcoholism. littered throughout this personal narrative we find BURROUGHS reading excerpts from JUNKIE, NOVA EXPRESS, NAKED LUNCH, THE WILD BOYS and EXTERMINATOR! among other publications. we learn that NAKED LUNCH was written during his time in TANGIERS in the early 1950s when he was able to make use of the lax customs of local pharmacies to indulge in narcotics.
as a documentary this film was exceedingly dry. this is partly due to BURROUGHS prodding vocal affectations that seem to drone on ad infinitum. its funny, if i wasnt a fan of his work than i would find this film impossible to stomach, but he is a figure that pretty much brought POSTMODERNISM to literature in the 20th century and is a preeminent literary figure among his peers. his work is almost like a collage in art terms or montage in film terms as his cutouts served to provide jagged juxtapositions of concepts, words and phrases that seemingly spawned new visualizations and ideas out of multiple perspectives connected over space and time.
to verbalize his influence on modern culture, which has only bent more towards his worldview in the digital age of fractured realities where truth isnt relative, its irrelevant. seemingly we are in a post-truth and post-morality world where everyone is a JUNKIE for information. brutal low-grade gossip or refined, well-articulated and researched essays all fill the same fix and are mainlined and discarded the same, onwards looking for the next hit.
so this all makes me think that to experience this film expecting a straightforward presentation of a coherent narrative is wholly missing the point. if anything this film is a snapshot that is out of focus and out of context. a brief window into his late life mindset after a long fruitful yet painful career. it is up to his to draw our own conclusions on the worth of his perspective and words. on us to provide the context for this disjointed documentary of a man whose trade was navigating moral and temporal ambiguity.
documentaries are meant to answer questions that they pose. but what if there is no answer?
that is the basic conceit of HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY (ELEVATOR PICTURES, 2002), a documentary about the mercurial and enigmatic artist RAY JOHNSON. he was someone that lived through his art and had little need for traditional human interaction, choosing to keep his contemporaries at a distance and not partaking in gallery exhibitions and the like. he instead presented himself doggedly to the world through his coded, impenetrable drawings and collage work that he'd mail out.
in many ways his use of the mail was his mode of interaction, which for the 1950s is exceedingly modern to our eyes in the digital age of anonymous monikers using comments sections with the gusto of a late night bathroom graffiti artist. its interesting to watch a documentary where those that speak of him, speak of their inability to get a sense of the man. a total enigma that confused and yet gained the respect of major players in the art world including contemporaries like CHUCK CLOSE, ANDY WARHOL, CHRISTO & JEAN-CLAUDE and ROY LICHTENSTEIN among others.
i can't say i learned anything about the guy. but maybe that was the point. even his mysterious suicide seemed in comparison to his life less baffling. at least with that act there was some finally conclusion being made. or was it? maybe it was just an exclamation point that invited investigators, the public and his peers to reconsider his life and by extension his work. seems his whole life was one long curated performance piece (including his death) and this documentary itself is both the entry point and the ultimate expression of his legacy as an groundbreaking artist.
but really i dont know. i'm still processing this very intriguing film on a most curious individual. its like trying to decipher MARCEL DUCHAMP. answer: you can't.
film director DAVID LYNCH is renowned for his ability to control tone and atmosphere to such an esteem that his surname is now an adjective for such. he is a modern director of the first order but what some in the public fail to grasp is how is career, much like JULIAN SCHNABEL a generation later, is rooted in painting.
THE ART LIFE (DUCK DIVER FILMS, 2016) is a documentary that follows a dual narrative of both LYNCH's telling of his upbringing and connection to art while showcasing him creating a new work on canvas at his studio in the HOLLYWOOD HILLS. it is almost as though the experience of creation in painting is conflatable with that of exploring a unique psychological perspective of uncertain space and time as seen through a camera's eye.
what i gained most about his upbringing was that in spite of its idyllic nature with two loving parents that treated each other well, there was always that unspecified fear of losing that love and affection. in fact, despite his father's fair judgement and loving temperament, any harsh words that resulted from disobedience came down arguably harsher in that environment. KEITH RICHARDS once wrote that his vision of hell was being invisible to those he loved. the threat of distance from his family is a common thread that influenced his character as well as his art. also reminds of the buddha's tenet that suffering is rooted in desire. they are intertwined, as even idyllic situations are rooted in suffering as we attempt to prolong and maintain them. the fear of loss of happiness is suffering in and of itself. that dualism resonates with me when considering his films as well as his paintings and visual film art.
this theme of family is also carried out as we see LYNCH's young child painting side-by-side with him. unencumbered by expectations, the toddler is just enjoying his company and playing with colors on the canvas. you get the sense that this type of boundless joy and seeming amorality towards expectation is something LYNCH strives for. the goal is not a concept or a point, but rather the transmission of an experience, which also describes the experience of consuming one of his films, especially ERASERHEAD (AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE, 1977). i have watched that film dozens of times yet i don't know what it is about, nor am i watching it to decode it. i watch it in order to enter that world.
an alternate time and space.
intriguing film. probably worth viewing if you can suspend expectations of what is usually presented in a traditional documentary. this film is an expressionist take on the individual and his paintings, not a treatise on his films. again, beyond intriguing and worth multiple viewings.
when looking at a DIANE ARBUS photograph what you are witnessing firsthand is an experiential document of an alternative AMERICAN narrative from the not-too-distant 1960s and 70s. her subjects run the gamut from drag queens, side show performers, twins, children, the developmentally challenged, the elderly and those that challenge normative culture with their unique perspective lived experience regarding issues of identity: specifically that of gender, race and sexual identity.
i don't find these images shocking, but for those who do i think it is due to the shallow nature of representation in our media diet of the true scope of lived experience in our country. too often we are marketed and sold images that placate our national sense of self, which is youth-driven.
this media reflection is the real freak show. it distorts our self-perception and makes those that fall outside our collective limited conceptions of beauty and what constitutes "normal" as being outliers that should be disregarded. this is to blame in my opinion for our infantilized views regarding issues surrounding sexual reproduction, death, aging, health and even family.
when i see her work i am reminded of once underground communities that have since been brought more prominently to the foreground of acknowledged lived experience. they don't seem that alternative anymore in the face of newer "others" to be castigated and dismissed (Muslims, Hispanics, Africans, Chinese, etc). not to get all BUDDHIST here, but i will be. there is no other. there is no dividing line between you, me and all sentient beings on the planet. it is all a shared experience. to deny the existence of others is only damaging yourself by extension.
famously the historical BUDDHA, the prince SIDDARTHA GUATAMA, as a kid lived in a palace where he was only surrounded by young, invigorated, healthy people that his father the king purposely put in place within its confines. one day when outside he saw the reality of the aging process and sickness and death. his self-perception and sense of reality was called into question and his life decisions took such into consideration accordingly. it was his real-life ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE played in a way PLATO may have not even imagined, as he used knowledge to further his goal of understanding reality minus blinders of greed and self-interest in the purpose of liberating his fellow sentient beings.
this is all well and good, but i know, again some would argue that the portraits of DIANE ARBUS are exploitative and her subjects the objects of revulsion or titillation. i'd argue that wholly depends on the viewer. if your limited scope of lived experience doesn't include these people than perhaps you should reconsider whether it is you that is being exploited by your feeble ignorance.
read a book. go outside (not during the pandemic). live a little. see the world for what it truly is in all its inclusive diversity.
when i look at the photography of WILLIAM EGGLESTON it reminds me of an AMERICA rarely noticed, not the skyscrapers, monuments and public buildings that have contrived meaning loaded into them, but the mundane and ordinary. a version of AMERICA that is stripped back of pretense and showcases the dignity of middle class exurban landscape of roads, storefronts, living rooms, restaurants and people making their way through life.
there seems to be a real problem in our culture where people look down on those that make a blue-collar living through manual labor, instead placing value and focusing our attention on the superficial "keeping up with the joneses" goals of mass consumerism. when i was in MANDALAY (MYANMAR) and you got up early enough, usually around dawn, and made your way across the river to the hilltop BUDDHIST temples of nearby SAGAING there was a good chance you would see lines of male and female monks seeking alms for the day. their one daily meal which consisted wholeheartedly of food donated by their neighbors. in the BUDDHIST worldview, allowing these monks to follow their spiritual path outside the framework of commerce was a gift with merit by their supporters. the fact that MYANMAR is a severely poor nation only goes to show how dear this daily gift is to the local community. there is a dignity in their spiritual work and those supporting it are likewise elevated.
we have none of that in the UNITED STATES. we have a zero sum mentality with clearly defined winner and losers. when i see the work of EGGLESTON, i am reminded that there is a beauty and dignity in work and the ordinary lives of everyday AMERICANS, even if our bloated culture and body politic refuse to acknowledge such.
his work is a celebration of it.
i remember when i was student teaching at BROOKLYN TECH almost a decade ago i had to film myself instructing students to later be dissected by my counterparts at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY as part of my masters program. there was all this focus on presence and persona and clarity of instruction, etc. i was so caught up with that in mind that i got nervous a week later when the assistant principal walked in and saw a room full of students quietly reading and writing at their desks. she walked up to me in this silent space and said "there's a lot of action going on right now." and there was.
thats kind of how i felt when i first saw the work of noted PERSIAN artist/photographer/filmmaker SHIRIN NESHAT, her subjects emoted a depth and feeling that transcended their austere, silent poses.
if you look at early MUSLIM artwork, before they made the conscious decision against realism/naturalism in favor of calligraphy on religious grounds, there was a focus on the natural world. being surrounded by desert, depictions of heaven, as exemplified by the famous mosaics at the GREAT MOSQUE OF DAMASCUS, is a bountiful oasis with lush vegetation, plump fruits and blooming trees. like arable land, women are viewed as a resource subject to being protected, adored and objectified.
NESHAT's focus on feet, hands and eyes makes sense in that there is a cultural fetish on these exposed parts of the body when wearing an abaya and burqa much like the west have fetishized a women's' breasts, legs and backside. i saw this firsthand when attending school and later teaching in KUWAIT when we had cultural ministers visiting schools to make sure shirts and skirts were long enough in the classroom. very interesting indeed.
i remember my senior year in CALIFORNIA visiting the cadaver lab at UC DAVIS on a high school ANATOMY class trip and the parts of the body that they specifically covered were the eyes, hands and feet. apparently people faint at seeing those as they make the corpse feel "human." there is a power to those objects, thats all im saying.
what is interesting about NESHAT's work is that she takes PERSIAN calligraphy and contextualizes the female form into a sacred text. the melding of the sacred and the profane, the natural and the spiritual, the silent and the spoken. its powerful and thought-provoking and very much makes you consider your cultural baggage and preconceptions regarding the femininity of the other, in this case IRAN and SHI'A MUSLIM culture. there are depictions of a wide range of women, young and old, militant and praying, subdued and mysterious; all valid.
i find her work compelling and challenging and welcome others to explore it. a good companion piece to this subject is EDWARD SAID's post-colonial masterwork ORIENTALISM (PANTHEON, 1978) which examines the west's projections of exoticism and otherness to the outside world in order inoculate itself from exposure to new ideas that may complicate their need to dominate. fits in perfectly with this subject matter. enjoy.
back during my teaching days i always liked to construct a classroom environment that was pointing outwards. this included the posting of quotes and pictures throughout the room by the requisite poets, authors and philosophers (i was an ENGLISH teacher), but also architects, artists, mathematicians, comedians and scientists. my argument was they all had to communicate effectively to do their jobs so why wouldn't they be welcome in my learning environment.
the ENGLISH canon by default is often full of dead white guys. im sure you can name them. hell, some of them i greatly admire (F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, HERMAN MELVILLE, OSCAR WILDE, ERNEST HEMINGWAY, etc.). what most people don't know is that in the early 20th century when literature became a formalized subject (no longer reading and writing), there grew an institutional need to come up with a list of "great books" to be instituted as canonical. being that most of these list builders were white, the list is pretty white. sadly that list persists to date in some form or another and to vary from it meant that on some level parents felt you were depriving their children. ugh. i really hated that part of my job.
my thought if forced to teach those books was to always complicate them with takes and perspectives that were beyond that of the original author. i also wanted to familiarize my students with interesting people that were beyond the curriculum and beyond literature in general.
one of the favorites of students over the years was the now-deceased IRAQI-born BRITISH architect ZAHA HADID. her architecture was fluid and often blurred the lines between eastern and western forms as well as the very notion of inside and outside spaces. her buildings were the go to if i was trying to teach about GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY or even positive and negative space (i.e. what is the author leaving out?).
its interesting because her buildings were almost a RORSCHACH TEST for how sexist the culture i was currently living in. in KUWAIT, they boys couldn't believe that these impressive and endlessly inventive modern forms could be the work of a woman. there obviously must be some mistake. the KUWAITI and JORDANIAN girls there just silently beamed with pride. stirring the pot is what i did. got them thinking.
other places like ALBANIA, VENEZUELA, MYANMAR and JAPAN had no issue seeing seeing her work as being that of a woman. not in the slightest. they were more interested in how these architectural forms were used. what was their function? what would it be like to live, work or attend an event at such a special space.
sadly HADID passed on a few years back and i have since left teaching, but i still admire her work and the fact that her architectural forms still seem fresh to me and were incredible useful to my former students to think outside the box.
literally. none of her buildings resembled a box. maybe one that melted.
around the turn of the millennium i went with my parents and maternal grandmother to the centennial art exhibit dedicated to 20th century AMERICAN ART at the old upper east side location of the WHITNEY MUSEUM in NYC. in their were the expected POP ARTISTS and ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS but i discovered a new favorite through an unlikely source, my clueless ENGLISH grandmother. "this is shit" is what i remembered her saying and what looked me dead in the eye was a late black-on-black painting by notable ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST (although he detested that label) immigrant painter MARK ROTHKO. "i could paint that!"
yeah, but you didnt.
if something pissed off my grandmother that immediately and that viscerally then i already loved it by default. its her side of the family that made me sit through FOX NEWS at the kitchen table and LITTLE RIVER BAND concerts, so yeah, karma is a bitch.
that aside, what i love about his work is how it draws you in. reminds me quite a bit of the zazen meditation sessions i experienced at the SOJI-JI temple in YOKOHAMA. when sitting doing nothing your mind first races but then gradually settles and you find yourself paradoxically more attuned to your surroundings as you become unaware of them. even in a vacuum there is still that space and the experience of it. its hard to explain. when i see the work of ROTHKO i am not there looking at nothing, but experiencing the space, taking note of the edges of color and the infinite possibilities available in that border. eventually i don't notice anything and i am just there.
i do not know if ROTHKO was interested in BUDDHIST concepts of SUNYATA ("emptiness") but his art relays such to me. one of my desired vacation destinations within the UNITED STATES is the ROTHKO CHAPEL outside of HOUSTON where 14 of his late black-hued paintings are displayed.
i very much would like to sit quietly and observe that space one day. just experience all that nothingness.
there was a period in high school after i arrived in SACRAMENTO my senior year where somehow i became familiar with the works of late 19th century AUSTRIAN ART NOVEAU artist GUSTAV KLIMT and the SECESSIONIST movement associated with him.
i think part of my fascination was wanting to be somewhere other than conservative, white bread NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, as KLIMT's art is lusciously decorated with gold and exotic motifs the relay some otherworldly realm of beauty and perfection. then there was EGON SCHIELE.
through KLIMT i learned of this upstart from the following generation that drew these brutally revolting self portraits that could not be more the polar opposite. his drawings convey bodies suspended without in a white plain colored in earth tones that seemed to reference decomposition and self-annihilation. his drawings are nihilistic and reduced humanity down to gangly misshapen limbs and soulless countenance that has more to do with a cadaver than an individual. around this period and i took BIOLOGY where we were taken to the UC DAVIS cadaver lab when i was able to view such lifeless forms out in the open. it immediately reminded me of SCHIELE and his work has been ingrained in my consciousness ever since, outshining that of KLIMT in my opinion.
to me art should challenge the viewer and SCHIELE makes me consider my mortality and my physical being, echoing the visceral nature of CARAVAGGIO, and later 20th century work of FRANCIS BACON and MARK ROTHKO. for me his work is deeply affecting and not always in an uplifting, reassuring manner. his has a definite memento mori vibe that sticks in the craw of your consciousness.
make sure and watch the latest streaming episode HERE of MAKE HER SPACE as MAGIE interviews multi-disciplinary NYC artist SI GOLRAINE about her process and recent visual and aural output.
past episodes of MAKE HER SPACE as well as other MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC shows like DEER GOD RADIO, NOWHERE FAST, THE SYNTHESIZER SHOW and CLASSICAL-ISH WITH NUTMEG are available here at the DEER GOD website.
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WES BORLAND is one of the most criminally underrated musicians of his era.
its unfortunate that the otherwise talented rhythm section of LIMP BIZKIT were dragged down by quite possibly the worst frontman of all-time in FRED DURST. but i don't want to talk about that guy anymore because he sucks and he is famous for being a talentless hack.
BORLAND on the other hand seemed seemed to be a unique creative force within that band as well as his other projects BIG DUMB FACE and BLACK LIGHT BURNS where he painted sonically rich landscapes that seemed more indebted to INDIE/ALTERNATIVE ROCK acts like WEEN, PRIMUS and BUTTHOLE SURFERS and 60s experimental rockers FRANK ZAPPA and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART than NU-METAL contemporaries KORN. his riffs are often angular with odd time signatures which puts him squarely in the POST-PUNK tradition of bands like BAUHAUS or GANG OF FOUR rather than PANTERA.
basically i am saying he is all over the map in terms of the techniques and textures he likes to play around with, which for me makes his work intriguing. often times using double-handed plucking, behind the nut bends and artificial harmonics to further complicate his heavily processed sounds that also often incorporates e-bows and whammy bar heroics.
yes LIMP BIZKIT sucks, but BORLAND most definitely does not. for my taste, he is probably one of my favorite 90s guitar players and i'd put him right up there with TOM MORELLO, DAVE NAVARRO, KIM THAYIL and JERRY CANTRELL. unfortunately for BORLAND, those other guitarists were fortunate enough to pair up with an equally legendary and talented frontman. we all can't be so fortunate.
check out his work in BLACK LIGHT BURNS, a self-fronted project he did with essentially half of the touring members of NINE INCH NAILS. big fan of these 2000s records.
photo by nacrowe
gonna just state the obvious. im a huge DEVO fan.
this photo was taken at MUTATO MUZIKA in los angeles by my god mother who works in the music and film industries. at the time MARK MOTHERSBAUGH was working on the score to WES ANDERSON's then in post production film LIFE AQUATIC.
thing i always appreciated about DEVO, much like other bands i adore like THE SMITHS or THE CURE, is their ability to lyrically and sonically represent a comprehensive vision. there is a whole lexicon of internal references and a cohesive worldview regarding consumer culture, masculinity and sexual politics that is embedded in their music.
as outsiders from akron, ohio, in the wake of the 60s protest movements, DEVO have developed a mistrust and skepticism towards nexuses of power (financial, political, commercial, social, etc.) which they often parody in their music and visual content. i would argue that the locus of their ire is not necessarily structures themselves but rather the empty sentiments and thought processes that make such things possible. by this i mean they are continually going after jingoist patriotism and toxic masculinity.
now its one thing to have a strident political or cultural bent in your music, but often-times the music is not the equivalent of the lyrical content (cough, cough, THE CLASH). when i think of RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, their aggressive reinvention of the electric guitar more than enhances their revolutionary lyrics. same with DEVO.
albeit their electronic-based experiments were initiated by the likes of KRAUTROCK bands like KRAFTWERK or NEU!, who i love and respect, their music is by design devoid of personality. DEVO was a bit of a sonic hybrid that used its unique sonic vantage point to draw attention and mock american society.
the most ingenious aspect of DEVO was their utter infiltration of american consumer society as their music has been licensed repeatedly for consumer product promotions and frontman MARK MOTHERSBAUGH has made a career writing theme songs for TV (PEE-WEE's PLAYHOUSE, RUGRATS) and scoring feature films (RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, BOTTLE ROCKET). in essence they went from critiquing american consumer culture to becoming it.
i originally came across the graffiti patterns of 80s NYC street artist KEITH HARING from the charity christmas album A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS in what had to have been the late 80s when i was still in single digits. in fact, hearing the EURYTHMICS rendition of "winter wonderland" immediately puts me in the yuletide spirit as only a child could imagine, even as a now-30+ year old agnostic in the middle of june.
HARING, much like british director DEREK JARMAN, is an icon of a place and time when creative homosexual men were navigating the line between commerce and identity and really struggling. also like JARMAN, he left this world too soon a victim to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the indifference of society at large during that period.
and its that indifference to the plight of others that makes me feel that his work resonates with me now in our current cultural moment. when i see his crude patterns of interconnected humanoid figures, full of movement and spontaneity, i am reminded of our collective kinship and our mutual obligations to each other. to me that was his message.
our humanity connects us.
that message was powerful in a NYC 80s art context where peers and loved ones were passing on from the new Black Death within a political/cultural/societal context that didn't recognize or have any compassion. reagan didnt give a shit. neither did any catholic priest.
feels the same way now with many families being separated, mothers and fathers having their children kidnapped in OUR NAME. that indifference kills me yet it perpetuates what i see in our media and in our culture. i had the pleasure of living in Myanmar and i witnessed this same indifference to their other, the ROHINGYA. living one lived reality while knowing full well that atrocities and war crimes where only a few hundred miles away.
no difference here stateside. we are deluding ourselves with our indifference.
RIP keith haring. thank you for your message of inclusivity and tenderness and continually reminding us of our obligation to each other.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da
"Judith Beheading Holofernes" (1598), oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Antica Rome
CARAVAGGIO was a 16/17th century italian painter during the counter-reformation. that's all well and good, but the reason i adore his work is the visceral realism they portray. his figures don't seem to be a part of some faint idyllic plane, as most religious paintings of the period i've experienced seeming do. in his paintings, CARAVAGGIO's figures deal with issues of aging, decay, indulgence, exhaustion and pain. especially pain.
his work is well worth seeking out if you get the opportunity. a few are scattered throughout the united states. luckily four of his works are part of the permanent collection at THE MET, two on current display being "THE MUSICIANS" (1597) and "THE DENIAL OF ST. PETER" (1610), but most of his notable works are at museums and catholic churches and cathedrals across italy.
embedded below is an excellent BBC documentary by COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY art history professor SIMON SCHAMA as part of his 2006 "POWER OF ART" series. it is worth watching.