Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Provisional Vs. The Dubious: An Exhibition by Shelton Walsmith

do you believe in life after love?
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

Shelton Walsmith 


Shelton Walsmith is an Brooklyn artist working primarily in the mediums of painting and photography. His work has been published by The Paris Review, Knopf, Vintage, Rizzoli Books, Paris Vogue, Denver Quarterly, Unsaid Magazine and others. He has exhibited internationally, as well as widely in the United States. 
Queens College Art Center, a nimble gallery anchored in Queens and open to the world, is a successor since 1987 of the Klapper Library Art Center that was based in the Queens College Art Library’s gallery founded in 1960. In more than 200 exhibitions to date, it has shown masters like Alice Neel, Joseph Cornell, and Elizabeth Catlett, and introduced scores of artists from around the globe and emerging artists who later went on to major careers. The Art Center focuses on modern and contemporary art, presenting the works of both emerging and established artists in diverse media, in programming expressive of the best of the art of our time. 
Queens College Art Center. 65-30 Kissena Blvd. Flushing, NY11367. telephone: 718.997.3770

Please visit

Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

A short series of inane questions and revelatory answers between myself and Shelton:

SC: Who, if anyone, do you look to as an aesthetic compass?

SW: You, Philip Guston, Giorgio Morandi, Francesca Woodman, Andre Tarkovski, Martin Mull, Alfred Stieglitz, Wes Anderson, John Coltrane, Louise Bourgeois

SC: What is your reaction when you compared to other artists?

SW: Righteous indignation. I'm often heard to say, "Well, I never!" Then I hide until they've gone away.

after velasquez and picasso
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

SC: Is the originality of your work a conscious effort or a natural extension of your style?

SW: I never set out to re-invent the wheel. Ever. I'm more of a follower really. I work in traditional genres trying to slot myself into a wisdom tradition of mark making. Is that pathetic?

SC: Are you aware of any appropriations?

SW: I steal some from Massaccio and Giotto. Again I'm heavily influenced by Martin Mull, I've lifted entire passages from his paintings. When I lived in Barcelona I haunted the Picasso Museum. They have his variations on the masters. I recently repainted Velasquez Las Meninas being as true to the original while incorporating Picasso's charicatured take and adding a figure from the youngers Spaniards' Saltimbanques.

This is how I see painting from any source, be it anonymous or in popular consciousness, unless you're attempting forgery it's always going to be your appropriated interpretation.

SC: Do you believe you have a style, a cultivated aesthetic?

SW: No, unfortunately I am like a man without a country. Wandering.

if anyone gave a hoot she didn't notice
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on wood

SC: What are your thoughts about the role art plays / has in this society - or in the culture at large?

SW: I feel the best art is simply escapism. All else is political pandering.

SC: Are you trying to make "a statement"?

SW: I like what Samuel Goldwyn said although I'm sure he was bloviating and crushing someone's sincere desire to express humanity's mission; "if you want to a send message use Western Union."

But, no, I'm trying to make pictures that tell the story of their process in their finished state. The relic should be haunted.

SC: To what extent does art "make a difference"?

SW: It provides mediation between what the empirical and the improbable; like an arbitrator between what's knowable and the magic we wish was true.

SC: What is the purpose of your work?

SW: To delight and confound.

SC: What are you trying to say?

SW: That my research proves that all that glitters is, indeed, gold. AND that not only is no news not good news; it's not even news!

her name was march
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
acrylic on canvas

SC: Who is the ideal spectator of your work?

SW: Good questions like this stop me cold. I'm glad you ask because I'm pondering this for the first time.

Someone receptive who neither wants nor expects things to make sense who would rather be led down the garden path to wilder shores of love. Okay now I know; it's me or Warren Buffet.

SC: What do you want the public to think about your work?

SW: Ideally, that the work is timeless. That it's a source of humor, light and sexy solace. That it should stay off the fridge, go in a gilded frame and be will lit and well hung prominently for all to see forever. And Ever.

SC: Do you think the ideal observer is relevant to your work?

SW: Observers are imperative because they complete the circuitry. It seems foolhardy to hope or expect the ideal observer will come along. I can't manage that end of production or perception.

SC: What is your works relationship to the observer?

SW: The fifth hand in a game of four handed poker.

SC: What are your thoughts on the current scene in New York, in the US, in the World?

SW: New York is obviously vibrant and exciting and always in flux. I cannot pretend to be a part of the art scene here. I might as well be one of the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz in terms of anonymity I'll work for the witch but if she melts I'll also attend that party. Regarding the US and the world one thing is for certain New York is no longer "The Art Center". The global reality is that there is no longer a center it's dispersed into many strongholds Berlin, London, Tokyo, L.A., Bejing, Houston, Venice...

new soft op
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
oil on canvas

SC: Do you think the art world has relevancy?

SW: I think it's an economic gauge; auction prices are similar to the rise and fall of the NASDAQ.

Communities can gauge and conjecture the virility of gentrification and urban renewal by tracking artist enclaves i.e. the caribou effect. Beyond capitalistic or consumer metrics I think the real relevance is social philanthropy. Problematic probably but public museums are secular educating institutions to which kids of all backgrounds come and go daily. Exposure to cultural diversity through the art of the ages and varied social strata is relevant.

SC: What are your thoughts on the commodification of art via the galleries?

SW: Capitalism will eventually be replaced with a better system but for now it's a reality inseparable from goods and services in the western world. Whether it's a navaho blanket for $150 or a John Currin painting for $150,000 the value of art is only a commodity to those involved in the trade. For the rest of us it remains a resonant object. Art lasts longer than money. I can prove it.

SC: Is it possible for an artist to survive, for their work to attain relevancy, without participating in the social aspects of the art world?

SW: Not a living artist. It's like the lottery you've gotta be in it to win it. Unfortunately.

servants to illusion no.6; the clinicians
Shelton Walsmith - 2013
watercolor on paper

SC: What are your thoughts on those artists who create only to appeal to "investors / collectors"?

SW: My thoughts are I wish they would tell me how to do this because it's unicorn hunting as far as I can tell.

SC: Do you believe that the successful artist has been corrupted by capitalism?

SW: The whole world has. Successful artists seem to hire assistants to execute their designs.

Is that corrupt. Successful is relative term. The artist Wayne White is very successful but he claims not to have the Fuck You money that allows an elite group to do as they please. David Foster Wallace was successful but like Stephen King? Compare Jasper Johns success to John Cage; Amy Sillman to Amy Mahnick.

I guess market success and artistic achievement are not always equivalent...I'm rambling because success for me is like a rubics cube.

SC: How can an artist, an artist true to his vocation, survive in today's world?

SW: In the words of Charles Dickens his 'work must be it's own recompense.'
How can anyone survive their own desire to have more than they can make?

Shelton Walsmith - 2014
digital file, giclee print on canvas

SC: What is the relationship of photography to your painting?

SW: Like that of a crutch to an armpit.

SC: How do the non-representational aspects your work related to the representational?

SW: Like an effluvium- one thing is the flower the other is the scent of the flower.

SC: What is the role of symbolism in your work?

SW: This question is like not taking your eyes off the sun while recording what you see in White Out.

I think of Magritte's Ceci n'es pas une pipe. Sometimes paint is acting sculptural and playing itself instead of a trope or a character other times it's a painting of a pig and the pig is really me as a painting of solitary sentient figure. Symbolism plays a backstage role. It lifts or lowers the curtain for the drama to be revealed.

It's not a stagehand or the curtain itself and it certainly isn't a pipe.

SC: Aesthetically, can you speak to the artifactual qualities of your work - those elements that draw attention back to the medium: drip, smudges, tactile dollops?

SW: They call them the plastic arts for a reason. They are man made. The features you mention are for me like the skid marks you see on the road. My work is the stopping short of collision. Like what you said so long ago about the blues the player and the bottle falling off the table...the scumbles and the pentimenti are an xray into body of the process- they show it happening and it's suspended there- it happens every time you look at it.

smear camp
Shelton Walsmith - 2014
digital file, giclee print on canvas

SC: Are you trying to paint religiously or religiously paint?

SW: Yes and hell yes! Without a doubt.

SC: Is there a theological ground for your work?

SW: Yes. Because I was raised in church listening 3 times a week from Adam and Eve to the the parting of the Red Sea to Shadrach Meshach and Abednego to Job and his salty wife to immaculate conception to resurrection to the birth of christendom on down to revelations. Who could forget? Western art history re-indoctrinates and imbeds theology as a kind armature everything else goes on. I don't believe in the big guy in the sky. But as an artist dependent on suspension of disbelief there's no ignoring theology. It's actually quite a helpful bag of tricks,

SC: Is god dead?

SW: I just sent you a postcard with a quote from Tolstoy; paraphrasing- "The evil is not not knowing God but of making a god of lesser things."

Because God is a projection, like the Bat-signal they send up over Gotham when there is trouble, God will always be kept aloft. Unkillable.

SC: Is there any hope for hope? And how do you paint that.

SW: It's all unfathomable hope and irrational faith from where I'm sitting. Use puce.

SC: What role does music play in your work?

Sw: I try to make work the way classical music and jazz function; they are not describing or mimicking sounds in nature (like Flight of The Bumblebee) but rather creating an aural parallel independent of nature.

SC: What is your routine?

SW: Get up earlier than everyone else and read. Put on a classical record ( my current favorite is Haydn) Make breakfast and lunch for Giles and get him off to school. Walk 30 minutes to the studio. Make coffee. Draw until I'm ready to paint then paint until its time to meet Giles at home after school.

SC: How often do you paint?

SW: April through December I paint Monday through Friday from 8-3. January to the end of March I'm lucky if I paint at all.

SC: What is your favorite color?

SW: Merlot red, no, brownish pink, no, daquiri green...

SC: Do you like ponies?

SW: Yes, very much. I asked for one again for xmas this year and, for about the 40th time, nay, it was not to be.

Shelton Walsmith
Photo by John Pack
From Trickhouse #3

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Beautiful Lie. But beautiful... nonetheless.

A woman trying to understand the blues from But Beautiful:

- All that hurt and pain, she said at last. But... but...
- But what?
- But beautiful. 

Geoff Dyer interview in the Paris Review:

That’s a book where the joins between fact and invention really are invisible, though. There’s that moment in which Monk peels an orange and says, “Shapes.” That feels so purely characteristic it can’t possibly be made up. 
No, it’s made up, I think. The writing of that book is difficult for me to remember, except that I do recall how enjoyable it was. I look back on it now, partly because I’ve become conscious of something it lacks. I think it would be better if it ended with Albert Ayler. For whatever reason, I didn’t do that then, and lately I’ve been listening to more Ayler and thinking that I would like to write something about him. Or, more accurately, wishing I had written about him in But Beautiful, because now I’m completely incapable of it. 
How so? 
Well, first off, the Internet has made so much stuff available that one of the things that motivated me to write that book—loved jazz, couldn’t find all the stuff I wanted to in the books that were available, so wrote one myself—no longer pertains. On YouTube you can listen to Don Cherry describing his first meeting with Ayler. It is so wonderful, one of the greatest ever accounts of one artist meeting another. Which leaves me satisfied as an interested fan and somewhat redundant as a writer. Also, I just don’t have the confidence now that I did back then to write about African Americans. Relatedly, I’m too discerning now to tolerate some of the excesses that were a product and cause of that confidence. So I know where that writing came from, but I couldn’t do it now. It’s one of the things that makes the writing life interesting over the long term—what comes and what goes.

"In the West... you reach this level of playing for money, you know? But there's a few people that play for the love of God. And as a reflection from God. And Albert Ayler was one of these people." 
- Don Cherry on Albert Ayler

Ayler's interpretation of Summertime is remarkable. It's idiosyncrasy, it's insistence on the violence of translation, the blood on the floor that is interpretation. Chang Tzu's butcher slipping his blade effortlessly inside the spaces between the bones, dancing with the carcass of an ox that falls away entirely separated, a harmonic equation of blood, bone and flesh. Could Gershwin have ever imagined Ayler?

The poet Ted Joans likened the impact of this trio to hearing someone scream the word ‘fuck’ on Easter Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral.  
- The Penguin Jazz Guide by Brian Morton, Richard Cook

When Coltrane died, Ayler, whom Coltrane acknowledged as a profound influence, was asked to play the funeral. By all accounts, it was an intensely spiritual event, fitting for Coltrane as a man and a musician. Ayler opened with "Love Cry, Truth Is Marching In, Our Prayer" and Ornette Coleman closed with "Holiday For A Graveyard". Ayler's sax in particular becomes the voice of a Rilkean angel: simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. There is something of the Eschaton in Ayler's and Coleman's performances. Even poorly recorded, the music reverberates in a cul de sac, trapped in the apse of the Western musical cathedral, notes not so much fading as collapsing inwardly under the pressure of inadequacy into the absolute silence of the crypt. This is the haunting question: when is even music inadequate to task of surrounding human experience with meaning? Because here at John Coltrane's funeral, music a whole, always transcendent, verges on inadequacy, dissolving under the sense of an Ultimate Tragic realization : human being is not merely irrelevant to the gods, it is an unwelcome presence. The pressure of this active negation - call it malign fate or doom - is what resists the expected outward expansion of the music into the transcendent and pierces into the listener on the most primal ontological level. It is harrowing and unbearable.

In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot has Becket state:

“When the figure of God’s purpose is made complete.
You shall forget these things, toiling in the household,
You shall remember them, droning by the fire,
When age and forgetfulness sweeten memory
Only like a dream that has often been told
And often been changed in the telling. They will seem unreal.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

In other words, we live an unreal lie of the mind, in a state of active forgetting, unable to endure the brutal tragedy of the real. Nietzsche, in 1888, a year before his mind was lost, wrote in a letter:

Music … frees me from myself, it sobers me up from myself, as though I survey the scene from a great distance … It is very strange. It is as though I had bathed in some natural element. Life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile.

My belief is that in this god-vacated, god-absented, god-haunted world, music is losing its liberating and sobering power to "sweeten memory". Nietzsche's musical bath is polluted and no longer purifying. And life is becoming an undeniable error, an unrecoverable exhaustion and an irrevocable exile.

Edward Dahlberg in Can These Bones Live? is prescient and hopeful:

There are no abstract truths - no Mass Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza, kneeling at the deathbed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs for the rebirth of the Pulse.

Not only Reason, but Hope itself is the "wandering ghostly Error" haunting our language. For what is it when our subjunctive wishful could/would future hourly is overwhelmed by the ever-rising blood-dimmed flood that drowns every single ceremony of innocence? (Yeats) The word "Hope" has followed the recently deceased "God" into becoming an artifact of language, like "sunset" and "sunrise" and "sense of humor" and "heartache" - all disconnected fragments of bygone systems of belief. I am becoming resistant to it's use. Language and music both are increasingly emptied for me.

But not entirely. I am not so numb and dumb to the presence of meaning in my life and world. However, what I am becoming increasingly aware of is how terrible this meaning is. I once was amused by the Judaic joke: "What man calls thinking, God call laughter." Now, not so much. The sublime ridiculous is the everyday mode. Paranoia is the healthiest state of mind. The punch-line is always ready to pounce. Beauty, Truth and Justice are the usual suspects. Lesser animals, more marketable beasts such as Happiness, Pleasure and Entertainment are transient distractions: the angler-fish's glowing lure. And the Pretty and Sweet and Lovely are the over-painted whores whispering mindless temptations in my ear. There is meaning. But it is an alien, strange and monstrous creature. If we were able to endure even a syllable of its language, I believe it might sound something like Albert Ayler.

- All that hurt and pain, she said at last. But... but...
- But what?
- But beautiful. 

A Beautiful Lie. But beautiful... nonetheless.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed.

Eyes That Have Seen the Light of a Thousand Suns
Hiroshima, 1945 - source

This form of pointing to a historicity that can never he fully represented constitutes a kind of allegory in Benjamin's peculiar sense of the term. In Benjamin's understanding, allegory breaks up naturalized concepts of history and life, creating discontinuities through which other times and histories can emerge. Tom Cohen helpfully glosses the term "allography" or "other-writing," describing it as a practice of writing that, like translation, indicates a difference in language that corresponds to history's ongoing and infinitely singular alterity (Ideology 12). Although Borges rejects allegory as
an "aesthetic error," he also acknowledges that it merely exacerbates an abstract aspect of language that is impossible to avoid, even in such forms as the symbol or the novel, which purport to represent immediacy and particularity ("De las alegarias a las novelas," Otras inquisiciones 153-56). If the symbol, the novel, and allegory constitute "maps of the universe," the symbol and the novel are like Borges's famous imperial map that is spread over the colonized territory, and allegory is perhaps the same map, but ill-fitting and shredding with time, perforated by an otherness that it cannot keep covered. Allegory thus concerns a sense of life that cannot be fully represented, but rather gestures beyond itself to what both Benjamin and Borges describe as the "secrets of history" - that is, a conception of history that can never he appropriated by those who Benjamin calls history's victors. - 
- Reading Borges after Benjamin: Allegory, Afterlife, and the Writing of History by Kate Jenckes

In our times, unfortunately, Hirsohima is a forgotten allegory. As such, it has lost contemporary relevance. The word itself has become a metonomy for it's own destruction. Ask almost anyone what Hiroshima means and it will be typically be described as a bombing to end the war with Japan or as the one of the two occurrences in history that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. What has been forgotten, relegated to the dustbin, is what Benjamin and Borges call the "the secrets of history": what actually happened on the ground to the 350,000 human beings living in the city. 

It has been estimated that 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly - a number that in itself is difficult to imagine. Think of a football stadium filled to capacity - leaving an unsettling margin of error for 20,000 more. If this 20,000 indicated days, it would amount to over 55 years. This is the margin of error. 

In October of 1950, a national survey, counted 158,597 survivors in Hiroshima. Here is where Borges' claim that the allegory is an "aesthetic error" is terribly applicable, for the allegory breaks down in the first person testimonials of life in Hiroshima after the bomb. In the extraordinary case of Hirsoshima, the incomprehensible violent "otherness" of the survivor's traumatic accounts shreds the maps of historiography into obscene fragments disconnected from any meaning. Borges' error has become an imprecation of the highest order, an ontological curse. That we, "history's victors," have become blind to this is indicative of precisely how poisoned by our own "allography," "historiography" we have become. 

On December 10, 1950, William Faulker was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He chose the occasion to deliver these haunting words in his acceptance speech

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. 
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. 
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man

27 years later, Arthur Koestler wrote in his book Janus: A Summing Up:

If I were asked to name the most important date in the history of prehistory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945. The reason is simple. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a while has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.  
We have been taught to accept the transitoriness of personal existence, while taking the potential immortality of the human race for granted. This belief has ceased to be valid. We have to revise our axioms.  
It is not an easy task. There are periods of incubation before a new idea takes hold of the mind; the Copernican doctrine which so radically downgraded man's status in the universe took nearly a century until it penetrated European consciousness. The new downgrading of our species to the status of mortality is even more difficult to digest.  
It actually looks as if the novelty of this outlook had worn off before it had properly sunk in. Already the name Hiroshima has become a historical cliche like the Boston Tea Party. We have returned to a state of pseudo-normality. Only a small minority is conscious of the fact that ever since it unlocked the nuclear Pandora's Box, our species has been living on borrowed time. 

Of course, these days, it is not only destruction by nuclear weapons that poisons our hope, but that of global climate change. It seems that if we do not kill ourselves, the planet will do it for us. And the poisonous effects of digesting this pervasive sense of doom are only just beginning to be seen. All those "old verities and truths of the heart" that Faulkner hoped the next generations might "relearn" are losing all meaning. What remains is only the standing among and watching the end of man.

The journalist Robert Jungk spent three years documenting the post-bomb experience of Hiroshima, recounting many survivors' tales, in City of Ashes: The People of Hiroshima (PDF file). Here are those broken fragments of life in the aftermath. Language, thought itself, seems inadequate in the face of the atrocity. And yet, contra-Faulkner, here at the intimations of what any future "literature" might be.

The M. family also began to show the painful symptoms that revealed the radiation sickness. Setsuo M. complained that his eyesight had suddenly deteriorated, his wife began to lose her hair, while little Hideko vomited several times a day. Kazuo sat for hours each day in front of the entrance that led down to the air-raid shelter and stared out over the vast field of rubble. Later he attempted to recapture his mood as it had been, in a poem that he sent me: 
It rains and rains,
In the slanting rain I sit,
It drums upon my naked skull,
It drips across my singed eyebrows,
It runs into that bleeding hole, my mouth.
Rain on my wounded shoulders,
Rain in my lacerated heart. Rain, rain, rain,
Wherefore do I live on? 
Doctors practising in Hiroshima at that time have recorded that a second phase now set in, after the first period of desperate and confused activity that followed immediately upon the Pikadon; many survivors now gave an impression of utter apathy and showed no wish to go on living. This symptom they called Muyoku-ganbo, and when they noted in a very sick patient's face an expression of listlessness increasing with each passing day, then they knew that there was no longer any hope of saving this particular life. 
An eye-witness, the poetess Yoko Ohta, has described this condition: 'Each of us had for a time done everything possible, without knowing for sure what exactly it was that we were doing. Then we awoke, and now we wished to speak no more. Even the sheepdogs that roamed about ceased to bark. The trees, the plants all that lived seemed numb, without movement or colour. Hiroshima did not somehow resemble a city destroyed by war, but rather a fragment of a world that was ending. Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed. Thus the "expression of wanting nothing more" came to be seen upon our faces.' 
Children of the Ashes: The People of Hiroshima, Robert Jungk

Where to go from here? What follows the end of what is sayable? What is the future of hope? Obviously, without a future, there is no hope. The language either has to disconnect itself from the stark sheer face of the reality it barely clings to or lose itself in counter-truths, allegorical lies and fantastical maps that reference only imaginary worlds. Perhaps, we are already in the thick of it. Opium dreamers lost in the layers of deeper dreams and false awakening. Much of our media, especially film, is creating fictional critique of this view. If this is the case, the concern is not so much how to escape but why. What incentive is there to fully awaken from the beautiful dream into the horrible reality? Perhaps, there are potentialities for renewal. But these thoughts are plagued by doubt.

It is not that everything is a lie but the space for exodus is narrow, and we find it difficult to sense much of a navigable entanglement of humanity and world. Kafka's insistence that there is an abundance of hope but none for us seems only all the more pertinent to current conditions. [...]
Bloch's most interesting and challenging claim in relation to hope is that it involves danger and fundamental insecurity and that this is its dark ambivalence. At its most difficult, it approaches and resides in a zero-point of emptiness and darkness. But this is a place where fear creates yearning and longing against that which the darkness most obscures and depreciates. The tenebrous realities of death and tragic being can provide a motivating uncertainty in which a renewal might occur. 
- Frances Daly, The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, edited by Peter Thompson, Slavoj Zizek

These men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists. And I even think that we should understand - without ceasing to fight it - the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history. 
- Albert Camus, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1957

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Alice Leora Briggs: "where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough"

Alice Leora Briggs
Santa Muerte - 2008

There are few living artists whose work is as compelling and as morbidly fascinating as that of Alice Leora Briggs. Even fewer who have the ability to artistically comment on contemporary social and political issues with as much insight, subtle irony and tragic humor. Her work consciously references Holbein's Dance of Death, Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, Gerard David's Flaying of Sisamnes and William Hogarth's ironic moral engravings to name just a few. Whether she is working in 13th century German sgrafitto etching techniques, woodcuts or woodburns, her essential illuminations into the black hollows of human nature are striking and unforgettable, their brutal meanings transcendent, resonant beauty shivering in the bones. 

When I first spoke to artist Alice Leora Briggs last spring, Juarez, Mexico, was under siege by rampant gang- and drug-related violence. Briggs had just completed an arts residency in southern New Mexico and frequently traveled the 30 minutes to witness the carnage and aftermath left by a recent spate of murders in and around the border town. 
She visited so called "death houses," sites of mass executions, and spent time studying the victims' remains in the city morgue. 
"One room is entirely full of bullets from the executions," Brigss said. "I saw an autopsy of a young man who was executed. There was a story in the New York Times about the morgue a day or so after I was there. The photos of the freezers had everything looking tidy. They must have cleaned for them. I was glad to get a different view....The bodies were all akimbo and not neatly wrapped up.... I see things on the news and compare it to what I saw and they do not always jive." 
In response to what she saw, Briggs picked up her etching knives and, using an old etching technique from the 13th century called sgraffito, cut through dark wood to reveal images of what was laid before her eyes. 
Alongside the graphic images, Briggs also incorporates medieval or renaissance scenes like an old-master draftsman. In a more recent conversation, Briggs explained what drew her to violent depictions: "The first time that I went to Italy, I realized that I was part of an extended tradition in Western art. I mean, you go to Italy, walk into any church, and the subject matter is about torture and death and human suffering. And these are things I think maybe are not entertaining, but certainly are worthy of our attention."

Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez
Words by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs

In 2010, Briggs collaborated with Charles Bowden on the book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez:

What do you call a place where people are tortured and murdered and buried in the backyard of a nice, middle-class condo? Where police work for the drug cartels? Where the meanings of words such as "border" and "crime" and "justice" are emptying out into the streets and flowing down into the sewers? You call it Juárez or, better yet, Dreamland. 
Realizing that merely reporting the facts cannot capture the massive disintegration of society that is happening along the border, Charles Bowden and Alice Leora Briggs use nonfiction and sgraffito drawings to depict the surreality that is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Starting from an incident in which a Mexican informant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security murdered a man while U.S. agents listened in by cell phone—and did nothing to intervene—Bowden forcefully and poetically describes the breakdown of all order in Juárez as the power of the drug industry outstrips the power of the state. Alice Leora Briggs's drawings—reminiscent of Northern Renaissance engraving and profoundly disquieting—intensify the reality of this place where atrocities happen daily and no one, neither citizens nor governments, openly acknowledges them. 
With the feel of a graphic novel, the look of an illuminated medieval manuscript, and the harshness of a police blotter, Dreamland captures the routine brutality, resilient courage, and rapacious daily commerce along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Stamps for Dreamland series is stunning and evocative. The implicit authority of the stamp is sublimely subverted by the use of imagery associated with the hellish Narco-Terrorist world of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It is a modern day Dance of Death, narratively compelling as the woodcut prints of Hans Holbein, and yet something entirely new, utterly 21st century. And yet, a thing that has always haunted human beings. Desire and death. You imagine that when the lights of the world have been extinguished, these images of Alice Leora Briggs are what the desperate trembling survivors will look to for some insight into the nature of our current insanity. In her images are the omens, portents and signs of the sickness rotting inside the heart of our world.

Everyone knows the facts and yet the facts slip from everyone’s hands. Walk a hundred feet from a body on the pavement - the blood puddled around the skull - and it never happened, the young girls smile, the traffic zooms past without slowing, the city beats on and on, and the dead no longer exist and soon the memory of the dead will be a rare bit of fact polished and cherished by the family and ignored or forgotten by everyone else. This is a survival tactic and it crosses all class lines. This is the fruit of living without history. This is the result of amnesia in television, radio, and print. This is the sweet drug that comes from fantasy. The authorities are real. The police enforce the laws. The courts function. The army protects. The streetlights sweep evil from the night. There is a consensus here to believe the unbelievable, to insist that things are normal - the government is in charge, the incidents, should they even come to notice, are accidents, little imperfections in the tapestry that is life and this tapestry is sound and beautiful to both the eye and to the hand as it strokes the elaborate weave of lives that make up the city.

It took me a long time to accept that the present is always acceptable. Period.”
- Charles Bowdee, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Alice Leora Briggs
Twelve - 2008

“I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”   
- Charles Bowden 

Alice Leora Briggs
Narcotraficante - 2008

Alice Leora Briggs
Decapitacion Humana - 2010

Disquiet has marked art since its beginnings: the success and failures of Paleolithic hunts, the tides of slaves who filled Egyptian tombs, the memento moris of Dutch stilled lives, the spears of Shakespearean wit. Likewise, occupation with human frailty and worldly conceits is integral to Alice Leora Briggs’ work. When she was seven years old, her brother fell to his death at Grand Teton National Park. And, perhaps as a result, Briggs probes with curiosity and intensity those facets of human life that we often seek to closet. The artist finds her subject in the narco-violence that plagues Ciudad Juárez and in an asylum built by a visionary on the outskirts of this Mexican border city. Briggs explores the daily adaptations made by the citizens of the narco-battered borderlands. She renders them in her native amalgam of classic and contemporary imagery and oblique narratives coaxed from European art history. 
In tandem a recent series of woodcuts explores a twelve-line universe, The Room, a poem by American poet laureate, Mark Strand. Each of her images conjures one line from the poem. The world she creates is brittle, tenuous, and furtive. The images glimpse into concealed longings and secrets, like looking into someone’s emotional closet. In her persistent way, all of Briggs’ work finds a way to link our contemporary anxieties, desires, and expectations with those of the art historical past. Her visual quotations from Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Hendrik Goltzius, and others meld seemingly incongruent worlds into the singular time and place of her drawings.

Alice Leora Briggs
where the farmer sits and stares - 2014

The Room by Mark Strand 
It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open 
and into his room the misfortunes come --
death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
their wooden wings bruising the air,
their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over. 
There is a need for surprise endings;
the green field where cows burn like newsprint,
where the farmer sits and stares,
where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

Alice Leora Briggs
Spit - 2007

O Fortuna,
velut Luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem. 
Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria.
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune!
Like the moon
rising first
then declining;
hateful life
treats us badly
then with kindness
making sport with our desires,
causing power
and poverty alike
to melt like ice. 
Dread destiny
and empty fate,
an ever-turning wheel,
who make adversity
and fickle health
alike turn to nothing,
in the dark
and secretly
you work against me;
how through your trickery
my naked back
is turned to you unarmed. 
Good fortune
and strength
now are turned from me.
and defeat
are always on duty.
Come now,
pluck the strings
without delay;
and since by fate
the strong are overthrown
weep ye all with me.
- Carmina Burana

Monday, October 06, 2014

Shiloh: The fifth and last one was piled up into a mass of skull, arms, some toes and the remains of a butternut suit....

"Two or three of us took a little ramble out on the field... We took a look at the ghastly sights.... I saw five dead Confederates all killed by one six pound solid shot -- no doubt from one of our cannon. They had been behind a log and all in a row. The ball had raked them as they crouched behind the log (no doubt firing at our men). One of them had his head taken off. One had been struck at the right shoulder and his chest lay open. One had been cut in two at the bowels and nothing held the carcass together but the spine. One had been hit at the thighs and the legs were torn from the body. The fifth and last one was piled up into a mass of skull, arms, some toes and the remains of a butternut suit.... 
"Ambulances and men are hurrying over the field and gathering up the wounded. The surgeons are cutting off the arms and legs. Burying parties and details are out burying the dead this evening... The terrible rain of last night has filled the ground with water... The trees are just bursting into leaf and the little flowers are covering the ground -- but their fragrance is lost in the pall of death which has settled down on this bloody field." 
"This is the valley and the shadow of death."

- Excerpt from Throne, Mildred, ed. The Civil War Diary of Cyrus F. Boyd. 
Fifteenth Iowa Infantry, 1861-1863. The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1976. 
Reprint, Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co.