Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Perils of Art

"The thing about the contemporary art world is that if you care about it, which usually means you are materially involved, it can be endlessly fascinating, a seemingly inexhaustible novelty engine with just enough substance to keep you from feeling like a dupe; if you don't care, it can appear to be laughably incestuous and self-parodic. You sort of have to drink the Technicolor Kool-Aid to believe in it, which is why [Sarah] Thornton (lifting from an uncredited Tom Wolfe, who made the same point in a 1984 Harper's essay) calls the art world an 'alternative religion for atheists.'"

-Andrew Hultkrans in Bookforum (Dec/Jan 2009), reviewing Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Weird Nature

I found Nettleton Hollow, an online seller of lasting botanical materials, through one of my favorite design websites, Apartment Therapy. These are not the crafty, cheapy wax flowers or synthetic batches of straw you see at Michael's or Pier 1. This is preserved nature at its most eccentric. I particularly love the hanging amaranthus, which makes me think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and the yellow craspedia, which is bold and spherical and otherworldly, rather like a Martian flower, I imagine.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Synecdoche Schenectady [spoiler alert]

Say what you will about Charlie Kaufman and his well-worn metanarratives, but the man writes a mighty fine nervous breakdown. In "Synecdoche, NY," the audience is spared no scatalogical or medical unpleasantry--from bloody urine in a basement sink to erupting pustules to a bloated Philip Seymour Hoffman matter-of-factly trying to get a sample of his own feces for his doctor. Compare this to the fey Franny-and-Zooey-esque nervous breakdowns of a director such as Wes Anderson, in which attractive, but neurotic, twentysomethings banish themselves to posh, beautifully appointed Parisian hotels or lock themselves in the family bathroom to take hot baths and smoke cigarettes. Where Kaufman reveals the bile and existential horror of falling apart, Anderson gives us the comfort, if not the luxuries, of feeling sad. And feeling sad sometimes is not a breakdown. It's called being alive.

"Synecdoche" takes us through the downward meta-spiral of a meta-mindfuck that has now become Kaufman's trademark. This time, however, our protagonist actually has a successful career. So successful, in fact, that, halfway through the film, theater director Caden Cotard (Hoffman) finds out in a letter that he has won a MacArthur Genuis Grant (don't they call you for big awards like that?). But, the seams in Caden's personal life have frayed irreparably: his wife, Adele Lack (I strongly suspect that Kaufman got this name from a piece of IKEA furniture, which, incidentally, I own), who paints miniature nudes, confesses during a marriage counseling session that she sometimes fantasizes that Caden has died, so she can start all over, without guilt. "Does this make you feel terrible?" the ubercheerful blonde therapist, played brilliantly by Hope Davis, asks Caden. "Yes," Caden replies. "Good," the therapist responds. Not long after, Adele leaves Caden for a show in Berlin, with their young daughter, Olive, never to return again.

The only bright light in this disaster is Hazel, the buxom box-office girl who has had a longtime crush on Caden, played by Samantha Morton. As testament to Hazel's imperviousness, she lives in a house that is continually on fire, but never burns down. When Caden begins rehearsal on his mega-theater production, which, in effect, involves an entire city of characters and a city within New York City for its stage, he hires Hazel as his assistant. Caden's problem, however, is that he is continually re-staging and directing every moment of his life, as it happens, so that the play itself never takes place. At one point, one of his actors remarks that they have been rehearsing for seventeen years.

As with "Eternal Sunshine," "Synecdoche" starts out in the realm of narrative realism, but soon descends into the messily surreal and dream-like realm of interiority. The linearity of time is replaced by the subjective sequencing of dreams, and we as an audience never quite know where we are--Caden's nightmares, New York, Berlin, actual time, or actual space. After a while, it doesn't seem to matter to us, and one gets the feeling that it never mattered to Kaufman. Before we and Caden know it, Olive is an adult and, worse, every father's greatest fear: a stripper. Caden finds that his presents (a large pink cardboard "nose") have never reached her, Adele's nefarious pot-buddy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, has become her lover, and she is tattooed, broken, and dying in a German hospital. Like her mother, Olive inexplicably detests Caden and cannot forgive him for trespasses he never even committed, even upon her deathbed.

Kaufman's heterosexual relationships have a pattern: Dominant, high-spirited, artistic women wreaking havoc on their weak-willed, introverted, artistic men. In "Eternal Sunshine," Kate Winslet's character, Clementine, tries to erase Jim Carrey's Joel from her memory altogether--the ultimate "fuck you." In "Being John Malkovich," John Cusack is threatened by the sexual relationship that ensues between Maxine (Catherine Keener) and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Caden is no different. His universe, with the exception of the actor he hires to play himself, is entirely made up of women. After his wife leaves him, he marries his longtime actress Claire (Michelle Williams), and together, they have another daughter. But, again, the relationship sours, and Caden loses yet another family of women.

The last half hour of the movie descends into a maelstrom of tears and self-pity and apocalypse. Kaufman seems to throw up his hands at his own mess, after constructing so many plot points and meta-plot points that he himself can no longer keep track of what's happening, and after so many women have screwed him over and left him to eat his own heart. When Caden's doppelganger kills himself, Kaufman seems to have tied his hands: Should Caden kill himself now too? What comes next when your script begins to write your reality? If Caden too killed himself, wouldn't that bring us back to zero?

So Caden doesn't kill himself. Instead, he drives. He drives through the ruins of his play, the ruins of his life. And what does he find at the end of it? A woman. She's comforting. But they always start out comforting, don't they?

Life is cruel, but women are crueler. Or so it seems to Kaufman, because they are the only ones he can turn to for total solace, and yet, they are also the people who do him the most harm. In Kaufman's world, it is women who wield sex as power, and men who submit to their will out of sheer weakness and base lust. Perhaps this is why Caden breaks into sobs every time he's on the cusp of coitus. Women's bodies hold the monopoly on consolation; men's bodies merely fit into them. Women create--not only life, but also art; when Caden tries to create art, the result is merely a repetition of life. He can stage it as enormously as he wants, but, by the end of the script, it is still just rote replication.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

[Unedited] Thoughts on the Morandi Exhibition at the Met

"Natura Morta," Giorgio Morandi, 1952

.... Have been thinking about the Morandi paintings since Sunday. They are definitely mute, purposefully bland works, but they reveal themselves slowly, I think. Like the mute Helen Hunt character in The Piano, you could say ;). One has to keep paying attention and listening and not be turned off or frustrated by their silence, by how little they give. They are not generous paintings, they are quiet and private, and they resist meaning-making at their surface.

Traditionally, a still life depicts fruits, flowers, either before decay or in the process of. The still life's purpose, then, is to call attention to the ephemerality of life, to the transience of youth, beauty, joy. It is a portrait of mortality, without human figures. It is a symbology. Morandi, by painting jars and beakers and boxes, subverts this convention. His objects are neither dead nor alive. Though mundane and unassuming, they endure. Ceramics in fact often survive us; they have been artifacts for entire lost civilizations. His interest, then, is in a space and time outside of reality-- an abstract reality, which lives only in the mind.

By repetitively painting these same objects in slightly different configurations--sometimes just varying their positions slightly-- the works feel very notational. Let's see what happens if I just move this jar a little, let's see what happens if I take this box away. They are studies, asymptotically striving for some ideal, some lasting thing. The attention to subtlely is an attention to seeing, I think. Morandi is obviously anti-drama, anti-overt gesture. The paintings are exercises in stillness, because stilling the subject matter is an effort, in some sense, to still the mind. The stiller the mind, the closer perhaps a person can approximate some higher order.

My own inclination is to dislike extremely metaphysical work, because of its religious connotation. And I don't like to deny the humanness of being human. To me the secular is where it's at, and I enjoy work that revels in or at least explores the experience of being human and flawed and afraid. But what I like about Morandi's work is that there isn't any overt desperation in his yearning for some higher thing, some beyond. It's disciplined and it's rigorous and it's private. Also, he isn't trying to preach or convert. We're just witnessing one man's practice, for what that's worth to us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Poster for Fridays

from Etsy.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Just Smoke

From the current exhibition at NYPL, which explores tobacco ads from the early to mid-20th century.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So proud. So happy. So moved.