Thursday, December 18, 2008

Everything Must Go!

Freelance curator Rachel Higgins has taken the notion of the art market to its logical, yet ludicrous, conclusion. Having leased space in what is widely regarded, locally, as a “dead mall”, Birmingham’s slowly declining Century Plaza, Higgins has selectec a group of artists to utilize a retail space from December 20 to January 3.

On her website,, Higgins observes, “In an American landscape full of abandoned malls, EVERYTHING MUST GO is an attempt, not to revitalize these structures,
but to embrace the playful fantasy that the empty mall offers as a social space.”

The exhibition will feature a total of twenty artists, most working solo in the space for a single day.

This follows in the tradition of Claes Oldenburg’s Mott Art store, Rikrit Tiravanija’s gallery as performance/serving space works, and a range of other historical precedents. What will be most intriguing is the response of the local audience, who, often removed from complex questions and issues of contemporary art, may find Everything Must Go precisely the manifestation of holiday cheer and economically depressed ennui that will make this season all the better.

For further information visit Higgins’ site, or follow her link to Ceci Moss’ recent article on

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Five Faves 2008

1. Melissa Dadourian: This Brooklyn based artist’s large scale installations recontextualize our understandings of the representations of women. Made painstakingly, laboriously, and seemingly effortlessly, her works expand our understandings, both intellectually and physically, of what it means for women to represent women in the present age.

2. Bentzon Brotherhood, Rapper’s Delight: Take a stone rap classic by the Sugarhill Gang and break it down with incredible jazz piano. My favorite new purchase from Turntable Lab, it shows that just when you thought classic meant cliché something like this comes along and stands your expectations on their heads. Great for DJ sets, and I’m pretty sure it’s a floorfiller.

3. Zhang Huan, Pace Wildenstein, May 2008: Take the fantastic Pace spaces in Chelsea and fill them with works of wonder. Zhang Huan’s works seemed unexpected and unbelievable, subtle and base in precisely the same moment. Let the intricacy of the works in Blessing be almost overshadowed as you walk across the seemingly precarious elevated walkway and gaze down on the ash that is making up Canal Building in its 19 by 59 foot glory. The materials themselves seemed to be solid, the ash standing as a huge block of concrete with a delicate drawing overlaid.

4. Ricky Gervais: Apart from creating The Office, he was also the creative genius behind Extras, that short-lived series on HBO about the journey from nobody to somebody and back again. Leads to the rather more surreal scene of him humorously cajoling Steve Carrell for the Emmy he’d won the previous year. With US network television seemingly struggling, and many suggesting that even cable has lost its luster, Gervais’ heartwrenching and humorous forays into the flabby Everyman seem even more sublime.

5. The Getty, Los Angeles, Summer 2008: When you can walk into a gallery and have a Bill Viola video work juxtaposed with relevant historical painting, you know someone’s been applying their critique of institutions theory. When you continue through the same building to experience Nicole Cohen’s site specific, period-inspired genius, you understand curatorial practice. In almost every respect the Getty shows unexpected restraint. And when you ride the tram down to the parking lot, you can marvel at the mid-century modern neighborhood nestled across the freeway. Unanticipated architectural context anyone?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Got Sand?

Given the volatilities of the art market, perhaps the best option for new collectors hesitant to purchase speculatively would to acquire the new Ed Ruscha beach towel. Perfect for Art Basel Miami Beach last week (and one can only speculate that it littered the sand behind the hotels on Collins Street), this sixty by seventy inch colossus of American art can only be described as a bargain! Other choices include sand stoppers by Julian Schnabel, Raymond Pettibon and Karen Kilimnik.

Available at Target, while supplies last. Order online.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Abyss of the Personal

I sought great men, but all I found were the apes of their ideals.

Friedrich Nietzsche

An artist friend recently directed me towards some remarks in which his works were roundly criticized. They were criticized, in part, because their existense was symptomatic of an approach to the creation, criticism and consumption of art that was at odds with the aesthetic preferences of the writer.

In many ways, this is entirely the conundrum that presents itself in contemporary art today. In an era in which even subjectivity is regarded as reactionary, it is as if there is no space to actually engage in a discourse about contemporary art.

Clearly, there is little value to be had when one reduces the experiences of art to merely their descriptive titles, as when one pronounces, “well, I’m not particularly partial to realist painting,” or, “it’s a little conceptual for my liking.” What emerges with these types of overarching statements is a failure of understanding. For an appreciation of the fine arts isn’t necessarily driven entirely by subjective questions. The capacity to wield a pen, or pencil, or brush, and make a square be proportionally and perspectivally correct, really isn’t a subjective question. At the same time, its ability to evoke a response precisely is. This is why a technically proficient Sunday painter may produce works that are far less evocative than those created by a self-taught artist.

But criticism doesn’t usually fall along these lines. Instead, we all too often confuse the capacity to express with the facility to depict, and our assessments of each work that presents itself is somehow caught up in our inability to distinguish. As a result, a work becomes ‘too conceptual’. Wouldn’t a more revealing response involve the artist’s ability, or lack thereof, to convincingly construct the visual equivalent to the idea that motivated the works? Think, perhaps, of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, or On Kawara’s Date Paintings, or any of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings. Their capacity to reduce, refine and depict means that there is only a short conceptual distance to traverse.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is either ‘good’, or ‘bad’, as if either of these terms had critical value. It also is meaningless in determining the level of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ one might have to these objects. But the key question that should motivate our responses should center upon whether or not the idea is embodied in the outcome. For it is here, and only here, that the actual questions of value can be weighed. Works like Three Standard Stoppages, with their variations, or In Advance of a Broken Arm, both by Marcel Duchamp, may require complicity by the viewer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she has been duped.

I want to believe that art exists in a visual environment in which understanding isn’t necessarily duplicity – an environment in which artists aren’t motivated by Sartreian bad faith or simple laissez faire – but instead is analysis. It isn’t enough today to make value judgments merely on the basis of one’s like or dislike for an object. That does the entire practice of criticism a disservice. Yes, everyone has opinions, but rather than cling to one’s own for the sheer pleasure of being ‘right’, perhaps we should approach artworks with the sheer expectation of understanding. For even if we can’t, perhaps someone can, and this might move us away from the abyss of the personal towards something that borders on a legitimate consideration of the object that’s right in front of us…whether we like it or not.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hokianga Dreaming

Ross T. Smith is a challenging photographer. His series of portraits of Hemi Tuwharerangi Paraha is particularly so. Not, perhaps, because the images document a challenging individual, or portray someone the viewer will probably never know, for these are issues which haunt all photography. Instead, these images call the entire history of the representation of Maori males into question precisely in the manner in which they suggest who Paraha is and, at the same time, react against the traditional representations which have reflected, if not repressed, young Maori males to this day.

If one believes that photography itself is a difficult practice, at least to the extent that the image’s power stems from our emotional responses to, or empathy with, the subject, then representing Maori in New Zealand is particularly problematic. Historically Maori males have been positioned by the media as either social pariahs (gang members, for example, or the urban and rural unemployed), or as objects for cultural consumption. So one must wonder what other responses are possible - one must wonder if or how we know that Smith depicts, as it were, these alternative readings which are more correct, of not in fact more real.

But a straightforward reading of these photographs will not suffice either. It is not enough to merely site Hemi Tuwharerangi Paraha in a particular place. The danger is that one will attribute everything to location, as if the personal followed solely on from the pastoral. And Smith is aware that Paraha cannot be located in this way. For Paraha is not merely a subject in the landscape, but instead is both within it and a part of it. And, at the same time, it seems clear that he too is in danger of being, in part, that which is expected of him. What other readings can we place upon a young, tattooed Maori, and if they are to be outside the stereotyped representations which predominate most portrayals, how does Smith lead us to this unexpected space?

The true power of these images comes at those times when Paraha himself transcends these expectations, when he allows a glimpse of what it is that establishes his identity. When he is draped over the rock, nude, it is clearly the intimacy of the image which is most challenging. How far is he here from the toughness of the tattooed portrait? What more can he possibly reveal? It is here that he is most able to tell us who he is, and here he is not who one would normally expect. For it cannot be in the scowling image of the young Maori male that the truths Smith is searching for will be found. It also seems clear that even Hemi himself is unsure of whether or not he can find self-assurance, or self-identity, through wearing these masks. So examine closely those images where Paraha, in close up, reveals a certain supplement, a certain something beyond the documentary portrait. It is there. Or consider the invitation Paraha extends when he gazes at the viewer as he is sprawling across the aluminium surface of the caravan. Consider these details. It is in these moments that Ross T. Smith captures the subtlety and significance of his subject. For it is here, and only here, that the shifts in representation can truly occur.

Ross T. Smith's exhibition opens at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery on Friday, October 10th, at 5 PM. It will feature three suites of work: the Hemi Tuwharerangi Paraha series, his Stations of the Cross, and a suite of nine pinhole images never previously exhibited. Smith will speak about his work immediately prior to the opening, at 4 PM in the Visual Arts Gallery, UAB, Birmingham, Alabama.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Are You Still a TV?

So Sunday night’s Emmy Awards were a classic example of why cable, whether basic or premium, generally trounces network TV. In a three hour snoozefest, we saw why reality television hosts shouldn’t generally be eligible for awards. When the supposed highlights of a program include removing a supermodel’s outerwear and later dropping her on the floor, one must wonder what this can actually mean?

It goes without saying that television remains the most significant communication medium of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, of course, it might be the internet, the blogsphere, viral video sites, something other than a box tethered to a cable in a living room, or den, or bedroom. What seems obvious too is that not only has the audience for this content diminished, but its methods of delivery have not altered as radically as one might have expected.

I expect that the average trendsetters in LA or New York or Milan, (for the sake of appearing really, really out of touch let's deem them "hipsters", as if we have somehow fallen back to the fifties with out goatee beards, bongo drums and late night readings of Allen Ginsberg's Howl) the ones with the big headphones attaches to his or her iPod, probably aren’t that interested in sitcom episode delivery to their personal communications device. It’s sort of like listening to Girl Talk and wondering why he doesn’t get sued for copyright infringement while at the same time remembering that the Verve did.

Anyway, it’s obvious that we are in a period of visual transition. Remember when the biggest worry we had was that media moguls would corner the digital reproduction rights on works of art so that we wouldn't be able to have their reproductions streamed to the flat panel displays in our homes? Remember how horrified we became with the thought that the reproduction poster of Van Gogh's Starry Night or the Mona Lisa might not actually be enough? Just try to imagine streaming a Sol LeWitt wall drawing or an On Kawara date painting, something so unexpected that the visitor to your home, spying your vast multimedia array, would ask, "Is the service guy coming to fix that soon?"

The paradigms for both the dissemination and the reception of contemporary visual culture, whether televisual or otherwise, deserve to be revalued and reconsidered. It’s certainly not a new argument. In 1990, academic Tony Fry hosted a course in Sydney, Australia, exploring Heidegger and the televisual. The resulting essays, RUA TV, consider the range of implications of visual culture.

Imagine now if we had understood then just what the ensuing maelstrom of digital delivery might be? Either way, something should have given me a reason to turn off the TV on Sunday. Instead, thanks to wireless internet, it merely became the bad background noise to what was really engaging me, right there on my other, more controllable, screen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rewritten on the Body

In the figures of Elvis, Liz, Michael, Oprah, Geraldo, Brando and the like, we witness and transact the bloating, slimming, wounding and general humiliation of the public body.

Michael Warner, The Mass Public and the Mass Subject .

What is most frightening about Blade Runner is that Deckard is really a replicant. What he perceives as his mission, his duty to track down ‘skin jobs’ who are loose in the community, is an insidious doubling in which he is really tracking himself. What is at stake is the existence of a difference, written on the skin’s surface (actually, the eyes), which proves that there is a distinction between humans and replicants. If you take the other approach for a moment, and consider the two the same, it leads to the conclusion that identity itself is only skin deep. And nowhere, since the twentieth century, has the fascination with surfaces, and the fashion of their refashioning, been more apparent than in Los Angeles, City of Angels.

Los Angeles papers teem with advertisements, ‘before and after’ photographs included, for those necessary surgical interventions which will definitely change your life. If you can afford it, surgery is the answer! Gone are the days when Charles Atlas needed a month, or Frank’n’furter seven days, to make you a man. And the choices are endless. You can opt for the four week ‘Quick Trim,’ the eight week ‘Lower Body Lean Out’ or the twelve week ‘Summer Solution.’ But why bother when everything that’s really important is just a surface anyway – why bother with fitness itself when its appearance should be enough? Instead, opt for electronic muscle stimulation that will cause your muscle groups to contract and relax about eight million times a minute. It doesn’t take any effort, you don’t sweat, and those washboard abs are only about – well, at least not too many sessions away, so it seems.

A few years back I spent a lazy afternoon lounging around reading the L.A. Weekly , trying to find out how I could have it all, with the least possible effort on my part. By page 18 I had learned that "the difference is ‘LIPOsuction,’ and that whatever services I received would be reasonably priced. A few years later, suction is out, sculpture is in, but the result is the same. If unsure about the likely results, I can see thousands of photographs and even speak with patients… before I decide. Another clinic offered liposuction with the anaesthesia of my choice, full finance with a major credit card, and a ‘fabulous discount program,’ which I guess meant 20% off on up to 20% off…

Also on offer were breast implants, hair rejuvenation programs, great teeth including bleaching, bonding and (surprise!) veneers, bag removal, brow lifts pectoral implants, cheek or chin implants, breast reductions, chemical face peels and nose sculpting. It’s surprising, but the possibilities really are endless. The bottom line then, as now, was the chance to ‘improve my appearance.’ Somehow, I was able to pass on the offers, as do thousands of fitness fanatics running, cycling and rollerblading down the twenty-two mile promenade from Long Beach to Malibu and beyond. Maybe some of the people at Muscle Beach had pec implants, but if they had I couldn’t tell. Still, I felt some comfort then, as I do now, in the knowledge that a series of simple procedures, easily financed, allow anyone to refashion themselves into anyone they want to be, and to be assured of a natural look.

Modern society asserts what I term the Six Million Dollar Cinderella Complex… not only is there the hope of rebuilding the body so it is bigger, stronger, and faster, but there is also the implication that this body will be more beautiful, more desirable and more successful. Gone are the days when this results in a crime-fighting machine and in are the days when it allows you to populate a futuristic modernist landscape, live in a beautiful house and be in love with Uma Thurman.

This fascination, or even fixation, leads irrevocably to a confused culture which desires beauty but cannot accept its achievement in any way but through nature. I think here particularly of Andy Warhol’s painting Nose Job , with its telltale ‘before and after’ images… sure, the latter is beautiful, but only apart from the former. Only in its absence, and not in its evidence, is it possible for this constructed image to be truly beautiful. When you come to this realisation, it is easy to understand the saga of Pamela Anderson Lee. Here, the media mapped her transition from individual to pariah to icon, all via our understandings of and apparent fascinations with the size of her breasts. Her subsequent reduction, which humourously echoed E.F. Schumacher’s pronouncements, ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘small is possible’ transformed Anderson Lee into a newer, more powerful and more formidable woman.

On the other hand, recall the performance artist Orlan. Having started down the path of surgically enhancing her body to form an aggregate of beautiful parts, and using the works of Renaissance painters as her map, Orlan highlighted the farcical belief that beauty is transferrable… One always has to wonder if her pursuit of beauty illustrates that these ideals do or don’t transfer from the canvas to the operating theatre. What transfixes viewers is the realisation that despite the horror of the situation, as we see Orlan being operate on under local anaesthetics where possible so the can narrate the process, we are mesmerised by the possibility that when she ‘comes to,’ as it were, she will be the beauty illustrated in the image before us. Given her sources, there is also the possibility, however remote, that her whole will be worth more than the sum of her parts. Finally, one must wonder about the sea of jars which Orlan uses to keep the ‘changes,’ the parts she has removed, the liposuctioned fat… as with the Warhol, how do we process these remainders? Are they signs of a past which has been left for a better future or a sign that whatever the past was, even with remembering it, time and the future will condemn us to this same fate again? using the strategies and methods of ‘enhancement’ to create the ideal body.

This leaves us in the final realm of melding man and machine… here we find Robocop, cyborgs, replicants, Steve Austin, titanium limbs and joint replacements… we also find a fetishistic fixation on surgical corsets, leg calipers and restraints, for example… but we don’t view these as ‘beautiful,’ we consider them possible supplements to beauty… here, the machine becomes beautiful… like it was in futurism. So was this a prophetic name for our contemporary, possibly pathetic times? Or is the desire to be something enhanced something one should aspire to?

We’re left in the waiting room of beauty, hoping beyond hope to embody the famous pronouncement that you can’t be too rich or too thin. I’m not sure… like Peter Carey suggests, I’m a little more intrigued by the fat man in history, myself.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Click the Shutter One More Time

Try to imagine the soundtrack that might have been blasting from each girl’s car as she drove to Angela West’s portrait studio. Released in 2000, the year the Sweet Sixteen series began, Britney Spears’ anthem of quasi-coquettishness and adolescent bad girl behaviour, Oops…I Did it Again!, must certainly have played loudly.

I begin here because in many ways Spears may have, for each of the young women, served as something of a role model – a southern girl, from Mississippi rather than Dahlonega, Georgia, who had parlayed a combination of sweetness and sex appeal into a global brand. At least that is how one might envision it when first encountering West’s enigmatic Untitled Portrait #1, which is certainly the foundation of what follows.

The instructions were simple enough. West invited a group of young women from her hometown to be photographed in what each deemed to be formal attire. The scope and range of their choices is dramatic, but it is positioned by this first image. In it we encounter a young woman (cue here 2001’s Spears ‘classic’ I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, which we will imagine is the soundtrack for the majority of the project) who seems to pose so far outside the scope of formal portraiture that one wonders where it might even fall on the scale of propriety.

But West approaches her subjects with both incredible focus and unbelievable restraint. Remarkably, she allowed her sitters to project their individuality. This results in the uneasiness of Untitled Portrait #1, where we encounter the model, arms back and chest thrust forward, midriff exposed, caught in something between a smile and a pout. What transpires is that viewers becomes caught in moments of unease, particularly because the blatant sexuality that she is portraying is at odds with cultural expectations of a sixteen year old girl. To the best of West’s recollection, she even brought her boyfriend to the sitting. “A lot of the girls did,” she remarked, “which I always thought was a little strange at first.”

Still, West had the courage of her convictions, allowing the girls to dress and present themselves as naturally as was possible. In many instances, her subjects lacked both the confidence and the understanding to engage more fully, leaving themselves to appear as little more than dress forms for personal fashion choices. Even the opportunity to put themselves more at ease met with mixed results, even though she allowed them, as West explains it, to “hang out” and listen to music during the shoot.

Not surprisingly, supposed sultriness stood as the preferred approach in both Untitled Portrait #1 and the later Untitled Portrait #15. In the latter, a lavender clad teen pulls her chin down and bats her eyes up. Photographs such as Untitled Portrait #3 and Untitled Portrait #11 served to more fully illustrate the tentative nature of her subjects, as well as their adolescent insecurities. In Untitled Portrait #3 we encounter what can only be described as resignation, while in Untitled Portrait #11 the sitter teeters between boredom
and disgust.

In viewing each of these images, I am reminded of what the late Craig Owens said in his essay Posing:

What is involved in this photograph, then – or, for that matter, in any photograph – is the figuration of a gaze which objectifies and masters, of course, but only by immobilizing its objects, turning them into stone.

What this means for West is that she has captured the essence of this undecideability, this ambiguity. By creating the conditions for difference – the individual – and repetition – her instructions, she has captured the fleeting idea of formality for these young women, in this specific place, at a particular point in time.

Owens continues, “What do I do when I pose for a photograph? I freeze – hence the masklike, often deathly expressions of so many photographic portraits.” Clearly, West’s preference for not directing her subjects left many with little idea of how to engage with the camera, with the resulting faces oscillating between the blank expression and the forced smile. Strangely, Untitled Portrait #9, with its subject leaning against the back of a wooden chair that is turned towards the viewer, becomes the most realistic, in part because the sitter actually understands what the expectations are for an image of this type. This is not to imply that it is any more real than the others, but merely that she captures, in her slightly upturned lips, at least the impression of what a formal portrait might be. It becomes, one might think, the one a mother would be most likely to put on her wall.

While anything but deathlike, West’s portraits can be challenging. Consider, for instance, Anna at her Shower, in which we encounter a seemingly young girl, obviously expecting, seated on the grass. Her age seems undefinable, yet the image is unambiguous. In it, viewers become complicit in an experience that is, as with the Sweet Sixteen series, entirely unanticipated and entirely uncontrollable. Again, one encounters the uncertainty of age, coupled with ideas of acceptability.

This ambiguity is a central aspect of all of West’s works. Each image she creates, regardless of its series, is imbued with the possibility of an alternative interpretation. Time and again, architecture and space are depicted as undefined possibilities, both ominous and welcoming at precisely the same time. Look closely at Trashy Trees, in which a red clay road simply disappears into the overgrowth. Even more indeterminate is After School, an overgrown building defined by a strong horizontal element that marks the low roofline. “It actually is a photograph of a 1950s building where I went every day after school,” West told me. This evidence of architectural decay is endemic throughout the south, as nature slowly reclaims everything.

“Some things are better left unearthed,” West remarks casually, “although I love using different artistic conventions, especially portraiture and landscape, to rediscover something I thought was really familiar.” This experience of place is informed, in part, by the depictions of the south by writers such as Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers. West is intrigued by the idea that the seemingly familiar can suddenly become remarkably more complex, that the pursuit of memory, what we might term in keeping with both philosophy and psychoanalysis a “repetition” becomes an entirely different experience.

And what about the corsages? Collected during junior high and high school, and salvaged from a box marked “Dumb Flowers”, the mere fact of their existence maps West’s understanding of personal history and the construction of an identity. “It’s a little unusual,” West laughs, “to think that I was saving them and putting them down at the same time.” Their titles seem straightforward statements of fact: Eighth Grade Dance (May 1985); Junior Prom (May 1988). What they suggest is the ongoing processes of change and maturation that, in a sense, were revisited by the Sweet Sixteen series. For what West has done with the two is alter the perspective from the personal to the universal. Whereas the corsages stand as signifiers of personal growth and individual experience, the Sweet Sixteens stand as the vessels for the shared experiences. It is almost as if West is gently reminding each of her sitters that they too will likely have these evenings, receive these traditional gifts, and treat them in a similar way.

What is striking is that the corsages are beautiful, but in actuality the flowers are long dead. I would suggest that she has treated them with a tenderness, even a romanticism, that even she would not have expected. It is as if the idea of the corsage is even more important than the depicted object itself. “I wanted to think about them from a much later time in my life,” she observes, “and to see the futility of the idea, but the hope nevertheless.”

In many senses, it is hope that positions the majority of West’s works. In Jewell, we encounter a woman lying on a shag carpet, in her pajamas, stretching her leg. It stands as a bookend to Anna at her Shower, in many ways suggesting the mundane aspects of everyday life. While we might look at Anna at her Shower with some sense of trepidation, we can certainly view Jewell with more than resignation. It would be all to easy to pigeonhole West as a cynical photographer, making fun of southern childhoods from the safety and sophistication of a much larger city. Instead, she approaches her subjects from a position of understanding.

Turn, finally, to the fact that West makes her imagery the “old fashioned” way, lugging an eight by ten view camera to location. “It totally changes the dynamic,” she explains, “since it is almost as if you are pinning your subjects down.” In an age in which many photographers rely on the ability to take multiple images of a single subject, with the hope that one will achieve their desired result, West works in a more measured fashion. “It would be very different if I were to use another camera,” she explains.

In the end, these works stand as three approaches to the idea of personal identity. One, the Corsages, stands as documentation of a life lived. The second, the Sweet Sixteen series, becomes an opportunity for shared experience. The remainder, images drawn from her landscape works, as well as the series’ Little Deaths and My 33rd Spring, becomes convergent maps of where this all may have occurred. Individually, it is as if each work has a content positioned partly by disquiet and unease. Collectively, they begin to tell an individual story, and to speak the voice it is necessary to have if one wants to share. I am reminded of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by the incomparable southern writer Carson McCullers:

This summer was different from any other time Mick could remember. Nothing much happened that she could describe to herself in thoughts or in words – but there was a feeling of change.

It is here that one finds this feeling of change. Here, in the works of Angela West, that move from the personal to the universal, yet all the while seem somehow to stay in precisely the same place.

Angela West's exhibition, Selected Works, continues through October 3rd at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Image used by permission of the artist and Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Handful of Dust

…the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief/And the dry stone no sound of water. Only/there is shadow under this red rock/(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

It might seem an anomaly to begin an essay on the works of Nicholas Twist with an excerpt from T. S. Eliot. How might the multifaceted, apparently postmodern works of a young Maori photographer, imbued with a complex relationship to whenua (land) and whanau (family), be positioned by comparison against perhaps the most archetypal, Pakeha, modernist?

I begin here because there is an unusual symmetry between Eliot's allegorical writings on life and the passage of time and the observations Twist makes regarding the appropriation, degradation and destruction of the natural environment in his series of works, Waste Land. Yet Twist's photographs, unlike Eliot's poetry, do not seek to rely merely upon the subjective elicitation of an emotional response. They stand, at the outset, as both documentary and allegory. Their subject matter serves to both highlight events, places, and sites, and to suggest their implications.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of Waste Land is its relentless darkness. Twist has, subjectively, visually, and tonally, created a landscape which is as much a barren future as it is a contaminated present. And, in many ways, he continues an interrogation that seems to be unremarked upon in contemporary New Zealand imagery. Somehow, the green hills and long white clouds of the mid-century pastoral have been exchanged for a sodden, sullen, gray landscape populated either by genuinely toxic wastes or by metaphorically toxic creatures - from the Orcs of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings to Twist's disused fertilizer factory. Sadly, while the former stands merely as evocation, the latter stands as reality.

Waste Land represents a development of a series of works Twist completed in Invercargill. In the early and mid-1990s, his works explored the barren cityscape of urban Wellington. Domestic interiors and commercial exteriors around Newtown became late-twentieth century interrogations of absence, while an earlier series of works documented his, and his whanau and tupuna's, relationship with Murupara.

In 1999 and 2000, Twist completed a complex series of portraits of Maori kaumatua, and it seems that this immersion in portraiture compelled him into his current direction.

As a suite of works, Waste Land also reflects Twist's reconsiderations of urban or rural imagery, and with the presence or absence of the body. In many ways, it also highlights Twist's subtle acknowledgement and appropriation of photographic history. His lineage extends from two rather surprising predecessors - Lee Friedlander and Robert Smithson - perhaps two figures of twentieth century photography spoken of with reverence, or awe, but seldom actually viewed. Yet Twist's images of contaminated sites pick up on the abjection and revulsion of Friedlander's 1980 Factory Valley series. Twist's images are, however, perhaps even more complex than Friedlander's. For while Friedlander's Factory Valley images reflect the inevitable decay of manufacturing, and thereby supposedly the demise of late capitalism, Twist's cause one to reflect upon, and consider, the implications of site, of circumstance, and of political economy.

The series contains three images of disused fertilizer factories or other "contaminated" sites - sites which previously contained manufacturing or production processes deemed both necessary and useful, but whose long-term effects have become cause for concern. The term for something that is both useful and dangerous is the sublime, a term one would not likely use in relation to this subject. In a predominantly rural economy, based primarily on agriculture and primary production, Twist's focus on these sites is inherently critical. It maps both the relationship of use to land, and raises questions of responsibility and reaction.

In many ways, Twist's representations of Wanganui might be read as a postmodern reinterpretation of Robert Smithson's classic text and imagery found in A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. In that essay, Smithson satirized the notion of the monument in contemporary culture, providing images of 'The Great Pipe Monument,' 'The Sand Box Monument' and 'The Fountain Monument' - a construction pipe, six drainage pipes, and a sandbox, respectively - and suggested that these were in fact monuments of late-twentieth century suburbia. In many ways, he is indeed correct. The residue, the detritus, of the ebb and flow of commerce often result in precisely these monuments.

One similar monument is the abattoir at Patea. Patea is also the site of the Aotea Memorial Canoe, which celebrates the settlement of the region by Turi and his Hapu (and which is included in the Patea Heritage Inventory 2000 as Item E3 and is given an "Overall Cultural Heritage Value" of "14 out of 20"). Patea is also the place in which Poi-E was composed and sung. This destitute building, symbolic of one of the major industries of the area, must be set against the wairua of Patea and the vehemence with which Poi-E served to assert a resurgence of Maori culture in the face of Pakeha speculations concerning its demise. Karl Marx would suggest, of course, as Twist's abandoned abattoir suggests, that the true insidiousness of cultural dominance comes from economic subjugation, at least as much, if not more, than cultural assimilation, appropriation or domination. Perhaps Poi-E stands as a signifier against Marx's theorem, with the abattoir serving as both the remainder and the reminder.

One intriguing corollary that Twist draws is the unusual relationship, perhaps both formally and conceptually, between the abattoir and the museum. It is a given in critical theory that museums are not neutral spaces, and that they in fact affect the works that are contained within. Theodor Adorno points out in his text "Valery-Proust Museum", for example, that ''museum" and "mausoleum" share particular linguistic similarities. But the slaughterhouse, the abattoir, has more complex characteristics. In his Encyclopedia Acephalica, the French author Georges Bataille wrote of the abattoir. He suggested,

The slaughterhouse is linked to religion in so far as the temples of bygone eras (not to mention those of the Hindus in our own day) served two purposes: they were used for both prayer and killing. The result (and this judgement is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows.

One might compare this with the writings of Daniel Buren, in his essay The Function of Architecture. He suggests that an empty museum or gallery has no meaning, to the extent that it can be transformed at any moment. He also recognizes, however, that , anything placed within the museum's context becomes altered. He writes,

Now, let's exhibit a work of art - of any kind - in a Museum: can we really distinguish it from other works of art?

Twist's photographs of the abattoir and the museum, respectively, highlight the complex relationship between commodification and the object. In the abattoir image, one is confronted by a complex set of social and cultural relationships between consumption and use. From specific, religious dietary requirements, to questions of political or social concern, the suggestiveness and implications of the abattoir, or, to use Bataille's term, the slaughterhouse, are myriad. So too the specific suggestiveness and implications of the museum. Both become sites of veneration and abjection. Both become sites upon which specific social and cultural decisions are made, and remade, on a daily basis. Yet the image of the Sarjeant is clean, crisp, minimal, modernist -reflective of the objective intentions of the gallery, or any museum or gallery, for that matter - to be the neutral, non-politicized, space of contemplation.

Of course, those in Aotearoa rejected this myth very shortly after it began being critiqued. Exhibitions such as Te Maori highlighted the fact that the museum was perhaps not the neutral site that it was always claimed to be. Twist's images must share in that lineage, to the extent that they recognize the museum as an enclosing space, and the tapu (unclean) space of the abattoir as its philosophical, if not conceptual, other.

Twist also turns seemingly everyday images into ones imbued with space, with openness. Rutland Street is an image of the street where Twist works. In the middle of an urban environment, the street seems almost entirely devoid of life. The majority of the other works are marked by an absence, predominantly, on the surface, the absence of people, but on a more complex level, it is the absence of life itself. Many of the images in Waste Land depict sites that are basically unusable. In one instance, there is the even a depiction of an illegal toxic waste dump. The waste has become entirely complete. It is beyond reclamation, beyond the immediate hope of a simple dredging and a return to usefulness. This is indeed Eliot's "stony rubbish" where "the dead tree gives no shelter,the cricket no relief/and the dry stone no sound of water." It is a landscape which was not formed barren, but has been made barren.

A surprising aspect of Waste Land is Twist's personal adoption of techniques which specifically did not contribute to the contamination of whenua which he has so critically documented. As part of the project, he experimented with a Vitamin C developer, a process which was in fact successful. In early September he wrote,

My Vitamin C developer is working well and now I have work that is Vitamin C produced from film to paper.

This is not to suggest that the works are entirely devoid of traditional photographic process techniques. Twist tones certain images, perhaps to highlight their generally bleak subject matter. Apart from the image of the Sarjeant, taken in such a way as to suggest bright, or at least natural, light, the images generally seem low key, comprised of sombre mid-tones, tending towards rich browns and blacks. This is the right palette for a waste land, one would tend to believe.

There is, however, one other image, apart from the Sarjeant, that seems to stand in opposition to the thesis of waste or decay. This is the image of the Harrier Hawk, or better, the Kahu, a native bird-of-prey which feeds primarily on wild turkeys and pukekos. Strangely enough, so the New Zealand Birds and Birding Nga Manu o Aotearoa website tells us, this bird flourished precisely as a result of Pakeha intervention - European farming techniques created vast amounts of open pastureland, their preferred habitat. This resulted in a bounty being placed upon them in the 1930s and 1940s. They received protection in 1985.

In many ways, the fate of the Kahu stands as a metaphor for Aotearoa. Finding opportunities to thrive, it became hunted. Then, as it became endangered, it became protected. In many ways, it is as if Poi-E stands as a similar metaphor for the resurgence of Te Reo Maori. Yet in Twist's photo it seems evident that the Kahu is partially domesticated. What, one must wonder, are the implications of this? Is it a signifier of the uneasy relationship between people and land, between use and value, or between instinct and reason?

Waste Land highlights the complexities with which one must consider contemporary culture. It is a presence marked precisely by an absence. This idea becomes evident in almost every work. From dream, to ideal, to nightmare, from abattoir to contaminated site, from school to museum, each image maps precisely a finite consideration of an endless question. How does one consider the Waste Land precisely when the waste land itself is not empty? This is a question Twist asks, but one he cannot answer.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Who Wants to Believe?

The 2008 Olympic opening ceremony hinged on unique creative partnerships. Outstanding film director Zhang Yimou, of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers fame, was the overall director of the spectacle. His vision was supplemented, in part, by the ongoing pyrotechnics of Cai Guo-Qiang, whose works could most recently be seen in his retrospective exhibition I Want to Believe at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Regardless of one’s political position, a subject that is significant but not determinative in evaluating the architecture or the event, the Herzog and deMeuron designed Olympic Stadium, forever tarred with the rather banal shorthand “the bird’s nest” is certainly a sight (site?) to behold. Outfitted with technological innovations that include screens for projection that will remain permanently installed, the stadium itself was a unique container for shaping the spectacle that it contained.

On of Zhang Yimou’s characteristic visual tropes is the repeated gesture. One need only think of particular sequences in House of Flying Daggers to understand how he had transformed the idea of cultural history into such unique vignettes. To be applauded is the recognition that the arts, whether visual or performing, are key to the understanding and construction of a society.

One might situate this spectacle in line with the emergence of Chinese contemporary art in the world market – something that has, simply, a voice that is both directed towards and distinct from its western audiences.

As we hear for the comng weeks about the Olympics as China’s “coming out” party, we might think of the implications this has for our understandings of the developments to come in contemporary culture. Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Yimou, among others, have the ability, insight and innovation to create works of such spectacle that the model might shift, finally, from the wall to space, from the screen to the psyche.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Broadly Speaking

One of the most engaging aspects of the Broad Collection, based in Los Angeles, is collectors Eli and Edythe Broad’s understanding that art is an educational commodity. After a private tour recently, highlighted by being able to view major pieces by Stephen Balkenhol, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, among the many other exceptional works, I had an opportunity to speak with their chief curator, Joanne Heyler, who outlined their programs of support for accredited institutions. The art collection’s main objective is to make works available, providing unique opportunities for smaller institutions to display works that might otherwise be outside the scope or range of their lending practices.

A brief visit to their website, or, even better a tour of the Santa Monica space if possible, highlights the depth and breadth of the works they have acquired. A visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA the following day merely illustrated this depth further.

Perhaps the most significant gift a collector can make should be the availability of their works to be publicly displayed. In my experience, collectors are extraordinarily generous in this regard, whether local, national, or international.

The Broad Foundation, with its diverse support of arts and culture, and the Broad Collection, with its ongoing emphasis of collecting in depth, stand as key models for organizations that will partner with institutions to bring quality contemporary art to very diverse audiences.

Unexpected highlights of the visit to the foundation include Pierre Huyghe’s remarkable “A Journey That Wasn’t” video installation, and Franz Ackermann’s “Home, Home Again”.

As opportunities for smaller institutions to acquire major works continues to fade, their reliance on the access to these works will obviously stem from strong relationships with organizations such as the Broad Foundation.

Special thanks to Ed Schad and Joanne Helyer for their expertise and accommodations at the Foundation.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


African-American contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas will speak at the Birmingham Museum of Art tonight, June 10th, at 6 PM. Given the response to his recent work, installed on the museum's facade, critiquing the culture of violence in the African-American community, it should be a fantastic talk. It doesn't seem often, in one of the cities in America with a top-10 per capita murder rate, that contemporary artworks are actually part of significant social discourse.

See you there.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Blank Verse

It’s not new, but it’s certainly relevant. Or so I felt when I finished reading James Elkins’ short polemic on the state of critical writing, “What Happened to Art Criticism?” Elkins argues eloquently that over the course of the last century the idea of critical writing was somehow transformed from the analytical to the descriptive, save for the voices of a few thinkers willing to work outside the dominant paradigm.

What seems clear is that apart from the apparent demise of opinion-making, the vast majority of readers of critical thinking seem to be little more than chimeras, somehow managing to hoist vast bricks of advertising somehow masquerading as writing on the visual arts.

Even more apparent is the shift from art as cultural debate to art as design fodder, somehow being grouped into contemporary lifestyle publications as high-value trophies of contemporary consumerism.

Highlight of the New York summer season? Mapplethorpe’s polaroids at the Whitney. Lowlight? Write me about it when you decide.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Simply Resistable

If one were to search for a single word to describe the 2008 Whitney Biennial, perhaps it would be bricolage. Unfortunately, no one wants to be seen trotting out such a hoary old term under the guise or pretense that it is actually something new. Perhaps, a decade ago, when the word formed the foundation for the Ninth Biennale of Sydney, The Boundary Rider, it represented some late aspect of postmodernism cum pluralism that was still critically and culturally significant. Now, it seems almost as if it forms a curatorial foundation merely because there is no new trend, no significant movement, that a curator is willing to stake his or her reputation upon to pursue. What, then, is a generally disappointed and disinterested audience to do?

I ask this question because my mid-May stroll through the Whitney left me wondering how contemporary art had fallen into such a difficult predicament? At what point did even the semblance of aestheticism become synonymous with retardetaire practices, dominant paradigms, or, one even wishes, phallogocentrism – which, in this context, would have at least provided a useful target. Instead, this exhibiton, as with many contemporary group shows, stands as little more than a grab bag or established and emerging artists, many of whom share little to no significant interrelationship. Problematic, indeed.

What is it about contemporary practice that makes the idea of discrete practices so much an anathema? Is it the romanticized tragedy of artists such as Jason Rhoades? And what could have compelled Anish Kapoor, against the blinding reflections from his most recent works, to fill a portion of Barbara Gladstone’s Chelsea galleries with Blood Stick, an odiferous, resin covered lump floundering in the entrance to the exhibition?

It is as if the 1993 graduating class of the Whitney Independent Study Program, responsible for the remarkable Abject Art show at the time, had suddenly reemerged on the New York art scene with a sequel. Strangely, this isn’t lost in the catalogue, where we learn that in Agathe Snow’s works she “simultaneously invokes netherworlds of decrepit horror and suggestions for rescue, celebration, and survival. Her installations typically include one or two large-scale sculptures designating her chosen mode of abjection, accompanied by smaller pieces as remnant treasuries of debris offering hope that today’s detritus may someday become a precious, valued resource.” (emphasis added)

What is at stake here, as in any analysis of trends or developments in contemporary art, is whether or not the chosen mode of representation, in this instance the abject, assemblage based bricolage, is, in and of itself, sufficient. In a contemporary history marked by current world politics, by an increasing disparity of wealth levels between rich and poor, or by an escalating sense of poverty and disaffection, does this work challenge the conditions of contemporary society or merely reinforce the elitism that is levied against those who often view it?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Whetstone Photos Cut to Heart of Matter

John Morton, contemporary collector extraordinaire, is bringing award-winning photographer Jeff Whetstone to the Birmingham Museum of Art tonight at 7 PM for a lecture. It’s a pretty simple equation – John understands that by having a commitment to generating discourses about contemporary art and photography we have an opportunity to understand these practices in a critical context.

This is incredibly refreshing. Whetstone has received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for his commitment and innovation in his chosen medium. Broadly photojournalistic, images such as his “Self-Portrait with Catfish” call into question the whole construction of southern masculinity.

This is obviously a unique opportunity. Whetstone's imagery is immediate, understandable and complex, all in precisely the same moment.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Straight Outta Bama...

If there is a Renaissance man in Birmingham right now, it must be Walt Creel. Part of the collective Quaint some years ago, Creel reemerged about a year ago with the most intriguing work being done in a long time. Using a particularly dangerouos method of composition, Creel basically draws pictures with bullet holes into pieces of sheet metal. His “aw shucks” faux-redneck subject matter – deer, owls, squirrels – all charm the heck out of the general public while scaring the hell out of everyone else with their intelligence and subtlety.

As a surprise, this weekend Creel will be the “Emerging Artist” at Magic City Art Connection. Kudos to Eileen Kunzmann for once again bringing quality contemporary art to the park, and for remaining committed to pieces that are challenging and unique. I’ll definitely be making a visit.

Then, on May 7th, Creel reappears with a documentary he has produced, to be screened at Bottletree. He describes it thusly:

I am screening Heart of Nowhere at the Bottle Tree Wed. May 7th at 9PM. For all that have to work the next morning, don’t worry, it is only 30 minutes long, but it is a powerful 30 minutes! There is no cover, so spend your hard earned cash on a few drinks before hand. Vague description below:

"From 2001 to 2003, with the help of Jason McMaster, Darryl Jacks, and Joey Mansfield, I carried a video camera to as many interesting and odd places in Alabama as possible. What resulted is a 30 minute video document that deluges the viewer with snippets, all less than thirty seconds, of random and peculiar footage.

From a Christian singer-songwriter at a backwoods karaoke bar having a drunken breakdown on stage, to a person being dragged behind a truck on a flaming couch, to a Goth suspension show where the hooks accidentally ripped out of the legs of a man too heavy to be supported by them.

Heart of Nowhere is not intended to be viewed as a complete record of the subjects featured in the film, but solely as a glimpse of people and places usually kept out of frame.

I’m pretty sure he’s on to something here, whether it is the enigmatic nature of his visual arts practice or the realization that in an image-addled world thirty minutes of interest is better than two hours of nothing.

Take a chance. Visit Magic City Art Connection. See the movie. Walt Creel is the real deal, he’s just not busy blowing his own horn about it.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Space One-Eleven in Birmingham is hosting a series of events with the world-renowned and internationally respected Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. Best known for his video works, installations, photography and public art projects, Jaar epitomizes the socially conscious and still critically relevant contemporary artist.

Jaar will speak in the Alumni Auditorium at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Monday March 24, and again at the University of Montevallo on Wednesday March 26. It is a unique opportunity to explore and consider works by such a significant artist. It also goes some way towards recognizing the significance and implications of multicultural art, particularly in the American south. Space One-Eleven should be applauded not only for the vision to bring Jaar, but for the multifaceted and multi-institutional programming. Perhaps of even more significance is their willingness to bring Jaar without the accompanying bells and whistles associated with a major museum exhibition. Hats off to Peter Prinz and Anne Arrasmith yet again.

The lecture schedule is:

3/24/08, 6-8 PM Lecture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Hill University Center Alumni Auditorium. Reception follows at Space One Eleven. SOE. 2409 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203 (205.328.0553)

3/26/08, 7:30-9 PM Lecture at The University of Montevallo, Montevallo, AL, LeBaron Recital Hall.

3/28/08, 11AM-1 PM Coleman Center for the Arts, York, AL. Free Seminar on Public Art. (seating for seminar is limited, must register in advance, call 205.392.2005) 630 Avenue A, York, AL 36925

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Through the Past Queerly

Representations of sexual preference or orientation are complex processes in the cinema. From the classic scene in the Maltese Falcon in which Humphrey Bogart, having knocked Joel Cairo out, removes and sniffs Peter Lorre’s pocket square – scented, one might recall, with gardenias – to the more complex inferences of queer identity in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, what emerges is a visual language that is both expressed and sublimated at precisely the same time.

I begin here because when one encounters the film works and installations of Christopher Lowther, one enters, perhaps unexpectedly, into this non-verbal language of sexual desire. His works explore the subtleties, both reflected and constructed, between seemingly straightforward imagery, if I can use the term, to the constructions of motivation in works such as A Queer Shadow, Rope Reconstructed, and Rebel Love.

Begin, however, with Cowboy Cruising. Here, we encounter the climactic scene from Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The scene, which will be familiar to many readers, consists of a gunfight that takes place on a flat stone piazza in a cemetery.

The protagonists glance towards each other, tracking a pattern from eyes to hands to guns, looking for the telltale moment at which one will draw on the others. In Cowboy Cruising, Lowther has dissociated the glances from their original contexts, reconfigured them, and created a language of visual selection, or, a cruise.

Perhaps the most unspoken element of his deconstruction is the unspoken homoerotic element that had been sublimated throughout the film. One encounters it subtly, from the nickname given to Lee Van Cleef, “Angel Eyes”, to the sharing of a cigar between Eastwood’s Man with No Name and a wounded union soldier. But when the action is limited merely to the movements that take place in the cemetery, one experiences a clearly delineated language of the casual encounter.

Lowther explains that his motivation for this reconfiguration came while reading Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys, a book exploring erotic male friendships from the nineteenth century. What Queer Cowboys does is explore the terrain of the male friendship, particularly that of the cowboy and his sidekick, and the apparent, though usually unspoken bond that unites the two. I should state here that Lowther began his creative investigations prior to Brokeback Mountain’s appearance, which in many senses merely served to reposition the historical into the present. At a deeper level, Lowther explains, “I think those cinematic instances in which there is a possibility of re-contextualizing something intended as heterosexual or for heterosexual audiences are special because they offer access to something that usually excludes us[.]”

One might think of the bond that unites The Man with No Name with Tuco, the sidekick played by Eli Wallach. Time and again we encounter the two, with Tuco hanging at the end of a rope, and Eastwood responsible for his freedom.

Finally, one might consider the absent phallus, the object of their desire, which is, in a sense, made evident by the missing digit on Lee Van Cleef’s hand, which transforms into that something other than a hand which is moving slowly across his belt. Taken both in and out of context, what we encounter are a group of men, glancing furtively at each other, watching slowly as each moves a hand across his belt. Given this description, in the absence of the accompanying story, one could only reach the conclusion that they were cruising each other.

This serves to reposition both the story and the subjects. What Lowther does, in this moment, is shift the discourse to that of the sexualization of the space. One might recall that, after having been left to hang in the cemetery yet again, Wallach (who is slowly being asphyxiated, and, one must assume erotically) calls out to Eastwood that his mother is a…but the music swells and the word is obliterated, obliterating the idea of woman at the same time.

This inability to speak is not evident in Lowther’s next project, the conceptually and architecturally adventurous Rope Reconstructed. The work explores the hidden spaces of homosexuality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Rope itself was a complex film, famous in part for Hitchcock’s uses of architecture and set design which allowed for the film to be shot in a series of continuous takes. For Lowther, however, the significance of the film lay not in the architecture of the space, but in the psychoanalytical space of gay experience.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, its plot, at the most basic level, revolves around two men, Brandon and Phillip, a gay couple, who engage in the murder of one of their classmates. Their motivation comes, in part, from a statement a former prep school teacher had made about the perfect murder, and their misguided interpretations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy and the idea of the overman. In the stage version of the play, written by Patrick Hamilton, the relationhip between the characters is evident, but in Hitchcock’s version it is simply implied.

As a result, Lowther conceptualized a visual extension to scene that Hitchcock has revealed. He commissioned a scale model of the apartment, and included their shared bedroom, an architectural element that never appears in the film. As he rightly observes, this second bedroom is crucial to the late-1940s ambiguity of their sexuality, remarking that “[o]ne bedroom would be suspicious, but a second bedroom has the ability to project the image of platonic living arrangements, as long as the details of the bedroom confirm this convincingly.” Their relationship is, with hindsight, evident throughout the film, but only made apparent through subtleties like an alarm clock on each bedside table.

In Rope Reconstructed, we become complicit voyeurs who are witnessing a scene that takes place before the arrival of their victim. We see them packing for a trip, and what we encounter is the seed of their homicidal event. Philip goads Brandon with suggestions of a dalliance, in a sense taunting him with suggestions of sex, but Brandon inverts the veiled threat, creating something entirely more menacing.
The work itself is a three-channel projection in which we encounter Brandon and Philip speaking to each other as if across their shared bed. This hidden object is in fact the signifier of their closeted relationship. I am reminded here of Georges Bataille, writing in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, where he remarks:

[m]en as discontinuous beings try to maintain their separate existences, but death, or at least the contemplation of death, brings them back to continuity.

The implication here is that Brandon and Philip experience a disconnect between their actual lives and their outward manifestations of a closeted life. As a result, this disconnect becomes manifest in an action that provides them with a sense of agency. This is not no suggest that this is either a moral imperative or the only way they could have regained the experience of continuity, but Bataille does suggest that this taboo action creates an experience in which everyone who remains experiences a continuity in which everything is united.

The challenge stems from the competing modes of interpretation. The moral imperative is that the crime that has been committed is wrong, and it obviously is. In the film, this action is partially mitigated by the protagonists’ interpretations of Nietzschean philosophy, and this nihilism is, in part, certainly echoed by Bataille. Lowther creates a motivation, cinematically, and he creates a socially and sexually charged space architecturally. It is the responsibility of viewers to understand the distinctions between the two.

Questions of a shift from interior, domestic space to exterior, sexualized space, inform A Queer Shadow, Lowther’s single projection interactive installation. It explores the spaces of being followed, or shadowed, with the allure or horror that the experience brings. The act itself is ambiguous, prefiguring both horror and delight, from the terror of gay-bashing to the delight of anonymous sexual encounters. Lowther remarks that “[f]or my purposes I am interested in situating the project on the edge between knowing and not knowing.”

The cinematic experience is drawn predominantly from film noir. Lowther was exploring the space of the detective, and situating the experience historically. For gay men, this is not unexpected, particularly given the oscillating relationships many homosexuals have with the authorities. History recounts a legacy of harassment and arrest for sexual orientation and sexual practice. So in A Queer Shadow, the figure that is following the viewer is both threatening and enticing at precisely the same moment. And in a culture in which the language of cruising has been adopted by police departments as a method of targeting gay men and limiting their dalliances, the work is entirely undecideable. Lowther has stated, “the vagueness and open-interpretation that the shadow motif provides are the essential ingredients of re-contextualizing noir for queer purposes.”

What we experience is a coded exterior space, a space in which one encounters a pick-up machine, to borrow a phrase from Guy Hocquenghem. As he observes, “[h]omosexual encounters do not take place in the seclusion of a domestic setting, but outside, in the open air, in forests and on beaches.” So when Lowther creates what, to the casual observer, appears to be an innocent scene, he is instead representing the experience and language of cruising.

What is significant is that it is a coded language. Men familiar with its nuances are able to decode its subtle meanings, and draw a range of meanings from even the slightest gesture.

Turn, finally, to Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned, in which Lowther deconstructs Nicholas Ray’s classic film Rebel Without a Cause. Widely regarded as having the most overtly homosexual subtext of any of James Dean’s films, Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned recuts and recontextualizes the work to make this more apparent.

For those unfamiliar with Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, in his final film, plays the young Jim Stark, who has just moved to a new town. There he encounters the attention of both Plato, played by Sal Mineo, and Judy, played by Natalie Wood. Although perhaps not overt at the time, Mineo’s character is gay, suggested often, but subtly, as Roger Ebert has noted:

at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.

To highlight these instances, Lowther has created a two channel installation in which all the scenes with Jim Stark and Plato are played on one monitor, and the scenes of Judy, alone, are on another. What we encounter is a double longing, one in which James Dean is unable to direct his desires towards the expected object of his affection. By removing Judy, Lowther brings to the fore the issues inherent in the histories of gay representation, grounded in the belief that these images should tell the stories that had previously been denied.

Cinematically, this repressed desire and the fact that it is thwarted, what we might describe as Plato’s inability to consummate his relationship with Jim is signified, in part, by the fact that he has a gun that should, but can’t, fire. Near the climax of the film, when Plato is shot, but apparently not killed by the police (leaving us to infer that homosexual desire is dangerous, perhaps, but not deadly) Jim shouts:

“But I’ve got the bullets! The gun was empty!”

and later asks the officers,

“What did you have to do that for?”

Plato is carried away on a stretcher, wounded, but not dead, and the film itself can climax in a swirl of acceptable heterosexuality, with Jim saying, “Mom, Dad, this is my friend Judy.”

As a creative artist, Christopher Lowther is not afraid to take risks. His is an ongoing interrogation of the creative practices that serve to hide issues of sexuality and desire. Whether through the deconstructions of unspoken narratives and subtexts, as found in works such as Cowboy Cruising or Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned, or through creative constructions of duplicitous desires, Lowther brings the questions of identity to the fore. His works are not based in repression or shame, but are, instead, challenges to admit and allow that these narratives exist and that their stories are both valid and valued. One might think finally of Rope Reconstructed, where Lowther seeks to unpack the travel chest of revulsion and bring a more understandable, more human face to questions of desire.

I am reminded here of an essay by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. While discussing Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams, he suggested that censorship is not resistance. What he meant by that phrase was that the mere exclusion of something did nothing to alter its basic structure. Although he was writing about the interpretation of dreams, what he said I will modify only slightly here:

To say that identity is placed in a psychic locality is to say that it isn’t simply inscribed as the parenthesis of self. It is placed and defines itself in another locality, governed by different local laws, the place of the symbolic exchange, which is not to be confused, although it is embodied in it, with the spatio-temporal dimension in which we can locate all human behaviour. The structural laws of the dream, like those of language, are to be found elsewhere, in another locality, whether we call it psychic or not.

In Christopher Lowther’s works, then, we see the emergence of a subtext, an excavation, and interrogation of meanings. We see the subtleties of gesture and language made evident and manifest. We see desire, unspoken and unrequited. Each brings us towards a deeper understanding of the issues of queer identity, and each asks as many questions as it answers.

Christopher Lowther's exhibition Out of the Myth: Censorship and Film, continues through April 11th at the Visual Arts Gallery, The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


The Whitney Biennale will open this week, with a mix of expected and unexpected artists - expected to the extent that regardless of the included artists, there will be those that believe that someone else should have obviously been included. Of particular interest is John Baldessari, the prodigal son returning after being featured in the Whitneys of 1969, 1972, 1975 and 1977. One can only wonder how he could have then been overlooked for thirty-one years. (Disclosure - I have had the pleasure of including John in two exhibitions, one in 1997 and the other in 2005).

Also of particular interest to me are Walead Beshty, Coco Fusco, DJ Oliver, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Ruben Ochoa and the late Jason Rhodes. Of course, by the time I have the chance to see the show in person, probably well after it has opened, the critical discourses will have already hailed the exhibition either a critical success or an abject failure, the Whitney being one of the most discussed and discoursed exhibitions in the contemporary art world today.

What seems so intriguing is that idea that the thematic exhibition, whether it be chronologically or conceptually driven, actually has the capacity to add value to the discourses of art today. One might wonder whether the connections between works, whether evident or tenuous, serve more to make the experience of contemporary practices more palatable, or, instead, whether there really are the affinities that are purported to exist. This is a question that haunts all curatorial practice, as curators, including myself, muddle ahead with the belief that reception will triumph intentionality, and, at least in part, with the complicity of the artist.

By now, the tropes of curatorial practice are well defined: the complex mix of established and emerging, the collisions of the avant-garde with the rediscovered, the attempts, always noble, to visually reveal the complexities of multicultural and multinational discourses. Yet all the while, the true spectre is lurking, and, as Marx and Engels would have remarked, it is that of capitalism. In a time of economic downturn and the fear of recession, exhibitions such as the Whitney serve as signifiers of reassurance, that both the creativity and the creative capital of the contemporary world have not faded.

It seems like a constant battle, one in which those of us who work in the world constantly reassure each other that the visual interventions in the broader culture have significance and value. Obviously, they do. But one might wonder, how does an exhibition, any exhibition, really help to entrench this belief?

No exhibition can answer these questions, but are they becoming more relevant today?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Affected, Afflicted

Tandem Gallery goes from strength to strength even without a permanent physical space. PDA: Public Displays of Affection/Affliction opened last Friday night, and although I went early to miss the crowds I can only describe the show as fantastic.

Hats off to JD Conley for taking such a great risk and for curating such great shows. He fully understands the implications of bringing leading edge contemporary art to Birmingham, Alabama. With a small buying market and an often conservative cultural climate, Conley merely ignores these obstacles to make shows such as these.

PDA is an unusual mix of commercially available works and pieces from private collections. At times disappointing only to the extent that one of the show’s best works, Sue De Beer’s The Kiss, isn’t actually available, PDA works across disciplines and media to show some hard-hitting pieces of challenging contemporary art.

Imagine actually being able to install Lizzi Bougatsos’ work “Love Comes in X’s like marking em out instead of #’s. I also can’t give any love ‘cause everyone is dead or I can do this to your house.” Apart from the Gnostic title, the work consists of twelve large knives, installed, literally, by jamming them point in to the sheetrock in a circular pattern. It’s a bit like Psycho meets Fatal Attraction as an entre to a new loft, sort of adding a Christian Bale/American Psycho overtone. Fantastic.

Other amazing works include both Katrin Sigurdottir’s Untitled KS-09, an amazing sculptural installation on the floor, which shows something like an unfolding bed covered in grass. It’s described as modeling materials, dimensions variable, and at less than the size of a suitcase its location made me almost apoplectic as I knew the wine would flow.

More challenging was Renato Garza Cervera’s Of Contemporary Geniune Beast VI, which basically shows a skinned Mexican gang member made from cast polyester, with, for those who don’t “have” contemporary cultural references, is covered in MS, or the name of a feared latino gang. Both intriguing and horrifying at precisely the same moment, the work stands as a trope and a trophy for many of the national debates taking place today.

Upstairs, viewers encounter two fantastic video works, including the shapeshifting Fascia, by Pia Lindman, in which a woman’s face, seen in close-up, fragments and oscillates as she speaks. Shown flat on a monitor, it seems like a cross between the psychosurgery of Orlan and the opening scene from Nip/Tuck, where you can almost hear Sean and Christian asking, “Tell me what it is you don’t like about yourself.”

Other highlights include Derek Cracco’s Madonna Whore, and Hank Willis Thomas’ brooding and dark Jennifer Yazon.

As a curatorial premise, PDA: Public Displays of Affection/Affliction may be too open and too closed at precisely the same moment. But the show takes a stand on the myriad aspects of life that challenge our expectations of comfort, show or suggest our dreams and desires, and, while walking through the door, maybe even scare us a little.

Contemporary art is risky business, and Tandem has taken a valuable risk again. The show will be open by appointment for the remainder of its duration. Go ahead, make the call.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Spider Martin, Icon

On Sunday, February 24th, Bare Hands Gallery will present a sale of what may well be the last vintage prints made by James "Spider" Martin during his lifetime. An iconic photographer, his images of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march are some of the most significant photographs taken during a time of upheaval and change. Martin, who was the subject of an exhibition entitled "Spider Martin's Unseen Sixties" last year at UAB's Visual Arts Gallery, is best known for the images of the civil rights movement.

It is evident that he had the courage of his convictions and found himself in what was both the right and the wrong place at precisely the same time. Now, historians and collectors have an opportunity to view and acquire one or more of his vintage silver gelatin prints.

It is clear that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words, but as I said some years ago, hardly anyone ever speaks them.

In July of last year I wrote an essay that explored the significance of Martin's other imagery, particularly his focus on 1960s fashion.

Dancing on Black Velvet

One of the most complex aspects of photography is its tendency to be classified in so many ways. One is a documentary photographer, a fashion photographer, a sports photographer, a wedding photographer or, at its most complex and often most misunderstood, a fine arts photographer. What is challenging about each of these categorical distinctions is that they are often used by those who are far more concerned with identifying what one is not, as opposed to understanding what one is.

This is what makes the images in Spider Martin’s Unseen Sixties so complex. From the outset, we encounter an artist, an award-winning documentary photographer, who is both skilled and intelligent enough to understand that the medium, photography, is only as much of a limitation as an individual allows it to be. I begin here because, for most people familiar with James “Spider” Martin’s works, their acquaintance comes from his classic images of the Selma to Montgomery March, of Bloody Sunday, and of his documentation of the Civil Rights Movement.

These are important images indeed. And what one encounters from them, and what is evident beyond them, is that it is with an artist’s eye that Martin approached the technical aspects of photography. Composition, framing, contrast, exposure – all terms that one uses to describe the ability to create a quality image. Yet the subtleties of photography stem far less from the technical skills than from the personal abilities – timing, observation, understanding, and trust.

So when a curator, or in this case two curators – myself and co-curator Mindi Shapiro, who had both the original idea that these works might exist and the initiative to contact Tracy Martin about them - approach a photographer’s body of work, the images themselves are often familiar to the viewing public. These viewers, then, have specific expectations about what should be shown, what subject matters are appropriate or relevant, and how new approaches to an artists materials might be conveyed.

It is almost against these expectations that the current exhibition plays. For the images presented are not about struggle, but are instead about the complex questions of commodities, of desire, and of professionalism.

Spider Martin’s Unseen Sixties captures a unique moment in the history of Birmingham specifically, and Alabama generally. For against the background of complexity, Spider Martin found a creative outlet through the provision of professional photography services to a range of advertising agencies, magazines, and manufacturers as diverse as McCall’s, Women’s Wear Daily, and Minolta and, more locally, and for our purposes perhaps more significantly, Birmingham Magazine and Avondale Mills.

What is so unexpected about the images in the exhibition is the creativity Martin applies to his advertising work. Given an almost unprecedented range of artistic freedom, and supported wholeheartedly by the visionary editor of Birmingham Magazine, Donald Brown, Martin created what can only be termed tableau vivant for the pages of a magazine purportedly mostly concerned with promoting the Birmingham business community.

Donald Brown summed it up succinctly, when he wrote, “making the pictures, or at least tagging along with Spider for some of them, was an education itself.” He continued, describing a particularly adventurous and highly theatrical setup:

The night we were in the alley taking the black leather coat picture I thought either the rats would attack us or the police would arrest us for we attracted the stares of several passersby with our victim, his rifle and Charlane’s German Luger.

The image, which appears in the August 1967 issue of Birmingham shows a blonde woman, gun in hand, with her right leg stepping gently on a man lying presumably dead beneath her. What most characterized the images was Martin’s theatricality. Less ornate than the backdrops and scenes created by legendary Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton, Martin captured the moment of the sixties precisely, in a suite of images that mixed danger, excitement, and glamour over the course of eight pages.

This combination positions the exhibition precisely. Particularly startling are the images taken for Avondale Mills, one of Martin’s major clients. What is apparent is that manufacturers were knowledgeable of the marketability of allure. We encounter, for example, an incredible image of Birmingham model Lynn Spottswood in a lime green mini dress and legs that appear to go on forever. Martin’s image mixes the sophistication of haute couture with the sensuality of the times.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, he was also aware of the power of desire, and, at times, he captured this as well. One might consider here an image of a woman in a black bikini and black knee high boots. It would not be unexpected were it not for the addition of a gold multi-strand belly-chain, presumably a belt, and the large bull skull the model is holding up in front of her face. What surfaces again and again is his ability to merge images that have a charged content with the seemingly direct depiction of fashion. This duplicity reveals itself again and again, as in the image of a young woman sitting in an antique chair, in the woods, holding a rose. It is an image that is slightly unsettling, yet her engagement with the lens makes it compelling. And time and again Martin exploited this basic human response which, more often than not, compelled his viewers, sitting within the comforts of home, looking at a magazine or an advertisement, to study his imagery for a long time, trying to figure out just what it was that seemed so unexpected.

I am reminded here of the image of one of his models, standing on a pier, wearing white trousers and a blue top. There is a small spot on her forehead just below her scarf. The usual expectation, given the time, would have been that it was a bindi, the small adornment often worn by Indian women. However, it is not. Instead, it is a gold star that looks surprisingly like the ones children receive when they have done something good. Taken out of context, and totally unexpected, the star becomes a great fashion accessory. It is almost imperceptible, and I wonder whether it was always part of the shoot, or it was one of Martin’s unexpected and incredibly effective additions.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Martin’s imagery is his ability to transform his favorite models from one shoot to another. In the exhibition there are three images of Brenda Martin, his first wife. In one, which seems the most surreal, she stands in the woods (or maybe his own back yard) in a striped mini dress and a pair of white boots. The juxtaposition of fashion and nature, coupled with her exaggerated pose, makes the image incredibly tense. In another, we see her standing ankle deep in what appears to be a swamp or a bayou, dressed far more casually, seemingly more southern. In the third, we find her in San Francisco, dressed in a white patterned three-quarter length coat, a paisley scarf, and Jackie O sunglasses. She has transformed from sultry to southern to sophisticated in the space of three images.

Clearly, Martin’s ability to capture moments quickly, learned in part, I am sure, from his experiences as a newspaper photographer, coupled with a high degree of technical skill and a love for his medium, resulted in fashion photography that is direct, effective, and enticing.

The idea of focusing on fashion may be an anathema to some. But Spider Martin’s fashion imagery was some of his most innovative and alluring work for its time, imbued with subtlety, sexiness, and skill. Perhaps Donald Brown, writing on Birmingham magazine’s second fashion issue, from 1968, can sum it up best:

Trying to stay out of Spider’s way were Sarah Teague, fashion editor of the Post-Herald, who helped us this year, another model, sixteen year old Ensley High School Junior Denise Price; and Denise’s mother. Dianne emerged from the bathroom wearing a white crocheted dress and a body stocking. Denise’s mother, whom I think was suspicious of us at first anyway, turned ashen. Spider turned off his spotlight, leaving the room black. Then he started flashing his stroboscope. His tape recorder played his favorite, Zorba the Greek, and Dianne danced on the black velvet.

Friday, February 15, 2008

American on the Move

JD Conley, Director of Tandem Gallery, is taking his space on the move. From a fixed location in Birmingham's Pepper Place, he is now taking his contemporary art project on the road, with the first stop being the Pullman Flats for a show entitled PDA. Never afraid of the current, Conley has assembled an incredible exhibition featuring local, national and international artists.

The list includes Paolo Arao, Lizzi Bougatsos, Derek Cracco, Sue de Beer, Renato Garza, Emily Jacir, Dominik Lejman, Jeff Lutonsky, Martin McMurray, Bjarne Melgaard, Annie Pootoogook, Katrin Sigurdardottir, Allison Smith, Hank Willis Thomas and Erwin Wurm. Many of the artists are well known to the international art world. Cracco's works have been the subject of free speech debates, Hank Willis Thomas' Priceless has been both a lightning rod and a litmus test when installed on the facade of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

What seems clear is that, whether stationary or transitory, Conley intends for tandem gallery to be a site of critical intervention and interrogation. Clearly the artists participating in PDA understand the values of contemporary discourse in a city like Birmingham and the inherent adventurousness that allows Conley to take us on this journey.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Theme Songs, A Refrain

Some years ago I wrote an essay in which I wanted to consider the role of the theme song as something that might be indicative of legitimate issues in contemporary culture. My thesis then was that the songs themselves served to map questions of culture, gender, race and economy across an American cultural landscape that was all too often fraught with the realization that, in general, most of us received our culture through television, and not through the museum, or the theatre, or the symphony.

What I realized recently was that now, we also don't really have the theme song. This is not to say that we don't have theme sonds - the Beach Boys sing through the opening of HBO's Big Love, Jane's Addiction helps Vince and Turtle and E and Drama work their way through LA in their suicide-doored car, but generally this phenomenon seems almost like it's over.

I wanted to turn, then, to the ideas that were being considered in that earlier essay. Today, it is as if the refrain has come, but we've forgotten the chorus.


It is a popular postmodern pastime to recall them. It is better if you can sing them as well. You can even get a range of albums that contain your favourites. But what about the actual discourse of the theme song? Does anyone bother to listen to what they really say? Thinking about this recently, I came to the realisation that in the theme songs of American popular television one can trace the history of the west in the late twentieth century, from the implications of late capitalism, to the right’s constant concerns for the demise of the family and its resurrections.

This is clearly a twentieth–century symptom. The television theme song has been around for about fifty years. But in that time it has mapped the hopes and dreams of America’s dispossessed, noted unique senses of obligation and allowed opportunities for traditional values to come forth.

Juxtapose ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ both television dramas concerned with urban living conditions for African Americans. In the first, the idea is mere survival. It is, as it were, a rem(a)inder of post–Vietnam pessimism, the final rejection of the baby–boom, the letdown of life in the ’70s after the idealism of the ’60s and before. For many African–American urban dwellers, the reality was (and often remains) that living conditions were deplorable and social services were the same. Yet in a sing song gospel ‘Good Times’ invited us to reflect on the tenacity of these urban dispossessed, and to celebrate the victories of the everyday. To the best of my recollection, the song called out:

Good Times – any time you meet a payment
Good Times – any time you feel free
Good Times – any time you’re out from under
Not gettin’ hassled, not gettin’ hustled
Keeping your head above water
Makin’ your way when you can
Temporary layoffs (good times!)
Easy credit ripoffs (good times!)
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em,
Good times.

Telling the story of a single mother raising children in an American ghetto, the sympathies of the song are not lost in the show’s storylines. And one must wonder whether or not the whole history of post–Civil War promises to African–Americans is encapsulated in the line ‘any time you feel free.’ But, if so, what can one make then of what seems to be the more conservative, more opportunistic sentiments found in ‘The Jeffersons’:

Movin’ on up
to the East Side
to a deluxe apartment in the sky!
Movin’ on up
To the East Side
We finally got a piece of the pie!

This celebration of capitalism includes the realization that this is an epiphanic experience which manifests the idealism of the American dream:

Took a whole lotta tryin’
Just to get up that hill.
Now we’re up in the big league
Ain’t no turnin’ back
As long as we live, it’s you and me baby,
Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

In comparing the sentiments from ‘Good Times’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ it’s possible to map the shift from Democratic postwar new deal idealism to New Right assertions of the values of capitalism. It is clear that the class consciousness of ‘Good Times’ has shifted; in ‘The Jeffersons’ we follow the story of a single family who is living the American dream. But it is a dream that has climbed not from Harlem’s Striver’s Row, but from Archie Bunker’s Queens. Was the journey from Harlem seen as being one which might just be a little too far? So who do the Jeffersons truly represent? Perhaps it is here, in these singsong opening arias of popular culture that the true battles for influence are fought. For despite being unable to remember a single episode of any American sitcom or drama in its entirety, (you try, scene by scene), I can recall many theme songs. So it is here then that their contribution to cultural memory must be situated.

Take the metaphor further. Its variations are infinitely complex. One can range far and wide across the scope of cultural and economic differences – from the barrio with ‘Chico and the Man’ (which implores ‘Chico, don’t be discouraged’ although Chico lives in a van in the garage where he works) to the famous line ‘Darling I love you but give me Park Avenue!’ from ‘Green Acres.’ Listen, and let the myriad sites for cultural construction come to the fore. Is Chico’s stereotyped Chicano rootlessness made evident by his living in a van? In this single gesture can one find the whole history of itinerant labour in the southwestern United States, even in the late twentieth century?

Were Chico Pakeha, we might find him ‘where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.’ But fret not, for Chico is ministered to by his white boss /father figure known in the song as ‘The Man.’ One need only recall in wonderment the fact that this ‘Other’ is known lyrically as a slang term for the police. Here again, unconsciously, the song mirrors the real displacement of Chico’s fears, that his experiences will always be mediated by ‘The Man.’ What you think is a segue into the action is really the event itself; it encapsulates the totality of what follows. Everything that attaches to the song is actually a supplement which seeks to reflect the truths the song has already told.

Isn’t this precisely what happens? Don’t we know that the Dukes of Hazzard are safe, despite the machinations of the evil Boss Hogg? Don’t we know that Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane will never really get his men because we’ve already learned that ‘someday the mountain might get ’em but the law never will.’ Despite the truths of the ’hood, don’t JJ and his family always come to the realization that there are ‘Good Times’?

So what, in the end, does it mean? Perhaps that in the simplicity of the popular song one can say in a few words what some might say in many. It is here that the conflict of lyric and image is finally found. And this, in the world of visual culture, played out via a popular medium, is a true theatre of the obscure.