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.