May 25, 2011

Show & Title

It's hard to know where or when I first heard the name "Mark Kostabi", but I am sure it was on television.

I recall seeing the California-born artist on both Oprah and Eye To Eye With Connie Chung in the 1980s, when the art world was buzzing over his bald, smooth figures and his Warhol-esque Kostabi World. I remember admiring both his personal style as well as his attitude; equal parts intelligence, sneer, smirk, and sulk, he was so much more of a badass than any of the music-world idols my friends liked at the time.

So it's probably fitting that I got the chance to meet Mark Kostabi in-person at a taping of his own television show recently.

The Kostabi Show is a funny, profane, profound, and a fantastically timely comment about the nature of art and democracy. Also, it takes the piss out of the whole idea of 'high art' and what that means for the average individual. Intriguing? Yes. Boring? Never. Infuriating? Occasionally.

Indeed, that could sum up Mark Kostabi's life. Having studied painting and drawing at California State University, he moved to New York in 1982 and quickly became a leading figure in the burgeoning East Village art scene. In 1987 his works were exhibited internationally and in 1988 he founded Kostabi World, where he employed numerous paintings assistants and ideas people who would contribute to (and sometimes entirely paint) Kostabi works. He's done designs for Swatch and Bloomingdale's bags (one of which he gave away during last week's taping), and his work is part of the permanent collections of some big-name places: MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery (in Washington), and many more. He's done a bronze portrait of Pope John Paul II and had several books written about him. Oh, and he designed the album covers for (among others) two little bands you may have heard of: Guns n Roses (yes, he did Use Your Illusion) and the final release from The Ramones, 1995's Adios Amigos. Not too shabby.

This engaging mix of high and low (and Pop) art is reflected in The Kostabi Show. It started as a series of phone calls - literally. Bored by the business meetings he'd have to be part of as a young NY artist and inspired by the films of Andy Warhol, he began taping the conversations, and broadcasting them on public television.

"I thought, if I filmed these (conversations), they'd be more fun, like a kind of performance," he explains. "I had a lot of business meetings on the phone, so I put up a camera and filmed me at a desk talking to real art dealers who were haggling with me. Every phone call I had, I recorded. People were getting hooked the same way I got hooked on that phone call, just knowing it was real."

Inside Kostabi was a big hit with the art world crowd, and was, says the artist, "a precursor to reality TV."

Part of the show involved titling sessions with a variety of Kostabi's friends and associates, including art critic Robert C. Morgan, who inspired the idea for the first formal competitive-titling show. Name That Painting, as it was called, began in 2007 a legal threat from the Name That Tune people forced a change and it became Title This, but when people would refer to it, they'd say simply "the Kostabi show." It stuck. Talk about branding.

Airing Wednesday nights at 8.30pm, the show features competitive titling rounds as well as musical interludes, provided by an in-house band that features a talented ensemble, including Kostabi himself on piano. (More on his musical journeys in an upcoming post.) It's a fascinating mix of people and ideas, with one over-riding theme: paintings should have names. How and why those names are arrived on is a big part of what makes up the show. A panelist of three celebrities gather to be presented with a series of Kostabi works. Past panelists have included jazz musician Ornette Coleman, Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, and the inimitable Tommy Ramone. Once the panel has suggested titles, the assembled studio audience holds up panels, colored red on one side and green on the other, to vote on the titles. Whoever wins gets cash from the erstwhile host and wild applause from the voting public sitting in the bleachers.

Watching the show was funny, amusing, frustrating, emotional, mind-boggling, and more than a little absurd, as Kostabi, ever the showman, jumped between panelists to audience members in desperate attempts to nail down titles for his gorgeously sleek, voluptuously elegant works -which, like Kostabi himself, are still the subject of both passionate adoration and scathing criticism.

For all the fun (and free pizza at intermission!), I had to remind myself to look forwards, at the show, and not around me, where those debated works hang like so many colorful drops in a gorgeous, smooth waterfall of shape and form. This isn't about contemplation, I told myself, this is about diversion. And yet it's an important kind of diversion -isn't it? Was I being conned?

Beautiful paintings came and went with breathtaking speed, and the questions kept coming: Who does art belong to? Who cares? How does originality matter (especially in the digital age)? How does a title shape a work, a painting, a TV show, or indeed, a person?

As Kostabi himself reminded me when we recently met, Picasso didn't think titles were of any great import, while Marcel Duchamp thought they were of huge significance.

"I'm somewhere in the middle," he said, flashing a brilliant smile.

In the middle, maybe. But never, ever mediocre.

May 23, 2011

Write Round

As I walked around Frank Lloyd Wright's beautiful white spirals in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, I ducked into a special exhibition, Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, and... there it was, in all its orbular glory: Several Circles.

Like seeing the work of Klimt recently, experiencing Kandinsky in person was a deeply emotional experience. It forces a reset, a re-focus, a re-adjustment of perception, a realignment of attention, requests complete and utter presence, whispers for a magically pure blanket of silence. In the same breath, the work beckons, like a lover, to come closer, examine its velvet surfaces, its soft curves, its intricate, ovarian details, and slick, areola-like smoothness.

The Guggenheim website offers insight:
"The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”
In its magnificent, lidless, concentrated, and sensually concentric presence, I sat, mouth agape, staring at its hip-swirling dance of color, form, light, and texture. The fourth dimension indeed. There are few things that take me so directly there as painting and the written word.

I write, every day, in a real, actual journal, with a real, actual pen. It seems almost quaint. In this world of iPads and iPhones and digitalthisthatandtheother, writing in a journal seems fabulously oldy-world-y, and vaguely old-fashioned. It takes more time to write than type; this forces a stewing of thoughts, a quiet, patient consideration and re-consideration, one that ultimately transforms expressions and observations and perceptions into stained, messy, occasionally wine-spilled musings that melt, all over the pages, like soft, salt-water taffy slowly expiring on the tongue. 'Do I like how this looks on the page?' becomes every bit as important as, 'What am I trying to say again?' and I'm often surprised at how much I miss my journal the times when I go out and forget it. I don't always use it; it's more an observational talisman that makes me look at things -and smell them, taste them, hear them, feel them - a little more closely.

This re-discovery of the joys of physical writing happened by chance. I was sent, not long after I moved to New York, a gorgeous red moleskine journal, by a friend and favorite journalist. It was both a congratulatory gift, and, I suspect, an acknowledgement, from writer to writer, of the fierce and passionate love we hold of words -particularly the tenuous, occasionally frustrating act of bringing them to life. This act, for me, involves a full engagement with the senses. I love things I can touch, things that I can be stained by, things that leave an impression on a page, that have a smell, a taste, a certain eye-catching color. It explains why I cook. It explains why I paint. It explains a lot.

So I was delighted to attend an event celebrating the tactile -recently. Called "Objectivity", the event was held at Eyebeam, a digital art space on the west side of Manhattan. The event was part of A vocabulary of objects, a formal Moleskine event that saw workshop participants make their very own journals. On one side of the sprawling warehouse space, a massive piece of paper had been tacked onto a broad wall that dominated one side of the room. It had a mottled projection across it; black drafting pencils had been set out to encourage attendees to add their own markings. People were riotously, joyously drawing as they balanced glasses of prosecco and chatted. I added to the markings with a few wild lilies. I didn't see one person texting or talking on a phone - only drawing, drinking, watching, creating, and connecting.

When the projection was turned off, and the lights came on, people stared in awe at the motley collection of markings, as the lines formed their own little colonies and empires across the vast expanse of manila. It was awfully refreshing, and even beautiful, to see people so intimately connected with the sensual act of drawing and making things,, and appreciating the after-effects. Is this the power of the sensual world? Are we coming full circle, back to the tangible arts? I pondered these questions as I wandered around and saw Moleskine's designs for iPads and other digital gadgets. I was reminded of the re-ignition of interest in vinyl recordings, and how heartened I'd been at seeing contemporary albums proudly and prominently displayed at the front of record stores. This isn't mere nostalgia or irony -this is the scratching at a more transcendent experience through earthly means, a knock-kn0ck-knockin' on heaven's door through the gates of dirt and mud and bruised knuckles, sharp needles and blood on the tracks.

And so, the Moleskin event At Eyebeam was a bit of heaven, here and now in New York City, 2011, amidst the hub-bub of technology and the joy of digital connectivity. Those have a place. So do the tangible arts. Being able to draw with total strangers felt like a strong reaffirmation of the vital role of the tangible in everyday life. Even as we ostensibly move further away from experiencing daily life with our five senses, at the same time, we move closer to it, taking pensive, tip-toe steps into that "fourth dimension" Kandinsky referred to. Can we make it? Can we commit? I freely admit to being addicted to the bonbons of modern life: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Soundcloud, Linked In ... blogging. But I'm circling back to sensuality, being reminded, in tiny spiraling whispers, that I never left. That fourth dimension is beckoning me, to enter, and re-enter, again and again. I want to keep walking, I'm curious what I'll find in the middle, on the outer rings, and along the way. Stained fingers? That...and a whole lot more.

Photos: Taken from my Flickr photostream.

May 20, 2011

Tea Time

As I poured hot water over my Bewleys tea bag this morning, I thought about the art of tea-making, and how much it's changed, or at least been simplified and degraded by the busy nature of modern life. I enjoyed a thorough education in the fine art of tea and its enjoyment yesterday afternoon at the lovely In Pursuit of Tea, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.

Housed in an inconspicuous part of Soho, IPOT specializes in fine teas and hosts regular tastings. My host, co-founder Sebastian Beckwith, graciously made the assembled a variety of teas -white, oolong, green, black, and pu-erh -in the classical style: using delicate pieces of fine china to brew, and providing dainty Oriental tasting cups for attendants. Sebastian provided a wonderful background to each tea, too, in a casual, conversational way, sharing stories about his recent travels through China and about the vanishing arts that contribute to the manufacturing of certain types of tea.

Like my last tea-tasting with Stratford, Ontario's very own tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Toronto's Hart House, the experience of tasting various teas, and of sharing my observations with the assembled, transported me into an older, more deeply sensual world, one where the eyes, ears, tongue and heart work in perfect harmony. Having Led Zeppelin play in the store's intimate environment added a sexily jagged rock and roll vibe, and provided the perfect bridge between old world and new.

A big part of the old world, Sebastian explained, is the way various teas are handled. Women who know how to treat and process certain green teas - with their own hands - are slowly dying, and they aren't passing on their knowledge to a younger generation, not because they don't want to, but because the younger generation isn't interested in learning. The same processing could be done via machine, but it just isn't the same, in either taste or experience. It would be, I observed, akin to kneading bread by hand or using the quick-rise, no-knead version. Sure, good, but... not the same. It's a question of personal taste.

The same holds true for writing. I recently attended an event at the wonderful Eyebeam New York;. the happening was done with Moleskine, the good people behind the beloved, legendary journals, notebooks, and other fine writing accessories. In my next blog spot, I'll be going into more detail about the nostalgia for older, more tangible forms of art. You see it reflected in the craze for vinyl records, for gardening, for home cooking. People want to experience life sensually, while holding on to (and developing) their digital identities. In fact, they're interested in linking the two. There's a fascinating kind of circular experience happening in popular culture.

That became achingly apparent yesterday as I inhaled the earthy, flowery aromas of infused tea leaves, listened to Robert Plant "ramble on", chatted and laughed with other tasters, and let the buttery (or grassy, or vanilla) flavors roll around my palate. Tasting life never seemed more rich. Who knew it could fit into such a tiny cup?

May 16, 2011

Change The Frame

Life has a way of turning out exactly like you didn't plan. And yet it's through the labyrinth of choice that we arrive at a new destination.

I made a big choice a few weeks back, and am still living with the reverberations. As befits my culture-vulture tendencies, I tend to turn to art as a means of trying to comprehend (or at least accept) the power of my choices. Lately Andy Warhol has been a big inspiration. He knew his worth as an artist and a contributor to cultural conversation, and understood the exchange that happened (monetary, mainly) was a result of a larger system that he not only milked beautifully, but understood more keenly than many other cultural figures, even now.

Maybe part of my inspiration is derived from the bright yellow poster for The Andy Monument hanging on my fridge. When I look at it I remember first catching sight of Rob Pruitt's gorgeous monument to Andy Warhol in Union Square just steps from where The Factory was once located. It was a mild, breezy day, and the public space heaved with Saturday shoppers and curious tourists who would approach the silver-chrome statue slowly, eyebrows scrunched and head cocked, camera-phone on the ready. Some people knew who it was, some didn't, but most people were in awe of its sheen, its shine, its winking, blinking surface that glinted and glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Some posed beside the monument; others clicked away, but it wasn't a manic picture-taking frenzy like you'd see beside other statues of famous people.

In the weeks since, people have been leaving Brillo boxes and cans of Campbell's soup at the statue's feet, which feels like a fitting tribute. The frenzied retail activity that happens around the statue feels like a more apt honor, but, for all his love of mainstream culture, Warhol doesn't command the same level of frenzy as, say, the Sistine chapel. In many senses, he defined the way we understand, perceive, and experience mainstream culture in all its bawdy, gaudy glory, and is so steeped in every aspect of our modern being as to be indistinguishable from it.

His influence was examined last month at a chat held by the Public Art Fund (who are behind the Warhol statue) at The New School. With artist Rob Pruitt present, the panel, comprised of artist/writer Rhonda Lieberman, cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, and Public Art Fund Director/Chief Curator Nicholas Baume, discussed Warhol's significance and offered their own memories of the famed master of cultural collection and distillation.

While Baume and Lieberman offered heady, thought-provoking deconstructions of Warhol's work, and Kostenbaum gave a cool, Beat-like remembrance befitting his poetic background, Pruitt's tribute was halting, shy, and entirely unplanned. His palpable nervousness was a charming touch to the (all-too-brief) details he gave regarding the process of creating the statue: an assistant did a preliminary drawing (which he confessed to disliking), his art-collector friend modeled (right down to the wig), the statue is hollow, a chrome coating was a natural choice. He also shared his delight at the effect the statue had upon its unveiling in late March. When questioned about Warhol's influence on his work, Pruitt asserted the ubiquitousness of the artist's reach, noting the difficulty of parsing things as "Andy" or "Mine," especially in this day and age of unoriginality-as-the-original-art-impulse. Pruitt also shared a wonderful personal story that, even now, a month on, continues to inspire delight and awe.

When Pruitt first moved to New York as an aspiring artist in the 1980s, he had a dream of working at The Factory. He rang the buzzer of the famed building, introduced himself as only a confident young man can, and, amazingly, was allowed in. He met Warhol, who explained his duties as an unpaid intern between questions about Pruitt's background as an ice cream scooper at Baskin Robbins (apparently the artist thought Pruitt could get them tons of free ice cream) and fielding dozens of inquiries from his Factory worker-bees. Pruitt recalled the experience with saucer-eyes, before confessing that he didn't take the internship: "I had to make money." He took a job in the glove department of Macy's, something that, according to Koestenbaum, "Andy would've respected more."

There's something curiously inspiring about this story. It got me thinking about the value we place on our activities, especially in the age of digital, where (especially as writers and artists) there is an expectation of "free" -a culture that has become a kind of monstrously growing pudding, one that keeps being fed by people who should know better. Whither worth? Everyone has to make a living -and has a right to. It can be, as Warhol serves to remind us, mundane, fantastical, or a mix of both (proudly), but we live in a culture where money is a vital form of energetic exchange. Those 15 minutes aren't enough -you should either make money from it, or pay for it. Right? Wrong? It's worth pondering, especially in an age where we choose to take and give things -talents, time, energy -without a thought. I wonder what Warhol would say.

Change. Choice. Art. Energy. They all seem linked, more than ever.

May 10, 2011

Pondering Pakistan

For a long time now I've wanted to write about my interview with Duane Baughman and Mark Siegel. The two men were in Toronto this time last year for the screening of their film, Bhutto, at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival, following their world premiere months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Toronto screening came and went, life moved on, and I never seemed to properly make time to sit down and write - until now.

I visited Ground Zero last week, less than 12 hours after President Obama's historic announcement about Osama bin Laden's death. With news reports filled with pertinent details and reports that paint a damning portrait of Pakistan and its possible role in harboring terrorists (or not), the screening of Bhutto tonight feels like a slow, patient untying of a complex Gordian knot. That's not to say the movie is slow -it isn't - but it is layered, the way any documentary worth its salt should be.

I discussed this in my chat with Duane and Mark last year on the radio:



Independent Lens is broadcasting the timely documentary tonight on local PBS stations (check yours here). Baughman, its Director, and Siegel, Co-Producer, present a complex, if deeply vital portrait of both a woman and a country that we, here in the West, have a lot of preconceptions around -especially since the news of Osama bin Laden being killed May 1st.

With numerous interviews (including fascinating input from The New York Times' John Burns and vitriolic assertions from Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's niece), fly-on-the-wall footage, and a thorough, if compelling history lesson (not to mention a pulsating soundtrack by The Police's Stewart Copeland), Bhutto is a riveting look at a country that's been painted in far too broad strokes by a Western media eager for villains. Truth be told, there are no clear villains in Bhutto, but (hint hint) General Pervez Musharraf doesn't come off very well; he visibly squirms, as the camera casually lingers on him, providing glib answers and a ton of silence. The effect is awkward, as it's meant to be, though his inclusion in the documentary might seem questionable. In fact, when Siegel was on The Daily Show just months after Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out (a book he co-authored with Benazhir Bhutto), he took host Jon Stewart to task for having the former Pakistani leader as a featured guest. Siegel had just finished working with long-time friend Bhutto on Reconciliation when she was assassinated. "She prayed for the best and planned for the worst"...


Even if you still have questions around Benazir Bhutto and her approach to Islam, her handling of government policy, and those troubling corruption charges, you will most certainly come away with a more thorough, nuanced undertanding of the machinations of politics and terrorism, and the place where the two meet, in one tragic explosive moment. Watch it. You'll be glad you did.

May 7, 2011

The Power And The Glitter

There's something deeply moving about seeing Gustav Klimt's work in-person.

I missed that opportunity in Vienna years ago, but, thanks to the Neue Galerie here in New York, I got it lastnight. Shown as part of their current exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, the work, tastefully incorporating design, art, and various writings, is on view at the museum through June 27th.

After checking bags and jacket, I walked up the narrow, winding staircase (reminding me so much of the narrow passageway I climbed in Vienna, to see one of the flats Beethoven lived in) and, on the second floor, caught the unmistakable sight of Klimt's signature golden swirls. I entered one gallery and immediately had to check myself. The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (I) stood before me in all its glinting, glistening glory. I almost cried.

Klimt is, for me, one of those painters with such a singular vision and style, any amount of copying or imitation just comes off as hokey and dumb. The closest I ever saw was the costuming for Bram Stoker's Dracula; Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka really captured the rich, feminine, sumptuous beauty of Klimt while keeping an eye on his penchant for strong contrasts and soft shapes against strong ones. There's a nod to outfits in the exhibit too, with dresses shown beside or near paintings -a nice nod to the role of fashion in culture. I was especially thrilled by the billowing white dress with cascading layers and complex, thick-thick textures; it reminded me so much of Ishioka's design for Lucy's wedding gown/shroud, that I half-expected Sadie Frost to come creeping around a corner of the wood-and-dark-rugged Galerie.

Seeing his work up-close and in-person for the first time, after having loved it for over 20 years, was a much more emotional experience than I anticipated -and the work itself flew off the canvas (or sheet) with a kind of casual ease I wasn't expecting. Outside of a few early works that are featured, it all looks...like bleeding, breathing, blinking. Each work, whether painted in rich oil colors or drawn with pencil, looks like a vein that's been opened. Something divine -and very powerful -pours out on those surfaces. And more often than not, it sees like it was women who inspires the most rolling, flowing, richly memorable moments.

Women play such a central role in Klimt's work; powerful, beautiful, potent, and occasionally terrifying, they are, for me, the sun around which Klimt's artistic output revolved. This sense of female power -and of the power of their sexuality, and his worship of the two combined -was intoxicating to behold. I was especially pleased to see a selection of his erotic drawings on display. As people shuffled by awkwardly, I stopped, and gazed. Klimt was capturing women in their most intimate moments, but there was nothing dirty or lascivious in his depiction. The mix of private and personal -and performance - is intoxicating. Hand-wringing about the line between high art and porn aside, it isn't the guy drawing who has the power here -it's the women with the sighing smiles. Patricia Boccadoro, writing at Culture Kiosk, correctly notes that
when one stands in front of these frankly very erotic drawings of young girls carried away by their own desire, eyes closed, lying on their backs with their legs wide apart and masturbating, they seem natural and are not at all embarrassing. ...They are beautiful in their abandon, lascivious, but fragile and vulnerable, and one senses that the artist was touched by what he saw. There is nothing perverse or humiliating...
He was touched, but I sense, also turned on. And maybe, as The Economist wisely observed, that once Klimt was "(s)tripped of his wet palette and gold, it is the artist who appears naked in the images, offering a startling insight into (his) own private world." The raw, honest vulnerability of eroticism has a power all its own, one we've yet to fully embrace more than a century later.

I thought about Klimt, and art, and powerful women a lot lastnight, as I walked by dozens of posters advertising Lady Gaga's show on HBO and hundreds of push-up-bra'd-and-super-high-heeled young women, as I carefully weighed fattening dinner options and went out in a low-cut, slinky black dress, and as I pulled a sweater on and put on my flat shoes before getting on the subway. What constitutes female power? Is it bling? Boobs? Boys? On a larger level, is it okay to be perceived as purely a sexual being? Where's the person beneath the parts? Does anyone care? Also, I keep wondering about the role of trust between an artist and muse -or, for that matter, being a man and woman. I'm not sure I'd ever be comfortable with any artist sketching me in so vulnerable a state but... that's the power of these drawings: they betray an extraordinary level of trust that translates into a new, empowering form of male/female relating.

Seeing Klimt's work up close gave me a whole new awareness of not only the shifting ground of artistry and the beauty of orchestrating its creation, but of the power I, as a woman, hold, and how easily, quickly, and thoughtlessly I give it away in little tidy parcels every day. I aspire to be Adele. I aspire to be as free as the women in those drawings. I want to vanish into Klimt's beautiful, glittering world. Alas, I'm stuck with a sweater over a dress, navigating a maze of colorless subways in dirty, crazy, loud New York. At least the Neue is close by.