Friday, September 20, 2013

"When the Body Becomes a City" (on "ragpicker" show by Steve Roden)

when the body becomes a city


Steve Roden “ragpicker” / Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, the opening I attended was on Saturday, September 14, 2013

Writing on Steve Roden’s art in November 2010 (see My Year 2010: Shadows) I noted that, even if we could not precisely comprehend the hidden systemic processes behind his works, we still perceive the art as a “’shadow’ of process that seems to demand a search,” not simply for the artwork’s “meaning,” but for its individual significance to each of us:

                         For Roden all his hidden systems—what one might describe
                         as the building blocks of his art—emanate from his intellectual
                         and spiritual interests and his attempts to translate them—in a
                         way that most good literary translators comprehend—into a
                         language in which he can better understand them or reveal
                         them to a different audience.

I hinted, moreover, that the artist worked slowly, accumulating greater and greater depth in the process of its creation, as Roden sometimes returns to pieces years later, “working on them anew,” as if they were only “temporarily complete.”     

     I entered Susanne Vielmetter’s large multi-roomed project, accordingly, with some startlement, given the vast number of new works featured, and being told that the Los Angeles show was just one of two—the other in New York— simultaneous shows of new Roden paintings, sculptures, drawings, and recordings.

      Most of these works, moreover, suggested less an internalized and somewhat privatized structure of interwoven colors of his past works than larger and far more dynamic landscapes and architectural constructions. Although Roden has always been a kind of “ragpicker,” an artist who, when asked, after my suggestions of some influences I had perceived, whether there were other “influences I was blind to,” answered: “I will blind you with my gaggle of influences…and the convoluted path I’ve shared with them.”

      These new works not only, at times, remind one of the dynamic projections of the German Expressionists, particularly in works such as “black extendable (fragments and letters),” “bachus on a billygoat,” and “everything crushed underfoot,”—the last featuring large black brush-strokes streaking across a sickly pink and pea green sky, punctuated with an almost clownish rocket-shaped object, while below sits a dynamic muddle of colorful remnants of the city or buildings that once may have stood upright. Friend and artist Dan Wheeler, looking at the picture over my shoulder, commented on how difficult it was to create those fine black brush strokes, which, so Roden had confided to him, were the impetus of the rest of the work.

     Other compositions, such as “when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body (levitation).” a piece created of printer’s ink, pencil, and colored pencil on paper, call up the intricate gowns and long coats of figures by Gustav Klimt, while Roden’s series of “Themes/Paths/Rags,” particularly #8, with its totemistic numbers and letters, remind one of two of Roden’s favorite artists, Adolf Wölfli and Alfred Jensen.

      Images of the city, or least of city structures, in fact, become some of the dominant works in this large Roden show. The clue he provides in the series of drawings, “when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body,” is played out brilliantly in his series of 13 views (only 7 shown in this exhibition), a “body” of work that again reminds me of certain German Expressionist works by Kirchner—not only his cityscapes, but the large stripes of his figures’ robes as in “Self-portrait with model” of 1909-1910—except that Roden’s stripes can be read as the windows or eyes of his city-body or aerial street scenes.

      I do not mean, in pointing out these possible art historical references, to suggest that Roden’s work is imitative. Roden’s way of drawing on art history is still a remarkably private one that might frustrate the efforts of any old-fashioned art comparativist simply because his influences are fragmentary and nearly inexhaustible, two or three different art references sometimes combined into a single work that is, in Roden’s hands, still fresh and alive. One is tempted to describe his approach to the past, given his Cage and Fluxus-influenced musical works, as a bit like music “samplings,” minutely brief bursts of images, in this case, that call up the whole of art history; and it is precisely this possibility in Roden’s paintings and drawings that gives so much pleasure to anyone with any knowledge of the past. Simultaneously, however, no viewer needs to know anything about art history to be excited by Roden’s art, particularly given the dynamism so apparent in these works.

     A few days later, I wrote Steve to ask him some questions about the show, of which I have expressed my views above. The computer interview is certainly one of the most revealing conversations that one might have with the artist. So I have shared his responses and my introductory questions below.

messerli:  Just a couple of questions, Steve: how did this new series of numerous works begin?
(I have retained most of Roden’s eccentric use of capitalizations and punctuation)



roden: It all began in a 2011 residency at the akademie der kunste in berlin to study walter benjamin's notebooks. i should mention that i don't speak nor read german, so it was a relatively unconventional approach - since everyone else in the room was working on a PHD dissertation or a book. i had seen some of the notebooks, 4 or 5 years earlier in an exhibition and i was fascinated by all the glyphs, symbols, colors, graphic accidents, etc.

one of the things i was very interested in was a series of colored symbols such as a red square with a black X inside or green filled in oval with a black plus sign inside. these were used in the notebook for his arcades project and those symbols are relatively known, but their meanings are still not entirely known other than each was used to mark certain themes in the notebook so as to be able to organize fragments together later.  What excited me about them was that they sort of looked like avant garde graphicnotation that john cage, stockhausen, etc. were exploring the 1960's.

after recording all of the symbols in the first week or so, i began to explore the materials and because i could not read the primary information (i.e. the text), i started LOOKING at everything. at some point i realized the way that benjamin crossed things out were completely inconsistent, and i ended up notating 40 different ways of covering mistakes - a squiggle, a
horizontal line, a box filled in, an X, several X's, etc. and so i "claimed" them, and named each method based on its form (so that a black filled in triangle was "black bird" or a kind of crosshatching became "basket"... and i made a video related to the material in 2012
here's a link:

for the paintings in the exhibition, i used the same marks to develop the paintings, using index cards and pulling them blindly and layering the images via chance operation until the original form was lost to a sea of forms... and when it sufficiently dense, i started to look at the lines as a
kind of rorschach blot until i started to see forms - which certainly do seem connected to landscape and architecture as you mention.


Messerli: I see these pieces as dealing with landscape and architectural spaces, which I don’t think appeared in your previous work. Was this a systemic development (even if very private?)

Roden: the main things about the difference in these paintings is that they are mostly on canvas. for nearly 20 years i have painted on linen, and i began with body of work with 5 very large paintings on linen, and when i went to order some more, the supplier said that the linen was somehow hard to get at that moment and it would be 8 weeks or so until i could get what i needed.

so i asked them to make me a few stretchers with canvas... they told me emphatically it would be very very different, but i figured i had no choice, as i was in the beginning stages of this body of work and didn't want to sit around waiting for materials... of course, they were right, the new surface was totally different - allowing me to suddenly shift the way i make paintings which never would've happened without this simple snafu! what i noticed immediately was at the early stages of the painting the thin paint would be absorbed into the canvas surface very very differently than on the primed linen (obviously the weaves are quite different)... but i was
shocked at the difference and after finishing the first piece on canvas, i put the 5 larger paintings on linen under a tarp and deemed them the end of something, while the paintings in the show are the beginning of something. they are much much thinner in terms of paint build-up, and my process with them has been much slower, probably because i don't know yet what i'm doing!

messerli: Even your title, “ragpicker," suggests the influence of numerous others.


roden: baudeliare wrote a short text about ragpickers that benjamin was very fond of:
      ‘here we have a man whose job is to gather the day¹s refuse in the capital. everything that    
      the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it
      has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. he collates the annals of intemperance, the  
      capharnaum of waste. he sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser
      guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful of gratifying objects
      between the jaws of the goddess of industry.’

and this is benjamin's words that he added to baudeliare's text at the end:

     "this description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as baudelaire practiced it
      ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse."

since i was ruffling a fair amount of feathers by researching the work of one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century and not being able to read the texts, i looked to benjamin to offer me "permission". I wanted to be respectful and to have this conversation with his notes in a way that felt somehow akin to some of benjamin's own methods, etc.

so these two quotes - baudeliare and benjamin about the ragpicker as a poet, it sort of felt like exactly what i was doing - sifting through the "least important" materials to bring them to life again and to give them representation in the work so that they might acquire meaning again. i mean, i was doing exactly what baudelaire described - taking everything that was
crushed underfoot and finding "treasure".

the proof was that most of the questions i asked the archivist, they could not answer, so i was clearly looking at things that had for the most part been ignored.

messerli: I see in this work some influences (which I mentioned to you) such as Klimt and Wöfli, and even Kandisky, as well of others. The cityscapes seem very much influenced by German Expressionism. Can you tell me something about this?

roden: it's interesting, particularly in terms of that large drawing and the many people who mentioned klimt. the first art i responded to as a kid was George grosz, egon shiele, and klimt. and when i started art school at age 18, that's the kind of work i wanted to make. i didn't make my first true abstract painting until my last year of undergraduate, four years later.
when i made the body trace drawings, i ridiculously thought they would look like maps and no one would ever know they were figures (i made them by linking up a piece of plexiglass the size of my body. laid the paper face down on the ink, and then laid down my body on the backside of the paper and then with the stick side of a paintbrush, scraped the image via pressure--and i could not see what i was doing, since i was working from the back. when i pulled the first one off of the ink i was floored at how much the figure remained... and when i pulled the one that we will call "the klimt" I thought long and hard about cutting it into pieces and putting it back together so that the figure would be impossible to see. instead, as you saw,
i decided to move in another direction by emphasizing the figure, but silhouetting it in black. it was not so much an aesthetic decision as a risky decision, to bravely own what came about, as opposed to forcing it to do what i know or what i like - which was in many ways the intention of the show... because in these too, there was a sense of beginning.

the first influence was a short interview with le corbusier during the building of a city in india called chandigarh, and corb described the buildings like a body, and each sector was a limb or organ, and those limbs and organs were the parts of my own body that i traced in each one.

another interesting aspect is that after finishing these drawings, i found a polaroid photograph of myself at age 7 standing next to a piece of paper my height, with a tracing of my body (filled in to look like an army man!). so while these feel very new, i suppose i'm simply repeating childhood experiences... and i do think as i get older, i find myself reflecting a lot
more on early childhood experiences of making things.

messerli: Are there other influences I'm blind to?

roden: probably the other big influence is a book i bought 15 years ago that shows around 150 different maps through history of the island in paris where notre dame sits. (and now the monument of the deportation). looking at these maps of the same place but over time with shifts not only in the landscape but also printing processes, language etc. i tried several times to make work out of those images and they always felt forced... i know i never would've gotten to these drawings without that book sitting in my studio stubbornly for years!

messerli:  I loved this show (as I loved Howard Fox’s show of your work in 2010), but it so different. Has something major happened? To be able to do a New York show and an LA show at the same time, that's truly amazing. What drug are on you on? Or, more seriously, what so energized you. I'm not asking for a defense (who needs that?) but a helpful clue to your obvious "turn" (as Celan might describe it) in your work.

roden: i think it was a series of moments that became stages of evolution. first, it took me 4 years to get permission to do the research - so i was already energized when i finally got permission and a grant to do the research. This has happened to me before, where it takes me an inordinate amount of time/applications and generally it is worth the wait.... and once i got home with all of the notes i took, i started slowly. in 2011 i used the notes to generate a sound piece, and i also created a series of videos shown at lace all related to benjamin, but also martha graham and cage (it's a long story), and while it was easier to begin with media works, i was chomping at the bit in terms of how to deal with the material in visual static forms. i'm not sure if the two shows at the same time helped or hurt, but more than anything that shift in the paintings (in terms of process) and the acknowledgement of the figure in some of the drawings, really gave me an energy charge.

i'm sure you know as a writer, there are ways that you do things and there are also things that hover at times like flies, and yet you keep swatting them away, but they keep coming back, and at some point you acknowledge them. i consider myself an abstract painter, but as a viewer, i don't only respond to abstract paintings. i also think that over time people come to know certain aspects of your work, leading to expectations. my interest is in being able to move wherever the work or the source suggests, and i felt in this work i was not afraid to go wherever the work wanted to go. as artists, we  generally think we are free to do as we please (and we are free), but we also (whether we admit or not) can't help but acknowledge that people see, hear or read what we do in relation to what we have already done. what was energizing was seeing the "klimt" and being excited, not because i made a so-called figurative work, but because that drawing in particular had the potential to contradict expectations in terms of what I do, and that, more than anything else, was energizing.


“black extendable (fragments and letters)” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“everything crushed underfoot” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“when the body becomes a city and the city becomes a body (levitation)” (from Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects)

“thirteenth view” (from Susanne Veilmetter Los Angeles Projects)

Sarri and Steve Roden at the Muddy Leek restaurant, Culver City, California (©2013 by Douglas Messerli)

Los Angeles, September 18, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Unquietly Into That Good Night

unquietly into the good night

We don’t know precisely when our current cat, Lily, was born. We acquired the beautiful tortoise-shell—acquisition a concept that bothers me, since we all know animals ultimately own their human counterparts—from the SPCA in Los Angeles on April 2, 2001, after she had been living for many years with an elderly cat-lover who, with over 20 cats, had been forced to give them up. They estimated that Lily may have been four years of age or older.

      About three years ago, our now very fat and quite elderly animal began to lose weight quite rapidly. Although we loved the new, sleeker feline she had now become, we also realized through her suddenly desperate need for water and her increased activity in the cat litter, that she was not well. Checking on line and from other sources, we easily determined that our poor loved one was probably suffering from feline wasting, a disease that ends in death. At almost the same moment our previously quite quiet pet begin—as the internet descriptions of the disease had warned us might happen—to start crying out in what seemed like great pain, particularly just after eating. Since she had become quite thin, we began to feed her much more often, refilling her wet food every few hours, and keeping bowls of dry food at her disposal. Every night, at 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., I wake up to feed her what we describe as “pouch food,” Pet Pride servings of wet chicken, turkey, beef, and numerous other choices of meat, food Lily loves and regularly eats without prejudice. With other canned foods it is an issue of willy-nilly acceptance or dismissal, but the pouch food always pleases her.     

     The nightly and, particularly, the after-dinner cries accelerated, particularly when our poor cat began to go deaf. If we immediately ran to pet her, she would suddenly stop, but otherwise, she was determined to alert the neighborhood to her dilemmas, as well as keeping us up for hours each night, even though we invited her into our bed, where she might purr for several minutes, before she would soon return to the floor where she continued to issue her intense cries.

      When this pattern of eating and crying first began, Howard and I both felt that she probably didn’t have long to live. But first one, then two and three years went by. Lily gained a few more pounds and seemed to be an active cat, often taking advantage of the courtyard and pool area which our apartment faced. She was still able (as she is even today) to scale the balcony walls and go for long hours in the wilds of the numerous plants surrounding our apartment. But her cries have never ceased, if nothing else, increasing. Like several older men in our building—who we ourselves are becoming as well—who cough, sneeze, and cry out in breathless suffering throughout the night, our now elderly cat cries out in what sounds like pain, but which may be just from the vicissitudes of an upset stomach or aching muscle pains. Occasionally, even my arthritic knees force me to moan. And Howard, suffering nightmares, more and more often cries out in the night until I reassure him he is safely in bed.

      Perhaps that is just one of the conditions of old age. As I have observed, visiting my elderly mother in an assisted nursing home, older people, unable to hear one another, speak, often unpleasantly about each other in quite loud voices, seemingly oblivious of the implications of their booming proclamations. As people grow older, they not only grow more cantankerous, but express those feelings at the top of their voices.

     But I might never have imagined that even our elderly appliances might follow in the same pattern. Today, while standing in the kitchen, I heard a loud blurt of noise, which, at first, I supposed might be coming from our in-house fire alarm, but when it suddenly stopped, I dismissed it. Howard, a few hours later, heard the same sound, presuming it was the neighbor’s disposal or a plumber applying a metal snake through their drains. But when it continued, he recognized the source as being our very elderly refrigerator, crying out, clearly, that it was near the end of its life.

     When I returned home, the vast, yellowing and long-stained beast begin groaning at regular intervals like a distressed puppy or—somewhat like our complaining cat—screaming out, evidently, in pain in its last gasps. For much of the afternoon it temporarily calmed, as if, like the cat, in was simply taking a nap; but then it began again, pleading in its whining cries for some sort of respite. I tried to pet it, but, unlike Lily, it did not purr, but simply increased its distressful pleas.

      Resentfully, Howard visited, this afternoon, the local Best Buy to choose another large cooling device in its place. Even as I write this, our loyal elderly refrigerator has just cried out twice, a bit like the shrill screams of the “replicated” humans of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, calling out in recognition of a “real” human survivor. The awakening cat, having dined on Fancy Feast chicken and gravy screamed out loudly in obvious stomach distress. I sigh out loud in distress.

      Upon finishing this piece, our noisy refrigerator suddenly ceased its cries, saying nothing through the late afternoon. I went swimming, and came back to the slight, steady purr of its refrigeration system. My six to seven laps each day help to keep my muscles flaccid and floppy, but my elderly neighbors appreciate my efforts and compliment me for my spectacularly splashing on my daily treks across the pool. Lily, flopped out on our bedroom desk, had tossed away all her favorite stuffed animals, as if to declare “I am the one who truly belongs here!”    

      Howard returned, reporting he’d found a stainless steel replacement to our loyal refrigerator at a low sale price. I had, this evening, to toss out one of our favorite Polo shirts, since holes had now suddenly appeared across its shoulder. I’d worn it for so many years that I could only kiss it good-bye. It didn’t make a sound as I slipped it into the deep garbage bin.

     Our refrigerator howled all night. The cat mewled. The old man upstairs coughed, sneezed, and groaned endlessly. None of them were willing to go quiet into that good night. Nor I. I couldn’t sleep.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Murderers and Angels: A Lament"

I have never before published an introduction to my annual cultural memoirs, My Year, before the book's publication. But after yesterday's tragic murders in Washington, D.C. I though it may be appropriate to share the "lament" I have been working on throughout the  year. I might hope that this introduction is now complete, but I fear that in the final four months I may have add further paragraphs. I pray not.

murderers and angels: a lament
by Douglas Messerli
As I’ve noted in previous volumes, I usually begin thinking of the title of the next of My Year annuals in July of the year previous, trying to feel out issues that seem to be boiling just beneath the cultural heartbeat of the US and abroad. In July of 2012 I was already beginning to feel that I would have to somehow discuss the growing violence of American culture and the continuing murders of innocents, particularly in response to James Eagan Holmes’ murder of 12 people, injuring another 58 individuals at the local Century movie theater on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. Other events which occurred earlier in the year, adding to at least a decade or more of violent shootings with heavy assault weapons in US schools, shopping centers, and other public spaces, without anything having been done to control these powerful weapons of murder, now appeared worthy of discussing at length.

       By late July, talking to my friend Joe Ross, who lives in Paris, I begin to conceive of a volume that might be titled, “The Murderer Next Door,” suggesting that one never might suspect these sudden killers of innocent adults and children, including Congresswoman’s Gabby Gifford’s 2001 shooting (in which six were killed and another 13 injured). But, as I explained to Joe, I did not like the melodramatic aspects of that title, which seemed to overstate the imminent dangers we might all fear from our ordinary neighbors.

       In August 5, 2012, almost as a reiteration of the violence that had already occurred, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page was armed, like several of the other murderers, with a semi-automatic weapon, a Springfield XD(M) 9-millimeter pistol. 

      Then, on December 14 of that year a young, heavily armed twenty-year-old, Adam Lanza, visited a local elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, after already having shot his mother to death in their home, and, using his mother’s Bushmaster XM14-E2S rifle, shot his way through the front door of the grade school and brutally murdered twenty children and six adult faculty members—the worst mass shooting in American history aside from the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University. Like many, I cried about that news for several days.

     As the year came to a close, Howard and I watched our usual series of Christmas movies, and, suddenly, one night, while viewing one of our favorites, The Bishop’s Wife, I was startled by a strange dialectic, expressed surprisingly by Cary Grant (the angel in this film) that one might encounter everyday on the street “the face of a murderer or the face of an angel.” So amazed was I by this strange comment, that I couldn’t dismiss the words from my mind, particularly since it almost seemed to be presciently referencing the Sandy Hook murders of first grade “angels.” By this time, however, I was almost frightened to move forward with a subject that had somehow become a terrifying prophesy since I had first conceived it.

      Now in late 2013 when I write this piece, which I describe as a kind of lament, I wish I’d never even imagined such a scenario as the murderers and angels who have dominated our headlines! Some days I wish I could back up in time and erase my mind from conjuring up such an encounter between the truly evil and the so beautifully innocent beings of our world.

      It is surely related, however, to my 2012 subtitle, “Centers Collapse,” as the US government, cultural authorities, and many others seemingly can no longer come together to help define values and laws for our country—let alone suggesting possibilities for others. Given the tortures the US conducted throughout the early 21st century in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere (such as Guantanamo Bay), along with our later “drone” attacks, perhaps it should come as no surprise that our culture has created numerous madmen (such as the evil figures of The Dark Knight Rises, at a showing of which Holmes mowed down innocent viewers) which might reproduce individuals who, infected by popular culture and horrific computer games, play out that violence. Violence in a culture is not just internal but reflects the country’s international outlook, which is true not just for historically violent cultures—those paranoid worlds which demand jihad, for example—but for even more outwardly pacific worlds which hide behind their seemingly more tolerant values.

      Yet who might have imagined that, in April of 2013, such a tragedy would strike again, this time in the form of bombings near the finish line of the famed Boston Marathon. Two brothers born in Chechen, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev planted the bombs for vague and nearly incomprehensible political reasons, killing 3 spectators (one of them, again, a child) and injuring 264 others, many of whom lost arms and legs in the explosion. A few days later, after the suspects’ photographs were released, the brothers shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Department officer in his car, and high-jacked another car while tossing bombs from its widow as the police followed in chase. In the final shootout the elder brother, Tamerlan, was killed; the younger brother, 20 year-old Dzhokhar, who apparently helped to kill his own brother by driving over him, was later taken into custody and hospitalized.*

       In June, a young California man, John Zawahri, killed his father and brother with a high-power weapon before hijacking a car to Santa Monica College, where he shot up a bus and several cars before entering the school’s library where he was himself finally shot dead. The total this time around was five dead.

      Then in July 2013 much of the country was caught up in the trial of the February 2012 murder of the 17-year old Black teenager, Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman—certainly an encounter, no matter how one interprets what I believe are the absurd “stand your ground” laws of Florida and other states, that certainly reiterates vast gaps in American culture. If nothing else it certainly once more brings up the image of a murderer and an angel,” despite the defense’s attempts to depict the victim as a juvenile delinquent. Although Zimmerman was found innocent, the very idea that a man, armed with a gun, clearly pre-judiced against the young man he spotted, describing him to police as a “punk,” one of those who always “get away,” should leave his car—despite the police instruction to remain inside—and follow the young man seems to suggest ill intent on his part. Even if, as the defense argued, he was attacked by the obviously terrified child, and was fearful for his life, the facts are that he somehow was able to withdraw his gun from a back hip holster, and shoot him dead while being held down by the assailant, brings up serious issues of credibility. I think even more telling is the fact that, even when others appeared from the neighborhood, Zimmerman made no attempt to resuscitate the victim, and seemed calm and stoic after what he had just done. Later, in a television interview, when asked if he would have done anything differently on that fateful night, he declared he would not change a thing. Clearly, this self-admitted killer felt absolutely no “guilt.” That he must now, as his brother declared, spend the rest of his life “looking over his shoulder,” merely reiterates the terrible effects of a violent country, which, when it comes to guns, makes life in our culture a daily dangerous experience. One person wrote to Zimmerman that now he (Zimmerman) would have to experience his life the way Blacks daily encountered it, a dangerous passage from doorway to the world outside and back. 

     I wanted to write a piece on the Zimmerman trial, but felt that everything I might report had already been said, and what I had to offer was simply a second-hand or even third-hand account. I’ll simply add that if Zimmerman was not himself a racist, he was also not a man of empathy or feeling for his fellow-beings. “Regret” and “culpability” are not something my brother feels, said Robert Zimmerman, Jr. in a CNN interview the day after his brother’s acquittal.

     George Zimmerman may have wished to be a “hero,” a policeman protecting his community, but he was, as is proven, clearly incompetent in that role. If nothing else—and this is the most important aspect of this series of events—it opened a scar across the American landscape, resulting in national protests, reiterating the fact that race still plays a large part in our society and that gun-laws are radically unfair in many states. Even Blacks felt the need to reeducate their own children about the racism they had hoped and felt they had left behind. Concerned whites were forced to again look inward to perceive how their own thinking might contribute to the violence, including the black-upon-black murders committed every week in cities like Chicago and Detroit. Young men, angels if they only had a chance, were being killed throughout the country by both Caucasians and Blacks, in a time when inter-marriage and social changes were appearing to make those issues obsolete. Although nearly everyone seemed to deny race as an issue during the trial, the prosecutions’ argument that this was not a case of race—asserting that if it were the other way around, a Black man following a young white boy and killing him, it would certainly be a very different situation—sounded like a racial argument to me. A juror later expressed her pity for the young witness, Rachel Jeantel, talking to Trayvon Martin at the time of the incident—who “obviously did not want to be there,” and hadn’t the education to properly express herself—sounded like another deeply embedded, even if unintended, racist comment. “I don’t think it’s racial, she commented, it’s just the life, the environment in which they live.” So different from her world, obviously.

      In an interview on CNN after the trial, Rachel Jeantel came off, at least to me, as a quite witty and intelligent woman, responding to a question about the defense lawyer Don West’s brutal grilling of her on the stand, “Umm, umm, umm. Lucky for him I’m a Christian.” Certainly she recognized the racial elements of the trial: “They’re white, well, one Hispanic, but they don’t understand.” “Let’s be honest, if he (Trayvon) was a white with a hoodie on, would the same thing have happened?”

      Zimmerman, as it turned out, later had a violent encounter with his wife and her father. What happened in that encounter is still unclear, but it appeared frightening enough that she called the police.

     So disturbing to me were the events that I describe above, that I determined that for the rest of the year I would keep a record of every multiple murder of which I read. If the next few paragraphs, accordingly, sound more like a police blotter than an introductory essay, I feel, nonetheless, that it truly reveals just how violent in my year of “angels and murderers” we had become, and just how many angels are being gunned down every week. And this listing does not even include the dozens of inner city neighborhoods of Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, and other large and even smaller cities, where young children are daily being killed on the streets.

      On July 27, 2013, a previously quiet apartment dweller (although some reported him to be argumentative), Pedro Vargas, living with his mother in Hialeah, Florida, set his unit on fire before picking up a 9-millimeter pistol and, “roaming the complex,” shot and killed five of his neighbors, as well as killing another man, returning home with his children, who lived across the street. Among the dead were a 17-year old girl and others from the ages of 33 to 79. When the police realized what Vargas was doing and that he now held a Pakistani couple hostage, they moved in, killing the gunman. Total dead: 7. Are we losing our interest in and outrage over such murders? The New York Times buried the article on page 16, in The LA Times it was reported on page 11. Clearly, such events are no longer important “news.”

      On the evening of August 3rd, a driver of a Dodge car, a 38 year-old transient, Nathan Campbell used another kind of weapon, his car, to purposely mow down pedestrians on the popular Venice, California boardwalk. Campbell hit 12 individuals, killing one, an Italian female tourist who was visiting with her husband on their honeymoon. The husband was also injured with minor injuries. As in so most of the others of these murderous situations, no one could explain the attackers’ motives.

      A 16-year old girl, Hannah Anderson, was abducted by a close family friend, James DiMaggio, who had previously tortured and killed the girl’s mother and young brother, along with their pet dog on August 4th of this year. The girl was rescued on August 10th in the Idaho wilds, where the FBI shot and killed DiMaggio.  

      After a couple of more “group” shootings, including the murder of three Poconos,  Pennsylvania town council members occurred on August 5, 2013, a 20 year old man, Michael Brandon Hill, entered an elementary school in Decatur, Georgia with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition, prepared, once more, “to kill anybody that he could.” Miraculously, a school clerk, Antoinette Tuff was able to talk the young man into stopping his violent actions and to surrender his weapons and ammunition. No one was hurt, but certainly it must have terrified the 800-some children forced to run out the back doors of the school.

      On August 8th a Texas man in the Dallas area, went to a house in Dallas looking for his girlfriend, shooting four individuals, killing two of them and wounding the others before moving on to the South of the city, in DeSoto, where he used explosives and guns to kill two more adult males and wounding two young boys, ages 11 and 13.

      On August 21, an Australian tourist, 22 year-old Christopher Lane, visiting Oklahoma, was shot down and killed as he jogged in the town of Duncan by three teenagers who declared “they were bored and didn’t have anything to do.” (having previously stated on Facebook that they were ready to “take down some white man.”) This time the reaction was understandably international, as the former deputy prime minister of Australia called for a boycott of tours to the United States where violence was so prevalent. On August 22 the Australian ambassador to the US described the killing as “an unmitigated horror.” American congressman harrumphed their disdain for what they complained as “overstatements.” In Australia there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996, when the Australians seriously changed gun laws.

     On Saturday, August 24 a Lake Butler, Florida man shot his former employer and several co-workers in the area before returning home and shooting himself to death. Two men died, and two were seriously wounded.

     On the morning of September 16th, accompanying a New York Times article titled “The Gun Debate, Divide Grows As Both Sides Dig In for the Battle,” the newspaper featured a picture of stolid gun supporters standing, hands proudly on their hearts, behind a sign that ridiculously proclaimed: “Guns Save Lives.”

     Early that morning the ABC news reported that there evidently had been a shooting at the Washington, D.C. U.S. Navy Yard facility. Presuming it was just a single shot, I went to work as usual; but, soon after, returning home, I discovered that there were multiple shooters and multiple victims, presumably from automatic-machine gun fire (an AR-15, a rifle and a Glock semi-automatic, weapons use in the Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook, Connecticut murders as well). By noon, the report came back that there were at least 12 people (including the shooter) killed, and, possibly another shooter still on the loose, although that second shooter was later denied. A few hours later another victim had died in a local hospital. Two others underwent emergency operations, one whose leg was almost severed, while another, shot in the head, had miraculously survived. There were dozens of others hurt. The murderer, Aaron Alexis, a 34 year-old Fort Worth, Texas contractor for the Navy, was possibly frustrated with Navy payments. Many of the local schools were locked down, and even the Congress ended their daily session.

     For much of the afternoon I was speechless, hardly able to accept the fact that such a mass murder had again occurred. I had been hoping that I might close my computer on this introduction, moving ahead to some other topic. In the quiet afternoon, with Howard visiting an artist in North Hollywood, I again broke down into tears. I seem to do that easily these days. The older I get, alas, the sadder—and, perhaps, more sentimental—I become. How many people have to die before we realize, as a people, what we are doing to our own society? All our blather about civil war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria apparently does deal with our own monthly civil disruptions.

After a short and blessed period of quietude—during which the closed government seemed to the focus of our attention—a Nevada middle school student, on the morning of October 21, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun in Sparks, a suburb of Reno, wounding two 12-year-old fellow students and murdering a math teacher before turning the gun upon and killing himself. The teacher, Michael Landsberry, is credited with saving several other students through his movement toward to gunman. Fellow students claim that the shooter had, himself, been bullied by others, another issue that haunted the American culture throughout the year.

     Although it did represent a mass murder, the two-day-later assault and killing of a popular mathematics school teacher, Colleen Ritzer, in Danvers, Massachusetts by a 14-year old student, Philip Chism, attending her class, resulted, understandably, in further media and police dismay: what is happening to young people? As if, apparently, they couldn’t connect the US culture of guns and violence with events that were being played out by our youth nationally.  

     The nonsense that it is not “guns that kill people but people who kill people” is obviously part of the absurd logic of gun supporters: it is people with guns, quite obviously, who kill people, despite the NRA determination to separate the monster from the beast, or the tool from the people who use that tool to accomplish their deeds. It is understandable, I hope, that early in this year I wrote an outcry—not as passionate as I wish it might have been—against guns; I think I simply had grown weary of any logic of arguing with the brute forces of US gun owners, and I have decided to not publish it in this volume. But I certainly know who the murderers are and who are the angels. Anyone who owns a gun is a potential murderer, I would argue, even if he or she is not surrounded by innocent angels whom they might destroy.

     Not everything in 2013 was quite so distressing. Yet it is not accidental, I would argue, that many of the films on which I chose to write—all viewed, read, and experienced quite accidently during the year—were works of film noir (not all of which I have included in this volume) or about violent intrusions into society. Several of the children, the supposed “angels,” whom I featured, also demonstrated rebellious and simply “bad” behavior in works such as the musical Matilda, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, and Louis Malle’s Zazie in the Metro. Several of the plays and works of literature I reviewed dealt with tense family situations (as in the films Tokyo Story, Family Ties, and Silver Linings Playbook, and in the plays by Strindberg and Hawkes), violent racial confrontations (Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Scottsboro Boys), or complete breakdowns of societal values. Even an order of quiet nuns, in the Metropolitan Opera’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, and a noble queen, in their production of Maria Stuarda, were not safe from murder.  Prometheus was imprisoned and tortured by Zeus.

       These events, moreover, occurred in the US, while thousands were being killed in the Syrian civil war, perhaps more than 1000 from chemical warfare just today (August 21, 2013)! Civil war has, predictably, again broken out in parts of Iraq since American troops have been cut in that country. In Egypt, where it appeared that democracy had falteringly begun, the military staged a coup (which the US government refused to describe as such) which has, so far, ended in the deaths of more than a thousand Muslin Brotherhood supporters.  

       In many countries, moreover, women were increasingly in danger for simply walking down the streets. Europe found itself in deepening financial straits. Riots broke out in several countries such as Turkey, including the seemingly financially powerful Brazil. The American President Obama saw his popularity fall as his government faced revelations of Internal Revenue Service interference in establishing right-wing non-profit organizations, as vast NSA and CIA eavesdropping on American and foreign telephone conversations and computer activities was leaked by a figure, whom some identified as a traitor and others as an angel—or at least a somewhat saintly “whistleblower”—Edward J. Snowden (I respond to this terrifying issue in my essay “The Barbarians: I’ll be Watching You” later in this volume), as well as the government’s previous failure to protect the American Ambassador in Libya from attack and death. Just like the central figure of two books I encountered during the year, Athanasius Kircher, the President himself seemed to many critics and even admirers, like myself, to be often “a man of misconceptions”—or even worse, in his continued attacks of first amendment rights. Accordingly, although I keep seeking in these annual memoirs, for the sun to come out, for a moment of “turn-of-the-century” mimicry, at least, of the belle-époque, alas I have still not discerned it. How I wish I might be able to subtitle one of my volumes, “Into the Light,” as I tried to a few years back, but changed it, at the last moment, to read “Shadows.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"'What If' Reasserted" (on the Bengazi massacre)

“what if” reasserted

A few months ago I posted a sort of “what if” essay regarding Ambassador Chris Stevens’ and others’ deaths at the U.S. Bengazi, Libya consulate on September 11, 2012. In that piece, to put it simply, I wondered, aloud, if Chris Stevens might have been gay, and that, if he had a Libyan lover he might have been lured to Bengazi and killed. Right after the event, a few right-leaning web sources had suggested something similar. Some reports claim that his body had been violated in a way that the Arab world signals for gay transgressions.  But, since I knew nothing except gossip about this event, and it seemingly put the Obama administration at fault—with which I have some criticisms, but which overall I admire—I deleted my entry. Why participate in a gossip piece that might lead severe critics to ask why a government administration would have chosen a gay man to be head of one of the most sensitive of Arab positions—even if Stevens had been one of the most noted Arabic authorities and speakers of the language? Further, it put Defense Secretary Hillary Clinton, another figure whom I admire, in further danger of being criticized for her involvement, did not at all appeal to me. Moreover, I had to ask—and still do—why have no major journalists asked the same questions? Surely many of them must have had similar suspicions—and far more concrete information?
     Since then, however, I have increasingly come to fear that the Obama administration has been seeking to silence any public information that may show problems with their governance, Edmund Snowden being the most notable example. The further revelation, just a few days ago, that anyone involved in the CIA who had been on the ground or knowledgeable about the Bengazi situation had been regularly forced to undergo lie detector tests, puzzled and troubled me. Clearly, the government was seeking to keep some information from being revealed. What, one can only ask, might that be? Did we know of some deeper or more complex plot of which this attack had only been a single manifestation? That seems unlikely. Surely we would need to reveal that or move forward to protect ourselves. Something just doesn’t quite add up. The most obvious conclusion is that the government is attempting to keep something silent, to cover something up.

     Obviously, the sexuality of a major government diplomat, particularly if he were gay at a time when the administration was supporting gay marriage, might result in a large and unpleasant backlash among conservatives. Obviously, I do not welcome that, and certainly do not want to encourage it with my question. Yet should we bury Stevens’ sexuality—if that happened to be the case—simply because it might have represented an unfortunate political appointment in the homophobic (but nonetheless sexually gay active) Arab world? Perhaps it might be even more important to speak of it, were it to be the truth, revealing just that homophobia and the fact that a gay man, no matter his sexual involvement, was so capable in his position. That he died for our nation surely should not require that his sexuality need be hidden. Indeed, if we are to commit ourselves to open acceptance of gay individuals, might we even need more of such committed public servants?

I am not asserting that Ambassador Chris Stevens was gay—I have no secret knowledge or reliable sources to even suggest this. I simply am asking if he might have been, and what might that would have meant in terms of the apparent attempt by the American government to keep things quiet about the entire event? If even I, who have no governmental connections, with no contact with underground leakers, can ask these questions, why haven’t competent journalists dared to pursue the causes behind such government secrecy? Even if Snowden is seen as a traitor—although I see him as a rather naïve, but intelligent informer—he has, apparently, revealed much of the dirty truth of government intrusion into our lives. What is the government hiding, one can only ask, in the whole Bengazi affair? And if they aren’t “hiding” anything, why treat all of the CIA agents involved to regular tests? Something doesn’t smell right? The insistent question publically asked by CNN, “How did CNN find a person of interest in the Bengazi killings who the US government could not find?,” seems only to suggest to me that the US government did not want to find him, that he might reveal something they were not interested in revealing or whom they know had nothing to reveal. Even their recent accusation of the same figure, seems something “after the fact,” and not an active search for the truth; and that figure still remains at large.

      I hate the current Republican outcry about Bengazi as if it meant something far more profound than what’s happening in Syria or the devastating terrorists attacks through the rest of the world. But why hasn’t the Obama administration simply come forward to tell us what they know—even if, a year after, they still do not have all the facts? Certainly the CIA and other government agencies, who, after all, are gathering with the NSA massive amounts of information every day, must know something more about these events. A little honesty, even if sexually revelatory, might be appreciated, instead of keeping this whole event in some sort of metaphoric closet.

Los Angeles, August 2, 2013  

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Illuminations of Flowers" (on Tom Wudl show at L.A. Louver)

illuminated flowers

Tom Wudl Reflections of the Flowerbank World / L.A. Louver Galley, the opening I attended was on Saturday, September 7, 2013
For a number of years now Los Angeles artist Tom Wudl has been slowly producing a body of stunningly beautiful illuminated miniatures with acrylic, oil and gold paint, gouache, pencil and gold leaf on rice paper, linen, and other surfaces that arise out of an intense engagement with often arcane and esoteric spiritual concerns.

     The most recent series of works is a flowerbank world based on processes described in the vast Huayan Chinese Buddhist texts, The Avatamsaka Sūtra, generally translated into English as Flower Garland Sutra or Flower Adornment Sutra. The work describes a cosmos of infinite realms within realms, each mutually containing the other, a device immediately revealed in Wudl’s seemingly gem-studded petals of flowers, floating, often in a space surrounded by other, equally unfolding petals.

      The process, which can take, at times, over four years to complete, is itself, quite obviously, revelatory of an almost maniacal obsession devoted to repetitious detail, the actions of which presumably result in a kind of loss of interpretive consciousness leading to supreme enlightenment.

      Obviously, I cannot speak to Wudl’s personal transformations in creating these works, but I can admit to the audience-perceived result of their utter beauty, sometimes, as in Unattached, Unbound, Liberated Kindness, the colors almost overwhelming us in their complexity; and, at other times, as in Sublime Eye of Tranquility, Blossom of Inexhaustible Kindness, and Light of Silent Sound, in the remarkable clarity and simplicity of that beauty. 

     Upon first entering the upper floor of the L.A. Louver gallery, I was struck almost by what I perceived as the relationship of these works with Persian and Turkish miniatures, both in their size and in the iconic use of image; as in those works, what matters about these is not the “originality” of the image, but the “techniques,” the “mastery” of creating or even recreating those images. Of course, while the Persian and Turkish miniatures are utterly narrative, these works are anything but. What they convey comes from their form, color, and light, not from the well-known and often-portrayed human figures and events.  In fact—and I do recognize this as a very odd stretch of the imagination—Wudl’s works may bear more in common with James Terrell’s spaces of light than with the story-telling miniatures; and it is no accident that a majority of them call up light and abstract emotional states such as “tranquility,” “kindness,” wisdom,” and “liberation.” But it is also clearly no accident that Wudl spent years of study on late Medieval and early Renaissance paintings and illuminations.

     Unlike so much of contemporary art, wherein even a short view of the image and sculpture reveals its content, Wudl’s works demand attention, that the viewer stare into their spaces for long periods of time, the eyes wandering over their minute and subtle manifestations. Particularly viewing a work such as Unattached, Unbound, Liberated Kindness, created in 2013, one can seemingly never quite get enough of the image, even after long periods of observing it   from different angles. It is as if every aspect of these petals were encased in jewels that glimmer back in varying degrees of color and glitter, as if the small work was truly “unbound,” or, as he describes another work “inexhaustible!” I have determined to return to the gallery on a weekday afternoon to study these works for longer periods of time.

 Los Angeles, September 9, 2013