Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back from Montana.  Operating on two levels, artist and scholar.  Scholar first.  I think I'm supposed to be connecting the dots--reading, looking at the work of Eugene Richards, about whom I am doing my first paper, reading (and did I mention reading)--but I'm not sure where the dots all are.  Postmodern commentary and the kind of very direct work Richards does don't seem to be part of the same picture (even though Richards' book, "Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue," was mentioned in a New Museum survey of work young artists have found influential).  So I feel like I'm trying to impose the ideas of modern art practice on someone whose work doesn't really resemble the type of work amenable to that kind of imposition.  I was looking at the wonderful little clip from Gillian of Janine Antoni's tightrope piece and thinking how that's the kind of work that latterday art criticism is meant for.  How to do all this is making my head spin, especially if I then add the second level, which is my own work.  How does it fit into the contemporary art scene?  Well, on the East Coast, it doesn't.  When my book came out I was often asked who my audience was, and I said anyone interested in the American West.  But now I think that my audience is anyone with the cultural context to appreciate the ordinary lives of rural American Westerners.  It's a slight shift, but I think that I understand it better now than I did even a few weeks ago.  Still, it's a stretch to try to critique Eugene Richard's vision (as well as I can understand it at this point), when everything that he is doing is an attempt to let his subjects tell the story.  Yes, he is visible through his choice of subjects and his camera angles, but he takes hard subjects and presents them dispassionately enough for viewers to still be able to form their own opinions even as they enter the dark worlds of his work.  This is completely contrary to the personal story style of artists like Antoni who are creating their reality from whole cloth.  To turn the old hymn on its head, I once was found, but now I'm lost.  Luckily there are a few guideposts, but I'm feeling more like Hansel and Gretel, or perhaps Dorothy, following an uncertain road.

Sunday Morning: Worshipping At The Shrine of the Inland Nereus

Friday, February 5, 2010

Rime-ridden icy morning, like living in a Christmas card, each branch, every surface covered with rising spirals of layered, sparkling crystals.  I once did a sermon about belief, and opined that the ability of snow and crystals to pile themselves into dizzying, gravity-defying forms was to me the very essence of faith.  And so it was yesterday, and again today. Only today the cold is biting and serious. Time to hunker down and investigate the left brain. 

Photographed a whole lot yesterday, some with my normal self in charge, wordless, intuitive, and others with my New Brain go-here-move-there-oh-that's-the-kind-of-thing-I-need-to-take Dialog With Self that I'm not used to having.  Enlightening in some ways, like learning to function with my dominant hand tied behind my back. 

Then I send it all to a photographer friend who comes right back at me and says that she likes my Right Brain stuff the best, of course, but that The Other Stuff reminds her of Studs Terkel, which is a complement I accept with humility, because of my endless admiration for Terkel's work.  And also because it brings me from the 30's, where I seem to have been born visually, up to the late 60's and early 70's, a leap of about 40 years.  Not bad for a day's work.  In 1970 I briefly met Terkel in a neighborhood bar and learned of his work for the first time. I was living in Chicago, my first child was a year old, and I was working with Saul Alinsky's group of socialist labor community organizers.

Studs knew the current penchant for exposure but chose to remain on the side of gentility.  This gave him access to truths about his subjects, whether actual or metaphorical, that still allowed them to retain their dignity, even as the country was tilting away from labor and laborers, sensing, perhaps, the explosion a decade later of automation in every field, including machines that premix animal feed, turning a skilled laborer into a formulaic button pusher.
This is what I wrestle with as well.  Yesterday these men were fine with me nosing around, though, moving in and out, putting the camera inches from their faces or over their shoulders.  Even the short order cook at Spud's, Kim Miller, gave me permission to catch her in motion, her dignity intact.

Ah, to have it meld together, the lovely and the not, and make Winter out of it all.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Montana.  Five below.  Ice fog.  On the way to the airport on Tuesday our cabbie was someone who had done, as he put it, a lot of living.  Long filthy fingernails; dirty long gray hair not combed for a long, long time; teeth broken and a southern drawl inflected with years of hard, probably violent use.  Said he spent much of his life driving truck all over, as he put it, "these 48 states." 72 years old, raised by a grandmother, never knew his mother or heard her name uttered by a soul.  He felt dangerous and a bit frightening.

And I thought of how easy it would be to stick the camera in his face, how he probably wouldn't even object, and that following him for a day would yield the type of distorted, sad, lost look that occupies much of current documentary work that curators, and by extension, the cognizati, find fascinating.  Why is this culture, so very materialistic and driven by possessions, so interested in life's losers?  What's that about?  There but for the grace?

There was a review in the NYTimes of "Leopards in the Temple," at Sculpture-Center in Queens, basically a pan, which included this:  "The show includes a wide range of artists, from young, emerging New Yorkers to internationally known figures like the recent Turner Prize nominee Lucy Skaer and the veteran, anthropologically minded conceptualist Lothar Baumbarten.  But here it looks as if they might have graduated recently from an M.F.A. program that favors semiotic sophistication over the fashioning of compelling objects."

This is exactly what I'm afraid of.  Everything in me worries that proximity is substituting for intimacy in our culture in general.  So when we call strangers on facebook friends, say that messages written for us are on a wall, as though a greeting were being inscribed in a Vietnam-style memorial, I worry.  I'll try, but not if all it yields is "semiotic sophistication."

Anyhow, here I am in Montana, where there are losers for sure, but also people who are just going along, all their teeth in situ, hair combed, words coming from them from a deep place of hard work but general acceptance of life as it is, which shows on their faces.  No pall of the prison.  No exotic tinge of the dangerous.  And I can't imagine violating their personal space like I would have done with the cabbie, without even thinking about it.