Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Learning from losing and moving in tribes

It was a largely out of town audience that benefited from the Howland Center's refreshingly cool geothermic climate control for Sunday evening's screening of Beautiful Losers. The film was presented by Open Space and follows the circle of artists embodying the DIY ethic (one to which I fully subscribe) who congregated at the Alleged Gallery in NY's East Village in the early 1990's.

The film traces the history of the group through to the development of the exhibit of the same name that travelled about the country in 2004-05.

The film is fun, interesting and for me, as Kalene Rivers said in her pre-screening introduction, inspiring.

In casting about on the net for Beautiful Losers info, I discovered that Beautiful Losers is also the title of a novel from the '60's by Leonard Cohen. From the book's listing on Amazon:
One of the best-known experimental novels of the 1960s, Beautiful Losers is
Cohen’s most defiant and uninhibited work. The novel centres upon the hapless
members of a love triangle united by their sexual obsessions and by their
fascination with Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk saint.
By turns vulgar, rhapsodic, and viciously witty, Beautiful Losers explores
each character’s attainment of a state of self-abandonment, in which the
sensualist cannot be distinguished from the saint.

Although I'm not sure about the whole love triangle bit (although you know what happens with close knit circles of creative types, or any types for that matter), the last sentence could easily apply the youngish artists depicted in the film. The manner in which their work is carved from and wallpapered onto every surface of their physical and psychic environment and, consequently, ours blurs the borders of high and low, real and fake, random act and polished intention. Much of this is done in the public domain, as it were, whether it's obvious or not, and irritating a desire for Asserting their vision on the street scape, and vice-versa are utterly immersed.A wonderful aspect of this genre of street art is its marriage of personal expression and personal preservation in that it is both out on the fringe in method, but it's also enveloped in a raw form of marketing and merchandising necessary for the survival of the young, impoverished artist. It's a way of life, and at least at some level, it doesn't carry so much of the stigma of selling out one's vision for financial gain, as in other corners of the art world, because it's not based on a pretense of higher purpose. I know this is not absolute, and that there are rifts along this line within this world, which is discussed by Barry McGee in the film, but there is an inherent relationship between creating and consuming a form of culture of one's choosing which is not being provided elsewhere which translates easily to commerce as that is a form cultural missionary work. How else are you going to remake the world in your vision, if the world is not providing you with what you want to see, wear and represent. That's a pretty central tenet of the whole street art phenom. Eventually, homemade becomes prefab. Mike Mills discusses this in the film when he says that these artists and their peers have reached the upper levels of art departments in advertising and merchandising firms, and have thereby influenced the tone in which the rest of society is entreated to consume. Where once they defiled the billboards, some are now designing them - awaiting defilement from a new generation. It's a beautiful circle of life.
Waiting for the film to begin, Keith Zahra was telling me of upcoming plans at the gallery., Keith said that he's continually learning something new from the exhibits that have been coming through the space, including the current exhibit. The Native American Lowbrow exhibit on view now with work by Chris Pappan includes, in addition to the painted portraits of Native American porn stars, several drawings on ledger paper. The significance of these ledger drawings goes far beyond one artist utilizing available material, but invokes a tradition that hearkens back to the Plains Indians attaining paper in the Nineteenth Century, in the form of ledger books carried by soldiers, missionaries and traders. The presence of this newly available material influenced the manner Native Americans transmitted their visual culture:

In the mid-nineteenth century, warrior-artists developed a new genre of
figurative arts using bound ledger books and paper to depict heraldic images of
life on the Plains-both before and during this tumultuous period of history.
While these nineteenth century warrior-artists documented the impact of
conflict, captivity, and cultural domination in their ledger drawings, their
twentieth century descendants continued to use visual narratives on paper as a
stepping stone into mainstream American fine arts practices. Today, many
contemporary artists look back to the ledger drawings of their forefathers to
create art that critiques America's contested histories while also reconciling
themselves with the cultural genocide of a past that has left severe scars in
the lives and memories of many Plains peoples.

Excerpt from wall text in the exhibit Picturing Change: The Impact of Ledger Drawings on Native American Art at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2004

Fast forward 150 years and still flowing is that current of of creative inventiveness, continually forging fresh means in which to transpose visual expression, piggy-back like, onto the hulk of society's continual walk to work.

One Final Note, Dan Weise, of Open Space has been down in the Dominican Republic teaching a class on street art, murals, and, it seems, a bit of web/graphic design. Check out the diary of his trip here.
So, imagine a case where a lowered brow, constricting the aperture through which knowledge and ideas are received by the consciousness, increases the pressure of that flow to the level of a powerful jet, thereby severely expanding the mind. And permanently so.

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