All I have to say to anybody worrying about how art will fare in our crummy new future is: READ POEMS.
Back a few years ago I cherished a small hope that I could figure out a way to get important poets paid like important visual artists, but I take that back. Now we are all going to be paid like poets if we get paid at all. If poets can make work under a no-money, nobody cares about you system, then so can artists. These shining little objects have been constructed without assistants, without dealers, and without much glory waiting at the end of the line, except maybe the prospect of getting laid after the book party.
I have admired Joe Wenderoth’s intro to Graham Foust's book, Leave the Room to Itself for a long time and now it’s sounding even better. Incidentally, artists, Wenderoth got to write this essay because he was the judge of the 2003 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, which sponsored the publication of the book. That’s how you get a book published as a young poet, you have to win a PRIZE. There are like, 4 of these. Wenderoth was probably awarded the honor of judging this prize, and writing this essay because everybody likes his book, Letters to Wendy’s, or maybe it was something else noteworthy he did. Poets get jobs, rather than, say, cold hard Brooklyn real estate when they attain amazing professional success.
Joe Wenderoth quotes Paul Celan, who says that poets can get on with their work under rotten conditions, “…with manmade stars flying overhead, unsheltered even by the traditional tent of the sky, exposed in an unsuspected, terrifying way, carry their existence into language, racked by reality and in search of it.” Wenderoth goes on expand on Celan’s thought, which I am just going to go ahead and quote here because I’ve had this paragraph almost constantly in mind for about a month:
"Many of the younger American poets I have encountered in the last ten years seem at home — and grateful to be home in the shelterlessness of American "life".
He says that younger American poets manage this by making friends, and recognizing each other’s accomplishments, and since no cash is changing hands you know that when someone likes your work they aren’t bullshitting you because there is incentive for them to lie. What we have after living like this for a while is art that we get to keep and pass around - it can sustain us and encourage us to keep trying to wring what we can out of ourselves for other people.
JW rather loftily puts it: “The struggle is, in my view, dignified — never self congratulatory, never self pitying — and it has produced sounds for us to come back to — sounds to set out from.”
If you still think we are without hope, please read Graham Foust’s essay on Jack Spicer (in Jacket Magazine.) Spicer thought the poetry world was corrupt (how would he have gotten through an opening at Dietch Projects, I wonder??) and wrote a hard to ignore poem, “This Ocean”, which kicks up salt and air and the bread we live on in our faces and ends, “No/One listens to poetry.”
Some friends of Article, Cecily Iddings and Chris Hosea, have started a project that proves the power of reading and writing together in shitty times, it’s called The Blue Letter. It’s a letter, really, it comes in the actual mail, on different colored paper every time. Chris and Cecily use it to house groups of poems from a few poets per letter (so far, Dara Weir, Lisa Robertson) and also to excerpt correspondence from Blue Letter readers. It is not a high walled, pearly floored venue but it’s a big space where things can happen, and do. Send a postcard to:
The Blue Letter
93 1st Place
Brooklyn, NY 11231
or email firstname.lastname@example.org…
to get on the list. Art is going to be okay. Toast is cheap and poems are free.
Last night I saw this Richard Baker painting on the shelf, behind the front desk at a gallery where another artist was the main dish. (Gregory Lind Gallery, SF) I’ve seen Baker’s work before, it’s pitch perfect and New Yorkishly dry but last night it struck me harder as this tiny little lighthouse of sanity, modesty and reverence for things that actually matter in a world thigh deep in shit.
I was having a born-again experience with fiction last night, reading the excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s unpublished novel, and then the giant piece on the same by D.T. Max in The New Yorker. At about 2 AM I found phrases like “Messiah of Fiction” lurking around my skull, uninvited. I know that’s inappropriate, and gross, it’s just what I was thinking. Read the piece, see if it doesn’t happen to you. By 3 AM I was hoping I would find about $1500.00 under the couch so I could buy a small devotional work for my new Church of Fiction, by Richard Baker.
The thing about Baker’s little paintings of book covers (apparently inspired by the grander and more annoying Kitaj series, “In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library, After the Life for the Most Part” from the 70’s) is that they are about slightness and sentimentality, but they aren’t slight at all.
The books he chooses to paint are ones he was in love with when he was young, and claims to “to be unable to return to” in the same way as an adult. He renders the iconic covers in all their beat-up-ness just the way your desk drawer snapshots of ex-boyfriends get creased and messy but you aren’t going to either throw them out or take a fresh one any time soon.
Looking through the list, though, I was thinking, Gosh, Mr. Baker, you are already over Joan Didion, Gertrude Stein, AND Dashiell Hammett? What have you moved on to, math?? What would it be like if one of those in the series was receipt-used-as-bookmark-new? Would that mean you’re still in the grip of it? Is it okay to always be looking back to a safely over past? Is he like one of those people who ONLY ever wears vintage clothes because he thinks it insulates him from the ugliness of everything new, which (ugliness) is sure to get in anyway and cause the vintage clothes wearer to always feel itchy and pissy?
I do think these can be read as actively bittersweet, not just world-weary. He’s not really over his paperback loves, he’s just reminding us you just can never quite read as an adult the way you did when you were 16 and had never seen an idea before in your life. Like first kisses.
I still think it’s most important (for me, right now, in craptastic 2009, in America) that Baker painted something that isn’t shiny, isn’t expensive, and reminds you that at you always get to keep at least part of what you love.
Last Sunday, I heard that the writer David Foster Wallace killed himself. There wasn’t much information for a few days, leaving those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be his students or colleagues wondering what happened. And really sad. I heard that he has struggled with depression for at least 20 years, and has been fighting off an evil round of it the last few months. This makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable, especially because he never wrote about his tortured inner life in a way that would call attention to himself. Our copy editor Marlon pointed out that he could have written a much rougher memoir than the non-talent James Frey , but he didn’t want to be like that.
I don’t know if it’s right to bring this up following his death, but one of the most vivid parts of Infinite Jest is the main character’s series of forced marches to a psychiatrist in freezing Boston. He is sent there because his mother is worried that he isn’t dealing well with his father’s suicide. His father, James Orin Incandenza, the founder of the tennis boarding school Hal attends, kills himself by disabling the door sensor on the staff room microwave with aluminum foil and microwaving his own head. It was a mess, and his son found him. The kid is grieving, and also emotionally frozen solid in a way that you might a imagine hyper-analytic young athlete might be. What he is really unhappy about is having to sit in an office with this man staring at him and asking him questions without ever taking his hands out from under his desk. When Hal manufactures a “breakthrough” for the therapist so he can be considered cured, the shrink is so shocked that he finally puts his hands on the desk. They are abnormally, ickily, helplessly small.
The point of revisiting this part of DFW’s 1996 novel is not to prove that he spent a lot of time thinking about suicide, which he probably did. What we want to remember is the way he handled it: with gleeful piles of detail, in imaginative, almost impossible structures. I’m overwhelmed with all the details he wanted us to have - because they matter and nobody else was writing them down. For instance, the fact that David Lynch pees behind a tree when he’s shooting a film to save time, because he drinks so much coffee. The way certain members of the elite national media all wear the same kind of tortoiseshell glasses which they love to nibble on the earpieces of, and also all walk in great circles in lobbies when they talk on their cellphones — which is called “The Cellphone Waltz” (cellphones were newer then). “Up Simba”, in which DFW was embedded with the McCain 2000 campaign, has just been republished by itself and is as helpful in understanding the greasy machinery of political imagemaking as Joan Didion’s essay "Insider Baseball." For more cheers for DFW’s nonfiction, see Ana Marie Cox, who convincingly claimed that DFW helped to create a little golden age of magazine writing.
Other great detail writers, like John Updike (who DFW loved with reservations, see “Certainly the End of Something or Other”) use compulsive noticing to reinforce their immaculate aloneness. DFW hoped details could help us see each other. Whether observing the American fetish for being immobilized and coddled while eating, in this case at sea (see “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) or watching the news on Sept. 11, 2001 from a friend’s living room that could be a museum diorama for “prototypical working class Bloomington” (“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”) he was never condescending, and this is important. For his short talk on how education can help one sympathize with others in traffic and in grocery lines, see his Kenyon College Commencement speech from 2005.
Wallace treated all kinds disagreements about how we should live and what we should think with the same respect for all parties concerned, whether or not they arose between people with advanced degrees from schools with mature landscaping. The choice of whether or not to structure your leisure time around eating fried dough (“Getting Away from Pretty Much Being Away From it All”) and the Grammar Wars (“Authority and American Usage”) were equally like tennis matches to our DFW: fun to watch, and best conducted with flat out grit and respect for your opponent. We really miss him.
Here’s the most information in one place on DFW.
…and a nice appreciation in N+1: “The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 seemed to show up despair as a mistake.”
Will Yackulic’s new work (“A Prompt & Perfect Cure” at Gregory Lind in San Francisco April 1- May 17, 2008) is a homemade charm/prayer that might actually work because it admits right up front that it doesn’t believe in quick fixes.
The title of the show kicks up tiny ironic sparks against the labor-intensive method of these drawings. They clearly take forever to make, so there isn’t much prompt about them. They are printed using a 1930’s wide carriage typewriter. In a method that suggests weaving, sky, stars, waves, and warm other-planetary winds are punched in with closely spaced asterisks.
As for perfection, the orbs look pretty slick in reproduction, but in person they are heartbreakingly handmade dreams of order. Yackulic paints each of the facets with care, but he doesn’t expect us to mistake it for a spaceship that is coming to save us. He expects it to read like a prayer for a spaceship (or a super drug, or a bulletproof plan to stop global warming) that is coming to save us. That someone painted at the kitchen table. Alone.
In his earlier work as well, Yackulic uses texts as an ironic drag on the idea that our beaver-like persistence in building things and paintings is going to actually get us anywhere. “Diagnostic” is typed in red and blue as if he expected you to have 3-D goggles in your pocket. The fancy rendered orb is replaced with a schematic diagram orb which sends words beaming down to two mountains below. It reads “‘THERE’V BEEN SOME PROBLEM” going down one side, and “SSSSSSSSS” down the other. “SSSSSSSS” sounds like the air being let out of a balloon or the credibility draining out of the Space Program.
At least with regard to text and irony, Yackulic is the opposite of Chris Johanson, whose recent mini retrospective at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco gave us paintings that ironically undercut image-building real well in the paint and then add horrible mock sincere texts (maybe they are really sincere, I’ve never quite been able to tell) like “It’s about human communication dealing with dealing through paint.….IT IS TRUE. I BELIEVE SOONER OR LATER BOTH WAYS ALL TIME..”
“A Prompt and Perfect Cure” sets out a particular attitude towards salvation or hope whatever you call your cure. Yackulic knows that all our care and cleverness might not be enough to save us, but these drawings say we just have to keep hoping and building the best we can anyway. The artist Matthew Ritchie told me in a college studio visit, “Nobody wants to see your doubt.” I have thought a lot about that, and I still think doubt is part of faith. I do want to see it in paintings. Yackulic’s are agnostic with a whole lot of asterisks.