Thursday, February 28, 2013

More Dirty Driving

Do you get pissed-off at things people do when you're driving? 

I began driving at age 17, and I think I've driven just about every day of my life since then.

That's something north of 15,000 days of being on the road, responding to situations, handling minor crises, making allowances for other people's mistakes and rudeness and ignorance, and just outright deliberate craziness. 

Among my latest pet peeves, which seem to be occurring at an alarming rate these days, are the following:

Tailgaters. Generally speaking, almost everyone speeds these days. That is, they exceed the posted speed limit by at least 5 miles per hour. Almost no one keeps to the limit, unless passing through a known "speed trap" where patrol cars lie in wait, like wolves or sharks, to nab unsuspecting offenders. But speeding isn't my hang-up. My problem is that even when I'm driving over the speed limit, often by as much as 15 miles per hour, I'll get tailgated by some jack-rabbit. There doesn't seem to be any type-casting here. Age and sex and ethnic background and make of vehicle have little to do with it. They'll sit about a car length and a half behind me, hugging my back bumper, trying to push me to go even faster. I'll often pull over and let these folks charge ahead. It's the only solution. Otherwise, they'll never give up.

At intersections, it's common sense that some people will go straight, others will need to go left or right (except where prohibited by no turn signs). What I see increasingly these days is people who will deliberately occupy the center of a single lane, preventing cars behind them from turning right on a red light or stop sign. They will even do this when they're signaling to turn left. Some of these people seem to believe that to make a turn, in any direction, you have to move to the opposite side of the road in order to complete your turn. But others, I firmly believe, want actually to prevent drivers in vehicles behind them, from using the side of the road to execute turns to the right. Like drivers on freeways who try to prevent other cars from cutting in front of them, these folks just resent anyone passing them for any reason--as if the road were a board game, and you had to block other drivers from circumventing your position at the stop. In California, it's legal to turn right after stopping at a red light or sign, unless prohibited; but at least 40% of all drivers turning right seem not to know this, and will wait patiently for the light to change before turning right.  

We live on a hill, in a residential neighborhood. Every day I have to drive down three steep streets, and then drive back up to return home. Cars usually park on both sides of these streets, which are too narrow for two cars when there are vehicles parked on both sides. This means that the law of right of way applies. Unfortunately, almost no one seems to know the rule: Cars going downhill must YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO UPHILL TRAFFIC. There are no signs to this effect posted in the neighborhood, and most people heading downhill just plow right on ahead, pushing uphill traffic to the side as if they were passengers on a gravity-enhanced roller-coaster. I've even had folks motion angrily or frustratedly at me as they descend, expecting or demanding that I get out of THEIR way. These people are ignorant jerks, yahoos of the road. I keep promising myself to write a letter to the local police department to put up a YIELD sign at the top of these steep streets, but they'd probably interpret the gesture as a crank. They might even come knocking on my door, demanding to know why I've bothered them.

The Bay Area is full of bicycles. In principle, I buy into the notion that riding a bike is a good alternative to driving. Public transportation should be encouraged, and biking should be encouraged as part of the campaign to curb the amount of traffic on our streets. But bicyclists, at least those around here, are generally scofflaws. This may be because they believe themselves to be morally superior because they're living "green" or because they just resent having to share the road with cars. Most of our roads were built with automobiles in mind. A few of our older cities have rail tracks, and overhead electric wires for public transit trains or busses. But the vast majority of our roads are designed for cars, not bicycles. In countries where bikes (or motor-scooters) are more common, as in Italy, or India, the traffic congestion is several times worse than regular four-wheeled vehicular traffic is, almost anywhere. This is largely due to the refusal of bicyclists to follow any rational or sensible rules of the road. Many bicyclists in this area ride right out in the middle of the street. They will do this even on streets that have ample room on the side, near curbs or sidewalks. What usually occurs to me when I run into this behavior is that people who ride bikes are terribly vulnerable to serious injury. A bike is no match for a car. Biking regulations are several times more important to cyclists than they are to drivers of cars. And yet, in the Bay Area, few cyclists obey the rules. They routinely drive right through stop signs and signals, turn without signaling, and ride on the sidewalk, endangering pedestrians. Another thing they seem not to understand is that a bicycle doesn't have right of way on a cross-walk. A bicyclist should by law dismount, and walk a bike within a cross-walk, but you hardly ever see a cyclist obey this rule. They have signs these days which say "SHARE THE ROAD" which seems to embolden cyclists to believe that the road belongs to them, that they can ride right down the middle of the street at 8 miles per hour, refusing to pull over to allow traffic to pass. My guess is that as bicycle use increases, the problems of congestion will get worse, not better. Take a look at the traffic jams that happen in India, and you'll have some idea of what's coming down the road in our future with bikes. When bicycles become so numerous that they crowd out regular four-wheeled vehicles, you have chaos.

That's my annual venting on dirty driving. DRIVE SAFELY!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thibaud Street III

In the Nineteenth Century, painters were at pains to evoke intense emotions, dramatic situations, glorious inspiration, tragic dilemmas, etc. The great Neo-Classical artists--David, Ingres, et al.--strove to place realistically modeled figures into rigidly posed scenes and positions, often hieratic and annunciatory, frequently with heavily symbolic or freighted references. They were narrational and theatrical, as if illustrating historical texts, events or mythical tableaux.  

Jacques-Louis David's famous familiar portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, which bears resemblance in style to depictions of Christ, for instance, is now regarded as a canonical "Pieta" of the French Revolution. The incident inspired a popular play by the German playwright Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  

David's painting is in turn reminiscent of works such as Caravaggio's Entombment of Christ, with a similar attitude of mortal sag, with the right arm hanging down. 

I was reminded of David's painting when I was browsing Wayne Thibaud's images in an exhibition monograph of his work--     

Woman in Tub [1965]. It seemed obvious to me, when I saw this work, that Thibaud was perfectly happy to have us make these kinds of connections to earlier paintings from the traditional canon. His depiction is meant to echo back and back to earlier images of people in this situation, so we can't dismiss entirely any gratuitous reference. Thibaud was an art instructor for decades, and knew its history intimately. Every Thibaud painting, whatever else it is doing, is also commenting on history, and the history of how art has been done, has been made. 

This composition is consistent with the style and approach characteristic of Thibaud's work from the 1960's. There's a clarity, a lack of context, before which the subject seems to float in a sort of timeless void, without boundaries. The line of the edge of the tub, as well as the other line of the inner edge of the tub rim, extend infinitely to the right--though of course we assume that this is indeed a bath, and not some other kind of container. As with Thibaud's other portraits, the attitude of the subject seems superficially at ease. This is a woman taking a tub bath, relaxing, head tilted back, looking at the ceiling or wall or window above her. There's no indication that she's in any distress, which makes this candidness feel, well, candid. And yet everything else about the painting is unsettling. The tub is a kind of body container, like a cot, or a coffin. The woman, we presume, is nude, though we aren't allowed to confirm that. Though she seems alert, there's no sense of animation: she could literally be dead, with her blank eyes open. At the least, there's a slight sense of invasion--if not to put her at any risk, then at least of her privacy. She's rather vulnerable. 

It might be more natural to suppose that she's simply somewhat distracted, just meditating for a few moments. Maybe she likes to think in the tub, as some people do. A bath is a sensual indulgence, after all, not simply a way of cleansing the body. 

Modern Art has tended to see people or things separated from the contexts of history, or to de-emphasize their connections to historical event. Painters who do this, in the 20th Century, are the exception, rather than the rule. Think of Grant Wood. Or Paul Cadmus. Since about 1900, paintings which tell a story, or illustrate something from history (in a straight, un-ironic way), are rather uncommon. That's partly a function of the non-representational nature of contemporary art, but also a symptom of the alienation or disengagement of humankind, a characteristic of the distress of the social, political and cultural unrest of our age. 

Thibaud's paintings never offer an easy answer to any question you might ask about them. There are always many more questions than answers, and the answers are seldom fully convincing. The woman's head, for instance, is like a "stop" against the continuous inertia of the horizontal linear space established by the brown lines which define the tub. She could almost be riding in a car, except that the whiteness of the space, and its length, deny that possibility. Her attitude almost seems to be a submission to some fate, the course of her life. She's "propelled" in a sense, by the level inertia of her position. She's passing through time, moving from left to right, towards some unanticipated consequence, some appointment with destiny. Ultimately, she's going to end up, in this position, at some undetermined date in the future. Though she seems unconcerned about that, she knows that she must submit to the inevitabilities of the life to come. Or she must change its course. 

Could she be coming to some determination about her life choices? Or is she thinking about a nice dress she has been wanting to buy at a local department store? Or is she thinking of cheating on her husband? Or going to the Post Office later? We don't know. And it doesn't matter that we don't. She's just floating there in her tepid bath-water, thinking silently to herself, with no other information to give us. She doesn't yield up any pat messages, isn't making any point. She's Everywoman, caught in the moment, in the matrix of connections and relationships that govern her existence. We can't help her, we don't even know if she needs help. We might like to get to know her better, but she's unavailable just now. We'll have to make up our own story about her, put her in it. She won't know, or care. After all, she's just a painting, not a real person.

The longer we look at her, the cooler her bath water becomes. The painting is like a kind of delay in time. We watch, and wait, and wonder, much as the woman does. What will happen next? We don't know. We can only surmise. That sense of our having to supply a meaning is somehow unfair--why can't the artist be more specific, give us more clues to the meaning? In what way are we, as viewers of this picture, like the woman? We're just looking into space. Someone painting a picture of us, against the blank wall of a picture-gallery, might reveal us in this same kind of indeterminate gaze of mystery. 

People often say the the Mona Lisa is mysterious because we don't know what she's thinking. In much the same way, we look at this Woman in Tub, and try to connect her to some vector, or spool of narrative that makes her more real, more explicit, more connected. Thibaud's genius is to pose all these questions, without supplying a definite explanation. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thibaud Street Part II

As a young artist, Wayne Thibaud worked as a cartoonist and commercial illustrator, during a time when such media were not considered serious art. They were illustration, popular consumer fare, unworthy of critical regard. Like the Pulps, Comix, Dime Novels, and cinema serials and cartoons, commercial artistic work was a bargain artists might strike with necessity, something they did to make a buck. Serious art belonged in galleries, not on newsstands or up on billboards.   

Thibaud, of course, was one of the early progenitors of Pop Art, the movement which legitimated our interest in cartoons and comix and pulp. Framed inside the conceptual limit of "serious" representation, Thibaud and his contemporaries (such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Wesselmann) turned the art world on its head, foregrounding and celebrating the symbols and commodities of our capitalist mass cultural picnic, bringing the techniques and tricks of illustration and cartoons directly into play in the elite sphere of collectible, traditional art. 

Though Thibaud spearheaded the Pop movement in the 1960's, his deeper preoccupations would be revealed in his portraits and figure studies which paralleled his inanimate object images. One of the problems of Pop style is the typical way that human figures are rendered as typecast or stereotypes, lacking human character and ambiguity. (It seems that in art, the more emotional ambiguity one can get into a human face, the better.) Thibaud's very unique character and figure portraits exhibit a specific segment of regard, neither highly individualized, nor general--adrift in a sort of middle ground between actual existence, and an artistic limbo. 

These two women seem to refer to specific models, and may well have been painted "from life"--but there's a generic quality which tends to deflect that specificity into a more stereotypical realm. They become "examples" of type, rather than studies of individual people. The composition is abstract, because it (typically) has no background, no context. I suppose it could be in an indoor swimming facility, or at the edge of some kind of drop-off, but it's clearly intended to portray two women completely divorced from any reference--two generic "types" set adrift in a three-dimensional void. 

The second pair has the same existential presence--two people possibly related, or not--sitting in poses of slightly impatient boredom. Late mid-century citizens--certainly American--posing for the painter. Yet their identity seems indeterminate. They could be friends of the painter, or just casual acquaintances who agreed to pose, probably for free. They aren't "artist's models" in that sense, just "ordinary" people, intelligent, alert, and slightly distracted. But, again, they have no attachment, and it's that disengagement, that slightly anxious disconnection that provides the whole point of the painting. If they're meant to stand as victims of the painter's regard, we're powerless to save them. They're caught forever in this attitude of mild delay, a circumstance either so common as to be incidental, or so forlorn as to be tragic. But the picture answers none of these speculations; it sits at the edge of statement, cool, distanced, stuck in its own groove. 

In one of Thibaud's signature images, a youthful woman wearing a full bathing suit, sits facing the viewer, holding a pink ice-cream cone to her mouth. She looks as if she is perhaps by a swimming pool, or near the ocean. She's completely relaxed, and unself-conscious, but there is a look of slight concern on her face, as if she's just noticed something slightly unexpected or worrisome. Her legs are spread, revealing the blue patch of trunks at her crotch. At one level, the pose isn't especially revealing or suggestive, but there's an aura of complete disorientation. The light source "behaves" like sunlight, but there are no visual queues to support that presumption. Like the other Thibaud figures, this model exists in a kind of spatial purgatory, neither really "in" the world, nor out of it. 

In the context of the sensual attractions of the artist's rich food and dessert studies, the woman projects an obvious sexual innuendo. She's both the unwitting sacrificial "victim" of the artist's appropriation, and a neutral participant in the symbolic position she occupies. The pairing of the ice-cream cone, and her spread legs, are obvious codes for sexual meaning. But the overall mood is so bland and relaxed--as if we were on vacation from the "serious" side of daily insinuations--that we're free to experience the portrait as an innocent occurrence, cleansed of any guilty reservations we might have about looking. 

The picture seems a perfect summarization of the attitude of the liberated 1960's--of the craving for release and permission, of a license to feel, even at the expense of respectability or grace. "You can have it all," the picture seems to be saying, at least on one level, you can devour and embrace material pleasure and possess prizes without any loss of dignity. Yet on another level it's a denial of fulfillment. Her feet, raised towards us, seem to be poised to push us away. Her arm, supporting her from behind, prevents her from bending back in a position of released posture. 

She isn't really interested in us--she's eating her ice-cream and is looking elsewhere, at something, or someone, past us on the right side of the illusionistic space. That distraction is a familiar position in Thibaud's portraits, of the separation of viewer and subject. His people don't care about being portrayed, they're unexcited about the prospect. The candidness, say, of photographic shots, doesn't apply here. "Okay, take your picture' or "hurry up and finish the painting, my arm is tired; it's hot out here!" Despite its obvious symbolic suggestiveness, the painting is flat, suspended in a timeless emptiness within the frame of the canvas. Unlike a snapshot of someone in exactly this pose, this doesn't capture anything; it's more formal than that. Try as we might, we can't put this woman anywhere--she doesn't fit into any narrative or setting that would legitimate our interest. She's without history, nameless, without a past and or a future.   

The cold finality of these portraits, their edgy refusal to connect with any purposeful or emotional ulteriority, can be distancing. The young woman's attitude of leaning against the chair's angle pushes the perspective off-balance, an unresolved visual conundrum. Who is she, and why is she sitting in this chair, sideways, in a slightly rigid, slightly defensive way? She seems a little uncomfortable, and so do we. Her cheerful dress does nothing to relieve this tension. And that impossible, unarticulated shadow behind her just adds to the mystery. She holds her knees chastely together, but there's nothing particularly purposeful about that, either. Feet flat on the floor, together. He face is blank, though particular enough not to seem doll-like. She's not a store-window mannikin, she's a thinking, feeling person. But what is she doing in this twilight zone of space? Can we care about this person, is her fate something we're meant to connect to? 

The more we study the painting, the more we see that it's a dance of colors. The blue shadow connects to the blue of her shoes, and the horizontal striping of her dress. There are little shimmers of blue and green on her legs, in her barrette, on her arms, under her chin; tiny strips of red and yellow on her skin. Her legs are white, but her arms are brown. The painting is like a color wheel, a rainbow panoply of application built up out of dense coherences of improbable combination of different light. The closer you look, the more it all breaks up into pixels and points of reflection.  Individuality and detail are subsumed into a spectral matrix of dots.

What does art offer us? A picture of reality, or an arrangement of color and form? What is the secret withheld, in the material world, that art can unlock for us, or reveal? This marvelously simple and obvious study of a gift-box--the ideal metaphor of a prize within, waiting to be opened, but withheld from us (because inaccessible) possesses the same poised assurance of the food studies, and the portraits. The box is like an axiom of all Thibaud's art, the sensual embrace with rich surfaces and textures--filled with hunger and thwarted intensity. So in the end you can't "have it all." There's always another box, another painting, another juicy sweet to consume. There will never be an end to the replication of commoditized delight, of desire seduced. 

Death may terminate the feast of the eye, the mouth, the skin and nerves, the ear--but the simulacrum endures. A pink bow around a box never opened-- sent by whom?-- meant for whom? Which is what the consumer culture does--makes hungry consumers out of us. And the artistic artifacts are one with the packaged replications of food, clothing, transport, tools, toys--all the stuff that fills our world. Thibaud's canvases share this material immanence, a boundless surfeit of infinite production. Wanting and having. Desiring and possessing. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Welcome to Thibaud Street - Part I

People always think they understand Wayne Thibaud's [1920- ] work. It's straightforward, realistic, familiar, vivid and seemingly passive. It's cool, balanced, poised and settled. It isn't going anywhere. It's confident, certain of its means, and doesn't seem to be trying to convince us of anything. It exists in the world we know, and has made peace with it. It is--in the common parlance of our day--what it is.

Thibaud's work has been associated with Pop Art, New Realism, but his career--and the meaning and significance of his work--is much broader than those categories. In an arc of development which included time with the Walt Disney Studios, periods as a cartoonist and commercial designer, as well as personal encounters with the Abstract Expressionists de Kooning and Kline in the Fifties, he came around independently, slightly ahead of the curve, to a position of straight representation by 1960, and was poised for the Pop Art movement which exploded in the early 'Sixties. Though other Pop Art figures, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, and Wesselmann, saw Pop in terms of conceptual or camp satire and irony, Thibaud's work was a full investment in the traditional qualities of painterly skill, evocation of feeling, and fidelity to the imaginative qualities of material objects. Thibaud didn't distance himself from his subject matter, and this care showed in the lavish indulgence of his technique and his pristine approach to each picture's occasion. The space around a Thibaud subject was charged with all kinds of feelings--desire, obsession, alienation, effulgence, surfeit, nostalgia, celebration, loneliness, and a kind of hypnotic meditative calm--which the objects held in a perfect glow of intensity. 

On a very general level, Thibaud's work divides fairly neatly into a few obvious categories: 

other (fetish) items i.e., shoes, chalk, ties, etc.

Within this system of objects, he creates a world of brightly lit, intriguing depictions which draw us into a reawakening to the immediate visual, physical presence of material objects, which is both an augmentation of the real world, as well as a dream-like transformation of them, adrift in a void of steady energy and light. 

What seems immediately apparent in Thibaud's representation is its roots in advertising and commercial promotion. Though gum-ball and pin-ball and candy machines occupy a central place in his oeuvre, it isn't as a critique of their promotional intent, but as a fascination with their object-status, their "thing-ness" that drives Thibaud's interest. Such objects both are, and are not, symbols of the use of color and seductive charm to connect to a consumer society. The enumeration of production-line products from diners and cafeterias and vending machines derives directly from the automated, mass production culture, and the advertising promotional procedures which create demand in consumers. And the influence of cartoons influences his modeling of inanimate things, as well as real people, and like cartoon representation, his subjects are almost always isolated against empty backdrops without context or reference.     

But Thibaud's graphic style isn't the "Super- or Photo-realism" of, say, Robert Bechtle. Thibaud's paintings aren't challenges to photography, or even, for that matter, to reality itself. One of the tendencies in both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, was to draw attention to the artistic materials themselves, the "media" (or materials) of representation (as subject). From his earliest studies of food and other objects, it was apparent that Thibaud felt a sensual interconnection between the qualities of pigment, and how it is seen on surfaces, and the palpable qualities of the objects themselves--paint both was and was not the cake dough, whipped cream, frosting, syrup, fruit pulp, mayonnaise, lolly-pops and cue balls, lipstick cylinders and mason jars, and all the other "stuff." But the paint in Thibaud's canvases wasn't the active flourish, the energetic athleticism of the Expressionists; it was studied, careful, measured, arranged. The technique was clever, devoted, focused, but never trivial or brash. It has always seemed as if Thibaud cared deeply about everything he chose to depict, that he wanted to give it his undivided, patient attention.

Looking at these Eight Lipsticks [1964], you have the unmistakeable feeling that their lushly imagined colors are a stand-in for the painter's pigments. Rather than an "imitation" of a shape and color, the paint and the lipsticks are united in a perfect marriage of material synergy. Lipstick evokes lips, and taste, and the oily sensation of touch, and kissing. We almost want to eat this "stuff" in the same way that we want to taste and consume the cakes, pies, candy, ice-cream, gum-balls, sundaes, eclairs, and fruit wedges ranked so neatly and tantalizingly before our eyes. This sensual evocation, almost dionysian in spirit, goes well beyond the "Pop" tropes usually associated with a bland regard for the object- and commodity-rich environment of the modern capitalist paradigm. A Warhol Campbell's Soup Can cannot be claimed to have the same affectionate desirability of a Thibaud subject. Warhol is all about branding and the cross-fertilization of commercial and aesthetic contexts, ultimately making all art into conceptual gamesmanship, a free-floating mélange of commoditized, desensitized, blasé negligence. But Thibaud is stubbornly present in all his work, insisting on the inalienable integrity of each occasion, a devotion to particulars. In a Thibaud painting, you feel more, not less, about the subject, than you may have brought to it. And though most of his works are clearly "unreal" in some of their augmentations of the visual field--i.e., slightly improbable colors, denser shadows, emptier backgrounds--that degree of augmentation is scaled to a sensible limit of distortion.    

In a sense, Thibaud's distraction is quite like the distraction which the object world of consumerism presents. We want to "consume" in at least three senses: To have and experience the sweet taste of the food and pretty things which he paints; we want literally to recapture our sensual memories of them, and we want in turn to consume or devour (or own) the painting itself, its sensual presence (as a consumer of the objet d'art. A painting can be good enough to eat, to own, and to dream about. When an object enters our consciousness as a positive symbol or image of desire, it templates indelibly, but with a difference. We can look at and appreciate a very beautiful snake, for instance, while still understanding it to be poisonous and dangerous to get near; we can separate the gorgeous color arrangement of scales--of rings and diamonds and ovals and jagged lines--knowing full well that in nature, such brilliant "advertisements" signify jeopardy rather than a good meal or a playful toy. We can separate these senses of beautiful surfaces from the underlying meaning of the objects represented in the same way that we keep clear demarcations between real things--like cakes or lolly-pops--and the painterly qualities by which we are able to "copy" them from "nature." Entering a Thibaud painting is a little like having a dream about the subject being portrayed. Objects in a dream may glow and oscillate with an intensity beyond that experienced by a normal, awake mind. 

We know without a doubt that the blue shadows in the painting of wedges of lemon or angel-food cake above are unreal. Even in a high intensity ulta-violet fluorescent illumination, that blue would be well off the scale of possibility. But we accept that blue as a meaningful enhancement. It's our bargain with the painter; we allow this adjustment--half real and half dreamlike--in the interests of an idealized vision. We may ask why so much attention and importance should be assigned merely to a row of cut cake wedges, but their omnipresent tastefulness, their sweet succulence is completely absorbing. We know that too many sweets are not good for us, but as sensual indulgences, we are permitted to engage with them vicariously, as an effete mental nourishment; the metaphorical excess calories and raised blood sugar are merely the residue of an aesthetic routine. There's no guilt associated with feeling this about a painting, just as there's no danger in gazing at a venomous snake in a cage. Both experiences are safe, and fascinating. In each case, we're insulated by a membrane, between what we know is possible (or potentially dangerous or unlikely to happen) and what we're at liberty to feel without jeopardy. The parameters and consequences of what we're experiencing are pre-ordained, set. 

This link between medium and content reaches a kind of apotheosis for me in the color on paper piece Various Pastels [1972], in which the artist's materials become the subject of their own execution. The pleasure one feels at the rich pastel palette, the wax chalks laid out in random, yet perfectly balanced, disarray, challenges the limits of the signified. The distance between what we assume about the functional purpose of the medium is reduced to a narrow compass of availability. Whereas Warhol could present "paint by numbers" spoofs which poked fun at art as an ennobling process, Thibaud raises the quotidian tool to the highest level, with the playful delight of any unfettered pastime. The same abilities and innovations which can bring a simple landscape to life, raise this very closed, circumscribed study of chalk crayons to a pinnacle of feeling. We want to hold and study these crayons, to have them rub off on our fingers, to have them jostle with each other, mixing their vivid, sticky, powdery-ness against each other.  The objectification of desire in entirely inert objects. It's almost sexual.      

I've mentioned that Thibaud's objects seem to evoke a dream-like state in which things may seem "more real" than reality, that their enhanced visual qualities can mimic our actual sensual memories of the things being depicted. In his landscapes, there is a further dimension, that of the adjustment and distortion of proportion and perspective to express our possible mis-apprehension of the world (of the effective rearrangement and insistence of dreams). 

Welcome to Thibaud Street, where real and imagined proportions impinge abruptly against one another. Living adjacent to, or actually in San Francisco, one is party to its weirdly improbable and counter-intuitive disjunctions and intersections and backdrops.  What happens to our visual memories of such steep streets, precipitous overhangs and interpolated perspectives in dreams? In dreams, we rearrange and remake real views to suit our preferred versions of them. We move things around, we put them into odd or impossible conjunction. Buildings may seem to perch on precipices. Streets may seem to go straight up or straight down, the fear or disorientation we may feel only subliminally while moving through the city may express itself as exalted contortions which defy gravity and and the laws of physics. And yet, such distortions may actually be pleasurable and fascinating to make. 

Landscapes like this resemble the perspectives of traveling on a rollercoaster, but our interest in them as painted examples of a probable familiar memory go deeper than a joyride. There is an awesome acknowledgment that what we're doing through the active reification of imaginary landscapes is to bring our perceived, preferred world into clearer focus, allowing us to study our intuitive tendencies with minute attention. The drop-off to the left of the plant at the edge of the street on the lower left of the scene above, for instance, hints at a yawning cavity of space, filled with precarious liability, almost Dante-esque in its suggestiveness of risk. The world may seem like a danger-filled obstacle-course of traps and protuberances and flying hazards, and yet there is always the retreat into the circumscribed precinct of the self--or, maybe not . . . .

There's an unsettling disorientation at work here, which is not in any way mitigated by our placement inside an interior inclosure. Harsh sunlight reveals a precipice, an unbalanced vantage over an absurdly improbable boulevard. This might be fun to experience in a dream, but there's a terrifying discomfort in it as well. Those red-hot window mullions suggest something much darker, perhaps a sense that life might be a dilemma of unimagined dead-ends. As the world rises up to confound us, the very earth under our feet may be shifting, the tectonic plates realigning and adjusting to some grand plan we can only guess at. We live in a world of huge forces, usually experienced at the level of minutely noted shifts,  tiny increments of the larger picture. 

The sense of jeopardy and risk associated with Thibaud's strange landscape depictions is one with the deeper meaning of his earlier object studies. Whereas one wants to possess the sensual object--a piece of pie, or candy, or a beautiful body--you realize that you are forever prevented from this ultimate possession by the membrane of the medium. The tantalizing food on the plate on the light-bathed table can never satisfy the crucial hungers which guide our mortal passage. We are driven to crave certain things, though at a deeper level we can see these are ephemeral needs, as the sustenance for the limited engagement of mortality. We're powerless to resist what the visual treat promises, even as we know it's a counterfeit of actual life. The mirror of representation gives us back exactly what we put into it, and we love that process. Awash in the sensual theater of physical objects, we're in a perfect quandary, poised between our brief lives and the larger forces which govern all motion and event. The physical world beckons, diverts and entertains, is consumed and digested and disposed, only to reform in ever-intriguing new disguises.   

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Going Unshaven

Back in the 1960's, when women's liberation was just getting going, there was a minor movement for women not to groom their legs, underarms, and other places. Fashion isn't a simple subject, and I don't intend to get into complex areas of the meaning of long hair versus short, or the metaphysical significance of foot-binding, or washing with pumice instead of soap and water. 

But I have been mystified to understand just what the new tradition of "stubble" is all about, and why it hangs on so stubbornly in our culture. I've known some dark-haired men in my life who've told me their skin is unusually sensitive to razors and friction. Men may sport beards of one kind or another, for reasons of fashion, of religious practice, or simply because they're too lazy to shave regularly. Personally, I've always found that a beard makes me look like an angry bear, a look which never appealed much to me--or to anyone else, I suspect. I have worn a mustache since I was about 27, and now that my hair is turning white, it looks even a little distinguished, I like to imagine. I put blonding agent in my hair, not because I want to appear young, but because I think I look better with lighter hair than the dark brown it naturally has always been, since I was about aged 4. I'm not being vain, just practical.   

Nevertheless, as I say, I've been trying to understand why otherwise intelligent women might prefer a man who sports a two- or three- or four-day stubble, or even more crazily, find such a man sexy. Is it because men who haven't shaved look a little untamed? Or does it suggest a certain devil-may-care negligence towards their looks, or to the standards of behavior common in our society? Is a man who doesn't shave being attractively "naughty" or rebellious, or aggressively suggestive? Is a three-day stubble a sexual message? And if so, what exactly does it say? "I haven't shaved, so I'm ready to hit the sack. How'bout it?" 

In a practical sense, beards can get in the way of things, especially short beards. Nothing scratchier than a three-day stubble. Do some women find that scratchiness tantalizing? Is it some kind of talisman of a man's virility, proof that he's male, evidence of his gender? Or are women just capitulating to fashion, in the way people will, despite whatever inconveniences are involved. Ask any woman why wearing high heels isn't pleasant--so men can be just as irrational as women in this respect. In defending his beautiful but very uncomfortably designed chairs, Mies van der Rohe replied that women don't wear heels to be comfortable, and smart people shouldn't object to sitting in uncomfortable furniture, especially if they look better when they do. Fashion avatars take risks, and fashions may come and go within a single season, but the stubble look has been around for a while, and shows no sign of passing away. Young actors like Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe meet crowds on the runway looking as if they woke up from a week of sleep, tired-eyed and unshaven, open-collared, tousle-haired, stooped over and smiling like a hungry alligator. Apparently, this turns women--especially young ones--on. Why?        

I'm not a woman, but I have it on good authority that a bristly short beard is not pleasant to kiss, nor is it especially pleasant to engage in even more intimate activity with someone sporting a sandpaper face. More ouch than aah

Maybe it's the contrast between the apparent formality, say of wearing a suit, and the roughness of an unshaven chin? Smooth versus rough? Dressy versus skanky?  Sexiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Woe betide the chap who's bold enough to tell women what they should think is sexy, or attractive. I suspect that part of the explanation may lie in our conception of what sex means. Is it comfort, security and safety, or rawness and risk and wildness? Is a guy in a business suit more attractive than a lumber-jack? Is a guy wearing a sweaty white T and a hard-hat more sexy to look at than a guy wearing a tie and a vest? Is clean-shavenness an aspect of care and decency, or proof of one's uptightness, of adherence to artificial standards and uniformity? Does a beard make you seem kinkier, or more cultured?     

I dont' have answers to any of these questions (if there are answers). But I do know that I don't understand the "stubble" look, or why it seems to be so persistent these days. If I were a woman--something I've never craved to be, by the way--I think I'd regard men with intentional stubbles--as a fashion statement--as kind of repugnant. Wanting to emulate laziness, or slovenliness, or brazenness, or a sort of adolescent negligence, seems an odd instigation to romance--at least to me.

For those who believe that looking "sharp" is a sign of good breeding, or of a responsible nature, or even a sign of class superiority, one might observe that if you earn enough money, you can pretty much dictate whatever you want to wear, and whether you go out shaved or unshaven, clean or dirty. Privilege does have its advantages.

Once upon a time, being clean shaven meant you had access to clean running water and a sharp razor. When my stepfather was born around the turn of the last century, straight razors were the tool; so-called "safety razors"--that is, metal blades encased in clips with handles--came along during his lifetime, and he was grateful for the new gadgets, particularly since the new blades were disposable and didn't need to be sharpened. 

If shaving is such a turn-off for some women, maybe it's a form of sympathy for the indignity of having to disdain their own body hair. In the West, female body hair has gotten to be considered in bad taste; many women in the modern world now routinely have their pubic hair removed. Body hair is undoubtedly a vestige of our anthropomorphic ancestry, when humans (and pre-humans) were as hairy as apes or monkeys. Amount of body hair varies widely among human groups, but hairiness--or "hirsuteness"--is probably more closely identified with the male of the species, than with the female. Perhaps men are, indeed, "wilder"--with their hormonal glands--than women, and a further throwback to our remote ancient forbears?

In the meantime, I'd be interested to know just how women feel about this "stubble" phenomenon. Perhaps I've been missing the boat. Going without shaving for a couple of days always makes me feel a little itchy; when I'm off in the bush for a few days, without services, I always long for a shower and a shave, to "get back to civilization again" as people will say. If I had to choose between being dirty and unshaven and attractive on the one hand, as against being clean and shaved and combed and boring, I'd choose the latter. We didn't come down out of the trees and out of the forest just to prove that we could emulate our primitive ancestors. If the associations are dirty underwear, a reluctance to bathe, or chic muddy jeans, I'll take the high road, thank you very much.   

As a footnote, perhaps a three-day growth suggests a weekend marathon of sex, with both parties so engrossed in each other physically (i.e., casual and oblivious) that they've almost grown feral. Women may harbor delicious fantasies of one kind or another, and perhaps men with skanky beards suggest they're more into such illicit fun than buttoned-up types. Psychologists tell us sex is four-fifths mental, and this may be another proof of that principle.  

Mom's Apple Pie - A New Drink

It's an old adage that every good boy loves his mother, not least because he remembers her good cooking. Going on 50 years from leaving home, I can still recall my mom's cooking. It may only signify familiarity, since no two mothers cook exactly alike, though food and cooking traditions in post-War America tended towards sameness. It was the Betty Crocker era, the era of frozen foods and additives and the "well-rounded diet." Ethnic restaurants were very much the exception then. Fast Food took America by storm, but there have been counter currents of ethnic diversity, pure ingredients and a focus on flavor combined with health and safety. Fresh is better.

One of the things my mom liked to cook was apple pie. Since leaving home, I've never tasted apple pie that was better, richer, or which looked prettier. She used Crisco, which was a "trans-fat" product, hydrogenated cottonseed oil. Crisco was snowy white, thick and sticky, and it held its shape. As a shortening, it worked wonderfully well, and made pie-crusts that were aesthetically pleasing; they had a true crustiness that would hold up in the oven. We know of course that trans-fats are bad for you, but that wasn't known or acknowledged then. Trans-fats are identified with various health problems, including diabetes.

Nevertheless, mom's apple pies were a wonder, and I'll never forget them, trans-fats notwithstanding. Try making good piecrust with ordinary butter, and you'll see how hard it is!

So, in memory of mom, who passed away in 2008, here's a concoction which comes pretty close to mimicking the flavor of a good apple pie--without any cream or ice-cream or cheese as accompaniment. Goldschlager is a proprietary liqueur, but any similarly flavored cinnamon drink will probably suffice.

Mom wasn't much for cocktails, but she didn't get out much either. She was a homebody. Here's to moms, and home cooking, and all American desserts (mixed in the right proportion, of course).  

4 parts golden rum
1 part calvados (apple)
1 part Goldschlager (cinnamon)
1 part lemon juice
1/2 part almond vanilla syrup

--swirled in ice and served up without garnish.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Objectivism Begins - 1929

It's interesting to go back and browse old literary magazines from the first half of the 20th Century. 19th Century American and British literary magazines now seem impossibly remote, and alien to our sensibility, but it only takes a little imagination to conjure up a sense of what it may have felt like to read periodicals like Poetry (Chicago) Magazine, in the 1920's, which in those days had no internet (electronic) presence, and could only be read in its material text incarnation. There weren't many places that poetry could be published before World War I--nothing like the explosion of academic journals and little magazines which became increasingly common in the succeeding decades, reaching a crescendo in the 1960's with the mimeo revolution

After an auspicious beginning in 1912, Poetry could boast important appearances by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Moore, Millay, Frost, for instance, in its first decade of existence. By the mid-1920's, however, it had begun to feel a little drab, and the list of contributors now reads like a 3rd rate collection of best-forgotten has-beens: Ernest Walsh, Marion Strobel, Eunice Tietjens, Frances Shaw, Violet Allyn Storey. When was the last time anyone mentioned any of these names? I recall once the critic Richard Kostelanetz saying in a review of a memorial issue of Poetry, how awful its selections had been over the years, and I had to concur. So many bad poems, so many bad poets. 

Poetry struggled along for many years on a shoestring budget, and it might have folded had it not quite unexpectedly been surprised with a jumbo bequest from the estate of Ruth Lilly, who had years before received a kindly worded declination to a submission she had made to the magazine--a bequest in 2003 totaling some $200, 000, 000!!!  Overnight, the magazine went from a fly-by-night affair, chronically on the verge of bankruptcy, to a major corporate (or foundation) player in the philanthropy-sphere, spawning contests and awards and new buildings, and supporting a professional staff with real salaries. Whether any of this new flush solvency will have a positive influence on the quality of poetry in America is debatable. 

The glowering new foundation quarters of Poetry (Chicago)

How quaint the old Poetry magazine now appears, when compared to the pristine, confident, streamlined modern version! Of course, many famous poets have published work in Poetry over the years--Yeats, Williams Stevens, Bunting, Rakosi, Cummings, O'Hara, Ginsberg, Joyce, etc. But as Kostelanetz points out, it was invariably not their best work, and frequently was nothing more than a token belated recognition of their accomplishments outside the world which Poetry had come to represent over the years, i.e., an uncomfortable mediocrity. 

By the mid-1920's, Poetry no longer represented an harbinger of new and daring experimentation, but had become a repository of staid, predictable, safe, reactionary writing. Despite the imprecations of editor Harriet Monroe's redoubtable correspondent, Ezra Pound, the magazine continued to shy away from challenging work, preferring to stick with polite, quiet, sensible poems, with little to recommend them aside from their timid propriety. (I'm not the first person of course to say this, but any magazine which begins with a manifesto to publish "the best" or the "highest standard" without regard to program or vision, is almost certain to select work which is imitative, meretricious, bland, ephemeral, and cheap. Literary movements come and go, but the driving force behind any publication is invariably the eccentric or unusual attitude of its editor(s), and when the energy or functional purpose of that editor is exhausted or complete, there is little pretext for prolongation.) 

This is as true today, in 2013, as it was in 1924, when Louis Zukofsky published his first poem there, a "stale cream-puff" entitled "Of Dying Beauty." You could with justice have decorated the margins of this poem with Corinthian columned designs, festooned with aesthetically posed curling vines, and peopled with Greek goddesses tricked out in flowing pale broadcloth robes, leaning sideways with languorous attitudes. It was work that mightn't have seemed the least bit modern to the eyes of William Morris (in 1890) or Alfred Tennyson (in 1880). Indeed, the "dying beauty" he described could well have been the rotten state of American poetry, in 1924. Aside from Frost and Eliot and Pound and Stevens and Moore, almost no good poetry was being written by Americans in those years--and much of it was being done abroad, by Americans in Europe.         

Of Dying Beauty

“Spare us of dying beauty,” cries out Youth,
“Of marble gods that moulder into dust—
Wide-eyed and pensive with an ancient truth
That even gods will go as old things must.”
Where fading splendor grays to powdered earth,
And time’s slow movement darkens quiet skies,
Youth weeps the old, yet gives new beauty birth
And molds again, though the old beauty dies.
Time plays an ancient dirge amid old places
Where ruins are a sign of passing strength,
As is the weariness of aged faces
A token of a beauty gone at length.
Yet youth will always come self-willed and gay—
A sun-god in a temple of decay.

Poetry, January 1924

But something happened between 1924 and 1929, when Zukofsky's next publication in Poetry appeared. It is probably disingenuous to use Poetry as a platform for a comparison of changing literary values during this period, since there were other venues. Gertrude Stein was conducting her salons in Paris. In Russia, strange occurrences were taking place. There were distant rumblings, but they seem not to have reached the ears of Harriet Monroe. Still, some light may have pierced the editorial offices in Chicago, because the June 1929 issue contained an interesting series of poems by young Louis Zukofsky, the same man who'd debuted five years before with that distressingly antediluvian specimen "Of Dying Beauty."

For me, American poetry begins with Zukofsky's poem "Siren and Signal," on page 146 of Poetry Magazine, June 1929, Volume IIIVI, Number 111. The Zukofsky of 1929 has come so far from the author of "Of Dying Beauty" that one wonders how it could be the same person. The poem as published in the magazine is in seven parts, but when he collected his early work in 55 Poems  (1923-1935) in 1941, he managed to salvage only the two best sections--numbers IV and V. He dispensed with the title Siren and Signal of the set, keeping IV ("Gleams, a green lamp") and V, and separated them ("Cars once steel"), where they appear in All: The Collected Short Poems, as numbers 5 and 17. As brief, concise lyrics, they are among the earliest examples of what would come be called "Objectivist" poems. Monroe invited Zukofsky to guest-edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry, the "'Objectivist' 1931" number, which included work by Rakosi, Reznikoff, Oppen, Bunting and a section from LZ's own long poem "'A': Seventh Movement: 'There are Different Techniques'" along with key two prose essays--"Program: 'Objectivists' 1931" and "Sincerity and Objectification." 

In them, LZ makes several extravagant claims for the kind of poetry he's advocating, which might seem extreme, if not for the sorry state of the art generally during this period. By "sincerity" as LZ uses it we might summarize it by saying it (the object of representation in a poem) refers unflinchingly to the actual social, political and aesthetic context within which it exists; the revolutionary political implications of this are obvious. By "objectification" we might derive that this is a scientific fidelity to observed fact, as opposed to the halo of distraction which tends to blur our apprehension of its actual presence. He is careful to point out that the best poems--of those he cites--may contain elements of both characteristics in unequal measure: Reznikoff, for instance, is more a poet of sincerity than of objectification, his poems record event and character rather that observing and defining. But "accuracy of detail in writing--which is sincerity" links the two concepts as but different aspects of the same quality. What Reznikoff, Williams, Oppen, Rakosi, and Moore have in common, according to LZ is a fidelity to perceived fact (reality) and a method which functions to portray it accurately, to attach immediate feelings to perceived event or object. One could say, with some justice, that Objectivism is Imagism refined into an intellectual critical principle.             

"It is more important for the communal good that individual authors should spend their time recording and objectifying good writing wherever it is found (note the use of quotation in Marianne Moore from Government guide-books, Pound's translations and quotations in the Cantos, Carlos Williams' passages out of Spanish and early American sources in In the American Grain; cf. Reznikoff's The English in Virginia in Pagany IV 1930) than that a plenum of authors should found their fame on all sorts of personal vagueness--often called 'sophistication.'" The evocative, generative and crucial word here is of course "communal."* 

"In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness . . . Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion which does not attain rested totality . . . This rested totality may be called objectification . . . The codifications of the rhetoric . . . may be described as the arrangements, into one apprehended unit, of minor units of sincerity--in other words the resolving of words and their ideation into structure . . . Granted that the word combination 'minor units of sincerity" is an ironic index of the degradation of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each word in itself is an arrangement, it may be said that each word possesses objectification to a powerful degree; but that the facts carried by one word are, in view of the preponderance of facts carried by combinations of words, not sufficiently explicit to warrant a realization of rested totality such as might be designated an art form . . . Yet the objectification which is a poem, or a unit of structural prose, may exist in a very few lines."  

Objectivism, as seen by Zukofsky and defined for the purposes of his two guest essays, begins in the work of Reznikoff (1918, Five Groups of Verse), Williams (1923, Spring & All), and Moore (1924, Observations). Though Eliot, Hemingway, McAlmon, Cummings, Pound and Stevens are mentioned, they are not part of the process. Zukofsky himself exhibits the tendency in the poems printed in Poetry in 1929, in the set of verses entitled "Siren and Signal." 

"North River Ferry," as I have noted, was later dissected out and presented retitled simply as "Ferry."

Gleams, a green lamp
In the fog;
Murmur, in almost
A Dialogue

Siren and signal
Siren to signal.

Parts the shore from the fog.
Rise there, tower on tower,
Signs of stray light
And of power.

Siren to signal.
Siren to signal.

Hour-gongs and green
Of the lamp.

Plash. Night. Plash. Sky.

(The only revision of the poem being the separation of the last line from the previous stanza.) Chosen from among his earliest expressions of a "combination of units" of objectified sincerity, or sincere objectification, the poem stands like a beacon of LZ' vision of new writing circa 1918-1929. Composed in free verse, with no  concessions to formal prescription, it adheres to the priority of perceived actual event, and its time and rhythmic motions are apt to the case. It is sincere, but without emotional "sophistications" typical of the contemporary poetry of the time. The verse stands as resistant to distractions which blur or mar our apprehension of actual social, economic, political and aesthetic facts. Clear-eyed seeing, for LZ, was the crucial duty of the artist, to record history as happening in memorably direct form. Concision and commitment (emotion) would follow as a direct consequence of the simplicity of the devotion to objectivity. It was an ideal suited to the moment, a thread of artistic intention that would flourish throughout the 1930's, as the Great Depression fueled unrest, and artists and writers would find themselves in commitments that acknowledged the economic and social facts of the system which had failed. 

LZ's formulation of the movement known as Objectivism occurred publicly in 1931, but for me, it really begins here, in 1929, with "Siren and Signal." It may have seemed, in a humorless cul-de-sac of time, that the call to action led down the path of conflict and rigid opposition. Looking beyond the ferry light towards the skyline of Manhattan rising "tower on tower . . . of power" the poet conjures up a splashing or spattering of light, perhaps caused by reflections in the water, not unlike the illuminated sky over a fire, or explosion, or some other cataclysmic occurrence. It's a phenomenon which seems to have no specific object, an indeterminacy--of more than the language could bear.                   


*With the closing down of the communal after the events of WWII, LZ's scope of concern contracted to the familial and intimate.