Tag Archives: fall 2008

CITIZEN OF

Christian Hawkey
Wave Books ($14)

by Samuel Amadon

Though one often reads a book of poetry in its entirety to pursue an understanding of it as a whole, in the case of Citizen Of, Christian Hawkey’s lengthy second collection, this impulse develops from a more homeopathic insistence. A series of immediate pleasures—pleasures that progress comfortably with the support of a formal approach best described as purposeful looseness—fuel this urgency. For instance, in the long poem “Glenn Gould’s Chair,” which opens “It was a miniature chair. / It was a wooden chair. / He brought it with him / everywhere,” Hawkey’s sense of the line manifests itself just enough to maintain a feeling of determined structure.

Indeed Hawkey accomplishes a great deal within the constraints of short lines and a basic diction, often introducing elements into the poem via unexpected declarative statements. Look at what occurs in these brief couplets from the first of a series of poems titled “Hour,” which detail the transformation of a lump into a mound:

a titmouse
landed & instantly

vomited on it
blowflies

swarmed in &
stuck to it

some thought it was a
hidden camera

& therefore wept
all over it.

Using heavy enjambment with short lines, Hawkey fosters not only tension but also a game of poetic carrot-and-stick in which he progresses by not completing his thought. This technique also mimics the lump’s process of accretion and demonstrates Hawkey’s ability to represent content by means of formal choices—an asset further highlighted by the fluidity with which the process of evasion is articulated in a later “Hour” poem:

The hole was not aware it was a hole
until it was uncovered. Then it became

a manhole, which I fell through,
over & over. I tried to move the hole

but there was another hole
beneath it, which I fell through,

over & over, an O. This
was my blowhole. I breathed through it.

More than anything, Hawkey sustains these 126 pages with a wit that emerges from the contemporary bog of poetic near-humor as a stranger, funnier, more aware and more able variety of humor—one interested in topics as varied as corn and anarchy, and which is able to contort political reality and abstract space with the same fluidity. The odd and evident truth of statements such as “we are happily held vertically alive” or “A bookcase, / viewed from behind, is not / the back of anyone’s brains,” is an aspect of these poems (perhaps suggested by the absent yet implied word or phrase in the book’s title) that gives value to the momentary comprehension of one significant particular, made greater for knowing it in the absence of the whole.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

WE ARE HERE

Niels Hav
translated by Patrick Friesen and P.K. Brask
BookThug ($15)

by Poul Houe

Niels Hav (b. 1949) is an award-winning Danish poet, and We Are Here is a slim, respectably translated selection of his poems into English. With the bulk of its forty-five texts culled from a 2004 collection and the rest dating back to an earlier volume of lyric poetry, it probably represents the author at his mildly quirky and wryly humorous best. The outlook is sympathetic throughout, stressing truth-saying, reality checks, and heartfelt no-nonsense goals for the laborer in Poetry’s vinyard.

Every so often Hav’s licentia poetica succumbs to a thinly veiled message delivery, with the messages approaching predictable locker-room philosophies of life. Lamentations over the noisy blabbering filling our present world in “Fools” appear next to celebrations of hope defeating “incarnations / of human evil” in “Axiom,” and titles such as “Becoming a Grownup” intimate wisdoms too conventional for any poem’s aesthetic good. “If you are certain of something / you can take for granted that you’re wrong,” according to the poem “Problems.” You don’t say! In “All Religions Are Hypotheses” we are likewise told that “what matters” is to face the music, although it may be deadening; we mustn’t answer the hopes of children with cynicism and resignation.

When, on the other hand, Hav leaves didactic and discursive objectives aside, his poetic voice makes a worthwhile sense of its own. The poet’s “November Visit” to his dying father in the hospital, and an earlier “Visit from My Father” to the lyric ego in his home, unveil a prosaic harshness and sparseness on the old man’s part that is nothing short of gripping. Two shorter poems about love of a different kind reach their climax more directly: in “A Terrible Happiness,” love becomes a catastrophic ambulance ride, and in “Double Exposure” we find the tender:

You were in my thoughts
when I lay awake
unable to sleep.

Then I fell asleep
and you were there, too.

Several poems insisting on realism avoid the pitfall of poetic correctness by incorporating an awareness of the poetic métier. In “Nonsense Detector,” dialect proves immune to “pathetic nonsense” and deception, so “it would probably be useful / to translate some new poems into dialect.” Calling a “spade a shovel” in this verbal mode would not work for long, for “most people who speak a dialect / have held one in their hands.” Still, a poem directly titled “Dialect” points to the limits of dialectic truths and cautions against the “self-delusion” of seeing “yourself as a victim.”

Even a truly realistic code can thus be overly restricted, and “to notice what’s going on, and if possible / to say things as they are” (“The Task”) may be admirable but difficult. “Unable to Come Up with an Answer” articulates the temptation to escape from facts, reality and truth; “Everything is a lie / just as in reality,” as a typical line in “Café Pushkin” reads, and so “To write is an utterly futile / activity, it’s true” (“Words on Paper”).

Writing’s ultimate challenge is a self that is a house divided (“Human Mentality”). Hence, “In Defense of Poets” we read that “Poetry is a horrible disease … a tyrant … a pest.” Even “Silence / leads us astray in a psychic labyrinth” (“Aphasia”) as it becomes the language of haughty withdrawal into solipsism (“Say Something”), celebration of “Bitterness,” or self-indulgent victimhood. In one of Hav’s better, if not bitter, ironic twists, the coda posits: “Self-praise is usually genuine” (“Lodge Brothers”).

In a few poems with allusions to Liszt and the Schumanns, Hav may be paying tribute to his pianist spouse, whereas his final two short poems wrap up deeper concerns in a self-deprecating manner. In “Heart Problems” death is the subject of tomfoolery, and “There’s no shame / in dying on the floor, / as long as it’s not / on purpose.” But the final “Epigram” reads like a regular epitaph for this writer’s Dead Poet’s Club, as his lyric subject is seen like a “wretched fish / wrapped in Hungarian newspapers. / For one thing it is dead, / for another it doesn’t understand / Hungarian.” Quite a lively image of a deadly serious undertaking and its humorous Danish undertaker.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

A HALF-RED SEA

Evie Shockley
Carolina Wren Press ($15.95)

by Nancy Kuhl

In a half-red sea, Evie Shockley’s first full-length collection of poetry, the poet presents public and private histories through a series of narratives, lyrical monologues, fantastic episodes, and imagined dialogues. These stories are enlivened and complicated by the poet’s careful attention to form and by her imaginative use of both free verse and received poetic structures. United by a voice that is both sure and supple, the poems here consider individual and collective American histories through a complex of lenses; matters of sex, race, culture, nationalism, and power are turned in the poet’s hands, revealing smooth planes and sharp edges. The result of Shockley’s attentiveness to language and to a complicated cultural and emotional record is a moving and surprising book that is “prickly with bloodless truths.”

Throughout a half-red sea, one is struck continually by Shockley’s remarkable formal flexibility; she leads readers as confidently through sonnets and other rhymed verse as through spatial forms and dynamic poetic structures of her own design. These invented forms are the most compelling, however. “A Thousand Words,” for instance, unfolds (literally as well as poetically—the poem is printed on a fold-out sheet, breaking beyond the bounds of the book) in a rush of word and sound associations and metaphor-making juxtapositions, all within a “frame” of torture (the word repeats as a literal frame): “torture flood flow leak drip drip drip Chinese water torture lose my mind’s eye visualize sexualize lights camera torture.” “A Thousand Words,” is fascinating and painful, fraught with an angry grief.

Shockley’s straightforward and confident voice facilitates her movements in and through time; the poet layers the past, or rather pasts, atop present moments and modes of expression, reminding us that thenand now are neither separate nor distinct. And Shockley populates a half-red sea with a range of real and fictional people, including many historical figures; we encounter Phillis Wheatley, the title character of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Temptations, Miles Davis, and Anita Hill, to name but a few. In lines that move with a determined grace—sometimes witty, sometimes sharp and doubled-edged, sometimes tender—the poet brings these varied characters into a lyric present tense. In “wheatley and hemmings have drinks in the hall of ancestors,” (“those two’ve been / doing drinks since mark twain / was in diapers”) Sally Hemmings speaks “as though // the living hear her.” The speaker of “the ballad of bertie county” describes her experience visiting a home where blacks were once enslaved: “how many, how many // slaved here? echoes of injuries rushing down / the spiral staircase at us, seeping from the wood / floor like sweat.” In “henry bibb considers love and livery,” the poet layers her own fractured text with lines from Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written By Himself(Shockley’s text is italicized):

determined to carry out the great idea which is so
bound       bounded        headstrong        heady
transported        exported        excess

universally and practically acknowledged among all
one good turn        practice       perfect
cosmos standing around       seeing

the civilized nations of the earth, that I would be
citizen        vessel        borne        vassal
gaea        terra story        conditional       future perfect

be free or die

The poet’s preoccupation with history and her deft experimentation with strict and loose poetic forms give the reader of a half-red sea a feeling of discovery; we are witness to the poet’s process of articulation, her unearthing of new ways to tell the conflicting truths and stories that make up her American history. Shockley is, she tells us, “trying and trying not to disregard / what we’ve inherited.” With this remarkable debut, the poet reveals America’s dark past in its complex and difficult present. “We bore our mutual loss // in anything but silence,” Shockley writes in “the ballad of bertie county;” “we swore to log this passage, to account / for this double-crossing, to etch an inerasable trace.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

Hero Epics Then and Now

by Eric Lorberer

The superhero epic may have reached its deconstructive apex with the 1986 publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s astonishing Watchmen, but its intricate latticework has strong roots in at least one group of comics from a decade earlier: the four simultaneously released titles from the early ’70s that comprise Jack Kirby’s so-called “Fourth World.” Continuing storylines are nothing new of course—the comics medium lends itself to serial narrative, and “to be continued” is a tag-line appended to many a mini-saga (thought its grandeur perhaps originated with Kirby and Stan Lee’s three-issue Galactus story from Fantastic Four in the mid-’60s)—but Kirby’s Fourth World raised the bar. One can finally appreciate just how much with the release of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus (DC Comics, $49.99 each); these collections present the original material in color (a significant element in Kirby’s comics grammar, it seems to me) and in chronological order of publication, rather than by series.

This latter decision is a substantial innovation. Kirby, who had defected to DC from Marvel Comics in order to gain greater authorial control over his creations, hadn’t conceived of writing a lengthy linear tale across his four series; at the same time, there is a massive teleology involved, and reading the titles as they appeared allows one to experience its subtle growth. All the Fourth World books involve a cosmic war among “New Gods,” but it is played out in different tempos and tones: as Walter Simonson eloquently puts it in his introduction to the second volume, “The New Gods is the story from the perspective of the great warriors themselves. . . The Forever People follows the exploits of the young, the children of the gods for whom the ‘cold game of the butcher’ is still high adventure. . . In Mister Miraclewe encounter the conscientious objector—an echo of the times. . . in Jimmy Olsen, we see the effects of the war among mortals.” Of course, the unraveling of this cosmic conflict invokes the highest comic-book stakes there are: whether good or evil will prevail, or in Kirby’s terms, Life or “Anti-Life.”

DC indeed gave Kirby free rein; he wrote, drew, and even edited all four books, a level of creative control unheard of in corporate comics of the time. With the exception of Jimmy Olsen—reportedly chosen by Kirby to integrate into his Fourth World because it was DC’s worst-selling title—all the titles represent Kirby’s unfettered originality (and even Jimmy Olsen barely resembles itself, injected with Kirby creations such as the Newsboy Legion, the DNAliens, the Project, the Hairies, and Intergang—indeed, the eponymous character seems at times like mere scaffolding, and the requisite presence of Jimmy’s “pal” Superman fares even worse; Kirby seems to have no interest in even drawing the iconic character correctly, whereas his own creations crackle with energy). And Kirby makes the most of his authorial freedom; one senses on every page how driven he is to tell this tale. As Grant Morrison, no slouch when it comes to the surreal comic book narrative, sums up in his introduction to Volume One, “Here is a post-War prophetic vision that reaches to the heights of the holy ineffable and plummets to the lowest cellars of cruelty in search of the monstrous will to power and its roots in pain and loss.”

Tellingly, the villains of the tale—Darkseid and his henchman Desaad, who hail from the horrific world of Apokolips (Kirby wasn’t one to hide his allegorical intentions: the light world is called New Genesis; Mister Miracle, an escapee from Apokolips, is named Scott Free), as well as the earthbound yet no less chilling Morgan Edge (whose Galaxy Broadcasting System has bought out the once wholesome Daily Planet; Kirby was ahead of the curve in making a corporate CEO the big bad)—are rife with complexity, as are the two main heroes, Orion (a New God with ties to both New Genesis and Apokolips) and the aforementioned Scott Free, whose identity as the super-escape artist Mister Miracle provides both sheer comic book fun and a metaphor for the will to survive. Throw in other Kirby innovations such as Mother Box, the Source, Infinity Man, the Anti-Life Equation, Boom Tubes, and more (not to mention an awkward yet truly bizarre guest-starring appearance by comedian Don Rickles), and the result is a level of creativity well worth this archival presentation.

Like a handful of other professionals in the comic industry, Kirby is regarded with awe by both readers and creators—Morrison calls him “a master magician, a Renaissance intellect, a Beat philosopher, and. . . a creative artist without peer”—and his Fourth World epic demonstrates why the hagiography is well-deserved while at the same time sketching its limits. Most notably, Kirby does not have the same gift for the nuances of speech that many other writers, including his former collaborator Stan Lee, possess; his skill lies in laying out strokes broad and loud, and in this his work bears greater similarity to Greek tragedy (indeed, the Forever People especially comprise a chorus) than to the realism comics were pursuing in the quest for respectability and relevance. Such an approach gives the Fourth World saga an anachronistic and overblown feel, which may not sit well tonally with some readers. But one sees immediately why Kirby’s pages are so revered: an amazing amount of things happen in a Kirby comic, and those happenings are related with a fluid grace that often borders on the sublime. Even individual panels are packed with emotion, information, and astute artistic choices; whether presenting a cosmic battle or a person crossing the street, Kirby draws each with the same level of intensity, using off-kilter angles and an expressionistic color palette to keep the reader on edge. This constitutes great storytelling, and it should be praised, even if the praise occasionally becomes as melodramatic as, say, an epic superhero comic.

Kirby’s multi-series saga may have influenced the ambition of Watchmen and other epic tales, but it was also a precursor to the current penchant for the constant crossovers and dense sagas that comics publishers now regularly foist on their readerships, intentionally conflated and confusing storylines that sell big events in a given superhero “world” as essential to the understanding of that world. As Douglas Wolk puts it in his superb critical work Reading Comics, “picking up a superhero comic right now, if you’re not already immersed in that world, is likely to make you feel simultaneously talked down to and baffled by the endless references to stuff you’re already supposed to know.” It’s a problem in which the aesthetic and branding concerns of superhero comics often clash, and it results in most current epics being unreadable reams of forgettable nonsense. One recent epic that escapes this pitfall as deftly as Mister Miracle avoids Doctor Vundabar’s Murder Machine is 52 (DC Comics, $19.99 each), a story that appeared in weekly installments over the course of a year (hence the title) and is now being collected in graphic novels; as of this writing the first two volumes (of four) have been released.

On the surface, 52 seems like it would be a train wreck. A weekly publication schedule is a punishing commitment for all involved (most comics are published monthly, and many of those reflect haste and carelessness); likewise, having multiple creators, no matter how talented, collaborate and turn out an artistically unified project is iffy, and the concept—to relate a year in which the iconic heroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have gone missing and a horde of lesser-known characters have to step up to the plate—seems like exactly the kind of insider pool Wolk describes as problematic. Yet somehow the work not only coheres but is narratively quite gripping. On the visual side this is largely due to having a single artist, in this case the highly capable Kieth Giffen, do all the breakdowns for various pencillers and inkers to follow; thus, despite the many hands involved, there is a consistent texture to the art, a consistent flow to the storytelling structure. This wouldn’t have saved the book if it weren’t well-written, but it smartly nips a potential problem in the bud.

As for those well-written words, DC chose wisely: the four writers involved (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid) not only all have pedigrees in epic storytelling, but they have different strengths as writers. Rucka, for example, has written prose thrillers as well as comics, and detective comics as well as superhero comics; these hallmarks can be found in the hard-boiled cop story that roots 52 in the “real” world of character and intrigue. Waid and Johns have distinguished themselves as deft and often comedic writers of superhero comics, able to keep one eye on manipulating plot and the other on character development. A third eye might be employed by Morrison, the resident surrealist of the bunch, whose quirky yet seamlessly integrated storytelling devices allow the inherent ridiculousness of the fable to make a kind of postmodern sense. All four writers seem to be performing at their best, perhaps driven by the need not to be outshined by the others; at any rate, the result is an actual story with layers rather than a pastiche of corporate properties.

Adding to the pleasures of the 52 collections are the notes that follow each weekly chapter, in which different creators reminisce about the challenges and ideas that arose while the book was being composed, and which occasionally include script excerpts or original artwork (useful for comparison to finished pages). Similar to the commentary on a DVD, these behind-the-scenes insights will thrill fans, but offer all readers an opportunity to learn how such a mammoth collaboration was pulled off, to ponder the text from the creators’ angle, and to listen in as they work out problems and achieve goals—which in this case means acknowledging each other’s solutions as well as their own. (Morrison, especially, is often singled out for the kind of hagiographic praise reserved for the true geniuses of the medium, as when Waid comments that “Grantiac… generates more new ideas in the time it takes to sneeze than most of us will have in a year.”)

52, in short, may partake of the current drive for big events in comics, but it’s as intricate, fun, and even occasionally as personal as Kirby’s Fourth World saga—which is saying a lot. Certain paradigms may have shifted in comics culture, but what hasn’t changed between then and now is the desire to tell a story that, though fabulist in nature, remains rooted in the most basic of human needs, and to make it great. In both recovered texts and those from the present day, it’s a pleasure to see that standard met.

Click here to purchase Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, Vol. 2  at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

ZHANG HUAN: ALTERED STATES

edited by Melissa Chiu
Charta / Asia Society ($70)

by Carmen Tomfohrde

Zhang Huan's performances and sculptures are not easily forgotten. Raw meat, blood, flies, nudity, animal hides, and ashes have made appearances in his brutally confrontational and cathartic presentations. His vengeance is potent, however; never underestimate the power of humiliation.

An example of Zhang’s vengeance is manifest in one of his earliest works. The artist slathered his naked body in a foul-smelling mixture of fish oil and honey and sat motionless for one hour inside a rancid public toilet in Beijing. Holding his face in a resilient, expressionless mask, he silently subjected himself to the sweltering heat and asphyxiating ammonia fumes while flies swarmed and coated him. Finally, he rose, proceeded to a nearby fish pond (a garbage dumping site), and waded in until water covered his head and the few remaining flies straggled drowning at the surface. In this performance, he endured a masochistic amplification of an existing corporeal discomfort to exorcise a shared cultural pain.

Poverty and death surrounded Zhang in his early years. His grandmother and other relatives raised him in Henan Province, China, shortly after the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s current situation could not be more different. His career has now exploded, and his exhibition history includes numerous shows worldwide. Zhang moved to New York City after his 1998 inclusion in a show at the Asia Society and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. In 2005 he returned to China, where he now employs more than 100 workers at his massive studio in Shanghai. The book Zhang Huan: Altered States honors his 2007 solo exhibition at the Asia Society.

His transition from poverty to art star was not easy. Pilgrimage—Wind and Water in New York (1998) addressed the artist’s difficulty integrating into the United States. For ten minutes, the naked artist lay face down on blocks of ice inset into a traditional Chinese wooden sofa, to which several domestic dogs were ominously leashed. The law of the conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, but can be converted from one form to another. Zhang hoped that his exertion of energy could melt the ice (metaphorically, his pain of separation) and bring him closer to his ideal China, symbolized by the wooden bench. Instead, the ice won, dangerously lowering his body temperature.

In My America (Hard to Acclimatize) (1999) at the Seattle Art Museum, three tiers of naked performers surrounded the artist, imitating the structural format of a 12th-century Jain relief sculpture at the same museum. Zhang instructed the actors to perform twelve ritual and devotional gestures, including practicing tai chi, sitting in a lotus position and praying, imitating animals, and finally, pelting the seated artist with torn loaves of bread. The performers then descended from the structure to mingle and charitably exchange pieces of bread. In Altered States, Zhang described the experience that triggered this artwork: he was hungry in Madison Square Garden, New York City, and looking for food for his pregnant wife when a stranger offered him bread. "My feeling was complex," Zhang explained. "I could not speak. I felt emotional and wanted to cry. I accepted the bread and walked away. It made me think of my life in China. In China no matter how hungry I was, I was an artist. Nobody would think of me as a beggar. . . because of difficulties in culture and language, I could not adapt to life in America. I was like an idiot. This is my America."

Unlike the philanthropy Zhang received from an American stranger, in China, personal needs and favors are commonly solved through “guanxi,” the loyalty of support in business and social relations. In My America, Zhang pairs the humiliation and insult of his experience of American generosity with a hodgepodge of spiritual gestures that seem primitive and ridiculous in their random combination. Zhang exposes the frailties of ideologies, cultures, worldviews, and religions, but at the same time he accepts their “bread”; he calls for a revitalization of hope and allegiance, asking witnesses to connect again to the heroic and spiritual in art and life no matter how fragile the shards that remain.

Zhang recently began sculpting enormous reliquaries that oscillate between hope and despair, battling the spiritual betrayal and emotional scar tissue inflicted by the Cultural Revolution. Zhang visited Tibet in 2005 and collected fragments of Buddha sculptures that were smashed apart during the Cultural Revolution, then fabricated the dismembered fingers and legs on a monolithic scale and used the resulting hollow forms as receptacles for animal cages and scrolls. "By making them larger,” Zhang says in this catalog, “it somehow takes away the pain."

A thread of spiritual transcendence and an essential fiber of shared cultural relevance redeem Zhang’s masochism, but his obsessions with pain can be disturbing, and his conceptual aims may not be apparent at first encounter. The format of a book palliates the intense physicality of his provocative spectacles by enabling viewers to slow down and comprehend his rancor and vehemence more gently, mediated by the intimacy of print and writing. To that end, the book is effective, but Zhang’s urgency and potency fade in descriptions of some later works, which are less cathartic and more allegorical and cross-cultural, though still harrowing in their cruel theatricality. The written content of the catalog crescendos in the last and longest essay: Zhang Huan’s own plainspoken, straightforward, and honest explanations that link his works to his plaintive needs for creating them.

Some troubling works are not included. For example, his Giant 1 and Giant 2, intended for the Shanghai Art Museum, were censored by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau and ended up in the collection of French businessman François Pinault, while Giant 3 was recently shown at Pace Wildenstein, a very prominent and influential New York gallery that invited Zhang to its lineup in 2007. These artworks are imposing figurative sculptures constructed of hundreds of animal hides stapled together, hooves and hair included. One giant is pregnant, and a smaller figure (perhaps representing the artist) climbs another giant, desperately seeking love and asylum from a rotting and horrendous environment. Zhang is no stranger to censorship: in 1993, the Beijing-based Central Academy of Fine Arts in China did not appreciate Angel, his performance about abortion and China’s one-child policy, which involved fake blood and dismembered dolls. The celebratory disposition of a coffee table book fails to engage the non-celebratory ramifications of his work in China and the effects it may have outside the circle of his supporters.

Sometimes shock is needed to break society’s complacency. Zhang’s extreme physical risks reward the challenge of unraveling their contextual importance, and this book adds pathos and human interest to that shock while conceptually substantiating Zhang’s displays. By persuading viewers to slow down and muster the courage required to understand his motivations, the book has the potential to expand that circle of supporters by revealing the poetry, conceptual depth, and moral and ethical challenges that mobilize his intrepid cultural aims.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

MATTHEW BARNEY

Brandon Stosuy, Domenika Szope, Stephan Urbaschek, Matthew Barney
Sammlung Goetz ($50)

by Sean Smuda

The primacy of the body as object—its fluctuations, trainability, aberrations, procreation, and death—is in a nutshell the Matthew Barney glass bead game. Self described as a sculptor, his five-filmCremaster Cycle (with its attendant sculptures, photographs, and drawings) casts him as many characters: killer Gary Gilmore, Houdini, Masonic apprentice, and goat-man. Their purposes and actions are in large part informed by the cremaster muscle, which, responding to outside stimuli, causes the descent or ascent of the testes, potentially determining gender. Barney’s cool semi-autobiographical exposition of the body’s extremes, potentials, and ultimate transformation through symbolic, wordless narratives is process as metaphor. Its revelation of his and our own cyclical natures is a radical rite of passage into an understanding of culture as biology and visa versa.

Located outside of Munich, the Goetz Collection is an internationally renowned private art museum designed by architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, open by appointment only. The Collection has given Barney full reign in designing both his solo show there and its catalog, which is itself an organic objet d’art: covered in cocoon-like fabric, it perhaps alludes to Cremaster 3’s Masonic apprentice’s apron, placing the reader at the start of a journey to match Barney’s own transformations. Beyond the layout of images, the book is a field guide to his work, with synopses, incisive essays, interviews, and glossary.

In the introduction, German collector Ingvild Goetz writes that “Barney is a man of many contradictory qualities. . . us(ing) material nobody has used in an art context before.” Contradictions and conflict rendered as meta-narratives of the cremaster muscle are the central process and metaphor employed by Barney in his facture. Cremaster 1 is a Busby Berkeley-style dance number about the pure potentiality and quizzical imbalances in determining gender. Its related, hardened-Vaseline sculpture is a high-heeled shoe. And in Cremaster 3 the embracing and then killing, in self–defense, of his female nature tragically finishes its installment. However, as critic Stephan Urbaschek writes in the first essay, “it is not the conclusion of this. . . that is of foremost interest to the artist. . . Rather, it is the path travelled between. . . and all the possible detours that can occur along the way.”

No floor map is included, but careful descriptions and full-page spreads take us from the third story to the basement in a chronological descent through the work. From the OTTOshaft1 videos on top, to theCremaster Cycle, to Drawing Restraint 9, there are many detours. Urbashek states that Barney “has personally developed the exhibition concept. . . to liberate the individual as the sole bearer of emotions and to extend this function to architecture as well.” What emotions might these be that are best born by oneself other than those of perverse dreams, gender musings, and love? Perhaps, as he quotes critic Nancy Spector, those associated with “competition, exhibitionism and idolization. . . masculine identity.” Indeed, unifying our masculine descent through the museum and book are the photographs of the wrestling Drawing Restraint 7 satyrs.

In their homoerotic match, the satyrs ironically look like an individual doubled, then post-coitally freed from himself. In an interview with Barney, Brandon Stosuy remarks on his “interest in eroding the difference between individuals, and how that relates to a team,” to which Barney replies “I want them to be compelled. . . in an ambivalent way. . . where one character become(s) an aspect of another. . . that the environment can become the central, emotional character.”

This brings us to the core of the exhibition and the book, where all five Cremaster films play simultaneously. On high, angled flat screens that jut from a central pole in pentagram formation, the feature-length films play in a kind of punishment for the spectator with no seat in sight. In a sense they represent a perverse sports bar in Barney’s Olympus; the non-player’s hubris must here atone for glimpsing Barney’s locomotions of ambiguities and transgressions, and without beer!

This environment of drones, rhythms, and its unviewable totality of imagery is set to break down the individual’s resistance. Here, as in the films, Barney’s incorporation of entropy and failure is practical, seductive, and even endearing. In the sense that any artist trains his audience to perceive like himself, one emerges from this undifferentiated playing field with new abilities to perceive and recombine the core motif of Barney’s work: muscle response causing gender attitude. The juxtapositions and overlaps here may lead to exhaustion, but also to new insights. This is partially described as “Find the first sound and the last and notice how they engulf one another.”

The final room of the exhibition, BASE 103, showcases the end of our “male trajectory” and the blossoming of its cold hard love. Drawing Restraint 9 was made after the Cremaster Cycle and is the semi-autobiographical story of Barney and experimental pop singer Björk falling in love during a Japanese Tea Ceremony on a whaling ship. In this final act of contradictions and conflict, the primacy of the body is stripped away into a metaphor of pure being. Barney and Björk sculpt one another into whales with bloody flensing knives, all the better to experience the eternal fluctuations between the genders! As they swim off, I can’t help but think of a Deleuzian Ahab mating with Moby, becoming imperceptible and differentiating and intuiting Nature, both inner and outer.

 

1OTTOshaft is a pre-Cremaster video series based on legendary Oakland Raider’s quarterback Jim Otto, who trained and played so hard that his knees were replaced with Teflon. In the video, two satyrs wrestle: one is Otto, the other Houdini. They represent the inward and outward conditioning and intent of the mind, spirit, and body. At the end of their contest they flay one another in an act of hubris.
2Becoming Imperceptible is the challenge of no longer acting as a separate and selecting point within the world, but of becoming different with, and through what is perceived. One way to think becoming—other than the perceived image of ‘man’ is through becoming-animal.” from Gilles Deleuzeby Claire Colebrook (Routledge, 2001).

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

DRIFTLESS: Photographs from Iowa

Danny Wilcox Frazier
Duke University Press ($39.95)

by Callie Clark-Wiren

Danny Wilcox Frazier’s Driftless: Photographs from Iowa is the 2006 winner of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Photography/Honickman First Book Prize. Frazier’s images endeavor to shed light on the people and places that mainstream media neglects to illustrate. As rural economies fail, people and resources are migrating to the coasts and cities, altering rural America. Taken by an insider who has lived in Iowa his entire life, Frazier’s photographs show us these abandoned places and describe the lives of those people who stay behind. His approach is completely different than this spring’s news stories about Iowa’ spring flooding, which presumed that the impacts, although awful, were limited to the present; nowhere on national media were reports of the long lasting effects of the flooding on Iowa’s already unstable rural economy.

The instability of Iowa’s economy was the primary focus of Frazier’s Artist’s Talk at Duke University on 8 November 2007, but he also pondered whether or not Iowa’s rural lifestyle will ever be viable again. At the end of the talk Frazier stated, ”The reality is that farm work is so mechanized now that maybe we just don’t need that many people living in rural areas, and maybe it’s just a pipe dream I need to give up on.”

Frazier has statistics to back his ruminations. According to POYi.org more than 60% of college-educated Iowan’s leave their rural communities. Frazier has explained in various interviews that they are seeking intellectual careers in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, even as far as New York, leaving half of Iowa’s counties with a decreasing, less educated population: 79% of the population in Iowa has a high school diploma or less (quickfacts.census.gov). Meanwhile, other government census statistics list the (legal) Latino immigrant population as having increased 153% between the last two censuses.

Frazier, a photojournalist by trade, states in his Artist’s Talk that his work is not partisan, but his words are clearly left-leaning, as when he cites facts of immigration’s effect upon Iowa rural economics, or includes captions in his book such as “Migrant workers enduring long hours bent over while harvesting watermelon, Conesville, 2003,” to illustrate their roles in the economy. Another photograph, “Bull rider and farmhand Rusty Caudle, North Liberty, 2003,” shows Rusty’s sinewy body exhibiting the extreme physical labor required to maintain a farm, as if making the point that these immigrants are accepting bone-breaking work that few others want to take; yet for those Iowans who remain, it is difficult to survive when immigrants accept work at lower rates. Often enough when workers attempt to organize, employers play on fears of Federal officers swarming in to keep unions out. This is only a small piece of the vicious economic cycle that endangers rural culture in Iowa.

It was a discussion on All Things Considered that inspired Frazier to photograph evidence of another social issue, manifested by the Stutzman family—an Amish family with several children who work up to 14-hour days during harvest. The radio story covered a debate over international child labor laws that would make it illegal for children under the age of eighteen to operate heavy machinery. In numerous interviews, Frazier related his going to the farm and finding a six-year-old who had already been driving a skid-loader for a year. Many rural families rely upon their numerous children in order to provide the labor to survive, yet outsiders may wonder if a child operating such equipment is the equivalent of child-endangerment.

Frazier produced this book’s body of work over a period of four years with a single Leica camera, one lens, and a bag of TriX film, resulting in a few thousand photos, yet he selected only eighty images for the final publication. As loaded as the images are with the political debates of the contemporary rural community, only about 80% of them relate to these debates. The images are high-contrast black-and-white gritty scenes that recall the feel of Sin City (Frazier stated in his Artist Talk that “the color images didn’t have the color of life”), but with a subtle influence from the works of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Frazier has repeatedly disclosed the influence of Frank’s work on his own, making it possibly problematic that Frank was the judge of the Honickman Prize given to Frasier.

That question aside, Frank is considered the pioneer of the snapshot effect, and Frazier’s work is very from-the-hip, as some images are completely out of focus. This distorting effect works for images such as “Harry and Helen Phelps, Sutliff, 2005,” which conveys the disorientation of Helen’s advanced Alzheimer’s, and “Plastic farm scene, Fort dodge, 2003,” which possesses an ethereal fairy-tale feeling, while images like “Cowboy playing pool at a bar, Ottumwa, 2004” and “Outside the farmhouse, Johnson County, 2006” reveal nothing in their blurriness. While Walker Evans’ Farm Security Administration works are clearly reverberated in images such as “Sale Barn Café, Kalona, 2005” and “Harvest on the Miller family farm, Kalona, 2005,” with their depictions of hard working Americans trying to scratch out a living and a life amidst the difficulties of agriculture, Frazier’s photographs are less hopeful for the future when the cynicism of the dehumanizing of farming begins to enter them.

A confluence of these inspirations with the luck of correct focus occurs in the image “Patriotism, Des Moines, 2006,” where, while driving, Frazier’s chance sighting of a veteran with a full-size American flag attached to his wheel chair is caught with a near-lying camera without his even looking through the viewfinder. The image captures the Iowan tradition of military service even in today’s war, yet the darkness of the image and near-scowls on all but one face give a negative tone to that patriotism.

As much as Frazier declares his work to be giving a voice to the rural communities he lives among, he can still be seen as the Iowan who left for the big city. He too left the family trade for an intellectual career, even if still residing in Iowa City. At his Artist’s Talk, he declared, “I just for whatever reason did not feel comfortable in my own skin or the place I was from. I, no different from those who have fled the rural areas in the Midwest, had a feeling of wanting to escape… It’s still wanderlust just to get out and travel.” Frazier’s journalistic work has sent him all over the world, leaving his family in Iowa as he travels.

When comparing his roots to his place in Iowan society today, one cannot help but question if, by only showing the harsh realities, Frazier is exorcising the realities that made him uncomfortable, in that way allowing him to remain. “Plastic farm scene, Fort Dodge, 2003” is the idealized stereotype of Iowa that Frazier is correct in showing to be false. In its place, however, rather than showing positive images of hardworking people, he paints an image of uneducated, aimless youth that have remained, a dying generation before them, and an overworked minority population growing to support them all.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

HOW TO SEE A WORK OF ART IN TOTAL DARKNESS

Darby English
The MIT Press ($30)

by Christina Schmid

Free to be you and free to be me—whether you look at children’s books or listen to presidential proclamations of the United States’ national values, American mythology teems with the idea of freedom; on an individual level, that includes the freedom to be who we are and, more importantly, what we want to be. Yet does this seductive myth of freely invented identities withstand closer scrutiny?

In How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago, investigates the limits of this almost proverbial freedom in the work of five African American artists at the turn of the 21st-century: each of these artists—Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien, and William Pope.L—must answer to what English calls “black representational space.” As members of a group perceived to be different from the norm, these artists are called upon to represent their group, as if it were some sort of homogenous monolith, whether they want to or not. But what exactly happens when the group on whose behalf you are expected to speak disagrees with what you have to say?

That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma faced by these artists, whose representations of African Americans have not always been respected by African American communities. Each artist grapples with the demands of black representational space and its unwritten set of responsibilities and obligations differently, but what they share is the desire to disorient and intervene in the putative stability, knowability, and coherence of this representational space in which they, as African American subjects who make art, inevitably find themselves.

English probes the political, historical, and cultural conditions that have given rise to black representational space; invoking Fanon, Du Bois, Locke, and Booker T. Washington, he takes great pains to situate the genesis of black art in “the shadow of Jim Crow,” in early 20th-century narratives of racial uplift, and in explicit calls for black art and propaganda to function as one. “Black art,” writes English, “is never the obvious or inevitable result of a black artist’s creative labor. It is rather a regime whose sharp redress is sometimes required for meaningful aesthetic and intellectual advancement.”. Black art, then, does not simply result from the creative efforts of someone who happens to be African American; it is a regime of representation, closely related to demands to “act black” or questions of whether someone is indeed ”black enough” that enter into the artistic realm here. (One can draw timely comparisons to the discussion the current Democratic presidential nominee has inspired among African Americans of different generations.)

The politics of negotiating this representational regime become most urgent in two instances of English’s study: first, there is Betye Saar’s 1994 letter campaign against Kara Walker’s “negative images” of African Americans. Saar, whose work unequivocally conforms to the demands of black art, presented Walker’s imagery as a threat to the coherence and dignity of black representational space: in Saar’s opinion, Walker’s sexual, scatological, and frequently violent portrayals of African Americans do not abide by the narrative of racial uplift and the duties of representativeness. English refutes Saar’s claims by situating Walker’s work in the genre of landscape painting and interprets the new kinds of imaginative spaces her tableaux create.

The second controversy English analyzes in detail happened in a much less organized and more insular way: during William Pope.L’s Tompkins Square Crawl in 1991, the artist, in a suit and videotaped by a white man, crawled along the street holding a flower pot with a marigold, when an unnamed resident of the then-troubled neighborhood approached him to express his concern. This initial reaction quickly changed to anger and contempt, though, and the resident demanded to know, “what are you doing showing black people like this?” His outrage lies at the heart of what English terms black art’s regime of representation.

English portrays the nameless resident as someone caught up in the very categories and narratives of upward social mobility and black middle-class unity that Pope.L’s performance seeks to question. In English’s analysis, the resident, who “gropes ever more intently after forms of knowledge that will hold—of race, class allegiance, legitimate art, and the law,” comes to stand in for all those unilluminated, ordinary people who do not understand and are too impatient to wait to be told the meaning of Pope.L’s symbolic acts. The artist tries to defer the resident’s attention—“I’ll explain it to you later” and “when I get finished"—but the resident insists on an explanation right then. The account resonates with a discomfiting edge of condescension toward the resident’s values as a presumably middle-class individual, and one cannot help but wonder if a different portrayal of the stakes involved for each of the participants might have been possible.

The very language in which English presents his observations seems exclusionary: How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness is not conducive—or intended—for casual reading. The book resulted from a doctoral dissertation and dutifully performs in the argot of academia, with its own narrative of uplift and professional advancement. While English points out that even Pope.L’s critique of the categories of difference we so habitually rely on to make meaning remains complicitly caught up in them—to decenter “does not mean giving up,” English observes—his own participation in yet another version of the narrative of uplift goes unexamined and unmentioned. Perhaps a former dissertation is no place to look for such reflexive self-referentiality, but the centrality of the narrative of uplift to English’s argument suggests otherwise.

How to See a Work in Total Darkness treads cautiously into the minefield of cultural difference and the politics of representation. The artists push the conceptual constraints of black representational space—but ultimately, they expand rather than abandon that space. According to English, they perform careful balancing acts: on the one hand, they resist the representativeness imposed on them and insist on pursuing creative expression and artistic liberty wherever it may take them, from Walker’s Southern Gothic tableaux to Ligon’s paintings of Richard Pryor’s crude jokes to Julien’s exoneration, of sorts, of blaxploitation movies. On the other hand, though, they still permit the “simultaneously obdurate and intimate character of the constraints against which they work.” English investigates these constraints on what is permissible, representable, and even thinkable. But if these artists indeed rebel against the dictate to produce black art, their resistance, in the final analysis, is less an explosion of the space they are caught in than a stretching, broadening, and twisting its boundaries.

Their work, then, functions as the necessary means of redress for the sake of advancement—but whose advancement are we talking about? It seems as if, despite their complex negotiations with the politics of difference, including active resistance and disobedience to the demands placed upon them, in the end English returns their work to the narrative of racial uplift, in the guise of intellectual and aesthetic advancement.

What happens to the ur-American idea (and ideal) of freedom here? Who is indeed and without reservations free to be you and me? English points out that we, whether as viewers of art or participants in the social realm, are accomplices in maintaining the meanings—and constraints—of difference. The policing of the boundaries of difference—English refers to the “boundedness” of race—is by no means limited to an anonymous, desperately invisible source of power, but, as English shows, resides within the contradictory constraints of black representational space itself.

English’s five artists all open up “the multiple meanings of blackness and the plurality of ways of living under the black sign” through their disorienting interventions. As African American artists, these five may have to struggle to shed the racial responsibilities placed upon them. They may not be free to be whoever and whatever they want to be—but they are expanding the possibilities of being and living under the black sign.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

METRONOME

Veronique Tanaka
NBM/ComicsLit ($13.95)

by Ken Chen

Now, that surprising epoch, is an exciting time for the comics medium—but not for the reasons you think. While superhero movies sulk their way through multiplexes, many of today’s most thrilling comics are made by young artists who believe comics aren’t necessarily about respectable storytelling, but can present visual fooling around in the most preposterous, goofball tradition. This approach towards comics relies less on autobiography (like the straightforward narratives of, say, Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis) and more on art school spectacle, pop cultural noodling, and, for some, an earnest attempt to recover the technical resources that comic strips possessed before the rise of superhero comics. More influenced by Gary Panter than Dan Clowes, comic books artists who work in this vein—such as Lauren “Goddess of War” Weinstein, Brian “Ninja” Chippendale, and Paperrad—are not really “graphic novelists”; there isn’t really enough of a story for it to be a novel.

It’s in this context that Veronique Tanaka’s Metronome reads most curiously: while unlike anything else done in comics, Metronome is the opposite of the innovative, art-oriented comics I just mentioned. Those art comics imagine the page as a flat, decorative field or an illustrated poster, and are hairy with the artist’s human style, but Metronome consists of mechanical, black-and-white, computer-generated grids that are four columns down and four across.

Tanaka isn’t interested in drawing as expression, but as an abstract visual music. Her work reads like an ’80s Hypercard stack or the choppy clatter of a kinetoscope, with characters often cut-and-pasted from one panel to the next. This is an unusual, avant-garde conception of the panel, whose narratological usefulness has forced comics into being a subtle medium: a page by, say, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, for example, isn’t a static spectacle possessing a clear focal point (like the typical Western canonical painting); it’s a claustrophobic mosaic of boxes that may be individually dull yet cobble together into a more fecund narrative life. Rather than forsake panels entirely in favor of a visual free-for-all, like many American alternative artists under forty, Tanaka wants the panel to dehumanize the page even further.

Take two scenes in Metronome that may be roughly summarized as “Man plays piano while smoking cigarette” and “Man proposes to woman who throws ring at his face.” It’s easy to imagine a less diremptive artist plotting this as one panel and three, respectively, but Tanaka dices the action into twelve and forty panels—she isn’t a storyteller, but a surgeon of time. You can almost hear the pages click as you read them, an artificial four-four trot that isn’t really linked to any internal motion of the story.

So, while this graphic novel ostensibly tells a generic love story about a Japanese couple who slowly break up (with some intriguingly objectified sex along the way), this is not a psychological comic; Metronome is more interested in the world as a collection of objects. The comic begins with a slow pan across the couple’s apartment, in which Tanaka restricts most of the action: the first ten pages have no people, only close-ups of the couple’s accoutrements, such as a watch and a metronome (the opening images, used to set the beat), a piano, a lava lamp, and a tribal mask. These objects never acquire a connotative life. Rather, the characters themselves reduce to icons, as you might expect from a conceptual artist less influenced by comic books than by Robbe-Grillet. There is no individuality to Tanaka’s drawings. If her intention was to create comics without aura, she succeeds masterfully.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: Apocalypse Suite

Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá
Dark Horse Books ($17.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

Every story must deal with the problem of how to keep the reader moving forward. In prose, where the line of letters leads off one page and onto the next, it’s relatively easy. But in media that marry words with pictures, there’s an additional challenge, since the reading eye might lose its way in the images. It’s not enough to put something intriguing in the last panel of every second page; a good comic needs to balance the novelty and interest delivered on each visual spread with the expectation of something at least as novel and interesting on the next—not to mention the challenge of bringing the reader back for another issue in a month’s time or another graphic novel in a year’s.

Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite begins with a full-page illustration of a wrestling match between a human and a giant space-squid, setting both the time and the tone of the story, and it barely pauses for breath after that. In its essentials, the narrative resembles any of a number of superhero team books: it follows a group of child superheroes, formed into a team by a wise yet mysterious benefactor, that reforms after years apart, upon the benefactor’s death. But this bare-bones synopsis captures nothing of what makes The Umbrella Academy so dazzling: writer Way has used the somewhat familiar setup as the scaffolding upon which to hang a tale that revels in its own complexity.

Way—better known to many as the lyricist and frontman of the rock band My Chemical Romance—is an admirer of Grant Morrison, the famed writer behind the pop-surrealism of the 1980’s revival of DC’sDoom Patrol, and there’s a certain Morrison-esque density of cool ideas in Apocalypse Suite. Morrison, who writes the introduction for this collection, says it reads “like the work of a veteran master of the form.” Way’s imaginings, although punctuated with darker moments, don’t have underpinnings quite as dark as those that brood beneath some of Morrison’s work. When more serious moments do emerge, particularly late in the volume, they serve as momentary pauses that counterpoint the exuberance of the rest of the comic.

The artwork, by the Brazilian Gabriel Bá (who also illustrated the first storyline of the equally over-the-top comic Casanova) is a terrific match for Way’s writing. Clearly, if you’re publishing a comic that includes a major character whose human head is perched atop a gorilla’s body, a woman who’s part dressmaker’s dummy and part see-through-anatomical model, and a robot/zombie version of tower architect Gustave Eiffel, and you haven’t lined up Gabriel Bá to do the art, something is very wrong. This is not just because of Bá’s ability to render the unusual—which is considerable—but equally due to how he can make every panel, even those concerned with more ordinary characters and occurrences, just as striking.

And, of course, when faced with scenes where the dialogue consists of, for instance, a child hero saying, “It’s a good thing these old levitator belts were lying around,” and his simian associate answering, “Yes, because there’s nothing conspicuous about a ten-year-old boy flying around with his monkey,” Bá does not disappoint. Indeed, with all their levitating chimps, homicidal violinists, and undead French architects, The Umbrella Academy manages to deliver the surreal and the just plain odd with energy, wit, and style. Luckily, Way and Bá have a second story-arc about to get underway that promises more of the same.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008