A Few of Jeffrey’s Favorite Things

“Mike Kelley: Artist and Friend,” 2011. Collection of the Hammer Museum, courtesy of Jeffrey Vallance and Tanya Bonakdar.

Jeffrey Vallance holds a unique position in the LA art world. A contemporary of Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Jim Shaw, et al, his work has had a comparable impact locally and internationally, while not transitioning to the industrial fabrication mode demanded by the global fiscal laundromat subdivision AKA The Art World. Part of the reason is that he’s actually from LA—the Valley, specifically—which somehow means you can’t actually represent LA to the rest of TAW.

Mostly though, it’s because Vallance responded to his initial burst of fame by embarking on an extended peripatetic global R&D expedition that had nothing to do with Kunsthallen, art fairs, or high-end public art commissions, but rather Kings of Tonga, Presidents of Iceland, and Las Vegas vanity museums. He never so much fell off The Art World’s radar as evaded capture like some international man of mystery.

Yet another factor is that Vallance writes about his own projects better than any hack critic could, with a deadpan humor and open-mindedness completely analogous to his idiosyncratic semiotic investigations. In 1995, in conjunction with a survey show at SMMOA, Art Issues Press published The World of Jeffrey Vallance: Collected Writings 1978–1994—encompassing the Tonga and Iceland adventures, as well as his first forays into paranormal reportage and, of course, the last (and subsequent) rites of Blinky the Friendly Hen—the Ralph’s fryer whose pet cemetery funeral service landed Vallance on Letterman and MTV.

Jeffrey Vallance, The Clowns of Turin: Found on the Holy Shroud, 1996. Collage, pencil and marker on paper, 22 x 29 ¾ in. Collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA.

Long overdue, A Voyage to Extremes: Selected Spiritual Writings collects close to 700 pages of Vallance’s musings and reports from the intervening decades. That may sound daunting, but this ain’t War & Peace—nor Being and Nothingness neither. Not that it isn’t narratively compelling or philosophically deep—but it’s funny.

And entertaining in many other ways—strangely informative like the best internet curations, or like your weird uncle who gave you Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned and a sealed vinyl copy of Spiro T. Agnew Speaks Out for your 12th Kwanzaa. A hundred little stories forming a cubist mosaic of a singular artist’s singular journey.

Art historically, the ginormous yellow tome is a gold mine, providing off-the-cuff anecdotal accounts of Vallance’s legendary curatorial interventions in various offbeat thematic museums in Vegas, while elsewhere detailing extensive cross-cultural
research into the religious, anthropological and philosophical significance of clowns…

Continue reading at Artillery Mag’s website…


Coming Ravelled: The Crochet Coral Reef as Outsider Art

This is a modified version of the essay written for the catalog for the Wert Und Wandel Der Korallen exhibit that filled the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden earlier this year. The catalog has been published in English as Christine and Margaret Wertheim: Value and Transformation of Corals and is available from DAP and at sophisticated booksellers everywhere. Get it if you want to know THE TRUTH ABOUT WORMS!

Australian twins Margaret and Christine Wertheim founded  the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles in 2003 “to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes through innovative programming that includes exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and participatory, community based projects.”

In their dedicated exhibition space (destroyed by fire in 2013) as well as in collaboration with institutions ranging from LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the IFF has presented such remarkable bodies of visual/conceptual work as the “outsider physics” of James Carter, the Logic Alphabet of Dr. Shea Zellweger and original artifacts from Friedrich Froebel’s revolutionary pedagogical experiment known as Kindergarten.

CW: Froebel; Zellweger; Carter

But by far their most successful and widely-seen project has been the Crochet Coral Reef, a constantly evolving collaborative sculptural installation inspired by the fiber craft medium’s capacity to represent hyperbolic mathematical forms, the need to increase public awareness of global warming in general and its effect on the Great Barrier Reef in particular, and the desire to create a collaborative artwork that embraces participants from the widest possible demographic. 

Utilizing commercial and hand-spun yarns, VHS tape and military-grade electroluminescent wire, oceanic flotsam and domestic jetsam, the Wertheims and a core group of collaborators have assembled an ever-growing phantasmagorical display that has appeared in over 30 exhibitions around the world (including the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute and the 2019 Venice Biennale), almost always with a locally generated “Satellite Reef” — a form of creative social engagement that has to date incorporated over 20,000 artistic collaborators from all walks of life.

To consider the Crochet Coral Reef as a work of Outsider Art, we have to untangle the complex relationship between the history of erasure of “women’s work” from the (art) historical record, the discovery and promotion of the art of various excluded populations huddled under the “Outsider” tent, and the sometimes incompatible strategies employed to attempt to rectify these occlusions.

CW: Detzel; Godie; Aloïse; Gill

In spite of the fact that Outsider Art and Feminist Art both began to gain popular and historical traction during the same period – the early 1970s – the breakdown of noteworthy Outsider artists along gender lines has mysteriously mirrored that of the conventional art world. Although there are notable exceptions – visionary English spiritualist Madge Gill; first draft Art Brutista Aloïse Corbaz (who had an imaginary romance with Kaiser Wilhelm II); former seamstress, abortionist and railway saboteur turned Prinzhorn Collection dummy-maker Katharina Detzel; Chicago DIY gutter-glam icon Lee Godie. There are a handful of others, but the demographics are pretty much in line with Jean Dubuffet’s statement announcing the formation of the (all-male) Compagnie de l’Art Brut, “We are seeking works that exhibit the abilities of invention and of creation in a very direct fashion, without masks or constraints. We believe these abilities exist (at least at times) in every man.” (1)

Although concerted efforts have been made to address this imbalance in recent years, the auction record speaks for itself. A tip sheet from Christie’s auction house for their 2016 Outsider and Vernacular Art sale includes only one woman — the late developmentally disabled fibre artist Judith Scott, whose star has only been ascendent over the last decade.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, The Quilting Bee, 1950, oil on pressed board

One self-taught female painter did recently break the $1 million glass ceiling. Perhaps the most famous Outsider artist in America prior to the popularization of the term was a woman — Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (September 7, 1860 – December 13, 1961), whose orthogonally-challenged pastorals were revered (equally to the works of her friend and neighbor Norman Rockwell) as a chronicles of a lost Arcadian America. 

Tellingly, Ms. Moses’ fame only arrived when arthritis forced her to give up embroidery and other sewing-based activities at the age of 78. We’ll broach the implications of this when we dissect “Craft as Art” in short order. But first we should consider whether Moses’ works — and by analogous legerdemain, the Crochet Coral Reef — may be legitimately classified as “Outsider.” 

To those outside the world of Outsider Art, the main theme of its theoretical discourse appears to consist of internecine arguments about what exactly does or does not constitute Outsider Art — at least whenever the debate over the use of that particular umbrella term (versus Self-taught, Intuitive, Visionary, Art Brut, Folk, Naive, and Primitive) dies down. 

Some purists adhere to a strict Prinzhorn-derived lineage, requiring proof of institutionalization and a notarized DSM diagnosis — in spite of the radical reorganization such criteria have undergone in the last fifty years. Others emphasize a lack of formal training, though most contemporary graduate programs hinge on idiosyncrasy and plausible de-skilling. Still others focus on aesthetic, structural, or conceptual markers — horror vacui, for example, or obsessive cataloging, or invented languages. 

Moses’ postwar paintings fell on the Folk, Naive, Primitive end of the spectrum, and their enormous popularity and institutional support during the ascent of Abstract Expressionism prefigured the fetishization of “authenticity” that typified the populist skepticism towards Modern Art — and has, in another incarnation, characterized the Outsider milieu ever since. But she was never in the loony bin, was not (as far as we know) channeling a Mesopotamian scribe, and in fact seems to have suffered from no remarkable psychological abnormalities. 

During her lifetime (and, in fact, for the following decades up to the present time) many Art World insiders considered Moses to be little more than a reactionary shill, a folksy cartoon hillbilly tilting at the windmills of Modernism at the behest of her crypto-fascist ruling-class masters. In retrospect, however, Moses can be seen to be undermining a number of problematic aspects inherent to the Modernist agenda: she was rural as opposed to urban, from the servant class rather than the middle or upper, she was old, and she was a woman. Perhaps most subversive was her casual, unheroic, transactional attitude towards her work.

In her 2001 essay The White-haired Girl: A Feminist Reading Judith E. Stein recounts how “an Art Digest reporter gave a charming, if simplified, account of the genesis of Moses’ turn to paint­ing, recounting her desire to give the postman ‘a nice little Christmas gift.’ Not only would the dear fellow appreciate a painting, concluded Grandma, but ‘it was easier to make than to bake a cake over a hot stove.’” (2)

Moses’ easy conflation of Fine Art praxis with domestic chores (and her aforementioned unremarked-upon decades of creative needlework) brings to the surface the perennial divide between Art and Craft and the regular attempts to blur or erase this border — particularly those rooted in late 20th century and contemporary feminism.

CW: Anni Albers; Chicago, Morris, Gee’s Bend(?)

After the swiftly neutralized socialist efforts of William Morris and the Bauhaus, Feminist Art’s redesignation of quilting, weaving, embroidery, etc. as media that had been excluded from the purview of serious art was predicated on a slightly different political ambition: to bring gender parity to the the existing sphere of art history. The laudable mainstream rehabilitation of female art stars like Artemisia Gentileschi, Camille Claudel, and Frida Kahlo was a modification of the procession of Great Geniuses that made up the Western Canon. Socially-oriented Feminist art strategies that deemphasized individual egos in favor of anonymous collaboration received far less attention, as the culture grew increasingly celebrity-centric.

In contrast, the Outsider agenda, informed by the anarchistic sentiments of Jean Dubuffet, saw exclusion from the mainstream as the source of its legitimacy, while adhering to the archetype of the solo-artist-as-heroic-genius. These diverging attitudes towards assimilation by the establishment were a major factor in the persistent alienation of the feminist and outsider ideologies. Central to this divide is the idea of art as the result of solitary (or solitary confinement) exploration where many are called but few are chosen, as opposed to the possibility of art as a game-like social activity where anyone can play.

Signal craft-based Feminist works like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party were emphatically built on a paradigm of communal conviviality (albeit funneled through Ms. Chicago’s celebrity persona.) In the late 20th and early 21st century, the Gee’s Bend quilting community (and other groups of marginalized crafty women) emerged from the shadows to reweave the narrative of Modernist abstract design innovation. But there’s evidence to suggest that the idea of rectifying the quilting bee’s role within the histories of art and civilization is putting the cart before the horse.

Attributed to the Amasis Painter, detail from terracotta lekythos (oil flask) depicting a group of women making woolen cloth, ca. 550–530 BC (detail)

In Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber demonstrates how the explicitly social nature of large-scale weaving (and other textile traditions) can be deduced from archaeological evidence (Finnish bog-corpse wrappings dating to 1300 BCE; archaic Greek vase paintings depicting cloth-making collectives). There’s no reason this social model can’t be projected back into a prehistoric context. In a passage worth quoting at length, Barber proposes a radical reassessment of the relationship between women’s work and civilization:

We don’t know how early to date this great discovery—of making string as long and as strong as needed by twisting short filaments together. But whenever it happened, it opened the door to an enormous array of new ways to save labor and improve the odds of survival, much as the harnessing of steam did for the Industrial Revolution. Soft, flexible thread of this sort is a necessary prerequisite to making woven cloth. On a far more basic level, string can be used simply to tie things up—to catch, to hold, to carry. From these notions come snares and fishlines, tethers and leashes, carrying nets, handles, and packages, not to mention a way of binding objects together to form more complex tools… So powerful, in fact, is simple string in taming the world to human will and ingenuity that I suspect it to be the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth, that enabled us to move out into every econiche on the globe during the Upper Palaeolithic. We could call it the String Revolution. (3)

Impression of woven fabric in fired clay found at Dolní Věstonice archeological site in Czech Republic, ca 25,000 BCE

The contexts broached thus far constitute a lengthy preamble to this proposition: That the Crochet Coral Reef is indeed “Outside” — not in the sense of being pushed to the far margins of the dominant culture and deserving a position closer to the spotlight, but in the sense that it is part of a larger, longer-lasting continuum that contains its alleged host. 

The Crochet Coral Reef is a dispersed, postmodern network that organizes individual practitioners of contemplative handcrafts into real-world and virtual communities, embracing the potential of the global digital neural rhizome, but looping back to replicate the prehistoric communal artmaking rituals of our distant ancestors. 

The default Outsider genius trope arises in direct correlation to the artist’s divergence from normative consensus reality, a “coming unravelled” from the imaginational bindings of the lowest common social denominator, designating them as disassociated.

But the true object of human art-making is human consciousness, and the basic unit of creativity is self awareness: awareness doubled back on itself to create a knot in the undifferentiated sentience of Gaia, generating a figure-ground event. The accumulation of these knots in the collective awareness of our species is our true culture; we are homo macrame.

Loops and folds, knots and weaves, render line into something more convoluted —  and stronger. The linear models for history, of language, of thought – so conducive to authoritarian supervision, to the narratives of Kings and Priests and CEOs – are curdled in the process. If we can get outside of that we may yet have a chance to survive.

 (1) Jean Dubuffet, A Word About the Company of Raw Art (1948), translated by Carol Volk, from Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1988, pg 110

(2) in Grandma Moses in the Twenty-First Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, quoting from “Grandma Moses,” Art Digest, October 15, 1940, online at https://judithestein.com/2017/12/28/the-white-haired-girl-a-feminist-reading/

(3) Elizabeth Wayland Barber Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years W. W. Norton & Company New York London 1994 Pg 70

Guest Column: Story by Rock Hill : You’re Fired!

The District Administrator, during his year-end visit to OOOville, called a meeting with Leo Comet and boss Bruin Pokem in a board room at the local office of the Department of Regulation. In the old days, a boss might yell at an employee and say, “You’re fired.” But with unions and so on, one had to be polite and deliver the news in a language of protocol.

They summoned Leo Comet to the office. As he walked past cubicles and small offices, Leo remembered his days as a school boy, when he would get sent to the principal’s office to be expelled for a few days for being out of control and instigating chaos in the classroom. He opened the boardroom door, to a grey room, lit by florescent tubes set into a low beige drop-tile ceiling. Boss Bruin Pokem gazed at him sheepishly from the head of a long fake wood grained table. District administrator, Reginald Glob, a puffy man about fifty, who looked dumpy, in spite of his neat blue shirt and head of human resources, Lara Song, wearing a neat suit and pair of large plastic rimmed glasses that made her eyes look like huge marbles floating in a fish bowl, cleared their throats. Reginald Glob told him to sit down, then began the meeting with the following words.

“Your final report is incoherent, no clear goal. It lacks unity. What’s the point of this mash-mash summary and sloppy data. You went so far as to enter incorrect figures in inappropriate boxes on the what-the-hell spread sheet. You’ve demonstrated a complete lack of accountability. People are being to wonder what you’re doing here. Why are you being paid?”

Thus spoke the district administrator who flew into OOOville on year end business, which included terminating Leo Comet’s contract and sending him back to the city on a reduced, early retirement pension. They called it veteran’s pension, not in the sense of war veteran, but rather, survivor of outposts on the frontier of social control. 

Leo had hoped to find a place of work, a way to earn a living, at the edge of the controlled world, far away from surveillance, where he could do whatever he liked without reprimand. Alas, his downfall was due to internal squabbling and lack of solidarity. A few hateful, bitter, resentful colleagues reported his behaviour to the boss, who entered it into Leo’s file to use as evidence, should Leo put up a fight when it came time to fire him. His attitude was an insult to those who pretended to take their work seriously. Some even felt their work made an important contribution to humanity. To Leo, shit smelled like shit, no matter how you tried to present it in neat departmental packages and regulated language.

The real reason for his sudden termination was a huge gaff. Leo Comet saw what he wasn’t supposed to see, and repeated in public what he wasn’t supposed to say. What he saw and said concerned boss Bruin Pokem, aka Brew. The boss’s survival depended on maintaining an authoritarian, but sometimes friendly facade. He would call meetings, scold the workers, tell them to work harder, then pass out the donuts and candy.

It felt good to be fired and given early retirement. The package didn’t offer much, but Leo was used to frugal living. He’d spend much of his life making do on tight budgets and cheap lodgings, during the twentieth century, before gentrification drove rents through the roof and turned housing into a luxury commodity. To have a roof over one’s head became a privilege. Homelessness was a crime. The prison industry thrived on excess population, driving up shareholder value. Get tough on crime. Arrest those unable to survive in a society that left few means of survival.

Leo’s job as a PBE, Push Button Expert was not bad. The work was easy and well paid. The biggest challenge was to act busy in order to avoid being targeted by colleagues eager to protect themselves. One never knew who to trust. A wise crack at the wrong place and wrong time could have lasting consequences. Administrators kept files on every PBE. Nothing was too trivial. The slightest loud fart or sneeze would be entered into one’s record. The machine wanted to know everything. It could be used to manipulate, intimidate or control anyone who attracted attention or did anything unusual.

Leo Comet had long ago burned out. It’s hard to do something that has no clear purpose other than to keep the employee busy. His work in no way benefitted humanity. In fact, it contributed to a status quo mandate of keeping everything under control, so resources flowed upwards and discouragement poured downwards. The boss, Bruin Pokem, aka Brew, warned Leo he’d better change his bad attitude. Nobody was fooled. They could see Leo’s mind was elsewhere. It was all documented. 

The moment of his downfall was no surprise. It happened one afternoon on a dreary overcast day when people were struggling against the urge to slip into a deep sleep. Waves of drowsiness washed through the department, generating migraines and making it hard to even breathe at times. White noise of the forced stale air system lulled Leo Comet into a daze. His eyes blurred as he gazed at the buttons of his electronic console. Grey light from the computer screen burned his retinas and drilled worm holes into his brain. His head nodded forward a few times and jerked back. He was supposed to appear stressed from a looming deadline. The boss kept drilling it into push button experts at staff meetings, how the department of regulation was under pressure, a time crunch, essential documents had to be completed to meet a crucial deadline.

Money was involved. Get the job done quick and they’d score a cash bonus, or rather, the boss would get the bonus and keep it for himself. He wouldn’t tell anyone, although everyone knew, but was too afraid to say anything. PBEs found a way to score a bit extra here and there. The boss let a little money seep downwards to pacify discontent that could make his job as boss difficult. The departmental mandate was a rhetorical screen to hide the funnelling funds into various personal bank accounts, although most of it went to the boss. The idea was to find ways to siphon off as much money for personal use before grants reached their ultimate destinations. Brew had a lot to gain, and a lot to lose if he messed up. He was part of a network. Each player had a role in making sure money followed the right path. It had to look good on spread sheets and computer documents.

The last-straw job-ending event happened one afternoon when Leo got up from his rickety swivel chair, left his small grey florescent office and went to the water cooler. On the way through the labyrinth of passage ways, past small offices and cubicles, he peered through the boss’s door which had been left ajar. He saw the boss, Bruin Pokem, Brew for short, drinking vodka from a bottle he kept hidden in the bottom drawer of his large desk. Booze sometimes made the boss a bit careless or sloppy. He’d left the door ajar, too tired to slam it shut. 

He put the bottle back in the drawer, then the dog appeared, a large short-haired mutt named Growl, a retriever/german shepherd mix. It must have been lying on a rug in the corner. Brew had lately been bringing Growl, as an emotional comfort companion, to work. Growl leapt up, placed its front legs on the boss’s shoulders and began licking Brew’s boozy face. Brew reached down and unzipped his trousers. Leo watched as the boss slowly gave himself a warm handshake. And they thought Leo’s mind was elsewhere, what about Brew? He’d really lost touch with reality, oblivious to everything, an alcoholic haze. He took his time. The dog wagged its tail, dropped to the floor and began humping Bruin’s leg while Bruin leaned back and sighed.

Brew wiped his hands on a paper napkin next to an empty coffee mug, zipped up. Growl returned to his rug and lay down. Brew got up, tightened his belt and paraded stiffly, with an attitude of moral superiority, out of the office, like a general getting ready to inspect the troops. He glared at Leo, who nearly bumped into him, swaggered down the corridor past small PBE (Push Button Expert) offices. He stuck his head into Cheryl’s cubicle and stared down her blouse. She swivelled in her chair and buttoned the top button of her blouse. Not a word was spoken. He leered at her a few seconds, nodded his head. She recoiled in disgust. Jerry Manderly walking by distracted Brew. He withdrew from Cheryl’s office and ran after Jerry, ejaculating aggressive and pointless questions. What are you doing? Where are you going? Must be nice to be able to walk around when there’s so much to be done.

Jerry didn’t even turn his head. He kept on walking, back to his cubicle, sat down and ignored the boss. The boss felt a bit deflated, suddenly hit with a fresh wave of alcoholic haze and stupor. He caught a glimpse of his puffy eyes in a mirror on a sidewall of Jerry’s space. Pie-eyed, that’s how they looked. Drunken stupor written all over his face. Brew Pokem went back to his office and had another swig of vodka. Growl leapt up from the little carpet and licked the Brew’s hands and stuffed its nose into his crotch for a smell. It danced around, wagging its tail, like it wanted to be taken for a walk.

The boss grabbed a parka and left by a side door with the dog, to go for a walk in the settlement on the Plains of Radiation, in the Cha Region of the Po Valley at the edge of the Secret Desert where some claimed to have spotted UFOs and space aliens.

Leo Comet had been singled out as the black sheep of the department. After a year on the job, unable to keep up the pretence of being overworked with tasks of utmost importance, he retreated into inner worlds. You could see it in his eyes, the far away look. He realized the whole department was bullshit, a make-work project for bureaucrats, work designed to use up time and get paid for it. Top administrators got big bucks for doing little more than walking into their office, blowing farts, booking meetings, sending a few emails, then heading out for vague or unspecified appointments in a departmental vehicle. Leo had reached a point where he could no longer conceal inner nausea welling up from his guts. Colleagues quickly noticed. Malicious gossip intensified. Other than Cheryl, who sympathized with Leo, there was no sense of solidarity in the department. Workers who sought job security or protection from layoffs resorted to back stabbing and viewing each other with barely repressed hostility and suspicion, eager to find fault and cast blame. Deflect being targeted. Target Leo. That was their approach. The good worker learned to repress nausea, or to pretend what they were doing really mattered. The insupportable workers were ones with missionary zeal, who got on their moral high horse and acted as if the world depended on their pointless futile tasks.

At the end of the day, they got paid. They had money. If you had money and got paid, you were good. If you had little or no money, you were bad. On  weekends, push button experts could get together to socialize and feel like productive members of society, superior to those who worked for less than living wage or not at all.

Todd Pilsner, the departmental treasurer noticed strange things in the financial report. Regional administration had given the department a year end cash bonus, basically giving them a cut of the savings the department was able to pull off during the fiscal year. The bonus was supposed to be shared among all PBEs, but instead, Bruin Pokem did some funny data entering so that all the money went directly into his personal bank account. Nobody noticed until Todd was scrolling through computer files and stumbled across documents Bruin Pokem had forgotten to delete. Todd Pilsner followed the money trail, right to Brew’s bank account. There wasn’t much anyone could do, without stirring up a major scandal, which would make the whole department look bad and could result in outside inspectors coming in to scrutinize. Many experts had little peccadilloes they did not wish to be seen. Better to swallow injustice and go with the flow. 

Except, Leo Comet got drunk at the Bleeding Heart Tavern and proclaimed what Boss Brew had done. A couple of outsiders heard. It got back to the boss. Rumours appeared in the gossip section of the weekly news. At the end of the fiscal year, Leo was fired, or rather,  given a modest retirement package as long as he agreed to not make a fuss.

But the damage had been done. A mild scandal occurred. They shone the spotlight on Brew and his financial shenanigans. He too was terminated. Poetic justice, he’d promised to stand behind Leo, but bowed to pressure from other PBEs who didn’t like Leo. As the year progressed, he began harassing Leo. Maybe if he’d been nice, Leo wouldn’t have broadcast the misdeeds of Brew in the Bleeding Heart Tavern. 

Damage done, spilled beans, too bad for Brew and company. An external inspector flew in and found evidence at bottom of the petri dish. Rooting through bowels of computer documentation revealed blatant theft. The inspector knew that everybody, including herself, participated in corruption. The trick was to follow procedures without rocking the boat. As long as everyone was polite and did things in orderly fashion, nobody batted an eye. They almost let Brew off the hook, but he got a bit cocky, which rubbed people the wrong way. 

Puffy with power, pride before a fall. Never bully the workers. Respect the master slave dynamic. His made a huge mistake when he began bullying workers. He could get away with tormenting Leo Comet, but not when he put the screws on Jerry, Cheryl and Blair. They lodged formal complaints against Brew. Easiest solution, get rid of him, without stirring up a scandal. Corruption flourished, all the way from  Minister of Regulation at the top to local administrator at the bottom, and the derivative ways of push button experts. To avoid further investigation and scandal, the easiest solution was to get rid of Brew. Present a few pieces of evidence, nothing too serious, but enough to constitute an infraction. Brew was taken to task over negligence and security lapses. 

Leo and Brew, boss and underling, were put on a plane and flown back to Yamaville, where they could get jumbled up in the great equalizer of unemployment. Lose your job, so people can spit on you and tell you to get a job, accuse you of being lazy, of making bad life choices, of not trying hard enough. They could tell you to go for more training. One moment, you’re a respected member of society, next moment, shunned.

Find a cheap place. Live off savings and meagre retirement package. Brew was in good shape, as long as he didn’t drink it all up and spend it in brothels. Just before leaving, his dog attacked and killed a smaller dog. The small dog owner poisoned Growl. Brew knew who it was, but decided to cultivate a blind eye. Let the man enjoy his revenge. Brew was secretly relieved. To transport a wild and dangerous dog to the city would be a huge hassle. Brew accepted the loss without making a fuss. It was all part of being downwardly mobile after riding high on the hog. 

Leo Comet was happy to be retired. A low standard of living was preferable to being forced to swear allegiance everyday to the precepts of alienation. After the hustle and bustle of a department, scurrying about like a mouse in a cage, being fired or retired felt like free fall, like jumping out of a plane. He enjoyed the instant adrenalin rush before the parachute opens. He loved the moment of relaxation that followed, like bliss after orgasm. Let go, relax, a kind of manic relaxation. Let one’s sense of self dissolve. Suddenly no pressure, no deadlines, no hassles except the harassment of people who asked rude questions. Avoid people, enjoy solitude.

One afternoon, a few months later, Bruin Pokem strolled through a park where Leo was relaxing at a picnic table. Old Brew stopped and glared at Leo, the evil eye, blazing pure hate. Leo flinched, then got up from the picnic table to say hello. Brew swayed back and forth for a moment. Leo could hear the air flowing in and out of Brew’s nostrils. He watched as Brew’s brow darkened and his mouth contorted into an angry grimace. They glared at each other for about a minute, without saying a word, then Brew asked Leo how he was managing. Leo said he planned to leave Yamaville and head off across the plains to the sea, where he heard one could find affordable lodging. 

Leo pulled a mickey of vodka from the inner pocket of his jacket and offered it to Brew. Brew put the bottle to his lips, got a good latch, glou glou glou, oops ahhh. Brew paused a moment then lifted the bottle again. Ooop sloop bloop snoop aaahhhh, burp.  A drink to pacify hate and bring about understanding. Brew took another swig and wiped mucous from his lips on to the back of his hand. He glared into Leo’s eyes for a moment. The glassy stare of irritation slowly softened. A wave of heat swept through Leo as he watched Brew’s eyes begin to water and the pupils expand. He groaned and took a deep breath.

“Let’s sit down, “ said Brew, nodding to the picnic table where Leo had been hanging out, “I gotta tell you something.”

The sudden intimacy startled Leo, but he thought, what the heck, why not? Might as well stay and see what happens. It felt good to be in the park, lush greenery, a beautiful day in August, little birds twittering, crows cawing.

“You ever looked closely at a pot of simmering turnips and carrots?” Brew tapped his forehead, “It’s in here, in the brain, with a bit of broccoli and cauliflower as well.”

“As a matter of fact, after leaving the Po Valley, I became a vegetarian,” said Leo.

“Fear could turn vegetables to mush. It could also make one more receptive. The little mosaic squares on the bathroom floor started talking to me when I took a pee at 3 am. They said to not take things so seriously. Revenge is pointless. Resentment is a waste of life.”

“Wow, I thought you believed in the scene.”

“I did. But when Growl died I had a revelation. The dog appeared to me in a dream and licked my face, as if to ask how long I planned to stay pissed off. I don’t enjoy being angry. I woke up. It felt like a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. A simple, peaceful life is best. We’re both on the threshold of old age. Might as well enjoy the last moments of life before the body becomes a corpse.”

Leo Comet and Bruin Pokem or Brew met several times over the next few weeks, until Leo left Yamaville and set off across the Plains of Radiation, towards the town of Mosod, overlooking the Toxic Sea, not far from Gomroid. Leo took out an extended stay lease on a room at the Bleak Hotel. His room on the fifth floor was next to Lohbado’s room. That’s how Lohbado got to know Leo Comet and to learn about how he lost his job. Lohbado also had worked as a PBE (Push Button Expert) for the Department of Regulation in Eevigah, not far from Oooville. As for Brew, Leo heard through the grape vine that Brew had been hospitalized with cirrhosis and if he kept drinking, would soon die.

Random Display: Richard Turner’s “No Ideas But In Things”

Saturday, Nov 19th is the last chance to visit Richard Turner’s constantly shifting installation of found, appropriated, and made artifacts No Ideas but in Things at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University (Monday – Friday 12 PM –  5 PM, Saturday 11 AM – 4 PM) Moulton Hall, One University Drive Orange, California 92866. https://www.guggenheimgallery.net/

While Turner’s alleatory approach to exhibition design isn’t unprecedented — the deliberate incorporation of random factors in the creative process is one of the cornerstones of Modernism, as M. Duchamp learns us — it has a distinctive personality that ensures its continual uniqueness. Chance has generally been employed in highly formalist contexts — Jean Arp’s abstract paintings and, as cited below, the indeterminate compositions of John Cage, for example. But in Turner’s case, the elements put at the mercy of adventitious reconfiguration are fully loaded with personal, cultural, and art historical significance.

One of the reasons this highly productive approach to artmaking, curation, and what-have-you has not been given the credit and attention it deserves (although it has undoubtedly played a much larger role in art history than is acknowledged) is that it functions in direct opposition to the master narrative of western creativity — particularly the narrative of the artistic master: the finely tuned, wholly autonomous authorial voice issuing timeless masterworks from the top of Master Mountain. What true genius would allow their precious poopies to be smeared on the wall by a hand other than their own? This must be some kind of a “put-on!” Etc.

The components of No Ideas but Things (or is it (Based on a True Story)? Even the title of the exhibit is indeterminate!) are rich with autobiographical association and wider cultural significance. Turner’s investment of personal meaning into the game pieces of his playfully interactive installation has radical implication — not the least being that the Western Humanist model of personality is deeply flawed, and that it is, in fact, a constantly shifting mosaic of symbolic components assembled in collaboration with the people around us and the mysterious forces that choreograph molecular activity in a cup of hot tea or control the weather (when it isn’t George Soros!) — a hypothesis more in keeping with Buddhist psychology.

Speaking of weather, I had wanted to do a more extensive interview with Turner and get this up a week or two earlier, but most of my “spare time” has been devoted to rearranging soggy artifacts and artworks in arrangements determined by how best to dry them out after the recent torrential (by LA standards) rainstorms. But I guess that’s the way God planned it! If you can’t make it to Chapman in time, the incremental variations have been cataloged in daily posts on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/guggenheim.gallery/

(Based on a True Story)

When Marcus invited me to exhibit my work in the Guggenheim Gallery, I was already on the path to becoming an artist who no longer made objects. I documented the beginning of this quest in No Ideas but in Things, the first of three publications accompanying this exhibition. The book comprises hundreds of images taken with my iphone of still lifes set up on a table in my studio. The compositions were arrangements of objects from my studio and plant material from my back yard which I assembled on a daily basis, photographed, and then returned to storage or discarded.

The practice of recontextualizing objects became the inspiration for the structure of this exhibition. What began on a small scale in my studio expanded to the larger space of the gallery. Instead of individual objects, the units of display are now groupings of paintings, drawings, sculptures and furniture.

Looking back over fifty years of art-making in preparation for this exhibition presented me with the opportunity to develop a narrative that might bring some form to a life spent in the studio. My account, as it evolved, was both cohesive and fragmented, real and imagined – a tale that was contingent rather than chronological. It was, in truth, based on a true story. This fickle narrative is advanced in the second of the three publications that are part of this exhibition, As a Mirror by Dust. Here works separated by decades are joined at the hip. Architectural installations are collapsed to ambiguous details and sketchbook drawings are given more prominence than mural-sized paintings. The accompanying anecdotes, too, are resized and color corrected in the service of this surrogate memoir.

Synchronicity is one of the threads of the narrative advanced in As a Mirror by Dust. I began documenting coincidences in 1972, the year that our twin daughters Adrienne and Jennifer were born. The first two years of my daughters’ lives were consumed with the business of parenting. I had little time for making art and little interest in anything other than learning to be a good father. During this time, I chronicled over one hundred coincidences that occurred involving myself, family and friends. I subsequently incorporated synchronicity into my studio practice, which has resulted in improbable juxtapositions of form and material and an inclination to find inspiration as much in a slice of cantaloupe on the breakfast table as in a reproduction of a Picabia painting in a volume on my bookshelf. An appreciation of the coincidental has also been a constant reminder “to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing” a ground rule of composer John Cage whose use of indeterminacy has inspired me since meeting him when I was an undergraduate at Antioch College .

Random events are integral to the organization of (Based on a True Story) as well. Six pieces in this exhibition change on a daily basis. Removal and replacement are the order of the day. The content and composition of the displays are a combination of chance and choice. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to participate in the evolution of No Ideas but in Things by rolling dice or picking a numbered tile from a bowl. The gallery team makes the changes designated by chance, composing individual arrangements as they see fit.

No Ideas but in Things (the title wall) comprises 29 numbered pieces divided into two groups, rigid and flexible. The artworks, which date from 1989 to 2017, are components of previous installations, unexhibited and/or unfinished pieces and material collected for unrealized pieces. Gallery visitors are invited to choose two numbered tiles. The corresponding pieces are then displayed in a single arrangement composed by gallery team members on the wall opposite the entry to the gallery. The artworks may be displayed right side up, sideways, upside down, or face to the wall. They may overlap or be displayed as separate entities.

In My End is My Beginning: The sequence of arrangements in a framed image on the wall is a prompt for gallery visitors to imagine the materials arrayed on the table in a repetitive cycle of compositions that begin and end in the same state. They may also arrange the objects as they see fit.

There are 30 drawings and/or suites of drawings available for display in As a Mirror by Dust. Gallery visitors are invited to choose a numbered tile that then determines which drawing or group of drawings will be featured on any day. The composition of the display is decided by the gallery team. If they choose to show only part of a set of drawings, the remaining drawings are shown the next day.

Contemporary Viewing Stone Display comprises four pairs of shelves. A roll of a single die determines which pair of shelves will be modified. A second roll of the dice dictates which object on the adjacent table will be used to replace a piece on the designated pair of shelves. Visitors can choose which object on the shelf they wish to exchange with the object from the table.

The first roll of the dice determines how many feet The Wandering Rock will be moved each day A second roll determines the direction in which it will be moved. Each piece in the exhibition has a corresponding number. If, for example, a seven and an eight is rolled, The Wandering Rock would be moved seven feet in the direction of piece #8, Red Dog / Blue Murder. The path of The Wandering Rock is documented each day by a line of gaffers tape that follows its daily movements.

Mt. Baldy Road: Visitors are invited to act “as a force of nature”, impulsively, without forethought, to rearrange the granite rocks with rapid gestures or leisurely mindlessness.

The daily changes to these pieces are documented by the gallery team and posted on Instagram.



(The Truncated Interview)

Less Art: Tell me more about Contemporary Viewing Stone Display, and about your recent book on the subject. How did you come to be interested in such an offbeat aesthetic pursuit?

Richard Turner: I became interested in viewing stones when I was teaching the Arts of China and Japan at Chapman University. The prominence of stones in Chinese and Japanese gardens led me to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki. The pieces in the Contemporary Viewing Stone Display section of the exhibition are experiments, which began over twenty years ago, with the aesthetics of stones and their display. Materials used in these pieces include plaster, cardboard, wood, metal ceramics, rock and mineral specimens.

The title of this section of the exhibition is taken from the book that I co-authored with Thomas Elias and Paul Harris. The book advocates for a contemporary approach to the collection and display of stones, one that takes into account both the nature of the local geological material and the resources available for displaying stones in a fashion that reflects today’s domestic architecture, interior design and fine art.

Less Art: Your other recent book was a collaboration with your brother John about your formative years in Vietnam. Is there a connection between that and this exhibition? And where do carved coconut heads come into it?

Richard Turner: Slow Dancing in Saigon is the book that my brother John and I collaborated on. A section of the text is excerpted in As a Mirror by Dust, one of the three publications that accompany this exhibition. Like Slow Dancing in Saigon, this exhibition and the companion publications are fickle narratives that elide the real and the imagined. Although “based on a true story” neither the exhibition nor the books are so unreliable as to include any carved coconut heads. Their time is still to come.

WTF Thursdays: Rainwater Inkblot Archetypes

This isn’t that WTF, but close enough. What I like about these images are the fact that they look like mashups of Rorschach stains with indices of Jungian archetypes. Though I never had a dream about bohemian mice. If I do tonight, that would up the WTF quotient considerably. I’m not sure why the Rorschach Test never caught on with the Jungians, the dudes were both practicing psychoanalysts in Zurich in the 20s. Maybe there was some bad doin’s! “I spit on your Word Association!” “As God is my witness, your inkblot parlor game will be the laughingstock of Switzerland!” Harvey Mindess, PhD has a more prosaic theory (see below). These are actually pages from a coloring book that got soaked in the recent LA rainstorm, incidentally.

Lee Bontecou: Back From the Void

In 2003, I got to talk to Lee Bontecou a couple of times, and it made a deep impression. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of her “clearing out the barn before kicking the bucket so I don’t leave a lot of junk for my kid to deal with” motivation for relaunching her career. That’s my paraphrase, though she came close to that in one of our conversations. Turns out she had a bit more time than she thought, with her passing just over 19 years after the opening of the stellar Hammer retrospective that occasioned our conversations. I should dig around and see if I have the tape of the whole interview somewhere. OK, that’s on the Tadoo list. In the meantime, here’s the original cut, tweaked for temporal coherence:

Few artists of the last 60 years have achieved the kind of mythological status that has been accorded Lee Bontecou. I don’t mean the kind of myth that comes from staying in the public eye and on top of the art-world game — like her former stablemate at Leo Castelli Gallery Jasper Johns, for example. Quite the opposite: Bontecou’s symbolic importance has been based on the fact that she turned her back on a blue-chip career and vanished from the art scene entirely, becoming a shadowy figure subject to a great deal of speculation — not all of it flattering.

But the artist’s journey — long thought destined to remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of contemporary art — came full circle in October 2003, when the Hammer Museum unveiled Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective, the most comprehensive survey of her work, curated by Elizabeth Smith and Hammer director Annie Philbin. The exhibit is remarkable on many counts — after showing here and in Chicago, for instance, held an unprecedented tenure at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an institution renowned for its curatorial self-sufficiency. But the kicker is the fact that this was the public’s — and The Art World’s — first chance to see what Bontecou has been doing in her studio for the past 30-plus years.

Untitled (1970), graphite on white paper

I first heard of Lee Bontecou in the mid-’80s from an angry young academic feminist in undergraduate art school who insisted, somewhat paradoxically, that Bontecou’s disappearance was testimony to both her victimhood as regards the crushing monolith of hetero-patriarchal hegemony, and to the possibility — necessity — of constructing alternate parallel art worlds in order to disrupt this monopoly. All well and good, apart from the fact that nobody had heard a peep from her in years, and she hadn’t had a solo gallery show since 1971. There also seemed, at least among this young woman’s circle of stern friends, almost no interest in the artist’s actual work — which to my eyes seemed extraordinary. But hey, maybe that was just my privileged gaze talking.

Beginning in the late ’50s, Bontecou had presented a body of work that seemed to absorb and synthesize an enormous array of influences ranging from Tiffany lamps, prison architecture, rocket design and reptile skeletons to cutting-edge contemporary American and European painting and sculpture. Her large, labor-intensive wall reliefs — constructed from fragments of worn and discolored canvas stretched and attached with twisted wire onto elaborately welded geometric steel structures, almost invariably framing a central circular void darkened with black soot — struck a disturbing balance between a delicate but assured abstract formal genius and a brooding fascination with the visual vocabulary of the military-industrial complex.

Untitled (1966), welded steel, canvas, epoxy, leather, wire and light

“The whole space program was a wonderful thrill,” admitted the artist in a telephone interview just prior to the Hammer opening, “The war was another thing — the machinery became a part of it. A love/hate thing. You look at one of those big fat bombers today, and you can’t beat it as a piece of sculpture flying through the air — and then it goes and kills people. Human nature became part of the material that I used; there’s the good and the bad, and the play of that against the natural world. It’s all one thing.”

Bontecou’s ominous constructivist mandalas were an immediate hit — she was signed to the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery, and her first show there in 1960 prompted a torrent of publicity, inclusion in important international museum shows (including the 1961 São Paolo Bienal and Documenta III in Kassel, Germany), and a commission for a 20-foot-long lobby sculpture for Philip Johnson’s Lincoln Center theater building.

Born in 1931, Bontecou split her childhood between Westchester, NY, and the untamed coast of Nova Scotia. Her father sold gliders and invented the aluminum canoe; her mother wired submarine parts during World War II. After a couple of years at Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts, Bontecou decided to become an artist, moved to New York and began attending the legendary Art Students League in 1952. “You paid by the month, you could change classes by the month, there were no grades, there was no anything — no one cared what you did,” she remembers. “The instructor came in once or twice a week, gave a crit and left. I learned more from the students who were better than I was, who were there for a while, who knew how to do this, that or the other. It was really lively.” She spent one summer at the Skowhegan Art School learning to weld. In 1957, she moved to Rome on a Fulbright fellowship, and stayed for two years before relocating to an unheated studio above an industrial laundry in Hell’s Kitchen. Within another two years, she had been profiled in VogueTime and Art in America.

Bontecou in her Wooster Street studio, New York, 1963 Photo by Ugo Mulas

As the ’60s progressed, Bontecou’s forms began to spill out of their frames and take on distinctly crustacean overtones. By decade’s end she was fastening together vacuum-molded plastic plates and tubes into spooky, transparent deep-sea creatures and alien plant forms. In these days when bioengineering controversy and natural-history aesthetics pop up regularly as themes for gallery and museum exhibits, it’s hard to realize what a perversion this freestanding biomorphic sculpture was taken to be 50 years ago.

“The work was very different, she was really following a new direction and it wasn’t as well received as her earlier pieces,” recall Elizabeth Smith from her Chicago office. “These were not what people expected to see — they were not her signature style. And I think that she felt disappointed by the reaction, that her freedom as an artist wasn’t being appreciated. What has mattered to her edmore than anything is to be very free — in what she chooses to make and how, and in living her life. So she decided she’d had enough and to step away. I think that she felt that she didn’t need the art world anymore.”

Untitled, 1970 Vacuum formed plastic. 30 x 57 x 21 in.

“I just didn’t want to keep making pieces. It was time to think again,” explains Bontecou. “I just didn’t want to have that pressure. And I think everybody does this. It’s nothing new. There are a lot of businessmen who say ‘I’ve had enough of that,’ and they retire and go and do other things. I needed time to work and not have to be having shows. Also my life changed — I had a child to raise, my father lived with me. So life was really full. You move on. You have to move on. It was a natural thing. It wasn’t planned. And no big deal, really. It was a nice break.”

Bontecou stopped exhibiting, moved away from Manhattan, and stopped answering inquiries about her work. She got a job teaching at a city college in Brooklyn and stuck with it for 20 years (in spite of which she says, “I still don’t really think that art should be taught in a university”) before finally retiring to a Pennsylvania farm with her husband and daughter. But as far as the art world was concerned, she’d dropped off the map. In contrast to Bontecou’s cult status among cognoscenti, her work seemed to have been expunged from contemporary art history. Whether as punishment for breaking away from the herd, or a response to her increasingly difficult-to-pigeonhole work, Bontecou was essentially written out of the art-history books, and her works moved to the back rooms of museums.

It was there that curator Smith’s fascination was piqued. Occasional chance encounters with Bontecou pieces in Minneapolis’ Walker Center or the Art Institute of Chicago snowballed into a major preoccupation. Determined to produce a museum show to rehabilitate Bontecou’s neglected status, she tried making contact with the artist but, typically, received no reply. She moved forward anyway, assembling the small but influential Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s for MOCA’s Grand Street space in 1993. Then a surprising twist: Bontecou responded, and actually visited the show, giving it a de facto stamp of approval. She and Smith kept in touch, and when the curator moved to MCA Chicago in 1999, Bontecou invited her for a studio visit.

“It was very exciting, because I didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Smith. “I imagined that maybe she was continuing to work in the same vein as previously, which many artists do: they don’t evolve. I thought the work was very strange and very exciting. It had an energy to it, a vitality — and a power that was different from her earliest pieces. But still a kind of strangeness and a sense of oscillation between abstraction and representation. Its materiality is very strong — you can’t quite name or pinpoint the references it suggests to things in the world, whether they’re machines or organic life. They’re fantastic hybrids that evoke the sensations of many things.” Annie Philbin — who as the head of NYC’s Drawing Center had long been interested in showing Bontecou’s works on paper — was now directing the UCLA Hammer. As the gears began turning for a comprehensive survey show, she too was invited for a studio visit, and confirmed Smith’s first impression.

Which was on the money. The “lost” work is dazzling — hovering, spidery solar-wind-driven spacecraft that hark back to prototypical American welder David Smith’s lyrical early work (before he started scratching into the surfaces of stainless-steel cubes). Suspended from the ceiling, Bontecou’s sculptures also engage gravity with the sophistication of an Alexander Calder mobile. But it is their astonishing intricacy and their flickering representational passages — looking one moment like molecular models from a physics class taught by Terry Gilliam, the next like hornets’ nests caught in mid-explosion by stop-action photography — that simultaneously set them apart from these abstract masters and single-handedly establish a retroactive lineage between the Surrealist roots of Abstract Expressionism and the current art fascination with failed utopian Modernism.

Late works

Assembled — sometimes over a period of several decades — from hundreds of tiny components including welded steel, wire mesh, wire, canvas, silk, epoxy and handcrafted porcelain beads, these are artworks that probably wouldn’t have been realized under the pressures of the contemporary art world, with its relentless deadlines, mandatory commodification and global social whirl. “I think it’s very inspiring,” says Smith. “Her reasons for making art are because she felt the need to make it, not because she had a show coming up or wanted to advance her career to the next level.”

Many believe an exhibition to be the final, climactic stage of any artist’s creative process — an attractive idea in terms of art’s social necessity, but placing not just the measure but also the power of creative achievement squarely in the lap of the gallery system. I asked Bontecou if she felt that the retrospective was somehow the culmination of her three decades of studio retreat. She laughed. “I was pretty happy with it just there. The creative part, the most rewarding part, is working on it and having breakthroughs. Afterwards, they’re gone and they’re really not mine. But I guess I really haven’t experienced this for a long time, so it’ll be something new for me.”

Why has she decided to re-emerge at that point? “When Elizabeth came to the farm and saw the work and wanted to have a big show and I said yes, it was a relief. I hadn’t been well, and I didn’t want to have all that stuff left for my daughter or husband to deal with. And I guess I still feel that way.” In spite of her own pragmatic existential indifference, Bontecou’s sudden reappearance — with a body of work as powerful as any she’s shown before — was bound to have significant repercussions in the art world.

Early works

For starters, the show’s itinerary just happened to cover the three major art-education centers of America, and Bontecou’s laboriously handmade, emotionally charged objects (with their unironic incorporation of the aesthetics of post-apocalyptic science fiction) unsurprisingly had a major impact on the next generation of young artists, sick of the slick fabrications and anemic pseudo-conceptualisms of the ’90s.

Then there’s the feminist angle. Like many female artists who achieved success before the advent of the women’s movement, Bontecou rankles at reductivist ideological interpretations of her work. “I don’t go with all that. There’s men and there’s women, and we have to live together. There’s terrific issues all over the world with the suppression of women, but art is art. It’s either good or bad or in between. So women’s art wasn’t sold as high, but so what? The most important thing is to work, and the hell with all that. You just have to keep going, and you can’t waste time. The studio is where the fight is.”

Nevertheless, Bontecou’s heroic return erased the taint of defeat that accompanied her disappearance for many women in the art world. The artist’s silence about the motives behind her withdrawal left open the possibility that the male-dominated art world had successfully silenced what was arguably its strongest female voice of the 1960s. Said Smith, “I had a conversation about this with Kiki Smith [no relation], who told me that for her it was absolutely significant that Lee is coming back, because many of the women artists of the ’60s were role models for Kiki’s generation, but they all stepped away like Lee or passed away like Eva Hesse. And from Kiki’s perspective as an artist, it’s very important for someone like Lee — a woman in her 70s — to be back on center stage.”

While emerging and mature women artists alike can take heart from Bontecou’s revised example, the significance of her comeback has even more profound implications for artists in general. Unintentional as it may be, these spindly cobweb Trojan horses carry a depth charge into the heart of the institutional art world, and its message is this: Artists don’t need any of it. Not the fame, not the glory, not the feedback, not the community, not the validation, not the authorization. There’s the dark mystery of the Void, and there are the vessels we craft to contain or navigate it. There’s the seemingly insurmountable stupidity and greed of human nature, and there’s the will to create. And that’s enough. To hell with the rest. The studio is where the fight is.

RIP Lee Bontecou January 15, 1931 – November 8, 2022

LEE BONTECOU: A Retrospective was on view at UCLA Hammer Museum October 5 2003 – January 11 2004

MÖBIUS TRIP: RIP Rodney GrahamaharG yendoR PIR

Rodney Graham, who died Oct 22 after dealing with cancer for a while, was one of the few contemporary conceptual artists out of Canada that could hold my attention. Here’s the review I wrote about his 2005 traveling mid-career survey co-produced by LA’s MOCA, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

I’M A SUCKER FOR LOOPS — Froot, tape, Javascript, film, whatever; as long as it’s set to “Repeat All,” I could stay there forever. When I was a little kid, I used to catch shit for taping erasers to the record player to make the records skip and stick. Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain was a revelation, electric guitar feedback is like mother’s milk, and I think Groundhog Day is one of the deepest movies ever made. So it isn’t surprising that I’m drawn to the work of Canadian multimedia artist Rodney Graham.

Mad Cartigan’s exemplary LEGO rendition of Vexation Island. To see the original (plus many of his other videos as well as his recent high modernist abstract paintings (!) visit 303 Gallery’s site)

Graham, the subject of a midcareer retrospective at MOCA’s Geffen space, made a name for himself on the international art radar with a series of cinematic narratives that give new meaning to the term “closed-circuit video.” Vexation Island, his breakthrough piece for the Canadian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale, translated the artist’s musings on futility, desire, perception and communication into a nine-minute slapstick Hollywood costume tautology — structurally elegant, and funnier than Samuel Beckett and Homer Simpson in a crepitation contest. Dressed in Disneyesque Technicolor pirate drag, the artist stars as a hapless buccaneer, trapped in an infinitely recurring universe of gesticulating parrots and tempting, ready-to-fall coconuts. I’ll try not to give away any of the punch lines to Graham’s relentlessly jokey works, but I can say this: Vexation Island is a knockout.

After the acclaim that greeted Vexation Island, Graham pursued a series of narrative cinematic genre microganzas, first with How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, whose sweet high lonesome sincerity and Hindu-style cauterization of the romantic myth of Endless Western Expansion utterly belie its superficial cowpoke kitsch. A cowboy in the wilderness (Graham) sings a Lee Hazlewood–esque ballad of melancholy alienation from contemporary urban life, then rides off into the sunset only to circle round to the same dang campsite, and the same old song again, over and over and over. In 2000, Graham completed his trilogy with the gaudy pantomime City Self/Country Self, in which our hero, split into complementary 19th-century Frenchmen — one a hick from the sticks, the other a bourgeois dandy — enacts a time-distorting act of anal self-penetration just in time for déjeuner.

These three works, which form the nucleus of MOCA’s survey, are installed in a cluster of sonically leaky theaters. Parrot squawks mix with strummed guitars and clattering horse-drawn carriages — even the impressionist prepared-piano tinklings of Graham’s most recent costume drama, A Reverie Interrupted by the Police, seep through from the next room. I like my audio art layered and incongruous, but in work as precisely configured as Graham’s, the resulting pastiche more resembles the mixed auditory overlays in a substandard movie cineplex than musique concrète. And there’s no question that the specific soundtrack is integral to Graham’s work — the titular Ramblin’ song is the artist’s own composition. (He played Spaceland the week before his opening, and stacks of his convincing Rock Is Hard CD are available in the museum gift shop.)

The first track from Rock is Hard. Here’s the whole album as a youtube playlist.

Graham’s singer-songwriter turn in these recent video works is in fact a return of sorts. In the hothouse milieu of the late-’70s Vancouver art scene, he consorted with future Canadian all-stars Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace in a post-punk band named UJ3RK5. Along with these same artists and Ken Lum, he also became part of a tightly knit circle of ambitious, theoretically rigorous, photography-and-text-based image-makers whose spare, droll commentaries meshed smoothly with the dominant late-conceptualist literary artwork of the ’80s.

Many of Graham’s lesser-known early works verge on the kind of puritan anesthetic torpor than imbues so much of that milieu. On close examination, though, they are inevitably enlivened by intellectual lucidity, tremendous humor and awesome loops. One could fairly describe Graham’s oeuvre as “text, photography and video that cross-references Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Smithson, Judd, Hitchcock, 19th-century optics, and structuralist film,” which would propel most right-thinking people in the direction of the nearest cineplex. The academies are filled with purveyors of this kind of cultural-studies Rolodex art — art whose overriding conceptual raison d’être is to reference as many intellectually fashionable touchstones as possible in order to give academic writers something to identify (and so be theoretically forearmed against the incursion of any actual sensory experience).

Much of Graham’s institutional support derives from these rarefied climes where actual art objects are considered some kind of clownish adjunct to discourse. But things are not about theories; theories are about things. Graham’s capacity to transcend self-referential dialectics can be glimpsed through some of his less respectable citations — Syd Barrett and Albert Hoffman in his acid-eating, bike-riding reverie The Phonokinetoscope, Kurt Cobain in his beautiful slide show Aberdeen, or The Wicker Man in his video Loudhailer (not included here, sadly), and several works based on the James Bond novels and films. Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Roussel and the Brothers Grimm. Tommy James and the Shondells. This kind of name-checking is sexy, classless, funny and open to new ideas — a personal, creative art-making strategy instead of a lockstep ratification of the canon.

Even more revealing are the works that don’t reference much of anything. The gorgeous, silent, black-and-white film loop Coruscating Cinnamon Granules is as much about scraping spent hash off hot knives as it is about any French film theory. Halcion Sleep consists entirely of a single half-hour shot of the unconscious pajama-clad artist being transported in the back of a van through the rainy nighttimestreets of Vancouver. And the haunting, foliage-illuminated-by-police-helicopters surveillance tape Edge of a Wood bends the arc of Graham’s art career into its own loop, recalling such early works as Two Generators (being projected intermittently at MOCA Grand Street theater space) where patches of dark forest were lit with portable industrial lights.

What is revealed is that the real power of Graham’s work has nothing to do with shout-outs to the correct vaporous conceptualistisms (art that uses the clichés of conceptualism without having any actual concepts to back them up) but rather with the affirmation, superseding the despair of ceaseless repetition, of the hard-wired pleasures that are the vocabulary of all art and which have defined art history. I’m sorry, but should our species somehow survive another 1,000 years, nobody will be looking at the art of our era, nodding sagely and murmuring, “Ah yes, Deleuze.” If they’re lucky, though, they’ll still be mesmerized by or guffawing over Rodney Graham willfully chasing his own tale.

RODNEY GRAHAM: A LITTLE THOUGHT was on view at L.A. MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary from JULY 25, 2004 – JAN 3, 2005.

Guest column: Daniel Mendel-Black: NOTES ON THE PAINTINGS

One of the most criminally underexposed contemporary abstract painters in Los Angeles is Daniel Mendel-Black, whose work is never less than rigorous, sumptuous, and playful. His first solo show in too long opens at Brad Eberhard’s artist-run space Alto Beta on Sunday, October 9, from 3-5 PM (with art critic Jan Tumlir spinning platters. The closing happy hour features LAFMS svengali/DJ Tom Recchion on Halloween decks on Sunday, October 30, 3-5PM. Alto Beta is located at 2551 1/2 Fair Oaks, Altadena. (same parking lot as Pizza of Venice). Follow alto_beta on Instagram. Heres what DM-B has to say about the new paintings:

6:15:10:40, 2022, 20 x 16 inches, acrylic on canvas

1. The paintings are composed of cut strips of colored canvas that are joined together with paint. The history of vanguard painting is replete with antagonism towards the medium. But, while previous artists have emphasized object-ness in their efforts to demystify painting, such a literal proposition has always struck me as a bit one-sided and heavy handed. Calling attention to the material reality of a painting does not seem to me to exclude any expressive association one may have with it; take, for instance, the emotional impact of such (in)famous extremist anti-art gestures as slashing (Lucio Fontana) or burning (Alberto Burri).

6:6:12:45, 2022, 24 x 18 inches, acrylic on canvas; 6:7:1:12, 2022, 24 x 18 inches, acrylic on canvas

2. The variously colored strips of cotton duck are painted solidly without any apparent gesture. The paint that binds them together results in handmade brushwork and incidental accents along the edges of the irregular ribbons with an overall effect that somewhat resembles the bands of distortion on a monitor of a corrupted or jammed video tape, or a screen that is on the fritz or not quite tuned in to the desired channel. Past abstract painting schools often presented themselves as competing ideologies that sought to negate one another — believers in subjective gesture (Abstract Expressionism), for example, countered by advocates of objective, mechanical mark-making (Color Field, Pop, and so on). These various types of application, however, do not seem to me to oppose each other in any way that might support such radical claims. I do not find them incompatible in any measurable way. In fact, they often seem to work well together. Early on, I began to play the supposed antagonism of different applications against each other.

6:22:12:10, 2022, 30 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas; 6:27:11:56, 2022, 30 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas

3. I have not cut and divided the canvas as past generations might have done in order to disrupt the continuity of the visual field of the painting. I do not only wish to prioritize the immediate presence of a concrete form — “what you see is what you see” — but also to open that space up in the way that only abstraction can; by emphasizing the conflict between flat and deep space.

6:30:11:38, 2022, 40 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas

4. My aim is no more to make a wall-sculpture than a collage. In these paintings no band of canvas lays atop another. To me, it is impossible to ignore the difference between an inanimate or found object and a vibrant field of painted color. We can read (understand) just about anything we are presented with in art, but I believe a painting also offers a specifically spacial and dimensional felt (sensory) experience. Or, as Hans Hofmann put it in his more clinical, quasi-scientific way: “A work based only on a line concept is scarcely more than an illustration; it fails to achieve pictorial structure. Pictorial structure is based on a plane concept. The line originates in the meeting of two planes … we can lose ourselves in a multitude of lines, if through them we lose our senses for the planes.”

7:2:12:32, 2022, 40 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas

5. I wish for the cut strips of colored cotton duck in these paintings to appear simultaneously as unique planes. I am as much after any emotional reaction produced by the incisions I have made in the field, as I am engaged with the idea of lines, to rephrase Hofmann, that are formed where those planes meet. With his “Onement” series, Barnett Newman notably addressed a similar idea of a line produced by a split field. What is read (understood) and the raw experience of the painting (what is felt) are inseparable from each other. The flash of primary sensory apprehension one has of the painting surface is one and the same as the idea. For him, there were profound almost theological consequences in such an action akin to cellular division and genesis. 

7:6:12:12, 2022, 40 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas

6. As Roland Barthes puts it in Mythologies: “Semiotics is a science of forms …” It is about structure; how meaning is put together. My planes have cut edges, and the irregular bands of color wrap around the support to give the work thickness. Peter Halley also exaggerates the object-ness of his paintings. His work is critical of past abstraction. In his stand against “idealist Modernism”, to use his language, he “placed a jail” in the color field, put bars on his geometry, gave Newman plumbing, and walled up Rothko. Nevertheless, I remember standing in front of a green and magenta painting of his in his studio and describing it as “delicious”. I do not oppose reality against abstraction. It is not so simple. There is more to it. The idea of the sign as a form allows me to approach the material of the painting as something which I can manipulate.

7:28:11:34, 2022, 36 x 36 inches, acrylic on canvas

7. My intention is not to underscore the artificiality of my paintings. They are, of course, artifice. To me, the difference between culture and nature is that I can deconstruct what is manmade (I can, for example, imagine how a lamp is put together), but I cannot do the same, for instance, with a leaf on a tree. I do not know how to make it. As long as I can take a form apart in my head, it remains no more than an idea.

7:30:10:33, 2022, 36 x 36 inches, acrylic on canvas

8. I do not wish to nullify or cancel out any aspect of the phenomenal potential of these abstractions. Instead, I employ such previously vanguard strategies to further activate them. The colored strips of canvas in these paintings are of irregular width and are never truly vertical or horizontal, but always cut across the plane at various angles. The asymmetry of the bands of painted cotton duck do not, however, ultimately represent internal instability or crisis. The effect, like the brushwork and incidental marks made along the edges where the strips are joined, is counter-intuitive — the paint literally holds the painting together.  To me, they approach nature when one cannot or no longer cares to mentally disassemble them, and one gives oneself over to the unconscious, affective and meditative experience they offer.

“Besides being an abstract artist, sensitive to the anarchy of vibrations in a chaotic world, I feel like I also have to be a DIY art historian, teacher, critic, and theoretician.  For the last twenty years the dominant discussion in art has been about mega-galleries, star dealers, art fairs, auction prices, and so on. As an artist, I feel I’m on my own. I can’t count on anyone else to speak for my work in the way I need them to.  I have to speak for the paintings myself.” 


Altadena, CA

August, 2022

Adrian de la Peña: The LESS ART Interview

Adrian de la Peña was one of the lesser-known artists I chose for inclusion in Some Paintings (The Third LA Weekly Annual Biennial) at Track 16 Gallery in 2008, though one of the most conceptually intriguing. Back then he was making individual works – mostly abstract paintings – that were meant as fragments of a larger, extremely experimental science fiction narrative that was ambiguous as to its strict fictionality.

In de la Peña’s current show Before the Veil, Beyond the Veil: The Veil at Cornelius Projects (operated by former T16 director Laurie Steelink), curator and international man of mystery Antonio Beecroft includes “works constructed from a narrative that was revealed to him while viewing an exhibition of netsuke at LACMA in the 1990s… ‘downloaded’ from a supernatural or extraterrestrial consciousness. The results are paintings on transparent acrylic which the artist suggests are relics of creatures drawn from the narrative who await the reanimation that will occur as the story unfolds.”

So that’s still a go. Continuity is good. But the show is a bit of a mini-survey, and Adrian’s idiosyncratic diversity is frontburnered with a couple of jubilant CoBrA-esque canvases dating back to the turn of the Millennium, a suite of post-Painterly dropcloths from five years later, excerpts from an almost 2-decade video project involving the POV of an art museum janitor’s mop, a cluster of meticulously plotted hard-edge geometric abstractions, and the aforementioned alien candy-slime artifacts. And there’s more!

We caught up with de la Peña in his negative-orgone-proof underground bunker and interrogated him about the directions his work has taken him in the interim.

vLMx Head 2003 Acrylic on plaster 8 x 5 x 41/2 inches

LESS ART: I think your works incorporating multidirectional grids resulting in an omnidirectional plane are neat! Where do you get your ideas?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: generally speaking, i get my ideas by keeping open to what comes my way. if i come across something that triggers me aesthetically  or spiritually i will often file it in my head/heart to work with later. what turns out to be a good idea is one that pulls various interests of mine into it, like the multidirectional grid.

From the series The Quartering: The Tree of Knowledge Appears in the Mind; The Tree of Knowledge Appears on the Land; The Robot Savior as a Young Faun Beneath the Tree of Knowledge; Atomization of the Land/Mind; The Land/Mind Shifts in Flux – All 2005-2006 Acrylic, spray paint, ink and paint marker on drop cloth All 25 x 36 inches

LESS ART: Can you elaborate on the multidirectional grids, and maybe outline some of your “various interests?”

The recent “Oval” handbag from the iconic BAO BAO ISSEY MIYAKE line

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: one day i saw an ad for a purse designed by issey miyake that was really cool. it was a sculptural, geometric thing. i don’t know why but i was triggered and i immediately envisioned some kind of painting. one of my favorite processes as an artist is figuring out how to get the image in my head to a physical art piece. the multidirectional grid came out of that struggle. and it’s turned out to be a really useful and fruitful and interesting thing. 

LESS ART: So this was more of a design inspiration than sacred geometry revelation?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: like i’m saying, at first the multidirectional grid was just a visual thing for me. i saw something in my head and i wanted to make it in the real world and the grid was like a tool. but i’ll back up a bit, because my first intention was actually to make not as much a painting, but a way of making paintings. i’ve worked in craft and art production for jobs in my past, and i really gained an appreciation for the way systems are created and used in order to produce efficiently.

i once worked in a ceramics studio where they made things using liquid porcelain in molds. it was in the upper haight.  i remember my first week working there was intense because of the way i was being trained. they would like make me sit in a certain position, put my arm on the table a certain way and hold my hands in a specific manner, etc, breathe calmly, while i assembled pieces. it was like an extreme micromanage.

i thought they were crazy especially because they were all getting stoned and i was being left out of the huddle. but i’m laughing now thinking about how they eventually let me join the huddle and when i went back to work kinna fucked-up like that their training made total sense because as fucked up as i was, i was fine to work because as long as i did shit the way they trained me to, it was easy to do and done correct. but anyways, through mostly jobs i’ve had i’ve gained a real appreciation for the art of creating a kind of streamline production.

Carlyle SphinX 22 2019-2022 Acrylic on plaster 8 x 8 x 5 1/2 inches

so anyways that was my first intention, to make a way of making paintings. the miyake purse was the spark that made me understand what kind of painting i wanted. it seemed to want to be a geometric thing, not crazy, but busy and calm at the same time, something that had a way to play with color with, something that hung well in a room. i wanted a no-worry painting, a no worry, just enjoy painting.

Illustration of the Avatamsaka Sutra at Songgwangsa in Suncheon, Korea. Joseon dynasty, 1644.

LESS ART: It seems like there’s something distinctly contemplative about these works (not to mention the slipcasting mindfulness retreat.

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: so to start, a grid was an obvious structure to play with, to hang color on. but that issey miyake purse, which i only really saw a couple of times in an ad, i remember had diagonals, so i added them. on raw canvas with a pencil. that’s how i got to what i sometimes call an unconditional happiness grid, or a queer grid, this multidirectional grid. really, it started with a want to streamline art production, triggered by a high-end fashion accessory, but hanging out with this grid now for a number of years, it turns out that i’m fucking around with the structure of the universe.

Robot RocketShip Robot & Giant Colossus, both 2000, acrylic on canvasboard, and 36 X 24 ins

LESS ART: The very structure of the universe?!

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: i mean that literally and jokingly. but i love this grid like that. we go deep sometimes. way way back in my past when i was active in the oto i remember studying the book of the law and reading somewhere in there about the center being everywhere and the periphery nowhere. that’s what this grid feels like to me. because really if you extend the grid like it wants to be, you’ll find these centers everywhere, with no edge in sight. there seems to be something just true about that.

like, when i look at other people it’s me, this center here, looking at other centers over there and over there. centers everywhere. but this grid is also a just great structure to fuck around with. slap some blue tape on there and break out the spray paint and see what happens with color and layers, obstruct and reveal, freeze it when it sparks joy, or keep going to see what else joy looks like.

Large Repeat Signal from Project Blue Beam 2011 Acrylic on paper;
MOF (man of fire) 2005 Spray paint, acrylic and graphite on enamel over wood 86 x 38 inches

LESS ART: Can you explain more about the long-term janitorial video project?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: when i was working doing maintenance and facilities at the orange county museum of art i started documenting my work with my iphone, creating this series of videos and photographs that i called the subatomic gestalt. basically i was sharing the perspective of a maintenance worker at an art museum, of a worker pretty much at the very bottom of the art hierarchy. being an artist working as a janitor at an art museum could have been a mind fuck – talk about strugglin’ – instead i found myself performing it as an artist, and recording it. not constantly of course. i can talk about the influence of zen buddhism here too, mindfulness etc, here too. but yeah. it was fun making art on the job. anyways, the title of the series, the subatomic gestalt, i know is kind of silly. but it felt right giving it this weighty and a bit obnoxious title, giving my janitor-self and how i made my living some kind of bump-up. but at the same time the title is legit. there’s this thing that goes on beneath the surface that has it’s own kind of meaning.

LESS ART: Earlier you spoke of searching for ideas that pull your “various interests” into them. Can you elaborate?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: as far as my various interests i guess i’ve been talking about some already. art making. making things. discovering new ways to make things. making ways to make things. fashion and design have always prompted work. i love interior design. i love experiencing what other artists do, when it’s good and great.

i love music though i feel lost right now and listen mostly to classical ragas according to the time of day, and alice coltrane’s turiya sings. the kind of bad thing and good thing about all this is that i can’t help trying my hand at all these things and not just be a fan.

my love of anime and writing and science fiction is where one of my series of artwork comes from. rachel rosenthal was my teacher for a couple of semesters back in the day and she’d tell me disgustingly about being a jack of all trades, don’t be one. i can’t help it though. i love it and i want to do it.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, c. 1299, fresco, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

but above and beyond all that, when i was a kid i wanted to be a saint. probably because i was in catholic school starting from kindergarten and you’d always see pictures of sweet little sparrows hanging out with saint francis and saint domanic. they’d fly away from me though. i wanted to make the scene. i still do, shit.

but really, beyond the glamour of it, spirituality is what calls me the most. and that more or less means that no matter what the struggle is, what the joy is, what the question is, the answer is always the same: just here with god. ultimately my life will be about a journey into the center proper. i don’t talk about it much though. certainly not in my work. but it’s usually the conclusion to any of it, if you take any of it to its final conclusion. i decided recently that maybe i should talk about it a little.

LESS ART: What do you mean when you refer to God?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: when i say god i’m talking about the ultimate gestalt. when i’m saying “god” i’m saying “everything”, the one big thing.

so yeah, i was raised a roman catholic, i wanted to be a saint, but then i found out that I’m gay, and then i found out that god hates fags. so i looked and looked for something besides that weird god who I feared more than I loved anyway. then i was on the road that eventually led me to buddhism, hinduism, ritual magic, i don’t know, whatever has been clever navigating this self-managed evolution. it can be a real ego nonsense kind of journey, and there’s that whole carrot and stick aspect of it. but right now i’m in love with both the carrot and the stick. i’ve had lots of teachers, or people i follow in one way or another. at this very very moment i’m not listening to or following anybody. “just be”, “simply be” i guess are the gods i’m vibing with right now.

LESS ART: Apart from “Don’t follow leaders,” are you involved in any specific spiritual practices or studies at the moment?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: i’m about to do a week long retreat at the new camaldoli hermitage in big sur. i did it last year too. it’s run by catholic monks. i look forward to the silence. i really really mean that.

when i say, me here with god, i mean me here positioned in my correct place. my first psychedelic revelation, when i was nineteen, was that if god created everything from itself then everything was god and i was as much god as everything else. forty years later there is no modifying the fact that revelation exposed to me. so when i say, me here with god, i’m talking about being in that proper place where you just know. because there is god and there is the denial of god, which apparently we are all inheritors of. the denial is what fucks things up and makes us feel like crap. finding the divine in everything feels really really good.

Curated by Antonio Beecroft
June 18–August 28, 2022
Day-before-closing slow happening reception Saturday, Aug 27, from 11:30 AM – 5 PM
with live international improvised audio collage broadcast of The Mannlicher Carcano Radio Hour
from 11:30 – 1:30: all are welcome to join.

Robot RocketShip Robot
Giant Colossus

1417 South Pacific Avenue
Gabrielino-Tongva Territory, San Pedro, CA 90731
(310) 266-9216

Guest WTF Thursday: Kevin Mutch on Dingbat Calendars

As I get (even) older, I have a little hobby where I try to track down dimly remembered bits and pieces from when I was a boy – a list of books mostly, but also drawings, movies, and so on – things that left a deep impression on me but which I can’t recall with clarity. Some of them have been easy to track down thanks to Google, but others have eluded me for years.

One of the hardest nuts to crack has been this memory: as a little kid in Winnipeg, whenever my mother would take me to see our pediatrician I’d be entranced by some posters he had on his office wall — richly detailed fairytale style paintings of a bunch of elves or gremlins all doing funny things. I tried googling “old elf paintings” or “old fairy tale illustrations” and assorted other permutations for years and years, and never found the images.

Then, last weekend, my wife and I were at the fantastic antique market in Aberfoyle, Ontario and in a ramshackle booth, sitting in a dusty frame, was one of these long-sought pictures! Much more recent (from the 80’s) and therefor a lot less charming, but unquestionably the same characters: according to the title, they were called the “Dingbats.” I wrote down the name and googled it as soon as I got home — and, on the website of the Niagara Apothecary Pharmacy Museum, I finally found out the story of the paintings and why they’d be in a Canadian doctor’s office but almost nowhere else.

The end of the story — the explanation for why they were ultimately discontinued — is classically Canadian. “From 1915 until 1996, health professionals all across Canada received a calendar which featured the healing efforts of the Dingbats. Charles Edward Frosst founded the Canadian company that bore his name until 1965 when it was taken over by a major American manufacturer to become Merck-Frosst.

Charles Frosst engaged the artist, William Dudley Burnett Ward, to paint an appealing calendar for distribution to his firm’s audience. Over the course of 81 years there have been a long succession of artists following Ward… The Dingbat calendars were discontinued as a result of a Canadian industry’s association decision that the Dingbat promotion was unfair competition.”

More info and images here and here.

Kevin Mutch is a cartoonist, digital artist, and painter from Winnipeg, Canada. He received an MFA in painting from the University of Victoria. His graphic novel Fantastic Life received a Xeric Award in 2010 and was excerpted in The Best American Comics 2011. His second graphic novel, The Rough Pearl, was published by Fantagraphics in 2020. http://kevinmutch.blogspot.com/