Saturday, April 29, 2006


Trenton Doyle Hancock
"Las Luces, Looses, and Losses"
Mixed media on canvas
60 3/4 X 60 3/4 X 4 inches

An inordinate amount of Trenton Doyle Hancock buzz was generated and disseminated this February and March. Hoping the coverage would die down and/or that my recollection of it would dim, I put off a visit to Hancock’s recent solo effort, "In The Blestian Room," at James Cohan Gallery, for as long as I could. Galleries aren't in the business of humoring persnickety calendar demands, however, and I found myself studying Hancock's handiwork with the hoopla still on my mind.(1)

Trenton Doyle Hancock
"In The Blesstian Room"
Mixed media on canvas
90 x 108 x 6 inches

Clearly, I’m a biased viewer, but I found "In The Blestian Room" disappointing. My dissatisfaction is rooted in suspicion of motive, not, as one might assume, in aesthetics. That is to say, while some of Hancock's decisions - attaching studio detritus to the paintings, for example - seem self-conscious, fraught denotations of race, attitude, or spontaneous process, I was more disturbed by the sense that Hancock is dangerously close to becoming an art world personality. That is to say, his work seems calculated, more akin to Warhol than Darger or Dubuffet. Hancock turns his uncouthness into a commodity. As Donald Kuspit writes, "The artist outsider is well rewarded in our society - so long as he is an insider in art society."(2)

Trenton Doyle Hancock
“The Ossified Theosophied, (Title Page)”
Color etching, Edition of 35
19 1/2 X 25 inches

Hancock's use of narrative scaffolding seems more like a marketing tactic than an essential ingredient in the artist's process. While it is not uncommon for contemporary artists to invent a cosmology on which to base a body of work - Matthew Ritchie is a notable example - most keep the details of their created worlds largely private. Hancock, by contrast, not only cooked up the Mounds saga, a picaresque epic with vaguely religious resonance, he also makes sure viewers know about it. “In The Blestian Room” includes a limited edition print (see above) that amounts to little more than a sloppy, hand-written chapter of the chronicle. Hancock is making up the story as he goes along – this, at least, is how it is presented to the viewer – giving it the appeal of a zany soap opera. (What is Sesom up to now? Come find out! What will he get into next? What crazy characters will he meet tomorrow? Will we witness a great war between the Mounds and the Vegans? You'll have to wait until the next installment/exhibition! Don’t miss it, ‘cuz the art world doesn’t do Tivo!)

Before I continue, it should be noted that I cheer for those making art away from established cultural centers; I enjoy comic books, graphic novels, and cartoons(3); I hold dear much fantasy and myth, from Kipling's "Just So Stories" and Aesop's Fables to The Lord of the Rings; I am fascinated by religious narrative and the clever weaving of historical "fact" with spiritual rendering in such tellings. Given this laundry list of likes, I expected to find a confederate in James Cohan Gallery. What I discovered instead was calculation.

Lee Baxter Davis
"Family Tree"
Ink, watercolor & collage
36 x 44 inches

What's more, Hancock’s still unrecognized debt to the artist who spawned him, Lee Baxter Davis, raises eyebrows. If I were not already an admirer of Davis, I very much doubt I would know of their relationship. The CUE Art Foundation recently exhibited about twenty of Davis’s drawings and paintings. Long overdue, the show was the artist’s first in New York. Early in the associated press release, the writer draws attention to Davis' influential role.
“A regional icon, Davis’ thirty-years of teaching printmaking and drawing at East Texas State University (now called Texas A & M, Commerce) has influenced the careers of some of his very prized students including exhibition curator, Gary Panter, along with Whitney Biennial artists Trenton Doyle Hancock, Robyn O’Neil, and Christian Schumann, among others.”
An Internet search for “Lee Baxter Davis” turns up little, whereas “Trenton Doyle Hancock” nets many relevant articles and websites. In pieces about Hancock, the names William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Philip Guston, Max Ernst, and Gary Panter are repeatedly cited as influences, but Davis is nowhere credited. This is a curious oversight, the result of Davis' being a relative unknown in the New York art world. Closer to home - his home - he looms large.
"In the 1970s, The Lizard Cult was a vaguely derogatory term applied to East Texas State University (as it was known then)'s Art Professor Lee Baxter Davis and many of his most talented students. It was called that because so much of their work closely approximated his - rife with comic sensibility, lush textures and lurid details....Once viewed with condescension, The Lizard Cult has not only grown up, many of Davis' students have prospered and become regionally and nationally prominent." (J R Compton, "Lee Baxter Davis and The Lizard Cult Grows Up," Dallas Arts Review)
With the exception of Gary Panter, Davis' celebrated proteges are all much younger (by thirty or more years, typically) and, therefore, more attractive (for the moment) to the youth-obsessed art market. Furthermore, whereas Davis is a retired art professor now working as an assistant pastor of St. William the Confessor Catholic Church in Greenville, Texas, his former students manage to bridge the divide between "living and working" in Texas and, well, living in Texas. In other words, though Hancock and O'Neil still live in the state (Paris and Houston, respectively), they have attached themselves to the larger art world in a way that Davis has not. Why, one wonders, have so many of Davis' students achieved art world success while he remains a regional icon? In part, the answer lies with the man himself, with a desire to remain unrecognized, but I can't shake the sense that a more perverse process is also at work.

Lee Baxter Davis
"Big Bear"
Pen, ink, watercolor & collage
21" x 29 inches

In his recent indictment of postmodern art, The End of Art, Kuspit describes two artist archetypes. The first is a "reclusive alchemist struggling to purify the dross of everyday reality," and the second, an "entertainer representing a mass audience's everyday wishes." Although Kuspit argues that the monkish model is exclusively modern and, today, extinct, this is not the case; both are alive and well. As a general rule, however, it is the second type, those interested in "having an audience that will make them popular, giving them the celebrity and charisma they believe they are entitled to as artists," that finds success in the art world.

Lee Baxter Davis is the very picture of Kuspit's reclusive alchemist. Not only are his paintings alchemical, but his lifestyle and approach to art-making fit the bill, too.
"Like a hermit practicing his art in millennia past, Davis is isolated. He has chosen to separate himself from society, locating his studio, home and family life far from the hustle and bustle of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin. Davis finds peace and purity of existence in the quietude of a rural existence. Instead of reaping and sowing the land for its hearty edibles, he reaps and sows the earth for intellectual nourishment. It is a type of sustenance that could only come from the coupling of separation and deliberation - from self-willed banishment to the silent wilds of a life found deep in the nowhere lands of Texas." (Charissa N. Terranova, "Alchemist of Imagination," ARTL!ES, Issue 43)
Furthermore, Davis is as invested in (or consumed by) his contemplation of philosophy, religion, and pop culture as he is the local environment.
"Growing up in the small towns of Texas, Davis' boyish pursuits included immersing himself within the complex sagas told by great Southern writers, the harrowing poems of Edgar Allen Poe, and a dizzying array of post WWII popular comic books and newspaper strips such as BlackHawk, Pogo Possum, and Mad Magazine. Largely raised by his Methodist minister grandfather, and having read the bible since childhood, Davis has long harbored a deep-rooted fascination with the more mysterious elements of faith...Believing laughter and prayer to be close to the same thing, he creates illusions whose idiosyncrasies harbor nervous fits of laughter as buffers against existential angst."(Gary Panter, "Lee Baxter Davis," CUE Art Foundation press release)

Davis' layered pastiche is, for him, a metaphysical search, one that ties vulgar realities to marvelous visions, the profane to the sacred. Viewers - western viewers, in particular - will recognize many of the embedded symbols, but they must interpret the work subjectively, nurturing their own hybrid narrative. Thus, something approaching the intrinsic alchemy of the making - Davis' journey - is experienced by the viewer. To an extent this is true of all visual art, but Davis' symbolic content elevates the exchange.

Hancock's Mounds fiction, on the other hand, is altogether different. Viewers must learn about the Mounds before the narrative becomes meaningful. We are given a choice: disregard the mythology and treat the work as illustrative reverie, or become an initiate of Hancock, learning the magic words, the symbols, and the gestures. In essence, Hancock offers viewers a cult of personality. Davis allows us a subjective experience by drawing on shared myth; Hancock gives us an opportunity to participate in his manufactured, flimsy one.

Yet the son has surpassed the father, at least in terms of renown. Hancock is more savvy than Davis. Whether by virtue of his nature or the waving of an agent's wand, he presents us with the "high art" version of an "outsider"/low-brow aesthetic. His awareness of the supposed division between these two orbits is clear. For many, this makes the work more easy to digest, but also more intelligent and contemporary. For others, myself included, that awareness results in self-conscious painting, work that excels at distraction and affirmation, but fails to address universal experience. Many critics (many friends) disagree, arguing that Hancock melds rich narrative, magic, superstition, faith, and popular culture to produce an original experience, a distinct and contemporary remix. But the father's artwork suggests that same union is less an artistic assertion of individuality than a way of life, an approach allowing us to cope with and consider deeply disturbing axioms.

Lee Baxter Davis
Pen, ink & collage
28" x 20 inches

(1) Museum exhibitions have a longer lifespan, allowing the details of the 2006 Whitney Biennial coverage, for example, to fade before I finally visit (in late May).

(2) Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, Cambridge University Press, 2004

(3) In fact, I feel Hancock is better served when he sticks to comics - there were some strong pages on display in the rear gallery - and the like. His book, "Me A Mound," is a far more interesting artifact that his paintings or prints, though it, too, suffers for a certain amount of ostentation.

Photo credits: All images ripped from James Cohan Gallery and CUE Art Foundation websites

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Marc Ecko's Admission

Anyone having watched the video of Ecko employees tagging Air Force One will be interested to learn that graffiti artist cum fashion mogul, Marc Ecko, admits the video was a hoax.
"I wanted to do something culturally significant, wanted to create a real pop-culture moment," said Marc Ecko of Marc Ecko Enterprises. "It's this completely irreverent, over-the-top thing that could really never happen: this five-dollar can of paint putting a pimple on this Goliath."
I suspected as much, but enjoyed the documentation and dissemination all the same.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Undoing The Gordian Knot

Michael Pollan, Hunting, and The Rest Of It

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"The fact that you cannot come out of hunting feeling unambiguously good about it is perhaps what should commend the practice to us....If I've learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it's that it's even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig looking forward (if that's the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris."
-Michael Pollan, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer"
I'm always pleased when I come across an article that clearly conveys a concept I have been striving to articulate with limited success, so I'm indebted to a co-worker for bringing to my attention Michael Pollan's (relatively) recent essay, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," in The New York Times Magazine (March 26, 2006). Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and, most recently, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is a sensitive, thoughtful proponent of hunting. But whereas most writers who wax poetic about the hunt are guilty of romanticizing and simplifying what is, in fact, quite messy(1), Pollan argues that the hunter can not be a moralist. Rather "the grown-up hunter, the uneasy hunter...recognizes the truth" that resides in contradiction, or, as Robert Kimber put it in his excellent Living Wild & Domestic, "the uncompromising romantic has to compromise with the realist."

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Before I continue, however, let me provide some background explanation of why Pollan's piece strikes a chord. As I wrote in my March 2005 essay, "Hunting JFK,"
"I consider myself a conscientious hunter. I eat no meat, including fish, unless I catch it or kill it myself. I kill only a few animals a year and catch only ten or so fish. I live on a vegetarian diet otherwise, aiming to minimize my contribution to the environmental degradation wrought by the meat [and fishing] industr[ies]. I will hunt only those species biologists deem to have 'surplus' populations, such as white-tailed deer (does only), mallard ducks (drakes only), cottontail rabbits."
Environmental degradation was not Pollan's principal motivation, but his reasons for picking up a rifle and heading into the woods of northern California to stalk and kill a feral pig (Sus scrofa), an introduced species descended from the European wild hog, are no less significant. The son of "one of the world's great indoorsmen," Pollan had never hunted. He "had long felt that, as a meat eater, [he] should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that eating meat entails. [He] wanted, for once in [his] life, to pay the full karmic price of a meal." That Pollan should feel this way is admirable. Most well-educated Westerners are now too timid, too cloaked in denial, to address such base issues. Turning again to Kimber, "If the step from hunter to herdsman-plowman was the first great step in the process of alienation from nature and self, then surely the step from herdsman-plowman to city dweller, driver of combines, and feedlot engineer has all but completed that process."

All contemporary omnivores - the vast majority of humans - are necessarily implicated in the grisly business of meat "manufacture." The pork chop on the plate is more than a tasty entree; it was recently a living animal. After stunning, assuming that process goes smoothly, the pig's throat is slit by machine (or man) and the viscera is spilt before meat preparation begins. Every pig-eater who prefers to cast such realities from her mind is afraid of more than blood and gore or even the potential for undue suffering on the part of the animal. She is, above all else, afraid of confronting her own mortality. If, on the other hand, you know what it's like to kill a fellow creature, you consume flesh with full knowledge of what brings the food to the table: execution. Pollan suspects as much, even if he remains suspicious of the "ecstatic" language used by the likes of Ortega y Gasset and Hemingway.(1)

Pollan's account of the boar hunt makes for good reading, but his consideration of the aftermath is especially excellent. He struggles with his confused, intense reaction to the shooting and dressing, a polite term for gutting, of the large animal.
"...the rest of the organs tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This was not just the stink of pig wastes but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it. I felt a wave of nausea begin to build in my gut. The clinical disinterest with which I had approached the whole process of cleaning my pig collapsed all at once: this was disgusting."
My upbringing was very different from Pollan's. I grew up assisting in the gutting and preparation of dove, quail, duck, deer, rabbit, squirrel, and other animals. As I told a Scrawled correspondent in a recent interview,
"Some of my early memories are, quite literally, bloody...As a child pondering the blood of a slain animal, I was deeply moved, at once overwhelmed with sorrow, and energized by the realization that the neon red glowing on my trembling hands was spilt life. The more familiar I became with death, the more tied to life I felt. It was an introduction to 'the Circle of Life,' even if it wasn't at all what Disney force-fed us."
Pollan draws similar conclusions, but because his is a new experience, he searches for an explanation where those us accustomed to death do not. This search begins with an examination of his nausea.
"...[W]hat was this attack of revulsion all about, anyway? Disgust, I understood, is one of the the tools humans have evolved to navigate the omnivore's dilemma - the elemental question of what we should and should not eat. The emotion alerts us to things we should not ingest, like rotten meat or feces. And surely that protective reflex figured in what I was feeling as I beheld these viscera, which no doubt did contain microbes that could sicken me. Our sense of disgust, as Steven Pinker has written, is 'intuitive microbiology.'"
Pollan's revulsion is the product of our animal hard-wiring. Routine killing and butchering may arrest or weaken this disgust - repetition dulls all sensation - but it remains an inevitable reaction. Like it or not, we are genetically adapted to the Pleistocene lifestyle Hemingway pined for. Pollan may cope well enough in modern-day California, making a living from selling words, but he still becomes ill at the sight of undesirable innards and, when hunting, turns into what he calls "alert man"(2), a more aware animal, one making full use of its senses. Ever conscientious, though, Pollan probes further and discovers something more than genetic coding in his violent revulsion.
"...there had to be more to it than that, and later, when I did some reading on disgust, I acquired a better idea what else might underlie my revulsion. Paul Rozin, a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that many of the things that disgust people do come from animals — bodily fluids and secretions, decaying flesh, corpses. Beyond the sanitary reasons for avoiding certain parts and products of animals, these things disgust us, Rozin suggests, because they confront us with the reality of our own animal nature. So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts, too — animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink and decompose...Exactly why we would strive so hard to distance ourselves from our animality is a large question, but surely the human fear of death figures in the answer."
Ah, yes, and so we arrive again at existential fear and the reason most folks prefer to distance themselves from the killing of the animals they consume. To "[pay] the full karmic price of a meal," Pollan must not only execute the pig, but also own up to the deed. Coming to terms with killing is far more challenging than pulling a trigger.
"What disgusted me about 'cleaning' the animal was just how messy — in every sense of the word — the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked very much like me. The line between human and animal I could discern here, gazing into that carcass, was nowhere near sharp...In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter, and while I'm sure there are many hunters who manage to avoid their gaze, that must take some doing."
For years I've tried to express as much so simply, but I tend to talk around the core of the matter, relying heavily on co-opted constructs and borrowed phrases. Even when I do feel I'm in the ballpark, most folks still willing to listen dismiss my attempts as little more than morbid rambling. After all, I live in New York City and, as far as most people know, eat a strict vegetarian diet. Why am I interested in championing hunting? What sense does that make? Pollan's remarks on the "signal virtues of hunting," particularly the difficult questions raised by the killing of other animals, suggest an answer.

One sometimes hears hunters - the more literary among them, anyway - say, "I kill to have hunted; I do not hunt to kill." This hackneyed comment refers principally to the heightened sense of immediacy and awareness alluded to earlier. Pollan likens this sense to a marijuana high; in fact, it is merely our inborn predatory instinct at work. But while there is certainly much to be said for the act of hunting itself, it is the killing that for me remains the essential existential experience. The hunt allows us to access our rarely used programming, to make full use of our special abilities, but the kill is like a Zen koan, a Gordian knot undone only by willful ignorance or reliance on moral certitude.

As Pollan suggests, avoiding the animal gaze "must take some doing." To approach a fallen animal, a creature you have just killed, is difficult but transfiguring. In the glazing eyes of the dead beast, you confront your own mortality. Terrifying though this may seem, I associate these moments with a profound sense of oneness with the natural world. In accepting responsibility for the brutal deed and recognizing my connection to the slain animal, my ego is reduced. There is an exhalation of the isolated, confused experience of contemporary life, and an inhalation of the universal(3). Dr. Morris Berman's analogy is pertinent: the experience removes the respectful hunter from the vertical, hierarchical world view and allows him to reside as part of the horizontal stretch, if only for a spell.

Unfortunately, I'm no stranger to the so-called "hero shot," the photograph of a hunter standing or kneeling behind a freshly killed animal. (In the case of smaller game, like rabbit or duck, the hunter proudly displays the creature in his hands.) It's a simple enough composition, dull and undistinguished: hunter, weapon, and prey. Usually the hunter smiles broadly. Open any contemporary "hooks-and-bullets" magazine and you'll find these images on most every page. I've never cared for these photos but, because my father is an outdoor writer, I've grown accustomed to his requests for such pictures. These days, article sales depend on the quality of the accompanying photographs as much as they do the writing, so I dutifully pose and do my best to muster a smile. Judging by my father's regular appeal - "C'mon, Christopher. Let's see a happy face. Look like you're enjoying yourself." - I don't often succeed. Why should I smile? I've just killed an animal. I'm spacey and contemplative. I'd prefer to be left alone, given adequate time to commune with the creature I have killed, minus the backslapping and the misdirected camaraderie. The experience is special, certainly, but not celebratory or joyous.

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Apparently, most hunters do not suffer such brooding thoughts. Even Pollan, despite describing his emotions in the first moments after killing his boar as "surging and confused," admits to feeling proud and "unambiguously happy." It isn't until he sees the photograph of himself "kneeling on the ground behind a pig the side of whose head has erupted in blood," "one proprietary hand" placed "on the dead animal's flank," that he realizes how strange his happiness is.
"The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing an ear-to-ear grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame. But the bloodied carcass was right there, front and center, and it rendered that grin - there's no other word for it - obscene. I felt as if I had stumbled on some stranger's pornography....No one should ever see this."
Some of the more seasoned hunters I know will write off Pollan's reaction as silly, indicative of a weakness borne of liberal ("sissified") elitism and a life removed from the realities of nature. There is some truth to that, surely, but what of their own unwillingness to consider the situation completely? They are just as guilty of ignoring the knot's complexity; they opt to "undo" it with denial's blade. As I see it, the ignorance of the prideful "sport" hunter is equivalent to that of the staunch anti-hunter(4).

And that brings me to an obvious distinction; Michael Pollan and I are not typical hunters. In fact, the more used to the predominantly vegetarian diet I become - it's been several years since I ate meat regularly - the less often I will hunt or fish in the future; maybe one day I will stop altogether, instead concentrating on a backyard vegetable garden. I am familiar already with the gravity of killing and the associated ego erasure. Given the power of that experience, it will always inform my art making, my writing, and the way I live my life. The insight may, like a tattoo, fade with time, but it will not disappear. Pollan, too, is unsure if he will hunt again, despite only having done so once. I am sympathetic, even if I feel he should try other forms of hunting before abandoning the practice altogether. We - and I mean all of us, not just hunters - need more voices like his, voices that challenge the intellectual hegemony of dullardism, on both the Left and Right. There are no simple answers to complex questions, and there are only so many times the Gordian knot can be cleaved by ignorance or denail.

For more, visit this interview with Michael Pollan.

Photo credits: Gordian Knot image ripped from homepage of Matthew Cadwallader; boar hunt photos ripped from Southeastern Outdoors and Suwannee River Ranch websites


(1) "I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I've read it in the past, in Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground..." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)

(2) "Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day's first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)

(3)Although some friends tell me they have achieved a similar sensation while practicing yoga, I have not. There have been instances of immediacy, moments when, while in the midst of a yoga session, I feel a vital connection to the world around me, but these experiences are exceptional and, what's more, absent any sense of mortality. Yoga has granted me a connection, but it hasn't erased all sense of self.

(4)"I've looked at Angelo's pictures again, trying to figure out why they should have shamed me so. I realize it isn't the killing it records that I felt ashamed of, not exactly, but the manifest joy I seemed to be feeling about what I'd done. This for many people is what is most offensive about hunting - to some, disgusting: that it encourages, or allows, us not only to kill but also to take a certain pleasure in killing. It's not as if the rest of us don't countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practices, out of view and without emotion, by industrial agriculture." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Old Cranky Brewers

I've eulogized the Eastern Shore of Virginia before, and with good reason. It's a special place and one on the brink of massive change. My recent trips home - and I do still think of the Shore as home, even though I don't plan to return as a resident - leave me ambivalent.

A principal virtue of life at the end of a peninsula is isolation. The southern reach of the Delmarva Peninsula remained relatively "undiscovered" by developers through the middle of the 1980s. Even in the early 1990s, the majority of the "come-heres," as they are called, relocated from elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region, many of them wealthy businessmen from Virginia Beach or the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Most of these upwardly mobile types moved to the Shore for the hunting and fishing, and, more importantly, to escape the spreading sprawl to the north, in southern Delaware and eastern Maryland, and west, across the Chesapeake Bay. Breaking from this mold, a small minority of the transplants, my parents among them (they moved to the Shore in the mid 1970s), were middle class folks from more distant locales, but they, too, immersed themselves in the local community and achieved an uneasy rapport with their neighbors. In some cases, the "come-heres" even earned a begrudging respect from the Shore's established families, although it was made abundantly clear that two generations of "come-here" children had to be raised on the peninsula before the pejorative label would be removed, a rather endogamous policy.

The last decade, though, has seen an influx of urbanites, mostly from Washington, D.C. and New York City, buying land and building weekend retreats. These developments, estates, and cottages are picturesque enough, but they disrupt the local ecosystems, both that of the "natural" world - new houses, artificial lighting, and human activity increase the ecological footprint - and the country lifestyle. Gourmet restaurants, impossible to imagine ten years past, and boutiques are opening in the larger towns and alongside Route 13, the highway artery on the Shore. Most distressingly, the radiant eye of Sam's Club/WalMart has settled on the region. The Gates of Walton have been opened and the tractor trailers are emerging.

Mind you, not every change heralded by this imminent development will be for the worse. The Shore can expect to see growth in arts and culture, more calls for improved education (i.e., money from the state), and a heightened awareness of the long-standing racial inequality, hopefully leading to stronger social programs. (Of course, as I've suggested previously, the opposite could result, too.) Furthermore, dinner parties won't all revolve around "big buck" stories, litter collection will be encouraged, and the growing "come-here" population, with their discerning tastes, will likely demand an increased variety of food and beverages.

Enter Old Cranky, the brewery brainchild of two brothers, both of whom were childhood friends who remain important to me today. Although the brewery is still gestating, a blog, Old Cranky Brewers, details the trials and tribulations of this nascent beer operation. Rarely will readers find product promotion here at Hungry Hyaena, but I think this is a fair exception and, despite my ambivalence regarding the Shore's future, I'm eager to see Old Cranky take off.

Take off, by the way, is an apt phrase. The beer is named after the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), a common, even ubiquitous species in the region. When this handsome bird is irritated, usually by one or another of us bumbling apes, he hefts his awkward frame into the air and makes known his displeasure with a grating squawk, much as a rankled old man would do -- hence the nickname.

At any rate, the blog makes for interesting reading, especially if you have an interest in brewing, marketing, or small business start-ups. Plus, if all goes well, Old Cranky blog readers can one day sip the brew and say, "I remember when this beer was still a blog."

Photo credit: copyright 2006, Old Cranky Brewers

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Richmond Weekend

Art, Neighborhoods, and Michael McDevitt's Solo Show

I spent New Year's Eve 2003 in Richmond, Virginia, toasting the arrival of mid-winter and catching up with a few college buddies.  Over the course of that rainy, celebratory evening, a number of proud locals raved about the Richmond art scene.  At times, their exaltation was extreme. Two artists proclaimed Richmond's cultural milieu superior to that of New York or Los Angeles.  I recall one particularly drunk young man telling me that Richmond was the best place to be making art and that, even if money were no object, he wouldn't want to work anywhere else.  All of this self-congratulation seemed inflated and defensive and, although I only listened that night, I returned to New York feeling certain the Richmonders were deluding themselves.

This past Thursday, I returned to Virginia's capital. I'm happy to report that my impression of the city's art community is much improved.  The upbeat energy and sense of camaraderie enthused me.  Walking down Broad Street on Friday night felt little different than a Thursday in Chelsea: throngs of gallery goers crowded the sidewalks and mingled in gallery spaces sipping wine, eating crackers, and generally having a grand ol' time.  Gone completely is the sense that the Richmond art community has a chip on its shoulder.

My earlier, negative assessment was colored by the insecurity underlying the claims made that New Year's Eve, but it was also influenced by the naive notion that the art universe revolves around New York City.  Three years ago that was easier for me to believe.  I was just out of graduate school, at the time, and full of beans.  More importantly, though, I better recognize now just how fluid and subjective the art world is.  It isn't a question of what city is "the best place to be making art," but rather, what city, town, or deserted island is the best place for you to make art and, apparently, Richmond suits a lot of folks just fine.

The Chinatown Bus arrives in Richmond around midnight and local bars close at 2:00 AM, so after a couple of quick drinks on Thursday night, we returned to my friend's house in Oregon Hill, the neighborhood pictured above.  Most of Friday was spent wandering around Oregon Hill and The Fan, both attractive neighborhoods on the northern bank of the picturesque James River.  Oregon Hill is celebrated as one of the few surviving working class neighborhoods in the United States, but it might not be deserving of this mantle any longer.  Virginia Commonwealth University, a college known for its excellent art program, has campus buildings scattered throughout the area and, as a result, the one-time working class stronghold is now "up-and-coming."  A growing population of college students and artists is displacing those working class families that remain; soon, Oregon Hill will be thoroughly gentrified, like The Fan before it.  Working class or not, however, I saw no black folks, young or old, in the area.  Apparently, this is not a recent phenomenon.  Oregon Hill has been considered the domain of "white trash" for some time.

High real estate prices (by Richmond standards) aside, The Fan is a beautiful area.  The architecture is lovely and the back alleys are inviting.  It's also nice to see so many bikes; Richmond is considered a very bike-friendly town and there are many trails in the city's plentiful parks.  Like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, trucker hats and tattoos abound in these neighborhoods.  I have no problem with caps or tats, but an "essential mass of human sameness" always bothers me, whether you're considering suburban sprawl or hipster havens.  Here, too, I was aware of how segregated Richmond is; no black hipsters made an appearance.  (In fact, with the exception of the Friday night gallery scene, I don't recall seeing many black folks on the north side of town.  On Saturday morning, however, when we drove to the south side to pick up a painting, I realized the James River serves as an unofficial race/class divide.)

On Friday afternoon, I took a nap on the floor of my friend's studio and enjoyed watching trees sway in the wind through the window.  If it didn't get so damned hot and muggy in the summer, I mused, this wouldn't be such a terrible place to live.

That night, I attended the solo debut of Michael McDevitt.  Michael is an energetic and prolific artist.  At any one time, a dozen or more paintings are strewn about his studio, in various states of completion. His willingness to experiment is unconscious; should he ruin a painting in the process, so be it.  Given the demands of the flooded art market these days, Michael's incautious approach is rare and commendable.  (I look forward to his putting up a proper website soon - one is rumored to be in the works - but for the time being, you can see some of his wide-ranging work at Feel Free To Wander, a blog where he posts images of recent prints, drawings, and paintings.)

Michael's solo show at Cornerstone Gallery, "Lost In The Park: Tiny Tales of Stasis and Apocalypse," is comprised of nineteen acrylic paintings, all measuring 23 1/2 inches by 11 1/2 inches. The majority of these relatively small works are vertical in orientation and, although I heard other viewers describe them as landscapes, I see them as allegorical vignettes. The viewer is presented with the principal player (or players) - a figure, usually a child, is fore-grounded in most of the pieces - and is then left to draw his own conclusions. For example, "Is One Feather Enough?" pictures an adolescent boy holding an enormous feather in his left hand. He sits at the edge of what appears to be a playground, but the grass is dry and yellow and the boy's right arm ends in a stump. His face is sorrowful, imploring. Wallflowering near this painting, I sipped my wine and listened to the reactions of gallery goers. Invariably, they created a back-story or explanation for the picture. For some, the boy is Icarus, post sun exposure. For others, he is a zombie or a "mechanical boy." My personal favorite: upon noticing the arm stump, one young lady said, "Oh, my God...he's a freak. That's just depressing." (War heros and survivors of thresher accidents everywhere, do you love it?)

Despite Michael's use of bold, bright color - the intense yellow of the grass in "Is One Feather Enough?," for example - the prevailing mood of "Lost In The Park" is foreboding, even apprehensive. The humans and animals featured in the series are isolated and frail, if not physically, then emotionally. Even when characters confront or embrace one another, a melancholy remains. In "A Great Deal Of Time Passed While They Established The Rules," a wolf stares down a determined little boy. Between them, a ball rests on the ground. Initially I found the scenario - and the title - funny, but the ambivalence of the painting complicated my reaction. There is no moral point of view; there is only time passing; there are only rule changes. This conclusion may sound bleak, but given the contemporary state of things, it is perfectly fair. (What's more, it makes sense that Michael is concurrently exhibiting work in "Richmond Represents: Grimm Fairytales," at the Richmond Public Library.)

Michael McDevitt
Acrylic on Panel
23 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches

For personal reasons, I'm also fond of "Autohagiography," a painting of a boy hugging a hyena in a Hellish setting. Ignoring technicalities - like the number of included heads - one of my friends said, "This one could have been titled, 'Even Cerberus Needs A Hug.'" Indeed. Both of these animals, boy and hyena, are in need of affection, but the boy seems to go through the motions. His eyes are narrowed, his mouth tight and his posture nonchalant; there is nothing committed about his embrace. On the other hand, the hyena seems to relish the contact, leaning into the boy's shoulder. Again, we are left unsettled. What is their relationship? What is this green-eyed heathen planning to do to the affectionate hyena? Considering the painting's title, I fear the worst.

Michael McDevitt
Acrylic on Panel
23 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches

But I know Michael to be someone who puts a great deal of stock in the magic of both imagination and nature. Where, then, is the hope in this series? Granted, these are dark times, but my spirits are always buoyed by the sheer wonder of the universe, whether at the micro or macro level, and I know Michael also accesses this variety of joy. There are two paintings in "Lost In The Park" that reveal as much, that offer viewers some optimism. The stronger of these two is titled "Samsara," the Buddhist term for the infinite cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. In the painting, a young girl strolls away from us, hands casually linked behind her back. She approaches an opening in a wooden fence, beyond which lies a riot of experience. There's the hope: Take a walk. Look around.

Photo credit: Oregon Hill photograph, Cornerstone hanging w/ artist photograph, Hungry Hyaena, 2006; Photographs of original acrylic paintings by Michael McDevitt, 2005, 2006 by artist and Hungry Hyaena, 2006

Monday, April 03, 2006

Scrawled: Kate Gilmore

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Scrawled v1n3 has finally appeared! v1n3 features a number of good bits - remember KMFDM? (I know I do!) - but I'd like to draw your attention to "For All Of Us, It's All About Me," my piece on Kate Gilmore's video work. Be sure to check it out.

Next month (v1n4), my artist feature will spotlight the sculpture of Todd McCollister.

Photo credit: ripped from Scrawled website