REFLECTIONS OF NOW
2020 certainly has rendered havoc, but our doom narratives centered around death and disease have been complicated by the emergence of the necessary nation-wide fight for racial justice. Some have been shocked by this turn of events, many of us are hopeful and thankful that this moment prioritized conversations we’ve been having in hushed tones or encrypted end-to-end messaging apps by being put front-page, both literally and in American life. It’s so awesome to see people quote James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and learn who Angela Davis, Audrey Lorde and bell hooks are, and really acknowledge how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most important Americans ever lived (while not lionized during his lifetime by the culture writ large).
To add to important reading lists, one theorist I always come back to is Stuart Hall. Ok, so he’s not American, which could explain his lack of popularity here, but Hall in his essay Cultural Identity and Diaspora creates a possibility that identities can assert both their differances (not a typo) and still be unified...to be egregiously simplistic there for a second. Go back, read this piece and find hope for a more harmonized racial existence in the U.S. Recently, the Stuart Hall Foundation held a talk with 100% amazing Gary Younge (who if you don’t read his exaltations on life and race in the Guardian, where have you been?!) and young radical writer/activist Lola Olufemi, who actually just founded a pretty unique artist collective called Bare Minimum. See the roundtable here on Youtube. Just to add, one of my favorite artists, to whom I return time and again, is John Akomfrah (you must see Vertigo Sea) was also an acolyte of Stuart Hall, as is Julien Isaac. It speaks volumes to the soulfulness and depths of Hall’s critical theory, I think, that Akomfrah and Isaac ground their practices in Hall’s words.
Modern Witches of Art
Over this quarantine, I’ve been called witchy by quite a few folks, so naturally I reflected over the artworks I’ve gravitated to the most over the last year or so. Well, well, well, what do have? A small coven of witches, if I do say so myself: Carol Rama, Gertrude Abercrombie, Leonor Fini, Genevieve Figgis, Margot Berman, of course famous Frida. Do I mean cauldron-stirring, broom-riding, pointy-hat ladies, no! And don’t worry, I mean no insult to Brujas… These women all had a mystical, magical means to them that unsettled and dismantled the confines of expectations for women, women artists and women’s aesthetic concerns—and all the while produced beautiful, alluring, meaningful, expressive work that tapped into something beyond human logic and rationality can quantify. We could all serve to learn something from women who see through social constructs and deep into the ineffable.
We should all be looking at work across identity lines to find work we adore, but while there’s been a surge of interest of photography from Africa and the Middle East (rightfully so!!), women photographers haven’t quite had the lens turned onto them yet. All 2020 I’ve been into my pal Sam Contis’s work—recently put into conversation with Dorothea Lange’s for her MoMA retrospective. Sam has that kind of eye, one focused on the overlooked details of life. Rebecca Reeves caught my attention from a residency she did at darling Helen Toomer’s dope Stoneleaf Retreat, but currently is making these nature interventions I find to be quiet contemplations of the anthropocene. Meanwhile poking around, Art Aspen online viewing space, and Alia Ali’s work that are layered with aesthetic and art historical allusion making them so much more than the photo abstractions might on the surface suggest. Also Kasmin Gallery has a great photo show up at the moment, “AND/ALSO: Photography (Mis)represented,” featuring Roe Etheridge, Erin O'Keefe, and Farah Al Qasimi, that strikes exactly the questions of slippage, in identity in medium, in art.
Ok, photography, the collectible medium.
One night, in the midst of the East Coast lockdown, so probably late-April or early May, in yet another fit of sleeplessness, I found myself deep in the weeds on LiveAuctioneers. There was this incredible photograph of a West African woman holding a freshly killed shark with the widest, cheek-to-cheek smile. Glorious it was! And provenance was Edouard Boubat, a name I’d seen but without any relation to West African photography. Grossly undervalued, I put a pretty high first bid on the picture. It had 2 days til the auction closed, and I was confident that I had come away with a steal. Well, boy of boy, was I wrong. A few hours before the auction closed, a very eager opponent bested me with a sum that I just couldn't manage—but many others can. Still in that “affordable” price-point! Alas, it led me down a path of learning that there are great photographic prints for sale on the internet by some of the best and brightest in photography that don’t cost a fortune. On that note, though, I've been loving that the photo agencies and photographers across the board have been collaborating together to host charity sales, such as the mega Elmhurst Hospital sale back in May, or the current ones hosted by Magnum x Vogue, or Pics for the Kids. There’s something about photography that plays with the framing and suspense of reality that really digs at issues up for debate right now, like truth, fact and representation, which certainly is why I’ve been clinging to the medium for inspiration at the moment.
On March 19th, I got a text from a good friend (from high school nonetheless!) asking if he could bounce an idea off me. The artist Max Rippon wanted to create @quarantinegallery, a space where artists making work in real time in response to the-then novel coronavirus, and be a place for artists could show and sell works when galleries were shutting doors, not just to visitors but potentially forever (read The Grey Market here for a tricky reality we may be not seeing). Max has been carrying the platform, putting up curated themed shows pretty much before the many amazing iterations of this idea, like Barbara Pollock’s Art at a Time Like This took off, and maneuvering what kinds of works and partnerships (like with the amazing @DallasForChange). And it’s continuing to be a way for artists making works about what’s happening to our world—maybe crisis doesn’t produce the best art, as we’ve long awaited and debated what art under Trump would be and would it echo similar powerful movement as within the 20th century ruptures (post-WWI or post-Vietnam War) did. In many ways I find the shift towards reforming institutions and a more inclusive art world to be more exciting than the evergreen “hunt for what’s next” that places an undue pressure on artists to be creating masterpieces in our accelerated, splintered chaos wrung forth in 2020. However, @quarantinegallery is just humbly plotting along trying to amplify voices and artistic production in a very power-to-people way that feels raw and authentic. Check ‘em out!
In what can only be described as stemming from the “theater of absurd,” Eric Andre’s new Netflix special “Legalize Everything” is a masterful amalgamation of modes and allusions that maybe he isn’t consciously striking at. I saw his special, right after trying to endure the stream-of-conscious word-salad that our president bestowed in an impromptu press conference. That evening, I couldn’t get past the parallels, and how if aliens or AI were to transcribe both performances, they would be deemed equal in their ‘nonsense.’ Andre’s, though, combined the stunting of Chris Burden with the real-time uncanny of Kosuth and bizarr-o of Tony Oursler’s librettos, and lyrical mash of Becket. But the ability to read the nuance of his context vs DJT is what keeps us human, and not robots nor reductive AI bots. Andre himself, and the character he embodies, is necessary to destabilize the horror show that is so many political and social figures, like a slew of contemporary world leader (most certainly ours). Andre’s performance of the absurd works on so many levels, it’s simply marvelous; but, strikingly, it’s his subtle subversion of what’s happening around us and to us, as socialized people and humans, that is such a necessary antidote to dulling critical thinking skills that social media, fake news, deep fakes, conspiracy theories and the like that hath the internet brought. But shouldn't we all be worried that there are some who don’t or can’t interpret the levels here?
Andre Leon Tally
Don’t let the tabloids sensationalize a story in need of telling: Andre Leon Talley’s remarkable life and career (that’s still happening, by the way) is nothing short of extraordinary. A man of such charm, wit, grace, smarts and hello … STYLE ... has a legacy so large, and his recently out memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, written in his generous prose will instill deep, warm feelings for someone y’all should have already had deep feelings for!! On a personal note, I interviewed ALT for V magazine in 2013, and walked in a tad terrified but left mesmerized and honestly, filled with love. Mr. Talley is so smart, elegant and wonderful. Can’t say enough! But to that point, I have so much to say about white people taking this time to learn more about Black people and culture in a respectful way. If you want to deeply engaged beyond media hype, read Bernandine Evristo’s Girl, Woman, Other or Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Support Black authors but also read their words. Humanizing Black people is a central tenet to ensuring equal rights in this country, and exploring the Black imagination is a prime place to start, me thinks.
Brian J. Alvarez
He’s queer, he’s comedy, he’s Monophilia—what? Go Youtube “Divorce” on Alvarez’s channel, and get wrapped up into these minute long sketches that are pure parody, theater of the absurd, accent play, and gay gay gay in every best way. Perhaps most recognized as Jack McFarland’s husband on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” Alvarez makes feature-length films featuring his LA friends including Freckle and Stephanie Koenig, and his Instagram is filled with character sketches that appeal to all senses of humor and cultural tastes.
While y’all have been getting horny for Sligonian teens (guys, gross), Irish comedy television has been churning out hits that are so campy, hilarious and satirical, it’s the only way to survive 2020. Move over Normal People, it’s precisely the weirdos of Ireland that have something actually interesting to say, thereby providing the kind of laughs needed in this moment. If you haven’t seen “Derry Girls,” skip the zoom happy hour tonight and get on it. Add “Young Offenders” to the list (a new season has just dropped as well) and go old school with “Bridget & Eamon,” which gingerly turns the disappointments of life into absurdist comedy.
Black Girls Skating
In February, over a toasty warm dinner with a group of friends (remember that?), one in particular announced: “this Spring, I’m going to take up roller skating.” All of us laughed, or shared memories of going to disco roller parties, especially the great ones offered inside the Bedford-Stuyvesant Salvation Army. Fast forward to June: Oumi Janta, donning a retro yellow get-up to backdrop of Ba:Sen’s (Pool Party Dub Mix) “In Deep We Trust,” shocks the world of social media with her smooth moves on skates as she glides her way through Berlin’s RollerStraße. What emerges in #blackgirlsskating, even prompting this fantastic Youtube compilation (and many like it), showing off moves and grooves that we all wish we had! (P.S. my friend still hasn’t purchased a pair of skates. Ha!)