Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jack Levine

Certain artists will never have a widespread public appeal. Their work is too specific, focused, obscure, referential, or just too fucking ugly to ever expose them to a wider audience. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce objects and art that speak to us about celebrity, excess, exposure, and wealth, and are famous, excessively exposed, and impossibly wealthy for it. They go beyond the manufacture of art about pop culture, they live it. Even Koons's interview persona, all creepy and dead-eyed is, I maintain, an intentional homage to Paris Hilton.

There are some artists though who simply due to management, or luck, or the nature of their work can never expect their reputations known outside of art circles. Lawrence Weiner will never be Bruce Nauman (mostly because of the name), Stanley Spencer will never be Lucien Freud, etc. Jack Levine is one of these artists. He is, at 95 years old, destined to be remembered as a painter's painter.

One of the mid-century American Social Realists, Levine has spent a career lampooning power and money (the people who have them, not, like...the concepts) in pretty brutal terms. The strange thing about his obscurity, versus someone like Koons, is that Levine's message seems so appropriate to today's audience. Koons creates work that we interact with the same way we interact with MTV Cribs or the Jersey Shore; it's designed to be envied, derided, laughed at, to offend or excite, but to do it out of reach. This is work made by, purchased, and displayed by the implausibly wealthy, as we sit on couches and critique, imagining we have a role in the process. Levine, meanwhile, deals in an explicitly middle class outlook, less glitzy, more clever, angry, and translatable than a lot of the gentle intellectual abstraction you can see today.

Jack Levine was born January 3rd 1915 in Boston, to a tight-knit lower middle class Jewish family in the South End. From a young age he displayed an affinity for drawing and, at fifteen, he and Hyman Bloom began an apprenticeship of sorts with Harold K. Zimmerman, who was then teaching at the West End Settlement House. In the early 1930's the two fell under the sway of Denman Ross, who was then the force behind Harvard University's art department. Both later credited Zimmerman's instruction in drawing and Ross's very particular color theories (full Google book here), although Levine said neither ever adopted them fully.

Denman Ross left, and Hyman Bloom, right

A stipend from Ross had allowed Levine to concentrate on his studies. After Ross suspended it Levine found himself without a job or income at the height of the Great Depression. After working for the Works Progress Association on and off for four years he was found ineligible for further work there and enlisted in the army in 1942. His poor childhood, years of unemployment and underemployment, and his time in the stifling atmosphere of the army all marked in him a dislike of economic and authoritarian hypocrisy. After his discharge in 1945 he embarked on four decades of artistic production and biting social commentary.

Welcome Home
(above), which he painted after leaving the army, caused a furor when it was shipped to Moscow a few years later as part of a traveling exhibition.
Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter about it answered "[It] looks like a lampoon more than art, as far as I’m concerned."

Seen in the context of the artists/editorialists who proceeded him it becomes clear that Levine's hand is tied to his content. There's certainly a shared aesthetic to the body of work on the line between Social Realism and Expressionism. You see a shared subjective eye in Goya, Daumier, Lautrec, Philip Evergood, George Bellows, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Ben Shahn, Ivan Albright, and others. The energies that other movements have invested in harmony, balance, or color these artists have turned towards describing dissonance, violence, hate, and fear. Using a visual medium -rather than a spoken or written one- to describe something or someone you hate is a visceral experience, and these artists have taken full advantage of it. Levine's paintings sometimes seem as if even the paint abhors describing its subjects. Strangely, he rejected the Wiemar Expressionism which his work is often compared with. For him the distortions were too much; he felt the Germans sacrificed a level of objectivity he seemed to regard his own work with.

Above:Ivan Albright, left, and Leon Golub, right. Below: Levine.

Of course, to describe Levine's work as being as fatalistic as Albright's would be a mistake. Levine, like Hyman Bloom, had a weakness for retelling Biblical stories. Especially after his father's death (in '39) there is a streak of reverence in his work. Jewish patriarchs, bible stories, virginal characters are all safe from Levine's tendencies as a satirist. Even the bodies in these works are different, blocky and clumsy, like children's drawings. The jowliness, the puffy fat contrasted with spindly thin features, the empty, drawn smiles of his other work disappears in these, replaced with a broadness, a sort of Semitic rough-hewn beauty. In his patriarchs we see confident, reserved men of learning, in his biblical figures we see farmers. But although well painted, and a shock to what devotional art can look like, these works are missing the edge that sets his "observed" pieces apart (although he can come close, see below). It's the decadent urban, not the reserved pastoral that Levine is rightly (relatively) famous for.

In all Levine is one of the talented American draftsmen of the last century. The movement towards abstraction paused just long enough (after the start of the Great Depression and up until the early 1950's) to allow him and other socially conscious painters like him to flourish. However, the rapid change in American art during the later half of the twentieth century was not amenable to figuration, and not to Levine. Like many other artists and many traditional techniques he was lost in the shuffle.

However, with the (comparative) re acceptance of figuration, the greatest economic recession in a century and the wealth disparity in the country growing further and further it seems to me that Levine is due for a comeback. Looking at his work now it occurs to me how little has changed in terms of wealth distribution in the country since it was painted. I'm no fan of populism (mostly because it's so often misdirected, I mean, come on guys, Jews are not at fault for this stuff) but these days anger at the richest 1% of Americans strikes me as healthy. Levine's work (at least one example) can be found in museums in most American cities, and because so many of us are unemployed now there's plenty of time to look at them. We don't have a new WPA yet, but it's never too early to start get organized and get outraged.

all images are Levine's unless otherwise noted

Monday, September 27, 2010

GIMP Trouble

Ok, spent all day wrestling with GIMP (the linux-based photoshop equivalent, not the guy locked in my basement) before acknowledging that the problem is that my computer is so old it runs my graphics front end through an abacus. So, no scans of Jack Levine stuff, that comes tomorrow.

This is amazing though: the University of Nottingham has set up a really cool site called Sixty Symbols to help stoopid people to understand physics, which is like the thinking man's chemistry.
The videos aren't really lessons, they're more super-casual introductions the physical concepts through the pertinent notations.

Also, after you watch them you want people to think you're smart so you say things like 'pertinent' and 'notations'.

Here's the link to their site and one of the videos, which investigates the witchcraft powered Jabulani ball.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Google Birthday/Immortality Cake

Wayne Thiebaud wishes Google a happy birthday today! They're 12 and one of the largest online forces in the world! He's 89! And alive!

Being alive at that age should be celebrated even if you're not one of the greatest of the Bay Area artists. That is a ridiculous number for a painter to live to. Galapagos Tortoises maybe, but they don't work around turpentine, now do they?

Google should be running a special 'Holy Shit Wayne Thiebaud isn't Dead' graphic, starting now and running until Thiebaud dies at the ripe old age of a bazillion.

Ok, I should just admit that all I want to do is look at Thiebaud's paintings.

In other news: the painter Jack Levine is 95 and still kicking.

More on that tomorrow, he's a cool guy and not enough people know him. Should write that shit up straightaway, but verytired.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Swimming To Hogwarts: A Magical Suicide Note

Sometimes in a game of Quidditch it comes time to catch the snitch, time to end the game, even if your team is more than 150 points behind. To my friends and family, I'm so sorry. Merlin's beard I'm sorry.
It's not one thing that has brought me to this decision. It's a lot of things really. The growing darkness in the wizarding world, losing all my gold in that dragon's-blood ponzi scheme, being sorted into Hufflepuff; these are all a part of what has driven me here.
As a side-note, the teachers should really be doing something about the suicide rate among Hufflepuffs, as it has now reached nearly 62% in my year alone. These are very sad children. What do you expect? I mean, Gryffindors are all perfect, they're all brave and good, like, seriously all of them. How is that possible? You would think at least a few must be jerks or secret perverts or something, but nooo, they're all leaders and all caring and all down to earth, it makes me sick.
And Slytherin? Why do we even have those kids here? My best friend's parents were tortured to death by Death Eaters and now he has to have chemistry class with their kids? That's fucked-up. But at least they get to do something, to be involved in some way, you know? And Ravenclaw, at least they're intelligent. They have an attribute. You know what the Sorting Hat said to me my freshman year? He said, "Fuck it. Hufflepuff'll do." That's all. That's all he said.
Look, I'm not trying to blame the school for all my problems, I don't want my parents suing over me when I'm gone or anything. It's just, life here, it's..ugh. It's terrible.
Like, for instance, every year something happens that makes Harry Potter look evil or like a jerk or something, and like everybody in the school I hate him, and towards the end of every year it turns out he was just trying to help his friends or protect the school or something. It makes me feel like such a dick. And I do it every year! What the hell is wrong with me?
And you know what? Screw Harry Potter. No-one should fix all of the school's problems, but every year without fail he does something heroic. I...I just, ugh, here I am feeling so sorry for myself, I just want to do something. I want to be friends with the cool kids. I hate the Hufflepuff kids I hang around with, stupid mouth-breathers and semi-illiterates. We all talk about brooms and Quidditch and who we would do. That's it. I'm so sick of it.
And nobody ever talks about this stuff, it's like no-one has a life outside of their classes and whatever is in the Daily Prophet that morning, especially if it pertains to some story that's relevant to the school that year.
Is life after school going to keep being like this? Are women in ten years going to be laughing at me when I mention my Alma Mater is Hufflepuff?
Because they're laughing now.
Merlin's beard, even Hermoine Granger dates, and she's bossy, controlling and has a crazy superiority complex. Why can't I find anyone?
And I...I've started to have....weird feelings for some of the house Elves. I've been around at night when they clean the common rooms, and I've made excuses to get...close to them. None of them have objected or told me to back off or anything, but I mean, they never really object to anything.
They're really slaves when you think about it.
Oh God, I'm sick.
I'm thinking about fucking slaves.

I can't go on. Every day I think about disapparating and just never apparating again. I don't want anyone to be sad about my going, and I'm trying to not come back as a ghost. I can't imagine facing any of you now that you've read this.
Oh God I hope I don't come back as a ghost.
Goodbye. I'm going now. I'm heading down to the lake with some stones in my robes.

With my luck some asshole probably slipped gillyweed in my cereal this morning.

-Roger Saddensworth

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Must....Post....Peers All...Accomplishing...Something In...Life

Ok, well... gonna have to get some stuff up tonight. It's been about a week since the last post, which honestly feels much longer than it is. I'm just always worried after an absence like that that I won't make the jump back to steady posting.
I've been working, a portrait of the president for a theater in Chicago, a comic idea I'm fleshing out, a little short story I'm illustrating, etc. And house painting.
Guess which of the above pays.

While roughing out a story this sort of slipped in, god I love prismas

So the plan is to have some pages at the end of the week, and some writing tomorrow or the next day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For Your Consideration

So I recently rediscovered the National Lampoon Radio Hour. If you are a fan of hilarity this is fairly essential listening, up there with Beyond the Fringe and Woody Allen's lone album as a standup comic: Standup Comic.

National Lampoon Radio Hour is every funny person working from the early 70's through the mid 80's, all before they were famous and/or dead. Belushi, Radner, Chevy Chase (back then Chevy Chase, not current Chevy Chase), two Murrays, Harold Ramis, Harry Shearer, Richard Belzer, and Michael O'Donoghue, among others. I remember listening to the program as a youngling (from CDs, I'm not old enough to have heard broadcast) and recognizing all of these guys from SNL and other projects. What I didn't realize though is that the cast also included Christopher Guest, who in addition to doing voices also did all of the spot on musical parody interludes. It's easy not to recognize him, and a few people I've talked to didn't. The impressions are so good you assume that it's actually James Taylor, Dylan, or a quartet of whalers from the Shetland Isles.

After working with this group he moved on to theater and assorted projects for a while before moving to SNL for a year during the '84-'85 season, where he did some crazy weird work with Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal, and Martin Short. It says a lot that their sketches are the only good work done during six years of Lorne Michaels's absence.Probably the best of these is Men's Synchronized Swimming, which has all of them.

Apparently the sport is now on the docket for the London 2012 Games

After that it was a few more years of slogging through crap (Princess Bride is also in there, so not too bad), until 1996 and Waiting for Guffman, after which he made the 'mockumentary' format redundant for everyone else.

A lot of people talk about how the films he's made since have affected the ever more popular look-at-me-I'm-just-talking-into-a-camera-we-don't-need-to-hire-a-cinematographer-style movies and television, which I think is a little ridiculous. What's still the most striking when you watch any of Guest's movies isn't the format, it's how much his repertory players -himself especially- disappear into the people they're playing. The Office, Cloverfield, etc. all play out with a wink and a nod to the camera, in the case of the American Office this is done literally, not to mention infuriatingly. Guest's movies could be mistaken for reality TV; which is to say that the people in them are so involved with living their ridiculous lives they don't have time to acknowledge the camera outside of talking head interviews.

This is sort of what he's been doing for forty years, it's the same reason I never recognized his voice on Nat. Lampoon as a kid. He's so dedicated to he character he's playing that there's never really a Christopher Guest on the screen to latch onto.

Also, yes, I have been watching all of his movies and mainlining acid recently, why do you ask?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fuck Dune

Last night I watched Dune. The 1984 David Lynch one. Actually, watched might not be the right term, this is more a movie that inflicts itself on you.

It's unbelievable what a trainwreck it is. Nathan Rabin has a great writup over at The AV Club which is the perfect analysis of this film's fuck-ups. I did, however, want to add one thought. This movie clearly got away from everyone involved. Lynch isn't always the best straight-narrative film-maker (I can't really picture what about Eraserhead or The Elephant Man would convince people he should make this movie) but he's got a great flair for atmosphere and visuals; which makes the movie's lack of both especially depressing. There are a few striking images, the 80's washed-out look of Fremen standing semi-circle in the desert or the cutaways to Paul's unborn sister in the womb come to mind, but not too much more. Also, this is the only movie I've ever seen with clumsily handled exposition in literally every line. But my bigger complaint is actually about the actors.
This movie has an all-star cast, and by that I don't mean Shia LaBeuof, Megan Fox, Guy-from-James-Caan-Vegas-show, and both John Turturro and Jon Voight needing boat-payment-money, I mean a real all-star cast. It's jam-packed full of awesome character actors who are all the best parts of other movies. The problem is none of them seem to realize what the movie they're in is going to look like. For some this is a fun scream-fest chance to get really nuts: Sian Phillips, Brad Dourif, Sting, Kenneth McMillan, and Jack Nance fall into this category. Others, Jurgen Prochnow, Kyle MacLachlan, Jose Ferrer and Francesca Annis spend the entire movie looking over-serious and whispering very quietly. It's as if Lynch treated the actors like they were all making different movies, and for these five it was some kind of silent pictures-era Lifetime movie. Others are just totally lost looking or their talent is wasted. It's kind of surprising it's not a film written, directed, produced by, and entirely starring Alan Smithee's.

Fuck Dune.

I'm gonna give the 2000 TV movie a try next week.

Still....Fuck Dune.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

That Is How White People Talk!

Great. Just wonderful. Horrible, horrible new online aggregation may suggest that we're all just basically stereotypes conforming to standup routines. Shit. Read the full post on Gizmodo here.

I just hope this leads towards the invention of some cutting edge new ethnic profiles...

Not Now Murray

Wow, not posting things really sneaks up on you. So, at the moment, considering a few things. The Neo-Futurists are adding our current president to their totally comprehensive wall of presidents, and holding a competition to select the winner. So.... think I'm entering that. Also, may be at Chicago Renegade Craft Fair the 11th and 12th, despite not having any crafts to sell. I think large scale paintings probably stand out. Well maybe, maybe not.

Also, that's supposed to be Bill Murray, in all his forms, National Lampoon through current. I seem to be seeing him in everything I watch for some reason.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Excuses, Excuses

Watching Ghostbusters marathon. Which means I'm not making art. Instead I'm being struck by how little chemistry Murray and Ripley have in this movie. How many young men of my generation have had their capacity for dating damaged by imagining women are charmed by acting like Venkman?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Clever Title. And Post-Its

Well, it's another post for which I have nothing. I have nothing to put here. There is not any content which occurs to mind which would comfortably occupy this space. Well, as I've managed three sentences out of the complete absence of thought, and one commenting on those three, it seems I've finally become a real blogger.

This week I've been trying to think of projects (none have occurred to me), and I'm feeling terrifically unimaginative. So I'm just gonna post some celebrities I've doodled on post-its.

One of these is Anne Hathaway and one is Cee Lo Green. See if you can guess correctly!

Oh, and apply to this, Mcsweeny's needs some crowd-sourced (read cheaper than freelance) writing done, and they aren't checking felony records as an entry prerequisite. So get to it.