David Lynch was practically everywhere at the recent Paris Photo art fair. Or rather, the idea of him—the man himself was thin on the ground. It began with the advertising, which featured posters of Nadav Kander’s portrait of Lynch at bus stops and on the Métro. Then there was the <<vu par David Lynch>> promotion in the fair itself, on the grounds of the extravagant Victorian Grand Palais. As visitors walked around, they saw little black labels positioned below certain works, with shiny silver lettering to signal that Lynch had viewed them. There was also a mobile phone app so that stalwarts could tour all 96 photographs anointed by the great goth/surrealist Hollywood director. It’s hard to know just how involved Lynch was in all this. Behind the scenes, individual galleries were only allowed to nominate a few of their pictures for Lynch’s consideration, which were sent in the form of jpegs to his office. Not all galleries bothered to enter. But for those who did, it’s anyone’s guess whether Lynch vetted the images himself, or instead entrusted the project to “his people.” Either way, the idea of Lynch strolling the fair, spying something especially juicy, and giving it his vote of confidence was purely an illusion. Somebody made the decisions on a screen somewhere without seeing the originals.
What was a little disappointing, and in retrospect one of the reasons why I wonder if Lynch really did the selecting himself, was how predictable most of the choices were. It was all rather dark and creepy. A Joel Peter Witkin photograph of a nude woman with a skeleton. An eerie Trent Parke picture of a bare Christmas tree with all its needles fallen to the ground. A Lise Sarfati retro-cool image of a woman wearing a stylized wig—it might have been a still from a Lynch movie itself. Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s picture of a society lunch at Windows on the World in 2000. And so on. If you were looking for rainbows and ponies in the choices (as I was), you were in for a letdown. All things considered, a little brightness here and there might have made the selection a little more provocative.
For me and a handful of others, the Lynchstravaganza continued with a visit to Lynch’s private club, Silencio, in the second arondissement. The place is self-consciously weird, which in a funny way, makes it kind of not—like the noirish photo choices, it’s more or less what you would expect from the Lynch brand. That didn’t stop me from being fascinated just the same. The club has something of the feeling of Mulholland Drive about it, with a dash of Blue Velvet for good measure (the name of the club comes straight out of Mulholland; “Club Silencio” was a key location in the film). I was there to see the debut of a documentary in Lynch’s private screening room.
At street level, the entrance was nondescript, although the two bouncers and the red velvet rope suggested something was afoot. My name checked out on the guest list, so I was invited to proceed down a seemingly endless spiral of stairs—six flights, it turned out. Each level was decorated with spot-lit Todd Hido photographs of houses at night. At the bottom of the stairs there was a coat check, and a series of gold filigree tunnels like the one in the picture above. The whole thing is gold and black and smoky mirrors with low ceilings, like a hip Fabergé coal mine, or King Tut’s depressive chill out space. There are a couple of bars, a lounge area with a stage, a smoking room, and several sitting areas. The idea is to inspire creativity, but it’s all so programed there’s not much room to exercise the imagination. There were only a few people there when I arrived. The environment is so alienating in fact, striking up a conversation was out of the question.
One dark corridor dead-ended in a door—that was the screening room. Eventually we were led in to sit on big marshmallowy benches with spongy arms velcroed to the seats. When the film started (a Duane Michals biopic) my attention wandered and I leaned on an arm. Big mistake—the arm detached and rolled to the floor, and I bucked and rolled to recover like a kid in a bouncy castle. But the film was good, and Duane was on hand to add a dose of levity. We had a little time to talk after the show. “What does it feel like to be famous?” I asked him. “Better ask David Lynch,” he replied.
I had dinner at Art Basel Miami Beach with a curator friend last month, and the question of really bad art came up. I told my friend that I admired the way he always found something positive to say about work, even if on first blush it looks excruciatingly bad. He said that he has learned to be positive, because sometimes your first response to something is not the right one, and often when you have more time to think about it, or to put it in context, its meaning grows on you. And he’s right. Especially in an art world where the act of being abrasive, unpolished, and off-kilter is seen as a kind of performance in its own right, I probably shouldn’t be so quick to judge.
Having said that, I see plenty of work that by almost any standard is a total mess—poorly done, ill-conceived; an uncontrolled desperate plea for attention, relevance, and/or sales. It tends to be in the contemporary market, because the crap art of generations past is more often consigned to the dustbin of history, and what’s new is still out there, testing the waters, trying to gain an audience. It’s edited by the galleries that put it on display, and for that they do owe some accountability. Whenever a gallery puts horrible art on its walls, I take all the artists in that gallery less seriously because it suggests the gallerist doesn’t really have much of a filter. The galleries I respect most are the ones that really believe in something, that have a point of view, and recognize quality. Too many galleries are just throwing things against the wall and hoping something will stick.
So in that spirit I present to you the very worst work of art I saw in 2012. To spare the artist’s feelings I have withheld his name, but yes, it’s a “he” (somehow I don’t think a woman could have made this particular excrescence but I could be wrong). Seen at Art Pulse Miami, what we have here is a sort of Super Mario forest landscape, with Bambi’s parents looking on in clueless wonder as a robotic splatter-faced skull monster in Mickey Mouse pants and bejeweled curlers strolls through the woods on platform shoes with his (pet?) gnashy-teethed green slug monster, who holds his belly longingly, as if looking forward to a tasty meal of wayward venison. An anthropomorphic tree in the center left background seems to recoil at the sight. The whole thing is riven with a kaleidoscope of vomitous colors, punctuated by lashings of pink (worms? baby slugs? phalluses?) and dollops of puddled red (mushrooms? flowers? vaginas?) The pond in the back, tipped up in ukiyo-e style perspective, is full of stars, and a dark gray cloud of agitation surrounds the robo-monster’s head. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s about post-consumerist alienation in a world of tired mass-market cultural artifacts.
You know, going back over this and rereading my description, it doesn’t seem quite so bad anymore.
Rococo art is an acquired taste. But for people like me, who can’t resist a little full-bore Marie Antoinette-inspired hedonism now and then, check out Don Paterson’s description of the Fragonard Room at New York’s Frick Collection in this month’s Intelligent Life: (Is there a better magazine, BTW?)
“Against the backdrop of an impossibly rococo arcadia, an assortment of beribboned, bewigged, pomaded and pantalooned twerps and nincompoops spoon and sport. Below a statue of Cupid, a woman swoons in dégagé reverie, her eyes rolled up to the whites. Banksy would have added a hypodermic needle dangling from her arm. You feel deeply protective of these figures. They depict a heaven, of sorts, though not one to which we should aspire.”
But what a tasty omelette it is!
This last Wednesday I went to Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR radio to tape an interview with Tony Penrose, director of the Lee Miller Archive and Roland Penrose Collection housed at Farley Farmhouse in Chiddingly, Sussex. The taping was for NPR’s popular show, Weekend Edition Saturday, which this week is being hosted by Jacki Lyden. I didn’t find out until after we finished that the usual listening audience is around 4 million.
To record the show we linked up studios in Washington DC, New York, Boston, and Brighton (UK, where Tony was), which was a completely new experience for me. Even in our technologically advanced times it’s pretty surreal to sit alone in a dark recording booth with headsets on, having a virtual conversation with interviewers hundreds of miles away. Originally, the interview was supposed to include the lovely Stephanie Browner, Administrator of the Man Ray Trust, but the logistics did not work out. I find it pretty interesting that the female artist in the Man Ray, Lee Miller relationship is today represented by a man (Tony is Lee’s son), while the man is represented by a woman (Stephanie is Man Ray’s niece).
We taped for about 50 minutes, which will be edited down to a short piece for Saturday’s show. I’m grateful for the opportunity but I can’t help but think there is so much we didn’t say; I just hope people who are interested will check out the book and the exhibition. We could have talked more about their creative partnership, and Man Ray’s attitude toward women, and there was much more to discuss about Lee’s powerful brand of feminism, her life in the fashion industry, and her refusal to be controlled by any man. There was also more we could have said too about the anguish Man Ray suffered when Lee left him, and the torment she experienced (on a completely different scale of course) as a war correspondent. Jacki asked a great question that I fumbled a little bit, about the amazing photograph of Man Ray and Lee Miller together at an opening at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London in 1975, the year before Man Ray died, shown above. (Lee died the year after that.) What I should have said, if I’d been quick on my feet, was that this picture is one of those incredible things that’s hard to explain in words – somehow, magically, I swear you can see the spark between them, still visible more than 40 years after they ended their romance.
The truth is, if you’d given us a two-hour program we still wouldn’t have covered all the bases. Between them Ray and Miller created so much great art, and lived such incredible lives. As Jacki said, it has all the makings of a great Hollywood screenplay!
I was just going through old notes and found some entries from George Bernard Shaw’s engagement diary, which I transcribed during a visit to the Shaw papers in the Archives of the London School of Economics some time ago. Below isn’t a complete copy of the diary, just a few things that I wrote down. At the time they just seemed interesting, but now they seem poignant to me.
Engagements Diary of 1922 26/21
Feb 6 Headache
25 Press photograph
Diary 1923 26/22
6/22 Msr. David Low, Cartoonist, Sitting at 18:00
8/31 “” (shows)
10/26 Bath unveil Sheridan Tablet and speak in Pump Room
I also took note that he wrote down train times in his diary every time he had to travel (very organized), as well as all the meetings of RADA, the Stage Society, the Fabian Society, and the Society of Authors. Also listed were various lecture engagements and performances.
There was a fairly large collection of brochures and ads in his papers too; I suppose some of them were collected in a hope of curing the migraines. They included ads for nature cures, electrical cures, household electrification and plumbing, air conditioning, and “automatic ventilation systems.”
My exhibition, Man Ray | Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism opens at the Peabody Essex Museum on Saturday. In anticipation, WGBH television put a selection of images up on their famous digital mural, which hovers over the Mass Pike west of central Boston. Tens of thousands of people saw it this morning on their way to work.