Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Show Me the Season

You've probably heard about this awful, stupid news. I just wanted to submit that, even though we didn't get a chance to know each other as well as I would have liked, I feel lucky and proud to have called this kind, generous, hilarious dude a friend.

On top of that, he was an astonishing musician. Jerry's playing was somehow both forceful and warm, frighteningly precise and expressive. A friend of mine rightly dubbed him "the romantic robot." Check it:

I miss you already Romantic Robot.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On "On Photography": Live Forever

In a consumer society, even the most well-intentioned and properly captioned work of photographers issues in the discovery of beauty.
--Susan Sontag

Few things so aptly demonstrate Sontag's description of photography as a default mode of seeing as this: Elizabeth Peyton, probably America's most successful contemporary figurative painter, is essentially a photographer. More completely even than the photorealists, whose paintings were, to my eyes, much cleaner and glossier, much more brittle and less dynamic than most actual photography (or, for that matter, any kind of credible "realism"), Peyton's work has absorbed photography's aesthetic and perceptual standards. Almost without exception, her paintings draw heavily on particular genres of photography (and even on particular photographs by Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson and others--a portrait of Sontag herself is among them): candid portraiture, photojournalism, film stills, street scenes, and, especially, celebrity and fashion photography.

Unlike the photorealists, Peyton isn't trying to trick the eye; with their thick brushstrokes and the sketched quality of the figures, her pictures are obviously made with paint and applied by a human hand. But these not purely mimetic painterly techniques actually contribute to the paintings' photographic quality. They possess the same flat but richly textured surface, the same distortions of proportion, the same privileging of the foreground and attenuation of perspective, and the same ambient, suffusive light--the same distinct qualities, in other words, that we have come to take for granted in photography's representation of reality.

And it's not just the compositional technique that makes these pictures so familiar. Almost all of Peyton's paintings strive to capture Robert Frank's "in-between moments," those ostensibly unposed, heretofore ignored snippets of everyday life. Forgotten objects, furtive glances, moments on the verge of becoming; for Frank and aesthetic contemporaries like Garry Winogrand and Walker Evans, even such marginalia could be laden with meaning. As Sontag says, "cameras make vision expressive." This aptitude for discovering beauty and expressiveness in the mundane is a gift that mid-century art photography has given the advertising and fashion photographers of today, who have rigorously stylized such ostensibly naturalistic moments and brought them far beyond the boundary of cliche (as everyone knows, appearing unposed can be its own pose). Peyton's great achievement is that she's so convincingly captured this way of seeing, now so commonplace among us affluent, educated, media-saturated, millennial Westerners. She perceives "us" the way we perceive ourselves (or wish to).

An aesthetic appreciation of the world is a major component of this mode of perception; it is fitting then, that Peyton's pictures are often so gorgeous. The colors and textures--particularly the dense, rich red of a coat superimposed over a luminous, semi-abstract background in "Nick Reading Moby Dick" (2003), the deep scarlet backdrop of "Princess Kurt" (1995) and the cool blues of her dimly lit nighttime scenes--can be pretty ravishing. This stuff is deeply, startlingly attractive.
Indeed, the sheer, seductive prettiness, of Peyton's work, in combination with its implicit claim to photographic realism, points to perhaps Sontag's deepest critique of photographic vision: the obscuring, distorting power of beauty. Sontag takes photography to task for its often inadvertent beautification of, in particular, ugly social realities--poverty or war, for example. This inescapably aesthetic relationship to objects, she argues, has the effect of creating "timeless" images; that is, images that remove objects from their political or historical contexts. Moreover, this aesthetic decontextualization grants photographic subjects their facility as objects of consumption. Stripped of their social and temporal specificity, they cease to be things in themselves and begin to exist only in relation to the viewer's interpreting, appreciating eye: "Even those photographs which speak so laceratingly of a specific historical moment also give us vicarious possession of their subjects under the aspect of a kind of eternity: the beautiful."

This is why photography lends itself so well to advertising and fashion. And this aestheticization, this making timeless and consumable, is Peyton's explicit aim. She infamously and unironically intermingles rock stars, celebrities, historical figures, characters from films and her own non-famous friends; and she portrays her subjects (including herself) as prettier and more youthful than they appear in real life. Its not just that this reveals an embarrassingly clique-ish, name-dropping vanity (which it certainly does). More importantly, in casting the lives of the young, famous and gorgeous in mundane, everyday (but beautiful and expressive) settings, Peyton restates the seemingly paradoxical claim of celebrity-obsessed consumer culture; stars are just like us, only prettier and more interesting. This is a lovelier, more poignant, more romantic present, a present that can be an object of longing, even nostalgia. This is a present that can be sold.

Peyton's show at the Walker was entitled "Live Forever"; if her work contained even a shred of irony or self-critique, I would have almost assumed that this was an homage to Sontag's analysis. Instead, it serves simply as an announcement of the paintings' intentions: to make reality timeless, beautiful and easily consumed. Still, it's a bit misleading. Maybe we want to live forever, but what we really sometimes seem to want is to not get old or sick, to not foreclose even an ounce of precious choice and possibility. What we really want, and what Peyton is completely willing to provide, is to live forever in that zone of memory granted us by photography, in which youth, beauty, softness and light bless our lives with a default poignancy. That this has very little to do with the disorder of lived reality, that it willfully forgets the processes of time and death, is its primary allure.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

On "On Photography": Lost Book Found

The photographer is an armed version of the stalker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.
Susan Sontag

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories.

--Walter Benjamin

I recently took one of those strange voyages through idea-world in which everything seems to echo and reverberate. The impetus was a serious, unsettling sit down with Susan Sontag's "On Photography" (1977, the year I was born); the echoes came from everywhere.

One of Sontag's most important arguments is that photography is both a response to and a symptom of modernity. That it attempts to replenish a material reality consumed and made obsolete by speed and progress, but that in its objectifying, nostalgic, aestheticizing gaze, actually contributes to that depletion, "turning reality into shadow". This aestheticization, Sontag says, has infiltrated our normal modes of perception. Vision has become photographic: "Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism."

But then I happened upon Jem Cohen's "Lost Book Found". Sontag, an epic cinephile if there ever was one, seems to exempt film, with its narrative function, its ability to communicate in time, from her critique of photography. But Cohen is the most photographic of filmmakers, a self-described inheritor of Walter Benjamin's solitary walker, the urban transient who floats through reality observing and collecting forgotten and used up fragments of urban consumer culture. Cohen is New York's Atget, documenting the city's constant death and regeneration, its inexhaustible play of layers and depths, its ocean of objects. "Lost Book Found" is his memorial to the city's mid-'90's early-Giuliani moment, when its endless strange, scuzzy worlds were just beginning to be swallowed up by a new era of prosperity and cleanliness.

Sontag laments photography's tendency to turn "living beings into things, things into living beings," to render "the familiar and homely exotic." But anyone who's ever lived in New York can attest to the overwhelming vibrance of objects--and their will to speak. "Lost Book Found" is a gorgeous testament to the life and death and rebirth of objects within consumer culture (including the infamous dancing plastic bag which would reappear, with much teenaged pathos, in "American Beauty") and the strange life of human consciousness among those objects. Nothing could seem more appropriate to New York than to film it, to document that life. Perhaps vision and perception have become photographic but, Cohen seems to reply, our surreal, cluttered landscape has made it that way.

Surrealim lies at the very heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision...What could be more surreal than an object that virtually produces itself...?

The primitive notion...presumed that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image.

The lure of photographs, their hold on us, is that they offer at one and the same time a connoisseur's relation to the world and a promiscuous acceptance of the world.

At the very least, the real has a pathos. And that pathos is--beauty.

In America, every specimen becomes a relic.

What is humanity? It is a quality things have in common when they are viewed as photographs.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Ice in Me

It is April. I'm not sure what that means where you live, but here it usually means low, gray sky, and moist, chilly air. The cold, muddy soil, saturated with melt and rotten leaves, rises to the surface, as if the Earth were recycling itself, taking a slow, deep breath in preparation for what come next. But the days are getting longer and its finally safe to expose your skin to the air. Safe, too, I think, to reflect on the dark, frozen world that is our state in winter. Specifically, the cold, that strange, empty condition of the air.

Extreme heat, at least in the country's humid center, is like a foreign object added to the air, a heavy substance that must be waded through or borne like an extra layer of clothing. The cold is a different sort of presence. More like a rearrangement of fundamental particles. Instead of being projected by objects, from outside, as the sun, buildings, cars and human bodies project heat, the cold--and I'm talking about serious cold, like -20 plus windchill--seems to be a simple fact of space, an altered state of matter. Molecules sharpen and become still; water becomes ice; geography and space are reshaped; the world becomes cold.

The few slushy, unfrozen sections of river exude hulking clouds of steam; the light is pale, wan and bracingly clean, every moment of daylight a version of dawn; the air is white. Stepping outside becomes a process of being absorbed into, and penetrated by this new physical reality. Our bodies are radically compromised, dissolved by cold. The weather is inside of us. This place isn't unfit for life, as many here joke, but maybe fit only for some new, diffuse kind of life, a species less reliant than we are on physical integrity as a basis for its identity. And, holy shit, don't even get me started on the wind.

Seen in this light, all other states of weather are like a variation on the theme of warmth, gradations within one basic category. The common springtime metaphor of awakening is pretty apt, I think. Its not just that new things grow, though. Its like everything--the air, the pavement, the sky, our skin and eyes and organs--is waking from a dark, strange dream, in which things were somehow both less whole and more vividly defined. I'm ready.

Friday, January 23, 2009


You might know that in my not very spare time I write about professional basketball. In many ways its very much like a "job"--in that, for instance, I produce stuff and in return for that production I'm paid in money. It's a strange "job" for me to have in a way, since I've never been either an organized competitive basketball player--curiously, my lack of height, leaping ability and basketball skill appears to have been a hindrance--or a journalist of any kind. Not strange, though, because NBA basketball, especially when viewed very close up, as I have the outrageous good fortune to be able to do every week, is fucking amazing. Part of what I consider this "job" of mine to entail is attempting to convince thinking folks like yourselves of same. Of the physical genius and grace, the political fascination, the flux between order and chaos, freedom and constraint--basically the outrageous beauty of this game as practiced by some very tall, very rich men. Also, you might learn something (lots more than you'd probably ever want to, actually) about a really mediocre basketball team. So, if that piques your fancy, here are some recent examples. And my two faves from last season.

Perfect Sound Forever

I guess its just that easy. You should watch some more of this wonderful Finnish lady.