Thanks for the Giving; or, a Dilettante’s Walks in Bedlam Gallery

David SchneiderThe Other Side of the Other Side, Marcin Wlodarczyk

In September of 2008, we found a safe-house of ruination, and blessed it. My girlfriend and I had wandered over to the Bruckner Bar, Grill & Gallery, which over the past couple of years had become a hub for the South Bronx's rising art scene.

Inside, people were streaming out from the opening reception of a full-gallery exhibition unfortunately titled “The Catcher in the Eye,” a collaborative “visual novel” by Garrett Klein, Kenneth Park, Melissa Starke, Jon-Paul Rodriguez and Marcin Wlodarczyk. Astonishingly, no visual record of this exhibition seems to exist on the internet, so I'll try to describe what I recall from it.

The gallery's bare-brick walls formed a coherent visual narrative, wrapping around the room. On the near left, an enormous stylized image in bright reds and yellows stormed up the wall – an image halfway inbetween superhero comics and Asian Communist propaganda posters, leading to Garrett Klein's nervous assemblages. Then, toward the back, a handful of Starke's severe abstract expressionist works were hallowed with ornate gilded frames. On the back right, broken Classical columns and fractured lintels collapsed down upon a chaos of intricately-detailed, tangled, junkyard mosaics (I believe by Wlodarczyk). By degrees, they rose along the wall to adorn a hazy, golden icon. This latter radiated with a primitive holiness, as if the prehistoric Lascaux painters had received a vision of the Madonna and Child in a Dead Sea cave.

Overly readable? Didactically discursive? Perhaps. But in September 2008, as the Presidential campaign accelerated in a crescendo of cacophonous triviality, as the worldwide capitalist engine exploded with a sickening lurch, this room seemed – at least to me – a rare repository of all the horrors and hopes of the moment. Bathed in dim blue and red light, and dashed with glints cascading from a disco ball, the room appeared a secret chamber of safety, in which artists and patrons nodded to one another, acknowledging: we can yet create beauty and meaning from the wreckage, we can yet dance in the chaos.

It feels as though there are two 21st centuries opening upon us, at least speaking in terms of aesthetic sensibilities that aspire toward art. (Obviously, they've been opening for decades, but I perceive them with renewed force at the moment.) One with digital sheen, operating on the extremes of overabundant, frenetic activity and minimalistic still presence; the other, a rambunctious, eclectic spirit of re-appropriation, collage, recycled materials, DIY mechanics, and the salvage of the discarded and the obsolete, using digital tools toward ends that are both organic and disjointedly enigmatic, toward work that is excitingly polyvalent and historically conscious. I read into the latter, elements of the British Romantic and Modernist ages, last seen in greatest vigor during the 1960s.

In 2007, I did something that appears quite lunatic in hindsight – I quit my steady 9-to-5er, and with savings and the help of a few friends, founded a digital magazine called The Boy Bedlam Review to explore this precise aesthetic: Romantic philosophies of organic growth, mythologies, and infinite interconnectivity; fuised with the high Modernism of “shoring these fragments / against our ruins,” plus Pound's exhortation to “make it new.” For, although the Palins of our world seek to demogogue us, and marketers are ever more frenetic to box us in metrics, we are not yet robots.

The publication – despite splendid reviews – was a failure, for all the reasons a small arts publication could fail, and many more. In a fitting coup de grace, the archive site was hacked a little while back, suspending access. In the grand-mal seizure of our Great Recession, I just have to laugh: chaos theory is all about self-similar structures throughout scale.

I founded the publication, however, based upon the works of a core group of writers, artists and filmmakers who intrigued me based along these aesthetic and critical criteria. I'd like to consider some of them. And here I find myself in the intractable vise that the would-be critic now faces, in an age where one's personal digital presence is a “marketing node”: what is advocacy, what is advertising, what is an “authentic response” – and what is my paltry authority, in the face of social media, in which every individual is a curator, a marketer, a billboard?

Be that as it may, this is a season in which – many abler commentators than me have mentioned – giving thanks is a larger, and more heartfelt, and more necessary ritual than in many years of yester; so I give thanks.

Naw, thaaaat ain't right. These aren't the messages we ought to be giving to our American youth! 'Xcept, well, we have been. The Gratuitous Art Productions team of filmmaker Jeff Burns and artist Cat Gilbert, over the last year, have been on a subversive streak, using Creative Commons and fair-use archival films (and their voiceovers) to thumb their noses at both the staid conventions of the art-film community, as well as the propaganda inherent in American television and film artifacts over the previous century. The soundtrack is “Curvas Peligrosas” by Dub Is A Weapon. And dub(bing over) is definitely a weapon – the double cultural overdub of Europe upon America, and the filmic mythologies of the event we've inherited – retrieved and remixed, thus producing…dangerous curves. Saving this little piece from its own ideological slant is its obvious humor – as if to say, “Yep, we sold a lot of people short, and had to screw an awful lot of people to get where we got to.” The weary horns of Dub Is A Weapon, slouching and slurring with the resignation of a drunkard's tale told once too often, bleat out: “Is there a current-events lesson here, folks? Why yes, we think there is.” But the jangly reggae beat insists, “Okay, yo, if we know it, we can groove it,” which is very like the vibe I got off “Catcher in The Eye,” that night in the South Bronx. Very like, very like.

Now, I gotta be clear here – especially with the Lawman's Arm waving a baton – I know these folks pretty well – not the “Catcher in the Eye” crew but the Gratuitous Art Films duo – so it's up to you to debate exactly where my interests are vested, between Los and Mammon. I've received no gratuity from either Gratuitous or Les Trois Quarks, excepting an unerring aim of PBR cans tossed from Mr. Burns to yours truly. But Gratuitous has quite a collection of clever shorts on their site, each one deftly placing some artistic complexity where it really doesn't belong. They're also having a film party on December 4, at Jimmy's Diner, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during which they'll be screening previously unreleased, longer-form filmic collaborations in their trademark style of polyvalent music-video. Details are available on their website.

So if I haven't completely obliterated the line between advertising and advocacy (which is to say, offending either you, my audience, or my publishers, or both) I hope to discuss, in the next few months, some local New York artists who have interesting things to say.

Postscript:

“Junkman's Obbligato
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from A Coney Island of the Mind,
1958

Let’s go
Come on
Let’s go
Empty our pockets
And disappear.
Missing all our appointments
And turning up unshaven
Years later
Old cigarette papers
stuck to our pants
leaves in our hair.
Let us not
worry about the payments
anymore.
Let them come
and take it away
whatever it was
we were paying for.
And us with it.
Let us arise and go now
to where dogs do it
Over the Hill
where they keep the earthquakes
behind the city dumps
lost among gasmains and garbage.
Let us see the City Dumps
for what they are.
My country tears of thee.
Let us disappear
in automobile graveyards
and reappear years later
picking rags and newspapers
drying our drawers
on garbage fires
patches on our ass.
Do not bother
to say goodbye
to anyone.
Your missus will not miss us.
Let’s go
smelling of sterno
where the benches are filled
with discarded Bowling Green statues
in the interior dark night
of the flower bowery
our eyes watery
with the contemplation
of empty bottles of muscatel.
Let us recite from broken bibles
on streetcorners
Follow dogs on docks
Speak wild songs
Throw stones
Say anything
Blink at the sun and scratch
and stumble into silence
Diddle in doorways
Know whores thirdhand
after everyone else is finished
Stagger befuddled into East River sunsets
Sleep in phone booths
Puke in pawnshops
wailing for a winter overcoat.
Let us arise and go now
under the city
where ashcans roll
and reappear in putrid clothes
as the uncrowned underground kings
of subway men’s rooms.
Let us feed the pigeons
at the City Hall
urging them to do their duty
in the Mayor’s office.
Hurry up please it’s time.
The end is coming.
Flash floods
Disasters in the sun
Dogs unleashed
Sister in the street
her brassiere backwards.
Let us arise and go now
into the interior dark night
of the soul’s still bowery
and find ourselves anew
where subways stall and wait
under the River.
Cross over
into full puzzlement.
South Ferry will not run forever.
They are cutting out the Bay ferries
but it is still not too late
to get lost in Oakland.
Washington has not yet toppled
from his horse.
There is still time to goose him
and go
leaving our income tax form behind
and our waterproof wristwatch with it
staggering blind after alleycats
under Brooklyn’s Bridge
blown statues in baggy pants
our tincan cries and garbage voices
trailing.

Junk for sale!

Let’s cut it out let’s go
into the real interior of the country
where hockshops reign
mere unblind anarchy upon us.
The end is here
but golf goes on at Burning Tree.

It’s raining it’s pouring
The Ole Man is snoring.

Another flood is coming
though not the kind you think.
There is still time to sink
and think.

I wish to descend in society.
I wish to make like free.
Swing low sweet chariot.
Let us not wait for the cadillacs
to carry us triumphant
into the interior
waving at the natives
like roman senators in the provinces
wearing poet’s laurels
on lighted brows.
Let us not wait for the write-up
on page one
of the New York Times Book review
images of insane success
smiling from the photo.
By the time they print your picture
in Life Magazine
you will have become a negative anyway
a print with a glossy finish.
They will have come and gotten you
to be famous

and you still will not be free.

Goodbye I’m going.
I’m selling everything
and giving away the rest
to the Good Will Industries.
It will be dark out there
with the Salvation Army Band.
And the mind its own illumination.

Goodbye I’m walking out on the whole scene.
Close down the joint.
The system is all loused up.
Rome was never like this.
I’m tired of waiting for Godot.
I am going where turtles win
I am going
where conmen puke and die
Down the sad esplanades
of the official world.

Junk for sale!
My country tears of thee.

Let us go then you and I
leaving our neckties behind on lampposts
Take up the full beard
of walking anarchy
looking like Walt Whitman
a homemade bomb in the pocket.
I wish to descend in the social scale.
High society is low society.

I am a social climber
climbing downward
And the descent is difficult.
The Upper Middle Class Ideal
is for the birds
but the birds have no use for it
having their own kind of pecking order
based upon birdsong.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Let us arise and go now
to the Isle of Manisfree.
Let loose the hogs of peace.
Hurry up please it’s time.
Let us arise and go now
into the interior
of Foster’s Cafeteria.
So long Emily Post.
So long
Lowell Thomas.
Goodbye Broadway.
Goodbye Herald Square.

Turn it off.

Confound the system.

Cancel our leases.

Lose the War
without killing anybody.
Let horses scream
and ladies run
to flushless powderrooms.
The end has just begun.
I want to announce it.

Run don’t walk
to the nearest exit.
The real earthquake is coming.
I can feel the building shake.
I am the refined type.
I cannot stand it.
I am going
where asses lie down
with customs collectors who call themselves
literary critics.
My tool is dusty.
My body is hung up too long
in strange suspenders.
Get me a bright bandana
for a jockstrap.
Turn loose and we’ll be off
where sports cars collapse
and the world begins again.

Hurry up please it’s time.

It’s time and a half
and there’s the rub.
The thinkpad makes homeboys of us all.
Let us cut out
into stray eternity.
Somewhere the fields are full of larks.
Somewhere the land is swinging.
My country ‘tis of thee
I’m singing.
Let us arise and go now
to the Isle of Manisfree
and live the true blue simple life
of wisdom and wonderment
where all things grow
straight up
aslant and singing
in the yellow sun
poppies out of cowpods
thinking angels out of turds.

I must arise and go now
to the Isle of Manisfree
way up behind the broken words
and woods of Arcady.

Neither the author nor the publisher condones homemade bombs in pockets. Paying your taxes is also a pretty good idea right about now.

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