Growing up in Southern California, nearly every summer vacation included a family trip in the station wagon to visit relatives in Missouri and Arkansas. The route we traveled on was always the old Route 66, another story all by itself. The drive was mercilessly boring so the least little thing would amuse me and my six siblings as we made our way eastward.
Looking out the car window for something to entertain us was a good way to pass the hours. The giant jackrabbit signs perched on hills above Route 66 for Jack Rabbit Trading Post were a spectacular sight. They taunted us for miles while we imagined all the wonderful curiosities that the Jack Rabbit Trading Post held – I mean, arts and crafts – I was THERE! And then finally, we would spot the one that read, Here it is! Oh, the pain as we sped by each and every one.
But the absolute best sighting was the Burma-Shave signs. These were a brilliant ad campaign for shaving cream featuring six sequential signs that passengers in cars could read as they passed – they were spaced far enough apart that the sentence was read naturally. Here is one message from 1963, the last year Burma-Shave used this promotion:
Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It’s our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave
This has been so woven into our collective culture that artist Norman B. Colp created a public art installation inspired by the Burma-Shave signs installed in the 42nd Street subway tunnel. Called The Commuter’s Lament, or A Close Shave, the installation is a series of signs attached to the roof of the passageway, with the following text:
Overslept, / So tired. / If late, / Get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.
At this point, you realize that I am fascinated by popular culture and how the influence spreads into art, collective memory, and history. So imagine my delight when walking down the street today and spotting a series of painted rocks with little hand-lettered messages. Each one was carefully placed to make sure pedestrians would see them. While these did not have the clever poetics of the Burma Shave signs, they spoke with a more gentle and encouraging voice:
This past week I heard an article on NPR that discussed the new use of flute in hip hop music and other more contemporary music made and performed today.
My mind immediately went flying back to 1970 when Gil Scott Heron produced many of the works that defined the groundbreaking work of merging spoken word poetry, music, and popular culture. If you listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, you will hear the flute weaving throughout this performative piece that referenced the popular slogan among the 1960’s Black Power Movements in the United States. Mentioning popular culture references from television series and ad slogans from that time, talking about what the “Revolution will not” be or do, many listeners today may not understand the popular cultural references that are mentioned: white lightening, white tornado, Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Bullwinkle, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and
If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the difficult times when Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and other political miscreants were causing angst in our country. Gil Scott-Heron really put his finger on the reason why life was out of control for those that were forced into the margins of the American life at that time, drawing comparisons to the hijinks of elected officials and contrasting it with popular culture amassed in 1970’s ads and programming on television and radio.
Today, over 47 years after this song first broadcast on the airwaves, we see the same situation where we can insert different names into the spoken word poetry. Gil Scott Heron was a groundbreaking artist creating the voice of truth for the artists and citizens that had no voice.
I always know that I’ve seen a groundbreaking art exhibit when images from that show continue to play in my mind. This was the case with the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Met. Arriving on Friday night on the closing weekend, I wasn’t surprised to wait in a long line, and there was something wonderful about standing with hundreds of people excited about seeing the artworks inside the doors. As I got closer to entering I could see the faces of those that have seen the show exiting the museum. One woman commented to me, “Don’t worry – it’s worth the wait.”
Kerry James Marshall has done masterful artworks for decades, and this exhibit, Mastry, was significant in that viewers could see 80 artworks arranged on two entire floors of the Met Breuer. During the Met’s video on the exhibit, Marshall was interviewed and stated, “Mastery is an important concept. It implies having achieved a certain level of proficiency that gives you the freedom to do what you want, without fear of the consequences.”
Marshall was born in Alabama during 1955, but his family moved when he was a small child to South Central Los Angeles. This interested me greatly since we are around the same age, but living very different lives 75 miles apart.
The exhibit was curated using different rooms featuring Marshall’s work arranged around themes. His most well-known paintings use portraiture and reference art history using depictions of African Americans featured as the central figures in each painting. The people of Marshall’s paintings are black – making the word black into a statement that is more than the color used on the canvas. Seeing 80 works of art where all of the figures are black in a major museum is startling and gratifying.
Marshall’s work is also a reflection of the socio-political time he was growing up in the South Central Los Angeles area. With few opportunities for blacks during that time, in every facet of life: housing, jobs, education, and political representation, there was growing resentment about the inequalities that resulted in actions across the United
States. In Los Angeles, this came to bear as the Watt’s Rebellion that happened during 1965’s hot August days. My memory as a young teenager was seeing the black billowing smoke from the fires in Watts and then watching the news on television. For those who didn’t directly experience what led to those days of Americans fighting against other Americans, we can reference Marshall’s paintings to see a clear roadmap.
Marshall paints about the frustrations and limitations of being constricted to living in housing projects with genteel names, such as Rockwell Gardens, Wentworth Gardens, or Altgeld Gardens. In each of these paintings the African-American residents of these projects are depicted as caring for the grounds or doing domestic tasks, such as planting flowers, but there is no sense of joy or pride in their faces. In fact, the faces are all depicted with dead expressions.
Although these paintings were finished years after the 1965 Watt’s Rebellion, they reflect feelings of subsumed anger over circumstances that African-Americans were forced to live during that time. The Watt’s Rebellion erupted as just one of many that ricocheted across the US in the coming years.
In most of the major world museums, masters that have been collected are primarily Europeans. We can think about Renoir and his well-known painting, “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” showing a leisurely Sunday afternoon on the river with friends. Kerry James Marshall uses a narrative style and subject matter that parallels this painting. In “Past Times,” Marshall depicts African Americans spending a relaxing day at a park. The painting is large (9.6×13’) and viewers will see an idyllic park scene where black people are playing golf, croquet, and riding in a powerboat on the lake.
A woman sets out a picnic on the blanket spread over the grass and music by the Temptations is depicted as coming out of the cassette player, with lyrics written as a stylistic banner; “But it was just my imagination, runnin’ away with me-It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me,” resulting in an uneasy feeling that we are all looking at a fantasy. Further examination of the painting shows the housing projects clearly visible in the background. Marshall stated this in the Met video: “In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of master, certainly not an Old Master. Mastery means that one is able to self-determine, to determine how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen.”
For me, an especially touching artwork was Marshall’s depiction of one of his artist-teacher idols, Charles White. The artist met him when he was attending Otis Art Institute as a 7th grader and while visiting this working artist’s studio, understood for the first time that he could become an artist.
The show is traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 21 – July 2, 2017) and is worth every penny to travel and see if you haven’t experienced Marshall’s Mastry exhibit.
Driving around the Hudson River Valley every day, I see lovely views around each corner. The mountains, trees, Hudson River, and apple orchards are beautiful in every season.
I also see this house every day on my commute to work, not particularly beautiful, but the upright piano outside the front porch of this abandoned house haunts me.
I don’t know how long this house and property has been abandoned, it looks like years. The farmhouse might have been built in the early 1900’s, a time when many families had upright pianos in their parlor and gatherings frequently ended in an impromptu concert around the piano. Making music was important at that time but sheet music was expensive for a popular song, selling for as much as $2.00, which is equivalent to $54 today.
After 1900, cheaper ways to print music were found and the twenty-five cent song sheet was introduced. Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first Ragtime composition to become a sheet music best-seller, and American music and ragtime were on everyone’s soundwaves.
Consider that a piano like the abandoned one sitting on this porch might have cost $400 during that time, as shown in this receipt on the left. In 1900 an average annual salary was $450 – can you imagine spending your annual salary on a musical instrument? Music in the home was a valuable part of making a good life for your family.
Today that upright piano continues to molder away on the porch, exposed to the four seasons of the Hudson Valley. The musical gatherings around the piano are a memory for our local elders and maybe that’s what haunts me the most.
Interested in history? This week I was remembering 1968 when Cream‘s album, Wheels of Fire was released. Eric Clapton was at the beginning of his career and his fascination with American Blues fused with rock is the standard on this album.
Cream’s Wheels of Fire became the soundtrack of my life that year. Eric Clapton’s virtuoso guitar, Jack Bruce’s bass, and Ginger Baker on the drums created a sound that was transformational.
For me, life was in California, but the news went beyond those borders. That summer of 1968 began with the shooting murder of Martin Luther King. In August, Richard Nixon was elected as the presidential candidate during the Republican Convention, and eventually elected president in November. Every night you could watch Walter Cronkite announce the latest death toll of Americans on the news from the Vietnam War. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed.
Most importantly, that August in 1968 was the month that my mother died – she was 37 – and today I realize how young that really was. As my life unraveled, Wheels of Fire became the touchstone of a new reality that I had moving into the future. The album had songs of memory (Those were the Days), political wit (The Politician), fantasy (Pressed Rat and Warthog), and the blues, (Born Under a Bad Sign and Crossroads). Wheels of Fire carried me through that first year on my own and helped me imagine how on earth I was going to put my life back together again. Thank you, Cream for the music that provided magic and comfort in our lives.
Hear the entire album here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPIXJ7B2I7E
The title for Wassaic Project’s 9th Annual Summer Exhibition, Appetite for Destruction, is taken from an artwork of the same name by Robert Williams, a California-based artist that was at the forefront of psychedelic, apocalyptic artmaking. Williams’ painting was selected originally for the cover of a Guns N’ Roses album, but after its initial release was banned in record stores, forcing the album reissue with his art inside the album and a new image on the cover. Although that was 1987, apparently art still had the capacity to shock and provoke strong reactions.
Appetite for Destruction at the Wassaic Project’s Maxon Mills exhibit space takes a more measured approach. The works on display by contemporary emerging artists focuses on the artists’ interpretations of the untamed world – whether that world is the outdoor landscape, the built environment, or the imagined. The annual exhibit is important to present emerging artists’ work, building reputations and allowing artists to experiment and take risks with their art. Of the 56 exhibited artists, 45 are alumni of the Wassaic Artist Residency, where artists can live and make art in Wassaic during their residency period.
This year there are exhibits installed on the grounds that can be spotted before visitors enter the space. The exhibition space is a seven-story grain elevator with artwork installed at every level. On the first floor, visitors are greeted by David Grainger’s larger than life sculpture, “Dear in Headlights.” A manufactured forest and the sound of water encourage visitors to explore an installation by Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw, featuring a boat in a built stream surrounded by vegetation. The artist statement described the installation as “influenced by belief systems and how they related to visions of the future.”
Moving up the stairs to the next level, see Deborah Simon’s “Flayed Albino Rabbit” wearing a beautifully embroidered jacket depicting trees and interconnected root systems.
As visitors continue to move up the stairs, don’t miss the small wood boxes containing 3D digital animations created by Meredith Drum and works by J. D. Fontanella installed in the grain elevator shaft.
The third level is an installation of Natalie Baxter’s “Warm Gun” series. Natalie stated that she “learned from her Appalachian grandmother to create soft objects that challenge feminine ideals, gun laws, and violence.” The next level has an interactive exhibit by Gregg Evans featuring 12 photo panels on three shelves. The artist encourages visitors to rearrange the panels to create a new story, demonstrating how art can be re-interpreted by its surroundings.
Next up are Roxanne Jackson’s fantastical creations – the exploding ceramic wall mask is a tour de force of design, color, and imagination. Don’t hesitate to enter and explore Sabrina Barrios’ installation created using UV light and string.
Continuing up the stairs, Holden Brown’s “Stairway to Heaven” installation will invite you to ponder the pure white stairs cordoned off by a rope. The artist stated, “My work is about fantasy and unfulfilled desire. It addresses the human pursuit for utopic perfection and the images we associate with the idea of “Utopia.”
He used Google to search for images related to “Stairway to Heaven” and “Utopia.” Facing the installation, visitors could see an open door at the top of the pure white stairway, a blue sky with fluffy white clouds slowly moving, visible through the open door – a heavenly choir completing the utopian scene. Visitors may wonder if they will be allowed to pass beyond the blue velvet rope.
Appetite for Destruction at the Wassaic Project’s Maxon Mills is located at 37 Furnace Bank Road, Wassaic. Exhibit up through September 18, 2016.
This essay (in an edited form) originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal’s Enjoy section, September 9, 2016.
Summer 2016 will be remembered for the Fun House exhibit, held at Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie and curated by Eve Biddle, local artist and curator. The exhibit was inspired by Hudson Valley regional artist David Lax’s surreal painting, spotted in the entry hall of the gallery. “There is something about this theme, the bizarre, weird, and wonderful, that really strikes a chord with artists;” Executive Director, Joanna Frang commented, “We had over 300 local and national entries for the show.” Local artist and curator, Eve Biddle, selected 81 artworks by 51 artists, hailing from 17 states and 40 cities and towns. Biddle’s curatorial statement sets the stage in anticipation for seeing the art: “These works are a jumble of dreams and nightmares designed to overload the senses and spark the imagination.”
Many of the artworks include the unexpected juxtaposition of collage images, such as John Baker’s painting, “Born and Raised in the City of Chicago,” and the photographs by Annie Stone and Kerfe Roig. Santiago Cohen’s “The Fight,” reminds us of the strong influence of the surrealism movement on Mexican art. Born in Mexico, this New Jersey artists’ influence is seen in his three paintings on exhibit.
Ileana Doble Hernandez exhibits staged photographs from her series, “Animal Nature,” which are inspired by animal-human interaction. The photograph “Pollito Chicken,” depicts a mother with a pig-mask sitting at the dinner table, her baby is dressed in a bright yellow romper and appears to be trying to crawl out of an aluminum roasting pan. There is a roast chicken in front of the mother, but the placement of the baby next to the dinner and the empty plate might make the viewer feel uneasy. The artist notes that “In the end, we are also animal kind.”
Jim Allen exhibited “Traveling Dreams,” a surreal black and white photograph that captures reflections and shadows of travel, whether by fantasy or memory. The fantasy of riding off on a stallion is viewed through a scratched windowpane, making the memory seem unreliable. Through the window the viewer sees the distorted image of a school bus leaving on its route.
Sculptural pieces include Trent Taft’s artworks that could have come from the special effects movie prop storeroom: meticulously created and vaguely disturbing, these are artworks from a new master.
Marah Carpenter’s fabric work series, “Paper Doll Look,” a reconfigured wardrobe inspired by paper dolls, features three pieces that are actually wearable, creating a one-dimensional view of the model.
Isaac Roller’s pen and ink scroll “The Changeling” demonstrates the artists’ skill at drawing animals – both real and imagined. Although a small portion of 31’ scroll is viewable, what is on display is truly bizarre.