Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


September 23, 2008
Upholstery eater (photo by Aunt Nicola)
Terry and Traer tell me they found big chunks of upholstery gone from the back seat of the car, only to discover that their 16-month-old daughter, Nya, had been eating it. Interestingly, when they told Terry’s mum, she said that Terry and his twin brother also used to eat car upholstery. Then the other day I had a conversation with Sherry, the mother of a 17-month old who CANNOT STAND to eat two foods of different textures together. It turns out that Sherry’s in-laws are almost phobic about not eating sauces or condiments, separating the food on their plates so that it doesn’t touch, and making sure they consume each serving fully before going on to the next. No spaghetti and meatballs for them, or pizza, or....It makes me wonder if there's anything to the nurture part, if we're as original as we think we are, or just walking bundles of endlessly reshuffled genetic traits--and if Nya would tolerate a little ketchup with her upholstery.
September 19, 2008

Unattributed photo from the Web

Yawn. I’m trying to stay awake until I can go to sleep, after a late evening last night, when Maria and I went to see Built to Spill (an alt rock band, if you don’t know them, which my friend, Larry Gipe, turned me on to years ago, one of my favorites) at Pearl Street in Northampton. I’d hoped Dinosaur Jr. would also be on the bill (as they are in the upcoming New York shows) but no…which is hard to understand because J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. lives in Northampton. Oh well. It was great anyway. First of all I love Northampton and I love Pearl Street, which is your quintessential rock club. When I came to New York at the height of the punk scene in 1976, I lived on the Bowery across from CBGB’s and my orientation was the East Village, then full of clubs that looked and felt the way Pearl Street does now (but, with no cigarettes, doesn’t smell the same, thank God)—an ambiance where I’m at home. Plus Pearl Street is a small venue where major bands play, so you get to see them up close and personal—and you couldn’t find a better audience. Let me rant on a bit about fidgety New York audiences who make it hard to get into the groove when they’re constantly going in and out for drinks, texting, taking pictures of themselves and their friends, and TALKING AS LOUD AS THEY CAN SO THEY CAN BE HEARD OVER THE MUSIC. I sense that most of them aren’t into music at all, just there so they can say they went—while Northampton audiences are clearly hardcore fans who, with single-minded concentration that can’t help but contribute to the energy of the performers, are soaking up every moment. They even dance.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest.

So, Built to Spill. Wow. Unlike most rock songs that are made up of vocal lines supported by guitar riffs, Doug Marsch’s unlikely Neil Young-ish voice veers in and out of epic, sprawling jams (and I’m not a jam fan, per se) that create loud soaring layers of shifting noise so dense that, although you can see guitars, a keyboard, bass, and cello up there on the stage, it’s almost impossible to attribute what you’re hearing to any recognizable instruments—except for the powerful beat that holds it all together (despite drummer jokes I really am going to be a rock drummer in my next life). It’s a sound that envelops you, takes you over, soaks into every pore. After “Velvet Waltz” I leaned over to Maria and said, “That was like having sex” to which she answered, “Yeah, if you’re tripping.” And they weren't even half way into the set. Billy Joel post with me—taking the part of BJ, of course— and it was hilarious).
September 17, 2008
I spent yesterday trying to write a blog post about art (art? what’s that?) when I, like everyone else, was obsessed with what Sarah Palin’s candidacy has revealed about this country. I’m wondering why (except for a mention in a column by Maureen Dowd, who happened to be in Alaska when it took place), the allegedly biggest protest rally in Alaskan history was not covered in the mainstream press. 1500 people showing up in Anchorage (pop.128,000) is, percentage-wise, like over 700,00 people gathering in New York City (pop. 8 million plus). The rally was totally grassroots, dreamed up by two women over coffee, and despite some rather extreme attempts at sabotage, succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. You can read about it here and here. I hope (if people find out about it--pass it on!) it will spur similar rallies in cities the press can’t ignore. I’m poised to go to Washington, and have been ruminating on possible acronyms such a movement could inspire, such as Feminist Women Against Palin, or FWAP!

Given Palin's supposed popularity rating in Alaska, it's also enlightening to read the editorials in The Anchorage Daily News: Questions for Palin and one suggesting that the "Governor takes executive privilege too far."

Meanwhile, cleaning and reorganizing my painting storage this summer rekindled my interest in making more “journal” paintings—a series I did for ten years where I noted, in oil paint on canvas, words and symbols that represented the emotions and events of my daily life. The paintings were born of frustration—with my painting (what was I doing and why was I doing it? who was I doing it for?) and with a life circumscribed by illness, work, and no time for a studio practice—even if I wanted one, which I wasn’t sure I did. Eight years before I had “dropped out” at a moment of success, made the decision not to show my work, and from then on when I did do something in the studio, I did my best to make it unsalable—by painting over old paintings or using those crappy pre-stretched canvases (a decision I regret, because I like those paintings now). I also gave much of it away. When I did my first journal painting, choosing to use personal details as content was also an act born of perversity—who would care? (And ten years after that, when the art world was awash in intimate minutiae, seemed like a good time to give the journal paintings up).

Forty Days, 1992, oil on canvas, 80" x 48"

My decision now to make another journal painting has turned out to be weirdly synchronistic. I started the first with an old painting, 80” x 48,” which I ruled off in two-inch segments so that each represented a day, and added up to the exactly 40 days (a Biblical number) between my birthday and Election Day, 1992—when Bill Clinton became president, winning out over George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot. In each two-inch strip I noted what I did that day (on my birthday the art director at TIME, for whom I was working, took me to lunch at the Palio Bar—those were the days!—and son Matt took me to see a private concert by Soul Asylum, remember them?) and I ended it with figures derived from the election polls. That was, of course, before cell phones, when the polls were pretty accurate. The numbers started out Clinton 57-Bush 37 and ended with Clinton 44-Perot 17-Bush 39, while Clinton won 43-17-37. This time there are 42 days between my birthday and the election so I have to reconfigure a bit. Also the polls are now wildly inaccurate—but at least it gives me something to do other than bite my nails.

September 12, 2008

White Crest Beach, Wellfleet, MA

When I was a kid growing up in Chicagoland (they actually call it that) every summer we spent two weeks at Hanson’s Cottages on Plum Lake in Sayner, Wisconsin, way up above Eagle River. Every morning my father got up early to catch sunfish, and my mother cooked them for breakfast. We kids rowed, swam, and occasionally fished, but the big event was when Mr. Hanson let us go with him on the Jeep to the dump where we sometimes saw bears. This is making my childhood sound more interesting than it really was. It did, however, form my idea of what a vacation should be: lots of reading, hanging out, and eating, somewhere near water. No air travel, nothing deductible.

This vacation at the Cape, the first like it in years, definitely qualified. After three lobsters, three crème brulees, an evening of manic living room karaoke, early morning pond swims, outdoor showers, too much sun, perfect surf, and haddock every morning for breakfast, I was refreshed and renewed. I didn’t read anything heavier than Spin and didn’t go near a computer. (I have to admit that there was a moment when I was tempted to post, but my friends restrained me. Friends don’t let friends blog on vacation.) The only downsides were mosquito bites and Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her candidacy for vice-president of the PTA, which we felt compelled to watch. However the next night, instead of listening to McCain, we went to a lecture by Thomas Nozkowski at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which proved to be a more worthwhile use of our time. An artist who makes only about twelve small paintings a year, Nozkowski’s down-to-earth presentation made me itch to get back into the studio.

The September Spin I was reading had an interview in which Patti Smith, after stating that she's neither analytical nor philosophical, is nothing but philosophical. Resisting categorization, she addresses her multiple roles:

…my goal in life was never to become a musician. I’m not a musician. I drew and wrote poetry for ten years before I wrote Horses. I published books. Why do people want to know exactly who I am? Am I a poet? Am I this or that? I’ve always made people wary. First they called me a rock poet. Then I was a poet who dabbled in rock. Then I was a rock person who dabbled in art. But for me, working in different forms seemed like a very organic process. From an early age I studied people like DaVinci and William Blake and Jean Cocteau. They all did a lot of things. But if you want to call me anything, call me a worker. I do work.

The next time someone asks me if I consider myself more of a painter than a writer or vice versa, I’m going to say, “I do work.”

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-96), 2007, oil on linen on panel, courtesy of PaceWildenstein.
September 1, 2008
Route 20, Pittsfield, MA
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I'm off on vacation, sans computer, to see if it's possible to go without having an opinion for the next ten days. If so, see you mid-September.

August 31, 2008
I never did believe the story that there were legions of embittered Hillary supporters out there, poised to vote for McCain. In today’s Times, Frank Rich addresses media myths—“The disconnect between the reality of this campaign and how it is perceived and presented by the mainstream media is now a major part of the year’s story.” Rich doesn’t quite explain how these myths arise, but no doubt part of it has to do with the media’s need for conflict—so that even when there isn’t any, they have to make it up—and also with the “fair and balanced” bullshit that may have started out with the right intentions but has made it so that no one can be wholehearted about anything--and provided a platform for fringe groups (who may otherwise have been too small to be noticed) because reporters feel obliged to quote from the other side. And they continue to rely on poll results even though by now everyone knows (because the pollsters can only reach landlines and not cell phones) that the polls are no longer good indicators.

(And why, I wonder is hardly anyone mentioning the fact that Sarah Palin is under investigation for an ethics breach, or questioning the wisdom of a candidate who would choose a running mate under such circumstances?)

It looks as if the media is as confused as the Republicans as to what their role is in this new era. I was heartened to see that CNN’s straight coverage of the campaign won out over the other networks’ gabble of talking heads. It wasn’t just rhetoric when, in his acceptance speech, Obama said that it wasn’t about him. What the media hasn’t gotten yet, is that it’s not about them, either.
August 29, 2008
Did anyone else notice the subtle racism in the Times this morning? This was the blurb for, and a paragraph from, “The TV Watch: On the Small Screen, Intimacy and Welcome Silence for Obama’s Big Rally” by Alessandra Stanley:

Wearing a flag pin and a confident mien, Barack Obama looked like a presidential candidate accepting the nomination of the Democratic party.

Well, excuse me, but what else should he look like?

And then there was David Brooks’ infantile response to Obama's historic speech, which serves as an indication of Republican desperation. I can’t believe the Times actually prints this stuff. On a par with McCain’s Paris Hilton video, Brooks insults “a new generation of Americans, a generation that came of age amid iced chai and mocha strawberry Frappucinos, a generation with a historical memory that doesn’t extend past Coke Zero.” Brooks, who was once responsible for an inane rail against hipster parents, of all things, must be feeling the pain of encroaching old fartdom.
August 29, 2008
I’m online after another weekend of hell with Verizon DSL Customer Service, clearly a misnomer. Please, please bring back the era of public utilities, because what we have here is the worst of both worlds—a private, profit-making company with a monopoly. For some reason, I only have trouble on the weekends, when getting through to tech support is possible only after over an hour (and I’m not exaggerating) of continually calling and yelling “repair” into their voice prompt system (a repair guy also told me to punch in “1” five times—this also worked once, after half hour of trying and calling back, etc. but then didn’t work again). I’ve been this route before, so therefore knew there were willing tech support people amassed in Calcutta just waiting to talk to me if I could just get past the supercilious voice prompt that kept telling me the offices were closed and to call back on Monday. So after that hour of hysterics I did finally get through to “Abby” who (after asking me such questions as “do you have a dial tone on that line?” which I hardly knew how to answer since I was talking to her on that line and she had the number in front of her) made an appointment for a repair person to come to my “premise” on Monday. I’ve been trying to get people to come to my “premise” my whole life. It’s gratifying to learn my point of view is finally taking hold.

So Monday came, and after several hours of panting up and down the three flights from the basement to my studio and back again, the very nice repair guy fixed everything—for now. After all, the last guy thought he fixed everything, too.

Tuesday I got a voice message from Debbie, at the local company that provides me with propane, telling me that even though I’d signed up for their “budget” plan, where they deduct a predetermined amount every month from my credit card, the number of which they have on file, I would still need to call her each month to “remind” her. I did not make this up—however the delivery guy, who came the next day, was able to go back and set her straight (I get my tank filled 3 or so times a year, for a total of $2200 to heat about the same number of square feet. He told me he has a client he goes to every week. “It’s a big house.” OMG.)

Wednesday it was Design Within Reach. I’d phoned ten days before to say that the replacement bulbs they sent me for my Cortina Table Lamp didn’t work, yet hadn’t heard from their tech department as promised, nor did I get an answer to my “Contact Us” email—so tried Customer Service again this afternoon where I got J., whose only proposed “solution,” which she repeated over and over, consisted of sending me another set of the same bulbs, because those were the only ones they had listed for that lamp. After hearing that one more time than I could stand, I hung up.

Let me digress a bit to say that I believe (or did believe) in designer lighting—to the point that it’s been something of an obsession. I think crappy lighting makes even the most expensive furniture look crappy, whereas a designer lamp (like this Artemide Tizio lamp I have on my desk) brings everything else (scarred library table bought off the back of a truck at Broome and Greene, Ikea bookshelves and Kmart computer stand) up to its level.

Although expensive to begin with, I saw my designer lamps as mini-investments that would hold their value, which I could sell if I moved or changed my mind. I’m not so sure anymore. Although I’ve had great luck with Artemide (I sent a lamp, broken by a visiting child, back to the factory for repair and they turned it around as quickly as if it were a computer), a very expensive B.Lux lamp went kaput because a fuse burned out—a fuse that’s now unavailable. The company’s solution was to offer me a new lamp at half price—still a hefty amount—but I did it because I’d designed part of my house around it. Now the Cortina Lamp, which I’ve had for about six years, is out-of-date and needs (according to the manufacturer who I looked up online and called myself, thank you very much, DWR) for me to send back my old base for a new dimmer that will accommodate the new bulbs ($25 plus $13 shipping each way)—or buy a completely new base for $70. (Update: I called the manufacturer again yesterday and got someone else who offered to send me bulbs she thought would work. Customer service tip: keep calling until you get someone who tells you what you want to hear).

So while I’m not quite ready to entirely give up on designer lighting, I’d advise anyone who’s willing to shell out that much money for it to be aware of the possible pitfalls—and stock up on lots of replacement bulbs.

I know, I know, these should be the only problems I have in life. But it may be an extremely long-winded way of addressing the national situation of economic depression (or maybe just depression), which I think may be happening because we simply no longer know how to conduct ourselves in business. How different my week (and their profits, no doubt) would have been if the people I dealt with had been actually trained in customer relations and there was some incentive for them to think rather than just go through the motions (at least the simulated person manning the phones at Verizon is making no bones about it).

For those in customer service, or just life, I recommend a small book: Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them by Ronald M. Shapiro and Mark A. Jankowski. The authors tell you how to identify the type of difficult person you’re up against, and suggest methods to handle them accordingly. These are the “Situationally Difficult Person” – a normally reasonable human being who simply has been pushed to the max, the “Strategically Difficult Person”—someone who’s employing certain learned strategies to get what they want, and the “Simply Difficult Person” –a person who you can’t predict or negotiate with, who’s reacting to all kinds of emotional triggers.

Most people who call customer service, including me, are among the “Situationally Difficult”—people who are irritated because something isn’t working, for whom an apology and a little empathy would go a long way. Suppose J. at DWR, instead of insisting over and over that they sent the right bulbs so therefore they should work, end of story, had said: “I am so sorry no one called you back; I’d be very frustrated too. Let me see what I can do to help.” And then, of course, she’d actually have to call the manufacturer, as I ultimately did, but is that really too much effort to keep a loyal customer?

When he came to fix my line, the Verizon guy was empathetic. “No one should have to go through that,” he said, referring to the voice prompt system. A friend, who had had the same experience, likened it to the Bush administration, and after a couple of days of thinking about it, I see what means—people who say they care when they don’t really give a shit—as with Katrina, or the returning injured from Iraq. When the people at the top are insincere and unaccountable, it has a trickle-down effect. What a difference it could make—will make—to have a president who could actually be a role model.

Wow, I had no idea where this was going; it’s turned out to be my longest post ever when, really, I was just sounding off about Verizon. But you know what? I just tried to publish it and discovered that the DSL light is blinking again, and I can’t go online….