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Lower east side fidelity

Freedy Johnston and friends, in concert at The HiFi Bar, Sept. 8, 2016

Freedy Johnston and friends, in concert at The HiFi Bar, Sept. 8, 2016

Will Sheff: I was talking to Mike Stuto the owner of The HiFi Bar, and he was saying to me about that bar, “If I listen to somebody else about the bar, and I make changes to it, and it fails, I feel like a fool. But if I make my own decision and that fails, well I was wrong and I don’t feel ashamed about it.” I’ve come to believe that with success and failure, there’s a heavy degree of randomness, or maybe unknowableness and unpredictableness to it, but if you follow your heart or passion, then you kind of win.

Todd Barry: I guess we should both start singing “My Way” now.

–The Todd Barry Podcast #133

A few months ago, I discovered The HiFi Bar. Just writing that sentence reminds me of the Art Brut lyric: “I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered The Replacements.” (At least I’ve been a rabid fan of The Replacements for many years, but that doesn’t make up for having discovered The HiFi Bar this late.) It’s a unique refuge for music in a place smaller than almost anywhere I’ve heard music other than my own bedroom, a particular harbor of honesty and quality in a world devoted to everything but those two qualities. It’s aptly named because this is the sort of place I think John Cusack would have built when he decided to break out of retail LP sales and become a music producer at the end of High Fidelity. Walking in, before I understood where I was, I felt as if I’d found a home-away-from-home. Even without a performer on the tiny stage in back, it had the feel of a great, classic pub, like Pride of Spitalfields, near Brick Lane, where I once happened to be installed on a stool when a cohort of London policemen filed in for a retirement party. On that night, a few years ago, one of them seated himself at the upright piano to play a medley of Elton John and I asked him for some cuts off of Tumbleweed Connection, but he admitted he didn’t know the album. (How is this possible?) It was one of those warm and unguarded moments among strangers, full of heart, when you feel as if you’ve been adopted by the clan you’ve stumbled into, if only for an hour or two. My hours at HiFi last week were like that. I came away thinking, this is what practicing any art is about.

A week or two before I drove down to New York City, I bought tickets for Freedy Johnston’s performance there, and then read what little is out there about him. He’d been named Rolling Stone’s “Songwriter of the Year” in the mid-90s; he’d done recordings produced by T. Bone Burnett and Danny Kortchmar; he’d been celebrated by critics as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’ Yet, all of that, and this was the only concert I could find for him in all of last year in the usual listings. Why was he playing here? So I went back to the entrance, where the woman at the door was still awaiting newcomers, with her small list of those who had bought tickets to the show. My name was third down on the print-out of maybe twenty names, at most, and I could see she’d checked it off when I arrived. I peppered her with a number of idiotic and retrospectively embarrassing questions, under the assumption that Johnston was still living in the Midwest—how and why did he pick this place for the only performance this year of songs from his latest album? (I didn’t know that he has lived in New Jersey for years.) How could someone with this talent, and that intoxicating brush with fame, be making a living at gigs like this? Obviously, he couldn’t. It wasn’t being done for money, so what was the story? (If I’d just done a bit of searching into the bar, owned by Mike Stuto, I’d have understood why someone would perform here with no thought of money to be made. The place is that uniquely cool.) She played dumb, or just didn’t know, or didn’t really understand my question, probably. “I think he’s friends with Mike.” I persisted: I loved this place immediately, and it wasn’t a knock on the venue, but how can he make money this way? I knew these were incredibly stupid questions that didn’t convey how perfect I thought it was that he was playing in this little oasis and just wanted to know how it had come about, even though there would have been little mystery if I’d Googled the bar. Anyone with any sense would want to perform there, just to have done it, yet most of what I knew about him was summed up from this Internet blurb I’d found:

A gifted songwriter whose lyrics paint sometimes witty, often poignant portraits of characters often unaware of how their lives have gone wrong, Johnston seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early ’90s and quickly established himself as one of the most acclaimed new singer/songwriters of the day. Johnston was born in 1961 in Kinsley, KS, a small town with the odd distinction of being equidistant between New York City and San Francisco.

His Wikipedia entry alerted me to the song Bad Reputation, which I remembered after finding it and listening again—repeatedly, with pleasure—and it pointed out how critically celebrated he’d been for his first albums. I’d been listening to the newest album on repeat for several weeks in my car, after buying the ticket, and was looking forward to hearing him live, but I’d been anticipating a much bigger club, something more typical of a concert tour, expecting maybe a small ballroom with a couple bartenders.

So, having demonstrated conclusively how uncool and out of my element on the Lower East Side I was, I found a tiny table near the stage and set my Diet Coke down and waited, looking enviously at the people who had come early enough to claim the banquettes. A younger fan appeared and sat across from me, waiting for his date, constantly checking the door, while telling me that Johnston lived in Jersey City now and had that regular Thursday performance, a “residency,” at Rockwood Music Hall, further downtown. That clarified the nature of this booking: he loved the HiFi and it loved him, and he lived nearby. It was about music, not money.

When Johnston took the stage, he didn’t waste time, but launched into the first song with authority and power. He, along with his drummer and bassist, switched back and forth between rueful ballads and a much more powerful sound that, for me, held its own in comparison with John Hiatt’s best tracks on Slow Turning. It took me a while to recognize that he kept reminding me of Hiatt, and then he’d do a song sounding far more like Neil Young. But he was more himself than either of them. It was exhilarating to hear such power, and yet such clarity in the texture of the music, the best possible way to hear a performance, as if in your own living room. To get a sound that big, with that much propulsive energy, from that triad–a couple voices and three instruments—is itself an achievement. Some of the best music of the past half-century emerged from minimal crews of three people. Yet Johnston’s most effective songs reminded me less of rock and roll than the work of people like Jimmy Webb.  (Who under 40 knows that name now?) To do that with a sound that constantly swerved toward the satisfying punch of rock and roll was a pleasure for his audience, as the hoots confirmed after each song. Essentially, it was like listening to a performance in a studio—a full, physical, and yet undistorted sound.

Between each number, Johnston offered sardonic observations about himself, and though most of it was self-deprecating, every disclosure gave me a greater and greater respect and appreciation for what was taking place. It was just another Thursday gig at a little bar downtown by an artist who had fallen off the pop radar long ago, but the more I listened, the more it seemed like a perfect creative achievement. In some respects it was all that anyone who works in any field should want. Johnston connected with his audience and commanded their total, rapt attention for those ninety minutes, and they were rewarded with a bit of joy so many others had overlooked. The sound wasn’t absolutely perfect—I’ve never been to a concert where the sound was absolutely perfect—but it was about as good as the sound in any concert I’ve attended.

Before his first song he said, “Well, what can I tell you. I’m 55. I’m still writing songs. And my dog is doing fine.” There was more to come, but at this point, that was about it, and it made some of us laugh, as it was meant to, but it also established the contours of who he was: someone who was conscious of how much time he had left, someone who was working hard and seriously to finish a body of work, and somebody who lived a spare life as a result of that devotion. Later he told the story that suggested he’d been something of a jerk, once upon a time—there were allusions to his life after he catapulted into the floodlight of critical recognition, which sounded as if it may have been a slide into dissipation and self-absorption. This particular story was of how he’d been bickering with his girlfriend on a road trip in Wisconsin and after stopping for a meal, had inadvertently left her in the restaurant without realizing she wasn’t in the back seat until he’d been on the road for an hour and a half. This was both very funny and no doubt absolutely factual. He did a U-turn, mortified and angry at himself, and found her still waiting at the restaurant, having provided a small group of employees with a parade of revelations about Johnston’s life and personality.

She said, “There are some people who want to meet you in back.”

“I submitted to it. I deserved it. Then we got back on the road,” he told his audience. “None of this has anything to do with this next song, though.”

At one point, before he performed “Neon Repairman”, he called out to the bartender, “I think I have a ticket for a beer. Let me check.” And he pretended to root in his back pocket, but didn’t come up with it. They got the message though and one of the help delivered two pints, one for Johnston and one for his bassist, as they performed the best song off the album of that name. It contains a line that samples a line from “Wichita Lineman”—I need you more than want you—which is poignant when Webb put it into the mouth of a common repairman driving around the county looking for broken power lines. It was Webb’s best song, and though “Neon Repairman” doesn’t sound that much like it, the spirit of the lyrics and melody are very much the same.

“I gave that song to Jimmy Webb once. He said, ‘It’s great.’ That’s all. I don’t know what I expected. What else is he going to say? Your song sucks?”

I was won over by that combination of humility and all the evidence of his fierce dedication to making great music—and his ability to do it perfectly by simply being who he is. Regardless of the rewards, or the attention, or his status in the music industry, he was succeeding, simply measured by the quality of the music and the way his audience was enjoying it. Even with his influences, he was being himself, and nobody else, and he spent the evening with some people who loved him for it. What else can one ask for?

Toward the end of his set, Stuto brought out several wine carafes and passed them around–accepting donations for the band. After the last song, as I was leaving, the carafes had made their way back to the bar. I walked up and put in more than I had paid for admission. The next day, on my drive home, playing podcasts, I listened to Todd Barry and Will Sheff talking about music and the life of a musician, and, as I was driving past Binghamton, I laughed with surprise when they started discussing The Hi Fi Bar.

Kim Cogan

Pacifica, Kim Cogan, Maxwell Alexander Gallery

Pacifica, Kim Cogan, Maxwell Alexander Gallery, Sante Fe

My photograph, from the L.A. Art Show, doesn’t do it justice.

SOSA January 2017 Meeting

SOSA January 2017 Meeting - The Southern Oregon Society of Artists (SOSA) will be starting the 2017 Season on January 23, at 6:30 pm at the Medford Public Library. : sosa logo southern oregon society of artistsSOSA January 2017 Meeting – The Southern Oregon Society of Artists (SOSA) will start the 2017 Season on January 23, at 6:30 pm at the Medford Public Library.
The SOSA January 2017 Meeting opening program is a Membership Art Critique with Kim Hearon, Executive Director of the Rogue Gallery & Art Center, acting as Juror.
Also at the SOSA January 2017 Meeting, the President’s Challenge will be B&W drawings, no bigger than 8×10 and hopefully incorporating “SOSA” and “2017” but not required. The winner will be used for the 2017 Directory/yearbook cover.
Questions? Call BJ at 541-414-4993


Persimmon and Stone, oil, Zhang Qing, China

Persimmon and Stone, oil, Zhang Qing, China


Persimmon, oil on panel, Jeffrey Ripple, Arcadia Contemporary, at L.A. Art Show

Persimmon, oil on panel, Jeffrey Ripple, Arcadia Contemporary

There were both on view at the L.A. Art Show.

Young il Ahn

Water PPWG 16, oil on canvas, Young-iL Ahn, Korean

Water PPWG 16, detail, oil on canvas, Young-il Ahn, Korean

I spent Thursday afternoon at the L.A. Art Show, which concluded tonight. While much of it was of little or no interest, there were pockets of remarkable work, and I was gratified that my flight home got delayed by rain–denizens of Southern California apparently get premonitions of the world’s end when a steady rain begins to fall. Traffic slows dramatically. Jets get delayed. And all in reaction to a moderately steady rainfall. It’s pretty funny. (If you want a serious brush with death by weather, come to Rochester NY, and see what it takes to shut down the Thruway in January.) So I moved my flights a day forward, to Friday, giving me a leisurely visit to this big art fair which drew 70,000 people in 2016.

Toward the end of my meandering through the Convention Center, I came across a booth staffed by Baik Art, a gallery on La Cienega. Though the monochromatic surfaces looked at first like something I’d quickly forget, I turned a corner and saw a couple more of Young-il Ahn’s canvases and paused long enough to be drawn into them. I’d never heard of this painter before. The  intelligent and perceptive young woman staffing the booth approached to tell me about him. He was born in Korea, moved to L.A. since the 60s, and now in his 70s, he’s been a painter for 50 years. He’s spent decades trying to capture the soul of the Pacific Ocean in these meditative images. I told her how much they impressed me.

“But don’t you wonder why?” I asked. “It’s a mystery, isn’t it, what makes such simple, repetitive images so good?”

She knew I wasn’t really asking. I would find it impossible to specify anything in the painter’s facture that struck me as exceptionally skillful, based on the standards I’d apply to most paintings. They were meticulously executed, which is obvious in the detail above, but trying to explain why the care he took with his mark-making has such a powerful impact on the viewer is like trying to pin down why the simplicities of Agnes Martin or Frederick Hammersley are so compelling and irresistible. You sense they adhere to some obsessive, personal imperative, so that every detail has been subjected to the most intense scrutiny and effort–and the energy of this kind of attention radiates from the surface. One feels the need to resort to come kind of corollary for Hindu distinctions between gross and subtle bodies–an invisible aura?–a whole metaphysics of painting that few people would find persuasive, including me. But my sense was that a quality, an X, akin to that kind of Vedantic distinction operates in all painting, so that something is conveyed through visual means by a painting as a whole, but is nowhere identifiable with any particular tangible qualities you can isolate and identify. You can easily spot the surface excellence in most paintings, but work like this conveys far more than pleasure and beauty and craftsmanship–and yet how to describe what that extra something is and how this transmission takes place? It’s nowhere and everywhere in the painting.





Happy New Year

vetrinaFrom the cover of the latest American Arts Quarterly, Richard Maury’s Vetrina, 2016, courtesy John Pence Gallery, San Francisco. His work reminds me of John Koch’s, but I love Maury’s work where I simply admire Koch’s. The light of a Koch interior is clearly the light of upper Manhattan, not the Mediterranean. It makes a huge difference to live and work in Florence, Italy. Nothing is lost in Maury’s shadows–everything in one of his paintings is lucid, glowing in a light that seems like the visual equivalent of happiness. That bright patch of yellow wall from the house across the way, glancing through the unseen window and bouncing off the glass of the framed drawing would have drawn as much praise from Proust as the little patch of yellow wall in the Vermeer he wrote about–but which has never been identified conclusively. Gazing at a Richard Maury painting is a fitting way to begin a new year: his work makes me think the future is bright for painting, where anything and everything is still possible.

Do petitions do anything?

An article on the New York Times today looks at and whether online petition campaigns are truly effective.

The answer is a qualified yes.

“No president is going to do an about-face on a major policy because of 20,000 signatures,” he wrote. “But coupling that petition with other tactics like protests, rallies, phone calls, face-to-face lobbying, a well-organized media plan and community outreach creates an environment in which the goals of the signatories can become reality.”

Read the rest at Online Petitions Take Citizen Participation to New Levels. But Do They Work?

Journey of the Magi

The Nativity, Piero della Francesca

The Nativity, Piero della Francesca

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

–T.S. Eliot

C4AA Fundamentals #6: Process

Tuesday January 3rd at 2pm (EST)
Register for the webinar – FREE! (Thanks to donors like you!)

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not…. Habit is persistence in practice – Octavia E. Butler

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert will give some pointers on developing a creative practice.

In arts and activism the product gets all the glory. In the art world, an artist’s talent is judged by what she has created: the painting that hangs on the wall of a museum or is sold in a gallery, or the dramatic performance staged in a theater and watched by an audience. In the activist world, it is the demonstration or rally that one organizes that attracts people, gets media coverage, and influences politics. The same thing is true when you merge these two worlds in Artistic Activism. Look back on the examples we’ve showcased. What have we shown you? That’s right: the product that artistic activists have produced.

The obsession with the product is not unique to arts and activism, it is at the core of capitalism. Capitalism is based upon things: producing things and consuming things. It’s what Marx called the “fetishism of the commodity.” What’s overlooked when we focus on things is an understanding and appreciation of how things are made and who makes them – the “secret” of the commodity for Marx. In a word, what gets left out is the process of creation. Until we understand how things are made, how to make things will forever remain a mystery.

Too often artistic activism becomes only about these things, what we call a sort of “tactical myopia.” This often leads to an artistic activist practice only interested in replicating successful pieces; creating “best practices” that can be employed, in cookie­cutter fashion, anyplace and at any time.

But creativity isn’t a product – it’s a process.

Join us!


Artist Bruce Connor talks about Jay Defeo’s The Rose (1958-66)

Kingsmen’s Louie Louie (the flubbed line is around 2 minutes in):

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We’re working in DC over the next week but we’ll let you know when the next one is via our email list

Motherwell’s home studio


From Art Times:

In the summer, (Motherwell)  lived and worked in a house on the harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. For most of the rest of the year he lived in a stone carriage house in Greenwich, Connecticut. In both places Motherwell created his abstract expressionist canvases and collages in houses that he redesigned to suit his own needs and those of his wife, photographer Renate Ponsold, and family. Both houses were spacious, casual, crammed with paintings and prints — his own and those of other major figures of his era . .

From a conversation taped in Provincetown in June 1986:

How important to you and your work is the place where you live?

RM: I was born in a seaport, and have always preferred to live in one. There is an old European saying that you dress for other people but eat for yourself. I feel the latter way about a home and couldn’t care less what anybody else thinks. What I like is informal, unpretentious – very much a studio feeling.

Have you always worked at home?

RM: From time to time I’ve been invited to work in California, Paris, wherever. I did it once and it was a disaster. I cannot work unless I’m surrounded by my own work and my own things. Most artists feel this way. You know the classic French artist’s studio was a wide room with beds and a kitchenette, slanting skylights and a little balcony. It’s not the bourgeois set-up with every room having an assigned function. The work going on in that open space is the essence of life. If you’re not home, near the studio, you can lose the best moments. There is something demonic about art that can’t be fitted into normal environments and sociability.