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Going with the flow

Michael Dorman in Patriot

When I put the last mark on a painting, it’s almost never what I expected it to be during the first brushstroke. And I’m usually surprised several dozen times while getting from start to finish by what I’m required to do. So I can identify a bit with the protagonist in Amazon’s original series, Patriot. It’s a funny, poignant, and whimsically Kafkaesque series built around the personality of a sad-sack folk singer whose day job is working in Special Ops for the CIA. Actually, he has two day jobs. The other is his NOC, his non-official cover, as an industrial engineer working in a bleak Rust Belt factory in Milwaukee where he specializes in the “structural dynamics of flow.” In layman’s terms: piping. His company, McMillan, builds conduits for anything and everything, creating perfect circles in a world of epic imperfection, both planetary and human. These indispensable imperfections are what drive the story forward through one entertaining absurdity after another.

The theme of the show is “the structural dynamics of flow,” the principles of moving anything from Point A to Point B, that could apply to both McMillan piping and counter-intelligence. Likewise, Lakeman, with the help of his family and a co-worker, attempts to get $11 million Euros through airport security into Amsterdam and then on its way to Iran via a courier in Luxembourg. (His family cohort includes Cool Rick, Lakeman’s Beastie Boys-obsessed brother, and his father, who presides over most of the action as a seasoned but compassionate “control” who is professionally imperiled by his son’s mistakes.)

Nothing and no one in the show gets from Point A to Point B as planned. McMillan is going bankrupt. The covert payoff is making the rounds of Luxembourg as more and more people try to get their hands on it. The show’s surreal silliness reaches a pinnacle when its protagonist attempts to retrieve the stolen garment bag full of loot from a Brazilian baggage handler. The man has high-tailed it back to his apartment, where he’s rooming with what appear to be half a dozen South American wrestlers. When Lakeman breaks in to steal the bag, the wrestlers, bare-chested and bald—like mutant clones of Vin Diesel—emerge from various doorways and impassively pile atop Lakeman, which evidently is their go-to jujitsu move. The vignette is more like an avant-garde Busby Berkeley number than hand-to-hand combat. There are no Jason Bourne tussles in this show. Lakeman has to stab one of the fighters to get away and finally delivers the money to the Iranian agent. But the Iranian loses the bag to a thieving puppeteer who then gets arrested for stealing a dog collar, and the money ends up in something like a casual evidence room while the puppeteer serves her five days in jail.

In his spare time—yes, he actually has enough of it to write music—Lakeman performs his own folk songs in the manner of Sun Kil Moon, long rambling confessions (I kept waiting for him to say blue crab cakes) that don’t rhyme but are as sad and funny as the show. He appears to be too depressed to recognize or care that he’s doling out highly confidential state secrets as ironic confessional poetry. The dry tone that runs throughout the show’s intentional absurdities becomes most acute when characters start riffing in pipe-speak. It’s the inside gibberish of their profession, which is often hilarious—a nerd’s version of a rapper’s own sort of flow. Here’s an excerpt from one episode’s transcript, the moment in Amsterdam when John’s boss, Leslie, introduces him to the audience assembled in a grand theater, as if for a performance of Beethoven’s late quartets:

And now to explain the core of Donnely nut plate spacing and cracked reconfiguration, my associate, John Lakeman.

(Light applause)

Lakeman: Hey, guys. Hey. Ready to talk plate processing and residue transport plate funneling? Why don’t we start with joust jambs? Hey, why not? Plates and jousts? Can we couple them? Hell, yeah, we can. Want to know how? Get this. Proprietary to McMillan. Only us. Ready? We fit Donnely nut spacing grip grids and splay-flexed brace columns against beam-fastened derrick husk nuts and girdle plate Jerries, while plate flex tandems press task apparati of 10 vertipin-plated pan traps at every maiden clamp plate packet. Knuckle couplers plate alternating sprams from the T-Nut to the S. K. N to the chim line.

Stunned Euro guy in audience: Whoa.

One of the story lines is that Lakeman, the protagonist, has to compete with Stephen, a bright and cheerful Asian applicant for a job at McMillan, which Lakeman must land since McMillan does business in Iran—where he needs to go in order to help stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Lakeman doesn’t stand a chance against Stephen, since Lakeman never quite gets his piping in order, through most of the showSo he leans back on his special CIA training and decides to shove Stephen in front of a bus. As a result of his head injury, Stephen can still do his work at breakneck speed on a laptop, but he needs someone else to actually open the laptop for him, at which point he begins typing furiously and far too productively for Lakeman’s comfort, prompting Lakeman to quietly shut the display, putting both computer and Stephen back into sleep mode.

Stephen’s most serious injury is the loss of his sense of humor. He no longer can make jokes or recognize irony. His therapist is determined to rehabilitate his sense of humor. What’s amusing about this conceit is that the pretty young therapist could just as well have devoted herself to getting Lakeman himself to lighten up. He rarely smiles and never laughs in the series. He executes his mission in a somnambulistic funk, which at times actually becomes useful as a badass numbness, enabling him to kill whoever needs killing, as occasion warrants. The lead actor, Michael Dorman, has a face that looks designed by Gary Trudeau, locked into a rueful, stunned melancholy at the duplicitous life he’s chosen.

In this world, the life of an intelligence operative is hardly romantic, rarely satisfying. Budgets are lean. An administrative aide from Langley can’t even come up with the scratch to buy a chair for Lakeman’s flat. Screw-ups abound and when the agency issues Lakeman a fake Social Security card, there are ten numbers for McMillan HR to choke on, so he nearly loses his job because of one too many digits. There is no Aston-Martin with turrets for headlamps here. He has his wits and a knife, some duct tape and a guitar string, to accomplish his mission.

It’s a beautiful show, full of dolorous slow comedy. Sometimes, the movie’s mannerisms become too whimsically Wes Anderson. One stylistic tic is to present a character’s face in the center of the screen, staring at the camera, often with an architecturally symmetrical backdrop, a practice that grows a little old as you get deeper into the episodes. By the end of the season, Lakeman has achieved deep wisdom in the structural dynamics of flow. As he tells the detective in the final scene, “Wherever you’re going, you’re not going to be able to get from here to there as easily as you think.”

One of the best things about the show is the opening title sequence. As is true of many shows, it’s at least equal or even superior in emotional power to everything in the story. It has the same delicate balance between humor and sadness, a similar wry take on human endeavor as a whole, sending you into a timeless dream state for the semi-pitiful goofiness that ensues. In the case of Patriot, the opening number is a folk song from the 60s, The Train by Vashti Bunyan. It’s lyrics are a kind of simplified version of The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, the Chinese poem Ezra Pound translated. It plays behind a medley of home-movie clips, which feels like a quiet salute to the opening of The Wonder Years. You see Lakeman—the character’s real name in the show is John Tavner—as a little rambunctious kid risking his health and safety again and again, doing a jig after dismounting from a miniature dirt bike, riding a sheep in a rodeo until he gets slammed into a wall, showing off a missing tooth for the camera, and finally, taking aim at a target with a scoped rifle, maybe steadying himself to shoot a gun for the first time in his life. The sequence ends with the kick of the rifle as he fires, nearly knocking the boy onto his back as the song enters its poignant chorus. The poetry of it is moving and perfectly done. Everything in the story follows from the spirit of that shot.

Assessing the Impact of Artistic Activism

Based on nearly a decade of interviews with nearly sixty artistic activists, and a thorough review of the critical and organizational literature, the C4AA is proud to present our extensive report on Assessing the Impact of Artistic Activism.

Download pdf Summary: Assessing the Impact of Artistic (Summary)

Download pdf Full Version: Assessing the Impact of Artistic Activism

Minute particulars

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. 
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars,    
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power . . .

-William Blake

In the passage below, I think Jeff Blehar’s question was getting at something crucial when it comes to any art. It was from a podcast in which three political journalists took off their current affairs hats and spent some time talking about what they really love—music. In particular, Blehar was marveling at the sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River. He’s really speaking about all the tiny incremental “minute particulars” that go into any band’s unique mature sound. I was struck by his comment because I had a similar thought listening to “Bootleg,” the second song on another of the band’s albums, where, when the bass comes in, suddenly their sound surfaces—an illusion of looseness, the casual way the four instruments seem to lope along, in no great rush to get the job done, and come together as if by accident, two of them riding on the bus just jamming, waiting for the bus to stop and pick up the other two. The way its elements converge make any great work of art unique and individual in a way that’s impossible to duplicate or even describe clearly—and I don’t think it’s something that could be translated into a set of reliable algorithms. In other words you can’t learn how to do it repeatedly—you end up imitating pieces and parts, but not the whole. You can copy a Vermeer, but it won’t be a Vermeer. The jury will be out for a while on whether a computer could create a convincing Vermeer forgery, but I doubt that it ever will. Blehar says:

This is one of the things that gets lost but you hear it in everything they did. It’s that sound. Green River is the best embodiment of the band’s sound. That sound . . . every time they could just walk in and create a song that sounded good, like ear candy, something about the way Fogerty’s guitar, and his brother’s rhythm guitar and the bass and the drums came together on an elemental level is fundamentally satisfying. I guess I’ve never understood why nobody else can reproduce this. Why doesn’t every band try to sound like CCR on Green River? It shouldn’t be hard to do in theory. This is not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s four guys in a room. There isn’t even much over dubbing. But nobody has ever sounded like that. It’s such a remarkable achievement. And it gets neglected because you don’t even notice it. They are so good at it, they draw you away from one of their primary virtues by making it seem so effortless.

What’s distinctive is how minimal CCR kept things, like the earlier Spoon, the simplicity in their production and instrumentation, but I don’t think any of that was a conscious choice. After ten years of work, the band had a perfectly realized style—in Susan Sontag’s sense of style, as unconscious and fundamental, not a calculated choice, not stylization. The style was who they were, something they arrived at involuntarily, an act of discovery, not the outcome of calculation. CCR wasn’t trying to sound like itself. It couldn’t help it. It was groping its way toward the supple, funky momentum of this particular song, and succeeded, by feel, not really knowing in advance how to do it in a reliable way—though they certainly seemed to find a magic formula for an explosion of creativity in a mere two years. In some ways, an artist can’t even recognize the qualities that make his or her work most interesting and individual. The fragrance that’s always there in the room eventually isn’t even noticed: we’re all too close to ourselves to even recognize our own genuine strengths and flaws. They had certain aims and their songs would evolve the way any creative act evolves, within its own internal, instinctive boundaries—but that instantly recognizable sound was a byproduct, not the conscious goal. The conscious goal was to make irresistible music by any means possible (isn’t that always the point, and if not, shouldn’t it be? I’m talking to you, Parquet Courts) and they ended up doing it the only way they could. What resulted was individually unique, in a way that even CCR probably couldn’t explain—and maybe not even recognize as clearly as someone who hadn’t created it—even if it had its roots in certain general genres of music, the tropes of country and blues.

This is part of the problem with categorization of artists. For example, to say that Thiebaud and Hockney and Warhol are all Pop artists is to say almost nothing, because it lumps three unique and distinctly different artists, with completely distinct aesthetic aims—and results—under a single rubric that does little more than identify the decade in which they emerged or maybe suggest that they were simply popular and more accessible to the general public than most 20th century artists. The same is true if you pick artists classifiable as photorealists:  Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, James Valerio and Antonio Lopez Garcia. Their work, to one degree or another, relies on photography as a source, but what else do they really have in common? According to Hockney, photo-realism, in the sense of using a lens to project an image onto a surface for tracing, goes back centuries and is embedded in Western painting as a kind of trade secret. Which means that calling someone a photo-realist conveys almost nothing about what a particular artist is up to in his or her work. The persistence of grouping artists into particular schools—both John Currin and El Greco can be called mannerists—conveys little or nothing about what the work actually communicates to a viewer, which has less to do with history and membership in a movement or school or general way of painting and much more to do with what makes a person an individual.

11: Brunch

We’re back! Stephen Duncombe arranges a Sunday Brunch at Jane Restaurant in NYC. Steve Lambert brings a long his mom as the expert, a former Domincan nun with a masters degree in Theology.

Booze and gossip in the daylight

For many people Brunch is a socially acceptable excuse to get drunk before noon and talk trash with your friends. Lambert is skeptical, but all are reminded there’s versions of this in many cultures (Sunday Menudo, Dim Sum, etc) and that most of these people are replacing church. So… what can we use here?

Secular Liturgy

Rita Lambert talks about the idea of a secular liturgy. How do we create traditions and rituals to support our campaigns that incorporate social bonding?

 

Liturgy

Noun

liturgy (countable and uncountable, plural liturgies)

  1. A predetermined or prescribed set of rituals that are performed, usually by a religion.
  2. An official worship service of the Christian church.

via wiktionary

Pop Culture Recommendations

Patricia Jerido – The Man Who Invented Christmas and the many versions of A Christmas Carol

Stephen Duncombe – Ramen shops (coming to your town soon)

Rita Lambert – Christmas and Holiday decorations

Steve Lambert – The Good Place

 

Thanks

Thanks to our listener turned volunteer editor: Mr. David Hart!

11: Brunch

We’re back! Stephen Duncombe arranges a Sunday Brunch at Jane Restaurant in NYC. Steve Lambert brings a long his mom as the expert, a former Domincan nun with a masters degree in Theology.

Booze and gossip in the daylight

For many people Brunch is a socially acceptable excuse to get drunk before noon and talk trash with your friends. Lambert is skeptical, but all are reminded there’s versions of this in many cultures (Sunday Menudo, Dim Sum, etc) and that most of these people are replacing church. So… what can we use here?

Secular Liturgy

Rita Lambert talks about the idea of a secular liturgy. How do we create traditions and rituals to support our campaigns that incorporate social bonding?

 

Liturgy

Noun

liturgy (countable and uncountable, plural liturgies)

  1. A predetermined or prescribed set of rituals that are performed, usually by a religion.
  2. An official worship service of the Christian church.

via wiktionary

Pop Culture Recommendations

Patricia Jerido – The Man Who Invented Christmas and the many versions of A Christmas Carol

Stephen Duncombe – Ramen shops (coming to your town soon)

Rita Lambert – Christmas and Holiday decorations

Steve Lambert – The Good Place

 

Thanks

Thanks to our listener turned volunteer editor: Mr. David Hart!

Stop motion wisdom

Phil Tippett

A quote posted on the door of the stop motion effects creator for the first Star Wars trilogy, Phil Tippett:

Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the Latin root, pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.

Benjamin Bjorklund

Oven, Benjamin Bjorklund

What’s old is also new

Alma Deutscher

Some people have told me I compose in the musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music but today they say I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world. And the point of music is to show the complexity of the world. Well let me tell you a huge secret. I already know the world is complex and can be very ugly, but I think these people have just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?

— Alma Deutscher, British composer, b. 2005

 

A continuous yes

Christopher Isherwood, detail from Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Most painters who try to do what a beloved, earlier painter did end up as imitators. Others, like David Hockney, begin where an earlier painter, or set of painters, left off and find a new, idiosyncratic path. Hockney’s a cheerful, sincere post-modernist, borrowing as a tribute to his passion for earlier painters and always using their influence to find himself. They include Matisse, above all, but also Picasso, the Impressionists and post Impressionists, Chardin, Vermeer, Freud, Balthus, and, a recent surprise for me, Piero della Francesca. It isn’t as if this was a secret, since he puts his admiration for the Renaissance painter in plain sight, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to his work to notice it until now. An afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a week ago elevated my admiration for Hockney dramatically. Until last Saturday I had no idea how powerful his best early work is, and how wonderfully strange his paintings can seem even when he’s devoted to nothing more than honestly celebrating domesticity, bourgeois happiness and the simple pleasure of human relationships—in other words, the placid order of civilized life.

Having never seen his paintings other than in reproductions, I started paying serious attention to Hockney only around the turn of the century, when I first saw his Polaroids at Retrospektive Photoworks in L.A. during its run there. I immediately loved them, many assembled from dozens of Instagram-square Polaroids. Until then I’d been appreciating him in a sidelong way, fond of his color and the Southern Californian light that transfigured his work when he moved to the U.S. Hockney’s paintings are so intensely illuminated, it makes you realize that Venice Beach is nearly a thousand miles closer to the equator than Venice, Italy and the light of the Midi has nothing on the light that inspired Diebenkorn. To walk out of LAX for the first time into that brilliance must have been like stepping out onto another planet, compared to the Northern glow of Hockney’s native England.

The Metropolitan show highlights the radical simplicity of the earliest famous work that followed Hockney’s migration to the U.S. In each individual painting, he restricts himself dramatically, stripping away detail, narrowing his palette, designing his pictures in order to achieve one or two things. In his early paintings after the move to California—A Bigger Splash, Mt. Fuji and Flowers, Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Luc—he leaves out far more than he includes, until the image verges on minimalist abstraction. Yet the color is full of feeling, a continuous yes to the world around him. Each painting has an immediate impact, and you feel as if your eye is darting around a realm in which every detail works together within a perfectly organized whole, a world where everything is almost equally interesting and every effect seems painstakingly earned. In painting after painting, it’s as if he’s trying once again to make visible the buzz of that intense Southern California light, the translucent color of the Pacific coast. You can see in this show how Hockney brought the memory of that brilliant light back to England with him to use in the double portraits he did there, when he depicted rooms and figures that seem lit from within even back in his Northern native land.

The three central galleries of the Met’s retrospective are the best reason to see the show: one devoted to the most famous early California paintings, followed by a comprehensive look at the nearly life-sized double portraits, and the third showing his masterful line drawings and a slightly disappointing glance at his photo collage work. It’s a real weakness of the show that none of the greatest of these collages are included. Perhaps they are saving the best of them for a retrospective devoted to nothing else. It would be worth it.

The most revealing and powerful gallery in the show, though, is the one devoted to his double portraits. I’d seen all of them in reproductions, in books or on the Web, but it didn’t prepare me for how these large paintings concentrated his imagination and enabled him to break through into a vision of three-dimensional space that feels different, for me, from the work of most other painters. The volume of space in these paintings is tactile and weirdly visceral. It’s an effect heightened by the fact that much of what he does ought to flatten an image: minimalizing shadow and rendering what he sees with large areas of uniform color. This format absorbed him from 1968-1971—the paintings look as if they required extensive labor and feel as if they played a role in his career similar to the large Cubist-influenced paintings Matisse did after returning from Morocco. The account of how Hockney painted Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy provided by the Tate gives an indication of how immersed he became in each of these double portraits, working on this one over several years, painting from life and from photographs: “Hockney painted Ossie Clark’s head as many as twelve times before he was satisfied.”

In this series of paintings, Hockney found a way to pay homage to Vermeer, Chardin, and Piero, while discovering a new and exhilarating way to use light and color to make you feel as if you are inhabiting a peculiar space that seems to open up and envelope you. What was most striking about finally seeing the actual work was how magnetic these canvases are: from a few feet away his rooms fill your entire visual field, in a coherent, tangible world where every surface is smoother, simpler, and stranger than your own. Hockney doesn’t let you forget you’re looking at a painted surface and yet the images are alive and three-dimensional. You feel as if you can step into them. As a result you remember the paintings themselves as being much larger than they actually are. Hockney achieves all of this while making his image work as a flat pattern of crisply defined areas of carefully modulated and often complex but nearly uniform color (you can’t see the subtlety of the color in photographs of the work), arranging his forms with the precision of geometrical abstraction. The most commanding paintings in the show are three of these interiors: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Again and again, his simplified forms create a crackling tension with the way the entire image pulls you into its illusion of depth. This paradoxical effect is most striking in the portrait of Isherwood in his slacks and white dress shirt, where his form alone has been radically simplified and cleaned of most irrelevant detail and yet the legs and even the features of his face project out toward you in almost starting relief. Hockney’s space is real while everything in it seems just slightly unreal. The room is filled with these seemingly dreamt-up people and objects, each self-contained and complete, assembled randomly with all the others, and yet everything is unified by the same brilliant, nearly shadowless light.

Seeing for the first time how Hockney included a small reproduction of Piero’s Baptism of Christ in the portrait of his parents helped me make sense of the entire series. There’s nothing remotely religious about Hockney’s work—except maybe in the sense that Matisse meant when he told his friend, the nun, that his career had been a lifelong pursuit aligned with her own devotion. Yet the double portraits seem to call back to the Renaissance painter’s light, and the precision of his dreams. The two painters have much in common: the use of architecture to organize an image geometrically; an intensity of light that nearly swallows every shadow it casts; the awkward and slightly stylized rendering of human forms that look both flat and three-dimensional. Like Piero’s paintings, these portraits radiate the mystery that emerges when an artist pushes himself to do multiple things at once and somehow makes it all work —in Piero’s case, to convey the truth of both geometry and the actual look of everyday life, while hinting at what’s beyond or behind the visible world. In his choice of subject, Hockney does reach back to the genre scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, but he takes the everyday and gives it the eerie, intensely pleasurable oddness reminiscent of Piero’s Nativity and Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. Everything feels both monumental and delightfully weightless.

The eerie quality of these effects are perfectly balanced by the warmth of the light and the subtle use of color, so that you feel as if you’re seeing a beloved world refracted through the artist’s particular eyes, a world he belongs in, even though for the viewer it feels slightly alien, distorted by Hockney’s idiosyncratic way of rendering what he sees. He said he struggled with these paintings and the work shows. They are his most accomplished paintings, an epic achievement.

As successful as he can be when he cuts loose in his later work, disavowing lens-based painting as he describes in Hand Eye Heart, I miss the tighter restrictions he set for himself earlier on, the sense that he needed to reduce the range of color in order to infuse the most feeling into the ones he chose. The need to be naturalistically true to what he was seeing in the double portraits, at least in part, makes the subtle way he manipulates color in these paintings even more powerful and beautiful than the strident hue in much of his later work. This is most evident in the painting of Peter Schlesinger, wearing his sport coat, gazing down into the swimming pool at a bather underwater, with the backdrop of a generic Los Angeles canyon, familiar to anyone who has ever driven through the Hollywood Hills or Topanga. The color is everywhere a little more intense and vibrant than it would be if you were actually standing poolside, but only a little. He did what Fairfield Porter advised, to be true to the way things look, but to “make everything more beautiful . . . a painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.”

Hockney at the Met

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney

I got a chance to see the David Hockney retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, and was knocked out by seeing, in person, so many paintings I’ve only seen in reproductions until now. A long response to the show will be forthcoming, if I can find the time to finish it. The double portraits–the one above offers a sense of their scale–make the show worth attending.