The Libidinal Canapé: A Short Story Inspired by Dorothea Tanning’s “A Rainy-Day Canapé”

This encounter took place on a quiet, rainy Sunday afternoon. Mother, as she was later to describe the event to me, had entered the living room, clad in a sky-grey pantsuit and donning the usual tight white bun at the nape of her stalwart neck. It was here that the nude object had confronted her. A tumescent protuberance, it had obliquely squatted there in the center of the room, occupying a spot on the oak flooring that theretofore had been known only to hold sunlight, a drowsy cat, or an occasional dust particle. In any case, Mother assured me that she had never encountered this lobulate phenomenon before.

Yet here it was, transgressing her habitat, a humus-hued deformation somewhat resembling a pregnant sofa or an engorged boa constrictor.

“What are you?” Mother had croaked hoarsely, when she had gotten over her initial shock. “Are you a sentry, conjured here by the maledictions of a demented wizard?” Fingering the object’s rough, earthy woven fabric, Mother had suddenly been engulfed by a libidinal force more powerful than any she had ever before reveled in. She had wanted more than anything to be enveloped by the creamy canapé, to be enshrouded in its cavity, engulfed by its enticing existence. Her desire had transported her to titillating dimensions.

“I am simply a rainy-day canapé,” the object had insisted, its voice matter-of-fact as tree bark. “Do not fetishize me, upright lady, simply recline appropriately upon my seat and be contented. I have appeared here in order to suffocate your corrosive boredom.”

Mother, salivating, had undressed herself and tenderly lunged into the fistulate lap of the embracing sofa. The canapé had presumably dilated and swelled around her reveling form. By the time I entered the room it was already too late. The piece de resistance had entirely straight-jacketed and digested Mother, who now existed only as a dark, effluviate mass on the living room floor. I am left to record her barely perceptible mumblings as she fades into obsessive dementia, entombed forever by the swollen canapé.

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Art Review Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Israel

On a grey morning run recently, a house jumped out at me. I was startled by its impertinent peacock blueness and its egg yoke yellow window trim. How wonderful! In a sea of sameness, this house had some chutzpah! I was proud of this house for daring to be different, for daring to defy the codes of drab urban houseness.

Kehinde Wiley’s series of paintings, now on display at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, had a similar effect on me as that plucky house. The L.A.-born artist of Nigerian and African American descent creates massive, gorgeously painted canvases. The works feature alpha males in proud poses, surrounded by swirling flashy pastel and gold enamel patterns inspired by Jewish religious textiles, examples of which are also part of this exhibition. “I want to mine where the world is right now and chart the presence of black and brown people throughout the world,” Wiley says. The artist focuses not on people, in general, but specifically on men—on beautiful young men between the ages of 18 and 25 with a certain presence. He finds these men through a process of cruising the streets, sporting venues, clubs, and bars—homosocial environments that lend themselves to the artist’s process which he has dubbed “street-casting.”

Sometimes shimmering new icons need to be created in order to bust up old, worn out stereotypes. I am reminded of the lyrics from the song “My Conviction,” from the 1967 musical, Hair:

I would just like to say that it is my conviction
That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
Of appearance are nothing more
Than the male’s emergence from his drab camouflage
Into the gaudy plumage
Which is the birthright of his sex

But Wiley’s radical recontextualizing of black and brown young urban men goes well beyond surface affectations. Curator Karen Tsujimoto writes, “Kehinde Wiley has turned the art of portraiture into an international performance, reordering connections between art, politics, power, and class through his grand portraits of black urban men from around the world.” Wiley has created several series prior to this one, which depicts men representing diverse aspects of the Black Diaspora present in Israel: Ethiopian, Arab-Israeli, Islamic, Rastafarian. Previous series of the artist’s World Stage Project depict young black men residing in China, Brazil, India, and Africa.

Kehinde Wiley’s portraits are about overcoming oppression, about re-presenting black men as creators of culture rather than as the victims or villains in the way that art and media so often casts them. The exhibition opens with a short documentary film that shows the artist interacting with some of his models. Viewers meet Kalkidan Mashasha, a musician whose work explores his Ethiopian Jewish Israeli identity. He uses hip hop to transmute years of repression he has faced as a black man in Israel. The rapper gazes at viewers from several of the lush canvases in the three large galleries on the museum’s second floor. In one of the portraits, he gazes at us somewhat dreamily, his lips slightly parted. He appears soft, peaceful, yet his look suggests innate power and indomitable hope. Mashasha is clad in a mustard-colored military-style jacket with patches of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. Decorative flowery tendrils surround him and penetrate the foreground, flattening the space defined by the painting and obfuscating our sense of perspective. Emblems drawn from Jewish decorative tradition, such as the hands of a priest and Lion of Sudah, add to the sense that this is not just a portrait, but an icon.

Kehinde Wiley, Kalkidan Mashasha II (The World Stage: Israel), 2011.  Oil on canvas, 56 ⅞ x 41 ½ in. (framed).  Private collection. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

Kehinde Wiley, Kalkidan Mashasha II (The World Stage: Israel), 2011.
Oil on canvas, 56 ⅞ x 41 ½ in. (framed).
Private collection. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

Beautifully carved pairs of lions crown the rich dark wooden frames bordering Mashasha’s portrait and all of the paintings. The frames also incorporate text: the Ten Commandments for Jewish men; Rodney King’s 1991 quote, “Can we all get along?” for the Arab men.

As a whole, Wiley’s iconic/iconoclastic works are penetrating and vital. However, I am left with some questions. Is the transformation of oft-invisible persons into pseudo-religious icons ultimately helpful, or does it again “fix” these individuals in a way that does not allow them their whole humanity? Is there a danger that Wiley’s obsession with youth and beauty lead to a romanticization/fetishization of men who will age, have crises and triumphs not in line with the artist’s vision? Might the complete exclusion of women denote a homosocial, male-centered stance that is readily accepted, whereas an artist’s exclusion of men would bring up questions of man-hating militancy? Does the artist’s approach of creating series after series of these works of black men around the globe lessen the effect of iconoclasm, instead invoking a new conformity—of African American cultural influences subsumed by capitalist, chauvinist, ablist and youth-obsessed globalization?

Though these questions remain in my mind, I am grateful to have seen these lavish, gorgeously challenging works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Like the proud blue house with canary trim that leaped out at me on my run, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits shatter the grayness and conformity of the everyday, leaving prismatic possibilities lingering in my imagination.

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Why is the peace movement using military language? What is the difference between occupying and colonizing? How can we hope to usher in a post-colonialist era by being occupiers? What do we want in the end? Certainly not peace, because one cannot expect peace to result from having occupied territories, either physical or imagined. What is it then that the occupy movement demands? Free Coca Cola? Or a healthier version of Coke that still tastes like Coke and looks like Coke but without sugar or calories or cancer-causing artificial sweeteners? Free video games for the whole world? Fame and fortune for everyone?

The nature of seeking is the not-knowing. When seeking, we cannot know if the thing we seek is palpable. Only time-space can reveal this. However, it is more likely that one finds what one seeks if the imagination is fully engaged along the way. Our minds create the goals as well as the journey. Collective participation wants collective imagination. The naming of these goals, and of the paths to the goals, is the essence of the project.

Instead of occupying, I propose exiting. You can keep your Coca Cola, US of America. You can keep your Wall Street and your harbors, your churches and your banks, your Disney Land and your Hollywood. For those of you who need these things, go ahead, occupy. But I am looking for another way, the way down and in and through and out. The Exit Movement is afoot.

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To the Artists

Interesting how everything disappears: enemies, relatives, the love of those I once thought was forever, youth, the Berlin Wall and other temporary political borders, fears and such barriers I thought I couldn’t overcome…

One thing stays and that is me and the thing I have always done. The art. As long as I can remember. The content changes but the feelings stay the same. It doesn’t matter what the art world or the markets do. Pencil or pen to paper and the sap flows from the underground aquifer of collective subconscious and I am. It’s like falling in love without ever having to wait for the right moment, the right person. It’s always right. I’m it. I’m the one I can count on forever. The only one.

Some days I want it never to end. Other days I look at the clock. Everywhere in the world, artists are making. Making It. We Are. Minimalists, conceptual artists, folk artists, literary artists, dancers… The medium is irrelevant. There is no superior form or genre. We Are. We never have to wait. We’re always right here. We are the ones we can count on. The only ones. We are creating culture, history, and hope, together, right now.

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I no longer like art.

I have decided that I don’t like art. Just having said that has freed my mind to come up with at least three new art projects! Try it some time.

Just visited the Deutsche Guggenheim show of works by Yto Barrada from Tangiers (nod to Red and JC Gonzales who will be moving there shortly). She was named “artist of the year” by the Deutsche Bank. This distinction by Deutsche Bank seeks to introduce to the public new artists of note whose work combines “Internationalität, Diversität, die Verbindung von künstlerischen Fragestellungen mit sozialen Themen.” Internationalism, diversity, and the merging of artistic questioning with social themes.

While it appears to me that Barrada is quite capable of fulfilling this tall order, the work chosen for this exhibition gave me little if any fresh insight. It was very safe work, commercially-viable-and-appealing-enough-to-a-large-enough-audience type of work. I gravitated towards large photographs depicting children who were middle class enough to look apathetic at play. I was attracted to these mainly because they were so well done. Interesting enough. But definitely didn’t push any buttons or cause me to question anything or want to respond in any way. I thought to myself “this is corporate art in a corporate world.”

I wanted a cool contemporary photo of myself at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Here it is:

Burdock at Deutsche Guggenheim

Burdock at Deutsche Guggenheim

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I Am at the End of America

San Francisco, April 10, 2011

I am at the end of America.

I run up Haight Street to Golden Gate Park.

I walk in circles, lost.

A random stranger, science fiction writing professor from LA, gives me a ride.

He deposits me at a bookstore in the Castro and selects surreal comic books for me to buy in order to restore my sanity. He is an angel.

I am at the end of America. Next is the Pacific Ocean.

The country is filled with the homeless, the disenfranchised.

I am told fascism can’t happen here. It only happens in Europe.


I am at the end of America.

A homeless man shares his blanket, I share a smoke with him.

He tells me, “If we didn’t have assholes we wouldn’t have shit.”

I am moving, moving, an inch away from being anybody, getting to know me.

I am at the end of America.

We are the artists. We are it. We are in flux. Cultural revolution. Where are we going? What is identity?

The world is changing.

Moving, always moving.

Movement feels right.

I have lost my identity, and I have lost my fear.

I am at the end of America.

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Of Water and Blood

Of  Water and Blood:
Forging Global Identities Based on Common Concerns

Jesus made wine out of water. A Bacchanalian artist in his day, he set the trend for both joyful community debauchery and inventiveness. As artists, we respond to both what is, and to what is needed. And the definition of this, of what is needed, can be anything from an emotional release, to a deconstruction/restructuring of purpose in painting, to atrocities affecting a group of people. How we artists respond is directly related to who we are, to our individual identities and perspectives. We cannot set out to create art for a specific audience, because audience changes as we identify what is needed in the present tense, which is fluid and ever renewing and rejuvenating as water, wine, and blood.

“In a time of dizzying historical change, images merge, and new symbols are created from a combination of old and new elements,” writes John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpting at San Francisco MOMA, in describing contemporary Russian Anna Parkina’s collages. Zarobell finds that Parkina’s work stands out against works by other Russian artists of her generation, because, rather than merely reiterating and reframing historical icons, she takes weighty images, such as scythes, automobiles, and housing projects, out of their usual context, breaking them apart, and piecing them back together as evocative images of self reflecting back on history.

Historically conscious but globally optimistic contemporary artists are, in this way, combining old and new elements to create new, emotionally charged landscapes of present, based on knowledge of past, but not mired in it.

Identity and thereby identification with (a period in history, a culture, an ideology) has become so fluid and so conditional, it is simultaneously irrelevant and hyper-relevant.

I recently taught a graphic novel workshop for about 30 Egyptians teenagers in Cairo. The influence of Western comics and, to a lesser degree, Japanese Manga, was extremely evident in their stories and in their drawing styles. When I teach these workshops, as I have done also among other communities, including New Mexico Navajo youths and families, mixed New Mexico Hispanic/Euro-American/Native groups, and groups in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I bring a variety of published works to the table in order to familiarize my students with multicultural comics. I show students comics and graphic novels ranging from Iran to Mexico and Germany, the UK, and US underground commix in addition to more mainstream American works. But Superman, Batman, and Snoopy seem to be by far the most recognizable and the most emulated in Egypt, Mexico, and elsewhere.

If identity is fluid, and even flimsy, then it is very important to notice ever more the power of cultural influence. Colonialism has universally negative connotations now, but the most sinister form of the C-word is not merely perpetrated by nukes and Nikes, but also by the innocent and the glamorous—by Snoopy, Superman, and Angelina Jolie. It is the colonization of mind and culture that is the most frightening. Often, artists choose to either embrace these still-dominant Western archetypes or to create art in reaction to them, instead of identifying our own concerns and responding to what is really needed. This lusting for American pop-culture is really still a hunger for that piece of American pie, of fame and fortune, all cherry and bright red apple rolled into a buttery crust of rich promise. Let’s not mention what is commonly known by now—that razor blades and shards of glass are hidden in that luscious filling—that those secret weapons, masquerading as yummy and nutritious, slice tongues to bloody ribbons, silencing voices that could have said so much.

What is identity if not the bonding with a group of ones contemporaries in response to shared historical pain or gain? Blood quantum barely qualifies anyone for cut-and-dried identity today. I was always told I was 100% purebred German, until I found out about the Poles, the Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch, German and Eastern European mix that is the more honest list of my ingredients. Apart from blood, there are particularly relevant concerns that many artists today share, which we can use to shape truly global identities. I looked at the water running from my kitchen tap the other day and thought, “One day I will remember this, and I will say to my friends, ‘Do you remember when clean water used to run, practically free and limitless, from kitchen taps?’” And I imagined washing my body, hair, the dishes… with a pint of water a day. The fact is that we have truly universal concerns. A common concern such as conservation is a far more compelling reason to bond with ones mates than skin color or blood. Because blood is indeed thicker than water, and one can’t drink it. Water is, in fact, what we need in order for our bodies to create blood—any kind of blood.

Artists like Parkina, whom the SF MOMA website calls “an intrepid explorer of the dynamics of perception and history,” are a genre of artists who are fluid in our contemporary approaches to history, identity, and expression. Hyper-aware and hyper-responsive, we move creatively and energetically with what is remembered, perceived, and needed.

As a teen, I briefly lived with a family in then West Germany where the man of the house had come from communist East Germany. “Happiness is to do what is needed,” he used to say. Under capitalism, happiness is the pursuit of happiness, which is aided by the amassment of things. Thing is, nobody has the right to tell anyone else what is needed, or to sell them happiness. These concepts are fluid and contextual, not commodifiable. They are personal and risky, imbued with adventure, danger, and endless desire and promise. I propose that what is needed be sought as broadly as possible, and that happiness and knowing of self, of identity, best begin by pulling one’s head out of the sand, or out of the white plaster museum wall, as the case may be, and looking as broadly as possible at history, at our global present, and towards a collaborative, fluidly responsive future.

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Four Snowmen: A Tragic Love Story

Response to Amy Cutler’s gouache painting, “Four Snowmen,” currently on exhibition at SITE Santa Fe

Maureen Burdock

The despondency of the situation is tangible as new snow on one’s barren head. But we’re not talking about new snow here. Nope, we are talking about old worn-out geezer snow—snow that once was fresh and fluffy as a down bunny, new as young love, full of soft optimism and promise of falling forever. And ever and ever and ever. But it couldn’t, could it? No, of course it couldn’t. It had to stop, to settle into solidity, to pack down into permanence. It had to lay and get laid, to be molded and rolled into globes by lonely spinster hands.

They have their regrets now, the four spinsters. Sure, it was fun while it lasted. The snowmen were built to their perfect individual specifications. Soft and sylvan, tranquil as oven mitts, an arrangement for connoisseurs. Big, medium, small. Base, torso, head. Root-vegetable nose. Eyes of coal (not the coal that causes millions annually to die of lung cancer as a result of our massive overconsumption of that mineral, but the coal of yore, the coal of tradition, you see).

For a fortnight they frolicked, and the songs they sang rang out over crystalline hills. Purple bells rang softly like Christmas. The deer loped to the tune of their lovemaking. The salmon swiveled sensuously in their hibernatory icebeds. The dreams, oh the dreams…

But we all know what happened. We’ve all been there. Forever is subject to change with the weather, the bird in the heather, entanglements of passionate sell-outs and by-gones. Forget-me-nots and Hottentots. It’s all contextual. Every movie fades in, climaxes, and fades out.

The new moon brought the easy days to a dripping dénouement. Illusions began to melt. The love the couples had once shared grew thin and worn as an old man’s flannel shirt, patched at the elbows. “We become river,” the roundest snowman whispered to the others.

“We die, we die, we dry,” the others echoed. “Shall we trickle, shall we gush?” “Here come the spinsters, hush, hush, hush.”

The eldest enters, surrounded by her sisters, soft shoe on pine, wanders over to the snow spouses, notices a trickle. A gasp, a cry, a sensuous, alabaster sigh. “How cold!” she sobs, “You run from me! A small stream now, but the future I see! Soon a gushing river, a torrent, you will flow to the sea. You are leaving me.”

“It is fate, say the men, it was always thus. We become, we exist, then we long for the past. Before you shaped us, before we had form, before we were men we were element, storm. You stole our spirits.

Good bye

Good bye

Good bye

Good bye

Now only nostalgia remains.

In an alternative version of this story, the spinsters and their husbands pool their money and rent an ice cream truck. They drive all the way to Alaska and settled in Barrow, the coldest city in the US. For many years they are happy neighbors except that Lisa, the eldest spinster, bosses everybody around. She perpetually annoys her comrades. Eventually, global warming catches up with them and the men melt tragically, before their time.

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Never Been Done Before

The most radical thing an artist can do in the 21st century is not to try to do something that hasn’t been done before, but to genuinely respond to situations and ideas, to move beyond her or his comfort zone and converse with the unknown in an inspired, well-articulated effort to profoundly communicate.

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Proposal for Art Triage

“We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.”

If a piece of contemporary art is removed from the white cube gallery scenario and exhibited in an earthen roundhouse, does it still have meaning? In a yurt? In the 57th story of a skyscraper? On a subway platform?  What if money were only useful while inside a bank building, but once taken out of that context, it could not be used? Wouldn’t we question its real value? What if women were considered worthless outside the home? Would we not have a revolution? Or what if religion were confined to the churches, cathedrals, mosques, or synagogues? Would we not call it hypocrisy?

As a child, I was taught that Heaven was white. Angels are white, sitting on white clouds, wearing white robes, and everything is full of white light. I always imagined spending an eternity in that hospital and this depressed me. Sterility stands starkly opposite creativity, opposite life itself. In Africa, white is indeed the color of death.

The church, the hospital, the sphere of Heaven: all of these are shrouded in an illusion of mystery that is allegedly only revealed to a very select few initiates (the clergy, the doctors, the saints, and the deceased). So it is with the realm of the white cube gallery. “Aha!” say the initiated, with greatest reverence. “Huh?!?” ask the uninitiated common people.

Inside the white cube container scenario, SITE Santa Fe’s current installation on exhibit, artist Ruth Claxton’s mirror mobiles, is mysteriously contemporaneous. Allegedly, this art is to evoke virtual worlds, and mysteries of astrophysics or some such esoteric topics. In reality, I see colored discs of glass, different sizes and tints, stacked melodiously, or perhaps just a bit haphazardly (mimicking chaos theory), around the gallery, with little yard sale porcelain figurines placed hither and thither. These figurines would like to narcissistically gaze at themselves in the mirrors, as I observed gallery goers doing, but instead, the figurines’ heads are covered in snorkels and noodles and other whimsical obstructions. Here I see us as gallery-goers. Is our vision similarly obscured and our ability to self-reflect thus as limited as that of the artist’s mutant Hummels? Have we had the wool pulled over our eyes? If we were to remove Claxton’s work from the white cube contemporary art space and place it inside a baroque castle, would it be effective? Inside an apartment building peppered with bullet holes on the notoriously impoverished and violent south side of Chicago?

The debate about white cubes and picture planes becomes totally irrelevant if one focuses on content of the art rather than formalist conceits. Are literary critics concerned with the flatness of the page? Do they question the trade paperback format for its limiting factors? No. We don’t pick up a book and obsess about the size of the margins. As a book designer, I can tell you that these elements are of course important, but what the people are interested in is what the book says. They want content. The design should hold the content well and be attractive and appropriate, but nobody obsesses about it.

Doherty suggests somewhat drily that white gallery walls have become their own esthetic objects, and that art hung upon these sacred white rectangles in group shows engage in bitter conflicts with one another over space in this sacred zone. What the public has sanctioned and come to expect of our museums and galleries is astonishing, given the lack of resources everywhere else, white space has come to symbolize luxuriousness. Perhaps the public wants to experience the same kind of sterile sanctity that they look for in church, or a similar sense of being controlled and anesthetized that they do in the doctor’s office, or the illusion of opulence that they encounter in bank buildings.

The institutionalization of contemporary art has cost us our common sense as well as our sense of humanity. If, like Doherty says, those white walls have become a battle zone, then I propose triage. In an environment where art funding is scarce, I propose that works that take up the most amount of space and resources while saying the least be removed first. Let us stop pretending that there is deep conceptual awareness where there is none. Are we as a culture as blind as Claxton’s monster Hummels, unable to see ourselves despite countless mirrors?

Art that cannot live outside the white-cube-art-institutional context is dead.

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