Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It Can be Really Dispiriting

Last night at open drawing I did some of the worst work of my adult life. It was completely horrifying. I don't know whether I had gotten cocky, or if I was just unfocused, but wow was my work terrible. It was like I lost all my superpowers.

But then I switched to pen and inkwash and things got a little better.

Steampunk in Oz and Elsewhere

Suddenly every post is in some way inspired by Oz (which, in my defense, is so much better than that week when every post was inspired by the Holocaust). I had been thinking about my favorite Oz book (Ozma of Oz), and about Tik-Tok the clockwork man, and decided that now was a good time to finally read the Ann* and Jeff VanderMeer edited Steampunk anthology that's been sitting on my shelf for a while. Like most anthologies, it's pretty hit or miss, but happily, the hits predominate. There are three non-fiction essays included and, in my opinion, one glaring omission.

The stories that particularly impressed me were:

"The Giving Mouth" by Ian R. MacLeod. It's beautifully written and so very, very strange. I'm not sure it strictly qualifies as Steampunk according to my understanding of the term - it's set in a fictional feudal dystopia with mechanized elements, but the writing is lovely. It reminded me a bit of some long, strange meandering fairy tales I have read (again, with mechanized elements). The only quibble I have is that the world building was a little stronger than the story telling.

"Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang was simply awesome. It's set in a slightly altered Victorian England where golems are being created and given life in factories by scientists and sculptors. It's about 50 pages long, and in this short space he manages to tell an intricately plotted story, explore the moral implications from the point of view of labor, bio-ethics, eugenics, religion and gender. The fact that the story remains exciting and it never bogs down is a tiny miracle.

"Victoria" by Paul di Filippo is so daffy, light-hearted and well written I loved it in spite of my better instincts. I hate it when men write stories and all the women are whores because it's really the most boring default setting imaginable - and this is no exception. But - otherwise this story is such an engaging delight I'll pretty much forgive it anything.

Speaking of one's better instincts, Joe R. Lansdale's splatterpunk Boy's Own story, "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel" is completely and totally disgusting. It's full of violence, rape and assorted over the top mayhem - and I couldn't put it down. Sue me.

The Neal Stephenson and Michael Chabon entries are also totally worth reading, but that's to be expected.

Now for the glaring omission. This might have more to do with my personal interests, but I think leaving Oz out of the Steampunk equation is madness. Aside from Tik-Tok the clockwork man, L. Frank Baum's Oz books are filled with mechanical inventions. Both Professor H.M. Wogglebug, T.E. (the "H.M." is short for "highly magnified", "T.E." is short for "thoroughly educated") and the Wizard come up with lots of exciting mechanical inventions and devices. The sensibility in Baum's books is so remarkably modern, so specifically American, they really do deserve to be mentioned in the same essays as the Steam Man from the much more poorly written and rarely read boy's stories. Again, it may be my own prejudices at play, but is that the issue? That the Steam Man is from literature aimed at boys and Oz is so happily inclusive of girls? I don't think the omission was intentional, but I really do think it worth noting.

They weren't among my favorites, but several female writers were represented in the collection. I love the VanderMeers' sensibility - I also strongly recommend their completely engaging The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. They are both on the faculty at Clarion this year. I've been thinking about applying for a while but have never gotten myself together in time -I'm still a little traumatized from missing the Neil Gaiman/Kelly Link year.

* Interestingly, in the interview with Ann VanderMeer I linked to, when asked how she became interested in genre, she responded thusly:
Hard to say. I’ve always been an avid reader and lean more towards horror, fantasy and science fiction in my reading tastes. My dad had a collection of all the early L. Frank Baum books from his childhood. And I’m not just talking about The Wizard of Oz, I am talking about the entire series. These were the editions from the 1940’s and they were absolutely beautiful.
One more thing I'd like to note: how hilarious is Tik-Tok's patent infringement notice?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sock Monkeys, Monsters and Penguins!

A facebook friend posted Greg Stones's website and I was pretty instantly smitten. He paints watercolors of Monsters, Sock Monkeys, Penguins and Flashers. It really doesn't get any better than this. Oh, and in totally unrelated news, 59 more shopping days until Christmas. Helpful links provided below.

Penguins, Sock Monkey, Death.

Hats, Rose, Zombie

Zombie, Penguin, Boobs

Five Penguins, One Monster

For the economical, he also has some prints available. I thought this one was particularly appealing:

Fallen Robot

Sadly, his print, "Zombies Hate Hippies" is temporarily sold out. But his book, "Goodbye, Penguins" is happily still available! For only $20! Available: here. You know. Just in case you were thinking of purchasing one as a present for a friend who likes monsters and penguins. But, like, no pressure. Did I mention only 59 shopping days until Christmas? I did? Oops, sorry. Oh, Greg Stones accepts PayPal. In case you're interested (monsters and penguins!).

(All images via Greg Stones)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Feast For Bush!

My multitalented friend Lauren Garfinkel just posted her wonderful Feast to Commemorate 8 Years of George W. Bush. I've posted some highlights below, but you really should take a look at the whole thing.

Trout À La Waterboard:

Heck of a Job Brownie:

Shoe Fly Pie:

I think the person on the roof tuile is particularly lovely.

Lauren has been working in food for a long, long time and it's so exciting to see the finished results of this project.

(images courtesy the artist via

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who doesn't like a good desecration?

I know, I know I spent yesterday's blog post raving about how much I like the fin de siecle commercial art from the last century. And I do. But I also have a real fondness for the punk rock desecration of dada and the burgeoning surrealists after the First World War. A couple of weekends ago I went to the Art Book Fair at PS 1. I didn't bring much cash or my checkbook as I didn't want to spend more than I could afford. The one thing I did buy was an unbound sheet from Max Ernst's surrealist novel, Une Semaine du Bonté.

I'm really pleased with it, but I'm not sure what to do with it. It's two sided, so it's complicated to frame or mount. The thing managed to survive a world war pretty much unscathed and there's a part of me that thinks it might be appropriate to shoot bullets through it. I've been thinking about this since going to see the Emory Douglas exhibit at the New Museum. It's really extraordinary stuff and so worth seeing, but I've always thought there's something a little weird about looking at revolutionary art in clean museum spaces devoid of the context in which it was originally created.

The theater we made in the '90s on the Lower East Side felt revolutionary, and out of that sprung the New York International Fringe Festival, which has become a cultural institution itself, for good or ill. A lot of theater artists I respect feel that we are in post-narrative times and the only argument have against this is that I really, really like narrative, which isn't an argument at all. Humans crave structure and this craving comes from a deep, primitive, DNA level of need. (one of the things I've read that really helped me make sense of the world is, "Humans like categories, nature likes a spectrum"). And if there's one thing I've said again and again it's that structure in a theater piece does not equal plot.

I haven't completed a play in a really long time. I'm a very bad playwright. I began working on a play called Tricks With Makeup shortly after 9/11 which has been gnawing at my brain ever since. I never thought of it as being surrealistic, but that's what it is. Then a year or two ago I began working on it again as a short story. I think I just need to finish it and not worry about it making sense. I've also been (finally) working on a new play called The City is an Island, which like Tricks With Makeup takes place in a bar. I keep on thinking of City as my Brecht play, silly as that may be in light of the NYC Kill Your Idols aesthetic I was raised with. It's an apocalypse play with songs.

A lot of theater is really boring, and I think the proliferation of MFA programs has caused this country to be inundated with even more boring, bad theater. It's frightening to me that people writing boring bad plays in MFA programs are compounding the problem by teaching innocent little undergraduates. Today someone on Facebook posted this interesting article about Lesbian theater artists, which included the following quote from Sarah Schulman:
"The most destructive ethic in mainstream theater is that familiarity equals quality. They think that work that repeats what is already known is good, and work that expands what is already known is wrong or badly written."
Happily, Schulman is teaching now, and Paula Vogel (the playwright who made me want to be a playwright) is heading up the program at Yale and I've heard that Scrappy Jack is teaching, too. Baby steps, I guess, but I truly believe that good art is not born out of the University system, and if good art does emerge from MFA programs it is a completely inadvertent and random occurrence, and not any sort of proof that this is an effective way to train artists. My displeasure with how theater is taught in schools really deserves it's own post, so I won't go into it too deeply here. Let me just say that theater is multi-disciplinary by nature and that fact is pretty widely ignored. Also, good artists tend to figure things out for themselves in or out of school. So, I guess what I'm saying here is that I'm ready to throw myself back into the fray. A lot of years have passed, and one of the people I used to talk about this stuff with is working for Big Law, others don't speak to me any more, and I've become reacquainted with other artists that I used to know. I'm pretty sure I want to spend my middle years making things, so I really need to start now.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

So, who's up for this?

I think I have a shiny new obsession which is really the very last thing in this world that I need right now. A friend's remarkable facebook photo led me to this post on Coilhouse.

Sigh. I am completely, gobsmackingly in love. The photo at left, and the others posted are actors in costume from the original 1908 Moscow Art Theatre production of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird.

I've been staring at these pictures for a day now, and all I can think is that we live in aesthetically barren times. Or maybe I'm just out of step with the prevailing aesthetic of my own time, which is far more likely. I wrote about this a little earlier and I am more obsessed than ever with the art (both commercial and fine) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mind you, I have no desire to live in those times as I like voting and birth control and computers and antibiotics, but the art was really, really lovely.

I went to acting school in a long ago other lifetime, and this is where I first realized that I find a lot of theater to be really, really boring. I blame a lot of this on American theater artists in the 20th century foisting their very male oriented emotional melodramas upon all of us, worshiping at the shrine of Stanislavsky - but, wait. An interesting little fact: the director of this remarkable looking production of Maeterlinck's very interesting fairy tale was none other than Constantin Stanislavsky.

Although lots of people have conflated that goddamn Method with the teachings of Stanislavsky, they are really entirely different. I'll take the Russians any day, clearly. I realize I'm on shaky ground here, as my most loyal commenter Fuzzy Bastard knows infinitely more about these things than I do (two of my most constant readers have studied theater in Moscow, actually) so I'll return to what I can talk about with some kind of authority.

By which, I suppose I mean the realms of the visual and of fairy tales. I don't think many people could put together a convincing argument against the statement that the commercial and book illustration of the turn of the last century was unmatched by anything either before or since. The combined elements of new, modern printing techniques, a strong pre-Raphaelite influence, art nouveau, a fashion in elaborately illustrated gift books, and the resurgence of the literary fairy tale formed a perfect eco-system for the best illustration ever seen.

The super high end work like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen (who lived long enough to do a lot of the artwork for the Night on Bald Mountain sequence of Fantasia) is so good I can't even get my head around how it was done on an even basic technique level. But I think the ones who influenced me most deeply when I was a child reading fairy tales and learning how to draw were the lesser lights like H.J. Ford and John R. Neill. Probably because I could figure out how it was done. One of the things I've always found particularly delightful about Neill is that his work is so obviously a part of the mechanical, steam age. The artistic pairing with L. Frank Baum was perfection.

The photos of the actors dressed for Stanislavsky's production of The Blue Bird have a bit of that same machine-age feel. I've been fascinated with Maeterlinck's play since I was a child and read Noel Streatfeild's wonderful book Ballet Shoes in which Pauline and Petrova played Mytyl and Tytyl in a West End production of the play. There was a silent film version directed by Maurice Tourneur (which looks lovely) and a later sound version with Shirley Temple (which looks dreadful). It has been pretty solidly out of fashion since then.

What worries me is that looking at all this makes me want to do nothing else besides directing an elaborately staged and designed revival.

I'm really trying to branch out into color

Baby steps.

I can't fight it any more

I think I've finally made the really scary and work intensive realization that Lucy Troma really, really wants to be a graphic novel. I've basically known this from day one, and I've been fighting it tooth and nail. I've lost and the work begins. The good news is, I've been working so hard and drawing so much that I'm getting both faster and better every day.

This is completely unPhotoshopped. I'm having some software problems so I will clean it up when I've sorted them out.