27 January, 2011

27 Jan - William Burroughs: A Man Within

LAUNCHPROJECTS - I just returned from the documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Having read and appreciated Burrough's writing, I knew just enough about his life to admire him as both literary and cultural icon. I had no idea that among other things he was the gun-obsessed grandfather of the punk rock movement.

The film includes interviews such notable rebels as John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Peter Weller, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Gus Van Sant, and Sonic Youth (just to name a few) and explores how the Harvard educated heir to the Burroughs’ adding machine estate struggled throughout his life with addiction, companionship, and tragedy. One of the stunning revelations in the film is that in an altered state and quite young Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in the head in Mexico City while demonstrating his "William Tell Act". To add to his wife's death, his son Billy died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33 in an effort to gain the approval and attention of his otherwise occupied father.

Larger than life, Burroughs took every drug available and was addicted to "junk" most of his life. He was also a pioneer of the queer and drug culture in the 1950s and was unquestionably a literary genius. In an article for Drone Magazine, an unattributed writer states that "Burroughs was a man who still continues to defy categorisation, in his work, personal traits, lifestyle and aesthetic. It’s this point that makes him -- to this day -- the most dangerous cultural figure of the last hundred years (if not longer)".

Burroughs once stated “what can seem negative can become valuable for a writer." He found inspiration in that dark side - addiction, death, guns, anarchy. He was the poster boy for the tortured genius and it is no wonder the likes of Kurt Cobian, Frances Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Patty Smith held him so dear. Burroughs also opened the door for experimental writing, homosexuality, and the awareness of drug addiction in the United States. Burroughs changed US laws on censorship with the publication of Naked Lunch and inspired an entirely new genre of musical expression - punk. In all of his danger, edge, and iconoclasm, Burroughs effectively paved the way to a more open cultural space in the politically conservative climate of 1950's America.

"You know, they ask me if I were on a desert island and I knew nobody would ever see what I wrote, would I go on writing. My answer is most emphatically yes. I would go on writing for company. Because I'm creating an imaginary — it's always imaginary — world in which I would like to live." - William Burroughs

Images: William Burroughs with Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, on the shooting range.

23 January, 2011

24 January - Ruscha and Truitt on art

LAUNCHPROJECTS - In her journal
Turn, Anne Truitt travels to Europe to experience first-hand the masterpieces that she had for 62 years seen only in reproduction. Her descriptions reveal a perception that extends far beyond what most people experience when looking at art of any type, let alone masterpieces that have been reproduced to the point of cliched posters used to decorate college dorm rooms. Truitt experiences a profound synesthesia of sorts, and through her descriptions I felt as though I was experiencing each picture anew through her acuity and perception. Truitt's description of simply entering the Louvre for the first time is astounding, "screams of terror overlaid by screams for blood echoed through corridors dimensionless as those in nightmares, ironically lined with art of such authority that I stood as much aghast as dazzled."
Truitt goes on to describe Van Gogh, Monet, and Manet: "Van Gogh's insight is relentless. No matter what the literal subject matter of his paintings, their content, implicit in brushstroke and color, is the interpretation of good and evil rendered transcendent by way of his art... Monet's utter mastery of atmosphere is akin to my own preoccupation with color as a form of an imminent truth otherwise inaccessible. He achieves it stroke by stroke; I attempt to catch it by way of superimposed films of inflected color. Manet's Le Dejuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia are shocking paintings. I felt my bones shake."
I could transcribe half her book to include her descriptions of Delacroix, Cezanne, Gericault, Gauguin, Giotto, Piero, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubins, and more. My mind was engrossed in her descriptions, wondering if she were unique in her ability to see and perceive artwork in a wholly original and heart-wrenching way when I came across Ed Ruscha's recent description of his ongoing experience with John Everett Millais' Ophelia:
"I first saw Millais' Ophelia (1851-1852) when I came to the UK in 1961, and was struck by its originality. It's hard to explain what I first saw in it, but it was a moving picture to me and so realistically painted. I guess I had a fondness for all sorts of Pre-Raphaelite images back then, a feeling which subsequently passed, but the nature of this painting stayed with me. It holds true today as one of the most profound paintings of that period.
At first I didn't delve too much into the story and the symbolism behind it. I viewed it strictly as a picture - how it was composed and so on - but later I learned that it had been studied and analysed by so many people, which made it even more interesting. Every little blade of grass and plant has been botanically identified. Someone has discovered almost exactly where Millais set up his easel by the river. Some believe there is a skull hidden in the painting (just to the left of the forget-me-nots on the righthand side). The painting itself is like an embellishment of the Ophelia story in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The fact that she was portrayed as a mad woman during Millais' time was, I guess, considered unsuitable subject matter. You did not paint mad people. However, when I look at the woman in the water there, I don't see a mad woman. I see a tragic woman.
I would never realise that this painting would affect me the way it did. Ophelia became a trigger in my art; an inspiration for what I'm doing. You notice here you are looking at the woman from an oblique angle - in a sense, it's an aerial view. The diagonal of Ophelia in the water is an aspect that was made for my work. My study of art and much that came out of it is ordered on that thinking that you look at something almost as if it were a table-top arrangement, as you can find in Ophelia. I regard a lot of my paintings and even photographs (such as Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967) as off-springs of this painting. For example, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, painted from 1965 to 1968, has a similar angle to that of Ophelia - looking down on it from above. Also, the tragic circumstances of a situation in my painting are told, I think, in a very bucolic and pastoral way, just as they are in Millais' picture.
The composition of Ophelia is very simple, and yet so complex for what it is saying. And it evolves right into my thinking. When I make a picture that might resemble it, I'm not doing it on purpose. It's just happened from years ago seeing Millais' image. I don't get this response from any other of his paintings that I've seen, but with this one he hit the nail on the head.
Of course, my pictures and Ophelia are very different in intent and content. They are worlds apart in so many ways: Ophelia is in the grand tradition of English painting, and the story goes back to Shakespeare, whereas Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire goes back to 1968 and, you could say, is the culmination of commercial America. But pictorially they are connected. They are like brother and sister. I feel as if there is a little silver thread between that painting and mine. So maybe the years between the works are not that distant.
In some ways I think that I am looking at myself when I am looking at Ophelia. So each time I come to London I feel an obligation to see it, but it is an obligation I feel good about."
I am inspired by the way Ruscha and Truitt look at and describe art, by the way pictures affect them profoundly - to the core of their art making practices. This perception is extraordinary and changes the way art history functions within the contemporary dialog. Masterpieces come back to life through their contemporary progeny, contemporary works disclose predecessors that no curator or art historian might detect. What a different course students of art history might take if it were taught through the lens of those who incorporate the lessons and works of the past into their innovations of the future.

Pictured: John Everett Millais Ophelia, 1851-1852; Ed Ruscha Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1968