carl watson

The Two- Character Play reviewed by Carl Watson

In the Cage of Our Own Making:

The Two-Character Play by Tenessee Williams

At 292 Theater

(292 E. Third, NYC, April 2014)

With Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick. Directed by Romy Ashby.

 

The Two-Character Play (originally entitled Out Cry, 1971/1973) is a late play by Williams; it is also what we might call a meta-play, in contrast to his more famous tragi/romantic works. It is William’s version of a post-modern psycho drama—a play within a play within a life in which the characters are aware both of being in a play that seems to repeat itself, but also that the play is their life, and therefore they cannot escape it. They interact both as if they are on stage and as if they are not. They know the audience is there, or rather that the audience is possibly, perpetually arriving, but they are unsure if they should be concerned about it or not. (Sound familiar?) Despite being a departure from his normal style, The Two-Character Play is considered to be one of Williams’ most personal plays, with the characters Felice and Clare being somewhat based on Williams himself and his sister Rose, both of whom were at some time in their lives comitted to mental facilities. Therefore madness and confinement are part of the dramatic equation here.

 

The plot, such as it is, revolves round a brother and sister, Clare and Felice (played respectively by Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick) living a reclusive life in their old family home, which is also “a decrepit state theater in an unknown state.” They are, of course, actors and believe themselves to be “on tour,” even though they never leave the house/theater. Felice and Clare can indeed seem “mad” as they argue constantly over their “confinement”—should they should leave the building? can they? and, more importantly, what has happened there that keeps them from leaving? This “what” is the murder/suicide of their parents, of which we never get a complete explanation. The brother’s and sister’s witness to, and possible participation in, this traumatic event serves as the elusive backdrop to their dilemma. Who is technically guilty in these deaths and/or why they happened, however, becomes less important than who feels the shame and guilt, and in this sense the idea of original sin makes its entrance, along with a whole slew of possible Oedipal concerns.

            The play may well be the thing here but the play is a mystery constructed around layers of theatricality and purposeful confusion. There is a performance scheduled, but it seems the producers have pulled out, so it is unclear whether the play is actually supposed to go on. The “two characters” seem to be unsure if they are performing the play or rehearsing it as we watch it. Or are they merely talking about it? In any case, they edit as they go, cutting parts and disagreeing about what parts they should cut or whether they indeed have cut anything (kind of like editing one’s memory). They argue about the props and what use they are and what they might signify. They argue about the audience. Is the audience merely the outside world, i.e. the world outside their enclosure, which is the house/theater they live in, or is it us? The Two-Character Play provides plenty of metaphysical and psychological grist for the analyst’s mill, with both Existential and Freudian overtones, as well as some philosophical commentary on “theater” itself—what is its purpose is and how it can be distorted? All of this keeps the viewer intrigued as they try to figure it out.

Back to the core of the story, which is the crime that took place once upon a time. The audience is led at first to believe that the father murdered the mother (for reasons unknown). But the children think they should spin the story so that the mother has murdered the father and they would therefore be eligible for an insurance payout (I missed the logic behind this figuring, but it doesn’t really matter). As the play progresses, who killed who grows more ambiguous, and it is also becomes possible that the children have something to do with the murder. They have the gun (stowed in the piano, under a print of the Holbein Christ). and it is sometimes used as a threat between them—an end to their misery.

The narrative tension of the play comes from the character’s need to get through the day/week/year, while planning their “production” and carrying this incredible burden of guilt that is never resolved. In any case, it is this increasingly complicated psychological web that keeps them trapped in the house. Consequently, the two characters have little to do but spin their wheels in an endless cycle of repetition. In fact, repetition itself could be considered a theme, or at least a source of therapy, grounding the characters in a comforting routine. I’ll return to this idea presently, but for now it is worthwhile to consider a couple of ways to look at this murder/suicide as the center of their paralyzing vortex.

1) The murder/suicide may be the product of incest or abuse, between the parents or between the parents and the children. These types of hidden family secrets are common undercurrents in Williams’ work. The audience wonders what exactly was the dynamic between the parents leading up to the event? Were the children involved? Was it self-defense, retaliation? We will never know, and may well be misguided in thinking along these lines. But the aura of incest is there and seems to color the brother/sister relationship. (I am reminded here of the movie Shame, 2011). Returning to the theme of repetition, it is worth noting here that trauma often has the psychological result of trapping its victims in repetitive cycles of either reliving the traumatic event or repeating an imagined “alternative” scenario—both of which can be considered forms of theater perhaps.

2) Another way to interpret the murder/suicide (which does not preclude the first) is in the realm of metaphysics—a metaphor for the death of God perhaps (or some form of ritual sacrifice). In a pious Southern context, such a loss of authority would leave the pair spinning meaninglessly through their repetitive lives. It may seem a stretch to go all cosmic on the plot like this but there are precedents to do so, and we will address those precedents soon. For now I wish to reiterate that we cannot escape the importance of the role of theater, and we can even think of its ritual re-enactments, and the double life it provides, as an answer to our existential dilemma. Theater establishes repeatable patterns for reality and in doing so it tames the obliterating nature of time, providing a semblance of mean ing in an absurd and meaningless void.

It helps to remember that The Two-Character Play arises out of the Post War Era, and a traumatized Western culture which has also recently gone through significant social upheaval. As a way of contextualizing the above-stated issues, and perhaps providing a framework by which to analyze The Two-Character Play (1973), I will now briefly examine some works that preceded Williams’ play and which treat similar themes: Sartre’s No Exit (1944), Becketts Waiting for Godot (1953), and Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel (1961). While I will not claim that there is a direct influence, these works all deal with issues (guilt, the possibility of murder, suicide, the impotence of religion, existential entrapment) that recur in The Two-Character Play. Indeed, Williams could hardly not know about these works; he even admits to an influence by Beckett in his later career.

No Exit dates from 1944, and this is the play about which Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” No Exit might easily be called “The Three-Character Play.”  Three characters, Joseph, Inès, and Estelle, who are dead, are introduced to a nicely appointed room in the afterlife where they expect to be punished for their previous sins but are in truth only confronted with each other. The play centers on the eventual confession each one makes as to their moral failings, all of which have to do with infidelity and the damage it causes. Joseph’s infidelity causes his wife to die of grief; Estelle’s infidelity leads to the murder of her child and the suicide of her husband; Inès’s infidelity causes her lover to murder her husband. When the three characters discover the door to the room is open and that they are free to leave, they cannot, as they still feel bound to justify themselves to the others. Not only are suicide and murder part of the characters’ past, but they become issues in the present. However, death is turned into a joke when Estelle stabs Inès and there is no result (as they are already dead). Then, in a parody of suicide, Inès even stabs herself producing fits of laughter amongst all three of them. They could kill themselves over and over again; it amounts to nothing but talk—there is indeed No Exit. We can easily see some of the themes we saw in The Two-Character Play as being prominent here: the hidden crime, the impotence of suicide, the inability to escape due to the need to justify one’s existence. Might as well pass the time arguing, as Joseph says: “Oh well, let’s continue . . .”

The second and perhaps more obvious possible influence on The Two-Character Play would be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), wherein two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, live the same day over and over again waiting for someone named Godot to show up. If you believe, as most do, that Vladimir and Estragon are in fact waiting for an ineffectual God, or authority figure, we can see how this waiting is similar to Clare and Felice’s anticipation of an audience which would justify their existence as actors. And just as Felice and Clare confront the dilemma of to be or not to be in the play, the Godot characters are also aware of the theatricality of their plight. This is reflected in Pozzo’s and Lucky’s stagey “performances,” but also in Didi and Gogo’s subtle “awareness” of an audience (often more prominent in actual staged performances). Argument as an attempt to fill the endless time, is also a theme in Godot, as when Gogo says “That’s it, let’s abuse each other,” entreating Did to join him in a dialogue of insults which eventually peters out. Even the idea of some past unspeakable crime such as murder and suicide, is part of the Godot discussion, albeit on a fairly abstract level. The idea of murder comes into play when, early in the second half, Estragon accuses Vladimir of murdering “the other,” which quickly becomes the “others,” or all the others, the murder of humans in general. In Godot this could be a reference to the recent catastrophic World War, but it doubles as a reference to original sin, and not the sexual sin of Judeo Christian theology but the “sin” integral to all life—that it depends on death.

Albert Camus once claimed that suicide is the only real important question that an individual faces in life. In other words, faced with the meaninglessness of life, does one continue to live or not; it’s a choice each of us has to make. In Godot, Didi and Gogo challenge each other to end their misery by hanging themselves. In The Two-Character Play, the siblings challenge each other to end their misery with a gun.

In both cases the suicide does not happen. In Beckett, the characters use the flimsy excuse that they just don’t have the right equipment—no appropriate rope. Williams’ characters simply can’t do it. It’s worth noting that there is another similarity between these possible suicides. Clare and Felice would use the same gun that was used in the murder of their parents, therefore re-enacting the annihilation of authority/comfort that once structured their lives. In Godot, the two hobos would hang themselves from a tree, thus re-enacting the death of their God (Christ), a god who should have provided structure and comfort for their lives, and whom they have replaced with the ineffectual Godot. Beckett puts this Christianity front and center, but in Williams, if it is there, it is obscured.

Lastly I would briefly address Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which came out in 1961, roughly corresponding to the time that Williams began to work on The Two-Character Play. The plot of the film is a group of people who find they are unable to leave a dinner party at the lavish manor of their host, Señor Edmundo Nobile. There is no reason they can’t leave except that they seem to be trapped by their interactions with each other. Over time the party degenerates and more animal instincts come into play.  The guests become hungry and hostile, even murderous. One young couple, Béatriz and Eduardo, commit suicide in despair. It finally occurs to one of the guests, La Valkiria, that if they analyze their conversations and actions from when they first arrived, they may be able to free themselves. In other words, the trap is to be found in the development of their relationships, their need somehow to justify their existence to the others. The web that keeps them in bondage is their conversation and once these ties are exposed and unraveled they are able to leave and, in fact, they do leave. However, the fate accompli of repetition expresses itself when, in a similar situation, some of guests go to seek repentance for their sins in a local cathedral. Suddenly all the people in the cathedral realize, for some reason, that they are unable to leave. In effect, the situation at the Nobile manor is repeating itself; they might have left one enclosure but they are then trapped in another. Just like the endlessly repeating day of Vladimir and Estragon or Joseph, Inezs and Estelle; just like the repeating play of Clare and Felice—all the drama we produce is not only a trap, but it may well be a welcome one. Do we really want to escape? Is there even an existence outside of these traps?

While the other works discussed above share similar themes to Williams’ play, we can feel that they they may not be nearly as personal. They tend to be abstract meditations on the modern problems of human existence. What makes The Two-Character Play unique is the way Williams brings those psychological and existential issues close to the heart. He combines the cerebral with the personal, the architypal with the quotidian. The viewer cannot remain at a distance, as he or she is in the living room of the dilemma, feeling the anguish.  So while The Two Character Play may have been negatively received as too great a departure from the Williams’ ouevre, it is in fact of a piece with his other works, only with a different focus, a different perspective, something that all great artists strive for, if only in trying to understand themselves.

Bartkoff and Schick are obvious fans of Williams, especially little-know Williams, as evidenced by their 2012 production of In the Bar of A Tokyo Hotel, and they bring great passion and detail to the production. The Two-Character Play is seldom produced and Bartkoff and Schick are to be commended for bringing it to life. Thanks to Romy Ashby, Brandon Lim and Michael Aguirre, the excellent set design is appropriately surreal and claustrophobic—a perfect match for the play’s psychological landscape—and the audience sits so close they are implicated in the actor’s emotions. The walls are papered with magazine and newspaper clippings of the era, which gives the room an aura of psychotic nostalgia as well as lingering OCD. (Incidentally, the paintings on the wall are the works of the actors themselves.)

            I would be remiss here not to mention the comic elements in the play, a kind of self-aware absurdity, that the actors bring to life, fluidly switching between comedy, tragedy and psycho-drama. In this sense it is, like Godot, a tragi-comedy. Williams himself used the term “slapstick-tragedy” to refer to some of his later works. Both Bartkoff and Schick are comfortable and accomplished with comedy and so managing the shift between comedy and drama here is a feat they pull off effortlessly. My only comment on the acting (at least when I saw it) would be this: it could afford to slow down just a tad to draw out the weirdness and dreamlike qualities. I felt sometimes they were too caught up in a rapid fire dialogue. This was something the troupe was aware of and as the play ripened over the course of its run, the dialogue did slow down to a more natural pace

            That said, Charles Schick as Felice, channels various southern smarmy psycho cliches but he does it with a sense of self-aware, even self-mocking irony that makes Felice seem a thousand years old, while at the same time a child, and justifiably disengaged from this absurd situation he finds himself in.

Regina Bartkoff plays the traditional Williams role of the very breakable but potentially violent female albeit with a slightly manic energy balanced by a comic self-regard. She too has a kind of worldly been-though-this-a-few-times-before knowing smirk to her character. They both bring their characters a contemporary edge without sacrificing the Williams’ aura. It should also be mentioned that Bartkoff and Schick are a real life couple augmenting the aura of intimacy to this very intimate play.

The 292 Theater is everything the East Village used to be: scrappy, visionary, experimental and intimate. It is run by dedicated artists who love the work and do it “for art’s sake.” All in all, this is a truly exciting presentation of a play that is unustly obscure and we can only hope that this production leads to others

 

 

 

 

 

End

 

 

Carl Watson reviews Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Clicking into the abyss

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

 

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel,Bleeding Edge, could be described as a mixture of cyberpunk, yenta detective fiction,New York self-admiration/mockery, and good old Pynchonesque conspiracy/paranoia.Set between the 90s dotcom collapse and the September 11 aftermath, the novel portrays a kind of privileged hyper-connected Upper West Side life; it’s a techno-noir complete with ambiguous bad guys, compromised good guys, numerous facilitators and walk-ons with various agendas and a general air of what the hell is going on and who is in control?The answer to the last question may well be nobody at all. The number of characters is just large enough to make it difficult to keep track of.*  Significant people keep reappearing to re-establish their place in the plot, but due to the story’s length and complexity you often can’t remember what their role originally was. That’s okay though because what’s important may only be this confusion, that and the fact that you, the reader, remain caught up in the flowof ramifying possibilities.Pynchon piles on layers of possible meanings and branching narrative lines as the plot moves forward, promising intrigue, laughs, critical insight, etc., most of which is delivered in abundance.

It might be said that many of the characters confirm a criticism that is often leveled at Pynchon: that his novels are peopled byrather shallow cartoons,twisted stereotypesin extremis.  We might also say his characters are merelyhyper-real, overdone on the surface, even if psychologically underdone.This is not to say that Pynchon’s people don’t have real-life problems, peccadillos, fetishes, etc., but that such indications of depthoften seem to serve only as markers of authenticity in an increasingly inauthentic mediatedmilieu. It’s also true that whether you believe in them or not is probably unimportant. In Pynchon’s universe they are merely signsof the post-modern human condition, where late capitalism’s vaunted “individuals” (read “consumers”) have basically evolved into a form of the very media they have created and within which they thrive. Allthis goes along with the author’s general tendency to privilege surface over depth, i.e., there isn’t anything but surface, and depth is an illusion, a human construction, a matter of computation, either of the computational brain or some other machine, say the machine of the media brain.  All those complexities of character that people value so much inold-time literature are really nothing more than the reactions of biological bags of chemicals reacting to their chemical environment. This may seem a mordantnote, but from this reviewerit’s meant as a compliment.

That said, a partial list of important characters in Bleeding Edge goes like this:

Maxine Tarnoff is a late30ish-40ish something protagonist, living on the Upper West Side where she runs a fraud-hunting agency, called “Tail ‘em and Nail ‘em,” that often has dealings with the various overblown tech companies of the era. Maxinemight be considered a kind of Jewish Marlowe, if Marlowe knoshed at a Broadway Deli and had to escort kids to their liberal private Montessori-like school, Kugelblitz.Yes, Maxine has two sons,with the appropriate hipster names of Ziggy and Otis, and they, like all New York kids from the Upper West Side, are wise beyond their years. She also has an ex-husband Horst Loeffler, who is not exactly out of her life. Horst is a Midwestern transplant, a cliché that is used as relief to show off the cleverness and sophistication of the New Yorkers around him.He moves slower, or at least more deliberately, is less frantic than the others, and apparently likes sports and the outdoors. Described as“A fourth generation product of the US Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator, fatally alluring as a Harley knucklehead, indispensible (God help her) as an authentic Maid-rite when hunger sets in.” That last comment lets you know thatHorst also serves as practical ballast to Maxine’s frenetic life.Maxine’s sister, Brooke, is married to the LikudnikAviDeschler, who if not directly involved in the current plot of the novel may well be involved in some other bit of international intrigue.

March Kelleher, Maxine’s friend, is often an aid in her investigations, but also seems to be caught up in clichéd 20th century forms of conspiracy theory that are inadequate to her era, mostly because they depend on agents who actually have agency, and many people in this book seem to be more like puppets to a technological or capitalist mind that operates far beyond their ability to understand it. March’s daughter Tallis, happens to be in a southbound marriage to one Gabriel Ice, a Bond-like villain/mogul and the brains behind hashslingerz, a super-powerful and somewhat secretive internet company. Hashslingerz’s actual activities are foggy at best, but there is no doubt that through his corporate vehicle Ice is making a bid for internet and telecommunications dominance, both via plain thuggery and by buying up all the bandwidth and infrastructure that he can get, as hereadies his profit margins for the coming techno surge of humanity. Gabriel Ice may be apossible government fixer, but he is also an untouchable Oz, as we know about him only by rumor and hearsay. When he does show up in person, he’s kind of an arrogant dork.

There are other entertaining characters such as Igor, Misha and Grisha, a triumvirate of Russian gangsters who seem to be unallied in terms of the various competing powers. They can be dangerous and bumbling at the same time, and they are both allies and enemies of Maxine; she’s never sure which, and she may even be working for them. There is the foot fetishist, Eric Jeffrey Outfield, a super computer nerd,who Maxine masturbates with her feet after picking him up in a Queens strip bar, where she has posed as a dancer specifically to find him. Eric will be first to take her into the Deep Web. There is Conkling Speedwell, a professional nose who has built an olfactory smell detector of some small importance. Justin and Lucas are California techno-geeks who have invented the webspace called DeepArcher which lives in the Deep Web, and which plays a significant role that will be discussed later in the review. These are just some of the players in this rolling serious farcical who-dun-what.

Given the cast and temperament of the characters, there is much to suggest conspiracy, in the best Pynchon fashion. Things grow increasingly sinister as the threads seem to tighten around an actual plot or revelation. This plot, or rather Maxine’s part in it, begins with the discovery that someone has been syphoning a lot of money out of the hashslingerz revenue stream and Mr. Ice does not take kindly to such actions. A certain Lester Traipse ends up dead gazing up from beneath the pool floor of The Deseret, a ritzy, if sinister,west-side apartment building where Maxine and others take recreational swims. Maxine is sort of hired, or not, to unravel all this.Ice of course is a suspect, but he would never pull a trigger himself and one possible finger-man is Nicholas (Dust in the Wind) Windust, agovernment hit man or fixer who remains rather mysterious throughout, in fact mysterious enough to arouse Maxine’s libido, so that she ends up doing him doggie style in a ratty, west-side safe house, where they conduct a supposedly info-sharing rendezvous.Of course this leads to further intrigues, part of which have to do with a secret DVD video of anonymous individuals manipulating rocket launchers on top of that same building. The DVD is delivered by Marvin, the mystical Rastafarian messenger, who always has very significant deliveries to make to Maxine and which seem to come only from anonymous sources.

 

All this culprit-chasingplays out in the landscape of New York City, and Bleeding Edge is definitely a targeted NYC-centric novel. Everyone goes to therapists. Maxine goes to an emo-therapist named Shawn, who himself goes to a therapist that specializes in therapist therapy. Everyone in the book is also quite quick on the conversational draw,barely waiting for the end of a sentence before they fire back a knowing and pertinent response, often so larded with cultural references that you might miss the wit, were you not as clued in as they are.Indeed we all know people who do speak or attempt to speak in this way, tying themselves into the pop-cultural universe as a means of self-validation. In Bleeding Edge, people toss such references back and forth as if creating a language of exclusion against those not entranced with the product and entertainment world in which they are ensconced. It’s also true that everyone seems to know way too much for their own good, as they say, and whether or not Pynchon means this as irony, comedy, criticism, or sarcasm even,is for the reader to decide.But this again is a typical Pynchonesque surface affectation posing as depth.

I like to think the knowing banter is meant to indicate a hyper-sophistication reminiscent of those wisecracking old George Cukor movies such as The Philadelphia Story orHis Girl Friday. If you took a Cukor script and updated it to include a great deal of techno-speak and contemporary cultural/product references you would be approaching Pynchon’s style here. With lines like “I thought you loved me for my psychosexual profile,” or “Enough dress code violation to get thrown off the L train,” it makes for great reading if not necessarily realistic human portraits.It might be said that one problem with this type of dialogue is that everyone sort of sounds the same and because Pynchon often fails to provide speaker attribution in the long pages of dialogue it is easy to get lost and discover you don’t know who is talking to whom. Again, this may well be on purpose. It is worthwhile noting here, that Pynchon sometimes tries to write in dialect, or street, generally to poor effect.

While I have been claiming that New York is in some sense a character in this book (in reality no other place exists, except California—another nod to the NYC mindset), it is also important to reiterate that this is a particular New York, that of the turn of the millennium with its attendant events, includingthe dubious Wall Street machinations, the dotcom bubble and bust and the looming shadow of the yet-to-occur September 11. Silicon Alley has crashed and most of these characters are rooting around in the detritus, remembering the elaborate parties and the various highs of money, drugs and sex. Indeed, the glory days of Silicon Alley before the downfall is one of the running themes throughout the conversations of Maxine’s crowd, who were all caught up in the flow of positive futures and the endless web-based possibilities for making huge quantities of money. Web moguls and telecommunications entrepreneurs like Gabriel Ice are the kingpins of this circle, drinking and coking in the clubs with seemingly few consequences while utterly failing to see the collapse right around the corner.What accompanies this period of decline is a sinister sense of foreboding, of things being out of control. Not that the dotcom bust was engineered by mysterious powers, but that there was never any control to begin with. But there’s more to this air of menace than mere economic chaos or social decadence, and this brings us to the looming event that shadows the entire novel—9/11.

Given the time setting of autumn 2001, the reader has a particular advantage over the characters, anticipating something, which the characters can’t see. Thus so much of the suspicion/conspiracy atmosphere that surrounds the doings of Gabriel Ice, Windust, the Russians, and even to a degree the program Deep Archer plays directly to the reader’s special knowledge. To say this is a book about 9/11 though would be misleading. The actual event is emphasized less than the way it affects everyone’s life. Pynchon captures well the eeriness of the following days and weeks: the seeming distortions of time and other physical laws, along withthe disorientation many of us felt in our normal environments. 9/11 also allows the author to tie the dubious dealings of these numerous characters, the various ideas and paranoid theories into larger geo-political issues. Maxine and her friends immediately assume, of course, that there is more to know about the attack than is being told, as they circle through many of the now common conspiracy theories, all of which are put forward only to fall into a blasé pool of maybe, maybe-not, and maybe-it-doesn’t-matter.  Remember the rockets launchers on the roof of the safe house?  Is Ari, with his Mossad connections, somehow involved?The information economy is often questioned—is there just too much of it, so that the significance of every message unit is depleted and nothing means anything? Is that how this happened? At one point even 90s-style irony is blamed, Heidi, Maxine’s friend, writes in the Journal of Memespace Cartography, “As if somehow irony, as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip upon ‘reality.’”

 

Critics have made note of two important pervasive qualities of Pynchon’s fiction:1) a ludic or humorous undertone that serves as a kind of reflection on, or manifestation of, the great joke of the universe, and 2) the elevation of paranoia to a creative, indeed, almost spiritual state of mind.Both are offered as solutions or perhaps palliatives to the post-modern human condition. Faced with the inscrutable complexity of the world, we humans may have no other alternative but to adopt a vaudevillian comic ethos that grants us parity with the grand laughter;we might as well join the joke, so to speak.Pynchon’s books also revolve around paranoia as a creative force, or as Reg Despard says, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen.” It is something capable of both intensely focusing the mind as well as providing the cutting edge by which we might endlessly divide certainty from itself or reality from desire. In that sense paranoia produces ever-increasing fragmented sub-realities thus actually enlarging our world. We can think of it as a psycho-socialprocess of atomization, and that leads us to the book’s title and underlying theme—that of the Bleeding Edge.The phrase “bleeding edge,” according to Lucas, one of the designers of Deep Archer, refers to technology that has, “No proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with.” The bleeding edge may call into question the purpose of human endeavors, a pertinent theme within Pynchon’s oeuvre, but in this book the author is using the term in a much larger metaphysical sense, something like an infection of quotidian life and communication where information can be manipulated to mean anything, which is the same as nothing at all, which may well be liberating in the end. So I will end this review with some of the possible ways we can read the “bleeding edge” of the text.

 

One manifestation of the bleeding edge is that of social uncertainty and moral compromise. Every character of consequence has some ambiguity attached to their actions. If there appears to be a general acceptance that things are not what they seem in the event world, it is also true in the world of personality, as most of the characters are not who they seem. We never really learn who they actually are, perhaps half physical agent and half rumor self-assembled out of gossip and media. Their roles are ultimately difficult to pin down.Who works for whom? What is anyone’s real job? Their marriages are all in some state of dissolving or reforming. Their companies and jobs are all in a state of flux. Take Maxine, for instance, who may or may not still be with her husband; unlike her hard-boiled fictional brethren, who often adhered to individualistic moral codes, she is no such knight.It’s hard to say she’s in the business for money because she never seems to actually receive any. She doesn’t solicit the jobs she gets in the novel, and she is never actually contracted to do them, she just sort of ends up as everybody’s agent of discovery. While middle-class, she is definitely attracted to the bad element, especially sexually, but also intellectually. She doesn’t seem to mind humiliating herself for an alliance. She wields a gun to excellent effect when she needs to, despite seeming to have little experience with it. She knows how to be where she needs to be even though it often seems like an accident that she gets there. Gabriel Ice is another example—an internet mogul who may be working with the government or may be working against it. He is either being investigated or he is running the investigation.

The characters are all in some wayindeterminate because their environment is. Part of this is undoubtedly something to do with obscene wealth and its manipulation of public and private morality. And while money affects business and personal morals it also changes the landscape itself, as March Kelleher says: “Between the scumbag landlords and the scumbag developers, nothing in this city will ever stand at the same address for even five years, name me a building you love, someday soon it will either be a stack of high end chain stores or condos for yups with more money than brains.” Another environmental cause of indeterminacy has to do with the nature of mediated existence as it ruthlessly fragments and reproduces infinitely iterated forms of information.Bleeding Edge may be a detective novel, but for all the leads or evidence that come Maxine’s way, or anybody’s for that matter, it’s impossible to pin anything down. Facts move around like electrons through cyberspace, they can be steered into accounts of the truth or into false scenarios, just as money is steered into various bank accounts.The line between puppetry and agency is increasingly blurred. Eventually most of the characters are contentto just go home, if they can determine where that is. One is reminded of what Jack Ruby said in the aftermath of the Oswald shooting: “The world will never know the true facts of what occurred.”

 

Another of the obvious bleeding edges is the frontierthat lies between physical meatspace life and virtual webspace.Webspace, the new, superior reality, is fluid and hallucinogenic, to a degree that seems somewhat prescientgiven the time setting of 2001.Maxine is introduced at some point to what is called the Deep Web, the web under the surface web that most user/novices know. One might see the Deep Web as a possible stand-in for thesubconscious but it’s not really, although it can be quite dreamlike. Within the Deep Web runs the program or webspace or game known as Deep Archer, which can be accessed by those in the know(or ultimately by hackers). Deep Archer is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: it seems to have no goal or point to it. It’s designers claim it is a sanctuary and possibly a landscape for spiritual quest, but if it is, it is also a space subsumed to late capitalism and its unstoppable insidious crawl. After agonizing over whether to go full-blown capitalist and sell for billions, the creators, Justin and Lucas, take the nobler path of going open source, only to find that Deep Archer, once out of their control, sadly capitalizes itself, becoming a kind of Times Square buried deep in the Deep Web like a virtual Atlantis. Certainly it is the “place” where meatspace bodies become avatars and where they can interrelate in disembodied way. But it is also the location of the final bleeding edge, where even the avatars eventually find themselves standing at the lip of a digital abyss that does not, nor cannot, resolve itself into a meaningful goal, where form gives way to chaos and reality leaks out into endless plurality—either that or nothing.

Maxine goes to the Archer for answers but also for sanctuary.Out there (or rather in there) she converses with an avatar, who claims to be on a mission to the edge of the universe, but who is also pissed off about the commercialization overtaking the space:

All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted.  Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable.  And that’s where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the un-navigable, the region of no information.

 

What she’s talking about is the fact of being driven out and to the furthest edges of her digital Eden, driven out of her sanctuary by the craven masses and that there may be some positive result to such a flight. The idea, that one can plumb the digital depths, or as one character puts it, “douse the Void,” until you reach the end of information is repeated numerous times in the novel when the subject of Deep Archer comes up. Indeed, the object of the Archer may be precisely to arrive at this ambiguous frontier of space/time. As one avatar puts it: “the edge of the great abyss . . . far from an absence, it is a darkness pulsating with whatever light was before light was invented.”  Maxine, in one of her explorations, finds herself watching, “the unfolding flow of the starscape, Kabalistic vessels smashed at the creation into all these bright drops of light, rushing out from the singular point that gave them birth, known elsewhere as the expanding universe.”It is interesting here how Pynchon has linked light to information and that there is in fact an information horizon that we can (hope to?) reach, be it via outer or inner space, a frontier where we can look over and find peace from all the enmity that definition and categorization brings.  This light could be said to be literally nothing but pure potential, but it is also a place to escape to, which is why so many of the characters seem to find themselves searching for it.  As one avatar asks herself, “how long I can stay just at the edge of the beginning before the Word, see how long I can gaze in till I get vertigo—lovesick, nauseous, whatever—and fall in.”

Pynchon seems to be saying that what awaits us is not necessarily the apocalypse of terrorism, but a kind of existential wasteland of ambiguous meanings, where we will each eventually find ourselves as if we arrived at the furthermost regions of the codeable universe, gazing into a void of reality. This may be a good thing if we arrive there by choice.  Or it may be forced upon us as a form of annihilation, because the wasteland will eventually impose itself on surface reality.  This is probably the most pertinent and possibly frightening message the book has to offer.

 

end

 

* For a guide to the characters see: http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=H

 

 

 

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Seven Postwar American Painters by Carl Watson

See It Loud: Seven Postwar American Painters@National Academy Museum Sept. 26 2013 to Jan. 26 2014

“See It Loud,” the aptly named current show of painting at the National Gallery Museum has been assembled by by Senior Curator for the National Academy, Bruce Weber Ph.D, (who is also the well known poet and poetry impressario). The exhibition showcases seven postwar (male) painters, and is roughly divided between figuration and landscape. All these painters have at one time or another been members of the National Academy, and the all works have been gathered from the collection of the Center for Figurative Painting on 35th Street which is devoted to postwar figurative artists. That said, this exhibition is based around the conflict between abstraction and representation, as faced by this generation of artists who came of age in the 40s and 50s (though many works date from later decades), and who faced the legacy of the abstract expressionists while at the same time seeing and seeking a set of broader possibilities. As the museum director, Carmine Branagan, puts it: “This group of painters all working during the post-war years and mostly in New York City emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and forged an original and dynamic synthesis between representational imagery and the principles of abstraction.” The divide between representation and abstraction was, at the time, more crucial in the art world than one might assume. Dr. Weber begins his catalog introduction by stating: “Many of the artists featured in this exhibition began their careers at a time when abstraction and representation were not only polarized in the American art world, but seemed irreconcilable. There was very nearly a moral dimension to the opposition between the two aesthetics,” and painters were expected to choose an allegiance. The painters in this show can be said to have crossed or disregarded that so-important aesthetic line. However, it can also be ambiguous what crossing such a line means in terms of the artist’s and the viewer’s experience. Do the works engender a sense of conflict or of fashionable comfort? Do we detect a rebellious disregard for the current dogmas of the art world, or rather a lack of commitment, an aesthetic of indecision? Are we looking at exploration or a kind of cover-all-bases complicity? Is synthesis or abandonment the primary gestalt here? Knowing the context of the show, my inclination, as an outsider, i.e., a viewer with no art historical background, was to discern, as best I could, where and how that conflict manifest itself. Thus what follows are capsule impressions without authority whatsoever to back them up.

Leland Bell (1922-1991)

Bell’s large canvases depict, at least in this exhibition, domestic scenes. The figures are boldly outlined and the colors, strong and aggressive. His “representational” pretense can be seen as a scrim of sorts over a more abstract reality that seems to pressure the surface the scene from underneath or behind, as if chaos sought to press through and assert its fragmentational influence over the structural order of domesticity. The bold outlines thus serve, or defend, order against that underlying chaos. In fact, one can see Bell’s reoresetational forms re-purposed as a kind of armor plate in an anxious reality. And the figures in Bell’s painting do seem to be acting out, on a quotidian level, some meta-physical strife as virtually every scene seems to revolve around some sort of drama, perhaps ritualistic, which the viewer can only surmise, or as one critic put it: “daily existence at the level of myth.” This tension of violence under domesticity is nothing new but is rendered by Bell with gestures that remind me Blake’s tortured and yearning figures. One curious note: often the scene is punctuated by the presence of an animal—a dog, cat or bird—that seems to act as the catalyst for a drama that likely has nothing to do with it; the animal becomes a contrasting irritant to the emotional human world precipitating the scene.

Tribes 1

Leland Bell, Morning II, 1978-1981. Acrylic on Canvas. 89 1/4 X 68 ½

Paul Georges (1923-2002) Georges, like Bell, is a figurative painter, but his subject matter is primarily the artist himself, the man “as painter” facing the representational question: how does one render this world in a meaningful way and why bother. For Georges it seems that the question is the meaning. A number of the paintings here are self-portraits: we see Georges standing in his studio before his easel or his model, in an act of self-inquisition or doubt. Even when the focus is not himself, Georges’s question is present: in “Scene at the Cedar Tavern” artists being artists is the subject. But of course in the corner we see Georges staring out at the viewer drawing attebntion to his personal dilemma. (A group of the artists in this exhibition hung around at the Cedar Tavern which is at least part of the reason why abstraction weighed heavily on their aesthetic.) One might say that abstraction enters these paintings here like a miasma, an aura of the past that colors the present, a darkness borrowed from Dutch grotesques or moldering cubist works that must be reaconed with. Even when Georges is focussed only on his model, his nude subjects staring back, with a certain look as if to ask “So Paul what are you going to do with this?” a question that can be read both as a taunt and as a demand for identity on the artist’s part. Georges is also drawn to allegorical subjects and the title of the painting, “The Mugging of the Muse,” with a simple change of definition, could cover his entire oeuvre as represented here, i.e the artist mugging for his own eye, the artist as his own muse.

Tribes2

Paul Georges, Artist in Studio, 1963. Oil on Linen. 80 1/4 x 70 ¼

Peter Heineman (1931-2010) The obsession with self-representation brings us to the work of Peter Heineman, who at least in this show is obsessed with his own head. In fact, most of the paintings are titled “Head.” The viewer walks into a room full of portraits of the artist’s blue-eyed head done with wide thick brush work, lines verging on abstractions, and most noticeably, bold colors verging on florescent. Many of the portraits have a distinct otherworldly glow, especially Heineman’s eyes, which seem back-lit light a computer screen. This is meant, I suppose, to indicate the fire of identity, but it can also be read as the utterly indifferent mechanics of the computational mind churning out the character each of us believe we are. In fact, Heineman does see these portraits as a dialogue with himself over time, a chronology or map of characters he has played in his life: “a parade of the human condition gleaned from facets I found in myself: murderer, pimp, panderer, liar, charlatan, dufus, deviate, failure, prideful pompous ass, slothful braggart, false prophet, whimp ….” The self for Heineman seems to be an ever-changing entity, caught up in a feedback loop with itself and rolling backwards and forwards in time.

Tribes 3 Peter Heineman Head, 1987. Oil on Canvas/linen. 28 x 28

Neil Welliver (1929-2005) With Welliver we are solidly in the realm of the landscape: mountain vistas, barren fields, rocky hillsides, woodland streams viewed through tangles of foliage. There is an elevating, uncongested quality to these works; they are full of skylight, natural color, and fresh cold clean air. Such imagery would seem the antithesis of the molecular and subatomic warrens of abstraction. But it is in “the landscape” that we might look for commentary on the relationship between representation and abstraction. After all, it has been claimed that abstraction is, in fact, an extension of landscape painting. Cross your eyes as you look at the world and you can make it happen, or use your perspective as a framing device and simply move in so close, or out so far, that your personal and cultural definitions become irrelevant. Every line, every form, will eventuallyt dissolve under the pressure of scrutiny. However, it is also possible to claim that such paintings as these question the very idea of abstraction, i.e does abstraction exist as a genuinely separate truth. Can forms and relationships be created that cannot also be found in nature? In the infinite complexity of our physical world that prospect is doubtful. Nature already provides all abstraction, especially if you strip away the human context. Abstraction is merely the imaginations grasping at the yet unseen, or in the case of Welliver, the making of the seen into the unseen, which is the artist’s job. Tribes 4

Neil Welliver, Midday Barren, 1983. Oil on canvas. 96 x 96

Paul Resika (b. 1928) In the paintings of Paul Resika we see landscape that is in fact constantly crossing over into the “abstract.” Resika, in this show, is a painter of boats, beaches, piers, water side scenes. Sails and moons are some of his main subjects rendered with a Klee-like playfulness coupled with a Gauganesque exoticism. The viewer immediately understands that these shapes, and the vistas they inhabit, are only excuses for the painterly play. Thus with Eresika, the painter , a man who wished to “escape the tyrrany of things,” we get only a hint of the “represented,” object, left to float or dangle against a background of bright color that alternates per canvas between hot reds and oranges or cool blues and greens. As Weber writes: “Boat and building-like forms morph into hot and radiantly colored geometric shapes, including rectangles, triangles, squares and circles which are flushed against a background field of bold monochromatic color.” Resika’s world is ungrounded, water born or air born, and the “things” in it are suspended in a frozen moment of perpetual motion. Where the curvature of organic forms such as branching tree limbs of a woman’s body appear, they are absorbed into the angular world, what one critic called: “the vastness of the plane of the sky against the elusive assertion of the sea,”

Tribes 7 Paul Resika, Moon and Boat (Pendulum), 2003-2007. Oil on Canvas. 81 x 65"

Stanley Lewis (b. 1941) Some of my favorite paintings in the show are the landscapes of Stanley Lewis. From a distance they seem to be typical representations of small town streets: houses, telephone lines, foliage. But even at a distance one detects a troubling, almost oppressive density and, something else—a disturbed surface that roils the scene. Getting close to the painting the viewer realizes that the painted surface is in fact a landscape unto itself, separate from what it “represents.” The thickly layered paint has hills and valleys that command the eye while contradicting what appears on the surface. Lewis is known for cutting away whole sections of the paintings in order to redo a square inch here or there. Eber describes it this way: “During the course of creating his painting he builds up the surface, cuts it pieces it together, scrapes away some details and even entire regions. Areas of thick impasto lie adjacent to sections splattered with light delicate strokes. Some of the surface is five or more layers thick and so densely covered with paint that portions buckle or swell, so that the surfaces of his canvases are full of concavities and convexities.” One critic speaks of a sense of “Cubist dislocation.” And it is true that normal perspective goes haywire and the scene that seemed so quotidian and comforting starts to suggest but a scrim, a trompe l’oeil on the surface of a turbulent reality. What we think we see or know becomes an illusion but not necessarily a frightening one. Indeed, there is a sensuous quality to the thick curving surface of paint that invites inspection as does the endless depth of the forest floor, a moss covered and time eaten stone, the roiling green of the deep sea, or the body of a lover.

tribes 8 Stanley Lewis, Two Houses in Leeds, 2004. Oil on Canvas. 17 x 21 3/16"

Albert Kresch (b. 1922) Another landscape painter, Albert Kresch, is my my second favorite in the show. Kresh paints landscapes that are low and flat and seem like geological slices or layered mood sandwiches made of accretions of light and time. Weber tells us that the paintings are “organized around the interplay of subtle plastic rythms and resonant bands of color,” Though the paintings are small they seem to stretch horizontally in all directions, suggesting space and time. Kresch paints the land in the light of transition – twilight, and he is a wizard with the unique color justapositons of these transitional times. Black forms highlighted by sunlit patches of grass or water. The skies often mirror the land and are subtly done with an eye to augmenting the transitional mood. Buildings such as they are exist as soft boxes, and human figures are seen as ghostly blurs. Some critics have called Kresch’s work “jazzily geometric,” or “off balance,” or “off kilter.” I don’t see such descriptions applying to his landscapes, however, rather there is a rolling eroticism to ghis landscapes – an erotics of the tempted eye, that is more romantic, impressionistic than aggressive or disorienting.

tribes 9 Albert Kresch, Landscape #4, 1993. Oil on Canvas. 11 1/2 x 26"

One of the interesting qualitiess of the show, as Bruce Weber has arranged it, is that though each artist seems to be represented by a particular period and style of their work, there are inclusions of from earlier or later periods to provide contrast. The show catalog has even more of this development.

All these artists pay their homage whether willingly or not to the earlier generation of modernists: impressionists, expressionists, cubists, futurists, abstract expressionists. Some of the flavors and moods I detected were those of Matisse, Cezzane, Gaugin, Klee, Picasso, Albers, Mondrian, Bonard, Arp, Munch, Roualt. But each of the painters have developed a distinct style of their own. Bruce Weber has done a great job with this show and the National Academy Museum is a great place to see it, an old-school museum with an atmosphere of integrity and quiet that contrasts positively to the circus chaos of its neighbors on museum row. “See It Loud” runs until Jan 26th. You’ll find something there to inspire.

reviewed by Carl Watson

A review of Ryo Toyonaga

At

The Vilcek Foundation 

        Disclaimer: As a part-time reviewer of many things, but with critical knowledge of almost nothing, it is my wont to preface every review with a disclaimer:  I know nothing.  I begin nowhere and if I end up somewhere—fine.  For me, the process is all, and for that I can only beg your indulgence.   As a crutch I often eavesdrop on the conversations of people around me.  I record their reactions,1 adopt or discard their words and phrases, merge them with my own, to create a kind of running narrative of the art-viewing experience.  Much of what I feel or think may have to do with other contingencies in my life: diet, sleep deprivation, mass transit delays, and various prevailing obsessions.  That said, I don’t get a lot of work reviewing art. 

I wanted to review this show partly for the reason that it connects with those aforementioned contingencies.  Lately I have developed a renewed interest in the lingering effects of atomic bomb imagery and psychology.   This is largely due to current personal projects, some of which include an archeology of the 50s and 60s paranoia.  Also, I recently watched the opera Doctor Atomic—a couple of times, actually.  Old neural pathways were stimulated.  Perhaps I should have stopped the process but I did not.  And, well, let’s just say Ryo Toyonaga’s work had “affinities” which I appreciated.  The work took me back to a long ago bohemian past when I used to get drunk in the afternoon and watch Spectre Man reruns on TV. It was an apathetic ritual intended to kick start the creative process.  That might have been an illusion.  I was living in Chicago at the time, trying to be a poet.  I was barely employed.   I am barely employed now, and the atomic bomb reveries have returned—perhaps being neurologically connected to feelings of failure and imminent doom—what some psychiatrists call the landscape of my personal idiom.  My current shrink does not use such language.  He just writes prescriptions—and I thank him for that.  But enough about me.

This is not normally work that I would seek out, being earth-toned as it is, and suggestive of pottery-class art projects.  It does have a familiarity about it, like something seen before, in some other show somewhere in Soho or Woodstock by some other person who makes clay shapes for attention.  However, on quickly touring the room, I found my biases confused as my mind traveled from association to association, some surprising, some predetermined—wasp’s nests, wooden shoes, walnut shells, polyps, plumbing, storage pots, rat-tails, granite, construction putty, cranberries, cartoons, beetle larvae, and starfish.  It was as if I were searching for reference points in much the same way that the objects themselves seemed to be searching for something in me—reaching out via their odd appendages for something to latch onto in my memory.  In fact, the more I watched the objects, the more I felt I was being watched by them, as if each one had the uncanny ability to draw a bead on my reaction.  And yet they were indifferent for all that.  I realized then that the room was bubbling in a sense, and not just with the voices of other humans but with a subterranean jocularity issuing from the objects themselves. Toyonaga’s work is inhabited by a spirit that may be human or animal but is always animated and whimsical.  There is a certain jokey innocence evident in the poses, and I say pose here to show just how many of these objects seem to come off as characters, not the laughing characters of cartoons and advertising, as sinister as that may be, but deeper, darker, psychopompian, if I can use such a word.  In fact, they seemed to function as psychic stepping stones into the past: first to those aforementioned Spectre Man drinking binges, enjoying the afternoon antics of men if rubber monster costumes destroying cardboard cities, and; second, even further back, back to the drainage canals and open sewers of my boyhood in Northern Indiana, a place of infection, mutation and primitive forms. 

I have mentioned a certain posturing for attention in Toyonaga’s sculptures, which may well be related to an insecurity of form, an indecisiveness of nature that renders the object rather impotent, or at least indecisive, transitional.  These objects all seem to be between; they are between states of being, between stone and flesh, between life and death.  There is a seediness to the work, and I am not speaking of moral character, but rather a layered and continuously erupting dynamic evoking both violation and gestation, a rupturing or peeling away of the shell or sheath that exposes under layers of embryonic mud-flesh or metal mucous, be it over-ripe or petrified—as if these were the cracked seeds of some hideous accident, some useless bio-industrial life form.  In many of these objects, what looks like a faucet handle (or steering wheel) is inserted, along with other plumbing-friendly fixtures (pipes, spigots) as if some fluid needed to be drained or channeled.  All this irrigation equipment is indicative of a flow running through the collection, a flow that has something to do with body and something to do with the building the body inhabits.  In fact, Toyonaga’s fixation with plumbing binds the pieces in a common architecture of ruin and renewal—the latter being a mutant renewal, unholy, unhuman, or as the show title suggests, Mephistophelean.

But it’s not all fun as I seem to make it sound.  The various orifices of these objects might be sphincters or they might be gun muzzles depending on your disposition.  Some of the work is vaguely militaristic.  One piece reminded me of a German gun bunker packed in mud and jammed into the jaws of a clam shell made of Catskill granite. Another looks like a drivable eyeball in a sandstone gourd fronted by a set of clay tentacles, reticulated like flexible electrical conduit. Some of the work is less aggressive, more larval.  One piece resembled a large trilobite-like creature, rolled over on its back like a cat and inviting the onlooker to tickle its belly.   Most of the objects look as if they are meant to move, but aren’t quite sure what medium they should be moving through. The appendages thus evolved seem arbitrary, useless, but that doesn’t stop them from flailing about, or otherwise functioning as attention-getting devices, perched upon their white display pedestals, hailing the hapless aesthete.  Combined with this impotent aggression, is what might be deemed a compensatory parasitism.  They seemed to want to attach themselves to something inside me, and not with good intent, but more like a worm one might pick up while swimming among the animalcules of the unconscious.  Toyonaga does claim the “deep sea of the collective unconscious” as the source of his creativity, and obviously, he wishes to spread the infection.  And indeed I had the impression that some of these objects were not unlike something a doctor might discover on an x-ray of the inside of my intestines as he speaks in hushed tones to the nurse on the other side of the hospital room and they both look over at me with a combination of pity and horror in their eyes.

Another influence on Toyonaga’s work was the landscape of the Catskill mountains, since he spent some time there.  And this was a point of connection.  I myself have many Catskill Mountain memories and associations, but mine have more to do with the Hudson Valley School of Romantic Painting, people like Thomas Cole and his crowd.  More particularly, I remember one night when me and my friend Rudy re-enacted a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” with a bottle of Baker’s bourbon, some special cigarettes and several hours of conversation that would probably make no sense today.    But enough of romanticism.  Toyonaga gave me a new lens on that old landscape— and the Catskills do seem old, old and used, worn down by endless rivers and rain, and inhabited many times over and over.  Walking in the woods, you see the evidence of past life everywhere, revealed in layers of field stone prodding up out of the earth and sometimes manifesting in confections of jagged rock, wood, moss, insect nests, car batteries and occasional beer cans. Having dug often in that stony ground, I am also familiar with the rusted bits of ancient farm implements, oxidized into strange shapes and encrustations.  I was going to quote William Blake here, some lines from the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” about the genius loci, or the spritus mundi.  But I am thinking more about David Lynch’s Eraserhead, or the Japanese cult classic Iron Man.  I should thank Toyonaga for this fresh paranoid way of appreciating the landscape, as my walks in the woods will now be full of a new anthropo-zoomorphic landscape anxiety.

Toyonaga, I figured, surely must have been inspired by the atomic monsters that waddled through the cities and fields of those old TV shows, with their glued on spikes and their odd combinations of appendages and their flesh of married metal and stone and paper mache that could only be the result of nuclear fusion.  Coincidentally, as I was hurriedly writing down this “insight” in my composition book, a gallery guide approached and gently ushered me towards an “upstairs room” where there was supposedly a “video” playing that would augment my understandingof the show.  I assumed she was just trying to get the weird writing person out of the public eye, so the other guests would not feel uncomfortable.  But there really was a video; it was a compilation of 60s Japanese monster shows like Spectre Man (in this case it was Ultraman). I was quite pleased with the entertainment and watched the tape through several reruns.

But, enough.  I could go on, but I make the art viewing experience too subjective, which kind of makes writing a review pointless.  Besides, after I had made all these notes and wrote most of this review, I got around to looking at the show catalog which, along with large beautifully reproduced color plates, contains an essay written by curator Midori Yamamura, from which I got the historical background and contemporary context I was sorely lacking.

“The superficiality of today’s Japanese culture,” wrote Takashi Murakami, in his ground-breaking 2005 exhibition catalog, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, “is a collective effort to transform Japan’s horrendous experience of nuclear annihilation.”  According to Murakami, a second generation post-World-War II Japanese artist (b.1962), this repressed, morbid anxiety of the war continues to haunt postwar Japanese art and popular culture, a phenomenon similar to what Sigmund Freud described in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.”   

The essay goes on to discuss repetition-compulsion syndrome and the idea of art as explosion. Yamamura’s essay is enlightening; especially for her insight into US/Japan post-war relations and the suppression of certain types of imagery in the spirit of capitalism and good relations with the West.  As to the influence of Japanese TV shows or pop culture, the artist himself, surprisingly, denies such associations, or at least any explicit borrowing, claiming his amorphous sculptures come from a deeper place, and that they carry no message, “explicit or implied.”    Just like I was saying.

“Ryo Toyonaga: Mephistophelean” is on view from March 18th, 2009 to May 15 2009, at The Vilchek Foundation, 167 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021.  The Vilchek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilchek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia.  The mission of the foundation, to honor the contributions of foreign-born scholars and artists living in the United States was inspired by the couple’s careers in biomedical science and art history, respectively, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation for the opportunities they received as newcomers to this country.

www.vilcek.org  

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Notes:

1        One person was struck by a certain similarity to Buddhist sculpture.

2        Spectre Man was a half hour show in which the hero, did regular battle with gigantic monsters that seemed to be forever rising out of the sea or some landfill, hell bent on destroying Tokyo.  It was most notable for the absurdly faked sets and the rubber monster suits.

3   I used to have dreams of the Bomb rattling around in the ventilation ducts of my house, after which it would fall from some vent in the ceiling onto my plate, sit there for a minute and then explode leaving me floating above the world in a partially fragmented state, knowing I was dead.  

A review of the opera, Doctor Atomic

by

Carl Watson

The subject of John Adam’s opera, Doctor Atomic has been close to my consciousness and my heart most of my life, having been raised in the age of the fall-out shelters, air raid drills, duck-and-cover exercises.  In the 50s and 60s we lived with the constant threat of “The Bomb.”  It informed everything from our ideas of love (doomed love, uncommitted love, serial monogamy) to our concept of the future (no future, apocalyptic future).  Our entertainment was inhabited by monsters that were scared up out of the blood-red radioactive depths of the sea, and giant atomic men who roamed the cinematic landscape crushing cars in their fists while their faces melted like great decaying billboards for the end of time.  These were, of course, projections of the demons that inhabited the individual and collective psychology.  They were the products of atomic mishaps, human errors and human hubris, experiments gone woefully wrong or successful atomic explosions that had ugly unpredicted results.  Ultimately all this mayhem produced many a pessimistic and cynical psyche, something that is both reviled and sadly missing in today’s happy media climate full of good Friends and Manola Blonics addicts, the kind of people you see crawling the streets of the Lower East Side today.

I have been revisiting the early 60s of my youth lately as part of my studies, and Doctor Atomic came around just in time, as so often happens, when my private obsessions soon become those of the culture at large, or vice versa. Doctor Atomic, like other new operas, takes on a rather controversial and not necessarily romantic subject.  Commissioned as a modern Faust, Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books more accurately calls it a modern Frankenstein.  The other new opera I am thinking of is, of course, the Fly, which takes place in a similar time.  Both The Fly and Doctor Atomic deal with versions of the Mad Scientist myth and the quest for the cosmic dream of power.  For any number of reasons, which I will not elucidate here, the time is apparently right for the resurrection of this typically B genre in high art. 

Unlike The Fly, Doctor Atomic especially has garnered all kinds of validating attention. The CUNY Grad Center where I endlessly inhabit the library, recently held a veritable Doctor Atomic festival with learned seminars and atomic wine tastings, etc.  Every publication in this city has already reviewed it so there is really no need for yet another review, especially since, in large part, I tend to agree with Mendelsohn’s opinion.  (One wonders why it is reviewed there since it is not a book, but this question is beyond my reach.) 

Mendelsohn sees the weaknesses of the Met version mainly in its lacking the dynamic of the earlier (San Francisco) staging.  I contend that the Met version is an improvement, although it does not mitigate the fundamental flaws of the work. Mendelsohn says the “ambitions curdle too often into pretensions,” and I would not argue with that.  However, I don’t find Adams’ music nearly as interesting as most critics; I will admit, however, that it is far more evocative when you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, a problem I will address later.

The San Francisco (SF) version, which Mendelsohn prefers, is more dance-oriented; men in casual dress (polo shirts and khakis) sport a lightness of foot that seems, to me at least, inappropriate considering the subject. Mendelsohn likes the dance, he believes it grants an atomic motion to the staging.  Without any justification, I will suggest that such lightness perhaps relates to their moral elevation compared to the darker more somber villains of the warrior class, intent on using the bomb as a weapon. Perhaps my preference is based on my indifference to fleet-footed prancing about, but I like to think it is a matter of moral/philosophical tone. The Met’s version is indeed stiffer, which I interpret as based in group or choral motion, perhaps signifying group-think.  The contrast extends to the sets and staging. The SF landscape seems less stark, more colorful, while I would characterize the Met’s version as more noir, more sepia-toned. This difference, admittedly, is less one of fact than of memory, i.e., a projection of my memory, flavored by the monotone sets of 50s science fiction films, as well as a kind of stoic subscription to destiny by way of power. The costuming in the Met version also has a more noirish quality.  The prancing cast of the SF production gives way to stiff men wearing fedoras and suits who remind one of post-Depression gangsters pumped up on a sense of American world dominance and prosperity. Even the backdrop can be distinguished on symbolic grounds. The SF backdrop is a silhouette of painted mountains, red mountains of course, signifying I suppose, blood, whereas in the Met’s version the mountains are represented by a series of peaked sheets covering something hidden,  nature perhaps.  Or they may represent a fateful refusal to see.

Visual aspects aside, however, the biggest source of discord for me came from the core elements of words and music. Much of the libretto is delivered as recitation, which I suppose is common in contemporary opera, so it is hard to judge the performances as proper singing per se. The voices were good voices.  The character(izations) could even be said to have been good enough.  It was the meshing of the total that disturbed me -— as if all the pieces didn’t quite fit but were jammed together with an impending deadline in mind. The various elements of the opera did not seem to jibe for me; the music, on its own, without the singing would have been fine, and the singing might have been fine as well. My problem is where the music meets the libretto -—the cadence of the words never seemed to match where the music was going.  Words seemed to have been stuffed into a musical phrase that was just fine without it. In part this awkward quality is due to personal taste, especially in regards to the English language. I have never been a fan of English language operas, and this is because I can understand them.  Opera lyrics tend to be pretty corny, even downright dumb, and they have a lot more power if they are lost without translation, becoming part of the music.

This awkward quality is also due to the way the libretto was assembled.  Peter Sellars is credited with the libretto, which he admits he did not write but “collected” or rather pasted together out of other sources.  There is thus a lack of dramatic unity or narrative consistency -— it is an assemblage and it plays like one. The libretto is composed in part, of poetry: John Donne, Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita amongst others. Mendelsohn says that Adams’ settings of verse are generally “splendid.”  I disagree. It is, of course, great poetry but seemed out of place and out of sync.  Oppenheimer’s citing of Krishna/Vishnu’s famous lines from the Gita (I am Death, etc.) is certainly resonant but there is no dramatic context for it.  Oppie (Oppenheimer) simply breaks into this rather incongruous bit of religious citation.  The same holds true with Baudleaire’ poem about hair, which Oppie sings to his wife. And the Donne piece is to my thinking rather painful to watch or listen to.  “Batter My Heart Three Personed God,” is sung as if from a different opera altogether.  It seems to have been (like the rest of the found material) airlifted into the opera. Mendelsohn echoes my sentiment when he comments on another scene: “Oppie’s big aria of anguish feels like its been parachuted into the proceedings, and fails to suggest a persuasively textured personality.”  Exactly.  One can understand the religious relationships that Adams wants to create -— too bad it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, I found myself humming this Adams/Donne piece over the days to come. I did so as a joke on myself, a kind of Monty Python skit I was producing internally, but still such activity testifies that the piece had become a sort of brain worm you can’t get out of your head, which might be what Adams intended all along -— a psychological atom bomb.

And so lastly I mention the bomb itself -— looking something like an iron sphere salvaged from an old railroad engine factory.  The ball/bomb is in the complicated grip of some kind of electrical octopus made of wires and conduit passing through various hubs and junction boxes.  It is a fascinating and somewhat sinister object.  At first I thought it was a fanciful representation of the real thing, the product of some artist’s conception. Then I saw the photo of the real thing and realized the bomb really did look like that. Think of the human face as a ball of iron and all that wiring as an alien life form clamped onto the face getting ready to inject its own form of brain worm into human consciousness, that worm being the fear of catastrophic end times, and well that’s the picture I had in my mind even now long after the opera is over. 

Review of Carl Watson's "The Hotel of Irrevocable Acts" by Kevin Riodan

Do Tell HotelReview by Kevin Riordan

To read Carl Watson’s novel is to put on a pair of X-Ray glasses that do not stop at the skin, but go on to eviscerate instead of titillate, the literary equivalent of the Swedish film Travis Bickle takes his date to. From the first line, I thought I had a handle to grasp this book first published in French a decade ago: a new Jim Thompson, whose first person anti-confessionals were cherished in France and nearly neglected here, like so many other tough paperback original authors, like David Goodis, Chester Himes, or Charles Williams. This contrarian thwarted and eluded that grasp in no time. The book is as free of cliché as it is of guideposts, as he resolutely qualifies every line that might put things in the light, until, like diamonds in a seam of coal, he plants a gem of faceted brilliance[...]