Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Art Spaces: Soho, Storm King, Dia, MOMA, Serra

Some rude pigeon pooped on Parrot's laptop, infecting it with diseases of the most various and unpleasant sorts. Five or six anti-malware program downloads later, the Winged Blogger is back in action, though not quite out of the woods. (My taskbar and start button only work now if I run a shareware program that fixes them every time I log in.) Parrot proposes to revive several levels of Dante's inferno for the people responsible for these nuisances: Level 1 for idiots who think it is just fun to write stuff that screws up other people's systems; Level 2 for adware and spam moguls and people who help them; Level 3 for Sony and Google and other MultiInational Information Control Freaks who invade your privacy for a living... Level 7 for Microsoft, who sells you junk that is susceptible to these invasions. Okay, I squawcked my piece.

A few weeks back the culture vultures lit down in Soho and did the 90-minute gallery tour. It wasn't planned that way - the plan was to do the 3-hour Chelsea gallery tour. But you know about the best laid plans of birds and men. Parrot, who is proud to be able to boast of being an art pro (sui generis, that is - squawck!) was fairly surprised to find that there are still 90 minutes worth of galleries left in Soho, which used to be the mecca of the contemporary art world until the Dia Foundation set up shop in west Chelsea, and everyone else followed. (At least I think that's what happened, but you can probably find alternate NYC cultural histories if you look around.) But there you go, more galleries than I could squeeze into a short afternoon.

Parrot first flapped into Lumas, a recently opened purveyor of photographic color prints in "affordable" editions. I particularly dug the Julia Christes and David Burdenys, found the Stefanie Schneiders a bit too emotionally distant, and hated the laminated surfaces of most of the displayed stock. More German photographers than you can shake ein dreipod at. The staff at Lumas is quite helpful and will engage you in conversation until you almost want to buy a photograph to make them happy. At the Multiple Impressions gallery on Wooster St. we admired the work of a young artist named Jennifer Scott McLaughlin. These days, if you want to invest in art, you grab somebody as they're heading out the door of an art school, still in cap and gown, with diploma in one hand and graduate project in the other, and purchase their best work for the price of a Korean car. Then you go home and pray for the next three years that somebody important discovers them. At Franklin Bowles galleries on West Broadway we were impressed with Gottfried Salzmann's washed and overlaid urban landscapes. No newbie he, but perhaps not as well known as he might be - none of the online art info sites I know of have him listed.

We hit a few other galleries, taking in everything from some fairly dull sculpture (but was it supposed to come to a point?), a bit of tromp l'oeuil painting that seemed to move with you as you passed by, and some neato-neo-surrealist stuff of a roughly Sgt.Pepper-cover sort. If the Boids had a few bucks to throw around we'd have come home with enough to cover the limited remaining wall space in our nest. Unfortunately, we have to leave art collecting to those who can afford it, at least until another thousand or ten people start clicking on Parrot's illustrious Lamppost, and the Googs start sending me some greenbacks. Wait a minute, I am a greenback...

Anyway, having caught the art bug (yum) we decided to take a longer flight. This time the birds were drawn to a Beacon, specifically that Beacon along the Hudson River where Dia has set up shop in a big old factory. Last year we winged it to the famous sculpture garden at Storm King, where we were primarily impressed by Mark di Suvero's
delicately imposing forms. We liked di Suvero's idea that these towering sheet metal abstractions could repair man's damaged relationship to the environment, and perhaps even to one another. How, exactly, remained unclear, but I think it has something to do with the the fact that we can feel their tonnage as lightly as we feel a Calder mobile, poised vulnerably in their spaces and thereby establishing an equality with our fragile forms. Read Heidegger on technology and you might get a sense of how this could serve to halt our very concept of our own civilization and its endless quest to conquer the environment. (I really didn't set out to write about the Storm King trip, but it was one of the adventures that inspired me to start this blog. Took quite a while before the plan was realized.)

More or less across the water is Beacon. We lit on the Dia in the afternoon, and were barely in the door when we were confronted with two rooms next to one another, each about the length of a city block. These spaces contained Walter De Maria's The Equal Area Series, which consists of many pairs of two silvery shapes, a circle and a square, set one after the other. In each pair, the circle and square have equal areas. But the area of each set differs from that of the previous one, in such a way (according to the artist) that in one room, the pieces counteract the narrowing effect of distance, while in the other they enhance it. (I suppose if you make the unforgivable mistake of approaching the exhibit backwards the effects are reversed.) This opening salvo heralds one of the M&M themes of Dia: Math and Materials. Obsession with mathematical relations is everywhere, like you stepped through the door of a Pythagorean oracle. One artist after another is described as being "fascinated with numbers" or something like that, and the "conceptual" in their art is partly based on the philosophical that these mathematical relationships are solid and real and permanent, for all their abstraction. Like art. Tsa. (An expression one of my acquaintances used to use, meaning roughly "over and done with!" Parrots like expressions to be short and sweet.)

The mathematical theming of Dia's "conceptual" art is often reflected in the strongly geometrical nature of the works, which is nowhere more abundant than in Sol LeWitt's wall drawings. Sometimes entitled according their mathematical concepts, these unbelievably anal works cover entire large walls with finely ruled pencil markings. Ranging from simple ideas like "Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, covering the wall evenly" to complex concepts involving midpoints and arcs and whatnot, these works often shimmer with fantasized colors as our visual mechanisms try to come to terms with the unimaginable division of white spaces. Undeniably impressive, conceptual by definition, these works for me nevertheless seem closer to what is usually labelled "outsider art" - which is for the most part art by people with various DSM III illnesses - the ones who build incredibly detailed temples out of aluminum foil or cover the sides of barns with inscriptions that only they can decipher. One can imagine LeWitt, who has recently departed this life, trying in the next one to dig a hole to China with a spoon.

In fact, Michael Heizer has supplied Dia with something of a beginning to this project, a large space composed of four large, variously shaped holes in the floor. The holes might well be the result of surrounding another of Dia's illustrious art spaces with concrete - I mean Richard Serra's towering curved walls. These rusted metallic sculptures have become something of an artworld icon. Serra is touted as "a titan of sculpture, one of the last great modernists" - by no less than NY Times art critic Michael Kimmelman (6/1/07 p.E25). Serra is all over the place these days, with a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), a large permanent installation at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (you know, the art space designed by that other ubiquitous supporter of steel prices, Frank Gehry) and plenty of recent exhibitions at major spaces like
the Gagosian Gallery. Serra's work is sometimes explained in terms of its psychological origin, e.g., that he worked in steel yards. The artist himself has pointed to his experience seeing the hull of a ship raised as the origin of his ideas. That is interesting, but of course nobody outside the Duchamp school looks at rusted ship hulls as art, so the next stop is to talk about the fact that you need to move around in Serra's works to observe them, or that it is not physically possible to take in an entire work at once. "They're too complicated; from the outside you don't know what the inside is like, and vice versa", says Kimmelman in his review, adding that really "there is no inside or outside". That's good, but the same is true of the shell of a condemned building. Which might be made into art - through murals, graffiti, photography, etc. - but I don't think anyone is inviting graffiti artists to help out Serra's iron maidens.

What the critics are getting at is that Serra's work forces observers to use their imagination - to envision the work in their "mind's eye" even though it is right there in all its massive ferrous presence (or is it ferric? neither, I think; thank god for high school chemistry). As Kimmelman again puts it: "What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the sculptures, at a given moment, the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning" (p.E28). But in my HO, for a leading art critic to write this without blinking is pretty scary. Because this applies to not only abandoned buildings but any object under the sun. This is Duchamp (or George Dickie) aesthetics on stilts: it's art if you put it in a museum, and it says whatever you make it say, and it means what you want it to mean. Okay, thanks, Richard, Mike... Aesthetic Relativism 101 is dismissed, see you next week.

This is not some isolated issue about the value of recent works by one contemporary artist. Serra's Tilted Arc (1981) is often pointed to as a turning point in the debate over public art. His description of the work matches pretty much what we have been talking about:
"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes." ( Serra's work was eventually removed and destroyed by court order. This criminal act of "justice" was clearly based on the idea that public complaints about the inconvenience of walking around Tilted Arc and other lowbrow issues carry more weight than our cultural heritage, even when ithe latter consists of several tons of steel. But the travesty of judicial idiocy and the closed minds of Federal Plaza secretaries do not settle the question: what is the value of this art? For if it indeed has no meaning of its own then I don't see why anyone should give a hoot whether it was removed or not. Somebody put it there; somebody can take it away. Why did they put it there? There had better be a reason.

This reason is not provided by the relativist idea that art is just a kind of prop
that you use to "play games of make-believe", as Kendall Walton puts it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a poem, "A Coney Isalnd of the Mind", which begins with a war image from Goya and then paints a picture of suburban post-War America in which he imagines the insipid images of billboards and superficial suburban bliss as a re-enactment of that suffering in a different form. A "Coney Island of the mind" is what Walton and Kimmelman seem to think art is; a Torqued Ellipse is a good place to play splatter-paint games with your imagination. But Ferlinghetti's poem suggests that Coney Island is a troubled place and the artist is not a roller coaster operator but a tightrope walker without a net: he is "constantly risking absurdity/and death/whenever he performs/above the heads/of his audience"; moreover he must do this "all without mistaking/ any thing/ for what it may not be" (#15). Roughly: art uses our illusions of who we are to reflect back to us who we really are: our sometimes ghoulish, soulless banality, our paranoia, our inhumanity.

Now my guess is this: Serra's superficial description of Tilted Arc does not reveal his true hand as an artist; that, rather, partly comes out in his response to its demise:
"I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people" (same source). Certainly not from the 20th century onward. Art is not democratic, and it does not therefore suggest that whatever we think it means, then by definition, that's what it means. It is not an amusement park of the mind. It is a tightrope act, and with Tilted Arc, Serra did not so much fall as he was knocked down by the chorus of boos from people whose culture is defined by the Burger King across the street. But I don't know what poses the greater danger: these inanities from below, or the relativist interpretations from above. Serra's works are terrifying, they threaten to fall, they threaten to capture and destroy you, they separate you from your sense of direction and balance and purpose and wrap you in mystery. They are metallic forms of vertigo; they separate spaces from one another so that you cannot rejoin them with your senses, and the fact that you can do so with your imagination is small consolation for their disorienting message. They mean precisely what they are, and precisely not what you want them to mean.

But no great art is so one-dimensional as to have merely a negative meaning
. In the fact that they do not fall, that they do not trap and destroy you, that they do, as Serra says, respond to changes in your viewing position, they reintroduce a kind of humanism just when it all seemed to be headed down a black spiral vortex. You can touch these works; you can smell them; you can even hear them. Consciousness is vast, strange, confusing; perception is local, tangible and more or less well-behaved. The small grain of truth in the relativist perspective is that it is up to each of us to take what opportunities we can to restore what we have lost. And what is that? Perhaps the innocence that fled as the modern era of communication, transportation, nuclear nightmare and genocide unfolded. Serra's sculptures are the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration, shards of our existence left when all is destroyed. But they are just as much the prevision of that event, allowing us to reflect on it before it happens. They are the walls that separate us but also the smooth curves that let us flow together; the shadow over us, and the noir film that still lights the theater - and which we can edit by wandering through the theater. Like Mark di Suvero, his enormous, desnse compositions can be taken to Coney Island, where they have no weight at all. They give us the present as it is, but also the future as it might be. The former we can't control; the latter is all up to us. (Anti-Relativism 201 is dismissed.)

Serra is one of the outstanding examples of the second of Dia's two themes, the aesthetic use of the sensual properties of materials. Throughout Dia we find materials speaking for themselves: piles of broken glass, enormous stones, the color variations of sheet metal and the tree ring patterns on plywood. Donald Judd is another highly influential exponent of this school, and he is represented here in part by an installation of plywood boxes. Their polished surfaces undulate with natural tree-ring patterns that seem to express some sort of pulsating energy inside. Having just bantered about Serra I'm not going to do Donald Judd right now (or maybe ever) but the two of them sort of lead the second pack: the material guys. And what does all this have to say? Think about it: you've got the math guys, and the material guys. Mathematical relations are usually thought of as being immaterial, but fixed, unchanging. Stone and wood and glass appear to be extremely hard, solid but in fact they are transitory. The fixed immaterial and the transitory material... what binds them together in Dia, the postmodern space par excellence? The fact that the artist submits, in part, to qualities that exist outside, beyond her control; and this is the window through which the observer, in all his relativistic exuberance, can enter and direct - up to a point. The observer can bind to the works through the universality or apparent permanence, but must then try to understand how the artist means to use these properties.

That is, if the "art" is really worth anything, the artist does not merely assemble and sign off. Something is being said here, otherwise it ain't art - or if you prefer, it ain't good art (and this sentence either ain't English or it ain't good English). One thing I insist on is that mere flowery descriptions of Serra and his aesthetic, or Donald Judd and his, or Gerhard Richter and his grey glass, or Robert Smithson and his, such as we find in much superficial art criticism and commentary, does not make it art/good. The works say something or they don't, and if not, goodbye. What they say doesn't have to be obvious, or discernible without the artist's input. Part of what made me appreciate the Di Suveros was a film on his work that was showing at the main building at Storm King. Di Suvero makes no pretense, as some artists do, that his work has no meaning. People have meaning; people who do art funnel their meanings through artistic expressions, and filter them through the conventions of the artworld. Never believe artists who says their work has no meaning; or rather, treat this pretense as just another part of their art.

I should not leave Dia without mentioning that there are some rooms there that do not seem especially indebted to mathematerials. Then again, paint is a material, a point that I'm sure is not lost on Donald Judd or his school. There are paintings here that appear to be solidly in the abstract tradition - a stunning space full of Agnes Martin's work, large, striped canvases of washed-out pastel colors, with names like "Love", "Happiness", "The Sea", and - most commonly - "Untitled". Sometimes life makes one want to just crawl inside one of these works and fall asleep. At the other end of the color spectrum lie the much smaller works of Blinky Palermo, whose installation consists of several canvases collectively entitled "To the People of New York City". Their iridescent reds and yellows (labelled "cadmium") bring to mind another straightedged homage to the Big CrabApple, Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie". I'm afraid I don't really see any conceptual relationship between these works and the Dia's M&M artists. Though there is plenty of bridge work: Warhol, for example, whose silkscreen method is in a way a median between the deliberate application of paint and the appropriation of existing materials; or the amazing chamber of John Chamberlain, whose metallic sculptures are largely obtained from automobile junkyards, but in some cases offer stunning bursts of color. Color here is not a property of the material - but then again, it is, insofar as the material is an already painted object. The colors appear to say: "We are not Art Museum Colors; we are not Mother Nature's Colors; we are Automobile Paint Shop colors! But we appear very natural, don't we? Are we worse just because we're different?"

Well, color is to mathematics as paint is to material. Or so it seems; but many philosophers, from John Locke on, have thought that color is merely in the mind of the beholder. That is, merely like beauty. A good, if somewhat relativistic, note on which to end this essay.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Spidey vs. Sandy and Gooey

Of course you're all waiting with baited breath for Spiderman and Philosophy, the inevitable next step from Open Court after The Matrix and Philosophy, James Bond and Philosophy, The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, etc. There are already 30 of these titles, with more to come, including, for example, Johnny Cash and Philosophy (hello?) and Soccer and Philosophy (a sequel to Bocce and Philosophy, no doubt). Superheroes and Philosophy (Open Court, 2005) has a lead article by Mark Waid, a former neighbor and friend of yours truly, the squawcking blogger, but it is not a big Spiderman production. (Mark is basically a D.C. guy, as far as I know. As attested to by the collection of Batman lapel pins I think I still have from a box of stuff he gave me.) Spidey the comic book character is way overdue his own philosophy book, and even in his Sam Raimi incarnation is now as grown up as Frodo or Neo. So why not Spidey and Philosophy? Stick it next to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and you've got your summer reading.

But why do people keep throwing rotten tomatoes at Sam Raimi's new flick? Are they jealous that they didn't get to suspend Kirsten Dunst 80 stories above a Manhattan sidewalk and drop large vehicles in her general direction? I don't think so... No, it's a little more than that. True, part of the problem here is that the story is going off in more directions than the particles at FermiLab, including, yes, a particle accelerator that somehow turns Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) into a mass of loosely bonded silicon, a.k.a., the Sandman. And let's not forget the self-propelled rubbery black goop from outer space (Dark Matter, anyone?) that is on a mission to attach itself in some form or other to Our Hero (Tobey Maguire) and change him into a vindictive schmuck who alienates everyone from Girlfriend (not you, Owl - the almost as lovely Dunst as Mary Jane) to the whole of Gotham City (whoops, wrong comic; even wrong publisher).

And there are ten or twelve subplots to supplement these themes, keeping the viewer in a state of constant anticipation until the very end, when (as it turns out) none of them are worked out very well. Marko, for example, became a naughty bank robber in search of money to pay for medicine for his sick daughter, who appears early in the film; and then, as Sandman,
he then joins up with a johnny-come-lately character called Venom to destroy Spidey; but the link between Marko's fatherly quest and Sandy's vengeance is awfully thin, and the unfortunate daughter drops out completely without resolution of her crisis. (I guess the kids who see this film are supposed to assume she just dies?) There are lots of other themes that sort of spin off the screen rather than leading to any useful fictional content.

Aside from the issues with the thematic content, the critics I read on Rotten Tomatoes were mostly riffing on a lot of technical issues with the special effects. But in my opinion the issue with them was not technical, but ontological. Sandy, for example, was technically well done; the problem is, what is he? He seems to accumulate body mass when he comes in contact with sand, and lose it in various ways, which include water, and, strangely enough, fire. Sand burns? At the temperature of lava, I guess, but from some ordinary scorchers that Harry fires from his flying skateboard? Maybe they were tactical nuclear weapons? Not too smart in the middle of Gotham City, Harry. But no matter what happens to Sandman, he always returns to good (?) old flesh-and-blood Flint Marko. The nukes hit the sand but missed Marko? Sometimes Marko seems to turn willfully into a sandstorm and drift away, as if he caught a tailwind and just sailed off. He comes, goes, falls apart, reappears - when he pounds Spidey he must be one pretty solid piece of beach, but then he melts like the Wicked Witch of the West. (She's just a bad dream after all, but... hey, Sandman, I get it, he's just here to put Spidey and his gal pal to sleep?)

In the end, this hunk of waterside real estate is so ontologically vague that you can't wrap your mind around him. You can say "lack of imagination", but I'll just come back with "imaginative resistance" -
this character puts you in a foul mood that makes you not want to let him be. Too much work. Stick him in an hourglass where at least he's got some contours. I'm sorry, but you have to be able to get inside a character to appreciate it. When I try to get inside Sandman I just fall right out the other side and rush off to rinse my face.

Now, as for Gooey - he's just as vague, if not self-contradictory. Gooey begins life in the manner described above, a gelatinous black thing that resembles two large arachnids having sex after crawling through an oil slick on the way up from the sewer. It is not only self-propelled, but self-motivated, at least more so than some of the people in my office. For it wants to attach itself to Spidey, as if to a soulmate, and tracks him down, eventually wrapping him up in a black version of the famous red-and-blue Spidey costume. It then bonds with him - not emotionally - well, yes, emotionally - and causes him to seek revenge for his uncle's presumed death at the hands of Marko, to destroy the shards of Mary Jane's singing career, and to upend the hopes of aspiring cub photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who wants to catch Spidey doing a no-no.

Time out. Said photographer plagiarized a photo and then doctored it to make it look like Spidey messed up. Why does it count as spiteful to set this guy on his ear? Anyway, so far Gooey is only a bit of obvious bad blood (people are not supposed to be vengeful, superheroes least of all) but things get very fuzzy soon enough. For one thing, Spidey's got a scientist friend who discovers that the jelly spider glop is a germ that can infect his blood. Right - so how is it that ripping off the black costume cures blood poisoning and its personality effects? Oh how symbolic, Spidey rips it off in a church, where some of it just happens to fall on the aforementioned would-be cub photographer. But since Cubby is already a vindictive bastard, what difference does it make? Well, never mind, he now turns into the Truly Evil Negative-Spiderman, so denoted by the fact that he has sharp fangs and is called Venom. How is it that the glop sought out Spidey like it was on a mission, but now it just happens to land a few floors below on Cubby, like some tar dripping from the roof on a hot day? Well, that's the last time we entrust an important mission to some semi-conscious gob of icky black latex.

So now, wearing the black-spidey costume, Cubby goes for Spidey's throat, but ends up... well, I can't give away everything. But of course he gets nailed, and not by antibiotics either. Gooey's morphology thus includes black goo from planet X, a gelatinous web that wraps itself around Spidey, a Spidey costume with personality flaws, a Venom costume with periodontal problems and an attitude, and finally some inanimate form that the world doesn't have to worry about anymore. Thanks, Sam - what's up next, the Pastrami Sandwich from Hell?

So there you have the real reason Spiderman 3 is a mess: ontological ambiguity! It ain't the technology, folks, it's what you do with it. Though the movie has its moments of visual interest, and occasionally tests our creativity in figuring out how Spidey will get out of this or that mess (literal and figurative), it is basically about two over-morphed bits of material and a bunch of loose ends.

Oh, did I mention the parallel jewelry thing? In a touch that makes the whole story just shy of Pynchonesqe ersatz non-randomness, Spidey (that is, Peter Parker) often clutches an engagement ring his aunt gave him, which he hopes to lay on Mary Jane, while Sandy clutches a locket his daughter gave him. I'll be darned if there isn't some good old-fashioned aesthetic device being offered here, but either its point is lost in the miasma of conflicting expectations and hanging judgments, or it's like I said, a Pynchonesque device to make us look for connections that just ain't there. True, we get forgiveness on various levels (have to, Spidey gave up the black goo in a church, after all!) and a few other sort of obvious emotional plays, but the overall feeling is not redemption, and there's too much baloney for any clear sense of resolution. Maybe Raimi should have tried a Fellini ending, with all the misfits and materials and biohazards meandering into a ballroom and doing a hora or something. It would not have solved either the ontological problems or the tangle of threads, but it would have been a substitute for closure - about the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

Oh, did I mention the bit about the pseudo-romance with Peter's classmate...? Harry's effort to avenge his father's death...? The butler who tells him how Dad really died...? The truth about how uncle was really murdered...? Auntie's counseling of Peter's amorous adventures....? The editor who wants to prove that Spidey is a fraud...? Oh, what the heck, just go see the movie, you know your kids are going to drag you there anyway. What do kids care about ontology and thematic dissipation? No more than they care about the banality of the dialogue. And neither should you, if you're just out for a night of glitzy fun. Just don't plan to take this film seriously.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Weick in Marx in Soho at Vox Pop in Brooklyn

That's a lot of nesting up there; but this is a Parrot's hangout after all!

Speaking of hangouts, where might a couple of feathered friends bide their time on a Saturday night (or just about any other) without straying too far from the nest? The local Dunkin Donuts? Unfortunately, in this neck of the woods, in can come to that. You see, this is the heart of Multicultural Brooklyn, where speaking Parrotese does not necessarily put you in the minority. Indeed, most businesses around here shut up as tight as a vulture's... err... grip, come sundown on Friday, and stay that way until pretty late Saturday night at the earliest. Though the Parrot shares some DNA with these folks, we do not appreciate the Friday/Sat night morgue routine (we could always touch down in Greenwood Cemetery if we were into that), so we are apt to take wing and find more welcoming venues.

And venue is just what we find when we drop in to Vox Pop, the only place this side of Park Slope that qualifies as a genuine Coffeehouse. Only this is not your run-of-the-mill yuppie joint with the $2.50 cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Well, okay - I guess it is about that much for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. That's the funny thing about Vox Pop, the name of which is short for "vox populi", the Voice of the People. I know, it sounds like a leftie tabloid from the '30's (or '60's). Which is, roughly what it is - updated a bit. The place was started a couple of years ago by Sander Hicks and some friends, though Sander is definitely the main presence there. Nothing if not a risk taker, Sander took over a small storefront on Cortelyou Road, a commercial strip that had all but faded into oblivion; where the one bookstore in the entire neighborhood could not make it, where you could count at one point 12 hair salons, 4 dry cleaners, and not one restaurant you'd want to stick your beak into. Now, I don't want to use a hysterical term like "renaissance", but there has been a noticeable pickup of commercial activity on this strip, which sits smack in the middle of a neighborhood full of expensive Victorian homes and not a few large apartment buildings. You'd think somebody would figure out that this is a potential goldmine - at least, it would be, if there were enough going on there to deter the locals from heading to Park Slope every time they need a toy for their kids or a Fine Dining Experience.

If it is headed towards "renaiassance" (or, ironically, gentrification), Vox Pop will have had a lot to do with it. To start with, they did an amazing, and amazingly quick, job of turning the space into a warm, welcoming little java joint - not crowded or cramped but a real homey feel, helped along by lots of natural wood grains. Kids dig Vox Pop (there's a play area); so do adults. So do parrots. But this is not yer ordinary Starbucks wannabe. They sell books, which seem to have 2 main themes: radical rock music, and radical politics. They have readings (by, you guessed it, radical writers), and they do self-publishing. They have music in the evenings, not all radical, but much of it inspired by either the Clash or Pete Seeger, depending on which night you happen to walk in. And they sell food. None of it cheap. They do have "free wifi" - the scare quotes indicating that "free" is to be interpreted here as meaning "please spend $6 an hour or else..." Or else what? Who knows, I guess you become a Vox Populi Persona Non Grata, at least if you speak Latin. The Open Mike is also free, but the 2 beers to cover the minimum will cost you $10. (Pay to Play, is that what it's called?) Well, let's put it this way - if you are already one of the converted, consider it a contribution, to whatever cause Sander happens to be promoting at the moment. And if you are not, I don't think you could stand the heat for very long. The Parrot long thought he was redder than a scarlet tanager, but at Vox Pop we have to perch in the loft to avoid getting into a harangue with some "9/11 Truth" type (a cause Sander actively promotes), or someone who wants Ralph Nader to run again. All the same, better this than listening to the discourse on the other side of the fence. (Question regarding evolution and Sam Brownback: does the evidence suggest that he more likely evolved from Neanderthals or Cretins? Could it be his ancestors were the evolutionary fork that leads to both? This would explain his position on Darwinism.)

So where was I? Vox Pop, the radical coffeehouse that is going to revive Cortelyou Road, expand into all major U.S cities within two years, and capture 10% of the multibillion dollar coffee market by selling Fair Trade coffee and locally brewed beer... Or not, but I am damn glad they started here. And one of the latest reasons I'm glad - I was starting to talk about what I did last Saturday night, wasn't I? - is Marx in Soho, the one-man, one-act play by Howard (A People's History of the United States) ZInn. Incidentally, he's the guy who wrote A People's History of the United States. Like Vox Pop, Zinn dared to tread where few had gone before, writing a lengthy, detailed account of U.S. history as seen not from the vantage point of the elite few who directed the show but the dispossessed, disenfranchised many who actually (come to think of it) built this country. And interestingly enough, he also wrote some plays, including this one. It has not been produced very often, at least until Robert Weick took it upon himself to learn the demanding solo part and promote the show to college campuses, small theatres, and radical coffeehouses like Vox Pop (possibly a class of one).

So what is it? Alright, I'm going to tell you, but you have to promise one thing - you won't like tune out, log off,
turn on the parrot filter, etc., until you give the idea a chance. Okay, ready? Here it is: Marx comes back from the dead to deliver a critique of contemporary Western society. All right, are you still with me? Good, because it's not quite like what it sounds. A little, but not cloyingly so. Marx comes back, for sure, granted a one hour reprieve by the Opiate of the People (Opius Populi?). And he does give us plenty of reason to believe that were he alive today he would bore us with what we already know if we are not comatose, that profits mean more than people under capitalism, that the Imperialist West supports its standard of living with wars to keep the Oppressed Nations down, that we stole half the country from Mexico, that America was built by immigrant labor who we repay with racism and immigration quotas, and other true clichés. (Dear Mr. Sarkozy, friend of the U.S., enemy of all that post-colonial riffraff that is filtering into your country, please focus on the "true" (vrai)", not the "cliché (cliché)".) But luckily for us, and for the possibility of this play getting performed without coming off preachier than an Easter sermon by Cardinal Egan, this is not what Mr. Weick spends the hour or so talking about.

In fact. Marx seems to have more to say about his boils than about politics, and even more to say about his wife Jenny and their daughters (mainly Elizabeth, though I think he had about 11 in all) than about his boils. He spends several amusing minutes discussing the slovenly persona of Mikhail Bakunin, the Godfather (ooh, would he hate that!) of anarchism. And he talks about the Paris Commune in terms that still manage to be moving 135 years later. There is a lot of history going on, good for the classroom crowd - especially today, when you can't assume that the average, educated 19 year old has the faintest idea what Marxism, communism, socialism, or just about anything else (other than iPodism) means. Marx of course decries the distortion of his views in the hands of the Soviet regime. He lambasts Stalinism (not necessarily by name) and declares (as did the historical Marx) that "I am not a Marxist" (though I can't say that Zinn's script brings out the meaning of this utterance very clearly).

In the end one is glad to have happened to be in Soho (sort of) when Marx dropped in. The performance alone was well worth the price of admission, which included, for $23, a politically correct burger, a small salad, and a damn good pint of some dark amber Dogfish Ale, which I must admit may have enhanced the play without any extra work on Zinn's or Weick's part. Typical Vox Popitis - Sander managed to get an article about the event published in the Times, emailed his constituency, and then had a line of patrons waiting for that PC burger, forcing them to start the play about 40 minutes late. When I came to buy a ticket a few days earlier the only staff person at the store had no idea there was a play, how to buy a ticket for it, how to handle the various discounts, or what the price of coffee is in Nicaragua. (Okay, I didn't ask that - maybe she did know.) Considering they run a printing press and have done performances before I thought it was a little odd that they didn't just print up some tickets. Oh well, organizing the revo takes a lot of energy; ditto organizing to become the third biggest brewed coffee retailer in the U.S. Anyway, what do I care - I'd ten times rather have Vox Pop with all their little quirks and growing pains that Barstucks with their dirty bathrooms and overpriced pastries. More than that, it is the fact that they never uses their spaces, of which they have sometimes three or four within a few blocks, for anything like a musical presentation or a reading or just about anything other than pulling in every possible yuppie, not to mention the occasional emerald-plumed biped in search of an oatmeal cracker. Suggested corporate slogan: "Not A Coffeehouse (Just a "
¢offee Hou$e)". Vox Pop fills a cultural vacuum created by the demise of the coffeehouse, be it a folk club, a chess bar or a poetry salon. They've become a neighborhood cultural institution in a little over a year, and I daresay it is awfully refreshing to sometimes find oneself politically to the right of a small business owner. It ain't no Utopia, or they'd give me that pot of fresh brewed tea for being a nice guy. But it's way cool, I mean awesome, groovy, whatever.

Now, to get back to the Marx-Zinn-Weick connection, though the play was definitely entertaining, and Weick's performance top notch, there were things I missed. In the brief discussion session afterward, my question was: when do we get the second act, in which he tells us how socialism is really supposed to work? Aside from that, I was kind of surprised that the only references to 20th century socialism were some digs at the easiest target, the Soviet empire. What about China, Cuba, or Yugoslavia? What about Chile under Allende, Grenada under Bishop, the Prague Spring - are there no models worth praising? If not, then that is a bigger problem for Marx than boils or Bakunin: it's like, you all screwed up, if you had only done it the way I said... And what way is that? Zinn's Marx tells us very little about socialism "as it was supposed to be", actually. You would think this Marx would have a thing or two to say about his vision, even if it were straight out of what the historical Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Programme and a few other works. Because it is fine and dandy to say, "You see, capitalism still stinks!", but if every attempt to institute socialism since the Paris Commune stinks too, you need a little more than that or you're just getting a stream of hot air. Which is fine for a parrot, but the flight-challenged spectator might not be so thrilled.

I'm dead serious (so is Marx, for that matter, but nevermind) - I think Zinn should write a second act. The play is far from losing our attention by the end, at least with Weick's capable handling of the part. And now that he's memorized all that.... a second act, in which we actually get a sense of the man's vision, seems like it's waiting to be written. Aside from that, I was a little surprised that this Marx,
who shows up clutching a wad of contemporary newspapers, has so very little to say about contemporary social problems. Other than one or two passing gestures about the environment there is nothing about this most urgent of political issues. What would Marx think of a European Union? Computers? The Internet? Okay, maybe it is safer not to weigh him down with ad hoc advice on every issue under the sun. And the focus on his own time and immediate surroundings seemed appropriate. As a historical play with a few passes at contemporary updating, it works fine. Be that as it may, having gone this far, I would have donned my Dialectical Materialism Thinking Cap and given my audience a more robust sense of the man's continued relevance.

But all of our Avian Advice aside, this was a surprisingly enjoyable theatrical experience, supported by an excellent one-man perofrmance and I'm guessing a wee bit more than a pint of Dogfish Ale. And now that we know about the ale, the old Wingtipped Minstrel just might pop in to the Open Mike pretty soon. Better plan to walk home, can't afford to get points on my flying license.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Get Jazzed at Bar Next Door

It's actually downstairs from the restaurant La Lanterna di Vittorio, though perhaps it is technically next door. You can practically fall into it if you happen to hit a slick spot on the sidewalk at just the right place. An almost literal hole in the wall at 129 Macdougal Street in the West Village, the "Bar Next Door" is one of the coolest jazz spots I've found in a city that does not exactly lack for cool jazz spots. They say that the house was built by Aaron Burr, I guess while he was taking time off from target practice. It definitely has that old, authentic look, with all sorts of funny little doors and closets. Owl and I were wondering what the long horizontal closet near the door might contain. Whatever it contains now, my bet for the original use is firearms. Why do bad things happen to decent folks like Alexander Hamilton and other rich brats get to fulfill their Presidential ambitions? History is so cruel...

Anyhow, this hobbit space below the restaurant was big enough for one rather tall and stout fellow who blew a mean tenor sax. Joel Frahm has apparently been around the NY jazz scene for a long time, and has just recorded a CD with members of Stan Getz's old band. But Tuesday nights he performs here with his own trio, which included Joel Martin on bass and Pete Zimmer on drums this week. These guys cooked up a concert that handed us, over the course of two sets, a wide variety of classics and originals - there was some Monk, some Bird (the Parrot is loving it so far!), some standards, some originals, probably some Getz though I didn't recognize it. (Frahm offered an original which I thought he called "Jobimiana", or something like that, but I can't say it set of the bossa nova bells in my head. Nice tune though.) This was relatively conservative material, but Frahm's treatment of it was exquisite. He is equally at home hanging on a slow bluesey tune with lots of breathy bends or doing lightning runs that make you wonder where he found all those notes. No technique for its own sake here. Free jazz is not his bag and you won't hear him pushing a reed hard enough to make it screech. But he has an original style that is hard to characterize and easy to admire; his lines are unpredictable even if the basic material is pretty well known.

Zimmer and Martin are no mere rhythm section but a couple of extremely talented musicians in their own right. It takes a lot to get me to really listen to a stand-up bass solo, but I was digging every note that Martin played when he took his breaks. ("Digging" here means "liking", for any overly web-savvy cranks out there. One "digs" in a hole in the ground, and "diggs" in a Web 2.0 media site. I was in a hole.) Zimmer is one of those jazz drummers who insists on being as much a part of the music as anyone else, and his contribution to the overall sound was immense. This is a group of musicians who it is almost insulting to call "professional", as that sounds a little like "competent". The fairly conservative tonality of the music at times makes you think of these words, but I would rather say that whatever can still be milked out of post-bop mainstream jazz, these guys are doing. Those who can't take anything less challenging than an Ornette Coleman concert should stay away. I'll be back though; this is serious music done with consummate taste and style.

Did I say the space was intimate? It is small enough that you might find yourself trying to get a seat where you are not staring down the horn of a sax or clinking your glass against a snare drum. Small but not uncomfortable, even at my table right next to the door. The cover is only $8; a 10" thin crust pizza is a bit more than that, but worth it. You can order from the full La Lanterna menu, but Owl and I stuck with pizza, salad, beer and desert, which came out to about $70 with the cover, tax and tip. Not too bad for dinner and a concert for two. My only complaint was that there was no beer on tap; but the waiter brought my Sam Adams in a tall glass so I never saw the bottle. I guess that is the next best thing to being on tap!

There may be some sort of folk music renaissance going on in New York, but there is no jazz renaissance. To my knowledge, the jazz scene never died in order to be reborn. It was great to find it so richly alive in a cave below Macdougal Street, a place I have passed many times without realizing there was life, music, beer and (perhaps most importantly) blueberry pie within. You want the "real New York"? So go to the Empire State Building! Or get hijacked into some underground hole at the Parrot's Lampost. Squawck!