Book Review: It Chooses You, by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire

Michael. Large Black Leather Jacket. $10. Hollywood. Photo by Brigitte Sire.

Article first published as Book Review: It Chooses You, by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire on Blogcritics.

The hardback edition of Miranda July’s It Chooses You is the size and heft of a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew adventure. There are no murders or eerie old houses in this non-fiction endeavor, but it is an adventure — an adventure of human contact.

July was struggling with the screenplay for her second feature film, The Future, and found herself too easily distracted by the internet. She laments that her writing career had managed a meagre output before cyber ubiquity settled into its now permanent state of flashing cleavage and kittens in front of anybody trying to get work done on a laptop. But were there any distractions left untouched by the virtual?

The author found reality in the form of junk mail. Among the sales flyers delivered to her door was the print edition of the Los Angeles Penny Saver. The modest ads selling trivial items inspired what became a meaningful distraction. July called up prospective subjects to ask if they’d sit for an interview. It’s an invasive and potentially condescending adventure, but participants received fifty bucks, and what July got in return was a terrific, moving book that is better than the sum of its parts. It Chooses You selects thirteen subjects who answered the call, to tell their own story and in some way help shape July’s fiction with their true stories.

The kinds of items offered for sale are trivial: a $10 leather jacket; a $5 hair dryer dating from the first Bush administration; a $2.50 bullfrog tadpole. But the people selling these wares have fascinating stories to tell, all the more so when the author finds a rapport with them.

It Chooses You is a compelling hybrid of photobook, memoir and social observation. The photos were made by July’s wedding photographer, Brigitte Sire. There is an awkwardness to some of the portraits — the transactions, such as they were, were not always the most comfortable. But the subjects with whom July and her small crew warmed up to made for the warmest and most touching photos. Curious details of the sellerss home and wares are also pictured. I’l lleave it to the reader to discover the fascination of a series of hand-labelled manila envelopes. Although the book has a naturally episodic nature, a kind of narrative develops as July ponders the class divide between her and her subjects, her own neuroses about the creative process, and the small miracle of human beings connecting with each other at all.

Most of the people July interviewed, for reasons of class or age or culture, did not own a computer. Such people are not long for this world, and represent the crossroads of an era. Much like the dawn of the industrial age that hangs over masterpieces like À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and The Magnificent Ambersons, the author modestly but surely documents an elegy for a dying world.

Book Review: Eyewear: A Visual History, by Moss Lipow

Article first published as Book Review: Eyewear: A Visual History by Moss Lipow on Blogcritics.

Designer Moss Lipow spent two decades curating a collection of vintage eyewear. In Eyewear; A Visual History, Tony publishing house Taschen has devoted a typically handsome doorstopper of a book to showcase Lipow’s collection, along with a concise history of the frames that correct, protect, and decorate our eyes.

Sunglasses seem the most modern of fashion statements, but early versions were developed thousands of years ago. Ancient Eskimos cut a narrow aperture into a piece of bone to shield their eyes from the sun’s powerful glare. The Chinese fashioned lenses from a quartz called tea stone. But eyeglasses as we know them came to being at the dawn of the Renaissance. Author/designer Lipow can’t be certain if it’s the chicken or the egg in this equation, but suggests that the development of corrective eyewear paved the way for enlightenment. We tend to lose the ability to focus on what’s close to to our eyes when we turn forty-five. Eyeglasses extended the careers of the monks who meticulously copied scholarly manuscripts, and the consequences reverberated.

Eyewear’s chapter sections are subheaded with clever titles like “One Word: Plastics,” about the revolution in manufacturing, and “Descent into Geekdom,” which notes that the high cost of early frames relegated them to the upper classes at first. By the mid-17th century, when glasses were sold by itinerant peddlers who are the descendants of today’s rest area glass huts , four-eyes were no longer a symbol of class but became a stigma.

The design of eyewear developed due to changes in manufacturing as much as fashions, and as much as we take glasses for granted today it’s a revelation to see how they have changed – or not – over time. The hourglass shape of Richardson-style frames from late 19th century Europe look stylish and modern today. The design of Post-war sunglasses evolved from the kind of intricate ornamental combs that were the mark of mid-19th century elegance, but would make exquisite retro statements today.

Lipow’s collection of frames are handsomely presented, many of them true to scale. Icons of eyewear style through the ages are also generously represented, from medieval monks to fin-de seicle monocles, from Jackie Onasis to Kim Jong-il, from John Lennon to Devo. And in Taschen’s typical attention to detail, the multi-lingual text for this handsome tome is set in elegant, eye-pleasing Didot.

Book Review: Making It in the Art World: New Approaches to Galleries, Shows, and Raising Money, by Brainard Carey

Illustration by Brainard Carey

Article first published as Book Review: Making It in the Art World: New Approaches to Galleries, Shows, and Raising Money by Brainard Carey on Blogcritics.

If you’ve ever been to an established art fair like the Armory Show in New York or Art Basel in Miami Beach,  or one of the satellite shows organized as counter-programming, you may wonder how to get onto the Broadway (or Off-broadway) of the art world. For aspiring artists, the title of Brainard Carey’s book Making It in the Art World: New Approaches to Galleries, Shows, and Raising Money will definitely appeal to you. But does his book give you a recipe for success?

Carey and his wife Delia won a spot  in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, along with a $10,000 fee (they’d asked for $950,000) simply by persistence and force of personality, and his book is part of that persistence and personality. A lot of what Carey says about reaching your goals as an artist is common sense: researching art dealers and galleries, pounding the pavement and meeting people and getting into contact with people who may help your career. But there an air of condescension and calculation in his approach, as a writer and as a self-proclaimed artist’s coach.

The tone of his prose may be due to the editorial policies of the Allworth Press, an imprint which could fill a shelf full of self-help books about various aspects of the art world. Carey writes likes he’s talking to a six-year old, and if that wasn’t clear enough he draws stick figures to illustrate concepts like attitude and incidents like an invitation to his studio. The crudeness of the figures are probably supposed to make the reader feel at ease and not intimidated, and they are certaibly more interesting than standard-issue self-help clip art. But they seem patronizing — look at me, if I can do this, you can too! The calculation is more telling, as Carey encourages readers to make acquaintances that will be useful to you. Maybe that’s the way it works, but it seems tacky and insincere to put it that way. But sincerity doesn’t appear to be part of the formula for making it in the art world. Just take a look at who the author admires.

me and mr brainwash
Me and Mr. Brainwash

One of the artists Carey looks to as a model is French painter Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. Mr. Brainwash is best known from art bad boy Banksy’s provocative documentary Exit Through the Gift Shopa scathing indictment of an over-hyped art world. Carey suggests that Brainwash’s work is dismissed by the art establishment because he went outside normal channels. I’ve met Mr. Brainwash, on the streets of Chelsea, and he seems a charming and friendly guy, but his art is a mashup of regurgitated pop icons at maximum volume. Carey disingenuously points out that Mr. Brainwash’s most recent New York show was in an abandoned warehouse in NY.  But that garish exhibit, which Mr. Brainwash directed me to when I met him, was in the uber-hip Meatpacking District, where space costs a fortune to rent. Where does the money come from? Are there that many rich people who want to shell out on tacky art to bankroll such a “DIY” endeavor? The answer appears to be yes. At last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, srtist Paul McCarthy sold three copies of a Pepto-Bismol pink dwarf with penises sculptture at  $900,000 a piece.

Such sales figures can be disheartening, but if you can brush away the curtains of cynicism long enough, it can also be encouraging. Quality is obviously not what art buyers look for.  Artists can be of mercurial and self-loathing temperaments, and encouragement in any form may be welcome.  So if the structure and specific strategies that Casey lays out seem like they’d be helpful, then go for it. But it boils down to one word, something that no book can give you, as simple as it is elusive: hype.

DVD Review: Tiny Furniture (Criterion Collection)

Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky. Courtesy IFC Films/Submarine Entertainment

Article first published as DVD Review: Tiny Furniture (Criterion Collection) on Blogcritics.

Aura is a young artist just out of college. She lives with her sister and her mother, who also happens to be an artist. Aura gets depressed, tries to get a job, tries to go on dates, and establish herself as an artist in a world of affected phonies. In the usual scheme of things this would be the kind of movie about a young woman finding her voice. But the dynamic at play here is more interesting than that. Lena Dunham, in her breakthrough second feature Tiny Furniture, has cast her own mother and sister in the film, and filmed in her family’s Manhattan apartment. Is this reality or fiction?

Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham. Courtesy IFC Films/Submarine Entertainment

The title of the film is only mentioned in passing, but tracing its source leads you to what the movie is about. Dunham’s mother, Laurie Simmons, plays Dunham’s fictional mother Siri, but is playing a version of herself. Since the 1970s, Simmons’s work has used dolls, ventriloquist dummies and dollhouse miniatures to create a world of Lynchian domesticity and sexuality. Her photographs can be seen on the apartment walls in Tiny Furniture, and naming the film after her mother’s work presents this uncomfortable dramedy as a meditation on family and art.

What may be problematic for many viewers is that the movie can be deliberately grating. The film is populated with affected characters who spout out lines like, “I’ve always thought of myself as Tribeca’s solution to Marianne Faithful.” And that’s Aura’s best friend! The characters, including Dunham’s family, may be affected, but the sibling and parental relationships feel real. As pretentious as everyone around her can be, Dunham’s character in the film is insecure and unpretentious. If this sounds like a Woody Allen movie you’re right, and Dunham makes numerous references to Allen’s work, but the Woodman has never exposed himself as figuratively and literally as Dunham does here.

The two-disc Criterion set is generous with extras that enhance appreciation of the feature and the director. A half-hour conversation with Dunham and author/director Nora Ephron is a fascinating look at what different generations of women have gone through as artists. Dunham also gives props to cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who gives the film a stylish look that one is not used to seeing from the Mumblecore School that inspired it. Lipes’s work as a director can be seen on two excellent and very different documentaries, NY Export: Opus Jazz  and Good Times Will Never Be the Same.

A bonus disc covers Dunham’s film work before Tiny Furniture, including her first feature Creative Nonfiction as well as short films, all of which were made while she was at Oberlin College.  Dunham has brought her family into her film work since her college years, and Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham feature prominently in one hilarious short. For the entire five-minute length of “Open the Door,” the camera is trained on Dunham’s apartment door. Dunham stands guard watching her parents arrive through a video screen, and she asks each of them in turn to recite lines for a film, the plot of which implicates her father as a drug dealer and her mother as a hapless enabler. It’s the kind of uncomfortably funny sort-of-reality and sort-of-performance art that’s typical of Dunham’s work. Tiny Furniture, like all of Dunahm’s films, can make you feel uneasy, and it can make you laugh, sometimes at once.

DVD Review: Futurist Life Redux

Article first published in a slightly different form as DVD Review: Futurist Life Redux on Blogcritics.

What does an avant-garde cat video have to do with Fascism? The omnibus film Futurist Life Redux, distributed by Microcinema, answers that burning question.

This isn’t the first time Microcinema has brought its viewership the finest in 21st century cat entertainment. But this time the cat comes with a pedigree. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched the Futurist movement in 1909 with the publication of a manifesto that dictated his aesthetic concerns: mainly, the past=bad, the young and strong=good. Adherents of Futurism admired violence and Fascism. In 1916, Marinetti , Arnaldo Ginna, and other Futurist-aligned artists made the movement’s only official film, Vita Futurista, which consisted of eleven segments with titles like “How the Futurist Walks,” “How the Futurist Sleeps,” and “The Sentimental Futurist.” But the sole surviving print was lost decades ago, and only stills and a synopsis survive.

The Futurists influenced better known art movements like Dada and Surrealism, but remain fairly obscure today. The non-profit arts organization Performa celebrated the centennial of the birth of Futurism by commissioning eleven artists to recreate “Vita Futurista” for our time. The demographic of the selected artists is primarily female, which seems to fly in the face of the male-centric Futurist ideal. But if the past=bad, then the Futurists should embrace, if hugging is their thing, this more inclusive document, which looks forward and backward at the same time.

If the resulting work seems random, that’s because to a large extent it is. The video and film artists selected were given a challenging assignment: after accepting the commission, they received their instructions: a one sentence description of their randomly assigned segment of the film, along with surviving stills and a four-week deadline. Curated by Lana Wilson with Andrew Lampert, the eleven segments that make up Futurist Life Redux are a mixed bag, but the strongest of them are bursting with the kind of spontaneous inventiveness that you’d hope for from such a project, but which they seldom achieve.

A segment by the late George Kuchar will be of interest to fans of the legendary underground filmmaker, but the video effects make one long for the black and white film stock of his best known work. Martha Colburn’s “One and One is Life” casts Wonder Woman in a stop-motion paper animation that avoids the cheesy 80s video look of much of the work here for the more subtle look of 16mm film. The super-heroine battles flaming automobiles and civil war soldiers on horseback on a mirrored stage that disorients but also reflects back the vivid imagery in fluid ways that send the action out in all directions.

Production still from Ben Coonley's Why Cecco Beppe Does Not Die." Courtesy Performa.

Ben Coonley is the genius behind the viral video “A Valentine for Perfect Strangers.” In “Why Cecco Beppe Does Not Die,” Coonley takes a similar artificial speech-cum cute cat video approach, using the limitations of commercial video to hilarious advantage. The surviving synopsis of this Futurist segment revolves around smell, and the artist runs with it, praising “the illuminated smells of a new technology” with scratch and sniff ovals “embedded” into the screen. That the Futurist messages are delivered by a cat and a pair of toddlers in skeleton outfits subverts conventional narrative in much the way the Futurists would have liked. But Coonley also pokes fun at the received wisdom of avant-garde film, wondering if an awful smell is “Austria? Hungary? Essential Cinema?” referring to the established canon of experimental films.

Coonley explains as much in one of the DVD extras, which feature chats with several of the participating filmmakers, including Kuchar, Shana Moulton and Lynne Hershman Leeson. Leeson explains that she made her segment, which combines video game footage with fragmented videotaped joggers, in two days.  By contrast, she had just completed a feature film on which she spent 42 years.  This film is the documentary Women Art Revolution, her recently released survey of feminist art. Leeson’s feature is essential viewing for anybody interested in modern art, particularly the generation of women who paved the way for the artists like Miranda July. Futurist Life Redux is unlikely to add to the canon of essential cinema.  But despite some inevitable indulgences, if you add it to your queue, there will be a few gems in your future.

The So Empty Inside Variations

So I’ve been busy (and sick) the last few months,  and one reason for the former if not the latter is the show that opened at the posh L2 Lounge in Georgetown Thursday before last, and came down yesterday.

It all began with a set of Hernard Title Letters that my friend Robin  gave me.  I wrote  about my early experiments with these letters, and background on why it would occur to someone to give them to me here.

The phrase “So empty inside” was born of real pain and emptiness, but art sometimes goes places you don’t expect it to, and in the setting where I hung a 30″ x 30″ print of the above,  it took on a new meaning.  When I checked into L2 on for the first time on FourSquare, I was greeted with the message, “Congratulations! You have checked into your first speakeasy!” The exposed brick lounge is across from and an extension of Leopold’s Cafe in Cady’s Alley, but not only do you need to know where L2 is to find the place, you need a membership to get in.

So Empty Inside” was one of the first and best of the 3D-lettered photos I took, and it has been a template adaptable to invitations:

Come to my show!

And to live commentary:

Thanks to all the people who provided support and/or materials, including Veronica Ebert, Robin Edgerton (who provided the letters), Pat Goslee (thank you for the nomination!), Andrea Hope of Vivid Solutions for the great prints, Heather Goss, Samantha May of Hillyer Art Space, and Michael O’Sullivan.  And thanks to Tony Padua and Garth for help installing.

Bonus image: a print I couldn’t get made in time for the show:

a picture is worth 3000+ words: this week in movie and art reviews

(e)merge arf fair
Detail from Patrick McDonough’s Doghouse at (e)merge art fair, Capitol Skyline Hotel. Photo by Pat Padua

I’ve written that much this week despite a summer cold that’s been lingering since early August. My by-lines for other outlets this week:

In the Muse


– I recommend Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame


. Recommended, thoug h Ireally wanted to smack some of the people interviewed.


I’m ready to pass out now.

gahd forgeeve me!

Gahd forgeeve me!
Photo by Pat Padua.

I wrote more than 3000 words for the DCist last week, including a roundup of this week’s new and repertory movies and a review of the Kandinsky/Stella exhibits that just opened at the Phillips Collection.  Those were on my docket as the week began. But when I woke up Sautrday, I didn’t plan to write a 1200-word report on the first live stage reading (with original cast members) of The Room at the AFI Silver. But I did, and you can read it here.

See my set of pictures from The Room Live on flickr.

Seven Uneasy Pieces

Marina Abramovic, “Entering the other side.” Courtesty of Microcinema.

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on

Belgrade-born Marina Abramovic, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, is the first performance artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with “The Artist is Present,” Microcinema has released Seven Easy Pieces, a document of Abramovic’s week-long residence at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which the artist spent seven hours a day performing one of five landmark performance art pieces by other artists and two of her own.

Performance art is by nature ephemeral – documentation may exist only in photographs or perhaps no more than the memory of an audience. Abramovic seeks to remedy this institutional loss – but is anything lost in translation? Seven Easy Pieces, directed by Babette Mangolte, condenses forty-nine hours of performance into a ninety minute video. Abbreviated as it is, the time given to each work conveys a sense of the passage of time: a summary of gestures is introduced and cycled through and repeated, and the gestures are cumulative. So for Bruce Nauman’s “Body pressure,” as the artist presses herself repeatedly against a Plexiglas divider, you see the traces of skin grease accrue over time, obscuring the view of the artist as she steps back from the wall.

The pieces run from the sublime to the ridiculous, the funny to the self-indulgent, the simply uncomfortable to the frankly disturbing. A re-interpretation of Vito Acconci’s infamous “Seedboard” is a case in point for any number of these. In 1972, Acconci spent nine days masturbating for eight hours in the crawlspace under a ramp in Sonnabend Gallery in New York, fantasizing about those walking over him and murmuring explicit thoughts through an amplifier. Ambramovic, despite a repertoire that includes generous amounts of self-flagellation and other varieties of pain, seems in this piece less self-contemptuous than Acconci. She invites her audience, sitting in an intimate circle above her, to interact and tell her their fantasies; in one shot an excited male spectator is seen lying face down, caressing the plywood and gently humping it.

In 1969, a black-leather jacketed Valie Export cut the crotch out of her trousers and trained a machine gun on a movie theater audience. [Ed. – it was a pron theater, and she addressed the men in the audience to “deal with a real woman.”] “Action Pants, Genital Panic” dripped Punk Rock at the time, but lost some balls, as it were, in the institutional confines of the Guggenheim. A heckler can he heard telling Abramovic, “Put down that gun or use it!” This may be fodder for those who believe that a work of performance art belongs to its own time: an event that once subverted expectations of passivity has become, if not passive, inert.

Gina Pane’s “The Conditioning” is tailor-made for the ascetic element in Ambramovic’s work (for her current show, she asked the young performers participating with her to adhere to a strict program of fasting). A jump-suited Abramovic lays on a steel bed atop an array of lit candles, which she switches out as they melt down.

Joseph Beuys, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” may be the strangest of the pieces, and this is coming from someone with a very high bar for the strange indeed. The artist’s face is sloppily plastered with gold leaf, fragments of which dangle from her face and fall to the stage (she sweeps up the detritus during the piece). She’s accompanied by a taxidermied hare, which she alternately cradles in her arms, walks along the stage with and holds with its floppy ears dangling from her mouth.

“Lips of Thomas” is one of Ambramovic’s own pieces, from 1975. Originally performed over the course of two hours, this piece was expanded for the Guggenheim. It is uncomfortable watching at any length. The artist sits naked at a tale, eating honey from a jar and drinking wine as a metronome slowly keeps time. She gets up from the table to stand fully naked before the audience, revealing a five-pointed star drawn on her stomach. She takes a razor blade and cuts along one line of the star, then proceeds to lie on a cross made of ice (underneath a space heater aimed at her stomach), and then sits up to flagellate herself. She puts on boots and a military cap, and waves a flag, lined with the blotted stains from her razored belly, while a Russian folk song plays. Repeat, for an excruciating seven hours.

The seventh day must have come as a relief to both audience and artist. In “Entering the Other Side,” Abramovic simply stands in a giant blue dress in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda.

Abramovic said, “I do not want the public to feel that they are spending time with the performances, I simply want them to forget about time.” For ninety minutes of at times taxing performance – albeit not nearly as taxing as the seven-hour iterations – I was largely compelled, if not entirely convinced. Seven Easy Pieces is a frequently uneasy time, and may not win the artist any converts. Nor will it answer the questions of purists who may argue whether performance art should be recreated at all. But as a well-produced document, fans of the artist will find it essential viewing.

it’s showtime

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, originally uploaded by a nameless yeast.

Join Ten Miles Square and the work of Pat Padua and Jennifer Wade in Microscopy at Hounshell (1506 14th Street NW) this Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m.

Padua and Wade take a closer look, literally and figuratively, at the minutiae of life. Padua’s photographs feature the quirky side of Americana that constantly seesaws between the oddly humorous and vaguely depressing — images like a shiny, bright red gumball machine encouraging us to enjoy hugs (and not drugs!), left to rot full of decaying, colorless candies, or a wide-shot of a packed bingo hall parking lot on a gorgeous day. Padua takes his microscope to a modern society that seems to have little interest in (or perhaps knowledge of) any world that exists outside the frame. Heavily influenced by Martin Parr, these images also document our strange relationships with consumerism and collectibles — Jesus and Mary figurines suffocate silently in plastic wrap waiting for the true believer to save them.

Jennifer Wade takes a more literal approach to her Microscopy. A scientist by trade, she uses a scanning electron microscope to turn every day items into the soaring patterns of mountains and sheer cliffs of a cracked ring, swirls of atoms on chunk of coral, or the rushing current of fibers on a cut piece of paper. Much like Padua’s photos, they remind the viewer that it’s possible to both lean closer and step way back, and encourage the viewers to find their own perspectives.

Hounshell is at 1506 14th Street. Head down Saturday night to also enjoy openings at Irvine Contemporary, Hemphill, Gallery Plan B, the Hamiltonian Gallery. Many thanks to the Pink Line Project for helping make Microscopy possible.

Image of “The Real Mount Dora” by Pat Padua.