Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"I first became aware of Daniel Hawkins’ artwork..."

From my essay for Daniel Hawkins' DESERT LIGHTHOUSE PROSPECTUS catalog, available now at a limited-time reduced price in advance of the launch event tentatively scheduled for June 10th:

"I first became aware of Daniel Hawkins’ artwork when he was still an undergrad at UCLA in a senior painting class taught by my wife, M.A. Peers. Daniel was already producing remarkably sophisticated work, including two of the funniest and richest engagements with the problematics of painting-as-event and painting-as-artifact I’ve ever seen. In the one, he videotaped himself from above, attempting to clean a paint spill with a broom but only managing to fill a monochrome rectangle with the wayward medium.

The resulting AbEx gestural documentary (a cinematographic inversion of the famous glass sequence from Namuth’s 1951 Pollock Painting) was then projected onto a vertical stretched canvas of the same dimensions as the original surface. In the other, he embedded a blank stretched canvas in a monolithic slab of cast concrete, then (eventually) proceeded to attempt to excavate it. Antics ensued. In spite of their high conceptualist quotient and canny humor, both pieces – as with all of Hawkins’ work — possessed a stark, effortless formal beauty. Here was one to keep an eye on.

He didn’t disappoint, embarking on a series of ambitious, narrative-laden, interwoven interdisciplinary projects, including an attempt to realize Radical Mountain – an alpine adventure film about the conquest of a summit with an elevation of zero; a making-of documentary about the aborted first attempt; and a fictionalized documentary about the auteur’s campaign to secure the acting services of Val Kilmer.

At Las Cienegas Projects Hawkins showed a funhouse-optics sculptural installation that extended a section of railroad tracks into infinity: a hiccup in the Great Western Matrix, a ghostly manifestation of the iconic depiction of one-point linear perspective; Manifest Destiny as a house of mirrors.

Other enterprises included infiltrating a reality television show about bizarre food addictions as the concerned friend of an actor cohort who in turn pretended to be living entirely off a variety of vinegars; a series of solo improvised sound art performances played entirely on the amplified lid of a peperoncini jar; some sort of road trip/endurance test involving the confining of a death metal band in a van tricked out as a portable studio/pirate radio transmitter for two weeks; and the long-term building of an actual size replica of the Hoover Dam in manageable sections to be distributed across the American landscape. And this was all before entering grad school!"

... read the rest of "A STORM IN ANY PORT: DANIEL HAWKINS FAILS HIS WAY TO THE TOP!" in the Desert Lighthouse Prospectus, available now.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Burden of Fame

While we're on the topic of Professor Burden, who shuffled off two years ago today, I would like to share this unlikely artifact. One of the last items I pulled out of the Magic Recycle Bin before the authorities cracked down and paved over, it's a PEOPLE magazine (Aug 28, 1989) featuring Ringo Starr on the cover, which I grabbed for collage materials. Needless to say, I was quite surprised to find this profile therein. What were they thinking? I love the caption on the final image, with "pal Charles Ray on their sloop."

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

C.M. Coolidge, A Friend in Need, 1903.

The He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society meets regularly to interrogate promising high-budget mainstream shoot-’em-ups in the context for which they were designed—big, loud movie theaters. The Society’s inaugural screening resulted in my report “Is Jason Bourne a 123-minute Psychotronic Blipvert for Hillary?”, which ended with a pre-endorsement of The Accountant—“a film that finally addresses the question ‘What if Good Will Hunting was a chick and Jason Bourne banged her and they had an inbred baby that was all like Shine-meets-Transporter and turns out to be the other guy from Good Will Hunting? Whoa.’”

This précis, though based entirely on the impressive trailer that screened before Bourne, is in fact a pretty accurate summation of The Accountant’s conceptual underpinnings. Ben Affleck is an autistic accountant who practices out of a strip-mall in suburban Illinois, but secretly jets around laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists. He knows kung fu and is a deadly marksman, because his dad was Special Forces. But the Treasury Department is onto him! J. Jonah Jameson sends his statuesque African-American data analyst to track Ben down, or else be exposed as the violent teenage vigilante she was! Antics ensue.

The H.M.A.M.A.S.’s most recent screening was actually John Wick Chapter 2, a film that received surprisingly positive reviews, many of which single out the impressive use of actual fine art in the art direction (not to mention the bizarrely Gilliamesque secret hitman telephone exchange!). My analysis of this cinematic milestone will be forthcoming, but I was particularly struck by the inert literalism of JW2’s fine art factor when compared to two brief pictorial incidents that raise The Accountantseveral notches above the herd.

The first occurs when young Ben’s parents are visiting some hippie therapist’s autism ranch to see if he can help with their problem child, who sits in the common area working obsessively at a jigsaw puzzle. We don’t see it at first, but in a rapid sequence intercut with the parental consultation, L’il Ben starts going all “Judge Wopner!” because he can’t finish his task, until the resident neurodiverse cutie finds the missing piece and hands it to him. It’s at this point that we get our first actual look at the puzzle he’s working on—it’s a monochromatic gray rectangle, like a Brice Marden painting.

Brice Marden painting

Pollock puzzle, collection Sam Erenberg

Which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. In the early ’60s the Springbok company began issuing die-cut puzzles depicting abstract works by Kline, Krasner, Hofmann, de Kooning, and Pollock—whose Convergence was marketed as the most challenging puzzle of all time. Later in the decade, game companies upped the ante by manufacturing puzzles that were completely monochromatic—sometimes on both sides, though I doubt Brice ever saw a dime. And on the surface, the level of cognitive complexity required is what the blank puzzle signals to us about L’il Ben.

But just as he’s gratefully inserting the last piece to complete the non-image, the camera angle shifts radically, looking up through the glass table, through the gap in the blurry puzzle, framing L’l Ben’s bespectacled eyes. As he snaps the last module into place, the image snaps into focus, revealing that he has been assembling—upside down—Neil Leifer’s iconic shot of Muhammed Ali looming over the knocked out Sonny Liston in 1965. In a few seconds, the filmmakers have established a complex symbolic metaphor —the outsider warrior poet constructed in secret beneath a veneer of unparseable late-capitalist sang-froid; the Emperor card reversed—encoded in an equally (if more esoterically) loaded set of references to the production, distribution and valuation of 2D pictorial artifacts in contemporary culture.

Normally, if I perceive this sort of reference to Painting and its Discontents as coincidental—it’s just an upside-down jigsaw puzzle for God’s sake, not some dissertation on the tangled political and phenomenological relationship between photography, the avant-garde and kitsch. But The Accountant brackets its Revenge of the Asperger Ronin storyline with a second, even more explicitly art-historical sight gag, which is set up early, but delivered only in the tying-up-all-the-loose-ends montage—in fact the last shot in the movie before the hero rides off into the sunset.

We first glimpse grownup Ben’s art collection when he retreats to his secret storage unit holding his airstream full of currency, weapons and other tangibles—including a decent Renoir and—more improbably—a Jackson Pollock. And not just any Pollock, but 1946’s Free Form (mutated to more than double size), thought to be his very first drip painting. Ben must have done some real ugly shit for the Rockefellers to score that. So the whistleblower girl in distress is also an accountant, but one who wanted to go to the Art Institute, but Dad said “No,” and she makes an awkward friendship overture to Ben that includes an exchange on the merits of C.M. “Cash” Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” series. On the run from industrialist mercenary hitmen, she winds up in the trailer and is all like “OMG a Pollock original! You’re not like other accountants.”

Umm… spoiler alert, I guess. Once the antics are out of the way, she’s back at her modest flat and a mysterious package arrives, and here is the second incident. The package contains a stretched and framed canvas, which we see her unwrap and plunk down on her bed with a puzzled, then amused expression. The picture is Coolidge’s A Friend in Need (1903), probably the most famous Dogs Playing Poker image, whose central narrative detail of cheating is conspicuously cropped from our clearest view of it. Distress Girl’s expression goes frowny again, because she notices a surface anomaly in a corner of the painting, pokes around and actually tears away the Coolidge canvas to reveal the gazillion-dollar Pollock beneath. Both Ox and Self overcome, Ben heads off for his next adventure—Jason Bourne vs. The Accountant: The Treadstone Audit. Stay tuned.

Image result for Jackson Pollock, Free Form, 1946
Jackson Pollock, Free Form, 1946