Saturday, April 3, 2010

Punk Semantics

Yesterday I did the most grungy, poorly organized, unprofessional art show I’ve done in the nine years that I’ve been showing my art. It was the 37th one I’d ever done. To contextualize, I’ve shown my art in abandoned buildings before, once in an abandoned building that was condemned shortly thereafter. I’ve even shown in a barn in Ohio once. When I applied for this show (which was to feature both art and music, with live bands), I knew that it wasn’t going to be at the Guggenheim, but I assumed that it would be a professional, organized event. In the week preceding the hanging of the show, my wife’s punk/DIY craft group happened to have their monthly meeting at the place where the show would be. When she returned from the meeting, she suggested that I withdraw from the show. She explained that it was a fantastic space, and that the people who owned and ran the space were wonderful, friendly, professional people, but that there was no actual wall space (“Like…where paintings would go.”). There were giant windows on all the walls, and she said that off to the side, there was a maze of cubicle walls that looked suspiciously like they were being arranged for an art show. Assuming the quality of the people owning and running the place, and given my working ideology of being willing to show anywhere, I figured I’d proceed. I’m not a snob. I’m a man of my word. If I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it. I won’t back out simply because it’s not what I had hoped it would be. Certainly, given my wife’s testimony, the owner of the space and his crew would turn out to be flexible, reasonable people, and we could work something out to get the work up professionally. The only flaw in my reasoning was the assumption that the owner of the space and the person organizing the show were the same individual. They weren’t. I arrived at the show with a healthy supply of paintings and a willingness to hang as much or as little work as necessary. I immediately met the show’s organizer, with whom I had been corresponding via email during the preceding week. My wife’s inference proved correct. The art was destined for the cubicle walls. The space would be a fantastic place to house site-specific installation art or a giant floor sculpture. There was, however, nowhere appropriate to hang paintings. When I asked about a few of the limited spots where there was usable wall space, I was told that we couldn’t use the walls. The art had to go into the cubicles. I didn’t flinch. I said, “Ok, will I be able to drive nails into the cubicles? I’ll need to hang my work with something.” He responded, “No, you can’t use nails. You can either use tape, thumb tacks, or the chains strung over the tops of the walls.” My work is physically very heavy, and I expressed concern over the cubicle walls’ ability to support my work on such a chain, as it wasn’t firmly tethered to anything. He suggested moving a table over, and propping my work up on the table, leaning against the wall. At this point my wife interjected, like a trained attack dog, that that would be tacky, and that we weren’t going to be displaying my work that way. I love her for that. She’s always willing to be forceful and frank on my behalf when I’m being too diplomatic and polite. He said, “Hey, this is a punk DIY-type event. This is all we’ve got to work with.” I could plainly see the futility of arguing any further. I said, “All right,” and proceeded to orchestrate a solution with the chains, hanging my smallest, lightest pieces as best I could, given the circumstances. They didn’t look great. They didn’t look bad. They looked like really great work, hung using poor means in the wrong environment. None of the other artists had hung their work yet, other than the “curator.” There was no further conversation between me and him, as he was far more interested in setting up for the bands. It was obvious that this show was essentially about the music, and the visual art was simply an afterthought. I really didn’t care. Any exposure is good exposure, and the one thing it seemed this guy did correctly was promote. He did lots of advertising. I had also heard that they had had quite a crowd the last time they did one of these. So that was adequate incentive to swallow some pride. What bothered me was his statement that “Hey, this is a punk/DIY-type event...” That struck me as an incredibly lazy statement. The word “punk” was never intended as a synonym for the words “shitty,” “unprofessional,” “lazy,” or “half-assed.” It irked me that this guy would degrade the word “punk” by using it as an excuse for his laziness, complacency, and lack of self-respect or respect for others. “Punk,” as I understand it, is about a rejection of mainstream values. It’s about dissenting opinion, and art and music which are egalitarian rather than elitist in nature. That does not in anyway imply that “punk” needs to be held together with duct tape and/or eschew any sort of polish or sense of professionalism in order to abide by those ideals. His remark seemed incredibly self-serving and lazy to me. I got over it. The next day I attended the event. He avoided me and I avoided him. Everybody else, without exception, was very friendly. It was generally a good time, though it was incredibly hot and humid. It took about five minutes to sweat through my clothes. The rest of the work there was at best uninteresting, at worst terrible. It was generally high school quality, unfocused, impatient, undisciplined work, acrylic paint on cardboard. It was art without convictions or feelings. As best I could tell, I was the only real artist there, with the exception of Rick. I wasn’t wild about his work, but he knew what he was doing, put in the hours, and he cared about the details. He cared about his work and it showed. He cut no corners. The curator’s work was god-awful, hipster, cartoony, safe, pointless indoor graffiti. That’s what’s big now, and that’s why he’s doing it. It’s art for people unwilling to dig beyond their current understanding and honestly explore. The most amusing facet of the event was a great big fat Italian kid. He looked like was about 5’ 10” and 280 pounds of lard. He was at least three different types of trash all at once. He was probably about 20 years old, and already had a poorly executed, faded American flag tattoo on his forearm, as well as some other bad tattoos that I couldn’t even interpret. I recognized another as a cross, though only by its shape, rather than its details. He was wearing what must have been 20 pounds of fake gold and diamond jewelry around his neck and on his fingers. He paced the floor with his hands folded in mock piety like a he was trying to evoke “fat-mafia-hitman-in-training.” He wanted so desperately to be from Brookyln, but he just wasn’t. I’m Italian, and I fucking hate that shit. I have no respect whatsoever for the goofy, macho, goombah stereotypes. He was standing near some pretty terrible-looking art. It looked like somebody’s half-assed attempt at mimicking Jean-Michael Basquiat. Though it was bad, it looked sufficiently sincere to grab my attention. It had potential. I approached him and asked if it was his. He replied, “No. I’m not the artist. I’m his agent.” With great effort, I managed not to burst into laughter and shoot beer out of my nose. I made polite chit-chat for a few moments and then retreated. Later, I saw him talking with the guy who must have been “the artist.” He was slightly less insane, but no less corny. He might have been 5’ 8” and 110 pounds when soaking wet. It seemed like his agent wasn’t so much his agent as he was his bouncer. “The artist” was wearing giant golden aviator sunglasses that faded from dark brown at the top to nearly clear at the bottom. They each evoked some terrible hybrid of Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds, and Liberace. He was as pale as a ghost, and wearing a polo shirt with a popped collar. They sat around posing on the couches. It only took about an hour before I had seen enough.

We left for the South Side to eat a late dinner and see some friends. The wait was too long at Piper’s Pub, our eatery of choice. Instead, we hit the City Grill. We had never been there before, and thought it couldn’t be bad. It wasn’t. The food was very good, though the beer selection was weak. The ambiance of the place, however, was terrible. It radiated “old man bar.” The bartender was pretty cool. He looked to be about 50 and was obviously a career bartender. That’s a rare thing, and cool to find. When we first sat down the place wasn’t very full or loud, but he shouted all communications at the top of his lungs. You could tell it was done automatically, out of habit, as he obviously didn’t have any trouble hearing me when I ordered. A guy who looked like Jeanne-Claude Van Damme, but fat, older and meaner, walked in with his cronies. They sat down at the bar. I sat at a corner seat, and my wife sat immediately to my left. There were four vacant seats to her left. There were five guys in Van Damme’s crew, including Van Damme himself. Nobody seemed to want to take the seat next to my wife, though. So three of them sat and two stood. We both thought this was pretty funny. Strangely, there was a bachelorette party going on way in the back, at a giant table comprised of many smaller tables. I’m not sure what a bunch of cute young 20-something girls were doing having their bachelorette party in this old man bar, but there they were. At one point, while they were doing shots, they all giggled and waved to the Van Damme crew. Van Damme and his cronies all smiled and waved back excitedly. The girls laughed louder, and I wondered if the old guys realized they were being mocked. Not all insanity is wild. This was the sad, pathetic persuasion. In that moment I both pitied and lamented those old men, as I know that I will invariably be one of them, eventually. The bar was depressing and we moved on down the street to the Lava Lounge, where our friend Greg tends bar. He was there, and so was Katie. They’re great. The place was a little too crowded for my taste, but we had fun. By the time we left, Greg was hammered. If he hadn’t had so many friends there with him when we left, I would have been concerned for him. When we left it was raining, and neither one of us was even buzzed. On the ride home, we got stuck in traffic resulting from some late night road construction. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant, though, as we enjoyed the air conditioning, Motorhead, and absence of smoke.

Earlier this afternoon, I returned to the show space to pick up my work. It was all still intact, and I was grateful that nothing had been sacrificed in the show except any sense of pride that I had had going into it.

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