Star for the Winter Music

At the Adler Planetarium, there is a star show that is pretty good.  You sit back and they show you the constellations up close and personal.
As a kid I loved this show  and every Catholic school I went to without fail, took one day a year to take us down there for this show.  We’d actually split the day between there and the Field Museum, which I loved, especially the stuffed birds and mammoths, as well as the Pacific Northwest Indian artifacts they had in abundance.  I remember one medicine bag affixed to the head of a hawk that seemed a repository of magic of some kind.

When I was a kid there was a man down the street who had a telescope.  Here and there he’d let the little neighborhood gangsters look through it at night and point out the  constellations to us–Ursa Major and Minor, the North Star.   He’d explain to us that men learned navigation from the stars.  He was a cool guy who worked for the airlines and astronomy was his hobby.  Once in a while he’d scare the shit out of us with stories about how a supernova could occur and barbecue our asses in seconds, as well as anecdotes about meteors and comets the size of our planet smashing into us and putting the lights out for good.  This guy was a lot of laughs.

He would eventually reassure us that this was very unlikely, but drove home the point at every opportunity to let us know that in the bigger schematic of the universe, we were all nothing but popcorn farts.

The stars make us feel small; they humble us.  As Laurie Anderson once said, “We love the Stars, because we can’t hurt them, but we’re trying.”

Everytime I am way out in the sticks, I’m amazed at just how active the night sky is; really. . .it knocks me out.  It is said that Crazy Horse used to talk back to the stars.  It might sound nuts, but I understand it.  In Missoula, years ago, I was fortunate enough to witness a meteor shower and it seemed miraculous to me, like the Northern lights.

It’s hard to see stars in the city with all of the ambient light and buildings around, but I think I may finally invest in a telescope and see what I can see.

The one good thing about winter in Chicago is that it is easier to see the stars.  The trees are lefless and there is less traffic at night and the sky becomes more visible.  It is still better to go out 40 or 50 miles, but at least you can see the more identifiable constellations, Big Dipper. . Little Dipper.  . .the easy ones.

As a teenager, my friends and I used to love to go to the drive-in in the winter.  There was one in Addison at Route 53 and North Avenue  that used to show the goriest horror double features in the dead of winter and it was as spooky as hell.  My friends and I saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Deranged and Tales from the Crypt while sucking down Mickey’s Big-Mouths on Saturday nights.  Fuck, it could be 10 below; we didn’t give a shit; as long as we had enough beer we would sit there and watch gorefest after gorefest laughing our asses off. Always this time of year I think about that and all of the time I pissed away as a kid.

Lately , I listen to Chopin nocturnes this time of year. His night music, to me, seems perpetually wintry and mournful with twinkling stars, sonorous digressions, sketches in sound that remind one of ecstacies and the ending of all things.

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Star for a Red Bird

Last year I made a number of ‘Star’ pieces. They were the coda to a body of work I’d made about the great Indian warrior Crazy Horse. Id always loved using the shapes of stars in my work because they defied so many cultural and artistic borders. Every culture, religion, and government has the shape of a star somewhere in its visual language. In Istanbul — the Turkish flag is everywhere– it is a red field with a white crescent moon and a star–our own flag has 50 stars to designate states– and on and on.

Last year I designed a sign for Big Star, the now almost-impossible-to-get-in taqueria on Damen Avenue. I used a basic compass-rose star, very common in tattooing and once the symbol of the IWW, The Industrial Workers of the World, “the wobblies,” an organization that still exists. They helped form unions in the early part of the last century. It was a labor movement full of lefties and was often accused of harboring communists. For me, this star spoke to the history of Wicker Park, a neighborhood full of working-class Polish, Ukrainian and Hispanic people for so many years.

The star shape still holds a lot of mystery for me. Its definitions broaden and narrow with each passing generation. When one becomes famous, they are a “star.” As a young boy, on those rare occasions when my homework was correctly executed, the nun would return my paper with a red star on it. Tattooers love stars, often surrounding primary images with a field of spit-shaded stars. It is a shape that awakens something primal and positive in us. One of the great stories I’d heard about Crazy Horse out west was that he’d put a hail-stone behind his ear before entering battle, because he thought they were pieces of stars.

I had to stop making the star pieces last year in order to finish a show I was making about Crazy Horse. My idea was that his assassination was the moment the theft of our continent was a fait accompli. This body of work is part of my book, THIS TRAIN, which is about the idea of “What is home?” Why is this country our home rather than the people who first lived here, and how can we be better stewards of our home/nation/city? Oddly, there were no stars in the hobo alphabet. I didn’t notice this until I was finished with this body of work. I’d have thought surely this symbol would have worked its way into the arcana of slashed stick-figures and gestural marks that constitute this lost language, but oddly enough, in the hobo alphabet, there are no stars to be found.

I was bummed back then, that I had to move on to other work. I’d always promised myself that one day I would do a whole exhibition of stars or moths or birds, only. . .inevitably, to get distracted or curious about something else. So I figure from now until the first of the year, I have a little time to indulge this curiosity and I think I’ll make and meditate a little bit about the shapes of stars.

Last week, FireCat opened. After a year of planning, financial restructuring and furious footwork, we opened to the public and man did you guys ever show up! First, we are grateful for your support and hope that you’ll like and continue to check out our program. This place was built for artists. After years of hearing myself whine about there not being a place where worthy artists could show their work without being financially butt-surfed, I decided to shut up and open one. The inaugural show was my own for one reason. It was a way of saying “goodbye” to the place and neighborhood I’d worked for 17 years. If that seemed self-serving to some, so be it. It was the best strategy we had at the moment. Of all of the artists we had scheduled, I was the best known here in Chicago and we thought it would better our chances to draw a crowd and support. Also, I’d earned it. After 17 years of working there, I wanted a chance to say goodbye to my friends and neighbors.

I’d have not ever been able to keep such a lovely place going without the help of my landlord and good friend, Walter Aque. All over the art world you hear horror stories about landlords pricing artists out of their neighborhoods. Walter did not do this. He made it possible for us to stay there and became our friend and supporter and collector. He is a rare and fine person and we’ve been lucky to have him in our corner.

My friends at Three Floyds have been my collectors and beer sponsors for years now and they have also contributed much to our success. Lincoln, Barnaby and Nick have made every event we’ve had even more special with their generosity of spirit and beer and their unflagging goodwill.

While I have all of the organizational skill of a rabid ape, my partner, Stan Klein, is cool, measured and always about what is possible. He has kept this project between the ditches and moving forward. Our crew, Tanya Galin, Ashkon, Glenn, John, Michael and Tony and Lauren helped keep all of the balls in the air and I’m grateful.

It was unusual seeing this place change from an always chaotic and messy studio to an exhibition place. I’d never seen the joint so clean. When it was a print shop we could only spiffy it up so much. Now it’s. . .elegant. Who’d a thunk?

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The Spider Songs

The Spider Songs - Etching

I stopped making etchings about eight years ago.  I’d made a suite called the Autumn Etchings, and at the time I thought that was about as good as I had ever done it and that this juncture would be a good place to stop for a while. I was tired and it had been a rough ten years making nothing but etchings.  I learned a lot about how to make pictures and I loved etching, but also, having to finance a shop and sell the etchings was a full-time job in and of itself.  I was forever traipsing off to New York or New Orleans or L.A. with two portfolios jammed with etchings,flats, and interleaving.  I had a good time, but it was tiring as hell.  I also had missed making one-of-a-kind work; drawings and combing drawing and collage.  After the Autumn Etchings, I decided I’d not make any new etchings until I had something new to bring to it.  I eventually got rid of my presses and made my studio over into a drawing studio instead.

For ten of the years I made etchings I worked with Teresa James.  I hired her from a coffee shop and together, with the help of Stephen Campbell, we taught each other how to build an art business.  Teresa opened her own gorgeous studio, White Wings, about eight years ago and luckily for her, she’s not made all of the mistakes I have.  The years we worked together were hard.  Etchings sold for a fraction of what my one of a kind works did, but I was learning to be a better draftsman and expanding what I knew about drawing.  We had two shops;  one at 13th and Wabash across the hall from World Tattoo, and the one in Bucktown that is now FireCat Projects.  We had to hustle to scratch out a living, but with a shaky economy, we found a new generation of younger collectors that could more easily afford multiples and we were able to make a go of it.   Our collaboration culminated in Max and Gaby’s Alphabet, 26  five-color etchings for each letter of the alphabet that I made for my children.

We learned some bitter lessons about making art in Chicago; that a great many Chicago collectors buy their work elsewhere and that print-making had been relegated to a second-class kind of art-making here depite the rich legacy of phenominal artists who made prints in this city.

We didn’t care; we went about making our work for the best reasons possible. We had to.

In the last few months, I’ve started making some etchings again.  This time, Teresa is my publisher.  She and her assistant, Kari McCluskey, have helped me ease back into it without any difficulty.  I’d forgotten how much fun I’d had working with her.  Her new shop is bright and immaculate, unlike BigCat in its heyday.  It is a joy to work there.  We made a couple of things and I really enjoy them, so we’ve decided to make a new suite of work over the next several months and I’m really excited about it.  She and I were always a good team.  She was measured, patient and methodical and I’m a rabid ape.  Somehow, it all worked.  I’m grateful for Teresa’s hospitality and generosity of spirit.

This piece was inspired by my trip to Tokyo and a lovely, quiet park named Togo Ginga.

Happy Thanksgiving.  I am grateful for all of you.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Winter Tiger

The Winter TigerIn the past couple of months I’ve designed a couple of signs.  It’s kind of a natural fit because my work has a strong graphic component.  In both cases I did these for friends of mine.  Anthony Potenzo from Three Aces and Donnie Madia of Big Star, are both old and dear friends of mine.  Both are Chicago Italian guys who remind one of how this city used to talk.  Both have thick Chicago accents and a curbside eloquence that reflects their respective upbringings.  Donnie is a West side Italian and Anthony grew up on Taylor Street in a tight-knit Italian American enclave that used to be notorious for protecting its borders from ANYONE whose last name did not end in a vowel.  They are the kind of guys I met and had felt like I’d known them my whole life. . .and in a way I had.  They are guys who love this city and devour anything having to do with its history.  Both are consumate storytellers who evince a remarkable generosity of spirit.  They are my friends and I am fortunate for having them.

I liked making the signs because they are very public works of art.  They may be signage but they are also the visual lingua-franca of HOW I understand this city.   When I was a kid there were some incredible signs in Chicago; The Magikist lips on the Eisenhower Expressway. . .the Ferrara Pan Candy Company sign just off of Harlem and the Ike, and downtown there was a Winston cigarette billboard that actually blew smoke rings.  I was enthralled with these images, as well as a Bay’s English Muffin sign I used to see on the expressway as well.  They captured my imagination as a little boy and seemed to be a primary American language writ large. There were other signs. . .the Baby Ruth sign off the Kennedy, the Beatrice food sign that functioned almost like a trompe l’oiel device; all of them tricked out in neon.  The Star Carwash sign on Elston is still one of my favorites, enough so that I’ve included it in several drawings.  After a certain amount of time these images become iconic, like the Shell sign that used to loom large over the west side years ago.

I like the idea of making public pieces and I’ve not done much of it, mostly because I couldn’t find a medium I liked.  Now I have.  I designed these and with the help of Seaton Scarf’s flawless fabrication and Deirdre Boland’s elegant layout, I have a couple of public pieces and I couldn’t have done it without these two fine artists.

What’s kept me from trying to make public works before is just dealing with the city.  If you want to do a public commission in Chicago, it is best if you prepare your ass-kissing technique.  It helps if you use Preparation H for lip-gloss.

It is very political and the artist is made to jump through a shit-ton of hoops and be always hat-in-hand.  Fuck a big bunch of that noise.  I think I have found a coll way around this.  Signs.  I dig them.  They speak to me and one doesn’t have to subject one’s self to the verbal rectalingus of other public art projects.  Artists should not have to massage some bureaucrat’s sack to add beauty to the city.

The best thing about my signs is I’m getting paid in food.  These fuckers have no earthly idea how much me and my crew can eat.  Fuck, they’d have been better off paying my ass.  If I wanted to, I could eat a dozen of Paul Kahan’s tacos without breaking a sweat.  You include my crew, (where even the girls eat like a pack of fucking timber- wolves) jesus. . .we could bankrupt these poor bastards in NO time.  Anthony is getting off a little easier because Taylor Street is farther away from Ukrainian Village than Big Star.  Still, his day is coming.  We will eventually show up, forks in hand and eat the ass out of that place too.

The food in both of these joints is outstanding.  The music is good and it isn’t full of frat-boy fuckheads with their hats on backwards.

I’m really proud of the signs.  More than once I’ve had my driver, Ashkon, drive me by Three Aces late at night to see my work up in neon.  I never get tired of it.  It lets the city know I was here.

This new piece is called The Winter Tiger. More and more I like drawing moths;  almost as much as birds.  There is a ferocious poetry about them and their jittery flight and need for warmth.  It speaks to something ancient and human.

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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The December Moth

The December MothI found this moth in a book.  Startlingly and chillingly white, like the Angel of Death or the Eucharist of Winter, these elegant ladies seem to entreat the abandoned Catholicism in me.  That radiant white always was part of the church’s ritual; the death flowers. . .white calla lillies and roses. ..this powdery white essence, as ephemeral as ashes.

We are creeping ever closer to winter here.  The  six months of  slush and gray that turn this city into a Ggulag.  I get a ton of work done in the winter.  I go out of doors less and travel more.  I’ve slowly but surely embraced a more monastic existence.  I don’t really go to art openings at all.  This will change when FireCat Projects opens publicly.  That is the one opening a month I will HAVE TO show up for; seeing as, along with my partner in crime, Stan Klein, I own the place.  I used to make it a point to go to the galleries and see stuff; still do. . .but quietly now; never at openings.  Openings here tend to bring out every jag-bag in the village and you can smell the desperation, resentment,  jealousy and petty vindictiveness on them .

Our shows have never attracted that crowd of butt-wipes.  We get a healthy balance of real world and art world.  We keep things lively, we play music, give away the beer and always have a bit of food.  The vibe is always convivial and friendly.  Assholes and drunks are dispatched quickly and with all necessary encouragement, if they misbehave.

I’ve not had a show in Chicago in a few years and to be truthful, I was not in a big hurry to do this one.  The logic among my partners was that I had enough marquee value to assure  an audience for our first outing.  It also made sense as my last act there, in that space. . .the place I made my work for 17 years. It is your space now.  This show is really a way of saying goodbye.  I won’t have a public studio again.

More than likely when you visit FireCat Projects, you will meet my partner, Stan Klein, whom I’ve known since 1985.  Stan runs my career and Firecat Publishing as well as the exhibition space.  For the last year, we’ve quietly contacted the artists we wanted to shine a light on and we feel like we have a compelling collection of talent. We will release our first 18 months of exhibitions in the next couple of weeks.

I’ve been working like a fool to finish my pieces for this show.  I’ve always felt the toughest audience to please is here, and I really kicked it out for this show.  My first success was in New York and to a large extent this is where the lion’s share of my work goes to be sold.  In the last few years I’ve actually sold most of the drawing-collages  in Chicago, which was a huge and welcome surprise after 25 years of doing this.  I actually have a hometown audience.  I always had them for my etchings, but Chicagoans were slow to warm to my drawing-collages, but man, once they did, it was kind of amazing.

These pieces–the moths and superheroes–will be part of my next theater piece, “Stations Lost,” which I am writing as I make these.  It kind of builds on the questions that “This Train” asked–”What is home?” and “Who are we in the world neighborhood?”

Istanbul and its citizens made an immense impression on me as does the continual myth-making of the American narrative.  This body of work provided me with some answers.  I’ve outgrown the motives I had as a young artist and had my eyes opened a bit; enough so that the sight of moths circling the light, help lead me into the world.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 5:39 am  Comments (1)  
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The Messenger

The MessengerIstanbul has stayed with me a bit.  Upon landing at O’hare we were told about the suicide bomber that detonated a bomb in Taksim Square, 150 feet from the hotel where we stayed.  It happened about an hour after we’d left for the airport.  This shook me up a little.  I’d spent a lot of time in Taksim Square over that 11 days.  To me, it was the picture of a successful multicultural gathering place, not unlike Millenium Park here in Chicago;  a place where people from every part of the world congregate peacefully and enjoy themselves.  I walked there for a few hours each time, shopping and shooting the shit with the locals.  I learned a lot about life watching the visitors to Taksim Square.  Mostly I learned about what was possible for a city of wildly divergent populations.

The hideously ironic thing about this particular act of violence is how unpolitical it was.  The bomber was pissed at the cops.  This was not an act of Jihad, or at least not  an organized one.  The man, a Kurd, was pissed at the treatment he’d received at the hands of the Istanbul police in Taksim Square.

Law and order is dispensed harshly in this city.  There is a tennuous peace between religious and political factions and the police watch it carefully and adjudicate it with an iron fist.  The order is important in a city of this size and the cops mean to keep it.  I was surprised at the civility of a city this big and there is a reason for it; the vigilance of those in power.  Civil libertarians here would be appalled at some of the lack of freedoms here, but Turks have accepted it as the price of maintaining peace and order. There is an active anti-Kurd sentiment, but Turkey did take in the refugees when they had nowhere else to go.  Gypsies are also discriminated against in ways that would disgust us.  They’re not allowed in the Grand Bazaar, but rule the roost outside of it, being free to earn in the outdoor market.  Is it right?  No–but it is what it is and all parties involved have accepted it.  There is a system over there that all factions observe as the order and carefully observe the caste system as part of the natural order of their society.  If you are not from there you won’t understand it.  If you live there, this order is of great comfort to you.

There is bad in the good and good in the bad.

The days I spent there did not tip me off to any sense of an upheaval brewing among the populace. . .or maybe I am a dense motherfucker.

The style of conversation in Turkey is “argument” to the unaccustomed observer. Turks get right to it.  To someone observing, it might look hostile; but it isn’t.  It’s just the way it is.

I spent a lot of time over there talking to Muslims.  I’d realized that, other than some conversations with cab drivers here in Chicago, I’d never met anyone who was a practicing Muslim.  Like Istanbul, we are tribal here in Chicago.  We hang among our own.  One of the reasons I went to Istanbul was to see mosques and figure out what hell was so scary about Islam.  Truth be told, I met a lot of people who were not much different than us.  We want the same things they do; a decent life for our families, a dignified standard of living and to be left the fuck alone to think and do what we wish.

I met remarkable people who were generous of spirit and kind.  I was treated very well by people I didn’t know well.  I was also throughly taken with the city.  My friend, Penn told me that this was the difference between him and me;  he doesn’t much care about places; they don’t really speak to him; but has an immense affection for people.  I also like people and like Penn, believe that humans are basically decent.  Humans at their heart, I think, are good.  But I also do love places and the stories and history that shape those places.  He is right.

Istanbul, I felt let me return to my own country with less fear about the unknown–Islam and Muslims.  I feel like I now share some common ground with people our government has demonized at every turn; that there is a place in this world that I love, as do they, and feel protective of.  I feel happy that I have things in common with Muslims; a love of Istanbul and its people and places and a hope for our better selves  to understand each other.

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 12:12 am  Comments (1)  
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