Blue Bull (An Act of Theft from the Great Lou Beach)

Blue Bull etching

Every once in a while people ask me who my favorite artists are. It’s a hard question because there are SO many. I often try to name living artists so people can look them up and maybe support them.

A few years ago I got to meet the great Lou Beach who, for my money, is one of our greatest living collagists. Lou has been around for years. He still has a beatnik kind of swag and a soul-patch.  He is one of those cool Echo Park guys that came of age in the 1950s.  His given name was Lubisch. I know this because his daughter, Alpha, is a friend of mine and also a world-class collagist.

I don’t know Lou well.  He is part of the gang I hang with out in Los Angeles. When I am in town, a gathering of art hoodlums is assembled–the great Hudson Marquez (sculptor and gearhead and rock and roll veteran), Billy Shire, (proprietor of La Luz de Jesus, the birthplace of “Low-Brow” art and where a whole passel of us got our start in LA) Ian McShane, (the fine Scottish actor known for playing Al Swearengen; the guy who calls everyone, “cocksucker” on HBO’s Deadwood) and, when he is in town, Dave Alvin (my favorite member of the combative Blasters–the great Rockabilly, R&B, Soul-driven outfit that sound as great today as they did in 1980).  It is heady company to be in, to be sure, and I’m flattered that when I’m in LA, there is a place at the table for me.

The first time I ever saw Lou’s name was on a Neville Brothers album cover.  Lou did the Art for Fiyo on the Bayou and I had been hired to do the next one, Yellow MoonI was nervous. Lou’s piece of burning crocodiles slithering out of the Louisiana swamp was one of the coolest album covers I’d ever seen.

I thought, “Fuck. I have to follow this guy.”  Why they didn’t just rehire Lou was unfathomable to me.  After that, I started seeing his credit a lot in The New York Times and he was always letter-perfect–witty, economical, never too much or too little. Over the decades my respect and admiration for him grew.  He knew something about melding images, words and other elements that went beyond the mere cobbling together of things. Lou’s collage work followed a poetic logic–until it was time to follow poetic illogic–often in the same picture.

Lot’s of artists are clever. Lou Beach is smart. What is craft in a lesser artist’s work, is art in Lou’s flawless execution.

This has never gotten him rich, but believe me; anyone who makes collages knows the name, Lou Beach, and we all steal from him.  Hell, this pretty little blue bull I just made? Swiped it wholesale from a Lou Beach piece–I didn’t even bother changing the NAME.

He has just published a gorgeous book called, 420. No, not that “420.”  It refers to the amount of characters Facebook used to allow you to put in a status update. It is also packed with his amazing art.

Buy two–you’ll want to give one to someone special.

Down the road, Lou has agreed to have an exhibition at FireCat. If I’m lucky, perhaps I can persuade his perpetually shy daughter to also show here as well.

And for those of you who want to know what a great collagist is, google “Lou Beach.” Buy one.  In fact, if you’re smart, buy as many as he will sell you. This is a guy I am constantly in art-debt to.  There is a reason for that. He is the best.

Published in: on March 24, 2012 at 7:21 pm  Comments (1)  

Lost Angel

Lost Angel etching

“New Orleans is the only city that loves you back.”– Michael Domenici, DJ and program host on WWOZ New Orleans, Louisiana

While I was away slurping oysters and listening to the best music in the world in New Orleans, Chicago was hatching a new “cultural plan.”  There were four town hall-like meetings to plot out the trajectory of our cultural future. A Canadian company of creatives has it all figured out, because what we rubes really want is a creative culture just like. . .Toronto.

Oh, joy.  Now I’ll be able to sleep at night. The Canadians and the Department of Tourism are all over it. They are on it like white on Richie Daley.  What once was the Department of Cultural Affairs in the city of Chicago is now tucked up the ass of the Department of Tourism. Welcome to East Bumfuck!  Evidently, a tiny little burg like Chicago doesn’t rate an autonomous Department of Cultural Affairs.

Now there are damn few things about which I would tell the City of Chicago to emulate the City of New Orleans in cultural practice, but a few years ago, the cultural revitalization of New Orleans–post Katrina–began in earnest. And you know what? With a few bold strokes, it worked.  Which is not to say everything is hunky-dory in the Crescent City.  There is plenty that is still woefully fucked -up, but their cultural cachet, their profile in the arts, has come boldly forward and is still on the rise. There are more artists, writers, musicians and poets than there have ever been.  And they keep coming.

There are a few reasons for this.  While it is getting more expensive, New Orleans is still a bargain as far as rents go. Their art scene is growing since the success of Prospect 1, the New Orleans Biennial.  Three years after Katrina hit the gulf coast with about thirty times the force of the atom bomb, New York curator, Dan Cameron opened Prospect 1. Unlike other biennials in the world, there was no centralized “pavilion.”  The whole city of New Orleans was used. From the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard,  Jefferson, St. Roq, the Foubourg Marigny, East Lakeview, Gentilly, to the Bywater, every part of the city was included and it was a brilliant strategy. Cameron knew that anyone covering New Orleans’ first biennial would have to traverse the whole city and take measure of New Orleans while it recovered from disaster, dispossession and furious loss. They would also see a culture of no surrender and fierce pride. In short, by taking measure of the city and its art in its totality, even the most callous of critics would be seduced by the charming knot of contradictions that New Orleans is.

The reviews were ecstatic.  The New York Times, The New Yorker, the art rags fairly glowed with positive notices.  Imagine if Chicago tried this?  There is yet another art fair coming here in September.  This, in the wake of the Merchandise Mart franchise, “Art Chicago” going tits-up by their explanation of their own volition.

Boo hoo.

This may seem a bit churlish, but I am sick to fucking death of art fairs or “art trade shows,” is more like it. They are a for-shit atmosphere in which to look at art.  The art itself is robbed of its definition; crammed together like velvet paintings in a Tijuana whorehouse. I take that back. Tijuana whorehouses are far more tasteful than most art fairs.

Worst of all, it is high school with money; mostly a lot of wealthy hand jobs deciding, by edict and platinum card, what “art” is.  The art fair-logic is that dollar bills and brain cells are the same thing.  You don’t believe me?  Take a walk around Miami Beach in early December when the art world clown car empties out and pitches its tent in South Beach. Welcome to the land of spray-on tans, Botox boutiques and cut-rate tit-jobs.  And oh, there’s art.

It’s prom night for the assholes. Artists get to stand around and get patted on the head by de’ rich folk.  In this setting, we’re the help.  We may as well be wearing white gloves and passing out hors’ dourves or parking the cars. Does this sound like culture to you?

What if Chicago tried something like a Biennial? What if it used the whole city to do so, with as many neighborhoods as possible boasting a different kind of art station? What if we tied it in with an exhibition of the greatest architectural exhibition on the planet (which is what our city IS)?  In fact, let’s throw in some celebrations of the finest theater in this country. I imagine Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, Red Orchid, American Blues and too many other fine companies to mention are more than up to this task.

While were at it, we might want to flex those musical muscles as well.  Pound for pound, our symphony smokes everyone else’s.  We also have some other great music as well. Imagine a night of Wilco, Robbie Fulks, Kelly Hogan, Buddy Guy, The Waco Brothers. . .

If you’re going to celebrate a city’s art, celebrate ALL of it.  Put the whole town on display and you know what? You find out that art is a much bigger pursuit and its practitioners cast much longer shadows than what can be housed on Navy Pier.

It’s like the man said all of those years ago.  “Make no small plans.”

Something happened to me while I was in New Orleans three years ago. I began to realize what art meant to a place.  Especially a place that had endured the privation and horror of something like Katrina. My friends down there were making work furiously; writing songs, writing poems, making paintings, drawings, sculptures, often of whatever they could lay hands on because money was scarce and a good many of the art supply stores just never reopened. It didn’t matter–they found a way, and art found a way.

One woman I knew just went around making bottle-trees, meaning she found small glass bottles and affixed them to the branches of the trees–sometimes as many as 200 bottles on one tree–and when the breeze goes through them, they sound like chimes.

She told me, “I only make them because the sound they make is beautiful. . .and the beauty will lift us above the sadness.”

It is a small thing and there were a thousand small, beautiful things done by hand, paint, and song to remind New Orleans of its essential and luminous place in our country and world.  The first day that the streetcar ran again, I was in New Orleans. I rode it Uptown while thinking that the longest streetcar line in the world was once in Chicago, on Western Avenue.  A few blocks after Robert E. Lee Circle, I see a three-legged dog, a typical New Orleans mutt of no discernible breed.  He’s wearing Mardi Gras beads around his neck, and I laugh my ass off.

This is what one cannot kill in New Orleans–the joy.

Published in: on March 23, 2012 at 12:34 am  Comments (2)  

She Is a Dying Star

Thank you, New Orleans, for your authentic, fierce and relentless poetry. . .

Thank you New Orleans for your authentic, fierce, and relentless Poetry.....

She is a dying star;
A winter dervish,
A shaking semaphore of white lights,
A lovesick comet.

Published in: on March 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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I Was of 3 Minds

I Was of 3 Minds

The second way to look at a Blackbird:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

Published in: on March 18, 2012 at 10:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Or Just After

V.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 11:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Little Egypt Danced Here

Little Egypt

“Well a woman I love is named Ramona
She kinda looks like Tempest Storm
And she can dance like Little Egypt
She works down at the snake farm. . .” – Ray Wylie Hubbard, ‘Snake Farm’ , 2010

There were actually three women that danced using this name–a name that later became synonymous with belly dancing.

Farida Mazar Spyropolous was a chubby Greek girl who danced at the 1893 World’s Fair, or Columbian Exposition, as it was called.  She so wowed the crowds with her “Coochee-coochee” dance, that it was made illegal in Chicago almost immediately.

Another “Little Egypt,” Ashea Wabe, was rumored to be about to dance completely nude at the millionaire bachelor’s party of Herbert Seeley which was subsequently raided and made a front page star out of Wabe and insured lucrative dancing engagements for years to come.

It was the end of the 19th century, the gay ’90s.  Day after day, a new P.T. Barnum came along with a new hustle and new technologies to make all things seem possible; a decade of the boastful American ambition, writ large. In skyscrapers, the first automobiles, half-naked women and an electric-lit gargantuan steel circle called, “The Ferris Wheel,” from the top of which, it was rumored, one could see three states. The World’s Fair made Chicago seem like the most modern city in America. . .and the most American of American Cities.  Architects remade the lakefront with impossible-seeming structures and electric lights.  The city that had burned to the ground twenty years earlier was reborn, a shining bolt of lightning over the prairie.

That dancing-almost-naked thing caught on as well, in a big way. All of the pics of “Little Egypt,” which include many different women, paint an alluring and exotic woman. She (the many “she’s”) was a real looker; big tits and hips–what was then referred to as zaftig– and huge eyes, completed by long, black, inky curls. So popular was this “Egyptian” look, the hookers from the levee district adopted it en masse. Even years later at the Everleigh Sisters’ infamous brothel, there were always one or two girls who adopted this look.

Fatima Djemille, the third woman to use this name in 1893 was such a fox, a film-maker no less than Thomas Edison made two films of her shaking her stuff, Fatima‘ and ‘Cochee Coochee, a couple of movies I’m pretty sure are not on the registry of great American films, but may have been Edison’s own private yank-reels.

Chicago was a hustler’s paradise.  The newly-minted entrepreneurs opened strip joints, gaming houses (complete with dice and card games) in the city’s Levee District, run in the early part of the new century by a gentleman gangster named Big Jim Colosimo, an opera-loving, church-going, moustache-pete hoodlum of the old school who would later get his hair parted the hard way by Al Capone triggermen in their hostile takeover of the city’s rackets.

Chicago was a place of possibility; a place where one could remake themselves and reinvent their lives. Politicians loomed large in the public arena, as did sports stars.  This was a culture based on hero worship. Even gangsters were known to sign autographs.

The largely religious city also made sexuality a back-alley, guilty pleasure and nickelodeon porn “smokers” were filmed in some of the city’s whore houses and forest preserves for nudist films.  Chicago was a city about work.  Vice, lust, gambling and alcohol?  Unless this was your JOB, nobody wanted you fucking around with it. This town has always been full of the cheapest variety of moralizers and holier-than-thou hypocrites who will tell you how to live. . .until they get caught taking a payoff, getting blown by a cheerleader or spilling an eight-ball of blow in front of a table full of detectives (this happened to a guy I know at House of Blues–and yes, he was arrested).  Once the moralizer gets caught, they admit they have “a problem.”  When the rest of us do it, we’re merely moral imbeciles.

What I love about “Little Egypt” was that she seduced a city.  It’s 120 years later and we are still talking about her–all three of her.

Published in: on March 1, 2012 at 1:59 am  Comments (1)  
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