I’ve been looking around at all these Top 10 Art Books of 2009 lists, and geez, it’s no wonder everyone thinks art is so boring and stuffy. The upside is that if some rich, misguided relative actually buys you the $600 six-volume edition of Van Gogh’s complete letters the cognoscenti are drooling over, you can return it and buy everything on my list, with enough left over for a bag of weed and six hours of Thai massage.
Speaking of a bag of weed, those who routinely flipped by their L.A. public-access cable channel between 1996 and the untimely demise of the medium in January of this year at some point probably stumbled incredulously upon The Threee Geniuses, a transcendently self-indulgent orgy of cheap video wipes, stroboscopic edits, trashy glam psychedelia and incoherent studio actions, all mashed up in real time, usually to the equally fragmentary soundscapes created by the Venemous Invisible Amanda, aka Don Bolles. Augmenting the titular genii (Dan Kapelovitz, Jon Shere and Tim “Mr. X” Wilson) were an array of talents ranging from cable-access luminaries like Francine Dancer and David Liebe Hart to noted schizophrenic street people Andy Dick and Ariel Pink. Titled The Re-Death of Psychedelia (3geniuses.com) the 3Gs’ new compilation DVD proves the show was as physically difficult to watch as it always seemed, and perhaps the most challenging and inventive structuralist video art of the new millennium. If it ain’t headache-, nausea- and seizure-inducing, it ain’t avant-garde!
Andy Kaufman was only incidentally a professional comedian, though the exact nature of his primary vocation is hard to pin down. I used to consider him in a similar light as the 3Gs — a great performance artist whose work was ignored by the Art World because it frequently took place on TV — but now I tend to think of him as more a sort of confrontational philosopher along the lines of Diogenes the Cynic, using his body and personality as mutable props to instruct the public in the flimsiness of socially constructed realities. Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! (Process Media) compiles a remarkable set of documents that bear witness to his effectiveness — letters from women (mostly) accepting his 1979 challenge on Saturday Night Live to wrestle any member of the weaker sex as proof of male superiority. If defeated, he would shave his head, award his opponent $1,000 and allow her to marry him. Outraged, off their rockers or in on the joke, Kaufman’s respondents seem to draw their energy from his disruptive creativity, cartooning, collaging, striking poses in the requisite photo, and inventing novel epithets (“spineless mollusk” “inane drone”) on their “Broad Power” postcards or “Notes from a Sensuous Woman” stationery. Kaufman would pick the sexiest challengers, then book a college performance in their town, ultimately claiming to have bedded 80 percent of his opponents. Whether that’s art or philosophy is still up in the air.
It may have been in the pages of Chemical Imbalance that I first encountered the work of Michael Kupperman — back when he was known as P.Revess and drawing the Alzheimerific adventures of Cousin Grampa and Pablo Picasso. His nostalgic graphic style — reminiscent of old engravings and woodcuts — was more rickety and disjointed then, and his humor and narratives even more incoherent. In the late ’90s he produced Up All Night, an awesome alt-weekly comic, anthologized as the brilliant Snake ’n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret, which for some reason went straight to the cutout bins. Small wonder Kupperman fell in with the thugs at McSweeney’s, cleaned up his line and took to the illustration fields. A couple years ago, he resurfaced at Fantagraphics with his own comic book, Tales Designed to Thrizzle, whose first four issueshave just been anthologized as a hardcover — bringing a slick, hyperreal illustrative consistency that amplifies the already dreamlike mixture of familiarity and strangeness, which permeates his deadpan surrealist slapstick. This year also saw the debut and immediate disappearance of the Adult Swim TV version of Snake ’n’ Bacon. But third time’s the charm. I say go for the feature film.
Mike McGonigal always seemed like the archetypal zine editor as he came of age helming the deeply idiosyncratic mix of indie music/comix/free jazz/outsider art/experimental literature known as Chemical Imbalance, before being stabbed by a mugger, descending into junkie squalor and disappearing from public view. He turned up on amazon.com in the late ’90s, writing and editing reviews, lending the young online company the credibility of his visionary-leaning literacy. For the last decade he has operated out of Portland, publishing YETI — an occasional book-format journal whose latest, eighth issue includes typically eclectic features on a lost collaboration between Johnny Mathis and Chic, a transcribed polylogue by multiple-personality blues preacher Bishop Perry Tillis; an interview with French female drone composer Eliane Radigue; selections from Luc Sante’s collection of mind-blowing folk photography (also the subject of a beautiful new YETI book) and much more — as well as a CD featuring a mix of McGonigal’s current audio obsessions, lately hovering between vintage gospel and neo-psych, and always the cherry on the sundae of anything he edits (yetipublishing.com).
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Along with Tim & Eric, the video auteurs who have been actually keeping Adult Swim’s edge alive are the Brooklyn-based multimedia enclave PFFR, who record addled rock music and make gallery art, and who stretched the limits of decency and humor with their two-season “kids’ show” for MTV2, Wonder Showzen. Since finding a home at AS, their most remarkable achievement has been a totally fucked-up animated series called Xavier: Renegade Angel a cryptic, recursive, ridiculous spirit quest/criminal investigation rendered in a clunky video-game cubism. The protagonist is a hirsute, beaked, six-teated humanoid with a snake for a left arm, and sneaker-clad backward legs, who poses questions like, “I flip more lids than a monkey in a soup kitchen ... of the mind! Does this make me a hero?” in a voice remarkably similar to that of Keanu Reeves. The recently released, essential two-DVD set collects the first two seasons, and it appears there will actually be more — a blessing if only for its infuriating effect on the whining anime fanboys who only tune in for the Saturday night J-porn marathons and reruns of Family Guy and Futurama.
While we’re torturing geeks, I have to put in a good word for Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics: The Anthology, also from Fantagraphics. Given the historical simultaneity of modern art and graphic narrative, and the considerable amount of crossover between the traditions (Japanese ukiyo-e prints, pop art, etc.) it seems odd that there hasn’t been a movement to bring the language of nonrepresentational painting into the narrativizing sequential structure of comics. As editor (and contributor) Molotiu points out in his introductory essay, artists like Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger were quick to successfully translate geometric abstraction into the equally narrative-prone language of cinema. Many of the best works here could in fact be storyboards for animations. But the thing is, most comic readers are primarily interested in the medium’s conventional storytelling potential, often vitriolically so. The collection has a wealth of rewarding material, some of it awkward, some groundbreaking — on the whole, it is a significant historical document that may jump-start an actual new genre. I’d have liked to have seen the fine-art examples reproduced on equal footing with the contemporary comic art, and some love for Jess and Oyvind Fahlstrom, but that’s what volume 2 is for, right?
Fantagraphics (again) certainly delivered big-time on the second (and probably final) collection of primitive comic savant Fletcher Hanks’ You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!, as well as with the almost-as-weird Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941.
It has been harder and harder to find underrecognized areas of graphic design — a notoriously self-cannibalizing visual field — to revive and valorize (or crib from), but Dan Donahue has come up with a doozy with Ultraviolet: 69 Classic Blacklight Posters from the Aquarian Age and Beyond, which promises that each of the winged, blue unicorns, righteous soul brothers, floating crystal palaces, and many, many naked hippie couples will “shine brilliantly” in the presence of a black light (not included). The Red Book: Liber Novus by Carl Jung makes no such claims but compensates with a deeper, more heartfelt and artistically significant array of personal mythological symbolism. Created during a prolonged period of craziness after his split from Freud, Jung’s Red Book is more than 200 hand-painted illuminated manuscript pages chronicling his experiments in “active imagination” — basically dreaming while you’re awake. Hidden from public view until this year, its publication by Norton — and current exhibition of the original at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC — are significant moments in the history of analytic psychology. But the real surprise for most will be seeing what an interesting and accomplished painter Jung was. Having just gotten around this year to reading Deidre Bair’s excellent 2003 biography of the depth-psychology patriarch, we know the guy was something of a dick. And clinical psychology is no excuse for being a dick. Luckily for Jung, philosophy and art can be.