Q and A: “Group Show” — PDNB

“Before World of Wonders I was working at a Starbucks in a shopping mall

and I had to suppress myself a lot.”

Quote from “Chelsea,” pictured below

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The work of husband-and-wife team, Jimmy and Dena Katz, is colorful — in every sense of the word. It’s also now on view at PDNB as part of a group show of 25 artists.  While plenty of the work is stellar, the Katz images are jaw dropping for a number of reasons. They’re candid portraits of sideshow performers and, thus, the subject matter itself is unsettling. They operate like postcards from a lurid and disquieting underworld. However, they also convey a sense of the performers’ camaraderie, and even exuberance, for their unusual lifestyle that is perhaps even more surprising than the sideshow itself.

Jimmy and Dena Katz typically work at jazz venues, photographing well-known musicians for magazines and record companies. However, they are also known for some “off-road” work that usually delivers the world with a sensibility canted toward the quirky. Their “World of Wonders” images are no exception. It’s also clear that they’re marvelously adept when it comes to capturing rare and insightful moments. To borrow a term from the jazz world, the images are riffs on the outré life of performers who are utterly at home with their offbeat lifestyle and friends.

We should all be so fortunate. Also, lest you feel sorry for any of the folks in the sideshow, the following quote might make things clearer from their perspective. Performer “Chris” states: “There’s a bad connotation about the word ‘carnie.’ There’s a difference between a carnie and a showman. It’s like the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad: they both come from the same animal but they’re very different.”

On that note, here’s a Q and A with Jimmy and Dena Katz:

a+c: Jimmy, how do you and Dena collaborate? What are your various roles in producing work?

We work very organically and we are both part of every aspect of the image. We often don’t agree about specifics but we shoot a lot and try out many different ideas. We both shoot but in this situation, because we were shooting large format, I normally work the camera.

a+c: Is there any commonality between your work in the jazz world and your images in the side show series?

Actually everything we do is based on our work in jazz. Meaning that we come to the project with a wide set of skills and some set ideas but then we improvise based on the specific situation. In our style of shooting, we are responding to the subject and the subject is responding to us, but in this situation we were also trying to work around their performing schedule and routine and not affect that. We don’t always know where the best frame will come from; however, we are always trying for intimacy and spontaneity.  Doing this with a large format 4 x 5 camera is what makes this such a challenge. That’s the trick!

a+c: Dena, do you think your previous experience living in Moscow gives  you an ability to see American life — and its idiosyncrasies — with an unusual perspective? If so, how would you characterize it?

Living in a closed society, my visual image of America was primarily from the movies, meaning that it always had a slightly theatrical patina. That impression was so strong that, even after living here for 23 years, my instinct is to reflect reality with a dramatic edge.

a+c: How did you come into contact with the sideshow you photographed? Are you still in contact with any of the subjects of your images?

They are quite famous, Ward Hall (editor’s note: Mr. Hall is the proprietor of the sideshow) was not particularly enthusiastic when I contacted him but he told me to stop by his trailer in Pennsylvania. When I shook his hand for the first time he said, “My name is Ward Hall and I am a professional liar.” I smiled and the deal was struck. He and his partner, Chris, are two of the finest and most honest people we have ever met.

a+c: What is the strangest thing that happened during your time photographing the sideshow series?

After a positive review of our book, World of Wonders, appeared in the New York Times I was contacted by a Hollywood production company about contracting the “World of Wonders” troupe to be part of a movie. The production company didn’t realize that I was a photographer and NOT their manager. Because we had a great relationship, Chris and Ward trusted me and allowed me to cut a movie deal for them. At one point when Chris heard that the production company didn’t want to pay for the “World of Wonders” troupe’s meals, Chris told me to tell the production company that that was fine with him as long as the famous Hollywood stars were going to be sitting with them at dinner eating 99-cent hamburger specials. The production company paid for their meals.

The movie was an extraordinary flop. It was called “Passion Play” and it grossed less than $1000 it’s opening weekend.

a+c: What was the underlying mood that characterized the performers, etc., in the side show? Determination? Despair? What are these people doing now? Or do you know?

Our general feeling was that this was their life and it was real. They wouldn’t be doing anything else and most of them are still at it.

a+c: Please tell us the story behind this image.

This image is a good example of how we work.  Our idea was that we wanted to photograph Natalie, the blonde girl with a snake. The snake started to move around and Natalie was not really able to control it.  We shot quite a few images that were all right, but not really strong. Then Chelsea came out of the back of the tent and started to interact with Natalie. It was like a jazz performance where we all had certain abilities and ideas and then it just started to expand. Getting an instant, a moment like this, that is unplanned, intimate, real and spontaneous and then doing it on 4 x 5 film is what we are known for.

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Q and A with Kelly O’Connor — Talley Dunn Gallery

Q and A with Kelly O’Connor

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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We’re reaching an exciting time in contemporary art for many reasons, not the least of which is a willingness on the part of young artists to negotiate the tricky terrain of what could be dubbed “the reinvention of retro.” Their work is fascinating precisely because it purrs with by-gone angst that they could never have personally witnessed. It’s hardly news that the fifties, sixties and seventies operated like a crazily constructed layer cake. The tropes of vacuuming in heels, Tupperware parties and go-go boots were all undermined by the ghoulish indelicacy of the daily news. The death of the Kennedys; the demise of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; the Manson family; the Vietnam war; the Cuban Missile Crisis and more. The list is enormous. However, it was ardently countered by stereotypes such as, well, Disneyland. Of course… Disneyland.

Artist Kelly O’Connor, recently featured in a group show at Talley Dunn Gallery dubbed “Please to Meet Me,” pulls off a genuine tour de force. She makes spectacular art from old postcards and creates collages that focus on what is ostensibly the “happiest place on earth.” However, her work slyly invokes the unrest and intonations of malaise that informed an era despite the fact that a] she wasn’t around to see it and b] images were carefully concocted for decades that portrayed a whole society of invincibly happy folks. It’s amazing but Ms. O’Connor “gets it.” She depicts cluelessly blissful people meandering through scenes fraught with portentous ruin. It’s spot on and remarkably perceptive for someone born decades after the hype was so avidly disseminated.

Here is a Q and A with the enormously talented Kelly O’Connor:

a+c:  How did you become so fascinated with retro Americana? Do you think that will be an enduring subject for your work for a long while?

K.O. I’ve been appropriating images from paper media produced during the 50s and 60s for the past 7 years.  My early work focused on Disney characters, which led to Disneyland, then encompassed more American landscapes for vacation destinations — resorts, national parks, and swimming pools.  One of my fondest memories as a child was driving with my family from Texas to the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Yosemite National Park, the Badlands, Minnesota and then back to Texas.  I am intrigued by early images and memorabilia of these landscapes, due to the simplicity of the images and the lack of pixels in the printing process.

a+c:  What do you think the impulse is regarding those images? Is it memory? Irony?  Past versus Present?  And what do you intend that to mean for the viewer?

K.O.: I want to convey an infinite and hypnotic space.  But yes, I am thinking about all of those things — memory, irony, and past versus present.

a+c:  There seem to be ominous undercurrents in your work. As examples: a “breakaway” pool and spinning rides that indicate a vertiginous state. Tell us about that.

K.O.: I like the tension in these artificial landscapes between the seductive façade and the controlled nature of your experience there.

a+c:  What about the tile shapes, the hexagons? Can you explain something about those?

K.O.:  The hexagons are extracted from record covers individually with an X-Acto knife.  I like the record covers because of the thickness of the paper and the almost infinite color pallet.  A few years ago I started working with wasp nests and dipping them in gold paint.  The pattern of the hexagons is both very beautiful and threatening. I use the hexagons in many of my pieces to create a gesture that helps establish the composition.  Sometimes I will layer the hexagons in a fashion to give the illusion of a void or infinite space.

a+c:   Do you see the era you depict in a humorous light? Or do the people in the works seem pathetically clueless?

K.O.: I see people from that time period as full of hope for a utopic future.  Now, I think that, as a society, we are past the idea of having any real utopia.

a+c:  On the other hand, do you long for the same kind of “cluelessness” they enjoyed — even during the “duck and cover” Cold War era?

K.O.: Sometimes…

a+c:  Is there anything significant about the technique about cutting out images versus Photoshopping them?

K.O.: I like the physicality and texture of collage. The idea of putting all the images on one compressed surface seems really flat.  However, some of my idols like Martha Rosler have been very successful at making beautiful pieces that way.

a+c:  Is “layering” a significant part of what you do? [I suspect that this is related to the previous question.]

K.O.” It’s a balance of layering and editing.  I like things to look complex but not overloaded with visual information.  I want my work to have the maximum amount of depth with the fewest number of layers.

One can only hope that this kind of astute melding of past and future is an intimation of things to come. The notion that society has somehow become rectified and the truth is told on the nightly news or the Internet is now generally understood as preposterous. So. What’s next? What will it be like when even the façade is banished? Who can guess? But, for now, seeing “vintage” images that flare with a sense of the absurd is engaging, fun and — most of all — reason to praise new and ambitious talent.

Review: Helen Altman’s “clear view” — Talley Dunn Gallery

[Originally published in The Dallas Morning News]

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Helen Altman’s work, “clear view,” now at Talley Dunn Gallery, is akin to a feel-good romp in nature. Or to put a finer point on it, it’s a romp in images of images. Interestingly, the artist works from vintage books and nature guides.  She readily admits to living in a house brimming with “older picture books” that she finds “nostalgic” — and they serve as points of departure for a genre of art that smacks of field glasses, cargo shorts and gathered specimens. The whole enterprise works as a much-needed reminder that our minds, when carefully tended, morph into magical places. Ms. Altman offers a fine example of what happens when we carefully curate our imaginations. Put another way: the obverse of “garbage in; garbage out” is “beauty in; beauty out.” What more important lesson is there?

Said she: “I knew the name of the show before I did the work.” For instance, “Fortune Tellor” is a “clear view” of a box covered by glass that you peer through to see pinned [and remarkably realistic] fish paired with flattened red dopplegangers. The latter are toys sold in Asian stores and ostensibly predict one’s future according to how they curl. In fact, when the artist purchased a batch, “(Fortune) Teller” had been mistranslated as “Tellor” and the name stuck. The work adroitly combines childhood innocence, a genuine fondness for nature and a quirky sensibility.

Other pieces include “Royal Palm,” a perfectly rendered acrylic painting of a vintage palm tree that smacks of National Geographic expeditions and exotic flora. It’s what would be at your grandmother’s house if she were both highly intelligent and well traveled. Meanwhile, her torch drawings — including “Bighorn Sheep (looking right)” — are tribal-ish works fashioned from wet paper and a hand-held flame. Ms. Altman notes, “Well, the fire does so much of the work.” I suspect that’s true, but only in gifted hands guided by a mind honed by books, pictures and a genuine fondness for lovely world — made even lovelier by the “clear view” show.

Review: “Group Show” — PDNB

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[Originally published in The Dallas Morning News]

“Group Show” at PDNB is an exhibition featuring 25 artists of significant stature; in fact, many of them have been acquired by museum collections and enjoy international accolades. While the subject matter ranges from Russian landscapes to headshots of cows with brightly lit colorful backgrounds, some interesting pieces show us shared notions of Americana — at a slant.

Specifically, Bill Owens and Birney Imes give us a proverbial slice of life that is anything but ordinary. The former artist is known for his ruthlessly candid photographs of suburban life that feature everything from stuffed refrigerators to toddlers parked in front of console televisions. One fascination he explores is the once ubiquitous Tupperware party.  In fact, “I enjoy giving a tupperware party in my house” was shot in 1971 and has all the elements of a madcap romp through retro exotica. Five women peer with rapt attention at a presenter wearing go-go boots and a bouffant hairstyle. Items surrounding her include a blender — which, at the time, must have appeared futuristic — and a cookie jar in the shape of a snowman. The depiction of shag carpet, velour sofas and “swag lamps,” operate as an exercise in time travel. Also, the odd slant of the ceiling pushes the whole episode into an out-of-kilter universe that dashes any notions we might harbor of a halcyon yesteryear.

Birney Imes, meanwhile, explores the other side of things. Literally. He photographs the obverse world of suburbia by capturing images of “juke joints,” the African American version of honkey tonks. It’s a ragged, torn universe replete with pool tables, Naugahyde and cigarette butts. However, window units, bare light bulbs and posters for music performers make it seem as if life’s underbelly might be palpably more interesting than Tupperware parties. That being said, it’s wise to remember the widely heard “grass is greener” adage. It all looks as if it takes an emotional toll — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful and engaging art.

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Review: “The Ordinary and Everyday” — RE Gallery

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[Originally published in different format in The Dallas Morning News]

RE Gallery is typically deemed a lodestar for “The Cedars,” the city’s newest burgeoning arts area, and gallery owner, Wanda Dye, has put up a show that celebrates “The Ordinary and the Everyday.” That being said, some of the works selected for the occasion are decidedly more celebratory than others. I expected the quotidian world to split wide and allow a glimpse into the way in which simple things deliver moments of Zen-like delight. Without such events, we’re banished to an “It is what it is” sensibility that becomes profoundly numbing. However, while the show doesn’t deliver an onslaught of magic, it does manage to offer some genuine highlights.

For instance, Nan Coulter’s twin images of Buenos Aires and Los Angeles (“BA” and “LA”) are simultaneously intriguing and instructive. They offer reminders of our vantage point for viewing the world. For the most part, it’s via the “lens” of automobiles, which function almost as second skins. We see the world through windows, windshields and delineated areas wherein we’re captured, riding posse through landscapes  — both foreign and domestic. Coulter shows us the West Coast and South America from the vantage point of vehicles while masterfully capturing images of buildings sporting portraits of Eva Perón and the Statue of Liberty. Both, of course, are female figures that work double-time as encapsulated narratives. Thus, Coulter gives us deftly executed images as well as linked subtexts — of mythic stature no less.

Meanwhile, Vince Jones’s collage, “Absorbed,” is akin to a dreamy flotation device. A bit of a Gauguin imagery functions as a bubble amidst a school of fish. The aforementioned fish and an exotically clad woman move in opposing directions. Largely constructed of a child’s vintage book, the work tugs at us until we rediscover a playful willingness to dive deep. It’s an easy, fun drift.

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Archived Review: Concrete Improvisations, Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente — The Meadows Museum

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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In a video accompanying his stellar exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Esteban Vicente notes that, in French, “collage” means “to glue.” If we weren’t informed otherwise, we’d be left to assume it’s fully synonymous with “to delight.” His work is largely lyrical and, if we give ourselves over to it, it’s likely we’ll begin to resemble the Adam of Medieval legend — our eyesight will inexorably be transmuted into sunlight. Vicente’s work is decidedly joyous and, in fact, he noted that his contemporaries were sometimes less fortunate with regard to disposition. He stated, “My generation — Pollock, Rothko — they ended up destroying themselves and their work. For me, I look at it from an entirely different point of view. I do what I like to do, and that is a blessing. So I am in competition with nobody — except myself.” Given the results, it must have been an extraordinary case of interior rivalry.

One of his earlier works, “Labels,” has a gloriously affable quality. It’s a stacking of cardboard, colored paper, printed labels, charcoal, gouache and pastel. The piece has a verticality that engages the viewer in a composite world of sky-blue, earthy brown and the remnants of a skirmish with consumerism — soap and sugar packaging, as well as labels for rice, milk and, surprisingly, Campbell’s soup. The latter was included in Vicente’s collage six years prior to Warhol’s groundbreaking work depicting “the” soup can by six years. This isn’t wholly mysterious since the Spanish-born Vicente moved to New York in 1936 and became part of the movement of first-generation Abstract Expressionists. He was a prolific artist who helped organize shows, including the “9th Street Exhibition,” that ushered in a host of artists collectively known as the “New York School.” The group included Elaine and Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is “Black Susan.” It has the look of something derived from nature — thus the name suggestive of a black-eyed susan bloom — as well as a weathered vortex. It’s distinctly painterly despite the fact that it, too, is made of torn paper and assembled brilliantly to evoke emotional depth and chiaroscuro. It exhibits a curving sweetness that, while not as cheering as some other pieces, moves us toward a plane on which the hugeness of nature is acknowledged and paid homage.

Along with his collages, the Meadows also displayed his “divertimientos” or “juegos,” (toys in English). The pieces are highly geometrical and offer proof of his familiarity with Cubism, Constructivism and assemblage. And, if this isn’t enough, you can put Vicente’s work in greater context by visiting the museum’s adjacent show of paintings by his contemporaries, including Picasso, Rothko, a host of other luminaries, as well as one of his students, Chuck Close. The show is punctuated by a moving statement issued by Vicente: “The great mistake of many artists is that they close their eyes to the past…. You have to look back to tradition. The artist has to be part of something. Art belongs to a traditional line that reaches back and it will go on forever.”

Well said. And, better yet, well demonstrated by the collages and small sculptures composing this remarkable show. It’s nearly unbelievable that Vicente has been relegated to a less recognized canon of artists. This show should change that. It’s always a joy to witness the excavation of genius.

Archived Movie Review: “A Piece of Work” and “Holy Rollers”

[originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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The Secular and the Sublime

“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” begins with a close-up of Ms. Rivers sans make-up. It announces what’s coming — an unstinting, sometimes distressing, look at the inner workings of precisely what makes the hardest working woman in America tick. Note the present tense. She avidly cultivates a relentless schedule that would make twenty-somethings flinch. She admits she lives “the way Marie Antoinette would if she had had money.” And yet there are never enough baubles to signal an end to Ms. Rivers’ work. This new film, among other things, shows us how careers operate when they’re wedded to one’s deepest love. Unlikely as it seems, “A Piece of Work” unfolds as a love story. It becomes obvious that Ms. Rivers is clenched in a relationship with the stage — and that’s the result of her own psychic need and its twin rewards of heaping money and wrenching distress. As an example, she chooses to endure a hideously brutal celebrity roast for… money. Her manager notes “she lives like the Queen of England” and, yet, the coffers are always yawning, waiting for yet another load of cash, no matter what the psychological cost.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, known for riveting documentaries that include coverage of the genocide in Darfur, headed a crew that was given complete access to Ms. Rivers and her entourage for fourteen months. It’s extraordinary how close they were with their subject matter. Literally. Note the aforementioned close-up of the well-documented surgically altered face. It shows us veined and blotchy skin and over-plucked eyebrows. With the aid of generously applied makeup, this painfully raw visage gradually morphs into the legendary persona recognized by most everyone on the planet since her early days of performing on the Carson show. She emerges looking like her Upper East-side self and ready to plead for bookings at less than palatial halls of comedy.

When asked to check her calendar she says, “Let me get my sunglasses.” Like every other painful thing in her life, it’s transformed into a comedy routine. The glare of the empty, white pages isn’t mere pain or panic; it’s fodder for the comedic mill. Of course she can afford to quit. But one begins to believe she’s unable to. She’s locked in the anonymous embrace of paid audiences who laugh with her — and at her. As her daughter, Melissa, notes, it’s the lucrative form of making a living that falls to the deeply injured.

And, to touch on a more than mildly delicate subject, the film becomes one vector into Judaism via Ms. Rivers’ readily admitted role as team player in the genre of a stereotypical money-mad workaholic. With all of its oddities, I find that laudable. She’s clearly grateful to be “chosen” and she says so in a Thanksgiving prayer. She also lets us know she says, “Thank you, God” every time she sets foot in a limo. The woman is clearly grateful for the ability and opportunity to work and to perform and to make us laugh. And laugh you will. Even when you feel you shouldn’t. Therein lies her genius. Nothing is off limits. Not her husband’s suicide; not sex over the age of 60; not her own less-than ravishing looks. And regarding the Jewish-ness of this intimate study, her funniest lines come delivered with a perfectly rendered German accent or comments about Mel Gibson herding Jews into train cars. This shouldn’t be funny. Should it? But it is. She robs horror of its impact by making us do that most human thing of all—laugh. It’s a trick older than Aristophanes.

Her façade opens most widely, however, when she talks about the past and the people left with whom she can share memories. She’s tearful and it’s not only touching to watch—one begins to realize the woman is a hero. She’s still performing, still opening professional doors for women and, now, older women. And that’s no small feat. She’s crass. She’s “in your face” and she’s beautiful. Ms. Rivers’ remarked that no man had ever told her she’s beautiful. They were wrong. They were just not giving her the admiring gaze she so richly deserves. Maybe this film will put things in perspective. After all, secular humor can be quite sublime.

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Holy Rollers

I suspect Holy Rollers is an attempt to let us peer into the machinations of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and see how lovely a life of familial ties and rigidity can be. But it just doesn’t work that way. In fact, if you think the life of a Hasidic Jew sounds exciting, just wait until you see the movie. It’s searingly, numbingly boring. Here’s the synopsis: semi-schmaltzy young boy goes wrong by becoming a drug dealer and it’s really, really hard to care. This is surprising for me because, oddly enough, I’ve been a fan of this (admittedly arcane) subject matter since I discovered Chaim Potok in seventh grade. Not to mention Brooklyn at a later, more interesting, phase of my life while exploring Manhattan and its environs. I was looking forward to this film. But, Lo unto us all, it’s a mammoth bust.

Jesse Eisenberg plays the young Hasid who goes astray.  He acts the part well enough but we’re never instilled with a high-pitched fervor that makes us long for him to return to his family and seedy, homespun life. In fact, when he careens into secular terrain of drug running and vaguely sexy-druggy-dancing, I’m not aghast. I simply don’t care. Never mind that it’s a true story. Big deal.

It could have been a wonderful drama—but we’d have to like the characters more and care whether they live, die or continue to wad themselves up in leather gear to maniacally engage in rituals of the tribe. This could have been great. It wasn’t. Not even close. If you want an interesting outing with Hasids, I suggest you head for Paris and wander around in Le Marais. It’s more expensive but worth it.