Monday, April 27, 2015

HeART Broken

So yesterday I went, with caution and a sprinkling of malice aforethought, to maybe the most unabashedly commercial of all art fairs--- Art Expo New York.  The Pier, and even the trip there, already gives me a little spatial anxiety.   I mean, Macy's is not really my store, and in general, selective people with some kind of style and focus do better in a limited space with fewer exhibitors so they can actually 'see' the inventory.  Old-school art collectors are generally selective.  Even the Armory seems small compared to the scale of the Pier which not only dwarfs the art and the audience, but inherently poses the question: if this is 'art'-- a pricey, unique, manually generated commodity-- why does there seem to be a department-store sense of endless supply and mass-marketed over-availability?

Sundays in Manhattan are special for me…. always a little hung-over, that okay-to-be-late-and-not-answer-phones thing, maybe a tiny bit of church-vibe and spirit-access, and generally no gigs.  No cell, no iPad… just me, my mind and myself-- my new BFF.   On the trek west into the outer-borough of the highway Pier strip, I passed a little 'exhibit' of thrown-away furniture outside an old Hell's Kitchen building.  A filthy, saggy sofa which brought up memories of the first furniture I ever actually ordered and didn't 'acquire'…. with hope, a new husband, a little cool apartment with a patch of river view if you leaned all the way out.  Visions of the parties,  visitors now vanished,  nights of early MTV, dinners and cigarettes, bottles and toasts, stray dogs, sleep-over guests, couch-sex, tears and embraces, good meals and bad meals, Christmas gift openings, proposals, promises, discussions, good reads… and finally one day these members of our furniture family are put out for the Salvation Army or dump-maceration.  It had a certain Tracey Emin vibe, this little configuration of past dysfunction and current disuse… of dreams gone wrong, stained and threadbare relationships finally boundary-expelled from hearts and homes… maybe an illness or death, etc. I had a nostalgic pang of material withdrawal… a little tug at that place where old songs and great paintings nest.

But that sofa was to be the beginning and end of my Sunday art quest.  The minute I entered the cavernous Pier exhibition arena, the vague buzz of muted crowd noise, several music tracks muffled by the space, and the maze of booths-- hundreds and thousands, like one of those shanty-town photos with a jillion temporary homes and the sense of a hundred dramas in every one.  I tried to plan a route, but the scale and the arrangement made it nearly impossible to comprehend even the diagram.  Okay, I admit--- I'm not great with geographic technology.  So I tried to push myself like a shopping cart through a couple of aisles.  There they were-- the after-Picassos, the facile abstracts, the pseudo Harings and Basquiats, the graffiti-pieces, the studenty minimalists, the Sunday painter bad landscapes-- the birds and butterflies, the glitterized club-scenes, the tacky blown-up photographs, the mosaics, the paintings on glass, the ceramic monstrosities.  Then there were the lights-- the neon installations and the LED backed glass pieces, the constructions of found objects which failed to improve on their garbage roots, the gimmicks and crystals.  The mere number of these things-- one came down and another one went up.  Even the intricate webby OCD paintings looked as though they were cranked out by the dozen-- no thought, except --look at ME, I'm an ARTIST!

And then--  the celebrity and especially the rockstar art:  Jim Morrrison as a jigsaw puzzle, Jim Morrison out of spaghetti strokes of some kind of resin-paint, Jim Morrison in blue, Jim Morrison in red, Jim Morrison in red, white and blue, Jim Morrison from postage stamps, the Doors as dog-faces and cartoons.  Objects-- painted, cheap guitars with Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi and the Ramones… holograms of the Beatles,  Mick Jagger in candy and Swarovski crystals.  Glass guitars with lights inside, lights outside, black lights-- guitars that play music, and endless digital rockstar cartoons on a loop.

I finally made it over to the 'solo' area, hoping that the one-artist concept would have a little booth-consistency and thematic coherence.   But here were the artists themselves, seated like hopeful dogs at the pound-- waiting to be chosen, acknowledged, petted, taken home.  It was beyond sad.  I had to keep that non-engaged expression on my face because every single one of them, despite my sub-par clothing, greeted me like those Celebrity Apprentice contenders trying to lure customers into their pop-up store so they could log attendance.  Also, being late Sunday afternoon, this was their last shot.  Prices were being slashed, deals were being made.  Or were they? One artist-- the only one whose work caused me to stop and browse-- sheepishly admitted, despite the 'Blue Ribbon' she'd been awarded-- like best-in-show in the mutt competition-- that she had not sold a single thing.  Packing up her wares, driving 12 hours in a rented truck… un packing, building, painting, hanging-- the business cards and photos-- then 5 long days of standing or sitting, including a reception-- making smalltalk to people who haven't a clue, conversing with bitter disappointed fellow artists, hoping for a gallery affiliation…  then the depressing de-installation and the long drive home, with a hole in your pocket.  It was unbearable.

The saddest of all-- was the number of galleries and artists from the Ukraine.  People with a hopeless economy, putting all the eggs they maybe do not even have-- into the basket of this Art Expo, and then losing, like gamblers at the roulette wheel with no chips left.  I tried hard to like the Ukrainian art-- even inquired about price, was told I'd get a huge deal-- maybe $500… then the gallery head who looked a bit like the So You Think You Can Dance host-- quoted $1,000, and I left without a bad conscience.  But we owe the Ukranians a huge apology… in Russian, of course.  I am so sorry…maybe you tried to appeal to the Americans who love the Kardashians and Beyonce and brought the worst stuff you had.

Okay… one 'bright' spot… a gallery from Nigeria, which equally underestimated American taste (or not) and hung stereo-typical African art-- but at least they had soul and panache.  One of the gallery reps-- dressed in a suit despite the oppressive heat of the Pier lights and stale air-- took me in and gave me an analysis of a few pieces-- he was the artist-- and the story, and the symbolism, were truly a revelation.  He was so charming and lovely and full of life and passion, and I so wished I could have liked his work a little more, because he broke my heart.  Maybe 30 years ago I would have taken him home; he's going to be in New York for another week, he wrote on his card, hopefully.  But I'm way beyond this kind of sympathy vote.  All I now have is my ear, my heart, my eyes, my love of art, my passion to see something that rocks my aesthetic world and compels me to sacrifice food, phone, cosmetics, clothing, as I do, to support the artist.

I left at 6, with the sounds of de-installing and the sour stench of disappointment oppressive.  The late afternoon air felt a little better and I had to forego revisiting my sofa for a bus ride, because I really needed to get back to my little haven and remind myself about art and spirit and the smell of old paint.  I miss my Nigerian a little, but I can email him, and hope that he never reads my harsh words here, and that he returns to his country and figures out how not to please people with his art and just hunker down and DO it.  Because the saddest thing of all is the wasted talent-- the human ability to draw and paint and make things, and the desire to do this, and the undeniable skill and uber-skill which really has nothing to do with art because being an artist is solitary and sad and difficult, and you must resign yourself to be unloved-- maybe hated-- and you must sacrifice and become horrible and smelly.  Or not.    You can become a Kardashian.  I'm sure we'll be buying their paintings before long.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dead Ringer

Last night I passed this old junkie couple I see from time to time in my 'hood.  Occasionally one or the other is propped against a building with a sign, but they've been invisible most of the winter-- maybe on the dole or maybe sober in public housing.  The warm spring evening brought them out again and they were hanging around one of those random jewelry stores where the halogen display lights in the window make the inventory look like it's positively glowing.  I can never figure out who shops at these places-- besides the odd recruits they get to pass out promotional postcards, they are nearly always empty.  But the junkie woman was whining and nagging and begging… she wanted a ring.  No matter that she is old and pungent and missing her teeth and sporting a beer belly these days.  Beyonce whined for a ring.  Of course she made several hundred million from the song, but she got hers.  Put a ring around it, this woman now told her partner in her hoarse, loud voice with the bad language punctuating.  Yeah.

I had a ring.  The first one was a princessy-Tiffany thing that was bought for me by a college professor.  I was barely 20. My boyfriend at the time was a a young ethereal musician who was vague and laid back and lovely.  The professor looked like Alan Bates and I had just seen Women in Love.  He was older (29) and macho and ordered dinner with panache.  He used rhetoric and charm.  After a few weeks, he gave me the ring.  I was a little shocked, but I was also a little seduced by the novelty and the D.H. Lawrence fantasy and the attention, and I accepted in a version of my young life where the future was sort of the Emerald City.

A few weeks later, sitting in a carved mahogany pew at the staid New England family church of my fiancé, his mother caught my eye while I was admiring the way the stained glass reflected in my diamond.  She shook her head very slightly to reprimand me and right then I recognized that I'd pay a price for this sort of thing.  I wasn't having it.

Back at school, I was embarrassed to wear the ring.  After all, it was a little conspicuous with my jeans and painted T-shirts and bare feet.  I sheepishly visited my ex-boyfriend and realized that I missed our druggy hours listening to Jackson Browne and Traffic in a single dormitory bed, and after removing my diamond symbol, I cheated on my fiancé who was busily furnishing a cute little off-campus love nest for us.  Of course I told him-- I mean, he should have realized that I was incapable of any kind of serious commitment and being swept off my feet sort of left me hanging somewhere uncomfortable.

But he pressured and reasoned with me; he would let me have my little recess to come to terms with adulthood, and our future as a couple.  It resonated in some way-- I mean, in the fairytale version of my life, he was the perfect husband.  He even had a cool car and smoked unfiltered cigarettes.  But the ring was like an albatross.  It reminded me of my emotional confusion, and my failure to keep promises, and the responsibility which awaited me in my vague future.  Watching my junkie neighbors last night, I remembered how I went with my fiancé to return it to the jeweler, thinking the ritual would give me closure; but the jeweler himself insisted on holding it, because it was a custom design and he was certain we'd eventually repair things.  This horrified me.  It was like a soft noose.  I wanted it re-sized, melted down, put back in the case.   It haunted me-- the ring, the little GIF moment of his staid Boston mother shaking her disapproving finger at me in church.

Months later, we had a few good dates, serious laughs, a couple of weekends.. and then, one Sunday night, he produced the ring.  I felt betrayed, misunderstood-- like an animal that had been tricked into a pasture and then collared and caged.  I went into an emotional tirade and then I bolted, for good… into the stoner arms of my young boyfriend with whom I had no future, no plans, no rope or obligation.  When I finally got married, years later, there was no diamond-- just a simple band which was tough enough to live up to.

But what the junkie woman was wanting, I realized, was a kind of lasso on the future.  She wanted a symbol....  a reward for all the change she'd bagged on their behalf, all the nights they'd plotted and planned, copped and begged and cooked and injected, nodded and fucked and slept… a token for that enormous vague blanket of time they'd woven from their version of mutual reliance and using…however random it was.  Insurance that they were going to sleep under that blanket for couple-junkie eternity.  That he would not leave her, now that they were maybe sober, maybe on the dole, old and unattractive.  She wanted not just security but some bling to seal the deal.  Put a ring around it, yeah.

I wear a ring.  It's kind of an anti-ring--  an engagement ring I've kept over the years from a more recent almost-marriage.  It's partially my Mom's, partially someone else's Mom's… it was the ring that was in a way just a ring, because I think neither of us really believed in a future, but we settled for a ring.  It's just a ring.  I wanted to pull it off last night and give it to the junkie woman, even though she'll inevitably sell it for dope.   I wanted to convince her-- it's just the Scarecrow's diploma or the Tin Woodsman's heart-on-a-rope.  It's the myth that keeps these cheap jewelry stores, and 47th Street, and Tiffany's… in business.  But it was stuck.  It's like worn into my finger-- attached.  I am engaged to a ring.

What that woman really wants is for this co-dependent stand-in-for-a-husband, or anyone--  to want to give an unsolicited gift of love, but she, like many girls and women, has already played out the drama and burned the script to the end--reversed the roles, sabotaged the punchlines.   She may deserve this, like many women--- and she will not get it.   The rituals of love, and the tokens-- well, they have little to do with our own story, but somehow we squeeze into them, like clothes that no longer fit.  And we outgrow them.  With all the failed marriages, how many cast-off sad rings sit in drawers, get pawned or exchanged or re-offered, because fortunately the jewelry is recyclable?

In this world, we can't ask for love; we can only give it.  We can't take it back, and we can't do things over, no matter how much we'd like to.  My old great-uncle used to tie a string around his finger to remind him to do something or other.  Men I have known-- maybe even my husbands-- tell me they have removed their wedding band while they cheat on their wives.  Or not.  My ring reminds me of some kind of love story-- as it was, as it wasn't.  One day I'll pass it on and it will continue… in a box, on some finger, on ebay, down some drain into an urban sewer where one day some street-junkie might find it and sell it for dope.






Monday, April 13, 2015

The Dog in the Room

Anyone who lives in the city is aware of the dog culture.  More than ever, dogs have become part and parcel of not just personal fashion statements, but a symbol of something…. kindness, unselfishness, an identification with canine values--- like loyalty, integrity, unconditional love… whatever.  At night, my neighbors emerge and socialize on the street while their dogs sniff around and enjoy their brief outdoor recreation.  Some of these people would never speak, have nothing in common-- but somehow they bond via their breeds, their veterinary preferences, dietary recommendations, etc.  Like nannies, their  dog-walkers and sitters are frequent visitors to Manhattan buildings.

I love dogs as much as anyone; I grew up with them, I often adopted a stray in my college dorm-- it grounded me, gave me a sort of domestic vibe that took the edge off the academic competition and relief from the exhausting chatter of my fellow roommates.   But here in the city, and I have kept adopted strays and loved and cared for them, there is a dog-luxury-culture that turns me off.  One of my neighbors wheels her poodle around in a baby stroller.  I mean, if you're childless and lonely, this is a solution.  The dog seems only slightly ashamed.  But recently a sort of storefront canine day-spa has opened where a tek-serve-type place closed.. .and I've been spying on the patrons.  Mostly there are several dogs running around on a linoleum floor with few toys or distractions.  I guess they get some exercise, like prisoners doing yard-laps.  But they seem agitated and embarrassed--- like a cat in a huge fishbowl.  I mean, what's so bad about staying home?  Watching a little TV.  Looking out the window.  Waiting.  

My stray dog Rags was a wiry foxy hybrid of the Harlem/Bronx 1980's variety-- before Pit Bulls infiltrated the mutt population.  He was the one that escaped a Soho bar and came more than 100 blocks uptown to find me.  But he also seemed to have little regard for the boundary of my home, and ran away every chance he got.  He did often return, but not after giving me some sleepless nights and reminding me that he was an animal, not a human member of the household, and he intended to go back into his habitat when it suited him.  I had to respect that.  He wasn't particularly social and besides feeding and walking him, I left the grooming to a bi-annual bath which was miserable for both of us.  

I have one neighbor who somehow lost his show-quality Golden Retriever and immediately bought this Great Pyrenees as a distraction.  It weighs as much as a small bear.  They are rarely home and 2 or 3 people come in and out daily to walk it.  It's alone.  Waiting.  I wonder if city dogs have shorter lives; plenty of them seem to get cancer-- tumors, diseases, allergies.  There is a pit bull near my friend's gallery in Chelsea.  Occasionally when I'm there it walks by… it's a little terrifying and tough… but for some reason, it loves me.  Its owners warn people not to touch him;  but he seems to recognize me from another life.  I remind him of someone.  When they pass the gallery, sometimes the dog just sits and refuses to move.  Waiting.  I love that dog, but I ask it, silently, how it feels to be on a rope and have to repress all instincts and sit politely in some strange non-earthy environment all day waiting to be fed, waiting for company, waiting?  No wonder dogs in packs have another mentality.  

So I have this dog-repression empathy now.  A few of my friends-- well, their lives revolve around their dogs.  The ones that are home all day-- well, that's okay.  But a couple of them buy these high-maintenance breeds that require 24-hour air conditioning and special diets.  They hate the heat, and they look beautiful, but also a little psychotic.  Ugly childless couples who would have nerdy funky kids with short legs and frizzy hair and big ears.  They get these Siberian huskies to stand in for the graceful blonde/blue-eyed Nordic leggy kids they will never have.  And the dogs do crazy things.  They bite people and they puke in the house, and their expression is like a cry for help.  Ah Wilderness, their icy eyes say.   I'm a Jack London novel shelved with Sex in the City.  I'm hot and I want to dig a hole in the snow and sleep.  I want to kill me some pigeons and squirrels.  Help.  They live short lives and die of bizarre things like vitamin overdoses or intestinal parasites from eating mice.  They crave mice.  

My Swedish ex-boyfriend once told me he fell in love with me because I looked like his German Shepherd.  Maybe I am the dog.  I feel like I can read their minds.  The bulldogs with their long lists of ailments and weaknesses whose eyes bleed fluid.  The skinny little chihuahua mixes who shiver and beg you not to touch them.  The puppies who are joyful and pampered and haven't yet figured out that their life is going to change,  that they are very soon not going to be as pettable and cuddly and will be  relegated to an empty dark apartment where they will spend long bored hours sleeping and waiting by the door to have their basic needs met.  I pity them.  I want to set them all free somewhere.  

It seems unfair that anyone can adopt one-- whether they intend to mistreat and torture it, or whether they unknowingly condemn it to a life of boredom and enforced waiting.  So many of them are 'whims' to satisfy the kids, or a selfish indulgence that gets stale and begins to annoy, once the novelty has worn off and the weather has grown cold and rainy and you want to have a drink after work with that sexy woman who gave you 'the look' in the office, and your dog is at home, waiting in his apartment prison.  And some of these people come home resentful.  Some of them become abusive-- or give the dog up, let it go, pretend it ran away.  Facebook pages are devoted to these poor animals stuck in public and private shelters, wondering how they got there, and maybe thinking their crummy apartment was better than the cage and the fluorescent lights they must endure now.   Thousands and thousands of them, the victims of human neglect-- and not like kids who are conceived and born into families-- these dogs were deliberately adopted or bought or acquired.  

Who has not commented on the anagrammatic significance of the dog-word?  Maybe this explains our connection.   But they are everywhere in the urban streets… the sleek and beautiful and the mutty and ratty, the long and short legged, the spotted and spiky and furry-- the pug nosed and snouty-- more variety, it seems, than humans… on a rhinestone-studded leash, running in the park, tied outside Starbucks, peeking out of a handbag on the subway-- the cared-for, the uncared-for, the cheerful and the depressed.  Somehow they all break my heart, like foster children.  They don't want to be photographed-- they can't see the the stupid selfies, they can't see themselves in mirrors, they have no idea how ridiculous they look in their little rain boots, or why their owner will never have a date or a bedmate, besides them.  They dream of mountains and forests and snow.  Of other dogs.  They are lonely… they sleep, they pace out their apartments. Waiting.  My dog-owning friends, and these are many-- will hate me for this one.  But I don't want a dog.  I don't want to own anyone or anything living that doesn't follow me of its own accord.  I don't want to subjugate an animal or pull it or humiliate it.  It feels wrong.  

For all the Manhattan parents who cannot control their children because they will all say embarrassing things, get acne, be rude to teachers, wear hideous clothing… their dog will look exactly as the breed dictates.  It will stay photo-perfect on a leash and will have a little preventive muzzle if it bites.  You will force it to behave, and if it doesn't, it will rarely come outside.  It will make you feel normal.  Man's best friend, like a kept woman who never speaks up.  At worst it will bark.   But a dog's best friend will always be a dog.  A-dog.