Gary Indiana, Utopia’s Debris
(Basic Books, 2008)
Your dictionary becomes a box of Godivas, as Gary Indiana sends you pell mell to look up old (forgotten) friends and new. These collected essays that were published in Artforum, Bookforum, The Village Voice, and other cultural life support systems, are uniformly a pleasure, each one a delectable, umber treat.
Beginning with the prominent premise that death is absolute and life absurd, Indiana hopscotches from philosophy, art, film, and literature to architecture, ethics, polemics, and politics. His seamless prose is exemplary, studded with stylish parallelisms and riveting appraisals. An otiose aristocrat could “charm the feathers off a peacock.”
The breadth of knowledge is breathtaking. It helps to have read Lacan to understand Barbara Kruger’s art. A Gavin Lambert novel precedes a Joan Didion play. Mary Woronov’s characters have counterparts in “Jean Rhys’ Parisian vedettes.” Leni Riefenstahl gets a makeover with a nightcap from Marlene Dietrich.
Devastation laced with glimmers of redemption; Indiana skewers his skewed protagonists with profound, poetic and even empathetic insights into their compulsions and epiphanies. The final essay discusses Mahagonny, the Brecht-Weill opera from the Weimar period, as depicting “suckersville and paradise at once.”
Forty years later in New York, Harry Smith made another Mahagonny, a film, where he “merged the two eras into a metaphoric synthesis,” a “welcoming sprawl he ragpicked from his private hurricane.”
Everything Indiana turns his playful and piercing “gape of a gimlet eye” to is seen with more clarity, understanding and, if not optimism, a crystal of hope.
Charles Wright, Sestets
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009)
These are poems of dusk, not aubades or paeans to the noonday sun. They are adieus feeling their way past the “blank page of sundown sky.” At 70, Charles Wright is among our most august poets. His poetry comes “as close as we can come / To divinity, the language that circles the earth / and which we can never speak.”
Descriptions of his beloved Southland set the stage for sage, six-line meditations. Using verbal luminescence, Wright limns his companions: grass, clouds, tamarack, kingfishers, the graduating light moving from “gold to bronze to charcoal.” The author invites us to imagine eternity from the “cyclotron eyes” of a “Great blue on a dead limb.”
Wright’s voice, green glass, chimes with echoes of the Bible, Classicism, songs, and silence. His words put a “bell jar over our ills” so we can hear the “unknown music” of trees. A persistently keen search for “a footbridge or boat over Lethe” is sought throughout. Preparing for Charon to ferry him to the underworld, Wright places himself “With Horace, Sitting on the Platform, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”
In “Timetable,” a cosmic blend of tight and easy reaches a surreal plateau as “similes sift through my hands. / Bone-dusted coffins drift downriver.” And “Darkness, the great enveloper, envelops nothing.”
Addressing oblivion with sublimely lyric imagery, Wright democratically submits, “everyone’s name will be inscribed on the flyleaf in the Book of Snow.” Surely oblivion listens to words this good.
Cameron Martin, Analogue
Walter Benjamin famously wrote that Atget’s photographs of empty Parisian streets are “like scenes of crimes.” Cameron Martin’s depictions of nature are similarly almost devoid of people and can also signify a certain kind of crime: that of humanity against nature.
A series of trenchant notes and quotes on nature’s relationship to art by Martha Schwendener frames our reaction to the images. Martin’s rocky crags and bleached, dead trees are not without “life” though in most of the reproductions, nothing is living.
Analogue is a revealing title for this book of photos, drawings, paintings, and xeroxes of nature scenes. The roots of the word refer to both logos and legend.
An illusionary backwards momentum cascades from the pages as the idealized and “timeless” images are refreshed. Counter to our recent experiences where analog precedes digital, Martin is known for reproducing a digital image in an analog manner.
Times critic Karen Rosenberg described it like this: “Mr. Martin uses tape and spray-paint to approximate the weird, alienating compression that occurs when images of the natural world hurtle through digital space.”
Gnarly, gray blasted trunks are suspended in fog. Black on black outcroppings pose as spectral witnesses of millennia, activating the sense of monumentality that we seek as a hedge against our foreknowledge (and simultaneous denial) of nonexistence.
Martin develops the theme of nature as a vast wilderness. We are drawn to his sugary, snow-covered trees, recognizing them as fetishized confections. The artist offers us the idyllic sense of chaotic perfection we are dying for.