For a century, the name of the game has been to break into the canon—artistic holy writs which were adjudged salvation material—writs also-rans to be dispatched into a limbo of learned scorn. Thus had we the Salons of Refuses, showing art which the regnant critical authorities had prematurely rejected as mere refuse.
Sometimes the issue is over whether or not a particular genre or medium is classy enough. The great furniture maker George Nakashima told me recently that he decided to defect from the practice of American architecture after a trip down the West Coast (where he had majored in the art at the University of Washington).
He and a school chum had seen a Frank Lloyd Wright house being “erected” in Palo Alto, so chintzy in its construction he revolted in disgust into furniture making, where he could control quality. The Chicago Tribune rebuked him editorially for going from a great art into a “demeaning” one.
Hordes of inferior crafts-persons agonized over whether throwing pots is a fine enough art, and sometimes destroy their function so as to disqualify the pots as mere crafts. How tiresome this Rodney Dangerfield syndrome of not getting enough respect has become.
Can you imagine Louis Armstrong worrying about whether he was artistic enough when he was cooking on his horn? The whole shticky think reeks of status panic, the psycho Achilles Heel of the perspiringly aspiring muddled classes.
Still, there are good, better and best, not to mention B minus Baloney in every art form, new or old. I was reminded of this in Wilmington where you can judge for yourself whether the National Academy of Fantastic Art (Houston) is giving us a new kick or just reflexing its self-indulgence muscles with the National Academy of Fantastic Art Invitational Exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum.
Nobody invited my opinion, but here it is: a pervasive yuck modulated with some truly moving pieces. Start with the yucky. Ray Harryhausen’s “Primordial Rage” is a bronze, because the latex models he made in London for movies have a short shelf-life, even half-life. The shorter the better, in my non-Godzillean opinion. Biodegradable junk ought to be allowed to return to a churlish Mother Nature when its function as a monster in Acne Flix have been satisfied.
On the other hand, not so facile. For Philadelphian Carl Lundren’s “The Senseless Death” is a Dorian Grayish tour de force of a clown skeleton in a disintegrating automobile. I could look at it many more times than once, which is not, alas, true of his “Take the ‘A’ Train,” an oil in which a foreground dragon frames a view of a distant (ho-hum) castle, in the middle ground of which is a graffiti-embellished subway train. As much as I despise the mindless macho of graffiti, I find their blobs and blurs more moving than this not sufficiently surreal landscape. Win some, lose some.
And what are we to make of Rikki Kipple / Stan Gilbert’s sculptural collages like “The Faerie Euphrates” which (we are encouraged to read) has, embellishing its ceramic lady’s bust, no less than these: “antelope pelvis, cardinal breast bone, snake ribs, snake vertebrae, sea urchin spines, blue jay feather, peacock feather, carnelian, lapis lazuli cluster, hand blown glass tears, antique Afghani silver lace, Italian marble mounted on purple heartwood, and three silver chime bells circa 1780.” The message damn near becomes the medium here. Maybe you have to like science fiction or horror movies to appreciate all of this stuff!
In my teaching ideal of leaving no literary stone unturned, I once found myself teaching a course in science fiction and hating almost every second of it, even though it was taught out of two self-described canonical anthologies. It’s all so sophomoronic, as if Ayn Rand had replaced William Shatner as the crew chief of the Enterprise.
And there was definitely a Star Trekkie cast to the museum crowd moiling in front of these woiks: They tested each other with trivia allusions that made me realize how terminally ignorant I am on the subject. Yuck to the tenth power. And yet. And yet. Wayne Anderson’s “Working Class Cows Visiting the British Museum” is a marvelous put down of welfare state culture faking. And Hap Henriksen’s “Urban Gargoyle,” which adorns the entrance, is perfectly marvelous, a real monster by a real bronze maker.
To complicate my simpleminded put-down, it’s Hap (of Kountze, Texas) who’s behind the movement to give fantasy art the respect that snobs like me are supposed to want to deny it. How did he get the idea? At the seminars and exhibits of the National Academy of Western Art in Oklahoma City, that’s where.
What’s saucey enough for the despised goose of Western Art could legitimize as well the neophyte gander of sci-fi fantasy. What the hell. Different strokes for different folks. If it’s a turn-on for you, relish it. But the bigger dreams of the fantasists are on hold down in Houston because of the oil bust. The best laid plans, etc. etc.
Meanwhile, over at the Brandywine River Museum, an aspiration of a different order is on display—to retrieve from what (I feel) is well-earned obscurity the Germantown painter, George C. Lambdin (1830-96). The show opens, if I may use that verb for so underwhelming a canvas, with “New Moon, True Moon, Trust I Say Who My True Love Must Be,” c. 1885.
Not me, baby. The ***missing text*** sculpture show on Eakins and his model problems, as well as his own unremittingly realistic vision of what was out there in Philly whilst GCL was putzing around with his silly ladies and unbelievably innocent girl children.
And don’t leave Brandywine without walking across the hall to see what real paintings are about, and real feeling. Andrew Wyeth’s “The Clearing” (tempera, 1979) is a moving male nude, from the top of his blonde hippie hair through his tanned torso down past his well-hung genitals through to his stocky cropped thighs just above the knees. Who care about the Helga flap? Here’s a male sensuality, an ode to the vigorous young stud.
There’s a Helga version, too, perhaps significantly entitled “Lovers” (in the plural) although we see only the nude buxom blonde with braids, in a drybrush dated 1981. but oh how we see her! She’s in front of a window, through which an inwardly blowing leaf gives a strangely mystical air to the piece.
The slatted light through the window picks up details of the body facing away from the window—the back of her neck, the tip of her left nipple, strands of her yellowish pubic hairs. What a marvelous salute to the lovable buxomness of the mature female. George, move to the back of the class.
If this duo of Andrew whetted your appetites as it did mine and if you are too poor to buy Wyeth like me, then settle for the Brandywine’s new cook book, For the Pot: Recipes from the Brandywine River Museum, garnished with Wyeths of different generations. You don’t even have to know how to boil an egg to relish this cookbook: $18.75 plus $2 postage and handling, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large