Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Month: January, 2012

Thou Hast Got No Alibi

At some point when I was a kid, somebody gave our family a Sister Wendy coffee table book on The History Of Painting. I would flip through the book looking at pictures, lingering longer on all the images of naked people as I got older.

In addition to the nudity, there was weird Medieval fashion (who knew there were so many ways to fold a wimple?), creepy religious iconography, and my first exposure to abstract art from a non-philistine perspective. I can also thank this book for my lingering fascination with the work of Lucian Freud (NSFW on account of breast, singular), which apparently was the height of Really Important Art according to Sister Wendy circa 1990. Or maybe it was just the naked people.

But the longer I spent contemplating the hundreds of images in this book, the more I was struck by the fact that painters didn’t figure out how to paint babies until like the seventeenth century. This seemed especially sad considering how they seemed to gravitate towards portraits of the Baby Jesus. I mean, a career spent painting babies and this is as good as it gets:

Giovanni Bellini, The Virgin with the Standing Child, Who Embraces His Mother

You had your Babies Are Like Grownups Drawn At The Wrong Scale mistakes, your Anatomical Impossibilities, your Awkward Holy Family Photos. I wondered if most Renaissance painters had never actually seen a baby. I really leaned toward this explanation when I started noticing how many of the nursing Madonnas had breasts like pool cues attached at the neck. Clearly none of these dudes had ever seen a boob, so it’s unlikely they had children crawling around the floors of their studios.

Eventually I grew up, took some art history classes and went to some museums. I got more into Pollock, Basquiat, stuff like that. I moved to New York and didn’t need my main exposure to the arts to come from a book based on a TV show made by a nun. So I forgot about the ugly Renaissance babies of my youth.

Until some genius on the internet came up with the Ugly Renaissance Babies tumblr, for which I am eternally grateful. Now I can contemplate hideous visages of the Christ Child from the comfort of my couch of a weekend afternoon, beer in hand. My god, the twenty-first century is an amazing time to be alive.

(Tip o’ the hat to Hyperallergic, which reminded me of the existence of the tumblr in question and that I have an artsy-pants blog now and HOW CAN I NOT TALK ABOUT THE UGLY RENAISSANCE BABIES TUMBLR?)

If Loving Bad Pop Music Is Wrong

The most stereotypical "Bollywood" image I could find. This is a still from the wonderfully melodromatic Devdas, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai. Madhuri and Aishwarya are pictured.

My love of Hindi-language film manifests in several ways. Some are tasteful, even cool, like the vintage posters I brought back from Mumbai. Others are understandable, like my affection for Jackson Heights’ Eagle Cinema, an art-deco movie house retooled in filmi style down to the samosas at the concession stand. And who doesn’t enjoy a cheesy love story featuring the likes of Kajol or Amitabh Bachchan?

But then there are the more embarrassing manifestations of my Bollywood fandom. Like the dance numbers. The cool thing to do these days in Indian films is to feature at least one Western-styled clubby dance number, preferably with a catchy English-language chorus. These songs are like the worst thing on any Ke$ha or Soulja Boy album, minus a million cool points. And since English is a second language for most Indians, the lyrics are terrible. Just throw in a lot of “Dance With me Baby” and “Party” and “Rock Star”, and that’ll make 90% of South Asians* pretty happy.

And yet, I can’t get enough. Throw one of these bad boys on my workout playlist and I’ll run a mile without thinking about how shitty this stuff is or how much I actually hate exercise.

Maybe I should look into K-Pop next.

*On the other hand, take any traditional Hindi-language Bollywood soundtrack and throw in words like “Zindagi”, “Dil”, and “Hai Allah!” (“Life”, “Love”, and “Oh God!” in Hindi), and this English speaking Bollywood fan is happy. So I guess it’s all the same fetish for the Other.

What Makes Art Foreign?

Shi Le Seeking The Way, Fu Baoshi ca. 1945.

I was combing the internet looking for ideas for a quick post. Provençal street art? Indo-Caribbean miniature painting? Some ridiculous band? I thought I’d found an idea — apparently the Metropolitan Museum has a retrospective on modernist Chinese lanscape painter Fu Baoshi. The work is haunting, seeming to exist in the space between tradition and innovation, classicism and globalist fusion. Fu painted during the Maoist era, which is obviously fascinating.

I clicked over to the the Met’s website to see what else is going on there that might be worth a look-see. Except for a revonated American Wing, all the current exihibitions feature art from far-flung locales. There are shows about Renaissance portraiture and the notion of the heroic in African art. The Persian and Central Asian collections have been revitalized. And yet the only show that screams EXOTIC PLACES to me is the one about China. (There’s also an exhibition on narrative forces in Japanese art which seems equally exotic, but I saw the Fu Baoshi retrospective first.)

Portrait of a Young Woman, Lorenzi di Credi ca. 1490

Why is that? Why is European art “home” to me, and Persia and Africa not really worth a mention? Why do I mentally go to Asia if I want a post for my blog about art and travel? Frankly, very little of the art in the Metropolitan Museum is of New York. Museums like this were opened as great curiosity cabinets, windows on foreign lands so far away they were inconceivable.  Nowadays I’m not sure we see them that way. European art is “ours” — we learn about it in school and put posters of it up on our college dorm room walls.  Egypt, Greece and Rome are part of the same mythological continuum.  For an American it goes something like Egypt -> Greece -> Rome -> Charlemagne -> Renaissance Italy -> Shakespeare -> British Empire -> USA. We don’t think about how foreign all of that is. I was born in Louisiana.  My genetic ancestors are from the French-German border and Sweden by way of Scotland and Ireland. Why do I feel like anything Chinese is worthy of a travel blog post, whereas Renaissance Italy is not?

Wanderlust and Retail Therapy: False Eyelashes Edition

Holy shit, people. This exists:

They’re false eyelashes. In whimsical forest shapes. Apparently the company also does other designs, like “under the sea” and peacock feathers.

I’m not a false eyelash kind of lady, but wow. Jesus. I mean, I know, I live in Lady Gaga’s hometown. This shouldn’t surprise me. But any old person can buy this from Sephora for under $10. I sort of want to get them and frame them. Or use them in some kind of origami decoupage craft project.

If you’re curious about what they look like on a person, sephora supplies this image:

I mean, can you even imagine? I wonder if this makes you feel like you’re wandering through a mystical woodland? It would make a great addition to the costumes for an art film based on the myth of Daphne and Apollo.

(This post was shamelessly cribbed from The Hairpin’s “What To Do With Your Allowance This Week” post from January 20, 2012). I do not officially endorse people buying these puppies, but if you want to, I accept that.)

Far enough away from us that nobody can ask what he did during World War II

All over the former Yugoslavia, people are getting together to commission sculptures of global pop culture figures rather than the traditional war heroes and indigenous folk characters.

What does it mean to erect a sculpture of someone in your town? Does the subject have to be from there? What happens when people get together and decide to commemorate Bruce Lee, Bob Marley, or Tupac Shakur? 

A Mash Note To Ms. Smith

The cover of Horses. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

When I was nineteen years old I quit college and came to New York City. Despite despite being the most citified girl in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, I was country through and through.

I had spent most of my teenage years reading, watching, and listening to everything about bohemian life in New York: SoHo, the Village, the Lower East Side; Alphabet City, CBGB, the Beats. Upon arrival in New York I would spend hours wandering in the East Village, awed just to be walking on the same streets where Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed had walked. And so I discovered St. Mark’s Bookshop.

I couldn’t afford to buy anything there, and my slightly skewed moral compass wouldn’t let me steal because obviously these were good people fighting the good fight against the Barnes & Noble across Astor Place. What I got from St. Mark’s was cheap, but more powerful than anything I could shoplift up the block at the Starbucks-scented megamart.

On a column in the middle of the store, between Critical Theory and Theatre, there was a poster. A poster of the cover of Horses.

Despite my worship of all things Downtown, this was the first I was hearing about Patti Smith. They didn’t sell her albums at Walmart, and my dad’s record collection leaned more towards the British iteration of punk.

I went into St. Mark’s Bookshop on a brutal winter day, and saw this poster of the cover of this album I’d never heard, an image of this person I’d never seen. I didn’t know what to make of her, but I was sure that she knew secrets.

Then I came to the worst possible conclusion. I rationalized that, based on this mysterious image, I was not worthy of her music. This wasn’t for country girls in bellbottom jeans they’d lovingly hand-embroidered with dandelions, violets, and the names of bands nobody in the North ever heard of. I wasn’t cool enough for Patti Smith.

So I turned away from the poster, flipped halfheartedly through a Diane Arbus book on the front table, and left. I would never belong in New York.

I have never been so wrong.

When I finally heard her music, what I found was not what I expected. It’s true, Horses is challenging. “Birdland” still scares me a little. I don’t want the boy in “Land” to get shoved in that locker (or maybe raped? Seriously, “Land” is one of the most chilling songs this side of “Strange Fruit”). Every time I hear “Redondo Beach” I dread the narrator’s realization that her lover has commited suicide. But though Horses is difficult, even confrontational, it’s not cliquish in the way I expected it to be at nineteen. Or maybe no great music can be cliquish in the way I thought music could be then. Either way, Patti, I’m glad you let me in.

I like the challenging story-poems of Horses, and the petulant Rock Star posturing of songs like “25th Floor – High on Rebellion” and “Rock n Roll Babelogue”. I dislike “Rock n Roll N****r” for reasons that are mostly political and don’t realate to the time and place you wrote it. It was also difficult to hate when I saw it performed live, so I’ll give her that one. It’s kind of great she’s not pretending that didn’t happen.

What I like most, though, are the times Smith speaks to the lonely outsider who still lives in me. Case study: Wave. I had to stop the title track and sit with it a minute. It was as if she’d gone inside my brain, found the most awkward part of my soul, and wrote in her voice.

It’s a cliche, as a fan, to say that someone writes your soul. But this is not that glorious Ani di Franco way where it turns out that she knew exactly what it was like to be in love. This is a sad and socially inept deer-in-headlights kind of thing, where you knew exactly what it was like to make eye contact with greatness and find yourself lacking. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling that (someday I’ll tell you the story of how I once accidentally eye-fucked Steve Buscemi), but it was also a little like she might be mocking me.

I felt like I was back staring at that poster in St. Marks books. How dare I presume to feel that kind of connection with the cool kids’ table? How dare I presume that Queen Cool Kid would recogize anything if she deigned to look into my soul?

My suspicions were confirmed with “Frederick”. It’s an homage to that awkward moment where you like someone and all you can really say to them is “hey.” When you don’t know a lot about them, but you know their name sounds like heaven. Patti Smith sings “Frederick” like she’s reading the future in the name’s taste. Like she’s mentally signing “Mrs. Frederick Sonic Smith” with a bunch of hearts after it. Somehow, with the right person, “hey” is enough. Ani knows what it feels like to be in love, but Patti knows what it feels like to be really deep in bashful ridiculous Like. It sounds less noble but is much more complicated. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable, even silly. It turns out she can step off the cool kids’ table for a moment and live in the same speechless awkwardness I’ve called home most of my life.

Patti Smith did a reading at St. Marks books a couple weeks ago. She stood right in front of that column and read poems about her idols and inspirations and her baby sister. I’m still not sure if she’s Queen Cool Kid or striving and awkward and silent like me. But I was there, standing among my brown-haired New York literary clones — clones partially spawned by her — and in that moment I felt like I finally belonged. It was sort of terrible. A part of me wished for my old jeans with the embroidered New Orleans band names, just to stand out. But, still, for a moment I belonged.

So thank you, Patti, for inviting me here.

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