Roger Perry’s long out-of-print The Writing on the Wall—–a collection of photos charting London’s early graffiti scene—is being republished this week. Here, George Stewart-Lockhart, an art historian and publisher who wrote the extensive new foreword for the re-release, takes us through a few of his most striking images.
Contemporary Art Doesn’t Have to Be Pretentious and Confusing
Ossian Ward is one of Britain’s leading art critics. His new book, Ways of Looking, sounded a little patronizing from the title, given that anyone with eyes should probably have that down already. But reading through, it does provide a very helpful guide to the understanding of contemporary art, which—to me, at least—often seems as aimless as someone standing in a gallery repeatedly turning the lights on and off.
Ossian advises against pretentious art jargon, suggesting the only way to approach contemporary art is with a clear, open mind. Since he seemed so nice and obliging, I decided to ask him some of the embarrassing questions that pop into my mind when I’m in a contemporary art gallery (other than, ‘Where’s the café?’ and, ‘I wonder how much Marina Abramović is going to make from sitting in that chair.’)
VICE: Hi Ossian. So is contemporary art just having the balls to do something either so outrageous that it’s shocking or so banal that it’s shocking?
Contemporary art is not yet a verb, nor does it have balls per se—though I’m sure Tracey Emin would take exception to that—but it does occasionally shout at you from across the room and it can be provocative, challenging and even scary. I have found myself in rooms kitted out to look like murder scenes, brothels, or a terrorist’s stronghold.
I have also tiptoed past various spring-loaded man-traps, risked severe burns at a gallery where I was greeted by a flame from the opposite wall, told not to drink from a fountain supposedly laced with LSD, warned that the tiny globe before me contained a bomb that would explode a hundred years from now… I could go on. Confrontational art is certainly one of the ways that artists aim to grab our attentions nowadays.
Do you ever think that Tate and MoMA are a bit like the Westfields of art galleries, as in there’s just too much stuff?
If only the works were on sale at knock-down prices, with special bargain bins for obscure works of Surrealism. I would like that. But yes, our large art institutions can be bewildering places full of mysterious and exotic objects, which is essentially why I wrote my book.
We shouldn’t fear the complexity, abstraction, or randomness of contemporary art, but embrace them as reflections of our culture. I often invoke Hollywood blockbuster films, theme-park rides and other forms of entertainment as reference points, rather than art historical movements or philosophical theories, as frankly not everyone has that level of interest or experience.
Behind the Big Eyes: How Walter Keane Cheated His Wife Out of Fame and Fortune
Editor’s note: Adam Parfrey runs perhaps our favorite small press, Feral House Books. If you’re interested in pills, black metal, and apocalyptic death cults, they’re pretty much your one-stop shop. So when Adam sent us a snippet of his new book, Citizen Keane, we jumped at the opportunity to run an excerpt. The subject is Walter and Margaret Keane, 60s pop artists who caused a weird sensation painting kids with big eyes. They’re also the subject of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s new biopic, which will see wide release this Christmas.
1965 was a year of bug-eyed glory for the former real estate salesman turned pop artist Walter Stanley Keane, who bragged to reporters that he “romped through life with the evident enjoyment of a terrier rolling in a clover patch.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Keane art was seemingly everywhere—from the sales bins at Woolworths to the gilded mansions of Hollywood royalty. As his income surged comfortably into seven figures, Keane decided he would keep things simple. “All that really matters to me,” he explained to an admiring Lifemagazine reporter, “is painting, drinking (which, the way I look at it, includes eating), and loving.” It seemed like the party was just getting started.
Keane’s fortune was made from a style stunning in its simplicity. Weeping waifs. Tearful children. All bearing hypnotic, saucer-sized orbs. It was said that if you looked at them long enough, the distressed children seemed to stare at you, even if you moved about the room. “Let’s face it,” he boasted to Life magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” More discriminating art enthusiasts, critics, and academics didn’t quite agree, finding the paintings formulaic and sickening in their sentimentality. But the rest of America fell in love with Keane’s Big Eyes, and he became a household name.
Bob Nickas: No one would expect to find the two of you together, but Sun Ra, your movie, Space Is the Place, and the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse-Five, with Billy Pilgrim in the lead, were made in 1972, and central to each story is the fact that you were both abducted. The two of you have something rather special in common—intergalactic adventure and time travel.
Sun Ra: It’s true. In my case, the future was held for ransom. Billy was taken to another planet for some prenatal fun and games.
Billy: They hooked me up with the girl of my dreams.
Sun Ra: And you two had a baby, of all things, so the Milky Way could be even whiter.
Bob: Don’t forget that the full title of the book is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. Billy didn’t really have a choice.
Sun Ra: He was only following… orders?
Bob: He became a willing captive in what turned out to be more of a biological experiment.
Billy: Sun Ra planned to take his chosen people away from the Earth, to save them.
Bob: From who?
Billy: From us. “Fear of a Black Planet” … in reverse. It was a brilliant and radical re-imagining of history. Marcus Garvey in a UFO.
Sun Ra: You went on your own pilgrimage, Billy, more than once.
Bob: In my favorite scene from Space Is the Place, you’re dressed in Egyptian finery, flanked by a pair of attendants wearing gold masks. One of them is Horus, the falcon-headed God. It is a very tripped-out scene, even for the time. You walk into an Oakland youth center. On the wall are posters of various Black Panthers—Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver—there’s a pool table and a jukebox. The kids who are hanging out stare wide-eyed in disbelief.
Sun Ra: They ask me, “Are you for real?”
Bob: And you gently lecture them: “I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we are both myths. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as the myth because that is what black people are—myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors. I’m going to be here until I pick out some of you to take back with me.”
The Golden Age of the Cockroach
Every era in art has a new favored subject. The Etruscans looked to Hercules; painters of the Renaissance reenvisioned the Bible; the American Ashcan School rendered sensitive tableaus of poor urban life; and the later half of the 20th century, dominated by the PoMo-ism of downtown NYC, crowned a new king, the cockroach, which was not only an available resource, but a stand-in for the artist—a heroic outcast, thriving in the ruins of civilization.
The oeuvre of the cockroach is best understood as a series of distinct ages that, in turn, comprise a whole. During the Reformation, the cockroach was reconsidered; the Enlightenment percieved the cockroach as potentially “divine”; the Golden Age saw the pinnacle of the discipline; the Silver Age was consumed by celebrity; the Bronze Age refigured the subject as metaphor and victim; the Age of Decline represented the subject in absentia and/or in parts. As far as I can tell, no one has completed, or even attempted, to survey the cockroach’s place in the art world, so consider this seven-part piece that examines an artistic era that scuttled by so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed it.
Ed Rushca, Cockroaches (1972). Photo courtesy Bukowskis Auktionhouse, Stockholm
The cockroach of antiquity and the Middle Ages lived in a cultural darkness—cockroaches were no better off than peasants, their teeming masses obscure, despised, and considered unworthy as a subject of art. Emerging from this age of katsaridaphobia, the 20th-century cockroach made a halting entry into popular culture. Its first notable foray into modern consciousness came with Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” though it must be remembered that not until the 21st century was the original German word ungeziefer consistently translated as “cockroach,” a term which may well be an anachronistic liberty. Gregor Samsa is not explicitly referred to as a cockroach in the original text, and Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist as well as an author and literary critic, believed that Gregor was, technically, “a big beetle.” Nabokov’s argument focused on the wings that Gregor never realized he had, which brings us back to the roach, who is even less disposed to use his wings than the beetle; if Gregor is indeed a cockroach, it is not so much that he doesn’t know he can fly, it’s that he doesn’t want to.
Bear this in mind as we consider the Reformation era of the cockroach, which begins post–World War II. The quiet, peace-loving bug, wanting nothing more than a warm place and some privacy in a tight crevice, found a new nest within the American domicile: the television cabinet (as it was then known). A boom in electronics provided abundant habitat for the roaches, whose numbers, via human population density, were already on the rise. The cockroach, equated in wartime with fascists and occasionally with communists, became a cohabitant of the ordinary American, and the generation that grew up eye to eye with the cockroach viewed the creature with a revulsion tempered by sympatico fondness.
In the early 1950s, Andy Warhol, then living in an East Village apartment, unzipped his portfolio for a Madison Avenue art director, to have a cockroach leap out. This story—possibly somewhat true—is indicative of the arrival of the downtown scene: The artist (i.e., the cockroach) lived downtown but went uptown to become something celebrated. In 1959 William Burroughs extended the metaphor: The cockroach of Naked Lunchserved as guiding spirit and muse. In 1962 Leonard Baskin softened the harsh popular conception of the cockroach with his Rorschachesque illustrative style in Creatures of Darkness. By 1964 the artist was literally represented as the cockroach—George Kuchar’s 8mm film The Lovers of Eternity features a gigantic roach as a central figure in the bohemian gambol.
Panels from Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
In the Age of Enlightenment—which roughly corresponds with the Age of Aquarius in the human world—the cockroach becomes more than an analog of the artist experience. Jim Carroll, who performed with cockroaches in the late 60s and exhaustively recounted their presence in his memoirs, tortured captive roaches to appeal to the sadism of his audiences while simultaneously seeking to reject arty pretension. Throughout the 60s, the roach was normatively seen as something to fear—as in the cat-tormenting roach armies of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers—but the roach is also a curiously hapless underdog. One can’t help but root for those comix legions of roaches; they’re disgusting and militaristic, but, after all, no more offensive than the Freak Brothers themselves. Anne Sexton’s “Cockroach,” first published in the literary journal Antaeusand later collected in 45 Mercer Street, views the hated creature in reverence: “These days even the devil is getting overturned / and held up to the light like a glass of water.” This attitude of meditation and primordial wisdom is perfectly illustrated in Ed Ruscha’s 1972 series of silkscreens on wood, Cockroaches, which featured the ancient species in a light both meditative and noble. A more visceral incarnation of Enlightenment-era reverence can be found in Vito Acconci’s 1970 performance-video Rubbings, in which the artist smashes cockroaches into his naked, hairy belly, and rubs them into his gut until they disappear, until the artist and his divine subject are one.
Is there anything worse than being sued? How about being sued and losing. No, even worse than that. What about never having the chance to sue someone? Exactly. Because the way it used to be, the worst that could happen was that someone took your work away from you, and then profited at your expense. Nowadays, if your career could use a real boost, you can’t ask for a more golden opportunity than the chance to take someone to court. Case in point, the artist Richard Prince recently being sued by the commercial photographer Patrick Cariou. This has been well-covered in both the art and general press, dealing as it does with the hot topic of fair use, and yet the story deserves further examination if only to raise a larger issue, the very competence, or its lack thereof, on the part of the judges who preside over suits involving contemporary art. When artwork that is appropriative in nature is under review, we are compelled to question whether the judiciary may be biased towards artists they don’t consider to actually be making art. In particular, artists who don’t seem to create “original” images that reflect the way the world appears, but steal images and reduce them to the realms of the unreal. What if judges favor positive representations to the exclusion, or denial, of most others? We’re a long way from Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post, but where some people’s ideas of “real art” are concerned we haven’t traveled all that far.
Let’s face it, a photograph of a photograph—a Marlboro ad but without the cigarettes and the logo—is still an affront to most armchair critics. And everyone has an opinion, even a judge. More troubling is the possibility that among those who decide these cases, there may be some who are biased against the way that an artist such as Richard Prince operates, and for which he is celebrated and enriched. What if they’re thinking as they preside on the bench: “Millions and millions of dollars? And someone else did all the work? Who do these artist think they are, royalty?” When fair use is on trial, how fair is the ruling when, rather than the law being applied to a case before the court, an admonishment is leveled for a perceived injustice on the part of offending images and their makers?
It seems that a number of Prince’s collages and paintings for his 2008 Canal Zone series are based on images created by someone else. No big surprise for an artist who rose to prominence by taking photographs of photographs, and went on to become one of the most influential visual artists of his generation for doing so. The photos in question, which he collaged and transformed for Canal Zone, were taken by Patrick Cariou and reproduced in his book, Yes Rasta (2000). If you are among those who hadn’t heard of Patrick Cariou until he sued Richard Prince, well, you certainly aren’t alone. Maybe the name’s not ringing many bells for readers right now. Maybe your subscriptions to Marie Claire, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue Hommes, and Elle magazine—the Australian and French versions—have somehow lapsed. No matter. These are among the commercial publications where Cariou’s photos have appeared over the years, magazines which cater mostly to people interested in fashion and travel, in other words, to well-dressed tourists. In addition to Yes Rasta, Cariou has a book that brings together his photos of surfers, which he titled with brilliant economy and an unassuming originality, Surfers (1997). Or maybe taking pictures—and are model release forms by any chance available for review?—of Rastas in Jamaica in the late 90s or surfers on beaches around the world doesn’t seem all that au courant, not when other photographers have been there long before. Cariou’s most recent book, Gypsies (2010), is at least a bit more timely, what with France’s very own Sylvester Stallone, President Nicolas Sarkozy, having deported thousands of Roma in the desperate hope of reclaiming the votes of nearly three million unemployed French workers. He has, what, about the same odds as a Gypsy being elected? Or a better chance of landing a bit part in a new Woody Allen movie.
The blurb for Cariou’s book describes him as “a self-taught anthropologist,” and identifies him as an artist who “harbors a lifelong, passionate fascination with outlaws and renegades.” Or so it says on Amazon, where copies of Gypsies are priced at $34 and change. You have to wonder: do Rastas see themselves as renegades and outlaws? Do surfers in Tahiti? How about gypsies? And artists for that matter? What about photographers who work for Conde Nast Traveler? Does Patrick Cariou consider himself to be a renegade or an outlaw? Maybe he identifies with his image of his subjects. Or is he, like a lot of people, happy to have the law on his side when it suits him? What’s the word for hypocrite in French? Oh, right, it’s the same word. Nothing lost in translation there. So Cariou photographs surfers and Rastas and Roma gypsies. That makes him a romantic, a little behind the times where Endless Summer and the hills of Jamaica are concerned, but in that tradition, more or less. Richard Prince is a romantic as well, of a much different sort of course, not squaring with commonly received notions of same. Prince once memorably remarked, “Oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros … Even though I’m aware of the classicism of the images. I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And I try to re-present them even more unbelievably.”1 But then Prince has spent much of his career confounding all sorts of long-held beliefs, the very system of faith in an image as it applies to the photographic. It’s why his contribution is important and of value to the culture. Cariou happily makes pictures that a lot of other people have made before. Is this “anthropology” without apology? Most likely the only new ground that Cariou has broken of late was walking into a Manhattan courtroom.
Patrick Cariou, from Yes Rasta
Leni Riefenstahl, from Nuba
Whatever you think of a French photographer—even one based in New York—taking the pictures that he does, you might say, “At least Cariou got off his ass and went somewhere, with an actual camera, and took his own photos. Made an effort. Showed that he wasn’t afraid of a hard day’s work, and would venture pretty far outside the comfort zone that most fine artists prefer to stay inside. Not like Prince, who just appropriates images.” Cariou’s project might remind you of another heroic effort from another time—that of Leni Riefenstahl, who went all the way to Africa to document the Nuba tribes in Sudan. She was already in her 60s when she first visited the continent, making numerous trips and continuing to work there into her 70s, at times living alongside the Nuba. And the pictures are amazing. That certainly didn’t stop Susan Sontag from criticizing the photos for their “Fascist esthetic,” but then there’s no appeasement for injustice collectors, and ingratiation is usually its own reward—not to mention that Riefenstahl’s accomplishment doesn’t even come close to that of Annie Liebovitz. As we consider photographs of the Nuba in the Sudan or Rastas in Jamaica, we acknowledge the not uncomplicated history of artists documenting indigenous cultures, bringing their work back to “the first world,” publishing pictures in coffee table books, framing them, hanging them on gallery walls, and offering them for sale. Cariou’s photographs certainly have artistic merit. For all his presence on glossy magazine pages, and relative absence in galleries exhibiting contemporary art, he is still an artist. But what of the social and anthropological import of his work? If he had simply thought that Rastas were “cool” he could much more easily have photographed them on the streets of Paris and New York. Like another itinerant French artist, Paul Gaugin before him, Cariou rejected the conventions and propriety of Europe and went to the source, beyond the long arm of civilization and the law. Maybe he was on a romantic quest, in search of something truly authentic in such a plastic world. From this point of view, and perhaps from the bench, when he is up against an artist like Prince he is viewed as an underdog. And most of us want to take the side of the underdog. Cariou vs. Prince will inevitably bring to mind one of Jimmy Cliff’s greatest lines, “The harder they come, the harder they fall.”
U.S. District Court Judge Deborah A. Batts
And what about the judge in Patrick Cariou’s case against Richard Prince? This would be Deborah A. Batts of the U.S. District Court. There’s a photograph of Judge Batts online, taken in 2002, posing proudly next to her painted portrait, set on an easel, and commissioned by her alma mater, the Harvard Law School. We don’t know who the artist is, but he or she seems to have rendered a fairly good likeness, and the picture is in what most people would say is a handsome frame. In the way that Judge Batts is positioned on the chair, the artist has made it appear that although she’s somehow holding still, there is at the same time a slight swivel upwards. It doesn’t look like a totally natural position. Luckily her flowing dark robes cover up whatever flaws might have been even more noticeable in the painted pose. But the artist clearly had difficulty setting her properly on the chair, or maybe the judge was tired from posing for a long while. Unless the painting was made from a photograph. Then you notice the hands in the painting, the way they’re held. This isn’t a comment on the physiognomy of the subject, more the awkwardness with which the artist has placed them. The judge is holding a pen in her left hand, and it looks a bit crimped. In her right hand she’s holding a piece of paper, except her fingers don’t actually grasp the paper. It’s just there. You can do things like that with paint, make an object float all on its own. Most artists have a difficult time painting and drawing hands. It’s not uncommon. Anyway, Judge Batts is smiling in the painting just as she’s smiling in this photo. There’s a man standing on the other side of the painting, Law School Dean Robert C. Clark, a bit flat in his posture. There’s an old painting on the wall directly behind him, in a gilt frame, of a man wearing an elaborate powdered wig. This might be one of the founders of the school. If you think about it, there are hundreds of years in this photo of Judge Batts and Dean Clark, even though it was taken in a split second. The world of contemporary art may not be the domain of Judge Batts, nor of any judge who hears a case where contemporary art and copyright infringement come head-to-head, but she is obviously happy about this particular painting, and she should be very proud in the moment. We have to get past the painter’s talents, such as they are, because what this picture really represents is so much more important in every way.
Richard Prince, from Canal Zone
When Judge Batts looked at Richard Prince’s pictures, what did she see? We can only imagine what might have crossed her mind. Was she shown, for example, images in which Rastas appear to have been defaced, or were collaged into pictures with naked young women? What Prince has done in his collages might well be perceived as demeaning in terms of people of color and women—even if you’re neither. Admittedly, there is much in Prince’s alterations to the original images that can be perceived as juvenile, a bit teenage perhaps, something you might find amid the restless apathy of a junior high school class. It was probably Andy Warhol who once said something about how boredom becomes fascination if you stay with it long enough, and, for better or worse, this may apply to Richard Prince. Meanwhile, the pair of Rastas in the background of the picture reproduced here are staring none too discretely at the bare asses of two surfer girls. This is just one example of how Prince has repeated figures from one image, scaled them down, repeated figures from yet another, recombined them within an altered figure/ground relationship, defaced them, and then, as the French will say, voila!, a new picture was born, one that had never existed before. Artists like Richard Prince are very clever in this way. It’s called collage, and many artists have been doing it for hundreds of years now. Cutting pictures out of books and newspapers and magazines, pasting them down in different, sometimes absurd and offensive configurations. Even if it’s meant to be precocious, there’s quite a bit of it—the masterworks, of course—right here at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Filmmakers avail themselves of collage, as do many musicians. You see and hear it a lot these days. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere. The real problem with art and the law today, as this case proves, is not only that judges interpret a law that is out of date, but that they may not be fully fluent in terms of interpreting the art of the matter. Just think of how dangerous it is to repair a plane with old parts, and then have the work supervised by someone who doesn’t actually understand how the aircraft flies. Add in the fact that Richard Prince is a kind of “barnstormer” in the art world. While successful artists usually prefer to play it safe, Prince, with the passage of time, has taken greater as opposed to fewer chances. At the risk of making him sound as if he’s something of an aviation hero—after all, he’s human, too—neither is he the villain some would make him out to be.
This case is certainly not about money, even if in this culture everything revolves around the almighty dollar. Who among us can’t see that Patrick Cariou has profited from the Richard Prince case, not least for the attention he wouldn’t have otherwise received, more in the past year than in the last ten. Where was his career before all of this? That’s a good question. The man doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Even Mr. Ed has a Wikipedia page. You know, Mr. Ed, “the talking horse.” If something stinks in the stable, it’s Patrick Cariou claiming that Richard Prince’s pictures deprived him of a living, of financial gain, of attention and sales. You have to wonder how many copies of Yes Rasta were sold before this case came to trial, and how many more have subsequently been sold? How many of his photos have collectors and dealers recently acquired? Patrick Cariou should be thanking Richard Prince, not taking him to court. And a final thought, what about the people in these Rasta photos, and what about the Gypsies, do they in any way profit from the sale of Cariou’s work?
At this point you must be asking yourself, “Hey, wait a minute. Who’s on trial here?” The answer to that is simple enough. You, me, and everyone we know. Richard Prince, Patrick Cariou, the judge and the law. Especially the law if it’s ill-equipped for these times, or if it’s applied in a narrow-minded way. Why Richard Prince didn’t defend himself more vigorously in court is a mystery to many of us. Because the case wasn’t only against him and his funny pictures, by which some people can not be much amused. It was against us all. This kind of art has its history, and it’s future will not be denied. It will have its day in court. And the culture will evolve even if the art appears to have devolved. You may not like this approach to picture-making, or the way old songs are cut up, reassembled and performed, but you cannot say that the original has not been transformed. There is also a double bind to consider: most educated people don’t want to appear ignorant about art, and yet they don’t want to be seen having the proverbial wool pulled over their eyes. The fact that today’s art is probably misunderstood and disliked in most courts of law is actually a hopeful sign. It means that we are moving forward, slowly but surely. In art and music as in nature, every river has its source, and there are many rivers to cross.
1. Marvin Heiferman, “Richard Prince,” BOMB Magazine, Summer, 1988.