"Coffee Ran-Dom," June 25th, 2016, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:12:02.
Matt Freedman: Thanks Tim. Thanks everybody for coming here-- the first performance for the fall, I guess. As you have all gathered, we're in the middle of an unusual show for us.
It’s Tim’s show. Yay Tim! Tim’s beautiful show…
Normally, there'd be some sort of an artist’s talk in the middle of a show, a discussion or some kind to elucidate the work. Tim was adamantly against anything like that. But I still feel like it's my obligation to somehow explicate the situation and do right by the artist, even if he won't do right by himself. The work, if any of you have perused it, is beautiful, enigmatic. It draws on multiple strands of painting and art traditions; collage….. If you read the excellent, eloquent, positive review that Thomas Micchelli wrote in Hyperallergic, you know it's extremely difficult to figure out what the fuck is going on. I wrote a kind of fan letter to Tom saying, you know, “Good work with the review of the show” And he wrote back. He said, “I felt like Tim was screwing with my eyes, and then I realized he was screwing with my head.”
Which is true, but what is interesting about what he was saying is that Tim is taking on the whole` tradition of collage work. He began with Braque and Picasso and then went deeper into the idea of bringing the world of objects into the illusionary space of a pictorial plane. Then he goes to the surrealists, drawing on images, disembodied things, dream-like subconscious reveries, and then allusions to pop culture and postmodernism, none of which completely anchors the work. And the titles are frank and descriptive; “Pool.” “Sleeve,” “Preening.” Very descriptive, but they don't reveal the secrets of the pieces-- isn't that right, Tim? You can’t talk?--but mostly what they seem to reveal is the pleasure of creation itself, which is going to be one of the themes that we attempt to address.
My father was a scientist and he liked to tell a story about a conference that he participated in in the 1950s, long before he had a family. It was on creativity, and the researchers gathered and presented papers on the origins and discontents of the creative act. They invited a token artist to attend; Ben Shahn, who in the early 1950s was probably the most famous American artist, at least in the mainstream world. We know him now for his political prints, the Sacco and Vanzetti series, but he also had a practice as a collagist. At the end of this conference, after all the papers were presented, they asked Shahn to stand up and say something. He was a sort of man of the people type— He says, “Well, I've been listening to all this talk…..”
---I don’t know if my gloves are going to handle this---
“It's are very interesting. I don't know what to add to this. I guess I'll just tell you this story. My son always wants to visit me in the studio, but my wife and I felt he was too young to be in there until recently, when we finally let him in. I was working on a collage and I'm showing him my process: ‘I've got a little piece of paper here. I stick it on. Isn't that nice?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘I’ve got another picture here and I put another piece on. ‘Nice.’ And then something here and then pretty soon the picture, the collage, is done. ‘Isn't that nice?’ ‘Yes,’ he says; ‘Can I go back inside?’---this is in Homestead, New Jersey, this utopian Jewish communist community where the Shahns lived. He goes back from their brutalist concrete studio and into their brutalist concrete house. The kid is going back and forth. And he goes back into the house.
He finds his mother and she says, “Did you enjoy visiting daddy’s studio?” And he says, “Yes. I don't think daddy knows what he's doing.” And Shahn sits down and my dad said everybody laughed because in a way it fed into this romantic notion of the artist as a kind of creative doofus who channels Godsomehow and something comes out. Whether that's true or not, we don't know.
I asked Tim if he wanted to have a panel discussion tonight. Instead of just me talking, we would have a number of people get up and talk. He said, “Yes, I would like to have a panel discussion about paneling.”` And so, in honor of his desire I would like to say a word about paneling.
Wainscoting is from the Middle Dutch word wagenschot, which means it's a form of hardwood that was actually imported to Europe from Great Britain because they had superior wood there. And a wainscott is actually the board, and wainscoting is either the board turned into paneling, or it's the act of applying the wainscot to the walls, which would go around the outside of a leaky damp castle to protect it as insulation, but also as protection against mold and for heating. So, it's quite possible that our term wainscotting for the boards is a corruption of the original word. As in; “I have a sled, I go sledding, therefore I ride on a sledding,” or; “I am talking bullshit, so I am bullshitting, therefore this is bullshitting.” Oh, well.
There is one piece of this show that doesn't have a straightforward title that pertains to the images that you see around you, and it's the piece in the back. It's a framed smaller print and it's called “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.” There's nothing in this image that has anything to do with Harry, whether you know what a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick is or not; there's nothing there. I thought this was a key to a different kind of thinking that could be applied to Tim’s work, but turns out that there is a title on the back of it that pertains to the content of the image, but nobody knows what it is, because they framed the picture and put a backing on without checking first, so the title is lost to time and so Tim had to come up with a title on the spur of the moment.
If you read his statement you know that Tim is also a writer and a collagist of language. He puts together phrases that appeal, and Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick is the name of an extremely curly plant. It's a form of hedgerow. It's called a Contorted Filbert or a Twisted Corkscrew Hazelnut. Correct? It was first discovered by the eminent Victorian gardener Canon Henry Ellacombe growing in one of the hedgerows on his estate. It's a naturally occurring form of the Filbert or Hazelnut, and it became quite popular. It's a bush, so normally it would be covered with leaves, but you can trim it back to reveal this stark, convoluted form.
You had a plant like that on Oak Street. Now, most of the plants that you'll find are hybrids, with roots grafted on. They are not true Contorted Filberts, so they will shoot up these straight shoots or saps. Suckers? Suckers. But if you get something that's descended directly from Canon Ellacombe’s tree, you actually get this amazing looking plant. It acquired the name it has now about 50 years after it was discovered. --I may to have to take off my gloves because---are you going to play? Oh yeah, look at that. It's actually very difficult, because when you think about it. He has to compensate for the deflection of the board in order to play.
This is actually relevant to the name. In the early 1900s, the kind of drawing I'm doing now, a Lightning Sketch, was very closely tied to minstrel shows. There was a lot of ethnic stereotyping that went on and it wasn't just your normal culprits, Jews and blacks, but everybody came in for some abuse. This is one. You would tell a story that you were raising a plant, a Scotch broom. And then as you're telling the story, you convert the Scotch broom plant into a cartoon of a Scotsman in his kilt. You see; like this.
Oddly enough, this is where Harry Lauder comes into the story. Harry Lauder was a young boy growing up in Aberdeen, I think, and his father was a potter. He was one of eight kids and he had a pretty middle-class life until his father died when Harry was about eight and he went into this Dickensian world where first he worked in a factory and then he went into the mines. It would be nice to say that in the mines Harry learned to sing for the other miners, but actually he always had his eye on a career as an entertainer. And he began at that time to go out and perform on stage in social clubs, but he wasn't very successful as a conventional young man-about-town-singer until he hit on this formula.
He began wearing elaborate Scottish outfits, with a big tam and a wig. You see in pictures of him he was wearing a cloak with checks on it and his socks and everything. And his signature, as you might guess, is an extremely gnarled walking stick. As he became more popular, his dress became more and more elaborately Scottish, and he dropped his burr so he could be understood. Although he is almost completely unknown now, at a certain point from about 1900 to 1920, he was perhaps the most famous entertainer in the world.
He toured the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the Far East; anywhere where the Scottish` diaspora had spread. Scotts were working in the fields in Canada and the mines in the United States. They were soldiers in India. What Harry Lauder presented was a vision, a highly pasteurized vision, of the Scottish world that they had left behind. He became extremely popular and somewhat reviled because in effect he was performing a kind of Scottish blackface. He was sort of more Scotch than a Scotsman and he appealed to a kitsch version of Scottish culture that sophisticates were less inclined to appreciate.
As he became wealthier, he went from his status as a man of the people, this man who had come up from the mines to be the first British entertainer to sell a million records. He was the highest paid entertainer in the world for many years running. He bought himself a great mansion to give himself some privacy and he gave his son, his beloved son John, the best education he could: Private schools; he went to Cambridge.
When John was about 22, Harry bought him a 22,000 acre sheep farm next door so he could become a laird. He became basically the landlord for the entire population of the community. World War I broke out, and John, who was the head of the local--at that time--- brigades were raised from the local population. So he became, as the ranking aristocrat the township, the ranking officer of the local Scottish Black Guard. They went to Europe, where he fought. Harry continued to be a patriot, raised millions of dollars for the cause. And then he received the terrible news that his son John had been shot and killed in the Battle of the Somme.
He was heartbroken, but he only stopped performing for three days. He was the first performer, actually, to go the front lines to perform for the troops and raise more money. Eventually he was knighted. He was always pursued by the mystery of his son's death. The story was that John had been shot by a German sniper as he went into No Man's land to retrieve some unexploded ordinance, which was part of his responsibility as an officer, but the persistent rumor was that he'd been shot by his own men because they resented his authority. A lot of English officers had met similar fates because they tried to enforce a kind of aristocratic world in the hell of the trenches that they lived in. And John was in fact, not only an aristocrat, but also an outsider in this community and he, at the age of 25 was basically the overseer of all these men. It’s unclear what happened, but in all likelihood it was not his men who shot him. But the rumors continued to dog Harry to the end of his days. But that's the story of the walking stick.
In addition to the prints that Tim makes, I have the privilege of receiving mail art from Tim. I’ll try not to muck up my pieces too badly. They're collages by and large, in black and white. And on their backs, he experiments with the limitations of the indulgence of the US Postal Service; moving the address around, moving the stamp around and changing the address. All I can say is that a lot of them are delivered. I don't know if the more extreme examples are not delivered. I was looking through them trying to come up with some images that we could talk about that, but they’re similarly frustrating in terms of trying to develop, as I’m wont to do, a kind of a narrative out of them. This piece in particular kind of struck my interest, though. It's basically four horizontal cuts and two of them come obviously from the same image. It's an airy modern dining hall covered with hundreds of white tablecloths and chairs on which are aqua colored rectangles. It looks like it's some sort of a banquet. And then in between on one side, on the top, is a hand covering a head defensively in a black and white photo. Another hand reaching out either protectively or threateningly to that, and another face moving past it. And then on the bottom; a series of men in army helmets, holding guns.
This looks like something from the American Civil Rights era from the 1960’s. This looks like either something from the same era or from 50s fascist Europe. This interesting interweaving of stories seems to have a narrative, but I asked Tim about that and he said, “Well, let's look at the picture here. I don't even remember this.” So we took a photograph of this. We blew it up the way they did the forensic work and Blade Runner. When you blow up this image, you're very clearly see that this is a menu. It says “Hackney’s” and there's a red lobster here. Hackney’s turns out to be a famous restaurant in Atlantic City that lasted from about 1920 to 1960—65. At one time it was the biggest seafood restaurant, perhaps the biggest restaurant of any kind, in the world. It had 3,200 seats, Hackney, who ran it, was this tireless promoter who had ads in all the papers in the United States with slogans like, ”Come Eat Where You Fish,” and “Home of the Purified Lobster.” Apparently, the lobsters were in great demand. It's the first restaurant where you could find lobsters purifying in a pool of clean, chlorinated water and then you picked one. I don't think they had lots of choices. You have the Lobster Thermador and other fancy recipes. It specialized in this sort of weird mid century concoctions.
And they had all sorts of attractions in the Miss America cocktail lounge and their signature drink, which I hope many of you have sampled the version of the Miss America cocktail, which had Kentucky Bourbon, New Jersey Applejack, lemons from California, sugar from Louisiana. And I don't know what else. That's all I could dig up. But Apple Jack is not any little beer cider. It's 80--is it 60 proof alcohol? It makes you wonder how the West was won. That was the was a drink that Johnny Appleseed was growing when he was planting all the trees. It wasn't apples to eat. It was liquor.
The modern father of a mail art is probably Ray Johnson. A sort of patron saint of artists. He was a great` failed artist, a great genius. The unrecognized kind of artist, everybody's favorite unknown artist. You know, one of those paradoxically famous artists. The Most Famous Unknown Artist in the World. He was a friend of Rauschenberg and Warhol. He participated in that world, and then he removed himself from that world and created these obsessive collage-like forms that he mailed out and kept careful records of. He had the foresight to give himself an epic artist's death. He dove off a bridge on January 13th and was last seen doing the backstroke out to sea. And his body washed up and rumors began to swirl
immediately that this was a great performance piece. He was 67, which adds up to 13, and he'd spent the night before in room 247 of a motel, which adds up to 13. It was the 13th day of the year. I have no idea if that’s important.
Perhaps the real first mail artist was Cleopatra. According to legend, she was in a contest with her brother slash husband Ptolmey the Pharaoh, for the attention of Caesar. Caesar had come as a governor--dictator of Egypt. At that point it was a virtual colony of the Roman Empire. They were both contesting for his ear, and Ptolmey was keeping Cleopatra away, so she had her faithful servant Apollodorus the Sicilian wrap her up in a rug and smuggle her past the guards. Then he unrolls the rug and she steps out and Cleopatra and Caesar have an affair and a kid. It’s celebrated in every movie ever
made about Cleopatra. I was especially interested in the famous painting of that scene by Gerome. You see Cleopatra, who is for some reason topless, as so many characters in Gerome's paintings were for no particular reason. In the background you see Cesar being surprised by this sight. He’s a 50-year old man and this young woman is stepping out of a carpet and his hands are splayed his eyes are wide, his mouth is dropped. He's basically, as far as I can see, the inspiration for almost every Tex Avery cartoon of a wolf. You see the wolf in Red Hot Riding Hood expressing with every non phallic instrument at Avery's command male arousal. The eyes come out, the tongue comes out, the hands begin to pump wildly. The epitome of a male desire. This was actually distributed to the troops during the World War ii. It was not allowed to be seen elsewhere because it was considered too explicit, which it was, I suppose.
My father had a cookbook that he had retained from the years before he was married called “A Wolf in Chef’s Clothing.” It was a famous cookbook that Esquire magazine put out for its gentlemen readers. It was entirely in comic form so any idiot could use it. It’s titillating promise was that it would teach you how to not only to feed yourself, but also to put together an elegant meal for your lady friend. How do you make filet mignon? You take a piece of bacon and you wrap the bacon around the meat and put a toothpick in. If you were really successful, it would show you how to cook breakfast the next morning. It had three different kinds of omelets. The American omelet is with jelly and sugar, the French omelet has butter, Italian omelet has tomatoes.
This is an example of one of the recipes. This is Russian dressing. It’s quite simple. Everything is schematic. A bowl and then chili and then mayonnaise. It's all going in. The number of cups or spoons tell you how much to put in: caviar! Chives; snip off the tips and put chives in here---horseradish and ketchup. And then you mix it up with an eggbeater and you shake it. And they always have a slightly salacious introduction to each recipe. On the top there's a kind of orientalist image of this silhouetted female figure in a bearskin hat. The caption is ‘Ach, Carl, what you missed!” which at the time I just assumed was some Russian joke, but now that I'm looking at it I realize that “Carl” and “Ach” are German words so all I can imagine is this is a joke about Hitler's invasion of Russia. This was right after World War II and Hitler had tried to get to Moscow in the winter. He failed, but if he had gotten there, he would've been able to enjoy Russian dressing. I made a few copies, if anybody would like this. Everyone who wants to take a recipe home for Russian dressing, feel free. There are only 15 but I assume not everybody will want one.
In the 1940s--1840s, excuse me-- a man named Henry Brown was a slave in Virginia. His wife and children were sold from the plantation on which they all lived to another plantation. His family was broken up and he was understandably distraught. He decided that he would do anything rather than live another year in slavery. He had a friend, a white carpenter--he was skilled as a carpenter himself--- and they began to concoct a plan to smuggle him out of slavery. They had contacts in the abolitionist north, in Philadelphia. Brown had $160 and half of his money he spent building a box about three feet by two feet by two and a half feet. He lined it with some sort of carpeting, and they contacted a shipping company which was renowned for its efficiency and discretion. Now the mail system in the United States at this point was a point of pride and it was a very powerful political weapon. Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist leader, said cheap postage had immense moral bearing because it allowed the communication, especially from the north to the south, of literature and ideas and arguments that undermined the southern cause. The south was unable to break the sanctity of the mailing system.
Brown proposed to do the opposite, to send himself out using the mail system-- the postage shipping system--to the north. So he got into this box and they nailed him in. There was a slight hole. He had some biscuits and water. And then he set off on a journey that took 27 hours using basically every form of conveyance available at the time. First he was in a horse drawn cart, then he was on a ferry boat. Then he was on a train, then he was back on a cart. He was carried by hand. Every time he traded systems, it seemed like someone would drop the crate or leave it upside down. For a while and he was on his head. Eventually, 27 hours later, he got to Philadelphia and the men waiting for him pried the top off. And he got out and he said, “Hello gentleman.” He recited a psalm in honor of his escape. In one of the engravings of the scene there are five men taking the box lid off. One of them seems to be Frederick Douglas himself. This became an extremely famous event in the abolitionist cause and Brown went on tour immediately. He went to Boston and points north and he developed a performance using a moving panorama. Those were enormous paintings that would roll across while Brown stood in front to create the illusion of movement through space and time. They were very popular.
Douglas was actually a critic of this. He thought that they should keep the whole thing quiet so that they could continue to smuggle people out. He thought they could have saved untold lives. As it was the mailing was attempted several times afterwards and they were always caught. And eventually the men involved in the south were sent to jail. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed several years later Brown was so famous he left the country because he knew he could be rearrested and sent south, basically by anybody who wanted to grab him for the bounty, a bounty hunter, for about $200. He went to England and continued to do these performances, but he also became a stage actor. He became a magician and a mesmerist, a hypnotizer. He married an Englishwoman and he and his wife and daughter started a show called “Professor Box Brown and his Family.” He adopted the name Box as his middle name and he lived in Europe for many years, and after the war he came back to the United States and continued to tour with his mesmerist act, but then moved to Toronto for the last 10 years of his life.
Olivia, who is here, you remember your friend and colleague Wilmer Wilson the Fourth, a friend and student of mine. Before he was a student of mine, he did this wonderful piece. He's about six four, six five and he weighs about 150 pounds. He stripped down to his shorts and covered himself with stamps and walked through the streets of Washington DC, into a postal service office and asked to be mailed to freedom in honor of Henry Box Brown. They said, “We don't do that,” So he took all the stamps off and put on a coat and walked out. He was kind of hard to teach after that, after a piece like that. It was a beautiful piece.
In 1903 there wasa woman named Annie Edson Taylor who'd been a bookkeeper and a librarian. She had had a professional career and things had not gone well for her. She was 63 and she was terrified of ending her life in the poor house and she resolved on a desperate scheme to ensure her financial security and fame. She decided to be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She had this large barrel, as big as herself, made out of oak. She attached an anvil to one side to give it ballast. She put a mattress in and then she put a cat in, and she sent that over as a kind of test. She was no fool. The barrel made it and the cat had a little scratch. So to great fanfare she put herself in the barrel. Thousands gathered along the edge. The barrel took about 20 minutes to get to the edge of the cataract, and then it went over. It was lost for 20 minutes until it bobbed to the surface. She was extricated, perfectly okay, except for the same scratch on the forehead that the cat had.
Her idea was that she would now go on tour with the barrel and tell the story of her adventure as the heroine of Niagara Falls. She would go on tour and tell her story and achieve the success and the security and recognition that was so important to her. It did not work out that way. Her manager stole her money and the barrel, and she had to make another barrel and she spent the rest of her life with the secondary barrel telling her story, and in fact she died in the poverty that she had feared. Although she did achieve at least enough fame that she's in Wikipedia. I suppose that's something. More than most of us. She was the first person to go over the edge of Niagara Falls.
But there had been a number of stunts in the frothy waters below and also above the falls. There were a lot of aerialists and daredevils. I'm not going to say a lot, but a number had created these spectacles. One of the most famous---
You know what?- it's time to give this up…
—It was one of the famous of locales in America. A French tightrope performer named Blondine, called Blondini for his blonde hair, conceived of a series of stunts across the river leading to the Falls that were extremely famous. He had a wire strung from side to side, and then he advertised that he would walk across, and he did. And then he walked back. And then he had to keep topping himself. So he would walk backwards. He would sit down. He would carry his manager over.
My favorite, and perhaps his most famous stunt, was that he walked across with a stove on his back. When he got halfway across the Falls, he sat down. He balanced the stove on the wire and he cooked and then ate an omelet. And then when he was done, he put the stove back on his back and continued to the other side. Why? Nothing about that adds up properly, but the idea that you would walk across Niagara Falls and stop halfway through and eat an omelet is quite appealing. Apparently, when you read more about him, this was part of his regular act, even in the circus performances. He would cook an omelet on the wire, but then he would often lower it down to the audience so they could eat the omelet. We are in the great tradition of trying to gain the affection of the audience by giving them something to chew on.
The next character who Tim sent me information about as an influence--if not on him, then on the history of collage--was a woman with odd parallels to several characters that we've talked about. Her name was Mary Delany. She was born in 1700 in England to a pretty aristocratic family. In fact, she was trained to be lady in waiting to the Queen of England if James the First had passed on the Stewart line. Her family unfortunately had bet on the wrong horses, and after James’ death, they reached out all the way into Europe and got a Hanover prince and started a whole different line of German speaking English kings, and Mary was left with nothing and became a burden on her family. They married her off to a drunken man about sixty years older than her who lasted about four years until he died of apoplexy, which is a nice way of saying he basically died of alcohol poisoning.
She spent the 20 next years of her life traveling between the country houses of her friends. She had been raised to be about as charming and as accomplished as you could be. She could sing and she could dance and she could make conversation in many languages. She could draw and cut out beautiful silhouettes in black paper. She was in great demand. She was very good friends with Handel, whose harpsichord she played, and he played her harpsichord. Jonathan Swift admired her a great deal.
Jonathan Swift had a friend, Delaney, who was in love with her, but was married to someone else. Eventually they overcame their differences. He was a commoner, although he was wealthy, and she eventually agreed to marry him and they had 25 years together raising plants in his garden. They were both avid gardeners. And then he died, when she was in her late sixties.
Then she spent the next 20 years of her life actually in her great work, what she's known now. She had a patron in the Duchess of Portland, the wealthiest woman in Europe. According to Delany she chanced on this occupation. One morning she woke up and saw a flower lying by her bed and a piece of red paper. She realized that the paper and the flower matched, and she began to create these incredible collages that are remarkable for their accurate depiction of every plant that she came across. She would use the paper to cut out the forms. Sometimes she would add ink and other details, and they were very dramatically presented against stark black backgrounds. They were admired and collected by all of her friends. At her death in fact, there were thousands and thousands of them, which are now in the Royal Academy. When the Duchess died Delany was in her late eighties and George III, the grandson of the king who had sent her on this lifetime of marginal exploration, took her in to be the tutor to his children, to teach them about botany and science, which is an interesting end to her career.
When I saw these images--and if you see them, you'll be quite struck by their beauty---but also by the drama of the way they're presented and the starkness of the formal design of the plants. Although they were seen to be highly naturalistic at the time, they also have a very strong sense of formal design. They remind me of Ernst Haeckel’s drawings---where are you are David?---You knew we get to this. Haeckel was the German scientist and avid promoter of Darwinian theory in the late 19th, early 20th century who was famous in his time for the drawings that he made of unicellular life mostly, though also he did other images of crustaceans and even larger animals. But the most beautiful ones were these microscopic organisms that nobody could see at the time and there was no photographic system for recording them. And so, what he saw, because he was a great scientist, was taken as gospel. I keep looking at David because he wrote a brilliant piece about this in Cabinet magazine and I don't want to get the facts wrong. Haeckel would create an image of some flagellic organism and he would splay it out as though it was made out of geometric straight lines from one point to another, almost like it was made of crystal instead of protoplasm. And he wouldn't leave anything blank, even though it was on a black surface. He would put other organisms in symmetrical arrangements around it. And then it was all set off against this jet-black background.
Sometimes his publisher would tip color in and these became incredibly popular coffee table books at the time. Haeckel was regarded as a great progressive scientist. He was highly esteemed. His ideas tipped quite easily into notions of social Darwinism, that not just that plants and animals were in a struggle for survival, but that humans were too, and the human races would divide themselves off into the more and the less adaptive. Eventually the Nazis took him on as a kind of patron saint of eugenic theory and all the rest. The article that David wrote, which I will characterize too quickly to do it justice, poses the question, was this bad science, but interesting art because of the distortions? Was it a bad art because it didn't represent the world properly, but interesting science because it clarified issues that other scientists could then build on? Or is something inherently disturbing about the organization of the mind that would produce an image like this? I urge you to look up the piece if you want to read deeper into this study.
The next man to consider in the history of the collage takes us to the idea of the photo montage. This is Oscar Gustav Rejlander. He was a Swedish born painter who moved to England and, according to his own fable, saw a photograph of a sculpture and thought that the way that a photograph could capture with incredible accuracy the folds on the sleeve of a shirt made it appealing to him as his life's work. He became a photographer, but a very progressive experimental photographer. Also a man of somewhat
dubious ethics. He may have been the first pornographer. He made erotic photos in his early life and he photographed urchins from the street. So he might have also been first child pornographer.
His great work was a piece called “The Two Ways of Life.” It was an epic photo montage containing 32 different negatives put together in a kind of proto Photoshop. It is a Victorian combination of moralism and titillation. In the center is a bearded man in a big dark toga who is flanked by two young men in white togas--Togas do not do as well in photographs as they do in paintings because they stand out stiffly and you end up looking absurd. But the two young men are looking to the left and to the right, respectively. In the center beneath them is a semi-nude woman with a cloth over her head. And then on this side are all these naked female figures in various suggestive positions of repose. On this side are characters who are cloaked in gowns and there is a man working at a lathe and another man building something. So obviously this is Industry and Sobriety and Propriety, and on this side is a Life of License and Indulgence and Decadence. It was quite notorious when it was first displayed and in fact it would only be displayed with a cloth demurely over the offensive side. It was called The Two Ways of Life, but you only see this side. But I think Queen Victoria bought a copy to give to her husband Albert, and that legitimized the whole thing, and everybody got their own copy after that.
Rejlander was also well known for the invention of trick photography and created a craze that you can see the results of to this day. There was a strange taste in Victorian portrait photography for the headless portrait, the self-portrait. This is a woman in a very elaborate dress without a head, but she's holding her head in her hand by the hair and it's grinning out of the picture. And there are many, many images like this. A whole bunch of policemen standing and grinning with their heads under their shoulders or a family portrait of a mother without a head and her son holding her bloody head and her daughter holding an axe. Nobody's quite sure why this hit such a nerve, but it did for a long time. It seems like it’s a tradition worth reviving.
There’s an interesting story of another artist, a writer, that I can briefly summarize and misrepresent. Alexi Worth wrote a piece about Delacroix, the painter, called the Invention of Clumsiness, and it involves a bet he made with other painters in 1840. Delacroix was interested in photography himself and he commissioned a photograph of a male and a female nude, posed in a neo-classical style. The naked man with a cloth, here, and the woman is crouching by his side and they are looking at the camera. They're in deep shadow. Delacroix invited his friends over, and he showed them this picture and he said, “What do you think of these figures?” They all were very critical of the bodies of the male and the female. They didn't say why they were wrong, but they found them quite offensively imperfect. It may have been the foreshortening, or the lighting, or the fact that they were ordinarily scaled human beings.
Then he said, “Okay, what do you think of this?” It was an engraving, of what we are not sure precisely, but it was probably by a renaissance master, drawing in the style of. or perhaps a copy of Michelangelo nudes in a sort of series. The image was of these figures standing naked in a field in various contrapposto poses. And he said, “Well, what do you think of this image?” And they said, “Now we don't like this either because we can see how ugly--not how ugly--but how distorted these bodies really are.” They had been so used to seeing representations of the body in a perfected form that just having a look at an image of a body as it really was, created a kind of cognitive dissonance that they could neve recover from.
Delacroix felt that they were at crossroads. If photography would not allow us to enjoy the body as it was, but also never longer allow us to enjoy the representation of a perfected body, what could it do? What he thought it would do was become a tool for painters that would enable them to actually make the perfect painting of the body. Sort of the inverse of what we think of photography doing with the figure now, which was to replace image-based painting. The idea of the Invention of Clumsiness was that what it also did was create the image of the body caught between a pose, in a state of liveliness that was not represented normally by a staged image.
Rejlander had his last brush with fame through Charles Darwin, who admired his photos and hired him
to take the images for perhaps Darwin's strangest and most interesting project. It's called “The
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” In his youth Darwin had gone through a sort of
emotional turmoil and had been very upset by the implications of his theories about evolution and how
they pertained, not just to the evolution of the body, but to the spirit. It was one thing to say that our
bodies reflected an ancestry in the lower orders, but there was something special about our emotions
and our psychic life that was locked into our brains.
Darwin was convinced that there was something just as animalistic, to use an awkward word, about our minds as there were about our bodies. He thought that the access to that was through the expressions of the face; that you would blush uncontrollably, or you would arch your eyebrows in surprise, just as a dog would do. He realized this was very controversial territory and that people would find this quite offensive, so he actually flipped the script and in the book he started talking about the anthropomorphic quality of animals, that dogs grin or cringe in a way that we can identify as emotions that we understand, as opposed to saying that we share those emotions with the animals.
So he's sort of tried to find a back door into this argument, but he also tried to make an objective study of human emotions. He had Rjelander, the greatest photographer of the time, take pictures of people grinning naturally, and then he would stick them with electrodes and show what that looked like. He used actors to simulate what human faces look like when different emotions are expressed. He tried to come up with an organic index or taxonomy of emotions that could be reliably called upon as part of a thorough investigation of the relationship between the inside of the body and mind and the outside. It's hopelessly flawed, but a wonderful idea.
Our friend Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in London and in one of the oddities of history, in a quick collapse of coincidence, 200 years later that same house, or the house next door, was lived in for several years by Jimi Hendrix, who knew this history and actually collected images, I mean albums, by Handel. I think Handel paid 60 pounds a year for his flat and Jimi and his girlfriend paid 30 pounds a week. That seems like pretty high for the 1960s.
During this time Hendrix produced his last and perhaps greatest album; Electric Ladyland, famous for All Along the Watchtower, but also for the album itself, for its cover art. Jimi made a sketch of the cover as he wanted it that was quite bizarre when you think about it. He wanted a picture of himself and a bunch of children sitting around the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, which would have been an amazing image, but the American publisher nixed that in favor of just a red and white psychedelic image. The European, the English, album cover was more notorious. It's a photo montage right out of Rejlander’s heart. Some thirty naked women in dark shadows, all posed staring straight out at the viewer. They obviously don't belong in the same space. Hendrix was really offended by this image. He thought it was disrespectful, and in fact the album was often sold inverted, so that became the inside and the more conventional image of his face was on the outside.
Hendrix’s drummer for many years was Mitch Mitchell, who had gotten the job through winning a coin flip. After Hendrix died, he lost the job as a McCartney's drummer in Wings on another coin flip. A lucky/unlucky guy. I thought at this point in honor of Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell and collage, I should finally shut up for two minutes and allow a real drum solo.
I'm going to draw, but I won't talk, if I can keep it going.
Just play the damn drums.
All Right! Nice.
I didn’t quite get the segue right. So. Another influential figure in mail art was a proper English eccentric named Reginald Bray, a mild accountant by day and a notorious terrorizer of the British postal system by night. He’d read the entire manual put out by the British postal system in about 1890 from cover to cover--this huge book--and he decided he would test them on various promises that they made. For some reason they said they would deliver anything bigger than a bee or smaller than an elephant, regardless. It should be packaged. It should be properly addressed. It didn't have to be packaged and it didn't have to be properly addressed. They would still do their best. It's interesting to think about what
an important role the American postal service had been playing 40, 30 years before, and how in a similar way the English postal service represented the best, the edge of the technological and communicative culture of the time. They could do anything. They could bring something from one place to another efficiently, safely and discreetly. That meant a lot to the functioning of the empire. Much like Amazon today.
In Bray’s most famous stunts he would actually to have himself mailed from one location to another. This was something you could actually do. You would pay your money and they would escort you to the place you wanted to go. This was something they actually promised to do. And you could mail your child. If you wanted to say, have your child sent to school, you would walk the child to the post office and they could be walked to school. Or if you wanted somebody to walk your dog, you could actually have the postman walk it around. Bray did his stunts both before and after parcel post was invented. Everything was sent out and you would pay upon receipt. It was experimental work. If it wasn’t delivered you’d get it back. Much as Tim was experimenting with placing the stamps or the addresses in various locations, Bray began making these very strange experiments He would take a picture of a postcard of a rock off of the coast of the Isle of Orkney and write on the surface, “To be delivered to the person living closest to this rock.” And he would send it out and inevitably it would come back to him. Or not inevitably. Maybe it got delivered and he never saw it again.
He conducted these experiments in various forms for many years and then he became more interested
in becoming a world's greatest collector of autographs. He used the postal system to pursue this goal as
well. He had a highly complex index system with many numbers. He would send out postcards
requesting autographs to famous politicians and generals and people in the entertainment business and
in the news. He accumulated 20,000 or so of these signatures, mostly from people we don't know at all,
which is sort of depressing. Some of them are just interesting characters. One person that he
approached was the captain of a fishing trawler during World War I, who had become notorious
because he had failed to rescue the surviving crew members from a German Zeppelin that had been
shot down into the English Channel. For some reason, that image of a Zeppelin crashing into the water
with a boat next to it is quite striking in my mind. I think he got the signature, but that image--- Oh dear, I need that or I can't finish—thanks. That image of the of the boat and the airship reminds me of one of the more famous album covers of
Somebody here must know this. Did I get that right?
This is a Frank Zappa album. It's called “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.” It's a Droodal, a form of drawing, which is a highly simplified line drawing that functions as a kind of pun. I think Bray used versions of it himself for his addresses. I had a book of puzzles for children, I remember, that had some examples. An image like this would be either “A Giraffe Passing by a Third Floor Window,” or “The View of a Highway from the Bomb Bay of a Plane.” But this was my favorite. It's an “Amateur’s Drawing of a Tomato Sandwich,” which I thought in fourth grade was the funniest thing ever, because I could draw a better tomato sandwich than that. And it also had also this, “if Missouri and Mississippi had a party, what would Delaware? Idaho, Alaska.” Hah ha. I just had to get it off my chest. And also, it had this palindromic address. Somebody sent a postcard with this on the front and it was delivered. Where did it go?
Right. The cryptographer in the room. Thank you, Stuart.
John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts. Thank you.
John Hartfield was a photo montage artist with a mission. He made some amazing images in the
Interwar years trying to combat the rise of fascism. His image of Hitler swallowing coins, or a German
family eating machine guns and tank parts came from a Goering quote. Goering said that guns were
more important than butter. My favorite image is of an elephant, two elephants with wings flying above
the ground, called “The Happy Elephant.” It was in a magazine in Europe. The caption said, “Why are
the elephants happy? Will they be happy in the future? It doesn't matter. They're happy now.” It was
published right after Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain, signed the nonaggression pact for Hitler and this
was as close as Hartfield could come to making a seditious statement at the time. The happy flying
elephants were obviously a pipe dream that he saw through.
My two brothers, two of my brothers, were in Africa on a game farm. This is a slightly different story than I've told before. Apparently, I’ve been telling the story wrong all these years they were camping. They were near a waterhole and they saw an elephant. I don't know if you read that terrible story recently about the Italian tourist who was trampled by an elephant trying to get too close for a photograph. Well, that's what my brothers did. Actually, one of them did. One brother kept waving the other brother back closer and closer and closer to the elephant until the elephant had had enough and it swung its trunk. Elephants are very big, so you think you are far enough away from the elephant to be safe, but you're not. My brother dove to the ground. He remembers the tusks going over his head and then the elephant looking down and being ready to step on him until he scrambled away. He was so upset he went back to his tent and wrote up an intricate account of this event complete with my other brother’s urging him to get closer and closer and he made my brother sign this document to prove for all time that he had endangered his life. Josh thought it was just a joke. He said, “Yes, I almost got you trampled by an elephant.” So, it didn't have the desired effect, but it did produce a story that I guess I have misremembered all these years.
There was a mysterious cigar roller who lived in Philadelphia. He had been born in Cuba and then migrated to Miami and then finally up to Philadelphia. He spent a lifetime rolling cigars. But in the evening, he would go into his garage and create these incredible collages. His name was Felipe Consalvos and he's so little known that there is some doubt about his authenticity, which I think is an insult to his ability. He did perhaps collaborate with his son and nobody is sure where his work began and the other work ended. He died without ever sharing his art. He work stayed in a garage for 20 years until it was discovered in 1980 and now he's kind of a hero of the outsider art world. The images are quite sophisticated. He’d take dollar bills and cut them up. There are lots of images of George Washington in drag with lots of quotations that reflected a dedicated and kind of quirky worldview. But he also put these things all over everything he had, from guitars to chairs to typewriters. I think he had a motto, “A cigar maker, a man, a healer.”
I’d like to think that while he worked rolling cigars he probably heard many, many stories written or read by professional readers called lectores who were a fixture in all cigar factories in Cuba and also throughout the United States. A cigar factory has no machinery per se, and so it's quite quiet. The workers were rolling cigars all day long, and to pass the time they would all volunteer to go up and read for a period of time while the other workers continued to roll cigars. They would pass the hat to cover the lost wages for the time spent reading. Eventually this job evolved into something that professionals would do; read and act out the news from the day. Sometimes they would read fiction, long novels. Victor Hugo was very popular, Agatha Christie. When there was immigration into the United States, the lectores followed and now had the double job now of translating the news from English into Spanish.
As I said, mysteries were very popular. The longer and more complicated the more likely they would be to be popular amongst the readers. If they weren't popular, though, they would throw the books out and they would throw the people out. There was a woman named Maria Gonzalez Martinez who wrote 21 novels, none of which she published, but all of which she read over the years to her followers. She had a career as a novelist within this community of cigar rollers.
My friend Scott gave me a gift a couple of weeks ago; information about this writer named Harry Stephen Keeler who could very well have been one of the people read by these lectores. He was a mystery writer who created immensely complicated, very long stories, except the only reason that he might not have been read---although at the end of his career he was only published in Spanish and Portuguese because no English publisher would touch him---is that he was the worst writer, perhaps, who ever lived. Some people say he was the worst great writer, others say he was the best worst writer. He wrote such fantastic, really complicated stories that it's thought that he might have been a precursor to the lipograms that interested the avant guarde movement of French structuralists writers who would write novels without the letter “e” for example, and who liked to impose all sorts of structures and strictures on themselves.
Harry was a kind of a wild man, a bit of a self-taught writer, but he wrote a tremendous number of books, at least 70 novels in all genres; mysteries, but also science fiction. He had an amazing gift for very strange titles, such as “The Case of the Transposed Legs,” or “The Attack the Flying Strangler Babies,” or “The Case of the Two-Headed idiot.” He had an obsession with weird dwarves and distorted bodies. The New York Times at one point wrote a review in 1942 and said something like, “Our only explanation for the peculiar novels of Mr. Keeler is that he writes with the undisciplined urge for the sheer joy of creation itself,“ But he took himself quite seriously. He believed he had created, or was the foremost practitioner of something he called Webwork Plotting. He wrote a book about this. Its cover is an image of him as a spider in the middle of an elaborate web. The book is basically a lot of diagrams to show how the web work plotting is done. He believed that stories should be written with points of inflection.
Something would happen and then something would happen here and then something would happen
here, and then something that happened here. But by the time his diagrams were done, everything
would be on top of everything else. Because basically what he would do was he would accumulate
thousands and thousands of newspaper clippings and then he would sit down and try and sort them out
and try to make a story out of them.
If he ran out of material, he would take a short story that his wife, who was also a mystery writer, had written and have a character say, “And now I'm going to read a story.” And then he would read a story. Or a character would say, “I have an idea for a short story. Perhaps you'd like to read it and tell me if it's any good.” And then he just throw that into the novel. He would. keep introducing characters over and over and over again. He would write a 700 page book in which he only introduce the murderer in the last page or some other thing. At the time he was publishing there was a tradition to have a point in a mystery, say halfway through, where the author says, “You have now received all the clues you need to solve the mystery” But in Harry’s case you couldn't possibly do that because there weren't enough clues, as he might not introduce the murderer
until the end of the book. I'm going to read you a passage. I don't know whether it's worth it or not, but Scott will appreciate this. This is, I think, from The Skull of the Waltzing Clown.”--It’s now been picked up by hipsters. Some people will find it intolerable, but you will get a sense of his style. Everything is a digression. Everything is a coincidence. Everything is a shady, dark story that ends up with a “never mind, it doesn't really count.”--
“For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s ‘Barr-Bag,’ which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!”
Suing Sophie was a character in a novel who would basically run up to men at the end of a cruise on a
ship and say, “Yes! I will marry you!”, and then sue them for nonsupport when they didn't marry her. There was an elaborate story about it, but she's not actually a character in the story. It's just that somebody would refer to her over and over and over again in the third person because for some reason he had gotten a hold of the story even though it had nothing to do with anything in particular.
If there is a god of collage, I would think it is Ganesh, the elephant-headed Indian deity who is prayed to as the enabler of all things we desire. He is worshiped above almost all other gods. The story of his coming to being is that he is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva was away. Parvati wanted to take a bath and there was no a servant around to protect her---I'm actually going to go through an entire pad of paper--- So she created a boy out of turmeric paste and told him to stand guard in front of the door and not let anybody in. Shiva came home and wanted to go inside and the boy wouldn't let him in. Shiva who had a short temper, took out his sword or trident chopped off his head.
Parvati came out. She was so upset she said, “I will end the all creation unless you bring this boy back to life.”--This is one of many stories about how it happened but perhaps the most interesting—about how he brought the little boy back to life. So Shiva sent his followers out and said, “Find me the first dead animal with the head pointing north and bring back the head.” They brought back the head of an elephant, which he put on the body of the boy and he was worshiped before all other gods, according to his mother's wishes, as a pasted-together figure.
There's a shrine in the yoga shala where Jude and I used to practice that our friend Eddie, the Hindu priest from the upper west side of Manhattan is the chief operating officer. In it are many statues of Hindu gods, including many of Shiva. You can pour ghee, clarified butter and honey on them. There is some thought that the more elaborated these figures are, the more venerated they will be and the more the gods will be satisfied with your offerings. Eddie knew we were sculptors and asked us to do him a favor, to create a mold of the base of the statue of Ganesh that they had there, that could be brought to India. Instead of the whole statue being brought, just bring the cast of the base to a silversmith who would then create a silver overleaf for it that would then be brought back and put on top of the base to create a more beautiful and precious manifestation of the image of the god.
We agreed to do this, so we showed up with our tools and buckets of latex and plaster to create a mold of the base and then a mother mold that Eddie could take to India with him. He said, “When you go into his shrine, into this altar space, you will be in hallowed ground. So, you must behave accordingly. No swearing, no uncouth behavior and no farting.”
Somehow that wasn’t in keeping with my notion of what a less uptight culture would worry about. But you can imagine how difficult it is when you go into a holy place with the instructions not to swear or not to fart, and maybe we fell short of our assignment. But in any case, we delivered to Eddie a workable mold of the base which he took to India, to the small town where he practiced. He found a man who knew where a silversmith lived who took him by car and rikshaw and dog and horse and foot, down many paths-look at that-until they found the silversmith, who took the base and said, “I can do this. Come back in six months when you return to India and, and it'll be ready for you.” So, Eddie came back, practiced for six months or so and then went back to India, found his guide, and they went retraced their steps by car and horse and rikshaw until they found the field and the road where they thought the silversmith lived and there was nothing there. And they searched and they searched, and they searched, but they never found him.
And they shrugged and said, “Well, that's India. We'll never find it.”
Let's hear it for Tim.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
© 2020 Matt Freedman
All Rights Reserved.
Film and Performance Projects