Sunday, October 26, 2008

jim nickoff: in memoriam

recently i found out from a college friend that one of our mutual friends died at his ranch in woodside, california on december 16, 2007. jim nickoff, a founding equality california board member, ended his life on that day with a gunshot wound to the head. he was 44 and served as served as eqca’s treasurer for the five years preceding his suicide. creating the entire financial structure for that organization, he helped manage those systems as it grew (from about $180,000 to just under $4 million). jim was a key player in the financial success of gay civil rights organizations and several political campaigns—including those of barbara boxer, mark leno, harry britt, angela aliotto, leslie katz and a host of others. in addition to his work on those campaigns, he served in financial positions with the national task force on aids prevention, project open hand, pacific business group on health, the federation of gay games, and the harvey milk lgbt democratic club.

born and raised in lansing, michigan, jim attended michigan state university and earned a bachelor's degree in accounting there in 1987, and pursued graduate studies in business administration at golden gate university. it is in lansing that I got to know jim—he lived a couple of doors down from me in a heavily student neighborhood off campus. on thanksgiving weekend 1980, i took jim on his first excursion to a bathhouse: we drove down to detroit to the tnt in those more innocent days before aids overshadowed the very act of making love.

after bruce, my friend in long beach, told me about jim, i “googled” him, and was so pleased and grateful that jim’s commitment to the community was so recognized and appreciated. i still appreciate the kindness that he showed me. what, i wondered, could make him feel so hopeless that he would put a gun to his head? unfortunately, i don’t have to go far for the answer. here he had survived the worst darkness of the aids epidemic, and had lived to see so much progress. sad to say, he is not unique in that. in many ways, i think those of us who felt we didn’t “measure up,” never get over our scarred self-images. jim came out at the age of 15 in the late 1970’s, which was an amazing thing for such a young person to do—no matter where you lived. jim was forced to confront so much anti-gay bigotry so soon. he was kicked out of his home at 15 and had to work as a dishwasher and do odd jobs to survive and put a roof over his head. there was no “will and grace” or “ellen.” how can that not have a horrible impact? while our stories are quite different, i can identify full well with jim’s feelings.

when I graduated from msu in june 1982, i circulated an autograph book among friends, acquaintances, and political colleagues. jim’s entry was short: “from the tubs [referring to our bathhouse excursion] to the ms dance.” the latter referred to the dance-a-thon sponsored by delta tau delta fraternity to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research. because they excluded same-sex couples jim and i were part of a large lesbian and gay dance-in to protest that policy. jim was not the only gay man in that autograph book to commit suicide: i know of at least two others. that doesn’t even include those of us lost to aids and murder.

there are two group photographs in my album that include jim and me. they speak volumes about his bravery and commitment. one was taken in may 1981 at the east lansing police station. a host of joe six-packs attempted to violate a large party celebrating msu lesbian & gay pride week: we fought back and filed charges against the rabble. one of our compatriots showed his bruises in the photo. the other was taken in october 1987 at the march on washington for lesbian and gay rights. we were all smiling and holding a large michigan flag.

however, jim will always loom large in my heart for standing up for me [with another mutual friend named phil] in early spring 1982. in the winter of that year, a bunch of us took on the thankless task of reorganizing msu’s lesbian/gay council [now called the lgbt alliance]—complete with a new, and very thorough, constitution. we unveiled the new structure at the beginning of that spring term—including provisions for two at-large board members. the director of the council appointed his boyfriend to the at-large male position. as an outgoing senior, i had hoped for that position. while saying nothing, i was crushed. the next morning i received an outraged phone call from jim, who was furious at what happened. his call to the director must have worked. in less than two hours i was named to the position. i’ll never forget his kindness, sensitivity, and willingness to jump into the fray. when I visited east lansing in the spring of 1986, jim came to where I was staying and woke me up with his usual beaming smile.

reading the obits about jim in san francisco newspapers, i learned that he was a talented athlete who had won several medals in martial arts at the 1994 gay games in new York, 1998 gay games in amsterdam, and the 2002 gay games in sydney. he had black belts in the martial arts of hapkido (3rd degree), tangsoodo (2nd degree), and taekwondo (1st degree)—and taught martial arts to youth. it was during the period of the gay games in new york (which coincided with the stonewall 25 celebrations) that I last saw jim. he was on the other side of a very large crowd, and I wasn’t able to say “hello.”

jim was survived by his partner, dave lawson. i was pleased to find out that he and his partner were the seventh couple married at san francisco city hall during those frenetic days in february 2004 when mayor gavin newsom jump-started the fight for marriage equality in a “winter of love.” in celebration of jim’s life, the jim nickoff student internship fund was started in care of the equality california institute. the internship will provide lgbt youth, who too often suffer isolation when coming out in high school, an opportunity to connect with the community.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

aaron johnson: star-crossed

[commander's feast (in blood & fire)(2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; the second coming of uncle sam (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; star-crossed (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag; death of a monster (2008), acrylic polymer on polyester flag]

showing at stefan stux gallery through october 18 is “star-crossed,” a series of new paintings by aaron johnson that evoke the twisted debate consuming our republic on such no-brainer issues as the separation of church and state, u.s. embroilment in imperial and mercenary conflict abroad, and the cynical one-dimensional patriotism expressed by mainstream media. further, the artist indicts contemporary america on these and other issues with narratives that marry the horrific and hilarious.

all of the works in “star-crossed” are ceremoniously painted upon the emotionally charged, and politically controversial, american flag—adding johnson’s work to a canon including jasper johns, wayne eagleboy, dread scott, and faith ringgold. confronting the cultural morass of desecration, iconoclasm, and sacrilege, johnson simultaneously celebrates the fundamental american ideal of freedom of expression. one need only observe the plethora of crackpot right-wing websites bemoaning flag desecration to realize the how that issue resounds in some dark corners of the body politic.

johnson joins an eminent cadre. just recall the ire in 1989 directed at dread scott’s “what is the proper way to display a u.s. flag?” bush senior called it disgraceful, while the entire u.s. senate passed pompous legislation to “protect the flag”—after doing precious little to protect the lives of americans during the emergence of the aids pandemic. in an effort to protect enshrined constitutional rights, scott and three other protesters burned flags on the steps of the u.s. capital. then there’s “the flag is bleeding #2” by feminist and coretta scott king award-winner faith ringgold, with its bittersweet plea for racial harmony. “we the people” by wayne eagleboy bears the figures of two native american men behind a screen of barbed wire upon the u.s. flag.

probably best known are the spectrum of u.s. flag works created by neo-dadaist jasper johns. johns' 1954-55 work “flag”—an iconic celebration of patriotism is innocuous when compared to his “moratorium” from 1969. commissioned by the leo castelli gallery of los angeles in conjunction with that year’s massive and national october 15 mobilization against the vietnam war (the moratorium), johns made a radical departure from his previous red, white, and blue flag paintings. “moratorium”—a toxic flag poisoned by war—has black and green stripes, with the green vaguely resembling camouflage. its orange field is filled with blackened stars, while—in the center—is a single white dot (representing a bullet hole). like today, america was in the throes of an unpopular imperial war. the image became one of the most well-known images of the vietnam period.

while our nation has come full circle to its current embroilments , johnson brings a fresh perspective to this lineage in a body of work that uniquely allows distortions to occur. among the artist’s dreadful and whimsical cast of intrepid characters are torrid depictions of a crucifixion and lady liberty reinterpreted as cyclops of a singular vision, and a johnny appleseed tormented by a fruitless wasteland. such anti-heroes fumble through murky corners of the american myth. resulting works offer foreboding hints of what is to come, namely disgorged body parts, erupting heads, and ultimately the complete obliteration of the figure. this corporeality resounds our schizophrenic society’s underlying corruption and its failure to feed the minds, bodies and souls of its citizenry—who struggle along in an evaporating economy with substandard education and out-of-reach quality health care.

interestingly, amalgams of figures and distortions in johnson’s paintings are comparable to benji whalen’s clay and fabric sculptures that abound in absurd piles of human beings in fights with emerging body parts. in whalen’s show “claustrotopia,” the tangled bodies are so close to the degree that they border on an aggression-prone claustrophobia: thereby ideas of peaceful coexistence become utopian. in the works of both artists—though in different media—conflicting emotions occur simultaneously.

such distortions of american society come to the fore in johnson’s unique method of painting that utilizes reverse-painted acrylic polymer peel paintings. painting completely in reverse onto plastic film, he builds up multiple layers of paint that are ultimately set with acrylic polymer directly onto american flags—allowing him to release the painted layering from the plastic substrate.

stylistically and formally, johnson’s work embraces a variety of influences, including goya’s “desastres de la guerra,” hieronymus bosch’s “hell,” and peter saul’s pop-psychedelia. with his work in “star-crossed,” johnson rightly asserts his place in a line of artists whose art becomes a platform from which to question contemporary society.

aaron johnson: star-crossed

through october 18, 2008

stefan stux gallery

530 west 25th street, nyc 10001

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

discarded lives: going through the trash

“When old people died without wills or heirs, as happened rather often, the landlord would set the belongings of the deceased out on the sidewalk, since that was cheaper than hiring a removal van. We would go through the boxes and help ourselves, and come upon photographs and books and curiosities, evidence of lives and passions spent in the political and social turmoil of 1910 and 1920, of the Mexican Border War and Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth and Vaudeville and labor-union struggles and the shipping trade; we might be briefly diverted, but we were much more interested in the boxes on the next stoop that contained someone’s considerably more recent record collection.” [Afterward, page 369. Low Life: Lures & Snares of Old New York, Luc Santé, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York (2003)]

reading this in santé’s book reminded me of the many times i happened upon physical milestones of peoples’ lives being “brought to the curb” in the east village during the late 80s and early 90s. santé was correct in that my friends were usually interested in record albums. when we found collections at the curb containing numerous 12-inch dance singles from the 1970s, a collective shudder would be experienced as we were undoubtedly looking at the effects of a brother lost to aids.

on one occasion, i found a wonderfully fat volume by a william f. mcdonald in the curbed belongings of an individual on st. mark’s place in the late 1980s. titled “federal relief administration and the arts: the origins and administrative history of the arts projects of the works progress administration” and published by the ohio state university press, this epic book published in 1969 chronicled the idealism—beset by conflict from the benighted—of economic progress inherent in new deal programs. the assumptions of the programs described in mcdonald’s book were that artists, no less than manual workers, are entitled to employment in their crafts at public expense and that the arts—no less than business, agriculture, and labor—are and should be the immediate concern of the ideal commonwealth.

on another occasion, in the summer of 1989, i was with british guy named edward from richmond-surrey and a comrade from act up. as santé describes, book, photos, and other memorabilia were strewn about the garbage cans for a building on second avenue—already picked over by passersby. my fellow actup’er tore apart the pile looking for art books, his passion. i, on the other hand, was intrigued by the piles of books bearing the “international publishers” and “new world paperbacks” imprints—the imprints of the communist party usa. among the books were biographies of cpusa v.i.p.’s such as peter cacchione, eugene dennis, and elizabeth gurley flynn.

this was a saturday evening and i hadn’t brought a backpack. since i’d planned to be out all night, it was with care that i passed up all the available photos, leftist publications, and books in order to pick one thing to take with me from this convergence. what i decided to bring with me was a large “coffee table” book published in 1965 by the dietz verlag berlin—in the former german democratic republic (east germany). “120 jahre deutsche arbeiter bewegung in bilden und dokumenten” (120 years of the german workers’ movement in photographs and documents) by the museum für deutsche geschichte (museum for german history) was humorously incomplete collection of photographs and milestones of the german left.

“humorous” is the operative word in this fascinating book that has some striking co-optations and omissions owing to the slavish devotion of east germany to the soviet line. considering the title of the book, august bebel (1840-1913) and wilhelm liebknecht (1826-1900) the founders of the sozialdemokratische partei deutschlands (or the spd, from which the german communist party—or kpd—emerged) are, of course included. bebel is well known for his quote that “anti-semitism is the socialism of fools.” not surprisingly, the leftist icons and martyrs karl liebknecht (1871-1919) and rosa luxemburg (1870-1919) are also included in this photo-packed tome. the two spartacist leaguers (a breakaway of the spd that became the kpd), founders of the kpd, and founders and publishers of the kpd newspaper “die rote fahne ("the red flag") were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by right-wing thugs on january 15, 1919.

clara zetkin (1857-1933) would have to be included. after all, it was her image that appeared on the east german 10 mark note. this noted feminist (as opposed to rosa luxemburg who abhorred dealing with “women’s issues”) served as a kpd member of the reichstag from 1920 to 1933 and interviewed lenin on "the women's question." in 1920 zetkin served on the kpd’s central committee, on the executive committee of the communist international (comintern), as the president of the german left-wing aid group rote hilfe, and in august 1932—due to her seniority—as the chairwoman of the reichstag.

what would a history authorized by the former east germany be without ernst thälmann (1886-1944), the slavish stalinist who led the kpd during much of the weimar republic? described by zetkin as "uninformed and not educated in theory," and caught in "uncritical self-deception and self-infatuation [which] borders on megalomania," thälmann and the kpd fought the spd as their main political enemy—acting according to the comintern policy that declared their fellow leftists as “social fascists.” thälmann, who was shot in buchenwald on hitler’s orders after being held in solitary confinement for 11 years, was the perpetual candidate of the kpd for the german presidency against paul von hindenburg and hitler. thus, the ridiculous and cynical efforts of the antifaschistische aktion/rote einheitsfront are so extolled in this book. i hope for their sakes that the editors of the book were able to keep a straight face in their offices deep in the bowels of the stasi.

it is no surprise that criminal german communist politicians—and former leaders of east germany—such as walter ulbricht (1893-1973) and erich honecker (1912-1994) would be highlighted. during the last gasps of the weimar republic, ulbricht urged his fellow communists to murder police officers and—reprehensively—he met with berlin’s nazi gauleiter joseph goebbels to plan a general strike. (strikers were so appalled by nazis and communists marching together that the strike was called off after five days.) ulbricht helped decimate the legions of german communists exiled in the soviet union through his treachery and denunciations, which led to their deaths in the purges. stalin’s hatch-man lavrenty beria commented that ulbricht was “the greatest idiot he’d ever seen.” then there’s honecker, who—as state secretary for security matters—was in charge of building the berlin wall and responsible for scores meeting their deaths as they tried to escape the police state.

the bogus 1946 “union” of the spd and the kpd—accomplished by stalinist terror in the soviet sector—is covered with great “fanfare.” socialists (spd) in the eastern precincts were browbeaten and threatened by the soviet secret police to fold their party [with the communists (kpd)] into the socialistischen einheitspartei deutschlands (or the sed, which was to become the political rubric in the communist dictatorship of east germany). thus, otto grotewahl (1894-1964) finds his place in this history. grotewahl, the spd leader in the eastern zone, was blackmailed by soviet authorities into leading his fellow spd’ers into the arms of the communists led by wilhelm pieck (1876-1960), the first and only president of the “german democratic republic.” (to his credit, grotewahl publicly condemned the abuses of east germany’s “legal system” and its vicious executioner “justice minister” hilde benjamin—the sister-in-law of the great german intellectual walter benjamin.)

only because marxist historian franz mehring mehring (1846-1919) had been dead for decades could he be included in this book—largely on his laurels of being a spartacist with those who would later go on to form the german communist party. how could käthe kollwitz (1867-1945) not be included? her painting, printmaking, and sculptures—ground in naturalism, allayed in expressionism—bespoke the searing humanity in germany’s collective unconscious. castigating the forces of poverty, hunger, and war, her truly progressive and humanitarian work was exploited by the nazis as well as the stalinists. persona non grata in nazi germany, heinrich mann (1871-1950) works attacked authoritarian and militaristic strains in german society. while his ashes were taken to east germany (he died in santa monica, california), he and his writing would have been anathema in the “people’s democracy” of east germany. the prescient, though naïve, leftist novelist and playwright lion feuchtwanger (1884-1958) also died in california. designated by the nazis as “enemy of the state number one,” it is no surprise that he is included in this “history of the german workers’ movement.” his work, such as “moskau 1937,” could range toward appallingly myopic stalinist apologia.

how interesting that the nonviolent and heroic anti-nazi weiße rose group is included and exploited! how they would have abhorred the “german democratic republic” and all it stood for! had sophie scholl, hans scholl, alex schmorell, willi graf, and christoph probst survived the nazi era, they might well have found themselves being tried in the courtroom of hilde benjamin—the roland freisler of east germany. also amusing is how the headlines of the socialist daily “vorwärts” (published daily in berlin by the spd from 1891 to 1933) are included. this august leftist newspaper—which would publish articles by trotsky, but never by lenin—would have found itself banned in east germany.

it is to his credit that the brilliant leftist theoretician karl kautsky (1854-1938) could never be included in this moscow-leaning “history.” kautsky, the editor of the fourth volume of marx’s “das capital, ”was castigated by lenin as a renegade. in his 1934 work, “marxism and bolshevism: democracy and dictatorship,” kautsky rightly saw that the “workers’ paradise” of the soviet union—that willy-nilly enslaved its people—wasn’t any better than the czarist dictatorship that preceded it. a true pillar of the german workers’ movement, eduard bernstein (1850-1932) could never be included in this airbrushed “history” either. of all the 19th century’s socialist theoreticians, it is the work of bernstein (albeit with various blips and glitches) that has managed to remain relevant to this very day. he refuted marx’s predictions and pointed out that capitalist infrastructural centralization, while significant, was not wholesale. bernstein’s analysis especially pointed out flaws in marx’s “labor theory of value.” bernstein held that socialism would be achieved through capitalism, not through capitalism's destruction, believing that as rights were gradually won by workers, their cause for grievance would be diminished.

appallingly, though not surprisingly, the kpd’s communications czar willi münzenberg (1889-1940) never makes it onto the pages of this book. expelled by the communist party on trumped up charges, the brilliant münzenberg was betrayed by his downright mediocre and thuggish comrade ulbricht (who coveted münzenberg’s position). known for his saying, "all news is lies and all propaganda is disguised as news," münzenberg was found murdered by a soviet assassination squad in france (where he had been making anti-nazi broadcasts). ernst reuter—the brave socialist lord mayor (oberbürgermeister) of berlin who stood down the soviets during their criminal 1948-1949 blockade of berlin—should receive accolades for never being mentioned in this “history of the german worker.” although a favorite of lenin, reuter had been expelled by the kpd in 1922. accolades should also be received by louise dorothea schroeder (1887-1957) who served as mayor of west berlin after the war—and the only woman ever to have served as mayor in berlin to this very day. an spd politician who suffered nazi surveillance during the third reich, schroeder was the first female member of the reichstag and a leader of the arbeiterwohlfahrt (workers welfare agency). john hertzfield’s (1891-1968) work is shown in the book, yet not credited in the text . hertzfield’s brilliant photomontages on the pages of the kpd newspaper “die rote fahne” and its weekly magazine “aiz” (arbeiter-illustriert-zeitung) satirized the german right, german industrialists, and the nazis.

the book still gives me the hardyharhars! like airbrushed kremlin photographs omitting out-of-favor politburo members, this book exemplifies the self-serving—if erratic—nature of soviet policy, whether at home or in its vassal “people’s democracies.” i’m grateful to that deceased cpusa’er for the book and this total “find”—in a situation so well described by santé in the opening quote.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

scott king: the trial continues

[“jeff the bastard” (2008), vinyl, variable dimensions. “democratic anarchists in disarray” (2008), screenprints. “death to the new” (2008), florescent paint, vinyl, variable dimensions. “brian” (2008), porcelain bust, paint, feathers, rhinestone collar. “roy” (2008), plaster bust, paint, gold leaf.]

once meaningful totems—if sinister for many—have become commodities. we need look only to the ubiquitous (and stylized) images of ernesto ‘che’ guevara that adorn countless t-shirts, posters, and other ephemera. artist scott king has bluntly knocked the stuffing out of such assumptive and presumptive phenomena in his show at bortolami gallery “the trial continues.” from the respective glam-rammed busts of vladimir ilyich lenin and karl marx to a joy division-inspired dot litany, king’s perspective has been playfully subversive—and inspired by various musical milieu. glam rock, punk, and disco swirl forth in a barbara kruger kind of way to undercut the post-modernist consumerism that has wreaked its own havoc upon political convictions and their various boundaries.

scott king, an artist and graphic designer from yorkshire, england, previously served in such capacities as the art director for magazines i-d and sleazenation. he has also designed record sleeves for the pet shop boys, morrissey, suicide, and roisin murphy (among others). brazenly—if sadly—king has harnessed the strong pulse of cynicism toward the ability of political action (particularly by the left). the perceived impotence and ineptitude of political aggregates to make any meaningful changes (in a world in which the actions of britney spears and paris hilton are actually considered newsworthy) are convulsive in king’s works represented in “the trial continues.”

while the economy and environment are in a shambles, why is it that the parasitic and inane media can actually waste its efforts chasing down john edwards about an irrelevant affair? haven’t we learned the lesson of the atrocious waste committed by parasite ken starr during the 1990s? who cares about someone’s carnal life while housing, medical, food, and energy costs rise? king’s images ask more important questions—not who or what we vote for, but rather how to cause an affray of words and images that raise the stakes of contemporary “confusion.” viral aesthetics of the parasitic govern king’s work: he uses the organs of the host to bring it down by its own means.

scott king: the trial continues
through august 22, 2008 bortolami gallery
510 west 25th street, nyc 10001

Saturday, August 09, 2008

of the refrain: modernism to the metronome

[“bertolt brecht” (1931) by ringl+pit, silver print]

installed by curator phil taylor, this summer offering by robert mann gallery examines formal repetitions (or “refrains”) and parallel motifs of photographers in the portraiture and commercial still life genres during the first half of the 20th century. exhibited as if they were notes on a musical score, the primarily modernist works by berenice abbott, ellen auerbach, ilse bing, carlotta corpron, hazel larsen archer, dora maar, barbara morgan, ringl+pit, and margaret watkins coalesce into an inspiring survey from a hectic and periclean age—and blur the lines between figuration and abstraction.

in its creative ingenuity and entrepreneurial acumen, work produced by the advertising studio of ringl+pit is representative of the exhibition. derived from their childhood nicknames, grete stern (ringl) and ellen auerbach (pit) chose the studio title to deliberately obscure what their own names revealed: their gender and jewish background—qualities they assumed would inhibit the success of their business. such portraits as those of bertolt brecht (1931), ringl with glasses (1929), and mrs. h (1934) exhibit this same playfulness. having met in 1929 while students of walter peterhans—the bauhaus school’s first photography professor—the work of stern and auerbach used humor and irony to subvert traditional images of women in mainstream advertising during a time of social liberation, expanding mass media, economic upheaval, and political change. (with the nazi takeover, ringl+pit closed and the two fled germany—ellen to new york and grete to buenos aires.)

the work of berenice abbott captured the players in this electrifying milieu. her portraits of jean cocteau (1927) and james joyce (1926) are emblematic of the modernist cauldron in which she found herself. sculptor thelma wood, painter marsden hartley, dancer harriet marsden, and an innovative litany including djuna barnes, aleister crowley, william plomer, paul bowles, aaron copland, christopher isherwood, stephen spender, w.h. auden, and beatrix and john lehman inhabited the terrain in which she lived and worked.

“self-portrait with record lying down” (1930) exhibits the amazing tenacity of work by man ray. a contributor (though informally) to both the dada and surrealist movements, we can see in his work exhibited in “of the refrain” a manifestation of his ultimate identity as a painter. advertising and portraiture would never be the same after him. like abbott, the realm of cultural ferment took its place in front of his camera. no less than the personages of james joyce, gertrude stein, jean cocteau, and antonin artaud sat before him.

dance is a recurring motif in “of the refrain” and pieces representing this medium by barbara morgan, lotte jacobi, ellen auerbach capture the revolution in movement. bodies in motion can be barely contained in the images of these “saboteurs.” we can feel the leaping and fragmentation. the little-known black mountain artist hazel larsen archer in her work “merce cunningham” (1948) gives us a portal to this innovation. in a similar vein, the music captured in their work is avant-garde, jagged, and edgy.

considering explosive milieu in which they worked—with booming intellectual productivity in the fields of writing, art, architecture, music, dance, drama, and the new medium of motion pictures—the confidence, tight framing, and precise compositions found in “of the refrain” invoke these currents. this installation at robert mann gallery captures the erasing of boundaries between studio and camera and the resultant opening to modernity’s convergent forces.

of the refrain
through august 22, 2008
robert mann gallery
210 11th avenue, nyc 10001