December 20, 2010 § Leave a Comment
For her new installation in the huge Building 5 Gallery at Mass MoCA, German artist Katharina Grosse is piling on the color — literally.
Grosse’s installation consists of well-placed, huge mounds of dirt and rocks that vary in their authenticity but cut a rainbow of color through the space and offer visitors a chance to actually walk through a painting.
The show, “One Floor Up More Highly,” opens on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at Mass MoCA.
Grosse’s mounds are accompanied by super-sized structures that stand in contrast to the sprawl of her mountains of dirt. These clean white sculptures are massive, towering over the piles and hinting at a more meticulous design than the free-for-all that surrounds them. Grosse has heightened the mounds of dirt by painting them in streaks of color created with a spray paint gun, her usual choice of instrument.
Covered in pigment, the piles of dirt and rocks begin to resemble deep grooves in intense oil paintings, and visitors get the sensation of walking on the canvas containing those gashes. All of Building 5 constitutes that painting, but each mound offers an isolated sculpture within the larger work.
Grosse came to town two years ago to investigate what space might interest her for an installation. She immediately fixated on Building 5, feeling that the wide beams and walls — and the light traveling within it — gave less the impression of a large room than that of a large alleyway between two brick buildings.
“I was thinking that I need something to fill the space, because you enter it and you see the exit right away,” Grosse said during an interview this week. “You need to create some sort of friction for the eyes, so you don’t right away walk through, but hold up with your body and your mental disposition.”
She decided to develop huge warped forms that could lean against the wall and function as portions of something larger, but she later adjusted her plans after sessions in Germany with curator Susan Cross to deal with some engineering problems.
The warped forms no longer move off the walls but stand apart in the space, allowing them to be part of the work rather than creeping inward. This is her way of addressing the chaotic mesh of reality that everyone deals with daily — small subsections of reality that we latch onto in an effort to make some sense of a larger universe that has no order and little guidance.
“I don’t think we can deal with systems that are logical and coherent anymore, because we don’t live in a world that is logical and coherent anymore,” Grosse said. “We don’t have a canon of books you should have read or a language you should speak. You can be very specific about what you are doing and be less connected to the whole system. Therefore, I’m very interested in creating coincidence of systems that exclude one another — for example, painting and the sculptural surface.”
The two forms both compete and collide in their intentions, cementing themselves as separate works that are also part of a whole, which is then only a portion of something much larger.
“The architecture can be measured — it is factual in a sense — it’s long, wide and high, whereas the space in a painting can’t be measured,” Grosse said. “If you put these two things together, they seem to follow different rules at the same time and I find that very interesting. I like the relationship of something visible and something invisible at the same time, and they make all our information. It’s not just the visible that is actually telling us what’s going on.”
One of her central desires is to present how painting transforms not only the space it inhabits, but also the material it is laid upon. By placing it on the soil and fabricated boulders — the very real and the very fake — she ends up creating something else, something in between. The colors let the viewer off the hook — instead of them having to analyze for authenticity, the mounds look alternately fake and genuine. A real landscape would be outside — these are in an art museum and, therefore, not real. The various elements Grosse puts into them speak to opposite impressions of them as you walk among them.
“You can experience very different relationships with painting,” she said. “You can walk with it, you can look at it from far away, you can get close; you look at a painting that is like a canvas painting; you look at things that look like shells from another structure.”
Although Grosse places the false rocks in the landscape, she employs some uncertainty by allowing other people to make these rocks.
“There are a lot of different structures made by different people,” she said. “That is what you call chance.”
Chance plays a big role in the installation, even though she did about as much planning as she could, seeking clarity about size and construction by creating miniature versions of the installation in order to try things out. Despite the expanse of the piece, it’s the painting that takes up most of the time, even with the split-second moments of creation the work offers.
“It’s not planned; it’s from situation to situation because once you do something, your whole condition has changed and then you have to go from there,” Grosse said. “Sometimes I think about two or three colors at the same time, but it goes very fast.”
She originally came to spray painting after becoming frustrated by the slowness of brushes.
“I bought an industrial gun so I could do large surfaces in a really small amount of time, and I did it because I felt so restricted by a paint brush when you paint a wall,” she said. “I did wall paintings with a paint brush as well, and once you come towards a ceiling or a floor, you wriggle around a little awkwardly with your paintbrush — that’s how I started with the gun.”
Using spray paint has given Grosse’s work the quality of graffiti, although she says she never was into that as a kid and had no thought of it when starting to paint with a spray gun — she never even experimented with spray cans. She recognizes the alignment of styles in a surface way but says the finer points of what graffiti means diverges from her own work significantly.
“Graffiti is making a claim for something and saying, ‘This is mine,’ which is like actually saying ‘This is mine, and that is not mine,’” she said. “My work does not really see a limit. I’d rather expand the area I work in . There is not a defined ‘mine or not mine.’ That is the biggest difference — that I do not say this is my claim and that is not mine that can be used by you. Graffiti is more like drawing a map. There’s a contour line to the right, or wherever that is, and the contour is then filled with the message, and anything outside the contour is not part of the message — whereas I wouldn’t think there is a contour in my work.”
While using spray paint instead of a brush might seem like a wilder, more unhinged method of delivering color — from an outside vantage point, brushes seem a lot more precise than a stream of paint traveling through the air — Grosse has worked with it long enough so she can guess its effects for purposeful presentation.
“You can pretty much predict what you’re doing,” she said. “You know when you aim at a certain area of the wall longer than 20 seconds, paint will run. If you don’t, it won’t run, and the viscosity of the paint is such and such and this will happen. You do know all these things, and you can manipulate it as much you would manipulate the handling of a paint brush. It’s just that the smaller details are not so controlled, but they are not so important in my case.”
Spraying also manages to expand her scope on the available canvas and even elongate her own space as a painter.
“I am interested in the biggest amount of freedom possible while working, and also changing my opinion on something really fast,” Grosse said. “The paintbrush makes me slow, whereas the paint gun is a really fast tool and makes me as large as my reach, so I become like a giant that can make a little scribble in the building. I find these jumps from scale — from small to large, from my size to a gigantic size — and I can even pump that up by a lift or the crew helping me, and I find that totally fascinating, like what a kid does: I could fly and do this and that. It’s a little bit like moving the eyes on the space rather than just your body is there. With a paintbrush you actually touch the surface and that’s where you are, whereas with a spray gun, you can be everywhere.”
Her mastery of the spray gun has allowed her to create drips for a specific purpose, and she does this in areas she thinks need something real — a moment when something unpolished makes its way into the supposed pristine world of the art museum.
“It’s a little bit like a bus ticket in a collage — it’s real,” she said. “The other thing is that it’s also a linear element, as opposed to the little dots that make up the spray painting. Also, it’s a little ugly — especially on these walls, it doesn’t come out nice. It’s a little violent. Untidy. Gone wrong. She can’t do it right.”
By bringing up these questions — and by painting things that aren’t typically painted, or that necessarily lend themselves to the act — Grosse calls into question all sorts of perceptions about art and painting. In doing so, she understands she’s giving people the opportunity to believe that she holds no competence over her form, but she knows it’s just another part of the work.
“It’s a reaction that’s possible, and I’m kind of making people deal with their aesthetic preferences,” she said.
December 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Canadian disc jockey Kid Koala — real name Eric San, from Vancouver — is known for an eclectic and often whimsical style of spinning and scratching that employs not just the beats typical of his profession, but also a variety of older musical styles.
Koala routinely makes use of jazz and big band, as well as some novelty and television themes, and swirls them around with spoken-word samples. For his new work, “Space Cadet,” he’s taking a different approach — instead of a barrage of styles and voices, he’s offering a more contemplative work, with a narrative as its backbone.
Koala has released three studio albums on the Ninja Tune label, and he contributed to the “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” soundtrack. He describes the work he’s best known for as “the scratch-happy Muppet type world,” and he uses that to describe just how different the music for “Space Cadet” is.
“I would say the first three albums that I’ve done for Ninja Tune are more like the Muppet Show theme song, and ‘Space Cadet’ is a little more like ‘Being Green’ or ‘The Rainbow Connection,’” he said during an interview this week.
Koala mined similar narrative territory with his first graphic novel, “Nufonia Must Fall,” which was accompanied by a CD soundtrack. Originally he was asked to write a 10,000-page book about anything he wanted, but he scrapped that idea for the comics and music.
“I actually started writing it about the mechanics of scratching, and it was just so dull after the first few pages,” he said. “I didn’t even want to read it and I’m a DJ.”
The mix of comics and music makes perfect sense to him, since it hearkens back to his earliest experience with records — he loved storybook records as a kid — and these speak as much to his prior musical work as his current efforts with graphic novels and performance.
“There was always that visual read-along component with the music — and the sound effects and the narration and the stories and everything that was going on — so I just fell into that whole logic,” Koala said. “It just went back to my real early, early, record experience, which were those little 7-inch story records. The two worlds aren’t separate to me.”
A tour for “Nufonia Must Fall” gave Koala the blueprint for what he has planned for “Space Cadet” — a whole new way of approaching his music and its presentation.
“It was the first time I was able to play to seated audiences in cabarets and theaters,” he said, “and to just have this other context of playing turntables but not with the pressure of trying to keep a dance floor going — or trying to keep the drunk people more drunk. Just drink more of whatever it is! It was a very different experience.”
Koala built the score around bass and piano, with turntable counterpoints scratched over those, providing woodwind, horn and percussion parts. The book itself is wordless, and images from it will be part of his multi-media show. The work was inspired by the many lulls he experiences on tour. The earliest doodles and story-boarding had been accomplished while waiting for planes or trains or buses around the world, and his challenge was to match that in the soundtrack to the story and the experience of viewing a performance.
“It was always going to be this quiet, isolated-sounding music, mainly because that’s the type of music I listen to when I’m out floating around in space,” Koala said. “You go to work — and work for me could be hitting the club or hitting the venue and just being at 100 d.b. all night and cutting up a storm. When you do have your alone time, you try to help that experience along by playing quieter, calmer music.
“Thematically, it just made a lot of sense for the music to sound like that, because while I was drawing, I was listening to film-score music or quiet jazz or classical music. It really came down to: All right, people expect you to scratch records when you play live, but how are you going to present this in a way that will be comfortable and contextual?”
One way Koala will answer that question is to bring “six inflatable space pods” for the performance– huge couches that seat 35 people each and offer hook-ups for head phones and ear buds. The sound will transmit wirelessly, and Koala is encouraging audience members to bring their own headsets to plug-in and recline with.
“First, it will help hear all the details of the music, but secondly, it would further give you that feel of isolation that’s in the book,” he said. “That being said, everybody will have their own isolated experience, but it will be in a room full of people watching the same thing. There are parallels between the book and a live show.”
He added, “You get to come in and lie down, and there are these pillows that act as little recliner backs, and we’re just going to make our own planetarium happen. It will be live spy cameras on the turntables and on the keyboards and various other musical equipment, so you can actually see the music being put together as well as hear it through your headphones.”
Another major difference with this work for Koala is the way he procures the records he uses for the music. He just purchased a record cutter and has been working vigorously to cut his own vinyl containing musical samples of his own creation.
“I’ve been trying to get into that side of production and learn how to record my own samples, so if I need a G7 chord on guitar, then I can just play it on guitar and cut it to a piece of vinyl,” he said. “Once it’s on vinyl, I can bend it into other chords or twist it up the way I do, but this time the source material all came from my studio — just recording things and miking them and then cutting them to vinyl, which is my natural-state instrument. Once it’s on there, I’m comfortable. That’s really the method that I was using on this recording.”
All the compositions were made on piano. Once he recorded those, he created the counterpoints that would be provided from his records and cut them to vinyl. That process opened up a new world for him creatively, taking his craft beyond the pure collage element and transforming him into a bandleader of sorts, for whom he is also the orchestra.
“I like taking an instrument sound that you know but bending it into this surreal realm that it wouldn’t naturally live in — or reversing it in places and pulling out sounds,” he said. “By manipulating the record, you can twist it into this slightly off-kilter version of the instrument. I like that about it. That’s just how I’ve always worked.
“My early tapes were done on a four-track, and it would be gold to me if I found a classical record that had a classical oboe that held a sustained note for two bars. Oh, yes, this is it; eureka! Now that I have a record cutter, I can make those records from scratch. It’s fun, and it does take it away from the whole juxtaposing or re-appropriation of stuff that already exists.”
Sometimes this means traditional instruments, but other times Koala and his engineer have gone for more unexpected instruments, such as a bowl of grapes they recorded, put on vinyl and then manipulated rhythmically by speeding it up and playing it backwards.
“It’s a little bit like instead of going to the art store and buying the paint colors that are already there, now we’re getting into mixing your own pigments.” Koala said. “At the end of the day, it’s still, to me at least, about the turntable craft. As far as the arrangements are concerned, I still have to hand-cut everything back in and learn the rotations of the records and figure out how I can play through them. That’s something I like — plus, I can’t really afford to put an 80-piece orchestra in my studio; nor would they fit. “
Hand-cutting the vinyl has its own perils. Koala must plan out where on the actual disc the samples go, according to what use they have in the music and how he is going to need them in a live performance.
“If you’re going to be scratching it a lot, doing a lot of rhythm scratching, usually it’s better to have it in the middle third of the record,” he said. “As you cut closer to the ends, the fidelity of the sound quality goes down because it’s actually cutting across less distance in the same amount of time.
“In a way, that’s like lowering your tape speed. The high fidelity stuff is on the outside of a record, so I’ll save that for things I need a lot of the detail of — a lot of violin instruments or vocals or anything like that, I will cut on the outside of the record. The middle part of the record is more stuff that I would cut rhythm or anything that I would need to juggle back and forth on two turntables.”
Koala sits down with a sheet of paper and two circles drawn on it in order to visualize what he’s up against in a performance, optimizing the placement of each sample and then cutting a disc accordingly.
While consumer music has largely gone digital, DJs offer a link to the analog world of old by reconfiguring turntables as instruments. In Koala’s hands, the process goes far beyond the dance floor and hearkens back to the kind of human ingenuity that created music in the first place.
“It’s almost like we have a guitar, but instead of six strings here, we’re going to have two strings come out this way, two strings go behind me, so that way I can play that and have that sound,” he said. “It’s like you have to build your own instrument every time you cut a record, so that’s really how I’m going about it.”
December 4, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Violinist Todd Reynolds is well known for his work with Bang On A Can and ETHEL. As a solo artist, he brings music into the 21st century, melding it with digital technology and creating events that transcend the traditional concert setting.
His show at Mass MoCA on Saturday, “Still Life with Microphone V. 10.5,” is merely the latest incarnation of an ongoing project with many faces.
In its current version, Reynolds will perform alongside video artist Luke Dubois, with featured films by Bill Morrison and Nick Zammuto, and share the stage with a cadre of robots. The robots’ creator, Eric Singer, will also be on hand. The show will start at 8 p.m. in Mass MoCA’s Club B10. Tickets are $12 in advance and $16 on performance day.
The idea for “Still Life” first came to Reynolds a decade ago. It was a way to utilize all his creative interests — electronics, violin, theater, conducting, improvisation and more — into an outlet that gave them opportunities to interact with each other and become something entirely its own thing.
“I began to realize that I needed a vessel to hold all these things,” Reynolds said during an interview this week.
Reynolds drew influence from frequent collaborators Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, as well as his own interests and his work when he was part of ETHEL, to become more inclusive of technology in his performances. He looked at rock concerts as examples of how shows could be more compelling, all-encompassing experiences, and he looked to painting for a thematic boost in devising his performance platform.
“The name ‘Still Life With Microphone’ came into my mind, as this idea of a still life is a discipline that a visual artist uses to examine all angles of something to pull out of it what they can see — and practice a tableaux of creating that object or working with light — or in my case, working with programming,” he said.
“It was a very important to me to create larger contexts for people to listen to music, because there would be the traditional concert venue of just presenting a bunch of people in a row — after each there is applause and there’s a bow. All of this became very, very boring to me.”
The first incarnation was performed in Brooklyn with two improvising actors, a singer, a bass clarinetist, electronics and a percussionist, alongside fully designed sets. Reynolds took this stage version to become site specific, in this case in New York City in a space across from Grand Central Station. It featured a cast of eight and a wall of boom boxes, and spoke to the improvisational type of preparation that precedes performance improvisation for Reynolds.
He did another version in a residency that involved performances at colleges that made use of whatever instruments were available at the performance space. He would teach the players to improvise and follow him as a conductor.
“It became this attempt by me to say, whatever situation you want to throw at me, let’s make some music together inside of that situation, using these tools and this context,” he said.
Reynolds left ETHEL in 2005 to work more seriously on his solo projects, and it was in this period that “Still Life For A Microphone 10″ was born.
“It was like, I’m going to take video and me and my laptop, and that’s going to be it,” he said. “So we do two or three screens of video and so on. Now I’m using robots.”
What Reynolds sought — and found and perfected — was a structure that offered freedom through a format that promised unpredictability.
“What I like to call ‘Still Life For Microphone’ is almost a performance format — that’s the technical term I would use for it — but what it really is is simply an event, a spectacle, an event, a concert,” he said. “It’s not a violin recital, because you’re going to be hearing a lot of violin, but it’s not like I’m going to be playing Debussy or Ravel, playing concert pieces.”
While his process of putting each show together involves some inevitable regular chores of organization, he always launches with a flight into the unknown as a way to propel him even further as he enters more recognizable performing territory.
“I always create at least one new piece from scratch — total blank slate — improvised from beginning to end,” Reynolds said. “I like to do seven minutes or so. That’s an exercise. I usually use it to start out a concert because it wipes my slate clean and begins from nothing. And I really, really love that practice of making music, so I get to make a full-on piece that has an arc that works, and I get to create it from the ground up with no preconceived notions.”
The robots he will use in the MoCA performance are the same type that Pat Metheny recently worked with for his Orchestrion tour.
As fashioned by LEMUR — League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, helmed by Singer — and utilized through a MIDI controller, the robots are automated instruments. They allow Reynolds to compose music with them and have it programmed in, as well as play the robots live through the same means.
In performance, Reynolds is able use software to also control the sound of his violin and record himself for instant playback, creating a symphony of one man, via robotics and digital technology.
“It’s really about creating what I see as a journey for the audience, which I am hoping and planning on something that will engage them during the time that they’re with me,” he said. “It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to take an audience on a journey, and it’s my responsibility to have that journey be a good one, and the music all serves that.”
Technology became an integral tool to Reynolds’ work when he first embraced it as a teenager in the 1980s. He worked at Radio Shack and was convinced by the miracle of Microsoft Excel and other software that digital creativity wasn’t going to end there: Someday, all of music would be able to happen in conjunction with a computer, including performance.
He said his first big use of technology was during the same era, when he realized that he could amplify his violin. He proceeded with an electric violin and distortion pedals and a huge guitar amp to set his Hendrix dreams in motion. He then began to learn about recording and synthesizers in order to feature other sounds around his violin work.
Digital tools helped him reach his musical goals at a rapid pace, used not only for creation but also for education and practice, and becoming a huge part of his signature sound.
“I learned to improvise by putting my violin through a huge digital delay and reverb, so that when I played a note, it would last for 10 seconds, which gave me plenty of time to play notes against it. So then I could hear what things sounded like together,” Reynolds said.
“So it was just using the tools as they became available to make different sounds, to set up different situations where I essentially played alongside myself. I love to set up rhythmic beds over which I can play and interact.”
Reynolds cautions against allowing the technology to overshadow the music — after all, if it is an equal tool, why would you let it drown out the others?
“Part of the thing compositionally that I have to defeat is that I don’t want things to sound like just a bunch of loops going over and over, so I have to try to finesse how that goes so it doesn’t become static. Sometimes you won’t hear that it’s a loop.”
Rather than being dehumanizing, Reynolds believes technology can help focus in on the self in musical presentation: The technology accentuates the humanity of a piece by allowing the musician contemplation and examination.
“Technology gives you a way of making music instantly and hearing it back and investigating and exploring things in real time,” he said. “That makes you recognize and see your voice quicker — it’s a very immediate way of exploring your voice.”
Technology, to Reynolds, is a tool and a choice — and a gut reaction against it is a gut reaction against the way humans live their life in general. He might be performing with robots, but each robot is not an autonomous or automated replacement for a musician or for his musical soul. They are merely third, fourth, fifth arms that allow the performer an extension of himself.
“We all choose to use technology in our life to some degree, and I think that each person has a real individual place that they fall on the spectrum as to how much and how they use that technology to make their lives better,” Reynolds said. “For some, it’s just a refrigerator and a phone plugged into the wall with a dial.”
For him, it’s an embrace of the entire history of music, which is the story of people using the tools they have at the time and figuring out how to make noise with them.
“It’s not a chore; it’s a liberating thing,” he said. “It’s no different than Bach and his organ. Look at those foot pedals — they trigger air through pipes. Every culture has used the available technology to make music — that’s where we got the violin. So my instrument is a hybrid instrument of old technology and new technology.”
November 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Denis Kitchen may be exhibiting at MCLA Gallery 51 as a cartoonist, but his importance in the world of comics goes far beyond his artwork — it’s just that he loves drawing.
Kitchen is a literary and art agent, as well as a book packager for various publishers. He began his career as an underground cartoonist and, later, made his name as one of the most important publishers in the comic book business with his company Kitchen Sink Press. He is also the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
This year saw the release of two books, including “The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen” from Dark Horse, and Kitchen’s participation in, both as co-curator and artist, “When Comics Went Underground,” a show at MCLA Gallery 51, which is on exhibit through Nov. 28.
Kitchen began his art career in the 1960s, spurred on by a love of old humor comics — he was particularly influenced by Harvey Kurtzman — as well as the politics of the times. Although alternative style cartoons and comic books are common nowadays, the underground comic scene hadn’t exploded by the time Kitchen began drawing and selling his work, largely because it was waiting for him to become a central organizing principle for the efforts that would lead to national recognition.
“It was hard to not be political then,” Kitchen recalled during an interview this week. “It seemed to me, and to a good number of my cohorts at the time, expressing ourselves through the vehicle that was most comfortable, which was comics, was the course we took.
“I think we were semi-conscious of the fact that comic books prior to that had been strictly entertaining. I guess there had been a handful of educational comics, but for the most part, comic books were assumed to be a juvenile medium and weren’t taken that seriously. Undergrounds gave us a platform to reach our peers in an easily accessible manner, kind of weirdly paralleling underground newspapers that were also proliferating at the time.”
Kitchen co-founded an alternative weekly in his home state of Wisconsin, contributing to that while doing his comics. Out of college, he had an inclination to become a gallery artist — he was enraptured with surrealist work — but comics began to take hold of his life and offer the kind of creative control that any artist seeks.
“What I liked about comics was the complete control of it,” Kitchen said. “It’s one of the few — maybe the only communication arc — where you can do it all yourself. If you want to be a filmmaker, it’s damn near impossible to make a movie yourself — and the bigger the movie, the more people, the more money, the more obstacles. But a comic book, you can write it, pencil it, draw it, publish it yourself, distribute it yourself — and I did all those things at a time when there was no place for a self-published comic to distribute itself.”
Without an official mechanism for distribution, he had to create one, and it was a foundation built on top of his own two legs.
“When I started in the late ‘60s, literally I was dumb enough to actually go and look up the periodical distributors in the Yellow Pages,” he said, “and I took some meetings and realized what a babe in the woods I was. I also found out what a crooked business it was. I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time, which was, literally, I paid to have the comics printed with the local printer, and I went around to every shop that I thought might be sympathetic, from used bookstores to head shops, which were the most obvious ones, and university bookstores and a local drug store.”
Kitchen sold his books on consignment and found each week as he went back to check on the stock that the comics were selling much better than he imagined they would. Unexpectedly, he made some money and found satisfaction.
“I actually did quite well doing that in the first summer,” he said, “so that made me feel like clearly there was a market, and people liked my stuff, and I didn’t need anybody else.”
Other people needed him, though. He continued to publish his own work until other cartoonists sniffed out his business acumen and begged for help. One of those was Robert Crumb. As his skill as a publisher created a thriving situation, the cartoonist in him began to get the short shrift.
“I remember saying naively, ‘Why not? Two’s as easy as one,’” Kitchen said. “At that fateful moment, I became a publisher, because suddenly I was responsible for them, and I had to pay them. I did business before I had really consciously planned it or prepared for it, and so as that grew, my being at the drawing board shrank, and that was the tendency for some years. I deluded myself for a while that I could be both, but the truth is, the business, like most businesses, is all-consuming if you let it be.”
Kitchen didn’t give up drawing; he just pursued it far more casually, taking the opportunity to express himself privately even without a cartooning career. For the last two decades, much of his creative output saw its release at production and editorial meetings at Kitchen Sink Press.
“As the publisher, I had to take part in all of them, and most of them were dreadfully boring,” he said. “I used to have this tablet — standard writing tablet — in my hand, and I’d get bored and flip it over to the chipboard, the thick stuff at the bottom, and I’d have typically a Sharpie marker and a Uniball pen and I’d start doodling.
“Those began evolving — those three unique pieces: the chipboard, the Sharpie and the ballpoint — and I began doing these elaborate, surreal drawings. I was still listening to the meetings more or less, but I would get carried away with these things and maybe half finish, or sometimes flip it over and continue.”
Those drawings finally made it into the public sphere with the release of the book “Denis Kitchen’s Chipboard Sketchbook” in August.
With his work resurfacing on the printed page, Kitchen acknowledges that some of his earliest work may be lost on some people, functioning as windows to a bygone world.
“I literally don’t know what to expect a younger reader to make of it, whether they’ll be baffled or what,” he said. “I expect some contemporaries will get it because they maybe read it the first time around or there’s enough familiarity, but I think there are probably enough younger generation people out there who are curious about what came before, just like hopefully most of us are. If my grandmother was a flapper, I’m curious about the flapper era.”
Kitchen isn’t looking at it all as a cap to an older career, but as a new part of a continuing one. At 62, he sees himself as young enough to forge ahead with his cartooning work, drawing inspiration from his good friend graphic-novelist Will Eisner, who drew up until the week before he died in his late 80s.
“Nice thing about cartooning is, unless you get palsy or poor eyesight or something, your physical skills can allow you to keep doing what you do way, way into old age, whereas you can’t say that about a lot of professions,” he said.
The one problem is that he’s not giving up his other businesses to pursue cartooning — once again, Kitchen’s enthusiasm for being busy has brought him full circle in more ways than he had expected.
“I’m in the same conundrum as before, which is that I think my ambition is outpacing my artistic proclivities,” he said.
November 4, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Musician Kristin Hersh has made a career of doing things the only way she knows how — by being herself.
As a solo artist and as singer and songwriter for the bands Throwing Muses and, more recently, 50 Foot Wave, Hersh has dashed the stereotype of women in rock by pigeonholing herself for big sales.
As part of the nonprofit, open-source software effort, CASH music, Hersh has been a pioneer on the business side by advocating models for musicians to distribute their own music. With her new memoir, “Rat Girl,” she’s taken on the role of writer with a strength equal to any of her other projects.
Hersh will be in town to perform in “The Happy Ending Series: Ghosts and Curses” at Mass MoCA.
Hersh’s autobiography covers just one year of her life, from 1984 to 1985, at age 18. While the book does cover time with Throwing Muses, Hersh didn’t mean it to be just another rock memoir. The 12-month period captured by the book saw her survive a serious car accident, struggle with bipolar disorder and other neurological issues, attempt suicide and give birth to her son. “Rat Girl” is culled from a diary she kept that year — something that didn’t come naturally to her, despite being a gifted lyricist.
“These painter friends of mine had me convinced that music was a low art and painting was a high art, so in order for me to become a more highly functioning individual, I would switch over to painting,” Hersh said. “They told me that writing was between music and painting. I don’t know how they thought of this, but I believed it. I was 18, and they were probably 20, so I thought they knew everything.”
“I kept this diary, which was very out of character for me, except that I was a nice girl and I would just do what people told me to. Even though nobody was ever going to read it, I sat there and wrote in the diary. It stops the day my son is born, for obvious reasons. There was no time for anything after that.”
In doing readings from the book, Hersh prefers not to upset her audience with some of the heavy subject matter and opts for funny sections. What she has learned, however, is that what might be seen through humor as a personal experience can induce darker reactions from other people.
“Unfortunately, one of my favorite passages is about a car accident, and I think it’s very funny, but it made people throw up and faint and stuff,” she said. “This was in Australia. It was hot, and we were working in a tent and people kept tending to leave. It could be because Australians are essentially British people who have been forced to live outside and they’re not always good at it. The combination of gore and heat and the tent just made some people ill.”
Hersh sympathizes with her audience even if she doesn’t share their concern. She tends to separate between herself as a person from the character of Kristin Hersh that so many have fashioned through their own connections to her music by making it their own.
“It was a pretty serious accident, but when you’re a kid, you don’t take anything seriously,” she said. “It’s all like a movie to you, like ‘Oh! Look what’s happening now!’ I kept that tone, but other people don’t feel that way. Maybe because it was about me, so I don’t care. But people, by that time in the spoken-word show, they were empathetic, they were identifying with the character, and she gets thrown in the air and her foot falls off and her face comes off and they get a little woozy.”
For Hersh, these are slices of her life, not the whole carcass, although she understands this may not be apparent to someone not living in her body. She’s long since taken any lesson from the past to heart, and she lays it out as part of a wider story.
“I know, if not the end of the story, at least how the middle turned out, and I’m cool with it, but they get pretty upset,” she said. “People just cry a lot. I make them cry, and I don’t mean to, and I feel real bad about it and I try to talk them out of it, but they just keep crying. The book makes them cry and the songs make them cry. I’m essentially a fairly goofy person, and I’m not into feelings and talking about them — or crying or any of that stuff. For some reason, I put people in that place.”
Goofiness and joviality are central to Hersh’s image of herself, but that isn’t always what fans expect from the woman behind the expressive, often cathartic, music from her various projects. Hersh is under the impression that some people prefer the Kristin Hersh character that lurks in the ether of the music rather than the real thing, whose happiness clashes with the perception of the character.
Part of her hope was that “Rat Girl” would either bring the two personas together for some people, or at the very least offer some perspective on the whole person.
“I’ve found that a lot of listeners have been very disappointed after meeting me because they identify with something else, a character of their own invention or a projection of a piece of them,” she said.
“They’re allowed to be three-dimensional but I’m not. I’m a part of them. They’re allowed that. We’re all allowed our projections, but I think goofy is very important. It could be the most important aspect of our existence, to be hyper aware of goofiness, because it sits right next to shame, and we don’t want to carry shame around with us. All you’ve got to do is laugh and you’re open for that moment, your heart is open to your goofiness, to others’ goofiness, and to the fact that, no matter how hard it gets, it’s sort of OK at the same time. So I stick by the fact that I’m a goofball, but I admit that I do disappoint people who would rather take me more seriously.”
Hersh had to fight the temptation to alter the voice in her memoir. A woman in her 40s is obviously wiser than an 18-year-old, but keeping the young voice in forefront was crucial to the story, even when the 18-year-old’s voice might not be up to the task of authoring a memoir 25 years later. One such instance was the point in the book when Hersh begins to take medication for her bipolar disorder — her writing voice becomes flat and robotic.
“It was reporting, but it wasn’t really reporting of anything particularly interesting,” she said. “I didn’t seem to know the difference any longer. I had to leave the voice like that, and that was really hard because all the poetry was gone. It was no longer vibrant or vivid. It’s sort of a relief because the vibrancy in the vivid psychosis section is a little tough to take after awhile.”
Hersh just let it all unfold in the real, original tone. By the end of the book, she exhibits no bipolar symptoms, is healthy and pregnant and has come out of it all still a songwriter, with her band intact. She thinks it’s the most attractive voice in the book, but what preceded it is mandatory in appreciating it to the fullest extent. For Hersh, it meant all her former selves colliding until the room was eventually cleared.
“It was tough to let the kid and the psycho and the junkie help write the book, too,” she said. “It would have been comforting to make it smart and writerly, but that wasn’t the story.”
Hersh has been disappointed that bipolar disorder colored her work in the music press, which often began to write about it in a way that suggested that it was fueled by the condition rather than including the condition as part of her experience. She has been careful to navigate her career with an understanding of how others might perceive her because of that part of her and was disappointed to see it spread in significance far beyond what she attributed to it.
“I thought was very sad,” she said, “because I wanted people to know that the music could have come from their mothers or their girlfriends, or for that matter their brother, boyfriend, boss. I wanted it to be human music and not heard as psychotic. Strangeness is not always broken. They were attributing our idiosyncrasies to my being broken.”
“You have to do the math, or you’re going to be lost — or you’re going to act weird. I think it’s just really important not to confuse people and act in an off-putting manner. And sometimes it can’t be helped. Like if your music sounds strange and it does sometimes to people.”
Bipolar disorder was not the only neurological issue that was sprung on her during the year of her journal. Following the car accident, she started hearing music that didn’t turn off, a condition known as auditory hallucination. Over the years, she has found a way to make it work for her.
“It still happens — it’s just not as scary or dramatic,” Hersh said. “It’s never been in my head. I’ve always heard it as outside. I believe that it’s in my head because people tell me it is, but at the same time that doesn’t seem right to me. It seems like it’s bouncing around in the air and I’m attuned to it. The songs don’t fight their way in anymore and they don’t tumble around screaming at me. I hear them one at a time. I copy them down.”
Hersh can also claim synesthesia as an after-effect of the accident. This condition is one of mixed sensory experience, often manifesting as the visualization of sound as colors, which it does for her. It’s also worked as a strength in her music, rather than as a deficit.
“It helps me paint a song; it helps me remember chord progressions,” she said. “I don’t know if I could relate to sound if it wasn’t color coded. I blend the colors. I have three bands and a hundred songs, and I don’t think I could I remember them all if I weren’t able to think canary yellow into turquoise. A song has more of a body if you can complete the sensory experience for yourself by adding other senses to it. I’ve never been able to relate to sound as just sound. It comes right with emotion and thick with color. It’s a body to me.”
Aside from the craft of songwriting and music-making, Hersh’s career has often been about breaking the stereotypes and trying to configure her own place in the music world as one that reflects her, personally, and not the years of women in rock who preceded her. She’d prefer to embrace her inner goofball and celebrate it on her skin as well as her soul.
“It is a little frustrating, because that character is based on people who came before me who were trying to conform to characters, whereas I never have,” Hersh said. “All you can do is to keep presenting all these confusing elements so that they have no idea what your character could possibly be. Rock chick doesn’t mean mother of four to most people, so I make sure they find out that I’m a mother of four. It usually doesn’t mean smart, and I make sure they find out that I’m smart. And it really doesn’t mean goofball, but it should.”
The one lesson from Hersh’s experience is that there is no “normal,” just individuals. Looking past preconceived notions is the best way to allow the experience of a personality to unfold.
“I probably only taught my children to be nice and never, ever, ever, ever judge a book by its cover,” she said. “That and a brownie recipe are about all that I’ve left them with.”
November 3, 2010 § Leave a Comment
The question “are you a man or are you a mouse?” has special significance to the career of illustrator and former underground cartoonist Gary Hallgren. He’s one of the men who took on the mouse — Mickey Mouse, that is.
The underground comic book studio which Hallgren was part of in the ‘60s and ‘70s ran afoul of Walt Disney Studios and found itself subject to a highly publicized court case over the cartoonists’ use of Disney characters in very adult cartoons.
Hallgren is one of the artists featured in “When Comics Went Underground,” showing at MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St., through Nov. 28.
Hallgren got his start cartooning in the late 1960s, when he worked his way through college churning out conventional magazine-style gag cartoons for a faculty newspaper. His world changed when he encountered Zap Comix #2, an underground publication that bore the legend “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only” on its cover.
Hallgren immediately approached his local underground paper, the Northwest Passage, to contribute cartoons more in the underground vein. His first published work there was called “Dog, Duck and Rat,” and it allowed him to be a lot more personal in his presentation.
“I had also just discovered marijuana and drugs and things like that, and that tended to be my subject matter at the time — stoner comics,” he said.
“Dog, Duck and Rat” was also a precursor to the style of Disney lampoon that would later make Hallgren infamous when his cartooning collaborative, the Air Pirates, went up against Walt Disney in 1971.
” ‘Dog Duck and Rat’ were definitely Disney stylings before the Air Pirates,” Hallgren said. “It was my natural proclivity. It was pretty obvious. I wasn’t copying Disney, but the Donald Duck stories from Uncle Scrooge were always my favorite adventures — they were the best drawn, the best constructed. I wasn’t interested in superhero stuff.”
The Air Pirates were slapped with a lawsuit from Disney that became an epic court battle, still a legend in the world of copyright infringement.
Hallgren became involved with Air Pirates founder Dan O’Neill after college. Hallgren and another artist had opened a successful sign shop in Seattle where out-of-town artists would stop by and hang out. That was how Hallgren met some other Air Pirates, including Bobby London and Ted Richards. He was introduced to O’Neill at a rock festival in 1968 upon O’Neill’s request.
“O’Neill was drawing his Odd Bodkins comic strip in the press booth of the Sky River Rock Festival when I showed up,” Hallgren said. “Right then and there he said, ‘I’m trying to put this studio together, and I’m looking for a hungry cartoonist who wants to draw some Disney stuff and kick ass.’ I said, ‘When do we start?’ “
Several months later, in 1969, Hallgren helped open Air Pirates Studio in San Francisco, which led to the release of Air Pirates Funnies #1.
“It was mostly Disney related,” he said. “The idea was to find a classic cartoonist that you really liked and use that as a medium to write and illustrate modern topics.”
One of the stories for the issue was crafted through improvisational theater methods that O’Neill had been trained in and wanted to apply to cartooning. Each cartoonist took on a personality — they lifted villain identities from old Disney cartoons like Peg Leg Pete and The Phantom Blot as their identities — and wrote a section before passing it along to the next guy. The story featured very adult interpretations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and continued into the next issue.
“It was supposed to be picaresque, never-ending adventure,” Hallgren said. “They’d have adventures and swear and do drugs and have sex and act like real people. Part two, the story was more or less finished. It was finished because they served the injunction, and there never was a part three.”
Ringleader O’Neill made it apparent that he was actually hoping for a lawsuit from Disney from the beginning. His idea framed the copyright transgression as part of a protest and also a bit of performance art.
“He provoked them for sure,” Hallgren said. “One of the things about this whole thing is that it was never designed to win — it was designed to lose but in a spectacular way, and in that case, it was successful.”
Despite the cease and desist order, O’Neill continued with the counter-culture bravado within the courtroom — he had a talent for provoking the mainstream and he liked to use it.
“O’Neill was enjoying it,” Hallgren said. “He was a very good performance artist, but when we went to the federal court for our hearing, he always looked like a Buffalo Bill character — he wore a Stetson and had a big bushy mustache and a leather jacket.
“That day, he put on a gun belt and put a banana in the holster and went to court. The bailiff didn’t think that was funny at all. He pulled it out [the banana] and handed it to the bailiff, but he didn’t pull it out carefully — he pulled it out like he was going to shoot. He was really pushing it there.”
Hallgren eventually signed a confidential agreement with Disney, a one-time offer that got him off the hook. The remaining Air Pirates named in the suit — most specifically O’Neill and London — faced a significant cash judgment, further restraining orders and several more years in court.
O’Neill continued to draw Disney characters at comic book conventions and even created the Mouse Liberation Front — which Hallgren had some involvement with — until exasperating Disney into dropping many of its legal pursuits. All total, it was an eight-year court battle.
Hallgren worked to translate his notoriety and talent into a freelance art career, spending his summers as a caricaturist in Provincetown. He eventually began working for National Lampoon, which built up his portfolio of work and opened the door to Forbes Magazine and beyond.
“It’s weird to jump from National Lampoon to Forbes Magazine, but the art director at Forbes read National Lampoon,” Hallgren said.
He said he has never been hurt by the Disney lawsuit — in fact, he’s probably been helped by it.
“It’s been only a good thing,” he said. “It was an entree to the whole world of underground comics and, by extension, humor magazines and then the whole magazine world.”
Hallgren’s move away from the underground comics world was followed by the inevitable dulling of the form, thanks to some who chose to ride on the counter-culture’s coattails.
“That first flowering, the first five or six years of underground comics, was an explosion of unrestrained imagination,” Hallgren said. “Once everybody started jumping on the bandwagon, of course it got diluted, and the exploiters started printing really bad stuff. And then the political climate became oppressive and there came a big backlash against obscenity. The comics got diluted and got sued.”
Hallgren is not one to live in the past. He currently works out of his studio in Holyoke, maintaining a successful illustration career with his work appearing in publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many others, including books — but old delights sometimes die hard.
“I’m not supposed to do Disney stuff, ever,” he said. “That hasn’t really stopped me, but it stopped me from doing it in a spectacular way. I don’t really call attention to it.”