September, 2010

Graciela Iturbide’s Private Universe

6a00d8341c630a53ef013485f186c2970c-500wiAn ostrich stares indignantly at me, hip jutting out as though I had ditched its Thanksgiving dinner. “What are you doing in this gallery staring at me?” it seems to say. “Why didn’t you bring the cranberry sauce?” Like an exaggerated cartoon version of an image in National Geographic, the ostrich is one of the more vivid subjects in Graciela Iturbide’s most recent exhibition, Graciela Iturbide: asor, ending this week in the Rose Gallery at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Iturbide once said, “While using my camera I am, above all, an actress participating in the scene taking place at the moment, and the other actors know what role I play.” In “asor,” taken straight from her personal archive, Iturbide creates a fantasy world that explores the terror and joy of childhood solitude. Inspired by her grandchildren and Alice in Wonderland, Iturbide photographed the Southern United States, Italy, India and Mexico, using snippets from each location but nothing identifiable from any of them. Instead, she crafted a new narrative that makes the fantastic pedestrian and the pedestrian fantastic. Clocks and abandoned buildings take on the significance of mythical creatures. In one pair of photographs, two blank eyeholes carved out of rocks peer out at the viewer, observing and saying nothing. Birds gather ominously in the sky like locusts, and in one arresting image, sunflowers are backlit and shot from below, drooping and spiky as Venus Fly Traps. Iturbide plays with perspective: A giant plaster head sits next to a parked car, disorienting any sense of scale. A bell-shaped flower is photographed from the side, grossly distorted, its surface as smooth and shiny as porcelain.

In one remarkable shot, a leopard lunges towards the camera, eyes shut, front legs crumpled in an awkward gait. The leopard looks as clumsy as a cartoon, with a viciously contorted face, like a living stuffed animal about to be killed. Iturbide photographs things with a childlike wonder and innocence, only distorted through a morbid prism. Her minutely crafted universe reveals her fascination with the coexistence of life and death, and the exquisite beauty of violence.

Iturbide came late to photography, influenced by the surrealism and mysticism of Luis Buñuel and the indigenous people photographed by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. The last time I saw Iturbide’s photography was three years ago in a retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Musuem, and the images were grisly: dead pigs, strung-up birds, a woman clutching a knife in her mouth preparing a goat for slaughter. Iturbide is best known for her ethnographic images of the Zapotec people in Oaxaca, including her famed “Mujer Ángel,” in which an indigenous woman faces a fertile valley, casually holding a boombox.

Despite the intrigue of Iturbide’s newest exhibition, I was drawn to much of her other work on display in the gallery. In 2006, Iturbide was allowed to photograph inside the estate of Frida Kahlo, and in one image, a pair of tiny, deformed-looking feet rest on the siding of a porcelain bathtub. The bathtub is Kahlo’s and the feet are Iturbide’s, appearing corpse-like. Several other images are more immediately arresting than her newer work, which is more quiet and restrained. But Iturbide’s willingness to explore new artistic territory demonstrates her continued relevance. Perhaps Iturbide deserves more recognition, which is difficult when her newer images are so private. Upon discovering her for the first time, the viewer is free to create a new reality, in which ostriches talk, flowers are monstruous, death is imminent, and life is more vivid than ever.

- By Cassandra McGrath

Graciela Iturbide’s asor ended its run this past weekend at the Rose Gallery in the Santa Monica Museum of Art. For more information on upcoming exhibitions, please visit

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Franzen’s Freedom Isn’t Free

franzen1Jonathan Franzen is conducting a reading from his long awaited novel, Freedom, tonight, Thursday, September 16th, at the Aranti/Japan America Theatre on 244 San Pedro St. in Downtown. It will be interesting to see who shows up since Franzen is a bit of a controversial figure. And I think the warring views on his standing within the American literary tradition can be boiled down to three camps: the Franzen nuts, the Oprah Winfrey freaks, and the bitter elite.

The Franzen nuts—to whom I must confess to being closest in sentiment—believe that the 41-year-old writer of 2001’s The Corrections is our generation’s Great American Novelist, (there is even a recent Time Magazine article about Franzen titled exactly that). They think his ability to combine sprawling, politically-aware narratives with deep, human characters is unmatchable in our time; that he the great Messiah of serious fiction writing. And yes, I agree that The Corrections—along with many of his shorter, more personal pieces in both How To Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone—is more applicable to my own life than any other piece of contemporary literature I’ve read. My friends and I will find ourselves arguing about which charcter in the Lambert family we like the most or are most like (for me, it’s Chip, no question). But many of these Franzenites haven’t read his earlier two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. I’ve only read the first, myself, and while it’s entertaining and contains much of the same aspects as The Corrections, it doesn’t feel as courageous. While reading, I never said to myself, “Oh my God, he did it.” The experience of The Twenty-Seventh City, for me, and I imagine many other devout fans who discovered his book-ography in reverse order, was one of realization: that’s he’s not a infallible genius. He, like his best characters, is flawed.

Which brings us to the Oprah-naughts. These are the people, mainly women, who regard Winfrey, not Franzen or any other actual author, as the great Messiah of contemporary literature. And anyone who crosses her path, whether it be James Frey or Jonathan Franzen, gets burned. The Franzen incident is quite dated by now, and anyone who’s actually taken the time to look into it, would know how utterly ridiculous the debacle really was, but it doesn’t change the fact that the shadow of Oprah still follows him to this day. (My well-read mother didn’t recognize his name until I brought up her name in association). Yet, I think even Franzen would be the first one to admit that Oprah helped him more than hurt him (in fact, he has accepted Oprah’s offer to put Freedom in her book club). He sold far more books because of it, developed a reputation, and awoke an historical literary debate in mainstream society: whether books should be art—and thereby too special for the plastic sticker of the Oprah Book Club—or merely entertainment.

Franzen brings up this debate over and over in his collection of essays How To Be Alone, and I think he tends to fall in the middle somewhere, that books are important and should be treated as so by the author, but never at the expense of the reader. Freedom, from all I’ve heard and the little I’ve read, is the closest he’s ever gotten to “the reader,” in both prose style and regard for entertainment value.

But as soon as someone as famously “elite” as Franzen starts to use more colloquial vocabulary, out storm the bitter class of critics and college professors. A recent review of Freedom by B.R. Myers in The Atlantic, a magazine which has published Franzen in the past, proved just as much. Myers insists that Franzen is overrated, and as opposed to the Messiah-lauding crowd, indirectly blames him for the demise of classic literature. Myers critiques the author’s use of words and phrases like “fucked,” or “she’s into him.” Myers even brings up the supercilious argument that every time someone reads a book like The Corrections or Freedom, they are missing out on a chance to read a classic like Madame Bovary (though couldn’t one argue just the opposite?). What I believe this reaction stems from is fear: the fear that books may just start to matter on a grander scale than in the annals of academia. So many people these days, including myself, bemoan the increasing attention deficit disorder of the American public, but fewer people allude to the possibility of a human reaction against it. As Franzen says himself, “We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful.”

- By Joshua Morrison

The reading begins at 8:00 PM at the Aranti/Japan America Theatre located at 244 San Pedro St. For more information, please visit

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The Insects Go to the Symphony

blurb200b_lgAnyone who’s ever heard the droning buzz of cicadas in the summer, has spent a night camping in the woods, or is familiar with the high-pitched tweet of the household cricket  knows that insects can indeed make music. In fact, there’s a species of Ecuadorian treehoppers—cousins of the cicada—who communicate to each other by vibrating the stems of plants on which they live (technically, that makes them percussionists). One can imagine a full symphony of tux-clad bugs toting mini-violins and tiny tubas, a grasshopper conductor at the helm.

But since Pixar is probably busy, artist and writer Sawako Nakayasu—in association with Les Figues Press’ Not Content series—has taken it upon herself to enact the first-ever, live improvised insect orchestra, tomorrow afternoon, 3:30 PM, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood. No, the bugs will not be actually playing music, but they will be playing muses; their live silhouettes will provide the inspiration for an improvised jam session between a collection of chosen musicians. Following the performance, Nakayasu will invite any listeners prepared with instruments of their own to become active participants. Said volunteers will then choose a bug to play to, and join the orchestra in full.

There’s something genuinely lovable about the concept, but also thought-provoking and inspired. What if the insects start jamming back? What if we humans are but bugs in our own right? What if music was, at last, the great inter-special mode of communication?

- By Joshua Morrison

Sawaku Nakayasu’s Improvised Insect Orchestra begins at 3:30 PM on Sunday, September 12th at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, and runs until approximately 5:30 PM. For more information, please visit

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Secrets of Silents

c22_PORTAIT-4Here’s a statistic: approximately 80 percent—maybe more—of all the silent films are lost. This is 80 percent of the early documented history of the predominant art-form of our age. It doesn’t seem that important until you watch some of the few remaining films, or pieces of films, that dedicated archivists have managed to preserve.

There’s a scene, for instance, from the 1923 movie Flaming Youth—which screened at this past weekend’s 46th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival in Hollywood—that contains true magic. It takes place at a Gatsby-like get-together, lots of men in tuxes, women in flapper attire, and the host of the party decides to intitiate a skinny-dip session with all the guests. This being 1923, the scene is filmed in pure sillhouette (though it was still too controversial to play in most theatres), and the result is nearly breath-taking, if only because this is the sole existing piece of footage. The shadowy figures of men and women diving into the pool look like ghosts jumping into the abyss of their own fragile mortality.

Film doesn’t last forever—its demise is inherent in the chemical properties that allow it to exist—yet it is still the most assured mode of preservation for the future, even in our digital world (as anyone knows who’s ever had a hard drive crash on them). The people behind Cinecon, and particularly the Saturday afternoon program I attended that was dedicated to lost (or previously lost) films, know this more than anyone. After the screening of what’s left of Flaming Youth, they showed a 1999 documentary called Keepers of the Frame. Highlighting such institutions as the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Library of Congress, and the Museum of Modern Art, the movie takes a ‘Technicolor’ look at the continuing history of film preservation. Along the way, it shows the only surviving footage of President William McKinley two days before he was shot, the sole motion picture record of Alaskan Inuit in the 1930’s, and actual news-reel scenes from the Hindenberg disaster.

Had these strains of film not been carefully and pain-stakingly preserved, they would have been lost, much like the prize posession of the program and entire festival was thought to be: Charlie Chaplin’s third appearance in a film, called The Thief Catcher. Found by fortunate accident amidst a pile of old films inside a trunk at an antique show, the Keystone comedy does not feature Chaplin’s patented “Tramp” character; he is instead cast as one of the Keystone cops. He appears on screen for maybe a minute, and despite what they say about hindsight’s vision, his star quality is undeniable. He seems to already understand, even at this early stage in his career, the secret to silent film acting (and it’s still true today), which is that you need a secret. You can’t let your face belie your subtext—that’s representational acting, as Stanislavski would say—only your physical actions. And Chaplin, whether the star or the bit-player, was a master of physical acting for the screen. His face always posessed a certain secret, and it’s up to us as watchers of film, as confidantes, to preserve that secret for future generations of fellow conspirators.

- By Joshua Morrison

For more information in Cinecon, please visit, and to pre-order a copy of the upcoming CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE 4-disc DVD set, which includes The Thief Catcher, please visit

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deFineArtsLA Exclusive: POET

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMusic—if not the industry—has triumphed through electronic, digital, and online revolutions. Photographers can shoot a thousand frames in a matter of minutes. Painting has outgrown the traditional borders of the canvas, now readily available on street corners and highway signs. Cinema is viewed less in the cinema than on Youtube or Netflix streaming. Words are no longer inscribed in ink, and many popular novels are now written as 140-character-long serials.

But poetry is dead.

Or at least that’s what it seems like. Even as a devoted follower of some incredible living and working poets, I find it hard to list more than five off the top of my head. And maybe this is due to the general assumption that while every other art-form may gracefully surf the never-ending tides of technology, poetry is to remain dormant—to hole up in its cage of antiquated rhyme schemes and meter. Even “free-form poetry” collects dust these days.

Then I hear about someone like Mathew Timmons—and I’ve been hearing a lot about him recently (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions just wrapped up a month-long installation based on his 800-page book/collection/poem/collage entitled Credit.) Timmons is immediately difficult to pin down into a label. He’s a poet, a blogger, a curator, a critic, a performer, a collaborator, and a creator of chapbooks. But I suppose all could be condensed into a single description: Mathew Timmons is one of many young, Los Angeles-based artists insistent on keeping poetry alive

His latest project, as a part of his ongoing series of projects entitled “General Projects,” opens at 323 Projects on Monday, September 6th. Never heard of the gallery? That may be because it exists solely by phone, offering “visitors” a rotating sample of sound poems from Timmons’s upcoming album, The Archanoids, meant to explore the evolving relationship between noise, language, collaboration, and context.

Here’s the kicker, though. The “gallery” has a voicemail, available 24-hours a day, in which people are invited to call in and leave messages that will eventually be edited down by Timmons into a single, multi-layered sound poem by the end of the exhibition on October 11th. The show is open all day and all night, and the number to call is (323) 843-4652 or (323) TIE-IN-LA.

It all reminds me of a story, or an image rather, I was once told by a poet friend of mine in New York City. He said he knew of a fellow poet, more published than he, yet still relatively anonymous, who decided to hang a glowing, neon fixture—like the ones in old-school dive bars—facing outward on her window. It just had one word on it, in all caps: “POET.”

- By Joshua Morrison

For more information on Mathew Timmons and 323 Projects, please visit

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