Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sophy Burnham, "The Art Crowd" (1973).

When I first started showing my work a few years ago, the last thing I thought I'd be mulling over was the 'business of art'. Like many people of ordinary, late 20th Century, middle class backgrounds, I had a naive sense that the pursuit of art was somehow transcendent. The truth is that everything in the United States is vulnerable to the processes of commodification. The day you decide to exhibit your artwork is the beginning of a drastic re-imagining of what it means to participate in the 'art world'. Whether or not you are showing your work with the intent to sell, someone is going to inevitably bring up that possibility. The reason for this is the cost of space. Every parcel of land, and every wall within has been demarcated as property. Whether or not you have a specific proprietary interest is beside the point.

To tell you the truth, I am fascinated with the idea of art as part of the marketplace. Art is so inherently subjective that putting a value on it is largely a subjective enterprise. Ultimately a piece is worth what someone will pay for it, and in that respect it differs little from any other product we might buy or sell. But where did the rules come from? How did the market for art develop? Certainly we'd need an exhaustive historical study just to get close to coming up with a basic answer. However, here in America we can get some idea of its development by looking at the art scene in New York during the post WW II era. It was during this period that contemporary art was introduced as a viable economic investment. That fundamentally altered the way that things were done.

For as significant a change in the cultural landscape as it was, the emergence of contemporary art speculation was characterized by an inordinate amount of mystification. To a large extent it still is. Try to find a body of literature that explains the forces behind art market valuation in layman's terms- its rather difficult. I found an obscure book written in 1973 by Sophy Burnham that seemed to offer some basic insight into the phenomenon. The Art Crowd focuses on the various forces that combine to attribute monetary value to modern art. Burnham takes us on a journey that introduces us to artists, museum directors, collectors, dealers and the all powerful institutional trustees. She identifies the internal workings of the marketplace and describes how the various principals interact with each other.

Along the way our guide includes the results of a series of interviews she conducted with the movers-and-shakers of the art world elite. It is remarkable how incestuous these circles are. This is a comparatively small milieu, and key individuals have a disproportionate amount of power to determine which artists become 'successful', and which among them languish in perpetual obscurity. There are a lot of dual relationships, with the same men and women curating works from the very artists that represent the bulk of their collections. It doesn't take much scratching to reveal the extent of unethical behavior beneath the sophisticated veneer of this 'Art Crowd'. Critics accept gifts from artists that they review. Museums receive deep discounts from dealers looking to increase the profile of their respective stables. And trustees use their connections for influence and profit.

It wouldn't take much for a reader to become quickly disenchanted with the the idea of purchasing art. That's probably why this title has such a low profile. Burnham herself seems to have been discouraged from further exploration. A quick internet search reveled that the author now identifies herself as a 'Medium' and practitioner of Reiki. Maybe she divined something so rotten at the core of The Art Crowd that she permanently disengaged from it. But the book is an interesting snapshot into the way things were done during a pivotal point in the evolution of the contemporary arts scene. I don't think it's a stretch to believe that much of the current situation remains the same. The faces and names may change, yet the actual machinations that propel the scene continue to be enigmatic to outsiders.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dark Days A-Coming.

I'm not very shy about the fact that I have contempt for radio hack AM Glenn Beck. Most of what he says is tremendously easy to write off as right wing propaganda. Generally I feel that you could take the opposite of what he says, and embrace it as truth. Still there is one obsession I have that I share with this asshole- the coming collapse of the American economy. Beck is certainly not the first figure to warn of bad times ahead. Roger Waters, bassist and songwriter for the band Pink Floyd, predicted the implosion of the Western economy in the 1970's. His numbers were off, but not by much. Before the debacle of George W. Bush's administration, such concerns seemed alarmist. Now they just appear merely realistic.

So what's my response to this type of noise? How do I confront the fears of an impending depression? I mostly try to push it to the back of my mind, and prepare to enjoy the ride the best I can. After all... how long did the Great Depression of the 1930's last? A couple of decades, perhaps? Can that still happen here? Look at oil prices. Doing that very thing made me take the step of creating a personal household budget the other day. I went to fill up my foreign sedan, and noticed that prices have exceeded $3.50 per gallon. This is becoming the single biggest drain on my finances. I drive about 1600 miles a month, and the costs of refueling certainly add up quickly.

I decided that I would get a taste of the future by adding up all of my expenditures, and including gasoline at an anticipated cost of $5 per gallon. I thought that maybe my salary could absorb such a price, and still allow me to save a few bucks. When all was accounted for, I found a shortfall of about $300 per month. This reality sent my mood into an immediate tailspin. I began to realize just how close I am to the margins of insolvency. My prospective budget did include a fair amount of wiggle room. If I quit smoking cigarettes (which I really ought to do anyway), I can save about $130 a month. I can go out less on the weekends and cut another hundred out of my loss column. I could cut down on the number of iced mochas I buy every week.

But there are some expenditures that can't be negotiated. Having a kid is very expensive- more so than I had expected. Between household necessities (non-food) and stuff for regular maintenance of the baby, my wife and I are spending about $900 a month. And that number is only as low as it is because we are getting a tremendous deal on daycare. We will be paying out this money until E. is in kindergarten. Also my mortgage and car payments will remain stable. And the price of food (for which I budgeted $300) threatens to rise dramatically with the increase in oil prices. Utilities are also subject to fluctuations in the oil market. Perhaps I could get a better deal on car insurance (if I have a better driving record for a few years), but I can't count on that either.

What's especially scary is that my prospective budget does not take into account emergencies or unanticipated costs. I didn't figure in car maintenance- like inspection, oil changes and new tires. There is no accounting for clothing purchases. I didn't figure in the cost of giving gifts to family and friends. I didn't include money for replacement appliances, should something break around the house. No cash for vacation, for art materials, for art... no DVDs, music, or books. No eating out. Absolutely no luxuries. And when I look at my salary, I know that it is above average. It makes me wonder how the bulk of America is going to weather a steep economic downturn. This is going to be a very different country in the next several years. If you don't believe me, make out a budget for yourself, and see how your own life is likely to change.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, April 28, 2008

What's Newt Been Up To?

There was very little in the late 90's that made me happier than Newt Gingrich's precipitous fall from public power. His rabid campaign against Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky trial displayed his basic misunderstanding of the priorities then emerging in our nation. Additionally it exposed Gingrich as a vile hypocrite. His personal life had been filled with adultery and self-serving missteps. He was so callous with one soon-to-be ex that he actually tried to discuss divorce terms with her while she was attempting to recover from an operation for cancer. In public life Gingrich was a man constantly on the wrong side of history. He built his reputation with the 'Contract with America', which had a single enduring legacy- helping consolidate the most loyal support base for George W. Bush.

Gingrich's plan was really just a front to empower corporations to profit at the expense of the environment and the working class. When President Bill Clinton stood in his way, Gingrich engineered a shutdown of the federal government and was consequently exposed as the petulant tyrant that he actually was. His entire strategy backfired, and not only led to the virtual end of his 'Contract', but also resulted in a second Clinton presidential term. Not content to lick his wounds gracefully, he began to seek other ways to hurt Clinton. He found his opening in the gutter with folks like Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr. After he failed in his bid for retribution via impeachment, Gingrich's popularity was at an all-time low.

After the 1998 congressional elections (during which the Republican Party failed to take advantage of the tumult inspired by the Lewinsky scandal) Gingrich stepped down as Speaker of the House and resigned his seat in Congress. One would think that the man would be a pariah in political circles given his shoddy record as leader of the party. But instead he was made a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, and was reportedly active in the efforts to convince George W. Bush to invade Iraq. He also joined the Hoover Institute- a conservative think tank that reflects the misguided philosophies of its namesake. In his spare time Gingrich played author, collaborating on 'alternative histories' in which he imagined the Nazis winning WWII and the Confederacy prevailing at Gettysburg.

As objectionable a man as Gingrich is, you'd think we could find a nice quiet closet where he could be contained and kept harmlessly away from the media. Still old habits die hard, and Gingrich apparently overestimates his own allure. In fact he's a frequent contributor to FOX News, and appears to be attracted to the limelight like a mosquito drawn to a bug zapper. The former Speaker actually considered a run for the 2008 presidency, but there was enough of his lingering stink left behind from the 90's to effectively stifle any enthusiasm for his candidacy. So how exactly does the guy plan to worm his way back into the hearts and minds of the movers-and-shakers? To what lengths will he go to be loved?

Well, I got a clue about what Gingrich is up to while listening to NPR the other day. Nowadays he is using his own daughter (Jackie Cushman) in his insidious schemes. Cushman is attempting to realize her father's dreams of improving the nation's schools. Gingrich has been vocal about his belief that the public school system is a failed experiment. His solution? Pay low-income students to improve their grades! A group of Fulton County students in Georgia are participating in after school study sessions that earn them $8 per hour. It seems that Gingrich missed the memo about the inadequacy of external motivation. The most interesting aspect of this program is that it pays more than Republicans were ever willing to offer in minimum wage. No one ever accused Newt Gingrich of consistency.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A.M. Homes, "In a Country of Mothers" (1993).

There is a common theory that people who choose to become psychologists usually do so out of an unconscious wish to work out their own internal mental problems. Having been drawn to study psychology as an undergraduate, I believe there is probably some element of truth in that supposition. If I felt growing up that something was 'wrong' with me, surely the answers into that condition could be found at the feet of my professors and on the pages of the class texts. In truth I did find certain information resonant- descriptions of various maladies that can afflict those who bear them. Similarly I spent enough time considering my friends and family, trying to match them with various diagnoses. Often it was quite entertaining.

Such impulses must have somehow affected A.M Homes at one point or another in her life. Her works all deal in some way with various dysfunctions, some of which are more serious than others. Her short stories are filled with characters trying to work out their inner demons. But the level of psychosis gets amped up in her longer works. The first Homes novel I read was Music for Torching (1999). It concerned a suburban couple and the slow deterioration in their relationship. They are so obviously incapable of managing their lives, and their perceptions of success, that they neglect the basic fundamentals that would otherwise keep their young family together. It is a brutal book filled with the raw stuff of extreme emotionality.

Homes' most famous work is probably The End of Alice (1996). The 'protagonist' in that work is a child molester, who is imprisoned for having murdered a little girl. Critics and other readers were astonished that Homes could so effectively imagine the inner life of such a character. The idea that she could so empathize with this man made people uncomfortable. What in her life would provide the necessary insights? Most successful authors advise young writers to write about 'what they know'. For Homes' audience, this often has disturbing ramifications. What do the themes of her books say about her? It's not always obvious. However her second novel (In a Country of Mothers) seems like a natural extension of Homes' life.

In a Country of Mothers concerns a psychologist who gradually goes through a process of transference, so that she superimposes her own difficulties on one of her vulnerable clients. Claire Roth seems to have it all- a loving and wealthy husband, two sons, an apartment in the city, and a home on the Island. But in all of Homes' work, appearances can deceive. When Claire was a teenager, she had to give up a baby girl that she conceived with one of her professors. Twenty years later a young woman named Jody is referred to her by a colleague. She comes in to discuss her anxiety about graduate school, but soon reveals that she was adopted. Claire begins to suspect that Jody is her long lost child, and she begins to mother her in an increasingly unhealthy manner.

As a co-dependency between therapist and client develops, both of these women explore the emotional detritus of their fractured identities. Homes explores the essential maternal bonds that exist between all mothers daughters- even those who aren't related by blood. More impressive perhaps is the author's portrayal of a possible consequence of therapy- the unconscious redirection of feelings for one person to another. This can be quite harmful for the patient when the professional is not aware of it. But it can be doubly destructive if the therapist herself falls prey to its temptations. With Homes (and her readers), transference is always a possibility- that's what makes her effective and her work dangerous.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tom Franklin, "Hell at the Breech" (2003).

Having sampled Tom Franklin's writing in his short story collection Poachers, I thought that I'd return to the well for a novel. Hell at the Breech is (nominally) historical fiction about a backwoods war pitting town vs. country folk in Alabama's Clark County. Apparently the author first heard tales of this feud while growing up in the very state where it happened. One might expect a litany of violence, unremitting vengeance and good old Southern backstabbing- and if that is the type of thing you are interested in, you can indeed find it all right here. However don't expect to find some pulpy, breezily entertaining read. Franklin's got the goods, and while comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy may be presumptuous, they may not be completely out-of-order.

The cycle of mayhem is set off when two young rural brothers decide to play 'highwaymen" along an isolated dirt road out in the sticks. Macky and William Burke merely want to get a few funds so they can visit the local prostitute, but they inadvertently set off a chain of events that builds steam until the region's inhabitants become inextricably involved in a series of bloody conflicts. Sheerly by accident they manage to kill a man. Fortunately for them, they are able to slink away without their deed being witnessed. When the murder is discovered by the victim's cousin, an insidious plot is hatched to extend the violence outward. The poor folk of the Mitcham Beat have been oppressed by the 'city ways' of nearby Grove Hill and Coffeeville for far too long.

County Sheriff Billy Waite is growing weary and preparing to retire from his long career as a lawman. He understands the barely repressed hostilities and resentments borne on the chests of the cotton farmers in Mitcham Beat. When he learns of Arch Bledsoe's death, he knows there is going to be trouble. Bledsoe was a popular store owner and aspiring politician who was extremely popular in the outlying rural areas of the county. Not only was he free with the bootleg whiskey he stocked at his shop, but he had the only outdoor croquet court for hundreds of miles. When his surviving kinsman "Tooch" Bledsoe decides to form a local gang called 'Hell-at-the-Breech' to avenge his cousin's death, he is able to recruit a small band of potential outlaws, ready and wiling to take the fight to the towns. Soon he has built his own little fiefdom in the wilderness.

"Tooch" begins his efforts close to home. He and his men (including the Burke brothers) start to lean on the neighboring farmers. They let them know that sides must be chosen. Either they will assume the banner of the 'Breech', or they must keep silent and stay out of its way. When several independently-minded dirt-scratchers challenge his growing authority, they find themselves on the wrong end of some unlucky mishaps. A few of them end up six feet under the cold, hard ground. As news of this filters back to Grove Hill, pressure builds on Sheriff Waite to get some satisfaction. He intends to get to the bottom of this rash of violence and bring the appropriate ne'er-do-wells to justice. Problem is there isn't a lot of love for him out in the cut. And eventually the "Breech" strikes closer to home.

Franklin's prose is spare and precise. He doesn't waste a lot of time examining the inner lives of these simple and brutal men, but rather conveys character and motivation through their laconic verbal interchanges, and their deeds. Many of the incidents he describes are brutally violent and gory- yet never sensationally so. The visceral nature of the evils perpetrated among the cotton fields and dense woods is conveyed without unnecessary elaboration. And yet even within the most malicious perpetrators, he finds strains of humanity. The reader understands how the hardscrabble conditions of life in rural southwestern Alabama (in 1897) led to bloodletting and betrayal. Franklin's account is all-the-more convincing because it is essentially true. This is exactly how historical fiction should be written, even if it doesn't adhere strictly to the 'facts'.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 25, 2008

Harold Schechter, "The Mask of Red Death" (2004).

I was familiar with Harold Schechter as a recognized expert in the study of serial killers. I had seen him appear in a few documentaries, including one concerning his artist-friend Joe Coleman, and another that detailed the phenomenon of collecting serial killer art. For the hipper, more literary crowd interested in the dark psychology of accomplished murderers, it seems like Schechter is the go-to guy. I've found his perspectives to be fairly convincing. He is absolutely fascinated with the grisly details of crime, but he tends to shy away from elaborate psychosexual explanations for murderous behavior. He seems to know his way around the psychopathic mind, and clearly has the type of non-judgmental attitude required to truly understand extreme violence.

While reading The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers (2003), I had to wonder about Schechter's background. He certainly seemed like an authoritative source, but how had he come across his knowledge? Did he have a law enforcement background? That would give him a deep understanding of the investigatory process that identifies and categorizes aberrant behavior. Or was he a mental health professional? Maybe he had experience with examining or treating killers? The truth is a bit strange. Schechter is a professor of American Culture and Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York.

His profession doesn't really explain how he acquired his particular interests. However it does shed light on one of his sidelines- he has written a series of 'historical fictions' employing the iconic poet Edgar Allan Poe as the protagonist. This strange approach puts Poe in the role of detective, trying to sort out the facts of a series of horrific murders in mid-19th Century New York City. In this adventure, Poe meets up with a series of other prominent figures of the age- such as P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, and James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (the founder and publisher of the New York Herald). Schechter even has Poe teaming up with one of the biggest celebrities of the day, Christopher "Kit" Carson.

The writer and the explorer make for strange bedfellows. Schechter writes Poe as if he was a pretentious prat, giving him high-falutin' dialog that often distracts from the flow of the narrative. Instead of merely being gloomy and taciturn, Poe is represented as being a flowery dandy, who never misses an opportunity to slag a fellow writer. Meanwhile Carson is portrayed as a one-dimensional cartoon character. He's a plain-talking superhero, who saves the day so many times that he might as well be the second coming of Jesus Christ. In fact all of the characters are drawn so simplistically that Schechter's story loses a lot of its atmosphere. And that's rather a shame, because there is a lot in this book.

An undertaking like The Mask of Red Death is by its very nature quite perilous. Our history books have already colored these well-known figures with distinct impressions. The well-informed reader brings a fairly solid set of assumptions about their personalities and motivations. We have an intuitive sense of how we would expect them to act, and what they would care about. It's risky to try to put words in their mouths, and especially difficult to present a convincing account of how they may have spoken to each other. As soon as a hint of doubt is inadvertently introduced, we remove ourselves from the setting. It takes an extremely deft hand to avoid causing such a reaction. While Schechter is obviously articulate and knowledgeable, I don't think he was quite up to this challenge.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Things to Do This Weekend.

Here we go again. There were a couple of slack weekends in a row with not much happening in the Pittsburgh arts scene... so it's typical to have tons of events packed into two evenings. The most notable is likely the Downtown Gallery Crawl on Friday night- a seasonal get together featuring a look at galleries and other events in the Golden Triangle. Of course it is officially Spring, so there will be tons of folks out and about. Doors start to open for visitors around 5:30PM and usually remain open and busy until 8PM , or so.

I can't say I'm overly excited by anything advertised by this particular crawl. At the 707 and 709 Galleries (Penn avenue) we have the closing of Jazz in Pictures, and the opening of Live Green, View Blue, Paint The Town Red. The latter includes the winning design models of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust International Design Competition. Up the block at Future Tenant (819 Penn Avenue), they are midway through their I am a Heather exhibition. Sure, sometimes it seems like everything has been done before. But who can truly say that they have seen a show of work entirely inspired by girls named "Heather"? Apparently someone within the CMU student curatorial staff has a thing for bad 80's movies.

The Wood Street Galleries has Text/Memory, installations by Jim Campbell & Mark Scheeff. Campbell makes "electronic art", while Scheeff apparently fucks around with robots (more information here). Something tells me I've seen this show before, but that seems impossible since tomorrow is the official opening. Perhaps the powers-that-be down at Wood Street need to diversify their interests a bit. A block down the street at SPACE Gallery (812 Liberty), Murray Horne has put together an exhibition (Pittsburgh Now) including a selection of artists he is evidently excited by. I'm not sure what these creators have in common besides the fact that five of them have (or have had) some ties to Carnegie Mellon University. That's certainly no novelty downtown.

Finally I will be making a point to stop by Artists Upstairs (937 Liberty) to see Dilated Dialogues (sic). It's reportedly "a photographic conversation between Americans who capture images abroad and foreign-born artists working here." There's no way to tell for sure (since I'm unfamiliar with virtually all of the artists at this Crawl), but it seems like this may be my personal highlight of the evening. If not, I can always take my butt down to the Culinary Institute and gorge myself on cheap chef-in-training-made delicacies.

If none of this appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities, the Mattress Factory is having an opening (7-10PM) called Inner and Outer Space, which features nine contemporary artists who promise to offer new perceptions of space by defying two dimensional surfaces. It costs $10 if you aren't a member. Or alternatively you could check out the Fein Art Gallery (519 E. Ohio Street). This North Side Gallery is having a display of then-and-now photos documenting Pittsburgh history. It's a group show, and includes some images from my new friend Rick Byerly. It's called See How It Was, See How It Is, and its opening reception runs from 5-9PM.

Saturday offers a whole new set of diversions for your wandering eye. Artists Image Resource (518 Foreland Street on the North Side) offers an exhibition of the work of 2006 Pittsburgh Center for the Arts "Emerging Artist of the Year", Kim Beck. I couldn't find much information about this specific show (other than the hours of 7-9PM), but I really liked what I saw at the PCA and I'm going to make an effort not to miss this one.

There's also a closing of Sublimation, a collection of pieces by artists involved in the Brew House Distillery Program. Local favorite Brett Davis is one of the eight artists involved, and it's always interesting to see what he comes up with. Your last chance to see this show is at the South Side location of this co-op at 2100 Mary Street, from 3-5PM.

Of all the happenings this weekend, I am most eagerly anticipating Lawrenceville's Eleventh Annual Art All Night. I'll always be sentimental about this event, because it was throughout this series that I first displayed my photography. Just as its title suggests, you can see artwork by hundreds of different local creators, starting at 6PM on Saturday, and extending through the wee hours all the way until Sunday at 2PM. The show is neither juried nor censored so you get a wide variety of work to enjoy. There's also food, drink and live music throughout the night. This year they are advertising the location as their biggest ever- in the former Roomfull Express Warehouse on 57th Street in Lawrenceville. This is a party you (and 7000 other 'burghers) don't want to miss.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who is Kim Deitch?

The other day I wrote a post about the 'fursuiters', and I mentioned a cartoonist who had provoked the ire of at least one of these strange creatures by publishing a cartoon panel that was thought to misrepresent this odd subculture. Over the years this same artist has earned praise for his large body of work by employing themes such as addiction, media distortion, and the concerns of the entertainment industry in the early 20th Century. While R. Crumb now builds his status as a legend by appearing in museum shows, Kim Deitch quietly continues to expand his own legacy by publishing masterful comics that continually fly under the mainstream radar. That's really a shame, because in a lot of ways Deitch represents an evolution in the work of the very first wave of underground comics in America.

Deitch was there at the inception of the arts comics form. A perusal of the influential anthologies and periodicals that he has appeared in is remarkable in its breadth- The East Village Other, Arcade, Heavy Metal, High Times, LA Weekly, Pictopia, Raw, Weirdo and Zero Zero. Show this list to any fanboy, and their eyes will glaze over in envy and admiration. Appearances in only half of those rags would be enough to establish one as a major figure in comics history. Still the 64-year-old creator refuses to rest upon his laurels. His adventures with cartoon cat "Waldo" (said to be a demonic reincarnation of Judas Iscariot) remain both vibrant and bizarre. Instead of repeating a generic body of sight gags, Deitch's work becomes more and more complex and profound.

I first became aware of Deitch through a collection of Waldo stories called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2002). This title featured a 1930's-era cartoonist named Teddy Mishkin, a man teetering on the edge of alcoholism and mental breakdown. Mishkin is struggling to produce the latest "Waldo the Cat" animation short for the studio where he is employed. Meanwhile the inimical feline is starting to take on a real existence in Mishkin's life. This is all played out against a back-story which examines how changing attitudes and tastes for animation affected the smaller studios that labored to produce idiosyncratic and personal work, while other larger companies consolidated their power and strengthened their hold on the public imagination.

While it certainly doesn't hurt for the reader to understand a bit about the history of cartooning and animation during the first half of the last century, there are plenty of seedy details and strangely surreal elements to keep everyone involved. Often Deitch employs non-linear narratives that loop around, seeming at once to diverge from the main arc, and then suddenly return to the starting point with an alternative perspective. There are also repeat characters that pop up in his different stories. My enjoyment of Kim Deitch continued with Alias the Cat! (2007), which reintroduced Waldo as the insidiously meddlesome provocateur that I had come to know and love. This time around the protagonist is a former Czech munitions magnate and silent film actor. The charms of Dietch's style are consistent and sustaining.

What I particularly appreciate about Deitch's work is the full immersion that he is able to elicit with his astonishingly complete attention to detail. As wildly idiosyncratic as Deitch's universe is, it is accessible and seems counterintuitively welcoming for the reader. His settings certainly predate the lives of his primary audience, but there is a lot of embedded commentary in Dietch's work. Art comic giant Art Speigelman has said that, "Kim Deitch has created a private world as fully realized in its own way as Faulkner's." That comparison may make skeptical critics blanch. But I think there's merit in the association- because while Deitch's work is inextricably grounded in a specific past, there are themes at its core that resonate wildly in the present.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On the Eve of the PA Democratic Primary...

Here we are smack dab on the day before a major contest that could decide the contest to see who the Democratic candidate for President will be. In Pennsylvania primary voters have gotten used to being largely irrelevant in the primary nomination process. By April most presidential election cycles have all but been officially concluded. This year is obviously different. A strong victory by Clinton could possibly make her a front-runner once again. With strong support from superdelegates to make up for a shortfall in the pledge delegate count, I would hardly consider her an also-ran. Conversely, if Obama does well (either winning or getting very close), a lot of people are going to be clamoring for his coronation.

Hillary Clinton's lead (once in the double digits) has narrowed to less than five points. As in every previous state primary, it appears that Obama is an exceptionally strong finisher. This is an incredible feat, given the amount of space and time the media has been devoting to analyzing Obama's every utterance. Last week we had a big flap about the following quote about Pennsylvanians in small towns, and their frustration with the past few presidential administrations' unfulfilled promises: "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

It's not surprising that these words got plucked completely out of context, and presented as if they were a condemnation of our state's villagers. The Clintons command a lot of loyalty from the establishment, and no one's been all that successful at getting criticism to stick to Obama. So I understand the desperation here. But when you read that quote in relation to his prevalent theme, it's quite clear that Obama was saying that he could be a voice for those folks. Of course that's incredibly frightening to both the Hillary camp and the rabid right wing. There's a certain brazen irony about the way people have been spinning this disembodied quote. Some are trying to brand Obama as an 'elitist'. Don't be surprised if the AM radio hacks try to ride this 'controversy' all the way until November.

Of course Obama is about as far from being an 'elitist' as you are going to find in Washington today. And consequently, he's not a 'socialist', or a Muslim, or a hate-monger. Still he has been called all of these things. I suppose that his opponents feel that the more shit they throw at the wall, the more that is likely to stick. The latest snippet his detractors have decided to focus on is a perversion of his feelings about George W. Bush. Obama said "You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain. And all three of us would be better than George Bush." While this certainly reveals a troublesome predisposition to stray from negative campaigning, it definitely reveals his sense of the moment.

But instead of accepting Obama's message of optimism, Clinton has decided to twist his words into an endorsement of John McCain. There is an underlying message being communicated when Clinton calls Obama a cheerleader for his opponent- she promises a much nastier approach to winning the Presidency. The instrumental question is whether or not attack politics will be effective in the general election, or if undecided voters would prefer a message of conciliation. I know I would enjoy seeing Obama adopt a more critical tone, but I'm already in his camp. Tomorrow is going to be an indirect gauge of the comparative elements of the strategies employed by these two candidates. May the best man win.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, April 21, 2008

Random Acts of Intentional Violence.

Last Friday night I finished reading the book I was currently working my way through, and I thought I'd go out for a drink and relax a bit. I couldn't identify any friends to meet me at my favorite nightspot, and so I was hoping that the bar would not be jam-packed with tourists and suburbanites. There was an outside chance that I would be able to find a seat, since it was before 10:30PM. I parked in my usual spot and walked up the sidewalk to the front entrance. I could see through the front window that it wasn't too crowded. I was heartened to find an empty stool near the corner of the bar, with no one on either side. I settled in, received the usual sterling service that befits a regular, and sipped my cocktail in peace. It felt good to be out in a quiet and clean place with breathing space.

Fortunately I had remembered to bring my camera with me, and I decided to try to capture a bit of the magic of the night. At this point in the night the bar was so empty that I had a chance to talk to some of the staff as I worked. This particular pub has plenty of visual stimuli and a multitude of varied and interesting light sources. I enjoyed working in that atmosphere, and quickly lost myself in phenomena that most observers would find mundane. I really can't sufficiently praise the Canon G9. It has enough in-camera features to provide hours of diversion. I was able to accumulate a number of compelling, show-worthy images in the short time I sat at the bar. Later a friend came in and I chatted superficially with him about mild topics.

I had no intention of making it a long or costly night out. I felt quite satisfied as I donned my jacket and left for the drive home. It had been time well spent, and I congratulated myself for my moderation. As I approached my car, I realized almost immediately that something was wrong. My driver's side mirror was hanging by its internal electrical wires from its mounting. The faceplate was shattered in many pieces. It struck me initially that this was incredibly inconvenient, as I had to get home in the dark without its aid. I quickly discerned that the mirror on the passenger side was also destroyed. Over the past year I had parked in this little convenience store lot almost every time I visited the bar. The store was closed and I figured it was fair game. I've never had even the slightest problem with this practice.

It began to sink in that someone had come by and done this deliberately. This was no accident- it was quite clear because both sides were smashed. I wondered who might have done such a thing. There was another car next to mine that had not been vandalized... but it hadn't been there when I arrived. Apparently some ne'er-do-well figured that my little banged-up foreign vehicle was an appropriate target. He (or they) decided that they would add a particularly damaging exclamation point to my evening. Why did they do it? Perhaps they were kids, amped up and showing off to each other. Maybe they were inordinately drunk and carousing. Going wildin' on a weekend night is a long-honored tradition among adolescents. I'm sure they gave the whole affair little thought. I was simply left to deal with the consequences.

I suppose this kind of thing happens week in, week out, across the nation. People seem to invest so little energy into thinking about what their actions cost others. This is an anonymous protest against an unknown individual. I certainly didn't feel that I knew the perpetrator. I don't believe that it was anything personal. Anyone could become the recipient of such malice on any given night. This is the nature of random violence. You could go weeks, months, or years without anything like this ever happening to you. Or it could happen on subsequent days. But it makes me question our society. Do we teach its members to have this little respect for their fellows? Is there something in our culture that reinforces such behavior? Is it a natural consequence of our difficult and chaotic times? How much worse can it get? I slept fitfully and woke up sore.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Harry Crews, "The Knockout Artist" (1988).

It's really a shame that when Harry Crews was recommended to me fifteen years ago that The Knockout Artist wasn't the title lent to me. If it had been, I likely wouldn't have put the author aside for as long as I have. A Feast of Snakes (1974) was mildly entertaining, but I thought it exposed the author as a gritty pulp-meister who had a limited ability to build substantial characterization. Everybody who appeared in that book came off as cartoon stereotypes. My experience with Classic Crews (a collection of some of his earliest works) put him back on the map of quality Southern scribes, as far as I was concerned. I decided I had made a hasty judgment and sought out one of his most critically-acclaimed works.

The Knockout Artist tells the story of Eugene Biggs, a Georgian farm boy who strikes out for bigger adventures in the city. He travels to New Orleans and meets a trainer named Budd, who schools him in the fine art of fisticuffs. Eugene quickly ascends the ranks of the local fight scene, and begins to get some opportunities to meet tougher opponents. Although he lacks the ability to put his man on the canvas, he is wickedly deft and able to shuck-and-jive his way to many victories on points. As long as he is successful he receives the admiration and attention of his adopted father figure. But then he gets clocked by a power punch, and his tragic flaw is exposed (he has a weak chin). He can't beat the count and loses his first match. The floodgate now open, he loses three subsequent bouts and is dropped by his manager/trainer. On his way out the door, Budd retorts that Eugene could probably knock himself out. In frustration, the young fighter does just that.

Left alone and abandoned on the street in the most insidious Southern port, Eugene finds his way waiting tables at a restaurant. It is there that he catches the eye of a young socialite named Charity. She is a beautiful, vibrant, and intelligent girl who has a suspicious interest in bedding Eugene. It is soon revealed that Charity is close to receiving her doctorate in psychology, and has an academic interest in the grittier, lowlier class of people- such as washed-up young boxers. While Eugene does indeed feel patronized by the attentions of Charity, he has also become cynical and is lacking quality alternative options. Not only does he bed Charity, but he actually allows her to put him up in a fancy apartment. Thus begins a relationship that carries us to the main events in the book.

Somehow Charity has convinced Eugene to perform his inimitable self-knockout trick in front of paying audiences. She has arranged for him to be compensated well for his efforts. In return, she requests only that he allow her to document his life-story via tape recorder while they have sex. While he doesn't cotton to having his brain picked and battered, he does find both money and Charity attractive, and so agrees to the arrangement. Through these public appearances, Eugene comes into contact with some of the seedier denizens of New Orleans, and the story widens to include additional subplots. The main thread finds Eugene and a friend taking up a Cajun youth in order to make him into a champion fighter in his own right.

What makes The Knockout Artist impressive is the vast range of characters Crews is able to bring to life. Far from being limited to the depiction of working class toughs and outcasts, this book presents a wide range of folks, freakish in varying degrees in outward appearance and/or psychological makeup. While everybody is distorted at some level, their humanity is drawn broadly enough so there is virtually no one without redeeming qualities. There was a certain complexity to these personalities that I found largely absent in Crews' other books. Although there were plenty of bleak and depressing events in the narrative, The Knockout Artist contains a germ of hope- which seems to be a rare discovery within the works of this author. Perhaps Crews was merely mellowing in his advancing age, but I enjoyed the compassion he bestowed upon his protagonist. It made the book more than just ugly.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"What's it like being a father?"

Since I became a father my friends have continually asked how I am doing in that new capacity. I guess I have to get used to my son being a frequent topic of conversation. It's a general rule that most social interchanges begin with small talk, and Baby E. is now an easy starting point for just about everyone I run into. I really have to make an effort to engage in the kind of talk that starts with, "How's the kid?" or "What's it like being a father?" Those are such broad questions that I never know quite how to reply. If the expectation is merely the return of courtesy, I have no problem replying that everything is "fine". But what does that mean anyway? It sounds so mundane coming out of my mouth that most of the time I'd rather just shrug and mumble something beneath my breath.

Anyway, the answer is that Baby E. is fine. That is... unless he's not, and the resultant discussion is going to extend well past simple amiability. As far as the other question, I have thought a lot about it and I think I have a fairly straightforward answer. Becoming a father (for me) was an opportunity to finally understand what fear is. I can honestly say that before this experience I never really was afraid of anything (other than a generalizable terror of death). I felt pretty invulnerable to the sort of eventualities that normally provoke a fearful response. I am still relatively young and have a semblance of good health (despite myself). I've always been appropriately cautious and have a way of constantly preparing for the worst. Additionally, I am of large stature, so I've never really seriously considered other people a threat to my physical well-being. All in all, I've been quite lucky (if you believe in that sort of thing).

So it is only now that I get it. The world is a dark, brutal place where human beings visit the worst kinds of atrocities on each other and everything else on the Earth. It may be a bleak outlook... but I'm reasonably confident that it's a fair representation of reality. If it's just a matter of self-preservation, or the well-being of others who can ultimately take care of themselves- then that's an acceptable proposition. But now I'm responsible to someone who I love very deeply. Anything that happens to him effects me on the deepest level. His concerns are my own. And he can't do anything to stave off the insidious forces around him. It has to be me or someone I trust with his life. That may be a cliché, but it's a profound realization now that I'm actually a parent.

I'll share an example situation that best illustrates the change in my awareness. Today M. needed to go to the salon for a hair cut, and she proposed that we take E. and his stroller to the shopping center together. I could watch him, or push him around while I waited for her. Sounds great, eh? She promised to buy me one of my fancy coffee drinks, so I agreed. So I got to the chain java shop, found a comfy armchair and parked E. beside me while I read Kim Deitch's Alias the Cat (which is quite amusing, by the way). I gave E. a pacifier and he was quiet, and I figured that time would pass quickly and in a carefree, relaxed manner. For about twenty minutes I was right. And then a guy came up and asked if anyone was sitting next to me. There was a similar seat, separated by a coffee table, next to mine. I grunted and moved E. to the opposite side, away from the stranger.

At first I was just worried that my peace would be disrupted by the jarring that moving E.'s stroller entailed. Luckily he didn't wake up, and I settled back in to my reading. But then I caught a glimpse of this guy out of the corner of my eye. He was of average build, with stringy longish hair glued down on the backside of his balding head. He had squinty eyes and filthy, formerly white running shoes. And he had a leering smirk, and seemed to be paying inordinate attention to my sleeping baby. I tried to radiate menace without provoking a confrontation. Perhaps he didn't have evil intentions. Yet all I could think about were all the grimy perverts and ne'er-do-wells that surround us constantly. Maybe I read too much true crime, but there it is. He hadn't even done anything, but I visualized bashing in his skull. You'll have to forgive me, because sometimes that's what it's like being a father.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bush, Smoke and Mirrors.

George Bush has just announced his plan to address greenhouse gases, a major contributor to global warming. He pledges that by 2025 the increase of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States will come to a halt. Does this mean that the president has now fully embraced the imminent threat of climate change? No, he's actually relaxing earlier plans to accelerate the process of CO2 reductions. He has certainly spent a lot of time denying that there is a problem that the federal government can play a role in combating. Many of his public statements in the past have attempted to minimize the effect that human beings are having on the environment. In 2004 James R. Mahoney, director of the administration's climate change science program, stated that the largest influence on changing climate conditions was "water vapor". Conservative AM talk radio pundits have parroted the inanities, going so far as to target trees as the main culprit.

The Bush administration's recalcitrance on this issue is nothing new. It was during the three months of his very first term in office that Christy Todd Whitman (Dubya's EPA director at the time) announced that the United States had no intention of honoring the Kyoto Protocol. This took a few of Bush's supporters by surprise, as he had made a campaign promise that he would make sure to seek some sort of carbon dioxide limits. Still his economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay said that it was a very simple choice for the American people- "We have a major energy crisis ... We have a choice in this country of having the lights on or, at least in the short run, having more carbon dioxide.'' Apparently the Bush administration has never considered alternative (non-polluting) energies as a real possibility.

Whenever Bush or his cronies are confronted by the suggestion that we pursue cleaner energy, they respond that such a move will hurt our economy and American workers. They assert that the necessary infrastructure does not exist to make a substantive transformation. This is no doubt true... the only investments the federal government has been willing to make have been for oil pipelines and refineries. No surprise here- the Bush administration is jam-packed with men and women who have made their personal fortunes from the oil industry. That is patently obvious from their foreign policy agenda. Any true assessment of the costs of maintaining the current fossil fuel paradigm must include the resources the US has invested in controlling Middle Eastern affairs.

Another big obstacle to American participation in the Kyoto Protocol is the contention that none of the world's industrialized powers are on board with it. Why should the United States put itself at a competitive disadvantage? Indeed developing nations are expected to decrease their emissions less than first world nations. China and India are often cited as being the monsters within this subgroup. Chinese dependence on coal is the greatest threat to the well-being of future generations of human life. There is no doubt that the United States should build incentives into its relationships with these nations, and levy economic penalties against them until they adopt cleaner energy technologies. The only interests being served by 'free trade' with China are the global corporations that import/export large quantities of Chinese-made products (cue the Walmart jingle now). The American worker certainly doesn't profit from the current trade deficit.

An honest approach to the reduction of greenhouse gases does indeed require a substantial national commitment. If there was no benefit to curbing pollution (besides the potential health of the human race and its quality of life), then perhaps I could understand the resistance of the Bush administration and its 'free-market' libertarian allies. But that's not the case at all. Opening up new avenues of alternative energies will ultimately position the United States to regain its place as one of the economic giants of the world. We could become leaders in the emerging global industry of green technologies. The job growth and profit potential in this arena will help to offset the losses we would suffer in transforming our infrastructure. I understand that this is a huge project requiring the initial investment of large sums of wealth- and I think the project is absolutely necessary for our future.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama Fundraiser and Art Auction. Green Building Gallery, This Sunday!

We are now less than a week from the Pennsylvania Democratic Presidential Primary. Although Hillary Clinton's initial poll lead has narrowed, it still appears that she is the favorite. Of all the states that have already chosen their candidates, Pennsylvania probably has the most in common with Ohio. Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, he lost that contest. While the perception is that PA is a bit to the political left of OH, there probably isn't that significant a difference between Democratic party members in the two states. Whatever factors have been leading voters to favor Clinton will probably sustain themselves next Tuesday. Rasmussen has Clinton polling ahead by a 9 point margin.

So what can any of us do about it? The time when I had the most possibility for impact has passed. In Pennsylvania you can change your party affiliation up to a month before the election. There were several people who invested time into trying to persuade me to register as a Democrat. Although I felt that their arguments were strong, there was just no way I could do it. As I've written previously on this blog, I abhor party politics. The binary system we have in this nation lacks cultural sophistication. I'm not interested in being on one of two teams that have a chance of winning. With this system we are not voting according to our beliefs, but rather our identities. Sorry... I can't and won't accept that. The primary process is a sham anyway.

With that established, it's reasonable to ask why I would get involved at all. Perhaps I am simply exposing my naïveté, but I truly do believe that Obama would make a difference. If for nothing else, I would like to have a leader representing the United States that other countries might actually respect. Perhaps if Obama is elected, the world's citizens will contain their resentment, and actually take what he says at face value. If I don't really trust Hillary, then why would foreigners? I have to admit that I have a very strong preference in this race. It does matter who becomes the nominee. Aside from the fact that I strongly prefer Obama- I don't think that Clinton can beat McCain. If anyone can mobilize Republican voters in November, it's Hillary.

Because of my strong feelings, when my friend Bob Ziller asked me to donate some art for an Obama fundraiser- I decided to help out. I have to admit that I have never contributed to a political campaign before. The party machines are just too monstrous, and I never thought that any amount I could afford would have the slightest impact on the outcome. But I share with Bob the belief that Barack Obama is the first major candidate in a long time that I don't have to hold my nose to vote for. I don't think that offering a few framed pieces of artwork is going to affect our fates. However I can get behind this effort, and just for one single occasion believe that small gestures accumulate, and can ultimately 'make a difference'.

If you are in the Pittsburgh area, please join us on Sunday, April 20th. There will be a silent art auction at the Green Building Gallery (5515 Penn Avenue, Garfield), and the bidding starts at 2PM and runs until 9PM. Participating artists include Thad Mosley, Tina Brewer, John Sokol, June Seale, George Gist, Mary Martin, Bob LaBobgah, Jorge Myers, Laura Jean McLaughlin, Bob Ziller, Christine Bethea, James Shipman, Jill Larson, Peter Lambert, Amir Rashidd, Emory Biko, David Grim, Tommy Bones, Bill Pfahl (and more!). There will be jazz music in the evening, and some refreshments. The suggested donation is $10.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Outsider's Look @ 'Fursuiting'.

I can honestly say that I've never invested much energy trying to empathize with 'furries'. In fact I've been so ignorant about this little subculture that I wasn't even aware that their proper term is 'fursuiters'. Of course this doesn't exactly roll right off the tongue, so it's not likely to supplant common parlance. However it is always instructive to learn how people view themselves, especially when there is so much ridicule directed toward them. Perhaps I should explain the basic phenomena- 'fursuiting' is a type of activity aimed at anthropomorphizing animals. The idea is to design a costume that makes the individual appear like a cute and fuzzy animal. You can't reasonably claim never to have seen this in action. Indeed many college and high school mascots are represented by students in animal costumes. They just happen to appear so for more indirect reasons.

The true 'fursuiter' dresses like a beast for passion, not profession. For one reason or another these folks get personal enjoyment by adopting the personalities of other species. Sometimes they wear full bodysuits, and these can be quite elaborate. The deluxe fursuit includes an internal cooling system such as is found in computer hard drives. But the vast majority of participants opt for stuffed animal heads, tails, gloves, and leggings, worn together with 'ordinary' human clothing. Naturally you would expect 'furries' to flock together, and there are indeed a number of annual conventions set up for them to congregate and interact. Anthrocon is one of the biggest yearly events, and is actually held here in Pittsburgh, PA.

Since our beautiful new convention center has attracted such an illustrious gathering, it follows that there has been ample discussion and speculation among the locals about just what the 'furries' are up to. One of the central features of Anthrocon is the opportunity for dealers and designers to show off their wares to potential customers. While there is likely some money to be made in the fursuit industry, many of the participants are involved for love rather than profit. Artistry in the costumes is admired and critiqued at the convention. There are also social events, role playing scenarios, art shows and dances. The organization that runs Anthrocon strives to maintain an environment that is suitable for all ages, but they require that minors be accompanied by an appropriate guardian.

One of the main reasons for the extra care taken to govern the overall atmosphere of Anthrocon is the prevailing perception of 'furries' throughout the larger society. It is a commonly held belief that the raison d'etre of fursuiting has to do with fetish play. This aspect of the phenomena is the cause for much contempt and suspicion. Why else would full-grown adults want to dress up as animals if they weren't to be engaged in some odd perversity? Visions of cross-species fornication haunt the assumptions of the innocent. Comparisons are made to fetish balls and other seedy niches in transgressive culture. This is rather unfortunate for the wholesome guy or gal who just wants to leave their worries buried at the 100 degree center of a giant badger costume. Not every dude in a dog suit wants to bite off your pecker, a la The Shining.

Perhaps it's simply an easy target, but the entire 'furry' subculture has been subject to a disproportionate amount of enmity. It's not as if the conventional world of 'heterosexuality' is without its dark corners. Maybe it's true that 5-10% of the furry community actually gets down to some illicit activity. Should we be so surprised? I guess it doesn't help that the occasional vorarephile lurks on the edges of the fursuiting community. In a way I guess it's a natural extension. Yet it would be a mistake to think that there is a vicious predator hiding behind every cute and fuzzy mask. Sure there are special suits designed with anatomically correct artificial genitalia... but for every woodland biped with "strategically placed holes", there's a giant mouse just wanting to make a child smile. Is there anything truly wrong with that?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Turb Blurbs

If you read a lot it's inevitable that you are going to come across stuff that you either mildly dislike, or are otherwise indifferent to. After you read such books they generally fade from your mind quickly. People who review books are not likely to invest a lot of time into writing about something mediocre, unless they work as professional critics. Every year thousands of books get written, and it's likely that the majority of them fall into this category. They exist to fill up the shelves of stores and libraries. They make this nation look like it's brimming with literature. To most it's mainly blank space, except to the handful of readers that are either related or have some other special interest in the authors. I tend not to post blogs about books I don't care about, and I rarely even write a hate screed against something I found awful. But I've decide to include some blurbs about a few. After all I've invested a lot of time into reading them, and maybe I can save others the trouble.

Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979). Portis has been called "one of the most inventively comic writers of western fiction". This characterization is completely beyond me. If this particular title is representative of his work, then I can think of few more misleading descriptors. The protagonist is a man who has just discovered his wife has left him with a man who has stolen his car. He decides to set off in pursuit of the wayward couple, and finds himself in Mexico. The most apt way I can describe Portis' writing style is to use the word 'meandering'. I don't necessarily require a clever plot to enjoy a book. I don't need unexpected twists and turns. I don't even need tons of sparkling dialog. But if you are going to center your narrative on a series of conversations between characters, their talk should convey an understanding about what these people are about. Instead Portis has his characters shoot the breeze about arbitrary subjects, and even then he fails to describe anything interesting. It's not that NOTHING happens in The Dog of the South... it's that there is no reason to care.

Dennis Cooper, Guide (1997). I had read that Cooper was a transgressive author, but I had no idea what he actually wrote about. This particular work is the fourth in the George Miles cycle, but Miles himself appears little here. Apparently he was a boy who Cooper fell in love with as a child, and with whom the author had a brief affair as an adult. None of that is necessary to understand what is happening in Guide. The protagonist seems to be Cooper himself, and the events portrayed may or may not be non-fiction. Much of it reads as wish fulfillment, as Cooper no doubt intends. The challenge is that his fantasies closely echo those of historical figures like Aleister Crowley and the Marquis de Sade. There is also quite a bit of William Burroughs at its core.

Stylistically Cooper is nothing special. His writing is very accessible. It's the subject matter that is likely to put off a lot of readers. Cooper is flamboyantly gay, and if that is a problem you should steer clear of this title straight away- because that is the mildest thing about the identity he shares with us. Apparently his fetishes include the idea of the murder and mutilation of underage boys. The amount of violence directed against the seemingly 'innocent' is truly frightening, and makes one wonder about the mental stability of the author. I guess this is the point in Cooper's work. He doesn't spend a lot of time apologizing for these themes. Perhaps he intends it to be titillating for his audience... but if that's the case, the work is meant only for extreme sadists. It takes a lot to turn off my fascination for different perceptions and world views- in this respect Cooper is a complete success. Still. Like when approaching a gory car accident, one wonders just how bad it can be. Despite the fact that I found most of this singularly unpleasant, I can't say for sure that I'll never read Cooper again.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 14, 2008

'Keeping Sweet' with Warren Jeffs and the FLDS.

Various law enforcement bodies have been involved in an extended raid against a FLDS compound outside of Eldorado, Texas. FLDS stands for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This Mormon sect was previously led by 52-year old Warren Jeffs, who is currently residing at the Utah State Prison. He is serving a 10 years-to-life sentence for having acted as an accomplice to rape. Apparently, in his capacity as unchallenged ruler among his followers, he arranged the marriages between underage teenage girls and adult men. Sometimes he ordered relatives to be wed. His attempts to flee and avoid prosecution on related charges earned him a place on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Authorities still suspect Jeffs of serving as prophet to his 'community'.

Prior to being imprisoned, Jeffs was "President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator" of his FLDS Church. Their headquarters was once based in Colorado City, Arizona (and nearby Hildale, Utah). He had succeeded his father (Rulon Jeffs) in these positions, and married his dad's former wives after his death. He wed his own relatives and justified doing so to "preserve sacred blood lines". Jeffs is said to have at least 70 wives. He was notorious for punishing wayward members of his flock by stripping them of their wives and reassigning the women to loyalists*. There are additional rumors that as a young man Jeffs raped his nephews (one of which later committed suicide), and that he has consistently embezzled money from a trust fund set up to further the aims of the FLDS.

Evidently Warren Jeffs is not holding up so well in prison. Much has been made about a conversation he had with his brother Nephi, in which he allegedly admitted to immoral incestuous actions (with one of his sisters and a daughter), and having lied about his former claims to being the true prophet. Prison authorities have reported that he has been held in solitary confinement, and has actually tried to commit suicide by repeatedly banging his head against a wall. Given his incendiary beliefs and comments on race relations, he probably should avoid ever being released into the general population of his new home. His views are summarized quite nicely in his own words- "You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, or rude and filthy, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits; wild and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is usually bestowed upon mankind."

Meanwhile plans to grow the FLDS Church seem to be continuing as usual. The 1371-acre ranch in Texas (called the YFZ Land) that is currently being investigated is a growing concern to citizens of nearby Eldorado (population: 2000). They fear that the sect will take over key political positions in the county, and transform the area into their own private fiefdom. The owner (David Allred) is related to Warren Jeffs through marriage, and many of the buildings being constructed closely resemble edifices found in Colorado City and Hildale. Its location (only 150 miles from the Mexican border) was thought to be desirable by its 'former' leader, as Jeffs likely perceived it as a good place to hide out from federal authorities.

It's natural to wonder in our modern age how a man like Warren Jeffs can compel obedience from so many people. Jeffs is a slight man, with a gawky appearance that resembles that of a high school-aged, computer nerd. He is extremely unattractive. Certainly most of his assumed authority rests on his contention that he is directly descended from both Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ (and Rulon Jeffs, for that matter). But even so, one would have to assume that he has a disproportionately willful personality to be able to command the 1200 priests of the FLDS. Still it has been suggested that Jeffs uses more contemporary means to exert his authority. A former member of the sect (Richard Holm) has accused Jeffs of secretly keeping an extensive collection of recordings he has made of members' confessions. It is said that he used these tapes to extort those he deemed disloyal.

*FLDS women would be moved to leave their husbands if Jeffs stripped them of their priesthoods. Women must be married to priests in order to ensure their heavenly salvation.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pittsburgh Public Art and The Sprout Fund.

I'd have to say that I don't remember noticing much public art in the place of my birth (Allentown). There were probably some forgettable sculptures in the city parks. But there wasn't much of an emphasis on arts and culture. This is likely attributable to the fact that this smallish city is sandwiched in between New York City and Philadelphia (a Smithsonian Institute survey reported that Philly has more public art than any other American city). In most ways the place lived in the shadows of these historically significant centers. There is an Allentown Art Museum, which I remember frequenting now and again on school field trips. However I can't visualize a single piece that I ever saw there. The single most noted destination is probably the replica of the Liberty Bell (apparently it was brought through town back in the Revolutionary War days).

I certainly don't remember any public mandate to create murals in Allentown. Apparently there is an organization called Lehigh Valley Community Mural Projects that is trying to get something going in the city. Although from what I've read they have had difficulty getting the necessary funding. I have noticed that nearby Easton has had some success in creating these works. I don't think many people realize just how lucky we are in Pittsburgh to have a vast wealth of quality murals in our city and its environs. Unlike the Northeastern Corridor, this region does not have numerous nodes of cultural concentration. If the 'Burgh didn't make the effort, then Western Pennsylvania would be pretty barren.

Our citizens have a lot to feel proud about here in Pittsburgh. Great efforts have been made over the last decade to start incorporating more public art in our midst. The Sprout Fund was formed in 2001 to enhance the greater image of the city and its surroundings. Every year it provides funding for between 7 and 9 pieces, and the results are starting to accumulate nicely all over town. Many transitioning neighborhoods have been significantly brightened by the artwork completed by Sprout-funded muralists (38 so far). Along with other newly-formed projects, the organization is gradually making Pittsburgh into a "museum without walls". I'm impressed by these efforts- so much that when I was asked to serve as a member of the Public Art Advisory Committee, I happily accepted.

Prior to orientation at the Sprout Fund's new headquarters in Garfield (along Penn Avenue), I really had no idea how their locations or participating artists were chosen. I do know plenty of artists around town, and had heard about some of their experiences with the proposal process. I was anxious to learn how it was all accomplished. A couple of weeks ago the board examined the proposals submitted by individuals and organizations desiring to have a mural completed within their communities. There were many quality sites suggested, and it was a bit difficult to make our decisions. Various criteria are assessed, including location, visibility, community and organizational involvement. Every effort is made to ensure that objectivity prevails. Any inherent bias of a committee member is offset by the diversity and aesthetic variability of the remaining members.

This past week we got together again to review the results of our location rankings, and survey the artists who submitted their portfolios for review. There were a lot of submissions from artists this year. That meant that there was an avalanche of work to consider. I think everybody was heartened by the quantity and quality of folks wanting to create murals. It's a great reflection on the arts scene here that so many talented individuals want to share their gifts with the community. I was particularly pleased by the wide range of styles represented. As with the assessments of locations, we used a standardized rating system to minimize the extension of personal favor. I'm looking forward to seeing who the communities will choose from the selected pool of artists we decided upon. But more than anything else I'm excited to see the finished products of a process I was able to participate in. I can hardly wait to see the 2008 murals unveiled.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 11, 2008

Another New Camera.

Last weekend was especially entertaining for me. The work at the galleries at Unblurred was generally competent and interesting. There were a lot of people out having fun. Saturday's show at La Vie was a predictable success, and featured its routinely stimulating mix of people enjoying the occasion. I also got a hold of the new CD by my favorite band- Slim Cessna's Auto Club. After the first couple of listens, it has proven its worth and earned the right to sit alongside the previous masterpieces of the band. Even Baby E. seemed to get a kick out of it. I got a package of extracurricular work completed early, and thus was free to enjoy the delights of spare time. To cap it off, the Flyers beat the Penguins. Although I shouldn't care at all, it makes going back to the workplace easier for me when that happens.

But the best thing that happened goes deeper than all of the rest. To understand why it so meaningful, an explanation of my recent experiences is necessary. For the last ten (or so) months, I have felt incredibly dissatisfied with my photographic output. Fortunately I have been able to concentrate on other outlets, because at some inarticulable level I need to be happy about my artistic processes in order to be satisfied with life. I've also built a certain set of expectations among local galleries about having quality work to show. I do have an extensive backlog of stuff that I feel is worthy of exhibition, and I could have continued my creative drought while still mounting some decent shows. I had a few productive years in a row, and there's a lot that will be 'new' to people who have followed my progression.

The reasons for my dissatisfaction are numerous, but the most obvious problem is that I haven't been shooting much over the past year. Primarily this is the result of having purchased a new camera. In the beginning of last summer, I went to Ritz and picked up a Canon Rebel XTi DSLR. By the time I got out of the store I had spent something like $1800 for the package. I did so impulsively because i had been agonizing over the direction I should take. I hang out with several folks who are obsessed with the technical aspects of photography. Time and time again, I was told that I need to upgrade. I had presumably exhausted the capabilities of my Canon G6. Now it was time to "get serious". So against my reservations, I finally took the plunge. Now I had a small backpack full of gear, waiting to be used.

Unfortunately the size of this camera and its accessories ended up inhibiting my production. If I wanted to shoot something, I had to plan ahead. The equipment was way too expensive to simply leave in my car all of the time. So if I decided I might find something worthwhile, I would have to hump that damn backpack around. Then when I spotted a likely target- I had to pause, take the bag from my back, unzip it, put on the appropriate lens, and then get into a solid shooting position. By the time I was ready, all of the spontaneity and intuitive aspects of the situation had dissipated. The pictures mostly came out looking uninspired and overly conventional. I was almost entirely confined to 'documentation', and even then my subject had to be pretty inert. It removed most of the joy from the activity.

For months I've been considering grabbing a point-and-shoot that I can stick in my pocket and carry around with me conveniently. After my son was born, my Dad came to visit and brought his new G9 with him. I tested it out briefly, and liked it a lot. I resolved quickly to continue my loyalty to the Canon G-series (my first and second cameras were the G5 and the G6). I put off its purchase for weeks, until my G6 gave up the ghost permanently. Then there was no reason to hesitate. I'm incredibly happy I took the plunge. The first two days I used it, I took hundreds of photos. I feel that I got more show-worthy images over this past weekend than in the previous year. When something intrigued me, I simply grabbed the G9 and went to work. And once it was out, I began to play with its features (many of which are absent in the XTi). There's a certain high that comes with feeling good about making art. I had come to expect it fairly regularly. After a long absence, it's now back.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Paul Bartel, "Private Parts" (1972).

This past Sunday night I got a chance to get together with a fellow 'new father' to watch a movie. I knew his older kid would be in bed by the time we got started, and so we were free to watch whatever twisted fare I brought over. I'd actually been carrying around a copy of Paul Bartel's Private Parts in my car for a few weeks, as I had originally intended to show it to some other friends. But I figured B. would appreciate it, given the fact that he is mostly living in 'kid world' nowadays. I watched him and his wife struggle to put together a double decker baby stroller, and helpfully attempted to keep my ideas about its assembly to myself. It had been received secondhand, so naturally there was no manual to use as guidance. In the end there were some crucial parts missing. I only mention this because of the shift in tone that would occur when we finally sat down to enjoy the movie.

Actor and director Paul Bartel should still be alive. He died relatively young at the age of 61. He was a theater arts student at UCLA, and got his 'big break' when Roger Corman's brother (Gene) hired him to direct the low budget Private Parts. Later on, the legendary producer Corman would use Bartel to direct Death Race 2000. Bartel's directorial career eventually encompassed ten feature films, including Naughty Nurse (1969), Cannonball! (1976), and Scenes from the Class Struggle of Beverly Hills (1989). He may be best known for making the black comedy cannibal classic, Eating Raoul (1982). But you could be forgiven for associating him with his acting work, which included parts in Corman favorites like Eat My Dust, Grand Theft Auto, Rock n' Roll High School, and Piranha. He even played Henry Geldzahler in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat.

Frankly I've only seen a handful of films that Bartel has been involved with. However, if Private Parts is an accurate representation of what can be expected from his projects, then I'll probably make an effort to check out more of them. First of all a disclaimer- with the amount of money that Bartel had to spend, there is no way that he could have hired professionally successful actors. The performances in Private Parts are hammy and wooden. They deliver often absurd lines in melodramatic tones. Yet somehow this works perfectly. Much like in a John Waters flick, overacting is completely appropriate here. In fact this particular movie wouldn't be nearly as weird or fun if it was delivered seriously. This isn't supposed to reflect ordinary life.

The premise of the story is pretty simple- a young runaway (Cheryl- played by Ayn Ruymen) gets in a fight with her roommate, and she makes her way to her Aunt Martha's rundown hotel. She convinces this middle-aged widow (Lucille Benson) to let her have a room until she gets back on her feet. Martha is not happy about the presence of a 'painted whore' within her domain, but apparently family obligations weigh heavily on her. She is very explicit that Cheryl not bother the other tenants, nor wander around the hotel on her own. We learn quickly just how bad an end the wayward traveler can face. Someone inside is completely willing to draw blood (literally and figuratively).

The characters in Private Parts are strange in a mostly unaffected way. They spout one-liners that are at once strange and scabrously funny. There is just enough attention paid to cinematography to ensure that the soon-to-be downtrodden hotel building provides an eerie and intriguing setting for the mysteries at its core. And there are no doubt things in this movie that you have never seen before, and probably haven't even imagined. I don't want to spill the beans about specific scenes... but rest assured that there are images here that will be impossible to cleanse from your mind. If you are a randy guy, then there is another compelling reason to watch- Ayn Ruymen is extraordinarily pleasing to watch. She appeared exclusively in television after this role, but not in anything that I would have made a point of seeing. We have Paul Bartel (an openly gay man) to thank for this visual record of her in her 'prime'.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Getting Shorn.

So I finally got my hair cut. The last time I went in was last August. Seven and a half months without a trim had me looking a bit raggedy. I'm not exactly sure what the average is for most people, but I'm sure I am a statistical outlier. I've never been particularly enthused about being groomed and I don't really have any explanation for that. I know that it's not particularly fun. And I am also struck by a particular futility inherent in the activity. It's like dusting your house, mowing the grass, or clipping your fingernails- the shit just grows back anyway. It's got to get pretty extreme for it to even register in my consciousness. Invariably someone else notices the need before I do. That's not really a problem, because I'm impressionable when it comes to these maintenance tasks. I'll succumb to pressure.

I suppose that I get some satisfaction out of the money I save by getting only two or three haircuts a year. When I used to get the service performed more often, I would just look around for the cheapest option and grab it indiscriminately. Obviously I've walked around with a few ridiculous hairstyles over the years. I can remember whining about being taken to the barber when I was a little kid. At first it was my father's job to take me, but I guess it became easier for him to just let my hair grow, rather than hear me complain. Later I recall that my mother found a guy that cut kid's locks out of the basement of his house. His name was Mr. Ron and he had plants and aquariums everywhere in his work space. He sold penny candy, and let us pick a few pieces 'for free' when we were done getting shorn.

The other strange thing about Mr. Ron is that he kept a bunch of exotic animals in his house. He even had a youthful lion in a cage in his garage. Of course this was completely illegal, but the guy was a strange bird. I vaguely remember hearing that he kept mean-assed attack dogs on his first floor, and that some burglar got his face ripped off when he was successful in breaking into the house. I also have a strange recollection of whisperings about child molestation at Mr. Ron's salon. I'm glad my Mom never let me alone with the guy. Come to think about it, his whole set-up seems like the perfect pedophilia trap. Either he just never grew up, or he was a predator like the big cat he kept in captivity. In retrospect he definitely resembled some low-rent Michael Jackson with his white trash never-never-land. I guess it's no wonder that I keep my hair long.

Much later when I lived on the South Side I found myself needing a trim, and my regular guy was unavailable. I ended up knocking on the door of some old fashioned barbershop that my friends had patronized. When he answered his door, he looked ancient and hesitant about taking in business. He even tried to talk me out of it, suggesting that he should have retired already. I insisted that I was in a bind, and finally he agreed to go ahead with it. This was a mistake for both of us. I knew it wasn't a good sign when he kept cursing and taking breaks to grab tissues to wipe up the blood. He even took all the attachments off his electrical razor and shaved the back of my head raw. He got flustered eventually and had to stop. I think he said, "I told you so." I pressed five bucks into his hands, which he accepted after much cajoling. I took the back streets to an expensive salon and got a buzz cut.

But the worst experience I ever had was at my grandfather's house. It was during a visit one late Sunday night. I was in ROTC in high school and I suddenly realized that I had an inspection the next day. I knew I'd be sunk if I didn't get the hair off my ears. I tried to convince everyone in the house to give it a go, and no one wanted to do it. Finally my Pop was convinced that I wouldn't stop bothering people until it was done. He gave it his best shot as I sat at his work bench. The profanity that he unleashed was not encouraging (note that the utterance of swear words accompanying a haircut is generally a bad sign). When he was 'finished' I had patches of fur all over my head. It was ridiculous. And it was too late to get a professional to fix it. I had to go to school like that. Of course I took my share of good-natured abuse that day.

Now I leave it to the experts. Since it's so seldom that I get my hair cut, I can afford not to skimp. I've found that this is the best solution.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Trip to the Library. Tom Franklin, "Poachers" (1999)

Having whet my appetite for Southern Literature, I went to the Carnegie Library main branch in Oakland for some reading material. With a new baby in the house, I figured I'd try to find ways to save money. I used to frequent the library a lot more than I have in the last couple of years. When I started exploring the world of graphic novels and comics, I decided that I didn't want to spend an inordinate amount of money just trying to familiarize myself with what was available. At the library I could find out which ones should be in my collection, and maximize my resources. I'd stumble out with arm-loads of stuff. I discovered plenty that was worthwhile, and a fair amount that made me thankful I had merely borrowed them.

On this trip I wanted to concentrate on finding novels written by authors I had either read previously, or had learned about through Amazon. I had to make a stop in the 'graphic novel' section first. I've been receiving 'snail-mail' notices that I owe money for a comic I took out two years ago. The few times I've gone to the Carnegie recently, I've always made a point of locating that particular item on the shelf (no one ever borrows it) and showing it to the desk clerk nearby. Invariably I am told by staff that I actually owe nothing at all, and shouldn't be receiving those notices. It's a bit of a hassle, but I'm never actually kept from grabbing more books, so I don't complain too much. Believe me, if I owed for the thing I'd simply pay the fine and be done with it.

Anyway I did find a few choice items with pictures, and then made my way into the low-ceilinged concrete rooms in the back. This is where they keep the fiction, jammed together and lit with God's awesome fluorescence. Overwhelmed by the claustrophobic atmosphere and the quantity of books, I tried to recall the name of an author I was interested in. After a few minutes I settled down, and was able to concentrate. I chose writers who I associated with the Southern Tradition- George Saunders, Charles Portis, George Singleton, Harry Crews, and Tom Franklin. I didn't really think that I could read all 9 or 10 books within the initial three-week lending period, and so I planned to renew whatever was left by accessing the Carnegie site on the internet.

I started in on the stuff this past week. I read the A.M. Homes book that I reviewed earlier. I went through a collection of Singleton's stories that lacked focus, and failed to match the expectations I had formed based upon previous readings of his work. And I followed that up with Franklin's Poachers (1999). Tom Franklin was born in the small town of Dickinson, Alabama and received an MFA from the University of Arkansas. He currently teaches at the University of Mississippi. His short stories reflect the untamed interior landscapes of the Deep South. In his introduction to Poachers , Franklin sheds light on his upbringing with tales of his nascent hunting career. To hear him tell it, it was an activity that he felt pressured to engage in to prove his manhood. But whatever nostalgia he has for hunting is tinged with gore and self-doubt.

However the three brothers featured in the eponymously-titled story of Poachers take to the wilderness with such natural aplomb that it is impossible for them to function in polite society. They are teenage orphans, who rely on their deep knowledge of the swamps and woods to sustain them. They have very little contact with any of their own species, and would be perfectly happy if it were to remain so. But after a run-in with a new game warden, they are inevitably targeted as transgressors. Their confrontation with a shadowy vigilante is brutally savage, yet deftly told. Franklin has a way of miring his readers in the kudzu-choked corners of his stories. There are plenty of grisly details and horrific consequences accompanying plaguing the author's gritty characters. Yet the humanity at their core is made undeniably present through Franklin's keen observations.

Fortunately I picked up another of Franklin's titles in Oakland the other day. When I finally make it through the Portis book, and some of the other dross I no doubt accumulated, it will be refreshing to return to the fierce places of this writer's fresh imagination.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 07, 2008

My Attraction to the Southern Gothic Tradition.

Sometimes it's hard to account for the direction of one's interests. For some reason I've been drawn to Southern Gothic literature for much of my reading career. Sure, it started out with William Faulkner. I started with his most difficult work- The Sound and the Fury. I didn't know what the hell I was doing with that book, but I plowed through despite myself. I understood it to be about the madness of one insular Southern clan and their relationship with their region's history. I didn't get much further than that. Yet I knew I had touched on something great, and resolved to continue my explorations of this seminal American author. I read his most accessible book next (The Reivers) , and realized that Faulkner was not just deliberately obtuse.

I continued my exploration with As I Lay Dying, and decided that the book was probably where I should have started with this author. It was straightforward, and yet encapsulated many of the elements and themes that Faulkner is celebrated for. I particularly enjoyed the multiple narrators. The more I consumed, the more I became addicted to tales his about fictional Yoknapatawpha County. I found Absalom, Absalom and Light in August, and figured out that these works would live inside me forever. My Faulkner phase came upon me so fast and hard that I quickly came close to exhausting his entire oeuvre. Wanting to extend my relationship with his extraordinary work, I chose to save his trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) for a future date.

Having moved on to other things, I soon found myself pining for Southern literature in the tradition of the master. I heard about a contemporary author named Cormac McCarthy, who was said to be influenced by the man from Oxford, Mississippi. The first title I picked up was Suttree, and I was immediately hooked. Not only was it written in the same spirit, but it exhibited some of the stylistic mannerisms I had come to love. As with his progenitor, I quickly went through all of McCarthy's books. And as I read them over the years, McCarthy evolved into a master in his own right. While there is no denying the craftsmanship of his early works, one would be hard-pressed not to recognize The Road as a modern classic. If he never hits that level of excellence again, I will still feel that he met his full potential.

After Faulkner and McCarthy, I knew I was hopelessly addicted to stories set in the South. Someone recommended Harry Crews, and I found him to be a harder-edged, trashier writer who caricatured his gritty Southern locales and the inhabitants that populated them. Due to proximity, I also became fascinated with the enigmatic qualities of West Virginia. I encountered the posthumous stories of Breece D'J Pancake, the singular literary voice of the Mountain State. His short career (punctuated by his 1979 suicide) was a tantalizing glimpse into the dark ways of the backwoods hollers. His work moved me to begin my own personal explorations into the mysteries of the state. I became aware of the excellent documentary filmmaker Jacob Young, and his subject from Boone County- Jesco White.

It's hard to say just what compels me to sustain my travels through this shifty and evocative terrain. The culture and politics of its people are about as far from my own upbringing as possible. Maybe it's the fascination with the 'other' that keeps me returning to this region. Or perhaps its because it's the one part of America that seems to hold on to its authenticity. If there exists a place in the United States beyond the reach of the homogenized suburban development and the consumer hell of strip malls, then it is surely to be found somewhere on a Southern back-road.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The State of Pittsburgh Cuisine.

Months ago I got in an argument with a suburbanite about his belief that there are no good restaurants in Pittsburgh. Much of my opposition to his stance had to do with my general contempt for people who choose to live outside of the city, and yet miss no opportunity to put it down. I immediately question what these folks really know about life in Pittsburgh. I wonder how often they get out of their strip mall developments and take in some genuine urban culture. While it's not impossible for some "foodie" to make it a point to venture forth from their McMansion and explore an unknown neighborhood, I have a hard time valuing the opinions of outsiders. However at some level I know that this is narrow-minded of me, and that I shouldn't make too many generalizations.

I will concede that the 'Burgh isn't (and shouldn't be) known for its cuisine. What meal can we associate with our town? A sandwich with cole slaw and french fries piled on top of it? That's not very impressive. What about the pierogi or kielbasa? It's certainly true that there is a long tradition of Eastern Europeans in Western Pennsylvania. But this is true of several cities throughout America, and it's hard to make an exclusive connection between Pittsburgh and (for instance) halushki. You can definitely hit up some quality food festivals in the many ethnic churches dotting the area. I'd expect that to be true in any town of significant size. So what else do we crow about here? Heinz Ketchup? Who's going to get that excited over a friggin' condiment?

I'm a transplant from Eastern Pennsylvania, and so I am no stranger to unique dining traditions. The Pennsylvania Dutch have an entire menu of items to boast about (dried corn, pot pie, shoo-fly pie, headcheese, scrapple, etc.). Then there's Lebanon bologna and Taylor Pork Roll sandwiches throughout the area. Philadelphia has its world-renowned cheese steak (which is authentically served with Cheez Whiz), and is also noted for its quality soft pretzels. Of course the City of Brotherly Love is a huge city compared to Pittsburgh. It's got thriving ethnic neighborhoods that specialize in different types of cooking. Chinatown and Little Italy serve up their favorites. It's got multiple Latino sections that offer their own culinary delights. And with its access to the ocean, Philly also promises the prospect of quality seafood. If there's one thing I miss about living on the other side of the state, it's the variety and quality of the food.

Here in Pittsburgh, we claim to have our own Little Italy. Yet this is a bit of a sham, as Bloomfield is small and has murals of Polish Revolutionary War heroes to greet visitors. There isn't a hint of a Chinatown, and virtually no Latino presence. It has plenty of bars- each of which offer their own version of deviled crabs, hard bolied eggs, and beef jerky. However, to date there are still no Zagat-rated restaurants in Pittsburgh. How can this be? Doesn't anyone care? There are currently 18 places awaiting review. They include Mallorca, Cafe Allegro, Lidia's, Casbah, and the Chrch Brew Works- all decent restaurants where I have enjoyed myself. But we also find stuff like the Cheesecake Factory and Fat Heads Saloon on the list. Is this really the best we have to offer? No wonder people aren't clamoring to provide reviews and ratings.

The truth is that we do have a mix of decent (if not extraordinary) restaurants and eateries. I've written previously about Bona Terra, a Sharpsburg establishment of fine dining. It's informal, cozy and exquisitely presented. There are ethnic curiosities, including Abay (Ethiopian), Lemon Grass (Thai), Taste of India, and Tram's Kitchen (Vietnamese). And there's Max's Allegheny Tavern on the North Side, which is far and away the best German restaurant I have ever experienced. It's like entering your long lost grandmother's house- it's got a great selection of authentic dishes, it's bountiful, and reasonably priced. If there is one place I'd recommend as a can't-miss, it would be this one. Now all I need is a decent diner or two (God, how I miss the East Coast when I'm in the mood for that), and I'll be fat and happy.

Labels: , ,