Rake's Progress

New York
01.27.05

Left: Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian, and Cecily Brown. Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc. Right: Jane Holzer and Rachel Feinstein.


“Jerry and Roberta hate me and Artforum doesn't know I exist,” Cecily Brown was saying to playwright Tom Stoppard and Artforum senior editor Scott Rothkopf. The three were sharing a rear banquette on the third floor of 5 Ninth, where—despite the winter's first major snowstorm—Larry Gagosian had brought out the troops to toast Brown's opening at his Chelsea gallery.

The artist was swapping war stories with Stoppard, a surprise guest, sharing tales of the awkward moments that can result from being friendly with critics. Stoppard, who has won (and deserved) just about every top honor the theater can bestow on a playwright, had never seen a Cecily Brown painting before, nor had he ever met the artist, though he was acquainted with her mother, a London novelist. All present seemed to agree that life is more interesting when it includes your critics, and that art is more interesting when you get to know the artist, as it enriches your understanding of the work, even if you think that the work is hateful.

At the opening, Brown's seven new semiabstract landscapes attracted a number of other artists (David Salle, Christopher Wool and Charline von Heyl, Will Cotton, Amy Sillman, Rachel Harrison) and clear admiration. Painted at heroic scale in her layered, quick-flick manner, they made economical use of her Bacchanalian nudes and offered copious amounts of falling leaves in every color of the harvest and the planting season, even in I Will Not Paint Any More Boring Leaves (2) (2?). Brown has kept her promise. The leaves are not boring but glorious, and every single painting sold before the evening began, at prices ranging from $50,000 to about $130,000. (“Quite reasonable, don't you think?” commented one gallery assistant.)

“That must be what Cecily meant when she said there was one really difficult painting in the show,” observed Rachel Feinstein as she stood before a spectacularly weird yellow painting with thick, dog-doo-brown patches that set it off from the rest. (Rumor: Gagosian is keeping that one.) “It's the best one,” said Feinstein's hubby, John Currin, who will be showing in the same space in the not-so-distant future.

The party was a lubricious affair that felt more like an old-fashioned after-hours club than a blue-chip art dinner, possibly because it was standing-room only, there was a bar and loud music on every floor, and people tended to go to the bathrooms in groups of three. Painter Hope Atherton seemed especially to interest dealer Gavin Brown (no relation to Cecily—that we know of). Other guests, a mix of art, fashion (Tara Subkoff, Daryl Kerrigan, Camilla Nickerson), and money of vague provenance, made do with finger-food served by waiters who passed by every couple of hours. Currin, an avid follower of political blogs (particularly the right-wing variety), observed that his old friend Sean Landers had anticipated blogging in his painting long before anyone starting doing it on the Internet. Landers added that he would love to do an actual blog, but only if he could be sure that lots of people would be reading it. Risk you take, Sean. Risk you take.

Left: Paul Graham and Bronwyn Keenan. Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc. Right: Sean Landers and Cecily Brown.


Linda Yablonsky

Blonde Ambition

New York
01.26.05

Left: The marching band. Right: Bridget Hall, Cecily Brown, Jeff Koons, Veronica Hearst, and Justine Koons. (All photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc)


“Pam: American Icon,” a series of photographs by Sante D’Orazio of sexy-deluxe former Baywatch star and preeminent pop icon Pamela Anderson, opens at Stellan Holm Gallery in Chelsea. Crowded, but slightly mystifying. Velvet ropes. I stand tentatively at the door until some guy in black waves me in, hearing inwardly a not-altogether-agreeable echo of my club-going days. Paparazzi galore, but, with Ms. Anderson a no-show, who are they planning to take pictures of? Cologne art dealer Raphael Jablonka? It’s almost impossible to see the photographs given the unseemly hordes. I did admire Pamela Anderson, Hollywood, CA, 2000. D’Orazio posed said icon on a narrow path, presumably somewhere in the Hills, clad only in a very short transparent pink rain jacket, pink shades, and spike-heeled silver mules. Bamboo stalks frame this femme sauvage, her long blond tresses coursing down in calculated disarray. I pushed and shoved my way back to the entrance. Outside, I heard a statuesque gentleman on his mobile: “It’s thinning out”—an odd assessment, considering the scads of people still trying to claw their way in. The as-yet-unpublished catalogue promises essays by Jeff Koons and Richard Prince—no sense in not gilding this particular lily.

Of course, Koons and Prince have both visited Ms. Anderson before in their own oeuvres, a connection that provided a nice slithery transition to the night’s big event, a surprise birthday party celebrating Jeff Koons’s fiftieth, hosted by Jeffrey Deitch (along with the artist’s wife, Justine, Peter and Stephanie Brant, Athenian Koons collector extraordinaire Dakis Joannou, and TV producer Bill Bell and his wife, Maria) at his commodious Wooster Street gallery. Guests numbered 160, Pam scribe Dick Prince among them. Jeffrey had promised me an excellent table and delivered: the Rosenblums (Robert is the author of the classic Jeff Koons Handbook), the Mardens, our own Jack Bankowsky, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, Marc Jacobs, and Lucy Barnes and her fetching swain, Luis Ruiz. Looking beyond my own jolly company, I took note of the critical mass of art-world powerbrokers—including dealers Larry Gagosian and the beyond-blue-chip Bill Acquavalla and New York museum directors Glenn Lowry, Tom Krens, Adam Weinberg, Lisa Phillips, and Michael Govan—a consolidation of clout that made the celebration far more than just a big-year birthday.

Left: Peter Brant, Aby Rosen, and Jeff Koons. Middle: Anna Curtis AKA Lady Ace. Right: Stefania Bartolami and Ingrid Sischy.


The gallery was splendidly tricked up with Koonsiana. Inflatable toys such as those that have served as models for recent sculptures covered the ceiling: Incredible Hulks, dolphins, monkeys, centipedes, and lobsters. Light boxes with images of Koons through the years were arrayed near the entrance. One of them was an actual work by the artist, The New Jeff Koons, 1980: a tidily groomed little-boy Jeff smiles at the viewer, a jumbo crayon in hand and one arm resting on a children’s book, Ethelbert the Tale of a Tiger. This piece belongs to the early series “The New,” which otherwise consists of the famous Plexiglas-encased and fluorescent-illumined vacuum cleaners. The next day, I revisited “The New” in the 1992 SFMoMA Koons catalogue and discovered these words from the artist: “It’s brand new, it’s in a position to out-survive you, the viewer. It doesn’t have feelings, but it is better prepared to be eternal.” Does this remark concern a household appliance or the special-powers kid himself? Both, perhaps, as Koons has always played on fantasias of omnipotence and deathlessness, e.g., the heroic, Canovaesque Self-Portrait, 1991, a gym-bodied stargazer chiseled in marble who emerges from a pristine, unearthly crystalline mound. Whatever the case, there’s no missing Koons’s obsessive calculation of persona from the outset of his career to the present. Two slide montages of the “Life of Jeff” and the full range of his oeuvre—including a great photo of him in his MoMA-membership-selling days, standing in front of Rosenquist’s Marilyn Monroe—drove the theme home. You really have to give it up for Koons, I thought, even if you recoil at the same time; he’s a genius! The loveliest image, for me, was of a giant puppy composed solely of verdure, surrounded by tall trees—a sublime folly worthy of Stourhead.

Mr. and Mrs. Koons finally arrived, and the window gates of the gallery ascended as they entered; Jeff’s ever-smiling countenance didn’t quite disguise his distinct non-surprise. The first person he greeted was Ileana Sonnabend, pushed in her wheelchair by Antonio Homem. And then a genuine surprise: a forty-piece marching band, with an escort of ponies, entered the gallery behind a Gigantor cake, played “Happy Birthday,” and then segued into an oompah cover of Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir.” Of course a blonde bimbo jumped out of the cake, but this was a tad anticlimactic. For one, her boobs weren’t imposing. And I wasn’t alone in hoping that Pam herself would materialize—or even the former Mrs. Koons, Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina. The party was jumping anyhow. The entertainment continued as Yvonne Force and Sandra Hamburg appeared on the balcony to regale the birthday boy with a song from their upcoming album, Mother Inc. “Jeff, where are you?” Mrs. Force-Villareal purred. “This song is about the post-human condition, something I believe you’ve addressed in your work.” Then the duo intoned a cute ditty about plastic surgery. A youthful guest exclaimed, “This is the greatest night of my life!” and waved his arms toward the stage like an Ecstasy-supercharged raver. In the midst of this jamboree, Robert Rosenblum slyly queried if we had noticed Laura Bush among the guests. No, alas, she wasn’t really there, but plenty of collector ladies and their man-things do look like her set. At this point, John Currin jumped in with the evening’s ne plus ultra zinger: “Did you know that George Bush just bought Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture?” This remains unconfirmed by Nauman’s representative.

A number of Koons guests headed to Sante D’Orazio’s after-party at the Maritime Hotel; Francesco and Alba Clemente prevailed upon me to accompany them. I spoke to a nice woman who had been “handling” Ms. Anderson’s much-desired presence at the unveiling of D’Orazio’s photographic paean, who mentioned that they, too, had wanted Pam to jump out of Jeff’s cake. But the actress just couldn’t make it. She was at Sundance, you know.

Left: Bill Powers and Cynthia Rowley. Right: Sante D'Orazio, Kara Young, and Julian Schnabel.


David Rimanelli

Conference Crawl

Mexico City
01.25.05

Left: Teatro de los Insurgentes. Right: Xavis Rolo exhibition view.


Art junkets always sound good on paper: the allure of expense-paid travel to some distant metropolis; a conference or fair or biennial to dive into; a crash course in the local art scene; a highly condensed bit of gratuitous tourism. Yet inside this pretty Trojan horse lurk a host of challenges that arise when you spend concentrated blocks of time crowded into minivans alongside other art professionals with whom you might not see eye to eye, to put it mildly. Luckily, last weekend’s SITAC conference defied such uneasy expectations. While the “serious” side of the conference was a real mixed bag, forty-eight hours of immersion in the crevices of Mexico City turned out to be criminally fun and absolutely stimulating.

Having arrived for day two of the conference, our morning kicked off at the Teatro de los Insurgentes with an odd, three-way panel (Roger Buergel, Alex Alberro and my jetlagged self) followed by a conversation with Hans Haacke. Even if our presentations didn’t completely jibe, our exchange was totally collegial and even humorous—Alberro and I found some unexpected common ground in the figure of Martin Kippenberger. At lunch Thierry de Duve introduced his tablemates to a deadly combination of tequila and spicy-tomato-juice chaser; thus fortified, I found that the afternoon session hummed by, albeit with occasional moments of total discursive wackiness. I lapped up Dawn Ades’s talk on late Dalí, taking copious notes as she lauded the artist for being “an enemy of modernism”—a stance that was something of a metaphorical life jacket in SITAC’s vast sea of politically correct discussion.

After a quick pit stop at the hotel in the early evening, the SITAC crew was shuttled to the Roma district for two private views and a gallery opening before dinner. The three spaces—Garash Galeria, Galeria OMR, and the Galeria Nina Menocal—were impressive in terms of the meticulousness of the presentations, the charisma of those in attendance, and the decaying grandeur of the buildings themselves; though, weary (and wary) of cultural “parachuting,” I couldn’t fully judge the quality of the very young artists on show.

After the Nina Menocal opening, the crowd—SITACers, gallery patrons, artists (including local celebs Francis Alÿs and Miguel Calderón) and a few handsome hipsters—all wound up in a nearby social club called Covadonga—apparently a fixture for postopening dinners and artists’ late-night drinking sessions, and, with its colorful cast of mostly older men swilling tequila and playing dominoes, a pleasantly far cry from the networking of Pastis or the “M’a tu vu?” of Café Beabourg. I ran into my friend Claire Bishop at a table with a few local artists. Two of her companions—artists Mauricio “Lord Byron” Guillen and Stefan “Gordo” Bruggemann—offered to take us out for an introductory taste of Mexico City’s nocturnal life. So began an odyssey that involved several nightclubs (including an amazing trannie joint called Hysteria), a cruise through Garibaldi Square for a mariachi-band serenade, and an initiation into toques—a strange electrocution ritual/bar game.

Needless to say, the concluding session of SITAC was rough on a few hours of sleep. After the official closing panel and lunch, memories of the previous night’s adventures beckoned us to skip the nap and keep going. Leaving the Teatro de los Insurgentes and its opulent-Marxist Diego Rivera mural, Claire and I hooked up with Mauricio again—along with Fernando Ortega and Jonathan Hernandez, two of the more interesting artists from local gallery Kurimanzutto’s stable—for some daytime sightseeing. Our afternoon dérive took us past many famous landmarks, current hotspots, and numerous prosaic-yet-poetic street scenes that conjured readymade works by the likes of Alÿs or Gabriel Orozco. I got a sense of how densely woven the city’s pop-cultural fiber is, and how numerous its aesthetic ghosts (Kahlo, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros). It was edifying to hear how our companions navigated such a strong context in their own art practices. Our last stop was the crowded, highly animated opening of artist Xavis Rolo’s show in a warehouse in El Centro. Despite the gentrification of Mexico City and its incorporation into the list of current art-world hotspots (e.g. Warsaw, Istanbul, Bangkok, etc.), such artist-run initiatives seem still to be the scene’s lifeblood, and thankfully have not yet made it onto the pages of Wallpaper Navigator.

Alison M. Gingeras

Art Is a Cabaret

Mexico City
01.25.05

Left: Tania Bruguera and Pablo Helguera. Middle: SITAC advertisement. Right: Robert Storr holds forth.


Who knew that the SITAC conference is the art event in Mexico? The fourth International Symposium on Contemporary Art Theory proved to be a nonstop slew of private viewings and collectors’ parties complementing three long days in which a semiglittering array of art historians, theorists and critics slogged it out via an indefatigable (and often incomprehensible) translator. This year’s theme, chosen by artist Pablo Helguera, the symposium’s director and smooth host, was the relationship of art criticism to art history. Given the euphoric amnesia of most art magazines, this was a well-chosen point of departure, even if the resulting discussions managed only to arrive at the consensus that history is a good thing.

The daytime panelists shared a stage with a nightly production of Cabaret, whose low-budget Weimar set, along with the chat-show style of Helguera’s hosting, gave the proceedings a curiously showbiz flavor. Helguera got things rolling by interviewing Shirin Neshat, who looked fabulous enough to numb you to her swooning over the “deep mysticism” of Persian Iran and the inability of Western audiences to “truly understand” her work. Someone later compared her talk to a readymade Andrea Fraser—a spot-on assessment. Neshat-style identity politics have become untouchable, and we need a Fraser (or French and Saunders) to set about dismantling it. Other artists treated to the talk-show format were Hans Haacke and Marina Abramovic. Marina held the capacity crowd spellbound, and everyone erupted into rapturous applause when she finished her tales of endurance and enlightenment. As she bowed before the audience, it was as if she’d rocked legions of fans with a comeback tour at the Auditorio Nacional.

At Wednesday night’s preconference party I’d had my first taste of pollo en mole—chicken in chocolate sauce—and many of the SITAC panels were characterized by a similarly unnerving combination of ingredients. Speakers from different worlds were thrust together in unsavory union, one of the most memorable being Dawn Ades (rigorous Dali art historian), Tania Bruguera (Cuban performance artist) and cute-but-way-out-of-his-depth Massimiliano Gioni (curator and Cattelan puppet). These three had nothing in common but a shared confusion as to why they were invited to talk about marketing and art history. Another ill-advised pairing was a session called “From the Media towards History” which conjoined Thierry de Duve’s “In Bed With Madonna” (a seductive confessional about his relationship to art—basically, it’s like sex) and Cuauhtémoc Medina’s deconstruction of art criticism’s ideological role in founding Mexican national identity. Medina’s demolition of Octavio Paz and Rufino Tamayo hit a raw nerve, turning the audience against the conference’s only Mexican speaker in favour of de Duve (or “Señor Monsieur” as one member of the audience addressed him).

With more thoughtful moderators these panels wouldn’t have seemed so lopsided, and a number of key dropouts didn’t help (Anri Sala, Vasif Kortun, Jens Hoffmann). Sala was replaced by a screening of his video Intervista, 1998, which came as a welcome break from Rob Storr and Paulo Herkenhoff’s interminable stroll down MoMA memory lane. Storr rambled on about Richter, while Herkenhoff bemoaned center-periphery relations and Guy Brett. Less fragrant comments came from arch-grump Donald Kuspit, who hurled insults at Serge Guilbaut and anyone else in his line of sight. Kuspit’s penchant for petty belittling would have been hilarious if he hadn’t been so deadly serious (e.g., to RoseLee Goldberg: “What precisely is the significance of people running around naked?”). Unable to leave immediately because of snowstorms in New York, Kuspit kept up his cantankerousness the next day, snarling chippy comments at Alison Gingeras and Roger Buergel.

So who is Roger Buergel? After three days with him we’re still no closer to the dark horse of Documenta. But at least we got to hear him talk gently about The Government, his recent curatorial effort in Barcelona. I just hope that SITAC’s largely student audience, receiving at least 80 percent of the conference in English, managed to get more from the event than putting famous names to faces. Helguera aimed high, and assembled a brave cross section of new and established figures—but it takes skill and confidence to elicit productive dialogue from such a menagerie. As Thierry de Duve might have put it: The guest list was great, but nobody got laid.

Claire Bishop

Cabin Fever

New York
01.25.05

Left: Jeffrey Uslip. Right: Larry Mantello and Glenn Ligon.


I was not overly keen on visiting the opening of “Log Cabin” at Artists Space, because the wind was whooshing and Manhattan was cold, getting colder. There was a terrific scrum at the entrance to the elevator, and I had to wonder if the icy gang upstairs would have their wits about them. If we were to spend the rest of evening muffled in layers, bashing into each other, well, it wouldn’t be much of a party. But it was, actually, a lovely party. Curator Jeffrey Uslip has arrayed a jamboree of visual attack tactics against neocon homophobia and the suppression of contemporary queer lexicons. “It’s essential for me that the exhibition is centered on diverse artistic practices rather than on a divisive, didactic approach toward the Republican Party,” he told me. Without embedded polemics, or indeed a narrative arc, the works provoked and pulled us around the room in a long, dizzy waltz. Though the show, mostly great and thirty-four artists strong, crossed generations from recent Columbia MFA grads (Matt Keegan, Christy Gast) to certified avatars (Glenn Ligon, AA Bronson), there was no hierarchy and no anchor. You could trip from Paul Pfeiffer’s either dumb or very abstruse projection of a wasp nest to Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny’s either very stiff or pointed Pork Me Sport Piss sculpture. Bronson, surveying the scene with a smile, held court next to three monitors showing himself and a similarly bearded Nayland Blake smeared with goo, making out. There were a lot of guru beards in attendance. Over the course of the night I saw at least eight versions of those tangled salt-and-pepper wedges, from junior efforts (keep at it, cub!) to grizzly record breakers. I saw an orphaned vinyl deerstalker cap passed across the gallery to three different people, then returned to its happy owner’s head. A gray wool beanie similarly migrated to the top of Scott Treleaven’s video monitor, hung out as an ersatz installation for twenty minutes, then vanished—quick, cute visual poetry.

I caught sight of a chap in fluorescent Moon Boots and a gorgeous wispy, white, very familiar camelhair overcoat. It was Terence Koh, just back from a residency in Belgium, who had made my favorite work in the show: Twenty-nine framed eight-by-ten-inch portrait photos in a line on the floor with neat circular swirls of chocolate obscuring the faces. Koh reappeared outside as I was leaving. “Yo, is that a Dries [Van Noten] coat?” I hollered at him, twice, in my best South Philly accent. I thought he might enjoy this. He didn’t even look at me, shouted “I gotta go!” and scampered across the street with his friends to a waiting taxicab. No one needed fashion that night. Though I have a cropped version of that coat in fab black oiled cotton that we could have talked about.

William Pym

Picture This

London
01.24.05

A few days into rehearsals for Tino Sehgal’s Institute of Contemporary Arts show—which took place in the galleries, with staff and invited guests permitted a sneak preview—it was clear that not everyone appreciates the Berlin-based artist’s deployment of dancing, singing, and chattering humans (and nothing else) as art. Sehgal’s works, which seek to embody a categorical shift away from object-based art production, are never photographed or otherwise documented and are usually unencumbered by wall labels. This contributes to a certain mystique, but can also sow confusion. Unexpectedly encountering a woman writhing wordlessly on the floor in the main downstairs space, one man raced to the reception desk, demanding that someone help her: Shockingly for an ICA employee, he’d missed the embedded references to Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham in this, the first work Sehgal ever made. (It dates from 2000; he’s had a fast rise, mainly due to the way his confrontational art stands out in the undifferentiated sprawls of biennials.) I wasn’t faring much better upstairs with his latest piece, This objective of that object, 2004. After a short, ritualistic performance, five actors had seemingly gone to sleep on me. I staggered over one zombie slumped in the doorway and located Sehgal—a bespectacled, slightly preppy-looking young man—who suggested I might try interacting with them. However, the way back in was barred: There was a “technical hitch,” said an attendant—which, the artist smilingly explained, was actually code meaning that a new visitor had entered the space.

Ironically, when they finally let me back in there was a hitch. The performers were lounging and continued to chat idly with the current visitor, whereas my arrival should have snapped them back into marionette mode. I left and came in again; it worked this time. I was now determined to have a chat—the lurching and collective vocalizing my first time through just hadn’t been enough for me—and it turned out that clearing my throat sufficed, launching an entertaining five-way improv that ping-ponged from the politics of public coughing to semen to “boobies.” One rule of this work, it seemed, was that the performers couldn’t face the viewer. So, meanly, I tried to see how well they’d improvise while spinning like tops as I ran around them.

The quintet had begun by chanting, “The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion.” A few days later that dream came true, sort of, as Sehgal sat on stage at the Goethe Institute to unpack a boxful of sharp ideas with the ICA’s director of exhibitions, Jens Hoffmann—the two share a background in theater and dance and have worked together before. Discussion shied away from the most recent work, since this “clever provocateur” (as the ICA is styling him) didn’t want to spoil the surprise. As a result, the first half of the chat was a slightly dutiful recap of Sehgal’s career as a maker of residue-free, purely durational art, with Hoffmann asking such penetrating questions as “You’ve had this amazing trajectory. . . . Is there still room for surprise, for yourself?”

Things perked up when Sehgal explained how he actually sells his work in the absence of documentary photographs or certificates of authentication—a weird tale of oral contracts memorized by lawyers and of the artist teaching the buyer how to perform the work, thus instigating a pedagogical daisy chain if and when it’s sold again. Later, he convincingly refuted suggestions that his work was either subversive or a rehash of '60s conceptual strategies, asserting that it is, rather, a politicized inquiry into the mutability of modes of production. He resembled an earnest economist—disinterested in getting Croesus-rich off his art and mentioning only in passing that Joseph Kosuth had told him he’d solved a fundamental problem of Conceptualism. Perhaps seeking to keep his friend’s self-esteem in check, Hoffmann needled him for that. “You finally achieved the dematerialization of the art object,” he said dryly, to a ripple of laughter. Sehgal quickly changed the subject and, shortly afterward, dematerialized into the night.

Martin Herbert

Gun Shy

Los Angeles
01.20.05

Left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971. Right: The UCLA campus.


In 1971, a performance with a gun helped secure Chris Burden’s status as an art-world legend. Now, more than three decades later, it seems another performance involving a firearm may have been a central factor in the abrupt retirements of Burden and his wife, sculptor Nancy Rubins, from the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Art.

Rumors began to percolate before Christmas, and there has been increasing chatter on art blogs since then, but little official information has emerged about the situation—all the parties have kept quiet on the specifics of the performance and its relationship to the departures, a few weeks later, of the two highly regarded professors, both of whom had been at the school for more than two decades. Burden headed the school’s New Genres specialization, and Rubins, who has just opened a major show at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, taught sculpture. (Burden declined to be interviewed for this article; Rubins did not respond to an interview request.)

Yet through conversations with people familiar with the circumstances—including a student who witnessed the original incident—a picture emerges of a crisis that began on November 29, when in the course of a performance for a class taught by visiting instructor Ron Athey, a graduate student entered a classroom at UCLA’s Warner building where roughly thirty other students were gathered. The student, wearing a coat and tie, produced either a gun or a convincing replica of one, put what looked like a bullet into the weapon, spun the cylinder, and held it to his head, Russian-roulette style. He pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. The student then left the room; while he was out of view, a shot was heard, at which point he returned, now apparently unarmed. A short discussion ensued between what the witness described as the “freaked-out” performer and a room full of people who were “a little frozen and a little scared,” and then the class broke up for the day. This version of events expands upon but is basically corroborated by UCLA’s official statement made by assistant vice chancellor Lawrence Lokman, who said that the performance “raised a number of important issues and concerns for faculty, staff, and students with regard to artistic freedom, safety, and the boundaries of performance art within an academic setting.” He added that the dean of students office and the University of California Police Department were investigating to determine whether the student had used “an actual gun, or a replica.”

But if the facts of the incident are not in question, what exactly occurred afterward remains unclear. According to Sarah Watson, a director of Gagosian Gallery who spoke on Burden’s behalf, the artist had recently become disenchanted with the school because of budget cuts and other administrative issues. Yet Watson also acknowledged that the performance—and what Burden, who wanted the student immediately punished, perceived as a tardy and inadequate response from UCLA officials—did play a role in his and Rubins’s decision to retire. Meanwhile, the university statement asserts that “a well-established process . . . for investigating such matters” began promptly; a student in Athey’s class reported that a meeting was held the following week led by art department head Barbara Drucker, which “centered around how the university was dealing with it, what kind of actions were going to be taken.” According to the same student, the performer, who did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview, remains at the university.

Those familiar with Burden’s well-documented penchant, at least early in his practice, for pushing the boundaries of performance—particularly, of course, with the legendary Shoot, 1971, for which he had a friend fire a bullet into his arm at a Santa Ana gallery—might be forgiven for seeing some irony in the fact that this sort of incident would contribute to the end of his career at UCLA. Yet there have been accounts over the years of students attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work, attempts Burden himself has reportedly criticized as dangerous and ill-considered. And UCLA’s own published security policy does explicitly ban the “possession of firearms or replicas” on campus. Some people close to the situation say the bigger story has more to do with a shrinking budget and swelling discord in a department that is now—on the strength of a faculty featuring major contemporary artists like Burden, Rubins, John Baldessari, Charles Ray, Mary Kelly, Catherine Opie, Lari Pittman, and the recently retired Paul McCarthy—one of the country’s premier contemporary art programs. This year’s brochure for the school describes New Genres as giving “emphasis to questioning preconceived notions of the role of art in culture.” If nothing else, the current controversy confirms that, in some cases, such questions can have more than mere theoretical implications.

Jeffrey Kastner

Grand Opening

New York
01.19.05

Left: Laylah Ali. Right: Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paperrad, Super Mario Movie, 2005, installation view.


My Saturday night in Chelsea started at an unfashionably early 6:15 when I strolled in to the (at that point) subdued reception for Laylah Ali’s second show at 303 Gallery. It’s another collection of small-scale gouaches on paper, though many are now half-length portraits of individual “Types”—as she calls the latest incarnation of her bubble-headed protagonists—seemingly excerpted from the stealthily violent vignettes, evoking schoolyard bullying or race-motivated attacks, with which she made her name. Ali has sublimated the cruelty even further here; it’s evident only in the small scars on the cheeks and the positively cowed looks in the eyes of her otherworldly subjects. Curator Andrea Green, who organized Ali’s current show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (which also produced a pocket-sized artist’s book illustrating the “Types”), was in attendance, as was Dean Moss, a choreographer who is currently producing an hour-long dance piece in loose collaboration with Ali. Moss previewed an emotionally charged excerpt of the work-in-progress at The Kitchen last Monday. He’s animating Ali’s works to great effect, occasionally freeze-framing the movement to offer the audience tableaux vivants that maintain fidelity to her compositions as well as to the sense of malevolence and pain that pervades the paintings. In the Q & A session afterward, Moss and each of his dancers came clean about the difficulties they face when performing such provocative material, admitting to feeling “violated” at various moments. I'm definitely heading back for the full performance in May.

Cory Arcangel’s solo show of new works opened at Team on Thursday; his second opening of the week pulled me southward to Deitch Projects. I mistakenly headed toward Wooster Street before realizing the night marked the reopening of the 76 Grand Street space—it’s difficult to believe that four months have passed since a broken water main flooded this corner of SoHo. With a friend, I entered the typical Deitch fray: Hordes of young artists and fashionable twenty-somethings were packed into the low-ceilinged front room. In back, Arcangel was screening Super Mario Movie, 2005, a fifteen-minute video made in collaboration with Paperrad. It takes the form of a reprogrammed 8-bit Nintendo video game (the entire movie takes up less memory than the picture at the top of this diary entry) in which Mario navigates a psychedelic crumbling world of corrupted data. It’s Arcangel’s first narrative work to date—there’s a funny correlation between the use of 8-bit interstitial titles and silent-era movies—and it is surprisingly engaging; I watched it three times in a row. At around half past seven, Jacob Ciocci of Paperrad, decked out in a neon-bright multicolored hooded windbreaker, gave an impromptu performance in which he danced wildly to a medley of crunk hits converted to the MIDI files familiar from your cell phone’s ring tone collection. He interacted with a wall-size projection—of himself in a similar outfit, doing the same routine—which made his hilarious seven-year-old-with-A.D.D.-channeling-Lil’-Jon performance an unwitting echo of Yoko Ono’s Friday night presentation at MoMA. You can’t beat that, and I didn’t try, quickly exiting to head off into the cold night.

Left: Jacob Ciocci, ROTFLOL, performance view. Right: Laylah Ali, Untitled, 2004.


Brian Sholis

Quality Time

New York
01.18.05

Left: John Lurie, My Name is Skinny, I am a Horse, 2004. Right: Steve McQueen, still from Girls, Tricky, 2001.


John Lurie's sardine-packed opening at Roebling Hall on far West 26th Street was a Mudd Club flashback so intense that Steve Buscemi went unnoticed by everyone including his own wife, Jo Andres, whom he had lost in the crush at the door. Figures from every period of Lurie's professional life—from Lounge Lizard, to Jarmusch star, to filmmaker—came together to support his new life as an art-on-paper man. Musicians (Eric Sanko, Pat Place, and Connie Berg) rubbed elbows with scenesters (Chris Parker and Maripol) and artists (Tom Otterness and James Nares, who said that since Lurie had started drawing and painting so obsessively—partly to counter the debilitating effects of Lyme disease—he, Nares, has started filming himself playing guitar).

Lurie's first solo show last spring at Anton Kern was a sellout, and this one may be no different—not just because most of the watercolors and ballpoint stick-figure drawings are priced under $5,000. Lurie's helplessly naïf style contradicts his more sophisticated sense of space and color. What's more, every single picture is both naughty and hilarious, thanks in part to captions like “My name is Skinny / I am a Horse and I want to have Sex with your Wife. Okay?” (Lurie is keeping that one for himself, alas.) Almost as striking were the bohemians who treat art openings as family outings. Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson had their college-dropout son in tow and former Bush Tetra Cynthia Sley was accompanied by her teenage son, Austin, who wants to be an artist. (“I like the camel,” he said of one watercolor. Lurie is keeping that one, too.) So strange: When I was a teen, I didn't want to be caught dead with my parents, even when we were at home. Today, art is a family business (think Mirabelle Marden, Jessica Craig-Martin, and Will Ryman). “It's nice to see your art is so popular,” I said to John when he emerged from his hiding place in the back. “I wish they would all go home,” he said.

Now I was faced with an admittedly privileged but awkward and recurring art world dilemma: Choosing between dinner parties. Should I run uptown to Steve McQueen's opening at Marian Goodman or just walk down the street to “Post Modern,” Carol Greene’s MoMA-nose-thumbing painting show? Morbid curiosity got the best of me and I went uptown, partly to see what kind of art Goodman chose to keep at home. The gallery itself was so dark, the light from McQueen's projections too low to be much help, that it was difficult to identify faces or even know if you were standing next to someone. I did find myself squatting on the floor with Cecily Brown at one point, both of us mesmerized by McQueen's video of Tricky in the recording studio—the most alarming of the four pieces on view. The others—all, in McQueen's words, “a slower burn”—were a film of Charlotte Rampling's eyeball; a show of the slides NASA sent up on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 for the benefit of alien explorers; and an installation in which a man with a frightening lateral scar on his head (heard in voiceover and seen in a single projected slide) recalls the day he accidentally and fatally shot his own brother. People seemed either admiring or fed up with the pretension of it all.

At Goodman's beef-stew dinner at home, curators, including Rob Storr, Donna de Salvo, Chrissie Iles, Thelma Golden, and Christine Kim, outnumbered artists. Dan Graham, the most prominent of these, spoke at length with Bloomberg LP's Lex Fenwick. The Central Park West duplex, which Goodman described as “my walk-up” (it's on the thirty-second floor, but the elevator stops at the floor below), is a kind of railroad flat—minus the dividing walls, with amazing views north, east, and west. The architect who lived there until Goodman bought it in the '70s carved the space from rooftop storage. To my surprise, the walls were completely bare. No art at all, unless you count the dining room chandelier, which Storr assured me was Murano glass. Turns out that the apartment was recently renovated, and Goodman hadn't quite moved back in yet.

On Saturday, I stole back to Greene Naftali to see what I had missed by passing up Greene's take-out Indian dinner from Queens, an affair Clarissa Dalrymple had described that morning as “very pleasant.” P.S.1/MoMA's Klaus Biesenbach insisted, when I bumped into him, that the show had been given the wrong title. It's an interesting show, he said, but “it's not postmodern.” With paintings by Dana Schutz, Mary Heilmann, Josh Smith, Amy Sillman, and Michael Krebber, it is, to my mind, a perfect reflection of the conservatism rampant in the market at this moment, which I must admit didn’t keep me from liking it. From there, Nancy Rubins's new airplane-part “palm trees” at Paul Kasmin were great feats of engineering and form that, apparently, took three solid weeks to assemble. Like Lurie, Rubins spent the early part of her opening in a back room, perhaps so as not to distract anyone from the art—though openings are clearly not about art but about providing a roof for extended families who only come together weekly between six and eight pm.

Linda Yablonsky

Bottoms Up

New York
01.17.05

Left: Brooke Geahan and Kimberly D. Spell. Right: Dennis Cooper and Void Books publisher Alex Kasavin. (Photos: Alexis Scherl)


A word about readings: Unless the author is a close friend, I avoid them like the Meatpacking district on Saturday night. The tawdry, awkward venues, the injurious scholastic chairs, the fake solemnity, the nervous laughs, the tucked-in torpor of the audience: The whole scene generally strikes me as less a promotion of the writer’s work than a cheap dramatization of the debasement of literature in contemporary America, a Spinal Tap for poets, if you will. Which is why it was quite a bit more than a “refreshing surprise” to attend a reading by LA’s post-punk Jean Genet, Dennis Cooper, at the new Accompanied Library inside the National Arts Club, Gramercy Park.

The Accompanied Library, “an intimate, not-for-profit private library and writers’ club,” is an essential venture that seems like it should have always existed in New York’s literary landscape. That it hasn’t existed, at least in recent years, highlights both the beggarly status of literature in the city and the pluck of the library’s founders, Brooke Geahan and Iris Brooks. They are young writers who met at Simon’s Rock College of Bard (an “accelerated” program whose precociously artsy students matriculate before graduating from high school) and moved to New York after graduation. Geahan and Brooks noted the lack of a downtown writers’ library with the old-world feel of well-funded uptown institutions like the Municipal Art Society. Canvassing for an appropriate space, they found a home upstairs at the turn-of-the-century Tilden Mansion, location of the venerable if slightly blue-haired National Arts Club. Geahan and Brooks tastefully renovated the sixth-floor apartment/artist’s studio themselves, and the result is like stepping into another time, a Jazz Age salon, say, complete with art-deco bar, high tea, and vintage books lining the shelves of the spectacular double-height living room.

Another word about readings: Alcohol. It’s rare enough to hear a reading in the plush comfort of a robber baron’s den; it’s another thing entirely to hear said reading in said den after an hour-and-a-half of complimentary beer and wine in the type of genteel, festive atmosphere that perished sometime well before the Giuliani administration. I had the feeling of being at a genuinely fun private party for Cooper, where you could chat with the author, hobnob with a criminally attractive, unusually intelligent group of friends and strangers, and drink, drink, drink. By the time Cooper took the rostrum, the warm glow radiating from the crowd was palpable. Couches and chairs filled quickly, resulting in a standing-room-only audience.

Cooper read from his new novel, The Sluts, published by Void Books, a small press run by Alex Kasavin in Williamburg, Brooklyn. Kasavin, an old-school printer by trade, started Void in 2004 to publish “transgressive” authors like Peter Sotos and Cooper in high-quality, limited-edition hardbacks. With creepy-cute illustrations by Todd James, The Sluts is an impressively sturdy tome, its post-digital sans-serif font off-putting only until you realize that the book belongs to the fledgling genre of e-pistolary fiction—novels told entirely through e-mail chains or BBS postings. In this case, the context is a Southern California gay website where visitors post reviews of their trysts with area hustlers. The subject of all the posts, we find, is “Brad,” a possibly underage, possibly nonexistent, possibly murdered boy of angelic face and God-given ass.

The constraints of the BBS-posting format are apparently good for Cooper. As the many full-throated laughs from the Accompanied audience confirmed, The Sluts is his funniest work to date. By the end of the reading (Cooper started at the beginning of the novel), the narrative began to turn toward the dark—at times, exceedingly dark—side of gay desire that has been Cooper’s stock in trade for most of his career. Yet the writing retained all of his customary strengths—uncensored imagination, unflinching observation, the strange current of emotional warmth behind the nihilistic tableaux. Before the reading, Cooper claimed that The Sluts was “my last spurt of this stuff,” meaning the Gay Guignol of his “George Miles Cycle.” But one hopes that it isn’t, just as one hopes that the Accompanied Library lives long enough to spawn its own Vicious Circle.

Andrew Hultkrans

Leisure Class

New York
01.12.05

Left: Art Spiegelman. Right: Rem Koolhaas. (Photos: Joseph Sinnott, New York Times)


I’d been sick in bed with a cold and was excited to get out of my houseclothes, so I agreed to take the baton from my colleague Peter Plagens and check out two more “TimesTalks”: Art Spiegelman (The Graphic Novel’s Unlikely Hero) was chatted up by former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath; and Rem Koolhaas (The Prophet of a New Modern Architecture) was interviewed, or, rather, prompted by the paper’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff. The discussions were set up like Charlie Rose-ish “conversations” in front of “TimesTalks” signage and videotaped with a flower arrangement strategically placed behind each speaker’s head. While I waited for the discourse to commence in the plush new CUNY auditorium, multiple TV screens along the aisles added to the global-branding-trance ambiance, sedating me with soft jazz like boarding music on a plane. Ads for Sprint and California Closets pulsated repetitively, lulling me into a state of receptivity wherein Benetton, Koolhaas, and the “Paper of Record” soon merged into one cultural blob I sucked down along with my Diet Coke. Scanning the capacity crowd of Upper West Side types, I was amazed and touched that so many of the good people one sees schlepping the Times around on Sundays turn out to be such culture vultures. If the Times is the synagogue of enlightened liberal upper-middlebrow culture, this was like going to services; the interviewers, rabbis of the cult of Success. On my way out I passed a Borders concession where a dryboard announced, “Now signing: Terry Gross and James Lipton.” Middle-aged groupies calmly waited on line. Not least exciting about the whole thing was the brochure with headshots of so many Times bylines that had been hitherto disembodied for me. Now I finally know what Anna Kisselgoff, the dance critic, and Lynn Hirshberg, the style and showbiz profiler, look like.

Spiegelman smoked during his interview. Like his frankness and slightly pudgy untidiness, his lighting up onstage in a nice auditorium was very retrobohemian. One felt the frisson of good old-fashioned artistic license in action. The nicotine obviously helped. He was a hilarious storyteller and totally inspiring re: his creative process. Of the plethora of new graphic novels he enthused: “You need to have really large amounts of shit for the flowers to grow.” If Spiegelman was a haimisher hedgehog burrowing into his own psyche and insanely labor-intensive process, Koolhaas was an urbane fox and interdisciplinary smartypants—both beneficiary and peevish critic of the “star architect” phenomenon. A tall, severe structure in (Prada?) black, Koolhaas’s long, gangly limbs rendered his normal-size chair puny as he leaned toward Ourroussoff, eager to head off any misrepresentations. He opened the talk with a clever graphic—a map of the world with the Yen sign, the Euro sign, and the dollar sign spelling out Y-E-S—and announced that we’re in a postideological age in which money is the only value. I had the same reaction to Koolhaas that I always do: He’s so smart, I kind of want to work with him; then he’s so slippery, it leaves me feeling icky. His research and projects are dazzling, but what rankles is the strangely righteous aroma of “demystification” he gives off when he is actually a mega-example of the celebrity/branding/global-capital cults he’s supposedly “exposing.” “We have a fundamental crisis of architecture,” the prophet pronounced. “It used to be a representation of the public good. Now it’s a free-floating vacuum: We architects only serve individual values and the interests of individual clients.” The architect of the Prada store, surely a shrine to a brand, complained that “the label of celebrity is superimposed on a system of producers . . . and obscures the value of a building.” On an aesthetic level, I especially like his upcoming Hermitage renovation, which respects the weird aura of the museum’s decrepitude. With a great eye for incongruity, he showed a slide of one of the museum’s major works—an important early Malevich painting that’s installed behind a ridiculous velvet rope, sandwiched between picture windows festooned with not-nice, ruched curtains. Seen in its historically accurate yet mildly comical mise-en-scène, the famous black Suprematist square was certainly made “new” for me.

Rhonda Lieberman

Gray Days

New York
01.11.05

Left: Susan Sarandon and Caryn James. Right: Chuck Close. (Photos: Joseph Sinnott, Matthew Arnold)


As with a lot of other New York liberals, my love/hate relationship with the New York Times has recently drifted toward active dislike. This discontent has nothing to do with the malfeasances of Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg or Howell Raines—it has to do with the fact that dull, over-considered centrism just pisses me off these days. I mean, I used to find the Times's ultramild leftism reassuring, but—given the current occupant of the White House and his dangerous follies—I now find it primly beside the point. Yeah, I know it's at least partly irrational, and for better or worse the Times is still “the paper of record,” especially regarding the arts. But culturally, too, despite a recent jazzing-up of the arts section with a passel of new editors and a revamped listings column, the paper's taste runs to anything big, official, staid and centrist-appearing (such as the new MoMA); it takes dangerous, hairy arts phenomena and makes them seem reassuringly middle-of-the-road. My puny protest of the Times's great gray blandness has been to quit buying the print edition and read it exclusively online for free.

With this bad attitude, I nevertheless attended two of the twenty-seven “TimesTalks” taking place during the paper's fourth annual “Arts & Leisure Weekend.” The first was ”Citizen Artist,“ with critic-at-large Caryn James interviewing famously liberal film star Susan Sarandon on her acting career (for about an hour) and her political beliefs (for about half that time) at the CUNY Graduate Center. Sarandon was smooth, quick, articulate and convincingly modest (then again, she's an Oscar-winning actress). When it came time for the anti-Bush money shot the full-house audience (Short Hills must have been deserted) was waiting for, she settled for a generality about the sad state of ”democracy in this country.“ In fact, Sarandon reserved her harshest words—”clueless and ball-less"—for the poor, whupped Democratic Party.

The next day in “Self Portrait,” painter Chuck Close took the stage to be guided in conversation by the Times's chief art critic, Michael Kimmelman. Since Close is beloved on all art-world fronts (he's on every public-service committee there is, and his accessibly realistic pictures are somehow considered permanently hip), and since he and Kimmelman have done this “dog-and-pony show” (Kimmelman's phrase) before, nobody really expected sparks to fly. None did. Those who paid twenty-five dollars a head to hear precisely seventy-five minutes of softball chat (and Kimmelman thinks twenty bucks admission at MoMA is high?) got a solid, friendly semisoliloquy from Close on the vicissitudes of photorealism, portrait painting, and technically innovative printmaking. Of course, Close's generation of artists (mea culpa: mine, too) was hothoused in university MFA programs and sent out into the world thinking of art as passionless problem-solving. That might explain why there was something missing at the center of the discussion: a revelation about what all those gargantuan, pixellated faces mean. Minus that, all the politesse about color separations and diagonal grids seemed, well, beside the point.

Peter Plagens

Party Monster

New York
01.09.05

Left: Eric Ditmar, Nicola Bowery, Boy George,Traver Raines, Richie Rich, and Aimee Phillips. Right: Crystal. (All photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc)


“Useless Man,” an exhibition devoted to the late Leigh Bowery— featuring two films by Charles Atlas of the six-foot-six Bowery madly cavorting and numerous photographs by Fergus Greer, capturing his moods, whimsies, and full-body rubber outfits—opens at Perry Rubenstein in Chelsea. Definitely looks like an up-note for the coming season, given the rather staid and predictable offerings in New York lately. Bowery, legendary avant-garde drag queen, club diva, Lucian Freud model, and lead performer in the groovy beyond-underground band Minty, went to his great reward on December 31, 1994; as the Rubenstein show demonstrates, he hasn’t been forgotten. Scores of creatively dressed and coiffed scenesters showed up, among others Boy George, wearing a pink button reading “Sassy.” Several Bowery acolytes and/or intimates sported prosthetic latex glitter eye- and lip-enhancements, very much in the Bowery spirit—and hats, let’s not forget the kooky-club-kid hats. Thelma Golden looked art-world chic, dressed in head-to-toe black, but she caught a whiff of the fetish-fashion vibe, wearing knee-high black patent-leather boots. For the most part, one didn’t know anybody, although one did recognize archival club trash dating back at least to the early '80s glory days of Pyramid. Ghost-faced and raven-haired Larissa was there, as well as David Yarritu, more evidence of the party-must-go-on diehards of days gone by (and probably tomorrow). Overall, the opening had something of a Paper magazine tone. Not your average Barbara Gladstone event.

I strolled down Twenty-third Street to Daniel Reich, who was perversely hosting a January 8 New Year’s party at his gallery: Hey, let’s get wasted every Saturday night and blame it on New Year’s. Cute young crowd inside. I remarked to Daniel that it was awfully nice of Andrea Rosen to lend those Felix Gonzalez-Torres Christmas light sculptures to enliven the decor. “Oh, they were very, very expensive,” Daniel assured me. Ran into artist Kathe Burkhart—a great exhibition of her “Liz Taylor Series” closed that very day at Mitchell Algus Gallery—wearing some fuzzy-furry black overcoat and a lot of artfully applied purple-black makeup. We chatted about the Bowery show, and I said I couldn’t get a good look at any of the works for all the bouffant hairdos and novelty headgear, just flashes of pink and yellow and lips and ass. “What did you expect,” Kathe remarked. “It’s a big old faggot all dressed up with nowhere to go. He can’t get out of the gallery, darling, he’s six feet under!”

“Dinner” was at ultrapassé Lot 61, which seemed appropriate, because all the art one remembers from the joint’s fifteen minutes—Damien Hirst spot paintings, Sean Landers’s logorrhetic text paintings, Rudolf Stingel’s orange wall carpeting—was gone, and the place resembled a random nightclub, anywhere and any time. It felt slightly depressing, but I stayed too long anyway.

David Rimanelli

Union Mike

London
01.07.05

Left: Mike Leigh. Right: Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake. (Photos: Universal Pictures, Fine Line Features)


Lancashire's greatest auteur took to the stage to meet the public after a screening of his latest, the almost universally praised Vera Drake. His Q-and-A session at the National Film Theatre was ably set in motion by the British Film Institute's Sandra Hebron, who had selected the movie to open her acclaimed London Film Festival last October. In print, Mike Leigh can come across as a grumpy old man, verging, in his invectives against the Hollywoodization of cinema (a disease, in his view), on the sanctimonious. In person—and before an audience of informed and adoring cinephiles—he is determined yet thoughtful, responsive, jocular, and unquestionably inspiring, though more in the manner of your favorite school teacher than your favorite rock band. “Who IS Vera Drake?” someone shouted from the back. “Where ARE you?” he barked in return, unable to see his interlocutor, before proceeding to speculate on whether Vera Drake, as he had discovered on another public occasion, was coincidentally the name of the questioner's mother.

As the film’s title character, Imelda Staunton is fantastic. With her tiny, kind eyes buried like raisins in a bun, she's endlessly scuttling around with cups of tea, as comforting as Mrs. Tiggywinkle. And her body shrinks, quite literally, into a hedgehoglike ball as a postwar world of austere good cheer shatters around her. For Vera not only offers aid, comfort, and a cuppa to all who need it, but also—unbeknownst to her nearest and dearest—helps girls who find themselves unhappily in the “family way.” Where Naked (1993) was a character study in badness, Vera Drake is a study of goodness. Does the film tell us, someone asked, that “it is inevitable that do-gooders suffer?” Definitely not, responded Leigh. The film isn't a statement but a dramatization of a painful truth: When individual and society hold conflicting moral positions, it's the individual who is likely to lose. Vera Drake is about “a good person criminalized by society.”

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of Leigh as the great satirist of life in Thatcher's Britain. He encapsulated the beginning of the era unforgettably in Abigail's Party (1977), with his ex-wife Alison Steadman as the excruciating Beverly, the materialistic spouse of a suburban real-estate agent. And he chronicled its demise in Life Is Sweet (1990), a film that laments the human cost of '80s enterprise culture. Because he makes cinema that refers to real life and the issues and themes that articulate individual lives, Leigh is often described, in the same breath as Ken Loach, as a “kitchen sink” realist. But it is a misleading comparison: Where Loach's political agenda is clear, Leigh's is intentionally ambiguous; he's a poser of questions rather than a prophet of fact. Leigh's films have never been realist in the sense of “naturalistic” or “documentary.” Their characters and their stories are distilled and dramatically heightened during a monthslong preproduction process of research and rehearsals that has given rise to the common misconception that Leigh’s films are “improvised.” The director described his own role in this process in practical, almost managerial terms, as the leader of a team of actors, designers, and cinematographers who “work together to expand the material, discovering the film through the process of making it.”

Leigh also is frequently attacked for reducing his characters to caricatures of class, and while it is certainly true that anyone upper-middle or beyond tends to be sketched rather than drawn, the charge is irrelevant if you view him not as a social realist but as a “painter” of modern life. His ensemble pieces like Life Is Sweet or Secrets and Lies (1996) remind me most of those bustling Victorian genre paintings, by Francis Frith or Ford Maddox Brown, in which society is represented on a huge canvas populated by closely observed, sharply individuated types, the dramatic details of whose lives are used to figure a moral or social issue. Like those nineteenth-century paintings, Leigh's creations are conscientiously and laboriously crafted. By the time the actors’ fully realized dramatic world is committed to film, it is utterly convincing to the audience. This is why, when Vera Drake starts crying about an hour into the film and continues almost nonstop until its end, you find yourself weeping unavoidably with her. As an observer of everyday life and a dramaturg of intense moral complexities, Mike Leigh may fall short of the effortless brilliance of a Satyajit Ray or a Yasujiro Ozu, or, then again, the radical brilliance of a Lars von Trier. But here in Britain, he's one of a kind.

Kate Bush