Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, We’re Gonna Die, 2011. Performance View. Future Wife.
Young Jean Lee’s latest work, We’re Gonna Die, is being performed at Joe’s Pub in New York through April 30. Lee is a New York–based playwright and director who began the Obie-winning Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company in 2003. She was recently awarded a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.
THIS IS ACTUALLY A SHOW ABOUT PAIN, and one major source of pain that we address is the fact that we’re all going to age and die. No matter how lucky you are in the world, that’s something everyone eventually faces.
You could definitely see We’re Gonna Die as part two of Lear —but in some ways it’s also the total opposite. It’s the crowd-pleasing version. I feel like there are definitely crowd-pleasing elements in all of my shows, but there are also form-related things that upset certain people. Normally my work is more experimental or nonlinear, and because of that some people get upset that there is no coherent plot. For example, half the people who saw Lear were totally outraged that it turned into an episode of Sesame Street in the second half. We’re Gonna Die is my first show where it has all the crowd-pleasing elements but none of the formal frustration. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more straightforward show. There is no subtext in this work. With that said, the content is as difficult and alienating as in any of my other shows, if not more so. It’s definitely life-affirming, but not unambiguously so. I basically say at the beginning that my intent is to offer the audience comfort, and then I proceed to make them feel worse and worse until finally I end up giving them the comfort that I promised to them.
The music was very central to the show, and the songs came before the text. I wrote the songs with the musical director, Tim Simmonds. I would sing crude lyrics and melodies into a recorder and he would help me refine them and turn them into real songs. Then our band, Future Wife––Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Ben Kupstas––helped us make them musically interesting. The members are all songwriters and front men of their own bands, so they contributed a huge amount musically. Then I created the script through improvisation in collaboration with Paul and also Morgan Gould, the show’s associate director. I don’t recite the script word for word, since it has to sound conversational, almost like a self-help seminar or something.
It’s definitely not charisma in the way we normally think of it, in the sense of a larger-than-life personality, but what we did find was that everybody has the potential for their own kind of charisma onstage if you can just tap into it. It’s an unselfconscious communicativeness that I definitely didn’t have when I started out. When I began, I had this default position of standing stock still without any expression on my face at all. That was just my default mode when I was onstage, but the director Paul Lazar managed to coax out this other quality, which is what I’m like when I’m animated and telling stories to my friends in my living room. I feel like everybody has that inside of them, when they have a really good story or when they have something interesting to say, this sort of human charisma that is not a performer charisma but a storytelling one. That’s what propels the show forward.
The show is definitely not stand-up or comedy, although people are laughing through the whole thing. It’s more like the kind of laughter of where you have pent-up tension and you need relief. So in this show people are laughing at all kinds of awful and weird things. They’re like, “Phew, she gave me this moment where I get to laugh.” And then I start tightening the screws again.
I am looking forward to the end of this run like I have never looked forward to anything before. I just can’t imagine how an actor getting to the end of a run would possibly want to audition for a new show. Performing is just stressful; it’s incredibly difficult. It makes you crazy. My respect and admiration for performers, and in particular for solo performers, has increased a thousandfold. I watched a lot of brilliant solo and cabaret performers as research for this show, and I still have no idea how they do it.
Stan Douglas is well known for his installations, films, and photographs that evoke historical events and outdated technologies. His latest exhibition, “Midcentury Studio,” examines the rise of press photography in North America. The show is on view at David Zwirner Gallery until April 23.
THIS PROJECT BEGAN when I was doing research about the corruption of the police force in Vancouver in the 1950s, and about a photojournalist named Raymond Munro who broke a story about a dishonest police chief. Munro was an aviator during World War II; he came back from the war and heard of a job as an aerial photographer in Vancouver. He knew he couldn’t take photographs, but he could fly an airplane with one hand, and so he applied for the job and got it. Looking at his archival work, I noticed that there is a funny way in which he is not aware of visual tropes found in modernist pictorial depiction. Then I began doing research and saw a pattern in this postwar period––there are a lot of similarly incompetent photographs but nevertheless interesting images. Everything was kind of normalized by 1951, when the Magnum paradigm became dominant, so this in-between moment fascinated me.
I shot the works with a high-resolution camera but tried to simulate the look of these press photos with a powerful handheld flash, because those old flashbulbs were quite intense. I didn’t have a certain picture to create in mind but basically improvised with what was there. For some of the bigger photographs, like Hockey Fight, I used a fixed frame and within that frame improvised action took place. With the other ones it was quite loose—for example, I’d just ask the magicians what kind of tricks they could do and went from there. I approached each work as if it were a documentary site.
Demobilization Suit is another case of a journalistic photograph that has lost its context. Back before Photoshop, journalists would do things like painting around edges to isolate a figure or piece of clothing. In this case, the photographer would have cut around the image with paint that could be reproduced and separated in the magazine. But here we see the artifact––we see him in his kitchen. This person has been sort of disembodied by the act of painting.
In many ways, the apparatus determined the kind of photographs one could make back then. Now, with cell phone cameras, the possibilities of these images have been reduced. Shifts in exposure or placement of focus or contrast––all of these things that are slightly beyond the control of the midcentury operator are completely unavailable to the people who are taking videos and photographs with their cell phones. It seems we have sacrificed the possibilities of what we can do with the medium for the convenience of getting this picture that I guess is acceptable to people as a proper image. For twenty years or longer we have looked at artists using photography as a document instead of the medium itself, as in performance documentation or Conceptual photography. In this work I am looking for photography as photography.
Lynne Tillman’s latest collection of short stories, titled Someday This Will Be Funny, was published this month by the new imprint Red Lemonade. The fiction editor of Fence, Tillman is the author of several novels and books of short fiction. She will read from her new book on May 10 at 192 Books.
ONE OF THESE STORIES was written a long time ago. “The Way We Are” was written around 1978, and it appeared without my name in a little magazine I was doing with a friend back then––Paranoids Anonymous Newsletter. It probably reached about three hundred people. Anyway, I decided to revise it a bit and put it in this book. There was another I fussed with more: The novella “Love Sentence” was published in the psychoanalytic journal American Imago in 1993. Thomas Keenan was guest editing an issue on love, and he asked me if I would write something. At the time, I thought it would be best to start by dissecting the sentence “I love you,” which led to my thinking about death sentence, the death sentence, and several other puns. In the 1980s and the early ’90s, there was a particular emphasis on writing with puns and other language games. Usually I let something stay as it was written, but in this case, the amount of punning unsettled me a bit. I thought that I went overboard, in unnecessary ways. Perhaps I was just being a little too tongue in cheek—I guess my tongue was outside my cheek, too.
Usually, I don’t have the impulse to revise a published piece. I look at the work I have done in the past with wonder, because I couldn’t do it now. And it’s neither better nor worse than what I’ve done recently; you write in a certain moment in your life and your experiences and ideas have reached a certain point at that time. Let’s just say you move on. It’s not “progress”; it’s something different. You don’t necessarily get better as you get older. If only. You have more of a sense of what the problems and possibilities are. I believe my craft is better, and I’ve allowed myself more choices.
By putting these stories together I could see the different ways they are related, but there are so many differences too. This question of the “family” or the association among the characters is hard for me to answer. I do like to work with male protagonists as well as female protagonists, and in this book you might notice more male voices than my previous short story collections. It’s also been lovely to work with Richard Nash from Red Lemonade [and formerly of Soft Skull Press], because I trust him totally as an editor. He ultimately chose what should go in this book and what shouldn’t. It’s most important to me that the ideas go beyond the words and live off the page––that’s what any writer wants, right? When I read something that I love, it haunts me for days, maybe years; sometimes it gets confusing and I find myself wondering, “Was that a dream or did I read that in a book?” In some ways, the kind of writing that gets embedded in your mind is a wonderful thing to strive for.
I think most writers would say that they are most involved with the book that they’re writing now, or that they’re trying to write now. I’m looking forward to Richard’s reprints of my books, but I have no idea how people will respond. So many books go out of print right away––at least many of mine have. In the ’80s, under Reagan, I think, a law went into effect that publishers would be taxed on their inventory. Suddenly they had to get rid of all the books they had in warehouses so that they wouldn’t have to pay money for them. The books were treated as income rather than as something that could potentially be income. So that really screwed things up, in the same way that under Reagan a lot of things got screwed up.
I hope most for Richard’s doing well, selling a lot, with the new press, more so than with my books. I’m not really interested in sales; I can’t be, though it’d be great. Most writers don’t sell that well, even if their reviews are great. Now with e-books and Kindle, I think there may be a renaissance in reading, and that’s really important. Loads of books can be on something portable and lightweight, and that is just so cool.
Charline von Heyl, Untitled (Wall at WAM), 2010, acrylic and latex paint, 17 x 67'.
Charline von Heyl is known for her abstract paintings and works on paper. In November 2010, she created a seventy-foot-long mural for the Worcester Art Museum, as the ninth artist’s project for the museum’s “Wall at WAM” series. She will speak about her work at the museum on May 19.
AFTER I WAS ASKED TO DO THE MURAL, I completely put it out of my mind. I went to Marfa and made a very strange body of work––a series of drawings of animals. They were weird and funny but also clearly representational: stark, black wax crayon outlines filled in with radiant simple colors. I loved them but didn’t want to show them, which I thought was interesting. Freedom has always been the name of my game, so what was I afraid of?
I began to think about the mural. I started by flipping through the museum’s catalogues of the permanent collection that Susan Stoops, who had initiated the project, had sent me. She had mentioned that she’d love it if my mural could be inspired by a work within the museum’s collection. I spotted this little image of a 1961 Ellsworth Kelly painting, three stacked orange lozenges, elements that I immediately knew would be the perfect background if I altered them. Similar lozenges, doubled and sideways, would reflect the surrounding arches and the orange, my favorite color anyway, would highlight the color of the stone. In the end it was more an homage to the architecture than to Ellsworth Kelly––to tell you the truth, I didn’t really think about Kelly at all.
I made exactly one drawing onto this background, using the rough crayon technique that I had worked with over the summer. I wasn’t sure about it, because it was quite figurative. You can see eyes, a fish tail, even a body. I stared at it for a year. But every time I tried to create another option I got paralyzed and thought: no.
I want my paintings to be ambivalent, with paradoxical space and speeds, each one a kind of self-satisfied silent universe. The function of a mural is different: The mural should be part of its physical surroundings, be shamelessly decorative, and possess an immediacy of relation. I absolutely love the look of modernist murals, especially Picasso’s concrete works with line drawings. I was also fascinated by this idea of having a small, fast, spontaneous gesture blown up beyond proportion. The mural allowed me to indulge in ideas I had always thought about but dismissed as design.
Creating the Worcester mural turned out to be a huge celebration of the joy of letting things happen. I got inspired by a tiny or small print of painting and made it my own without thinking twice. What’s more, I let a representational image appear without judging or destroying it, and I loved the result. This really raised some questions about the way I am accustomed to making my work and the restrictions I constantly apply.
These were real questions of crisis for me, but a productive crisis. The mural is at once an emblem of this crisis and an absolute affirmation of possibilities. All my preconceptions about art versus design or abstraction versus figuration got totally mixed up, which I think is good—if nothing else, it certainly does make me want to paint more murals.
Dianna Molzan is an artist based in Los Angeles. “Bologna Meissen,” her first solo show in New York as well as her first museum exhibition, will feature twelve works, including five that will be on view there for the first time. The show opens at the Whitney Museum on April 8.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I spend a lot of time visiting art museums. I especially like to visit the big museums and explore the seemingly endless rows of vitrines that contain artisan objects and old bits of stuff from cultures long gone. I think that all of this perusing and my curiosity about these objects, which aren’t necessarily given much context in the galleries, have affected my approach to making paintings.
In museums, objects are nearly equalized; that is, there seems to be this process that brings culturally and historically varied works into the present moment for the viewer. For example, in a single afternoon, and under one roof, you can see a pre-Columbian clay pot, a panel of Victorian lace, an El Greco painting, and a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture––so it does not seem that odd to me to kind of re-create that viewing experience within a group of paintings.
Painting has a wonderful ability to conjure up so many diverse qualities using unchanging materials (paint, canvas, frame support)––one work can look sumptuous while another looks coarse, and it all depends on how the materials are applied. Even though it can be said that I am revealing the structure of painting in my work, illusionism is still very present.
There is no sense of hierarchy from one painting to the next in my work, but instead there is a path of idiosyncratic influence that changes from day to day. This is a conversation about a fascination with objects. In my studio, I am responding to objects and I am making other objects that I want people to have a sensory response to, that spark an internal and independent engagement. This is why I do not title my works. When you are moving through the world and come upon something compelling and random, it often does not come with a caption and a title, and you must rely on your own wits and deductive reasoning to make sense of it.
In my mind I am not deconstructing painting; instead I am exploring and maximizing everything up for grabs inherent to it. More than anything else, I feel like an enthusiast.
Sigrid Nunez, a New York–based writer, has published six novels. Here, she talks about her latest book, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, in which she looks back on her years living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, in the 1970s. On April 14, Nunez will discuss the book with Phillip Lopate at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, and on April 28, a reading will be held at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. Sempre Susan is published by Atlas & Co.
THIS BOOK ISN’T A BIOGRAPHY or a critical study. It’s a memoir about a person who had a great influence on me at a particular time in my life under rather unusual circumstances. I first met Susan in 1976, soon after her first bout with cancer. She had a huge pile of unanswered letters to get through, and she wanted someone to sit at her desk and type while she dictated. I happened to live near her apartment at 106th Street and Riverside Drive, and I’d also worked at the New York Review of Books, whose editors in fact recommended me to her. The job lasted just a few days, but by then I’d met Susan’s son, David, who was living with her at the time. We started dating, and I ended up moving in with them.
People were always fascinated by Susan. The essays that made her a rising star in the 1960s were totally original and stylish and daring. And she had such a wide range of interests: literature, film, dance, opera, politics. She had a wonderful look, tall and darkly beautiful, and a lovely, alluring voice. If she enjoyed being famous, I think it was mostly because it enabled her to be part of so many different worlds, and her dream had always been “to do everything.”
But I know there were times when it got to be too much for her. She told me how, at the height of her first wave of celebrity, after “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” went, as we’d say today, viral, she taped a sign to the telephone saying NO, to get herself to stop accepting every single invitation. Also, although many people saw her as glamorous, she didn’t really try to cultivate that image. For the most part, she didn’t care about how she looked. She didn’t wear makeup, and she usually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
She was a feminist––you could say that, by example, she was a super-feminist. But she was also very critical of women, who she thought would never be liberated until they behaved more like men. She didn’t understand, for example, why women insisted on carrying purses. Why did women burden themselves? Men didn’t do that! And at her first dinner party at her publisher’s house, where the custom was for male and female guests to repair to separate rooms after dessert, Susan went with the men. Why hadn’t the other women thought of that? But when feminists complained about women being so underrepresented in the arts, she was unsympathetic. As she put it, “Art is not an equal-opportunity employer.”
Maybe partly because we were both women, I spent more time talking with Susan than I did with David. Sharing the same household turned out to be a terrible idea, but long after I’d moved out, Susan continued to be a major influence. She was a natural mentor. She was forever giving me reading lists. She took me to see The Marriage of Figaro for the first time, and to the New York Film Festival, which I don’t think I knew anything about back then. That’s an important part of this book: looking back to a time when I was young and ignorant and lucky enough to be learning from this brilliant, magnetic woman who seemed to know everything.
Of course, I couldn’t have written this book while Susan was alive. It’s a memoir about people and times that are gone. It’s all about loss, and about how things have changed. Just think about a book like Against Interpretation now: How would such a book survive in our literary marketplace? Is it even conceivable that those essays could make their author a rock star?