BOURGEOIS and CRUMB
Let’s meet under one of those big gouaches by Louise Bourgeois in which she outlines family relationships. I love this one the way I love that Wittgenstein duck rabbit illusion where if you think it’s a duck you can’t imagine that others around you are seeing a rabbit.
My picture of her will always be colored
by the memories Larry Rinder shared, the fictionalized Bourgeois he wrote about in his novel Revenge of the Decorated Pigs. In it he appears as “Kevin,” a young curator newly arrived from California to New York, where he has taken a post at a museum rather like the Whitney, and she appears as “Solange Boucher, a brilliant but notoriously difficult artist with whom Kevin was on rare good terms. Boucher was in her nineties and hadn’t agreed to a major museum exhibition in twenty-five years although she had been working consistently with ever fresher and more provocative results. Her most recent work consisted of figurative sculptures, displayed in sexual and often violent pairings, sewn together with every last scrap of her own old clothing. Since she never left her Greenwich Village townhouse, Boucher made do now with a single tattered housecoat.”
SPIDER MUSIC by JACK SPICER
The spider is awake in the eyebrows of sense.
The famous spider famed in song and story.
Even the thought of him makes my eyeballs cold. He tells one to wait
It is his season.
Even his web, which he built, is still at the window.
Jim, don’t we love one another enough not to like spiders
To keep their names off the banisters of our senses
Personed like our love
We smash their web.
Spicer’s obviously thinking of the spider in his poem as male. “Even the thought of him makes my eyeballs cold.” This poem and the others that follow it in his sequence “Spider Music” came to him through dictation in the spring of 1963, about eight months after the introduction of Stan Lee’s young “Spider-Man” in Marvel Comics Amazing Fantasy #15 in the summer of 1962. To this day, popular culture is haunted by the specter of a teenage hero, a superhero, who “does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size; catches thieves just like flies…. Is he strong? Listen, bud—he’s got radioactive blood. Can he swing from a thread? Take a look overhead.”
An anonymous musician,
listening to the sound of Louise in New York studio,
slapping clay from one hand to another, rushed in the room
He thought it was Paul Klee whom she was slapping, but she
was innocent of most of the charges we have lodged against her,
she had a purity: her thinking some thought naive,
but she was as shrewd as her Chanel,
her skittering web of device, and she left no trail ever.
The Tapestry and the Web (1965.though begun much earlier) was the first published book of the late Bolinas-based poet Joanne Kyger. It’s a complex meditation on Homeric myth and the pattern of women reduced to symbolic, improbable figures of virtue and vice. We all know Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey: the faithful wife who keeps Ithaca on an even keel while Odysseus tries to return to her following the close of the Trojan War. Suitors try to persuade her that he must be dead—suitors covetous of his wealth or her beauty, and to hold them off she devises scheme after scheme. She tells them for example that she will take a new husband—perhaps—when she finishes weaving the burial shroud of Laertes, her father-in-law. Instead she deceives them by ripping out every stitch at night under cover of darkness, so that work never progresses on the shroud and years mount up. Like Bourgeois, Penelope was raised in a household in which tapestry and web making were important decorative arts. In the Bourgeois home these arts were the family business. It was what made them bourgeois in fact. Following a passage in Robert Graves, in the wildly speculative romance of his 1948 book The White Goddess, Kyger fantasizes that perhaps Penelope was not as true as Homer paints her, and that perhaps an affair with one of her suitors led to the birth of Pan. The “monster Pan,” Kyger avers. Homer credits Penelope with one son, Telemachus, Odysseus’ son brown shortly after Odysseus left Ithaca for Troy.
Kyger allows Penelope more agency, even perhaps a wild streak, maybe a family strain? (he herself is said to have been the daughter of Icarius.) Bourgeois turned a quiet childhood in the tapestry repair shop of her parents into a mythological space at once wild, teratological, and classically austere. She continued all her life to work in tapestry, and to see her mother as a weaver, often as a spider. I wonder if she ever read any of Kyger’s poetry? She surely was familiar with the birth of Pan and his suspension between life, death, human, and animal. She died in 2010 at a great age, in her late 90s, still a furious factory of production capable of ever larger works, like filling the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. Kyger found out she was sick at Christmas time and cancelled many engagements, though few put it together and realized how ill she was. A Buddhist since the early 50s, she sublimated hurt and anxiety into the freer structures of Zen and meditative practice, paying particular attention to the everyday. I guess we thought they would both live forever. Kyger died in March.
Prometheus invented fire which was there anyway.
Pan thought up the little claw pipes to whistle down the wind, which made fools out of humans, the pipes of Pan, the Pan-Pacific
Don’t burn your fingers on the fire, on the ceiling, but snatch it down,
Bring it to earth, what we know as the floor,
We look up and see the stars and the sun like our friends, the gods,
If we kill our children, other children will prosper.
It’s like some Stephen Sondheim tune only superfans relate to.
Scholars have traced Bourgeois’ use of the spider motif back to a small drawing in ink and charcoal dating from 1947, but there was been some debate as to whether the explosion of giant spiders in her work might owe something to the success of the first two Alien films in 1979 and 1986. These were products of the Hollywood studio system, for which the Swiss artist and designer H.R. Giger, under the direction of Ridley Scott, worked up the horror aspect of the spider mother, evolving into the alien queen whom Sigourney Weaver confronts in the James Cameron sequel—fans call this creature the Xenomorph. For years Bourgeois seemed eager to show spiderdom as a benign, female-centric, warm creature of creation, her studio an exhibition space like the barnyard door of the hardworking, generous eponym of E.B. White’s and Garth Williams’ novel Charlotte’s Web of 1952. Bourgeois once claimed for example that spiders were good creatures because they killed mosquitoes, and without them humans would have perished long ago, dead of disease. But something changed her take on things along the way! In 1958, when Kyger began writing The Tapestry and the Web, she began in the maze.
In Williamsburg, Virginia
pointed out the Maze
in the dead
I went to it
like a long hallway
the tightly trimmed
in an unquestioning manner
caressed my feet
the sky disappeared
the sound of water
knew each corner
Held captive in a cave
sobbed for his wife
who was singing high
from the center of a
of their design
from a stone
in my path
and turning at last
the speckled bench
and halting fountain
the curtains of the window
from the thin folds
her possessed fingers
thrusts them away with
sharp jabs of long pins
to the walls.
By resetting the legend of Penelope in childhood memories of colonial Williamsburg, Kyger allows the residual horrors of American life to peer through the thorny branches of the Maze, and we look in on a colonial system in which half those living in its walls were black, most of whom lived as slaves. Patrick Henry, whose slogan was “Give me liberty or give me death,” lived in Williamsburg, the largest slave owner in the entire settlement. Here the child sees past centuries and sees the demented insect jabbing holes into the walls of the maze, while creating a “demented web” through the thin folds of her possessed fingers. Possessed is a funny word in this context. Body parts “possessed.” Possessed by whom?
Kyger was writing in an age, the 50s and 60s, in which Freudian psychoanalysis ruled world culture, and whole Joan Crawford movies were built on that edifice. There was the idea that the traumas of youth and early childhood ran dominant over the developing libido, twisting the ego, the merging self into wars of id and superego whose causes were buried under the natural defenses of the capitalist subject. Mothers were usually at the bottom of everything. This displacement of anxiety onto the mother came at a price.
R. Crumb has also thought long and hard about the legacy of black slavery in the USA, His comic strips and cartoons from the mid-1960s onward have proven confrontational, controversial even to his fans. When he started taking LSD and envisioning the black characters that came to him in altered states, “Angelfood McSpade” was born, and, in the cartoonist’s way, her body parts were vividly exaggerated for comic effect, but you could say that he was satirizing the way whites viewed the racial imaginary. To Crumb belong the lines and the cross hatching that exaggerated previous trends of cartooning into a recognizably sixties look, so that the cover of Columbia Records’ Cheap Thrills, by Big Brother and the Holding Company, says everything about the racial attitudes of 60s San Francisco, if San Francisco were Cleveland which of course it is a sense. In the decades since the heyday of Mr. Natural and Zap Comix, Crumb honed the crosshatching and brought his drawings to a Rembrandt sheen in which darkness reveals the numinous.
I love the piece here at Ratio 3 in which Crumb sets up a dialogue between himself as the artist and a big blond publisher (or agent) called “Stan” regarding pleasing market tastes. When Stan annoys Crumb with some well-placed jabs about his addiction to cross-hatching, Crumb gets his revenge subtly, by lightening up on the cross-hatching so that “Stan” becomes monstrously two-dimensional, like a gingerbread man. “Whoa!” cries Stan. “Hey, don’t make me a NON-PERSON over here!” Crumb giggles his way through two more panels in which Stan regains his original shape. “Simplify the damn drawings!” is his message, but he admits he’s a “crude barbarian, a Philistine.” On page two he accuses Crumb of looking like an old character actor from Hollywood films of the thirties, and the attack continues. Stan may admit to being a “normal contemporary asshole,” with a penchant for taking cute blondes onto his private plane, but what’s with Crumb’s particular fetish, he asks. “Yer eccentricities are tres amusant, mon ami, the thing about climbin’ on big girls.... Ya never met a recreational vehicle ya didn’t like, innat right?”
When one thinks back to the spider, one remembers Joseph Cornell’s first dated collage, the untitled piece familiarly known as “Schooner.” Cut out of old engravings sliced from books, the layers of “Schooner” include a Peter Gallo-like of ship of fools headed west, its sails pointy, jaunty sheets of lines stitching together panels of rough fabric. The stern of the ship explodes, its masts carrying a giant cabbage rose neatly extracted so that it is perfectly fit into the existing ship litho, but that wasn’t enough for Cornell, who cuts away the center of the rose to show a spiderweb roughly in match with the stitching on the sails at the bow, a spiderweb open to the winds, and yet somehow a large spider sits triumphantly in its center. This collage is at the Hirschhorn Museum. There’s another here, this spider in my hand. Of course all of us live with the drawing of a spider in each of our palms, those of us blessed with hands that is—when you take out your hand and show it as if to a gypsy, its bed folds over into an M or other insectoid shapes. But here is Kathy Acker’s ring of motorcycle keys, with additional trimmings. Acker, who lived between 1947 and 1997, lived through the age of late surrealism and took from Max Ernst and di Chirico the vision of the spider as creator. She put herself onto the literary map by borrowing Eleanor Antin’s mailing list and sending out, chapter by chapter, the beginnings of her serial novel she was eventually (1973) to call The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. Here a spider dangles from the web and pulls up a skull into it.
And if the spider
scratches a hole in the skull of the poet
somewhere, Rene Ricard aspires, giggling
He wrote a note from the Chelsea Hotel,
on the stationery of Leona Helmsley
the “queen of mean,” as the Post threw at her
till she said she repented.
The ship headed west—towards America.... the ship headed to slave nations, including our own. The middle passage. Cornell wasn’t even that old when he died, but he lived through youth as if it were middle age, and his middle age never ended. He outlived Janis Joplin when it comes to that. Who is the little penguin that sails around the human floors of Crumb’s apartments, sweeping up and fretfully, fitfully tidying up after the giant human assholes spilling their ashes and their fantasies onto the floor? Who is that ambiguous figure in Crumb? In ruffled apron, beads of sweat flying off your head, your dustpan and broom buzzing with the lines cartoonists use to denote furious action or radiance, maybe you are embodying grace in a hellish world? The Crumbs live in France and the present exhibition helps you see why the two artists, Bourgeois and Crumb, seem almost to have swapped countries. Here’s a door in rue de Pont Vieux. It is the door between two worlds, as are all doors.
There are sand dunes in the streets of Laredo,
Nikko-San, when both of us were young.
And at the top of the stairs we pause,
Before us, some sort of animal with an
ass like a carnation
Daddy always said there’d be some days,
Nikko-San, when you wake up to
Frustration, and others when you can’t find your
Purse no more,
And I’m guessing this is Friday.
The title of the exhibition, “The Present Tense,” encourages us to view these works as contemporary, indeed to see all the material things of the world as occurring at the same time, and so does my talk. Bourgeois and Crumb both harkened back in their own work to the masters of the 20s and 30s: for Bourgeois there was her teacher, Leger, and for Crumb and his brothers, the high powered Rapidograph comic work of Walt Kelly, the author of Pogo, and the Max Fleischer cartoons like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat. Strange survivors extending their forearms until they curtail, like ears. Under the moonlight, Penelope rips up her web into shreds, and one dishonest handmaid tells what she saw when the night turns to day.
Long shadows of race and injustice lurk under these drawings, for at bottom we are all of us still trying to represent a horror that some other part of us insists we pass over. Thank you all, thank you Chris and Theo, for letting me indulge in my speculation on the spiders we live with. Are they male or female? Kind or beastly? Pan or Joan Crawford? Weavers or destroyers? Do they remember or insure forgetting? Good night.
The Present Tense: Louise Bourgeois / R. Crumb
June 24 – July 13
Summer gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm
Walkthrough and poetry reading by Kevin Killian: Friday, July 7 at 7pm
Ratio 3 is pleased to announce the sixth phase of our current exhibition, The Present Tense. On Saturday, June 24, The Present Tense transitions from a two-artist exhibition of works by Zach Bruder and Louise Bourgeois to a new two-artist exhibition, pairing paintings on paper and the Anatomy drypoint series by Bourgeois with a survey of original drawings, including notebook sketches and multi-page comics from the last five decades by R. Crumb.
This phase of The Present Tense features two artists who, after developing their work in different visual traditions, have each come to occupy singular positions in contemporary art and culture. Both Crumb's illustrations and Bourgeois's works on paper offer humor, wonder, and intimacy through inimitable styles of mark-making. Where Crumb’s densely cross-hatched panels frequently find absurdity in sexuality and angst, Bourgeois's etchings and gouache paintings reveal different but equally earnest and potent depictions of the human condition. Both artists’ works are simultaneously figurative and interpretive, offering powerful and occasionally unnerving representations that address human nature and probe our psychology.
By taking the absurd and mystifying aspects of desire as their subject matter, Crumb’s and Bourgeois’s images each offer glimpses into an unabashed subjectivity. Through storytelling, and reimagining the human form, each artist produces work that reveals universal themes, whether familiar or taboo, through highly personal viewpoints.
To mark the penultimate phase of The Present Tense's many two-artist conversations, Ratio 3 welcomes the public to attend a brief walkthrough of the exhibition and a reading of original poetry by author, poet, and playwright Kevin Killian on Friday, July 7, at 7pm. This event takes place at the gallery; admission is free.
The Present Tense emphasizes the perpetual nature of artistic thought and production. It is a platform to introduce new practices, reinterpret familiar bodies of work, and respond immediately to artists in an urgent moment. The Present Tense is a group exhibition drawn across time, a series of two-artist conversations, a continuous rotation surveying several artists’ practices, and an invitation for discourse.