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Vernon Street Open Studios

I went to Vernon Street Open Studios yesterday with my artist friend Francisco De la Barra, whose show just opened at the Gallery at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge.  It’s there through the end of the month.

I’m fortunate to have met Francisco.  He’s a great guy to tour Open Studios with.  His energy is contagious, and when he sees something he likes he doesn’t hold back.  We also have similar tastes in art, and while that may seem to make for dull discussion, it doesn’t mean we get the same things out of it.  But it does give us a common language to share ideas and insights.  And that common language is a rare and wonderful thing.  Music to my ears, at least.

Vernon Street has an embarrassment of riches where the talent’s concerned.  The first studio we stumbled into belonged to Tony Bragg, a wiry kid from Portland, Maine, whose work had elements of the grotesque, uncanny, and otherworldly — I saw traces of Goya in some of the more representational pieces, and loud echoes of Otto Dix and Francis Bacon (who once said “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” — which seems apt here).

There’s an intensity to all of his stuff, and a consistency — a reappearance of certain themes, shapes, characters, motifs to the point of loose narrative — that makes viewing a wall of his work compellingly like reading a graphic novel about the artist’s Id in his own private language.


This private language is one that artists struggle all their lives to understand themselves and uncompromisingly articulate, so it’s no mean feat when it comes across as loud and clear as it does in Bragg’s work.

Francisco asked him about a recurring character covered in hair. Broadly speaking I saw it as part of a clear fascination with the grotesque.  It reminded me of William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust, where he writes:

Hair’s refusal to stay where it started means that it has a problematic relation with our conception of innocence.  Hair is generally innocent only when it is pure and that is only before it starts to invade territories beyond the scalp.  Once embarked on its colonization of other regions it becomes everywhere a source of  danger, either because seductive or because repellent.  It is perhaps impossible to be decorous about the subject of pubic hair.

Bragg admitted that he may have developed the theme because he considers himself excessively hairy.  In his work it comes across as comical, creepy, sad — even, as he recalled one viewer commenting: “heroic”.  The fascination with it, with the strangeness of form (explored through strange forms), particularly with the oddness of bodies, human or otherwise, is potent and powerful in everything Bragg has on display in his studio.

My two other favorite artists here are Keith Maddy and Resa Blatman.

Maddy’s collage and mixed media pieces are like Miro on amphetamines…


Keith’s compositions can seem fussy at first, but they are, to a one, perfect.  Looking at Out of the Woods (above), for example, you get the sense of a curiosity shop packed with fascinations such that if you grabbed one and pulled it off the shelf, the whole shop would come crashing down on top of you.  There is a just-so-ness of balance and symmetry that’s at the same time organic and reflective of the process of assembling found objects.

And there is, despite the richness and density of the composition, nothing spare, and — aside from whatever narrative is in it — this immediately pleases the eye.  In fact, the colors, textures, and compositions Keith comes up with are like candy — not just any candy — Willie Wonka candy.  Magic candy.

Keith also does Christmas cards, which are delightful.  If you’re going to be in the market for some, they’re gorgeous, original little works of art, no two alike, and he’s practically giving them away at $10 a pop.

Resa Blatman’s work is as irresistible.  And it too has a perfectly organic feel…


The word that came immediately to mind was fecund.  She strikes a fascinating balance — her work could be precious if not for the boldness — even frankness — of her pallet, and her own fascination with the frightening beauty of swarms and the sticky sweetness of surfeit.

Each work demands and richly rewards close attention — even devotion.  The thing that strikes you is how indiscriminate the artist is with beauty.  You are as likely to find it in bats as butterflies.  It oozes out of every inch of the work — scary and gorgeous at the same time, like art should be.

Francisco and I grabbed a beer afterwards, and he gave me a tour of Union Square.  I have to say it’s refreshing to be in the company of people for whom everything is alive — with all that that entails — from order to chaos, from glory to squalor — and for whom it’s all beautiful.


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Short Stories


Trouble indeed.

Despite the name, my porn-star gorgeous friend Patrick Short is about ten feet tall.  Everything about him is big.  Like, really, really big.  Which makes sense, him being from Texas and all. So when he came up with Guerilla Arts, an art space with an attitude in a dilapidated building in a dodgy part of Dallas that used to house a Vietnam Veteran’s biker gang, with its mission “to make Texas the leader in the contemporary art world”*, I was not surprised.

Patrick is all of, like, 23, but I remember being immediately impressed right off the bat by his intelligence, energy, audacious ambition, and… well, other things that are impressive about him.  And while thankfully there are also many ways in which he’s more or less a typical 23 year-old, I’ve rarely met anyone as together in certain respects at such a tender age.

What I especially like about Patrick is that when he had a little setback last fall, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, commandeered a building and started a non-profit art space with the goal of taking over the world.  I mean, most mornings it’s a chore for me to trudge downstairs and make a pot of coffee, much less take over the world.

Patrick is what you’d call a “manifester.”  I don’t mean this in a flaky, new agey Oprah way, I mean it in the Guy Ritchie talking about Madonna in GQ way, without the “retarded” part.  Patrick is just one of those people who can make things happen.  And despite what Oprah tells you, not everyone can do that.

I mean, take Boston.  I get so sick of the whinging and whining about a coffee shop closing here or a bookstore folding there.  If you want coffee shops and bookstores, open them.  No one owes you a scene.  You want one, make one.  Don’t have a bazillion dollars?  Use the materials at hand.  Make it happen.  See what I’m saying?

If you’re not a manifester like Madonna or Patrick, you can help make things happen by throwing your support behind the manifester of your choice (I would personally rather it was Patrick than Madonna at this point).

I’m pretty excited for Guerilla Arts.  I have a feeling it’s gonna be big.
*Read more here.

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20 Questions (More or Less) For Sandra Cohen

Sandra Cohen’s paintings are mindscapes — their depth and layering suggest memories and dreams (and memories of dreams and dreams of memories).  Some of her pieces on display in the Strata show at MKL GALLERY in Somerville (through November 15th) evoke brilliant French Symbolist Odilon Redon, only updated — with oblique references to artifical intelligence, modern warfare, quantum physics and memes.

Redon’s description of his own work seems apt here: “My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

Cohen says of hers: “My work is successful when it offers a glimpse of something intangible through its layers of queasy patterns and familiar unreality, something n-dimensional, dumb, and savant. I want the finished work to be luxuriant and seductive. I hope to offer a pleasurable sensuality that eats itself as the experience becomes over-luxuriant… a narcotic, hypnotizing beauty that reveals vertiginous chaos.”

She was gracious enough to answer a few questions about art for me, via email…

Define what art is not in three words, or two words and a symbol or flag semaphore of your choosing.

fixed, predictable, dependable

Name one thing art can’t do, no matter how it tries.

be manifest simply by desire

Briefly: what’s the main difference between art and everything else?

maybe nothing; concept may be its only property

If art were an animal, it would be…

a push-me-pull-you

If art were an animal.

Can species other than humans make art?

some birds do it consciously

Does art need oxygen to survive?


You are a non-carbon-based life-form exploring the universe.  Earth is your first exposure to something called “art.”  Explain to your species back home what it is.

they play this game called ‘art’

Sticking with the intergalactic theme: Earth is about to be destroyed.  You have room for one work of art (not your own) in your escape pod, which will it be?

a musical instrument is a work of art to me, one that begets more art

(Not incidentally, Cohen is a musician as well.)

Provide values for variables in these equations:

a + b = art

particle + wave = art

c – d = art

yes – no = art

Q: What would your withdrawal symptoms be
if you were forced to go without art?
A: I would become criminal or
obnoxious immediately.

Can art ever be evil?


Is it ever art’s fault?


Name a piece of art that scares you.

the people other people create


the artists seem unaware of their creations

What would a world without art be like?

we wouldn’t be there

What about a world with only bad art?  Which would be worse?

in context, ‘bad’ art could become ‘good’ art by necessity or else provoke better art

Can art ever be too fine, too abstract, or too contemporary?


Answer yes or no and explain, substituting “art” for “a tree” in the following and “gallery” for “forest”: “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?”

yes — even a black hole makes a sound (apparently, the sound resonates as a B-flat 5 octaves below human hearing range)

Evil Genius Dr. Hatesart is giving you a choice:  between all the food in a village and all the art in your favorite museum/city/shoebox under your bed.  If you choose to feed the village, the art goes on the bonfire.  If you choose the art, the village with all its inhabitants, goes up in flames.  Choose, and justify.

feed them, they will make new art

Can anyone understand and appreciate art?  Even, say, Dick Cheney?

it’s always possible…

Visit Sandra Cohen online at

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Brave New Apps

I’m THIS CLOSE to going out and getting an iphone.  I’ve contacted my tech-savvy friend Dejan to be my sherpa, and am planning an expedition to the Apple Store maybe as early as next week.

I feel it’s been long enough on the market that getting one won’t make me look like an “early adapter” (basically techie for “fashion victim”), but not so long I’ll be labeled a Luddite for holding out.  For the record, I’m not a Luddite.  I just don’t like to be rushed.  I’m not the kind of person anyone expects to have new and flashy things anyway, and once you start down that road — the only thing you can be absolutely sure of is: it’s going to be a very expensive trip.

But here we are, in 2009.  We’re on the G3S, and increasingly it seems there’s almost nothing iphones can’t do.  Whatever it is there’s an app for it.

It took Grindr, a “location-based social networking tool”… for guys only, to really pique my interest.  According to the website…

It utilizes your iPhone or iPod Touch’s built-in technology to map out which guys are closest to you—but how much info you share with them is entirely up to you. There is no need to enter an email address, register an account, or go through a complicated validation process. No electronic trail is left behind. Simply download the Grindr app to view who’s around and start chatting with a local dude. Trade your stats, show off a photo, instant message any guy you like. Share your location on a map and make plans to meet up right away. Or just browse the local scene. Grindr keeps things uncomplicated.

And I want to get there before all the other trolls do!  They’re on their way, trust me.  Now that they’ve been forcibly driven from their swampy nesting grounds by increased police patrols.  They have to go somewhere.  And the online “scene” is tapped out.  Every time I visit Manhunt or Gaydar these days it’s like a virtual zombie attack in a geriatrics ward.  Apple should get to work on a troll-repellent app now, before it’s too late.

But honestly, the vague possibility of a high-tech hook-up is just not enough incentive for me to go out and buy anything.  Despite conventional wisdom, sex doesn’t always sell.  Especially when you’ve had it recently enough to know what it’s all too often like, *sigh*.

It took seeing the creative applications of the technology to really entice me.  I’ve become mildly intrigued by iphone photography, especially shots using a Polaroid app called Shakeit that gives results that really look like Polaroids, with that same sense of both spontaneity and stasis that makes a Polaroid a Polaroid…

See more here.

Polaroids, because they came along when the developing process was more time-consuming than today, had the feel of found objects.  But because of the chemical process that produced them, they also had a trapped-in-amber quality.  They end up looking nothing like things really look, but somehow feeling precisely how they feel.

They lent a whole new freedom to photography, paving the way for its true democratization — or just sheer ubiquity, however you want to look at it — under the digital regime.

Of course the interesting thing about the iphone Polaroid app is that it’s not really a Polaroid, although it’s a damn good imitation.  It’s a metaPolaroid.  But it makes you wonder if we can feel the same about it as we would a real one.  Or if feeling the same should be the point.  And if it’s not the point, what is the point?

Of course, there doesn’t have to be a point, but the kinds of people who use this app probably have one.  For some it will be nostalgia, pure and simple — a tribute to something past that seems to embody the past itself — which is always, by definition, more innocent, purer, always fading, always softer, warmer than the moment we inhabit.

For others it’ll be more technical.  That odd postmodern pastime of seeing how perfectly we can reconstruct something authentic while maintaining that critical ironic distance from it. Just as a hipster doesn’t want to be mistaken for actual white-trash, an iphone Polaroid loses some of its magic if it’s mistaken for an actual Polaroid.  But the idea is to look so much like a real one it could be, until something — some little je ne sais quoi — tells you it’s not.

Is it because we are building the virtual world of the future based on our love for another virtual world — the past? We’re still clinging to the distinction between what’s real and what’s an ironic reflection, but when the virtual colonization of the actual is complete, there likely won’t be any need.  When identity as we know it disappears, there will be no need of irony, which allows us to subvert it in the first place.

The virtual has certain appeals to creatures like us whose consciousness of our individuality outstrips our individuality.  Eventually it’ll be a moot point.  But it’s understandable that we still cling to the illusion of difference even as everywhere we struggle to distinguish ourselves by imitation.  We don’t admire essence so much as quintessence.  When we locate the sublime we immediately set about replicating it.  (Elaine Scarry’s  On Beauty and Being Just is an excellent source of insight on this.)

It’s becoming obvious that our spectacular success as a species is not due to either our isolated egos or our agility with memes, but to both, and to the illusion that history points to the eventual convergence of the two.  This illusion is the motor of Virtual Reality, which allows us to disappear completely into alternate selves for whom identity is the mastery of a discrete repertoire of motions in pursuit of the perfect score.

iphone apps like Grindr, it seems to me, merely push the virtual colonization of the actual a little further in space, with apps like Shakeit tackling time.  I guess I don’t mind, as long as I can use ’em in some combination to make trashy softcore porn like Andy Warhol.  I mean, come on, they’ve got Beatles: Rock BandWarhol’s Factory can’t be far behind.

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An Open Love Letter To Restaurant Row

A few weeks ago I posted some shots of new murals going up on Fenway’s much-loved and missed Restaurant Row, which was decimated by fire last winter.  Well, the murals, painted by students from McKinley Prep School across the street, led by their art teacher, Janet Lynch, are almost finished, and they look absolutely smashing…

Love all those little touches, too…

Still no word as to when reconstruction might begin. I really miss El Pelon. And I was SO CLOSE to getting my FREE BURRITO!…

…But there will be a “Revitalizing Peterborough Street” fair this Saturday, September 26, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. where you can give some love to the crew from McKinley who gave so generously of their love and talents to this great project.

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Patrick Short’s 25 Random Things About Art

1. Painters used to eat their paint to be more connected to their art; the most common white paint at the time was lead white. Artists have been crazy for a long time, lead poisoning didn’t help.

2. BBC television host Chris Evans accidentally packed a Damien Hirst painting into a box that went to a second hand shop while moving.  The work has an approximate value of $500,000, and was not recovered.

3. The Venus of the Willendorf looks strikingly like my grandmother.


4. In 1997, Kara Walker was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, or “genius grant”, at age 27. Bitch.

5. Tara Donovan, an American sculptor, said “It is not like I’m trying to simulate nature. It’s more of a mimicking of the way of nature, the way things actually grow.” Yes, sadly, most artists are just as vague as this one.

6. Peter Doig said “I’ve never believed in God, but I believe in Picasso”. Basically this is everything that is wrong with art and the artist today.

7. The Hellenistic statue, “The Sleeping Satyr” is the single most arousing piece of art ever made.

copy in the Louvre

8. Bansky said “I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob”. Yep, even when you are making millions with your art you can still be a cynical bastard, or bitch.

9. Jackie Kennedy facilitated the first traveling of the Mona Lisa to America after wooing Andre Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture.  Slut.

10. Mix Viridian Green and Quinacridone Red and you get black. That’s right, red and green make black.

11. Break up some old ceramic tiles and glue them to a flower vase and you too can be one of the most successful artists in Texas!

12. “When I was young my mother said to me ‘If you are a soldier you will become the general, if you are a monk you will become the pope.’ Instead I was a painter and became Picasso” -Pablo Picasso, king douchebag.

13. Pollack used to tease Warhol incessantly.

14. Pull a scroll out of your pussy and read it, apparently it’s really important art.

15. Put a sheep in formaldehyde, apparently it’s really important art.

16. Crayola faced a lawsuit for having a crayon named “flesh” and had to rename the color “peach”.

17. Art Instruction Schools has been successfully training artists since 1914. You’ll learn at your own pace in the comfort and privacy in your own home. Call this toll free number for your art test. 1-800-801-6940.

in demand

18. The acceptance rate to the Yale School of Art’s graduate program is around 3%.

19. Da Vinci was gay, Michaelangelo swung both ways.

20. Lite-Brite is a SEVERELY underused medium.

21. Jane Alexander makes some of the most successful, important artwork I’ve seen a human being make in a very long time. She’s a South African resistance artist.


22. Check out Takeshi Murakami’s “My Lonesome Cowboy”. It sold for over $15,000,000.

23. Phil Collins’, the artist not the singer, has a hilariously incredible video installation piece of a bunch of people karaoke-ing to The Smiths’ album “The World Won’t Listen”.

24. One of Richard Serra’s giant sculptures crushed and killed a rigger in the seventies.

25. Check out Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings for one of the most watered down, insulting and ineffective artist renditions of human cruelty and tragedy ever made.

Patrick Short is an artist in Texas.

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