Weekend links 419

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Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon, 1975.

Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.

Typical of the late Harlan Ellison to describe his vocation in terms of difficulty and struggle even when his prolific output made writing seem effortless. When my colleagues at Savoy Books published a Savoy issue of New Worlds magazine in 1979 one of the features they ran was an introduction by Michael Moorcock to an Ellison story collection. (They also published two books of Ellison’s around this time.) A copy of the magazine was duly sent to the subject of the essay since Ellison always liked to keep track of his print appearances. The back page of that particular issue is blank but for a few words in bold type from singer PJ Proby: “I am an artist; and should be exempt from shit.” Ellison cut this slogan from the magazine then glued it to his typewriter, no doubt transferring it to later models since it was still visible in the 2008 Ellison documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

My first encounter with Ellison’s work was also my first encounter with what became labelled the new wave of science fiction, via a reprint of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream in a book in the school library. I was only about 12 or 13 at the time, and found Ellison’s story so shocking and disturbing that it overpowered everything else in the collection. The only other story that made an equivalent impression at the time was The Colour Out of Space by HP Lovecraft, so it’s perhaps fitting that Ellison gave my work a favourable mention in his introduction to the huge Centipede Press collection of Lovecraft artwork, A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft. I still haven’t got over that one. After the initial encounter, the Ellison-edited Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions were just as important for me as the paperback reprints of stories from the Moorcock-edited New Worlds: a handful of books that showed science fiction to be a literary form of limitless possibilities, as opposed to the stereotype of space adventure and future technology. The Ellison and Moorcock anthologies led me to William Burroughs, James Joyce and all points beyond; they also soured for me the preoccupation with space adventure and future technology which persists today.

My final connection with Ellison replayed his compliment in a small way, when editor Jill Roberts and I took extra care with the typesetting of Jeffty is Five for The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2. Ellison was the only author I’ve encountered in the digital age whose corrections were still handwritten comments on printed sheets; these had to be faxed to San Francisco then scanned and emailed to me (to this day I still don’t know why the oft-reprinted story required so many adjustments). It was awkward but amusingly so, a benign taste of a legendary bloody-mindedness and insistence on precision.

• “Laughing about an acid trip with members of Can and opening up about some of the ‘scars’ left from his association with Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, [Jon] Hassell is candid in a way that comes naturally to those who’ve lived life on their own terms.”

• Drone Metal Mysticism: Erik Davis talks with music scholar and ethnographer Owen Coggins about amplifier worship, sonic pilgrimage, “as if” listening, metal humour, and his new book Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal.

Psychedelic Prophets: The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond; “Letters between the men who coined the term ‘psychedelic’ and opened doors to a different way of thinking about human consciousness.”

Artaud 1937 Apocalypse: Letters from Ireland by Antonin Artaud; translated and edited by Stephen Barber.

• “I thought female sexuality was an OK thing?” says writer and porn performer, Stoya.

• “How did a major label manage to lose a John Coltrane record?” asks Ted Gioia.

• Welcome to the dollhouse: Alex Denney on a century of cinematic cutaways.

• The trailer for Mandy, a new (and much-awaited) film by Panos Cosmatos.

• Rest in Anger, Harlan Ellison (1934–2018) by Nick Mamatas.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 659 by BD1982.

Emily Gosling on library music design.

Record Label Logos

The Deathbird Song (1997) by The Forbidden Dimension | Eidolons (2017) by Deathbird Stories | Deathbird (2017) by Tempos De Morte

Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Wallace Burman and Semina

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Semina, #1–9.

A Return Trip to a Faraway Place Called Underground
By HOLLAND COTTER
New York Times, January 26, 2007

Time is forever. Love is the goal. Art is what you are, not what you do. Many young artists and poets in California in the 1950s and ’60s felt and lived this way. And a traveling band of them, trailing a cloud of marijuana-fragrant air, has arrived at the Grey Art Gallery in “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.”

The mostly dense paintings, drawings and collages in the show make visual sense in New York today. Updated versions of their type have flooded galleries in the last few years. Yet the throwaway, amateur-proud spirit that propelled the older work is largely absent in the new. It belongs to another time and place, with a different set of possibilities and necessities, to a small imploded star, now far, far away, called Underground.

The artist Wallace Berman (1926-76) lived on that star. His name still rings only a faint bell. Actually, he was something of a mystery even to his friends, who were legion and seem to have loved him deeply. And as the show, a kind of scrapbook of art and ephemera, makes clear, three decades after his death he is well worth getting to know.

Born in Staten Island, a child of Russian Jews, he moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 9 and turned into a classic California oddball. He loved sports, jazz, mind-altering substances, Dada, inside jokes and esoteric spiritual systems, notably the kabbalah. A spiritually minded secularist, he was intensely sociable and intensely quiet, a family man whose house was open to all.

He was also a collagist, painter, photographer and poet; his immersion in art was complete. He not only made it but also inspired others to make it, sparking hidden aptitude in startling places. After meeting him, drifters, movie stars, ex-marines and petty criminals found themselves starting to paint and write.

By temperament a collaborator, he was also, in his nonentrepreneurial way, a promoter. With other artists, he briefly opened a gallery in a roofless houseboat and gave one-day shows to people he admired. Shy of showing his own work, he had few exhibitions; one, at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1957, was particularly memorable. It led to his arrest for exhibiting lewd material.

The offending piece, a drawing of a copulating couple, was not by him but by a friend, Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-95), an artist, performer and occult practitioner who went by the single name Cameron. (She is currently the subject of a solo show at Nicole Klagsbrun in Chelsea.) The image appeared in the first issue of Mr. Berman’s loose-leaf journal, Semina, copies of which he had scattered around the gallery floor.

It was Semina that carried Mr. Berman, and the artists and poets he championed, beyond a local audience. He produced the journal from 1955 to 1964 on a mail-order hand press with the help of two friends, the artist and poet Robert Alexander and the photographer Charles Brittin. There were only nine issues. The print run was minute. The contents were mind-boggling.

The magazine, its pages randomly compiled, mixed Berman heroes like Antonin Artaud and Jean Cocteau with established American poets like Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, then added a slew of younger writers and artists — Philip Lamantia, Jack Anderson, Patricia Jordan, Kirby Doyle, Bob Kaufman, Aya Tarlow, Ruth Weiss, Michael McClure, the great gay poet John Wieners — all barely out of the starting gate. Sent, copy by copy, through the mail, Semina defined a distinctively trippy, sardonic West Coast surrealism. New York had hard, cold Pop; the West Coast had a woozy Peyote-Funk that prefigured the hippie era.

If the journal put Wallace Berman’s name on the national countercultural grapevine, his personal influence was still transmitted through artists and poets who met him. And four dozen of them take brief, individual bows in a show — organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art by two independent curators and critics, Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna — that feels like both a slice of still-warm history and a reliquary.

Several of the artists are now far better known than Mr. Berman himself. Joan Brown (1938-90), Bruce Conner and Jay De Feo (1929-89) are textbook figures. Ms. Brown’s fetishistic “Man on Horseback,” a 1957 sculpture of rolled and tied cloth, is an eye-catcher. So are two sumptuously abject assemblages by Mr. Conner, who also has an outstanding show of early work at Susan Inglett Gallery in Chelsea.

And for relics, there’s the pigment-caked footstool that Ms. De Feo used while creating “The Rose,” a painting that grew so heavy with applied matter that, at 2,000 pounds, it had to be forklifted from her tenement studio.

More famous at the time were Hollywood actors like Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn, who met Mr. Berman and started making art. Another was Dennis Hopper, who picked up photography and film directing. (He cast Mr. Berman in a small role in “Easy Rider.”) And there was Billy Gray. A teenage heartthrob as Bud Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” he started making stained-glass sculptures after a drug arrest in 1962 crippled his show business career.

Chemicals of all descriptions gradually pulled the Berman circle down. It comes as a dawning shock to walk through the show and see so many young faces accompanied by so many curtailed dates.

The Pop assemblagist Ben Talbert and the abstract painter Arthur Richer died of drug overdoses in their early 40s. The Hollywood child actor Bobby Driscoll, the voice of Peter Pan in the Disney film and the creator of four glorious little collages in the show, was taken out by heroin at 31. By the end of the 1960s, methamphetamines had ruined John Reed, another wonderful artist and poet; he died homeless, almost all his work lost.

Three of these four, Richer being the exception, had little if any formal art training. They could be called outsider artists, except — well, except what? They weren’t crazy enough, or poor enough, or “ethnic” enough, or in some other way picturesque enough to qualify for that exaltedly abject name?

Their work is interesting in large part exactly because it muddies market-driven aesthetic divisions instituted since their day: artist versus outsider artist, trained versus self-taught, professional versus amateur. Most of the artists in the show fall on the alternative side of the equations.

In fact, one of the things that made them a “circle,” if they can really be called that, was their shared lack of traditional bona fides. They were artists because they said they were, and acted as if they were, and because someone — Wallace Berman — said, “You are.” Where would they have stood in relation to today’s standardized, professionalized art industry? Where do such artists stand today, since there are surely many out there, living artists’ lives?

Anyway, for the purposes of the exhibition, the Berman connection is the crucial link, the bond that makes outsiders insiders. They are held within his orbit, which Mr. Duncan and Ms. McKenna, in their charismatic catalog, depict as an accepting, protective space.

Acceptance, and the psychological protection it affords, are rare and invaluable. Are they extended to artists today, to all artists, equally? They should be. They must have felt especially necessary as the cold war 1950s turned into the Vietnam War 1960s, as modern art moved into its radically disruptive postmodern phase.

And as casualties among the artists and poets gathered in the show began to grow, no high in the world could have hidden the truth that time is very short, and that love is only as trustworthy as its object. People trusted Mr. Berman; that was the bottom line. They found him steady and there. I don’t believe in gurus, and especially not in art gurus, even those like Wallace Berman who didn’t want to be one. But I can understand why, when he died after being hit by a drunken driver on the eve of his 50th birthday, there was much grief.

“Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle” continues through March 31 at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, (212) 998-6780, nyu.edu/greyart.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Cameron, 1922–1955