Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why The Recalcitrant Scrivener Still Matters

The Recalcitrant Scrivener first appeared five years ago. What seemed like a stretch in 2009, that the book publishing industry was in crisis, is now a given. These essays explain why that crisis has developed, with entries on the forgotten history of book publishing, the “Show Don’t Tell Fallacy,” and a hilarious piece entitled “Publishing Kingpin,” in which the author relates his ill-fated but brief career with a mainstream publisher. When the history of literary writing on the web is eventually considered, this short ebook will serve as a useful reference point. The second edition incorporates the blog entries written after the first series of essays was published. Now included are pieces on vampires, the history of Random House, the role of small presses, and the poet Jim Carroll, as well as a new Afterword.

Remember, it all started here…
The Recalcitrant Scrivener

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paintings from the Abyss—Recent Work by Robert Guerra

Bob Guerra is an intriguing personality, someone I’ve known for nearly ten years. He’s best known as an art director on numerous feature films, often working for the designer Dante Ferretti, whose work was recently the subject of an exhibition at MOMA. What is less well known is Bob’s work as a painter, the tone and style of which may surprise people who know him from his film work. 

The paintings I recently saw at his studio are distinctly political, though not in the sense of proselytizing for a specific point of view. Satirical, they are perhaps best considered as being in the tradition of George Grosz. In some ways, the draftsmanship and color palette remind me of Reginald Marsh. But there’s nothing dated about these works. What they manage to do is to hold up a mirror to our society, a funhouse mirror of sorts. And the picture isn’t pretty.

The first painting I saw isn’t particularly American, at least not immediately so. Titled Napoleon Crossing the Alps, it’s a parodic reworking of Jacques-Louis David’s ode to Napoleon. Here, Napoleon sits astride a monstrous carousel horse, but he doesn’t just sit, he is in fact one with the horse, an outgrowth of the horse’s body. Not a centaur, he is a travestied, composite creature. Together, they surmount a mountain of skulls and bones. The palette is red, white, and blue, a gray blue. To say this is about the vanity of war is to say the obvious. Nor is it simply about Napoleon. The effect manages to be both horrifying and darkly comical.

Hotel Haruspex might be said to treat the same theme, albeit more mysteriously. A general sits, wearing an elongated, cylindrical hat. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be a dunce’s hat. In reality, it’s a representation of the hat worn by the Etruscan soothsayer priests known as haruspex. These diviners read the entrails of animals. In the painting, the haruspex holds in his hands the entrails that emanate from a set of empty Roman armor, a mountain of skulls to the left. It is worth remembering that the Etruscans ruled the Romans for centuries, but were then defeated and subsumed, their civilization eliminated. Above and to the left is a film noir neon sign, the sort of sputtering sign that signals something deadly is about to happen in a 1940s movie. The sign, not surprisingly, reads, “Hotel Haruspex.”    

Forming something of a counterpoint to the first two paintings is another pair, The Male Politician and The Female Politician. Neither bodes well for the electoral process. The male candidate wears a carnival jacket, an idiotic grin besots his face as he sports an aging showgirl on his lap, a convention hat on her head. This could be the 1940s, but the ghostly image of the Emperor Augustus presides over them from the upper right, presaging war, murder, mayhem. The candidate is not an Augustus figure; rather, he is clueless, inept, skilled only at being reelected.

The Female Politician provides a similarly jaundiced view of our electoral system. Except that here, a woman who is not young supports an aging, ludicrous toy boy on her lap, more a ventriloquist’s dummy than a man. He bears an eerie resemblance to the male candidate in the matching painting.

The final work I saw was Venus Returning to the Place of Her Birth. She indeed holds a shell, but there the resemblance ends. This Venus is a gruff, wasted strumpet, still proud, but no longer a beauty. Fleshy, nude, she stands in front of a Dickensian industrial landscape, Satanic mills spewing smoke and soot, the home town she has returned to—both she and it are ruins of themselves.

This is not an easy painting to look at. Despite the defiance and pride, there is something sad about her, and about the bleak industrial scene behind her, which seems both outmoded and futuristic. Perhaps she is a product of this monstrous industry, as indeed we all are. 

The five paintings I’ve described represent one strand of the artist’s work on canvas, what I refer to as the satirical strand. A selection of these and other works can be viewed online at the Robert Guerra Studio.