January 11th, 2009

Chris Keeley


The box, the simple box, may be the art form of the 21st century. With or without its sixth wall, it promises a mystery; when its contents (or lack thereof) are displayed, some deeper mystery often remains. Past masters like Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp have inspired new generations of artists to fill rectangular solids with an assortment of found objects. Depending on your taste and perspective, this is either a form of sculpture or a short step up from the elementary-school diorama. The box is thus the darling of both the Tate Modern and the community amateur show: the bricolage celebrates vision rather than craft, suggesting to some that art is effortless, to others that it’s inscrutable. Meaning seems either elusive or all too obvious.

Gabriel Collins, the narrator of Stacey D’Erasmo’s new novel, “The Sky Below,” imagines his life as a series of such containers. He begins with the boxes and wrapping paper from which his mother builds elaborate mini-cities during his New England childhood; graduates in adolescence to shoeboxes full of pilfered knickknacks, “the kinds of things that would never be missed, that were treasure only to me”; and later embarks on a career as an artist. The objects he thinks of pasting into his works are varied and often grotesque: shreds of balloons, a belt buckle, teeth, hair, watch gears, a bottle of his own mucus, “pop-up line drawings” of male organs and sketches of 9/11.

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Chris Keeley


In June 1958, Allen Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac about a series of catastrophes that had befallen members of their circle on the West Coast. Neal Cassady was in the San Bruno county jail, awaiting trial for having offered marijuana to a pair of undercover policemen. A woman friend — “little doomed Connie” — had fallen in with “some evil teaheads or something” and been strangled, according to an outside source, “Tuesday AM by a . . . seaman who confessed that PM.” Al Sublette, who features in Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur” under the name Mal Damlette, was also in prison — “I heard for a burglary.” All the news from out West, much of it conveyed by Cassady’s “haggard” wife Carolyn, with whom Ginsberg had been on unfriendly terms since she disturbed him in bed with Neal, “sounds evil . . . except letters from Gary.” In a note to Cassady himself two weeks later, Ginsberg admitted being at a loss to offer practical help. “I wrote Gary Snyder, he’s the only one with a strong sense . . . to . . . find what need be done.”

The graph of Ginsberg’s emotional life rose and fell alarmingly over the years (he died in 1997, at 70). The early correspondence in “The Letters of Allen Ginsberg” reflects a multifaceted distress: at his mother’s “severe nervous breakdowns,” related fears for his own mental health, and a comprehensive sexual anxiety. In 1949, having fallen in with some petty criminals, he was arrested for harboring stolen goods and subsequently committed to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he met the future dedicatee of “Howl,” Carl Solomon. Collapse )

Chris Keeley


Andy Warhol... Gun (1981, polaroid photograph, 4 x 3 1/4 inches). From the exhibition Andy Warhol: Still-Life Polaroids at Paul Kasmin Gallery. "...Meticulous arrays of bananas, knives, and crosses contrast with jumbled assemblages of shoes and other commercial products, including Warhol's iconic soup cans and Brillo boxes. Warhol often deploys multiplication and varying degrees of order to alter and enliven quotidian objects. In other compositions, such as a single gray human heart presented on a vibrant red plate, individual subjects in the picture frame gain potency in isolation. Recurrent themes of desire, consumption, and mortality run throughout. The rarity of these works, coupled with the dwindling production of Polaroid film, dually capture a specific time in both Warhol's practice and the history of photography."