The Freelance Mentalists.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
  Postcard From Brussels


The eastern side of the ring of boulevards that encircle the Brussels center
is less of a matter of uphill vs. downhill than that of one long, genial tilt.
This applies analogously to the city's contemporary art scene where, rather
than ideology, Uptown and Downtown are considered more a question of rent,
altitude, and how much one feels the need to be close to the ever-glittering,
perennially posh Avenue Louise area. “It's all the same scene,” says Sébastien
Janssen, of Galerie Rodolphe Janssen. “It takes 10 minutes to get downtown by
car if you know the way.”

Thus, while one may see the work of Jan van Imschoot, to be shown at
Baronian-Francey's gallery during artbrussels2006, as being rooted in Flemish and
Spanish painting traditions and exhibiting a decidedly Uptown flavour, Mathias
Schaufler's delightfully fabular oils, downtown at dépendance, may be approached
in the same spirit.
artbrussels2006, whose 32,000 visitors will converge on the Brussels Expo
center for four days beginning April 20, is intended to fill a crying need in a
city where the museum establishment gives short shrift to contemporary art.
Moreover, in the same way that Brussels positions itself as the smallest and most
affordable European capital, the art fair's organizers hope to stimulate
canny Belgian collectors with an appealing price range of 1,000 to 100,000 euro.

According to Albert Baronian, one of two Brussels gallerists on the fair's
nine-member International Selection Committee, “If the world of art fairs is
football, divided into Division One and Division Two, then Brussels is the best
of Division Two.” Fair Exhibition Director Karen Renders concurs but adds,
“That's true if we assume that there are only four teams in Division One!” As
artbrussels' Unique Selling Proposition, both of them cite the fair's spirit of
familiarity, openness to new talent, and just the right proportion of Belgian
artists on view (roughly 25% of the total). And since the process of presenting
anywhere between 5 and 15 artists in a single 25-square-meter exhibition
booth may result in more of a mix-and-match feel than of unity and cohesion, when
seeking out exciting new developments one must give equal time to the various
exhibitors' galleries.

For example: Xavier Hufgens, former member of the fair's Selection Committee
and cited as a bellwether by many of his colleagues, will be showing the
disquieting photo(sur)realistic paintings of Cris Brodahl, a Belgian, while the
Taché-Lévy Gallery promises to provoke with the beguiling work of Sandrine
Pelletier. And on the one hand, in her exhibition booth equally high-profile
Catherine Bastide will feature Janaina Tschäpe's dreamlike photographic explorations
of the human body within its contexts, alongside Catherine Sullivan's
theatre-derived photos and Belgian Monique van Genderen's spare, elegant Klee-like
drawings. On the other hand, in her gallery Bastide will host the obsessively
fecund Josh Smith and his gleefully trashy oil-and-collage paintings, presumably
to include several more visual remixes of his name.

Galerie Meert Rihoux, which most recently presented the latest and greatest
of John Baldessari's recent oeuvre (monocolour tinted movie stills accompanied
by lists of applicable adjectives), has scheduled the intriguing juxtaposition
of two sets of photographs: Thomas Struth's vast urban structures and spaces
with Louise Lawler's wry constructions, in which the settings of familiar
objects and images comment on underlying strategies and contexts.

Those who have already made the move uptown claim that as of around 1999,
that became the new growth trend. However, those who remain down below in the
St.Catherine district, which extends west from the church of that name to the
canal, point out that hardly a week goes by without a new night shop, call shop,
restaurant, or art gallery springing up somewhere around Rue Antoine Dansaert.
Any responsible tour of art in the neighborhood would also have to include
Crown Gallery; Erna Hécey; the Contemporary Center for Non-Objective Art (with
their au courant audio installation series); the Galerie les filles du
calvaire, located in the venerable Kanal 20 complex; and Jan Mot, who has recently
devoted much attention to Spanish expat and current Brussels resident Dora Garcia
and her installations and performances.

The Alice Gallery, who recently celebrated their first anniversary, add a
particularly Belgian approach to the downtown scene. For one thing, in a nation
of two peoples and a city of two languages, they see no reason why Brussels
shouldn't have two galleries of the same name – and cheerfully create confusion
with far more established Alice Day. In the case of the young upstarts, the
name isn't even that of a person, but an acronym for “Artists Living In Constant
Elevation” (presumably their mission statement). Moreover, in an instance of
the same good-natured self-defeatism by which the Galerie Rodolphe Janssen
recently opened a view-only 'vitrine' space downtown and called it “Sorry We're
Closed”, Alice have largely escaped the notice of their older competitors by
locating their exhibition space behind their store, which offers not only a hip
selection of books, but T-shirts and street wear. The visitor is thus faced
with an interesting paradox: in order to reach the underground, activist,
would-be non-commercial art, one must politely wend one's way through the
in-your-face retail space.

Regarding exposure, at the fair Alice are poised to make up for lost time:
they'll be spotlighting Belgian rap singer and graffiti artist Pablo Sozyone
Gonzalez, with the entire outside of their booth to be taken up with one single
gritty red-and-black cartoon drawing, while the inside will feature not just
Sozyone, but the work of his like-minded posse and hiphop crew, the Overlords.
Meanwhile, back at the gallery, Alice have invited long-awaited Dave Kinsey,
who starting April 7 will fill the staid brick underground space with his
installations, assemblages, and angst-ridden cartoon visages. Showing Gonzalez and
Kinsey at the same time is quite felicitous: taken together, the two come off
as long-lost progeny of Gary Panter, with his bugged-out Jimbo character. And
stylistically, the work of the two is most appropriate for an art fair in
Belgium, with its long tradition of and respect accorded to comic strip art.

- John W (16.02.2006)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006
  The Sorceress's Apprentice

by Don Allred
As he told it to his Goldmine Magazine interviewer Bill DeYoung in '96:
One August night in '72, young Rodney Crowell arrived in Nashville, with
$15.00 to his name, eagerly obeying Jim Duff, the mentor who had bid him leave his
native Port Houston 's canal bar, rodeo dancehall, and Holiday Inn music
scene, thence to sign with Columbia Records and tour with Kenny Rogers &
the First Edition. Although Duff had already sold off the publishing rights to
Rodney's demo tape, and vamoosed back to Texas, things turned out okay. Rodney stole
his demo back from the publisher's office, and started playing for tips at a
Nashville oasis, Bishop's Pub. Which was also frequented by other resourceful, restive
songwriters, including Texas expats Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
This fecund scene is pungently preserved in the 1976 documentary, Heartworn
Highways. A remarkable "companion album" (with more music than made it onto
the screen) will be released on March 15: it includes "Bluebird Wine," which
Rodney says is the first of his songs that Guy ever approved.
 (The late great, feted and fated, standard-setting outcat
Townes was a harder sell.) Guy has denied wanting to be a taskmaster
or teacher of Rodney, who he's said taught him a thing or two Rodney.
 But Rodney seems
always to have felt the urge to both learn from and prove himself to some magical
figure. "Bluebird Wine" euphorically celebrates being discovered by a woman
who provides wine and creative inspiration.
Soon after writing "Blueberry Wine," he met Emmylou Harris, who had been
discovered and mentored by another late great, Gram Parsons (nickname all too appropriate). 
In Rodney, still
known to few in Nashville, she found her own private Gram, her secret stash of
soulful, song-filled, ceaseless striving.
Eventually, Rodney pushed himself out of what he's called "the Great School
of Emmylou," and spent several frustrating years as a solo artist (he did have
hits, but usually when other people covered his songs: the stash wasn't secret
any more.) In the early 80s, he found himself schooling (and being schooled
by) Johnny Cash's young daughter, Rosanne. He helped her have hits, and he
even, finally, had five number one hits off his own album, Diamonds And Dust. This
strange winning streak proved to be a fluke, although he tried to come up
with a winning formula (like he and Rosanne were experimenting with in her product).
They both became sick of the grind. They drove themselves and
each other to push beyond safe songwriting, and eventually they had to do that,
trying to make sense of their marriage's shipwreck.
In 2001, Rodney made an album with his own money, rather than feel compelled
to try and please a major label  one more time, with what he's called his "sharecropper mentality," a biz-reinforced bit of his citybilly heritage. He cannily shopped
it to a well-heeled, intelligent indie label, Sugar Hill. This album's title
was his old nickname, The Houston Kid, but it was really a mix of his own
early close calls, with some of the lives he saw to the end: in his neighborhood,
and his own likely (and immediate) future, if music hadn't provided some kind
of stability.
 (Not like the "stability" of his mercurial, dogged father, who shied
 away from Nashville, hewing to the aforementioned Houston  dive bar zones,
 at times with a very underage Rodney on drums
--for novelty appeal, the fortunate son speculates.)
 The Houston Kid was highly acclaimed and deservedly so. It was
masterful, with no sense of anxiously overselling good material, as he'd tended
to do previously. In 2003, he released Fate's Right Hand, in which he tries to
provide solace and sense to troubled friends, while struggling with the
paranoid compulsions of "The Man In Me." (Def. not Dylan's "la, la, la,
la"-inclusive song of the same name, and R.C.'s own Man feels closer to Hyde than one
inclined to "hide to keep from being seen," like Mr. D.'s
supposedly/redundantly is.)
2005's The Outsider is more overtly political, to put it mildly, but
certainly redeems the cliché aspect of "the personal is political." Viewpoints shift, and fall away, but the people in these
songs are connected , whether they want to be or not. The first track, "Say
You Love Me," is a raw-eyed ("up all night and the night before," and the
beat's still up), alternate-futures-riffing prequel to several songs to come.
Already, he's getting in bar brawls with bigots. Whereas in "Don't Get Me Started,"
he's already started, but keeps barely pulling back from the brink of his soapbox.
And the slightly creepy china doll imagery of that "Glasgow Girl" (to come) gets graphic here.
"Say you love me!" he barks, leading right into the "Give it to me" of "The
Obscenity Prayer," and keeping its greedy yuppie from seeming too 2-D,
even if his partay platform's not as enlightened as Rodney's (or yours or
mine, of course). "The Outsider" has many a quirky, riddle-me-this lyrical phrase,
which could be irritating, if they weren't seen and raised 'round ever
corner by the music, in a Princely way. "Beautiful Despair" is another peak: he
raises a glass, up a lattice scale, to his sense of sub-Dylanness, his minor yet faithful
muse. But , despite the consolations and vitamins of philosophy (Epictetus, and even or especially an Epicurean poptaste),there's plenty outcroppings and undertoads of not-so-beautiful lowercase
despair, frustration, headbutting, buttbutting limitations (his and everybody's),
overshadowed by the Situation. This really comes through in (after repeated
listenings to the whole album) in the chorus of "Ignorance Is The Enemy,"
despite the gratingly recited verses, which are more like Public Service
Announcements. The chorus is more like a sooty "Rose In Spanish Harlem," crossed with
Gram Parsons' "In My Time Of Darkness," although Rodney's not seconding GP's
call for vision and speed; he's got all he can handle.
Rodney's mellifluous Everlys to Beatles twang is as reliable as ever, which
helps make the Visitor to his reworking of "Shelter From The Storm" even more
startling (in the context of the album), than it is amidst the middleaged haze
of Triple A radio. "Shelter"'s words have always seemed to flirt, if not
dally, with grandiose self-pity, but suddenly here's Dylan's fantasy sorceress in
the eerie flesh: none other than Emmylou Harris, now trading verses with
Rodney. He sounds a bit spooked, understandably (she keeps changing keys on him,
yet they can still harmonize!) You can tell he couldn't stop singing if he
tried, and he doesn't. (P.S.: I'm told that the reissued version of the Heartworn
Highways DVD includes a song not on the CD: it's actually "Rachel," although
the mistitle, "A Young Girl's Hungry Eyes," is certainly appropriate, cos
although Rachel is "the woman behind her man," while Rodney is but "a child behind
the wire," when she gets him behind closed doors, it's like it says on the DVD.
You can also hear this on Gary Stewart's Out Of Hand/Your Place Or Mine
twofer CD, along with some other good early-Crowell covers: Gary adds a little
forced gasp to the end of each line of this un', but he's ably supported by Rodney
and yes Emmylou, and "Rachel" is hungry still.)

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