Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar RIP

Like most people, the first time I saw Harvey Pekar was on his David Letterman appearances when I was in college in the early 80s. One of my roommates, John, and I were taken by this oddity - a comic book guy on Letterman? a weird dude who is completely unintimidated by Dave? His appearances were bizarre and you never knew what to expect, which is part of what led to their parting of ways - watch the "American Splendor" movie for details.

The best part is that his appearances prompted me to seek out and buy an American Splendor compilation. I had been buying comics since I was 7, but this - this changed the whole way I looked at the medium. These didn't necessarily have a beginning, middle and end, or battles with villains, and the quality of the various artists' work was inconsistent (Pekar wrote, didnt draw). This was "neo-realism," nothing more than snippets of this guy's daily life, tribulations and thoughts. Simple mundane things like being in line at the grocery store, to being lonely, to interesting facts about jazz musicians. I could not believe someone made a comic of those things - and I loved it. So much so that I called 411 in Cleveland and got his phone number and called him. We talked for a bit, he was very cordial, and I called him every so often. I sent him letters and comics, too.

Here's a coincidence for ya - I was chatting up AS and Pekar to my oldest brother, Tony, who for a few years was a surgeon at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. I put two and two together and thought perhaps it was the SAME hospital that Harvey worked at. I asked my brother and he replied, "Wait, the squirrely little guy that worked in files?? That's him?!?" I called Harvey and he said he remembered my brother. Six degrees of separation.

Years go by, and I opened a bar/gallery called Liquid Lounge in Hoboken. When tending bar, people talk - personal problems, crazy stories, wacky behavior, etc. Like the saying goes, "People confess to their priest or their bartender." Some stories were so good that I would jot down the salient points on napkins or a pad in order to remember the story. I came up with the idea, thanks to Harvey's American Splendor, of doing strips recounting these stories. The art had the customer looking directly at the reader so that you (the reader) became the bartender, like the person was talking to you. I called it "True Tales from the Bar Side." It appeared in a few local papers, I self-published a collection of them, and one strip was in an Australian anthology comic around '98 called Dee Vee! My strip appeared next to one by the amazing Eddie Campbell which felt like an honor, but more so was that after all those years of reading comics and drawing superheroes and villains that I finally had something of mine appear in a real, honest to goodness Comic Book!

I went to a movie at the Sunshine Landmark Theatre in NY around 2002, and during the previews I almost jumped out of my seat when they showed the trailer for an upcoming American Splendor movie!! I had no idea about this and the next day, filled with excitement, called Harvey . By this time, I rarely called because he had married Joyce and she usually answered the phone. I imagine climbing the Berlin Wall to escape the USSR was easier than getting past her to Harvey. She was always brusque, suspicious and well, just plain rude. Anyway, I passed the interrogation and got through to him. I told him that I saw the trailer, that the audience was buzzing about it, that it looked great, and how psyched I was for him. In true Pekar fashion, he replied, "Oh thanks, I just hope it makes me some money. You know I got to put this kid through college here in a coupla years."

Not long after the film came out he was doing a book/film tour and made a stop in NY. I went and finally got to meet him. As I was walking away, he said, "Oh, hey Joe, that comic you sent me, that was pretty good."
Cheers, Harvey - R.I.P.!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Elisa Johns at Mike Weiss Gallery

I first saw Elisa Johns' work at the Scope Fair, and recently at her solo show, "Huntress," in the Mike Weiss Gallery. The large paintings show better here with plenty of white wall space which accentuates the stark white in most of these ethereal pieces.
The female figures come from myth and history, yet Johns' interpretations of them are with a fashion illustrator's sensibility with references from modern fashion magazines.
(Left: "Judith With the Head of Holofernes", 66x44")

The application of the oil paint is a mix of thin washes - some linear, some allowed to bleed. These aren't tight, photorealistic copies from fashion magazines, but are loose and freely drawn in an almost naive, sketchy style. Part of this comes from her nod to Chinese pen and ink drawings, composing the image to read vertically.
(Right: "Athena and Nike", 80x78")

Johns contrasts her washy applications of color with impasto, palette knife layers of paint within the images but she also applied layers of white to the background, pointed out by the artist as they're not so obvious to the eye. Subtle impasto, isnt that an oxymoron?
Another interesting contrast is the soft, washy overall feel of the paintings yet there is some heavy, sometimes violent, imagery at hand here - Diana taking aim at a victim, and the biblical heroine Judith with the decapitated head of Holofernes.
(Left: "Diana and The Stag," 78x70")

You can see these paintings by
Elisa Johns at Mike Weiss Gallery,
520 W. 24th St, NYC,
from April 8- May 8, 2010.

(Right: the artist in front of
Athena," 94x77")

Friday, March 5, 2010

NY Art Fairs '10: Scope, Red Dot, and Verge

I am always jazzed for the annual art fairs in NYC! Loads and loads of art to look at, new and old galleries, and great conversations!
This'll be short due to a camera issue and no photos! But it's been fixed and I'll have it for Fountain and Pulse.
First off I went to Scope. A solid show, nothing really "spectacular" to me, but I saw alot more interesting work here than at Red Dot and Verge. Mike Weiss Gallery had a piece by Elisa Johns who is opening in his next show. Ethereal women in washy oils, loosely based on fashion ads but set in nature and most are up-shots. Mike and director Helene exhibited the finer aspects of art fairs, that is being friendly, open and informative about their artists.
ADA Gallery from Virginia had large collage/mixed media pieces by a sort of outsider artist named Jeremiah Johnson - and it's a real family name, not after the Robert Redford flick. The backstory on this artist is a trip - his dad is a gay fruit farmer in the midwest and Jeremiah was forced to work the farm as his father moved into floral design and mom split to be a truck driver. Again, a long conversation about art and the artist with the gallery owner courtesy of the Scope Fair.
David B Smith Gallery had several interesting artists including a great portrait by Kris Lewis and wax pencil bird drawings by Christina Empedocles. The Pool NYC had paintings by Soviet Georgian artist Eteri Chkadua - biographical pieces with a hint of Frida Kahlo. Karim Hamid had Bacon influenced paintings of women with allegorical and historical references at Aureus Contemporary, a self-professed group of "art nerds" who collect art and push their favorites ala fairs and exhibits and more. Very interesting approach that comes from a love for art!
Fun comic book inspired pieces by Cara Ober at Civilian Projects (DC), Opus (England) and Gerard Ellis at Lyle Oreitzel (Miami).
Overall there was a mix of pop surrealism, a few too many images of Warhol and Marilyn Monroe, drawing and alot of (mostly representational) painting.

Even if the admission is only $10, this is NYC, and to run a show during the Art Fair and not have a credit card machine at the entrance is mind-boggling. Spread out over three floors, this very small show didnt have much to offer. There was quite a bit of secondary market prints and few originals by big names. Saw a Larry Rivers print riffing on an old Camels cigarette ad that was interesting and not often seen. Galerie Cubana had some interesting abstract pieces by a Cuban artist. The photography at other galleries was pretty weak - digital manipulation seems passé this year. As a matter of fact, so far the photography at all three shows has been mostly derivative or safe. Most of the painting at Red Dot not by blue-chippers was uninspiring loose abstraction or garishly colored realism that quite frankly looked like work you'd see in a mall.
Verge was a classic hotel room show at the Dylan in midtown. Again with the "sorry, no credit card machine"! At least Red Dot had a coat room.
Another small show with spotty work. An exception was the newbie Mighty Tanaka Gallery from Brooklyn. Its enthusiastic curator, Alex, had an eclectic mix of work from street to realism. Several galleries showed geometric abstractions and loose minimalism - paintings consisting of repeating brush strokes or dots. There were some large oil and encaustic nudes in one gallery (that I sadly can't find their card), realistic and loose with gestural patches of color here and there. Encaustic seems to be making a resurgence, as does hand-done collage.
Next post will be more positive I hope and have photos - Fountain and Pulse fairs tomorrow!