March 2007 Archives



I've been privileged -- blessed, really -- to know some amazing, brilliant people. Most of them seem to be musicians, which is kind of funny because I have exactly zero musical ability myself. But they fall into all kinds of categories: Writers, chefs, singers, painters, sculptors, movie producers, engineers. People who not only have a talent, but worked hard to develop it. As my old music director Professor William F. Ondrick liked to say, "There's no substitute for the work, not even genius."


Danny certainly is one of the most remarkable people in this remarkable group of people I've been lucky enough to know. He is one of the best, most talented, most incredible people I've ever met. And I don't even know his last name. (You might have seen him around making comments under the name Danonymous.)

Danny is the most relentlessly positive, childlike adult I can imagine. He's so intent on always looking on the bright side it's almost aggressive. I know he's had a difficult time, personally, recently; I won't get into it because I don't want to make the private public, but I can say if I'd gone through what he has, this blog and all of my e-mail correspondence would be filled with nothing but whiny, puling self-pity. Hell, this blog and my e-mail are filled with that anyway and I haven't had half the troubles Dan has. And yet the closest I've heard him come to complaining is one sentence: "Well, it's been a rough year."

He also has a surprising capacity for leaving me wanting more. Today I can get on the Web and find more information than I ever wanted on almost any subject. If an artist interests me, I can often find a vast landslide of images of their work along with analysis, reviews, and complaints that they make too much or not enough money. In the midst of this information overload, Danny has somehow managed to keep a low profile. He's too busy out working in the real world to mess around too much online. He's too busy sticking his work up on real walls to concern himself with a Website.

Is he successful? By his definition, yes. He sets himself clear goals and he aims for them. They do not involve such vague endpoints as "I'll have a Website and drum up traffic by posting on my blog." They're more along the lines of "I'll put up 30 pieces in one year. Each piece must be good and each one must stay up at least two weeks."

So if you're in Brooklyn, and you know where to look, you may just get enough of Danny. Otherwise, you won't.

Since I met Danny at Stephanie Lee Jackson's party last year I'd been meaning to get together with him. He's asked me more than once to visit his "studio," which is usually whatever building or wall he's working on at the time. He's asked me to come to his installation in Coney Island, a rare case of his actually being asked to put something up. And finally he's invited me to his place to see where the magic happens. But somehow I kept failing to follow through, until finally I found some time and Stephanie found some time and Dan planned to be around and it all came together.

Danny's Work At long last, then, we were able to visit Danny at his current residence. He's living in a basement room -- not even a full apartment. He shares the bathroom and kitchen with several other residents. Into this tiny room Danny has squeezed a small library, a PC, a bed, a workbench, and numerous shelves filled with wonders -- more than most people can manage in an entire house.

Danny's Work Entering his room I immediately thought of Alexander Calder. Calder made a lot of neat little toys in addition to his mobiles and stabiles, and one of the sad things about his body of work is seeing it encased in glass where it can never be touched or played with. Being in Danny's room is like seeing Calder's work -- only you're allowed to play with it. In fact Danny encourages playing with it, and will play with it himself if you give him half a chance.

Dan is aware of the Calder connection; he says he remembers when he was starting to make objects he opened a book on Calder, looked at the first page, and immediately closed it. He knew he wouldn't be able to go on if he read more. He spent a few years studiously avoiding learning anything about Calder, although now, of course, he's familiar with his work. Dan's earlier work -- which I didn't get photos of -- is much more Calderish, all wires and little mechanisms for moving. As he's moved into paper, though, he's moved away from Calder's drawing with wire.

Danny's Work Danny's larger works -- the outdoor ones -- are made of metal, bent and cut and glued to the wall or stood up. His smaller works are made of 300-pound watercolor paper and wire. He used to color the paper more; these days the most he'll do is paint a small piece black, or put in a dot here and there. Each of the things he makes is interactive in some way, whether it changes as you move around it or you move it around yourself. Recently he's become quite interested in shadows and how they change as the light moves.

Party People Here's an example of interactivity: This piece is called, I think, Party People. It's a number of heads made of painted, folded paper, mounted loosely on little pieces of wire, which are then mounted on a block of wood. If you shake the block, the heads all whisper together, like that sound you hear when you first walk into a party.

Another piece involves two paper pigeons. You can turn a wire underneath the folded paper platform and watch as one amorous pigeon chases the other around. Or in another one (on the left in the next photo), Ben Franklin orates while waving his hands around. Danny's Work

His pieces are whimsical without being too cute; ultimately, under most of them, there's a sharp edge, something that makes you feel it's not all fun and games. His figures, for example, often seem to be tormented, yelling or screaming. Some wear chains or have heavy wheels hung around their necks. Sometimes they seem to be twisted in agony or fighting against the wind or reaching in supplication. The figures are surprisingly human despite being very minimal.

William with Danny's Figure As a "door prize" Danny gave Stephanie and me one figure each and I immediately had mine curl up into a ball. It perfectly radiated exactly how I felt when I was depressed. I brought it home and gave it to my son to play with and he stretched it out into an expansive running pose. My daughter got ahold of it later and put it through classical ballet positions while giving it orders: "Pay attention to your position!"

William with Danny's Figure Danny was, of course, delighted to hear my kids were playing with his art. Many artists will take a stand against the preciousness of art objects by making something ugly or rotten, or something that will disintegrate gracelessly. Danny makes the same point but with style and beauty.

Stephanie Lee Jackson It really is impossible to convey the sense of exhilaration and possibility I get from knowing Danny. The three of us had planned to take a drive and visit some of his outdoor pieces but ended up talking so much we barely made it outside for a short walk to my car to get some of my paintings I'd brought. I think I wore Stephanie and Danny out; they were nearly asleep on the bed (I was sitting in the only chair) by the time we called it a night. The feeling that I'm seeing something big and wonderful happen is one I've felt so rarely; it makes me feel 17 years old again, back when the world was wide open and anything could happen and the future was boundless.

Danny's Work

Kelli Williams


I'm going to skip the personal introductory blathering on this one and get right to the art. Anyone who likes my meandering dopiness can get some after I write about the work, down a few paragraphs.

Kelli Williams' art appears small and quiet from across the room. Then you get up close to it and you see that this is not the kind of art that jumps off the wall at you -- it's the kind that pulls you close, charms you, and then bites you on the neck. You may like that kind of thing or you may not, but it's still going to leave a mark.

Note that I haven't included any images with this review. That's because the images I can find from the show are absolutely terrible. They do the art no justice at all. Instead I'm going to have to describe it and exhort you to go see the show while you can (it's up until March 24, 2007).

Kelli is an obsessive painter. Nancy Baker, who is no slouch when it comes to obsession herself, said to me as we were squinting at one painting, "I paint with a one-hair brush. Kelli must paint with, I don't know, a half-a-hair brush." "Maybe she uses molecular tweezers," I suggested. We leaned in a little closer. One of the big worries I had at this show was accidentally putting my nose against the paint, or maybe spitting or drooling on it. Each work demands that you get as close to it as possible to search through it detail by detail.

Kelli's paint is almost perfectly smooth and matte, with a mix of hard edges and subtle blending, some of it looking almost like the bleeding of watercolors. It's the kind of painting that lends itself to comparisons with good old Hieronymous Bosch, but it reminded me more of Salvador Dalí's small panels with his otherworldly mastery of oil paint. Kelli's technique is actually some of the most absolutely enchanting, attractive, and delicious I've ever seen. Her flesh tones -- which cover most of the panels in this show -- are like different flavors of ice cream, slowly melting into one another. And her attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing: The face of one woman is clearly Madonna (the pop singer, not the Blessed Virgin) and yet it's painted no larger than my pinky nail.

Kelli's subjects, though, are largely deranged. She's clearly navigating the waters of gender, politics, and sex, but beyond that it's hard to say what's going on, because there's just so much going on. In any one painting you might find several satyrs engaging with women orally and vaginally, some men and women masturbating, a couple enjoying cunnilingus, some plants sprouting, some clouds going by, and some geographical features just sort of being. A couple of the paintings feature women who have been reduced down to backwards-facing heads on hindquarters, with nipples added to their asses. Attempting to pin down the main subject of any one of these is challenging, although a couple of the paintings are more straightforward than others. Still, even in her most focused works, I found myself wondering about the details: Is the shoe she's wearing important? What does it mean?

It's the sheer scale of these paintings -- not in actual size but in scope -- which brings up the comparison to Bosch, as well as the unclear symbolism. Of course Bosch's symbolism was perfectly clear to everyone when he was working; it's only over the centuries that we've lost the decoder ring. Kelli may have her own code, but it's far from clear to me that anyone else can understand it. She may not even understand it entirely herself, but I'm willing to bet she can explain most of it. I caught a glimpse, but I don't think I'm literate enough to figure it all out.

For example, let's look at those women with the nipples on their asses. On the surface this is just a literal illustration of how a man might objectify a woman as a sexual object: All ass and cunt and legs, with some nipples for sucking on, and facing the right way so she can watch him take her from behind. But there's also a connection here to Desmond Morris and his idea from The Naked Ape that the human breast -- an anatomical feature unknown in other primates -- evolved to replace the buttocks because of the upright human stance. Morris writes that male primates consider the buttocks to be sexually exciting, and since that's missing when humans have face-to-face coitus, human females grew substitutes on the front. So the breast/nipples/buttocks connection runs deeper than simple feminist stereotyping. (Also, I was immediately reminded of a Web page joke I made many years ago.)

Clearly Kelli is working with the objectification of women and other sexually charged subjects. But what I found interesting is she's doing so in a surprisingly even-handed manner which admits to the complexity of it all. While the works often championed by people like Edna are one-sided affairs, mainly concerned with how badly men treat women -- see Nicole Eisenman -- Kelli's paintings seem much more democratic: No one is spared. Men rape women, women manipulate men, everyone is broken and twisted -- sometimes literally, as on the Catherine wheels that appear in at least two of the paintings.

I think that because Kelli's work isn't large and stunning, she'll never be called a virtuoso, a genius. Because one of the things about genius is it tends to bully a bit. Einstein says "E equals mc squared" and now you can't look at the universe any other way: You've been invaded and converted. Picasso says "What happened at Guernica is bad!" and you're a pacifist, like magic. But an artist like Kelli is more interested in seducing you, slowly and with subtlety, until you find yourself going along; and then she abandons you to figure out where you are all on your own. She has no interest in conquest. She'd rather subvert.

This time, you've been drawn in by beautiful technique and creamy skin tones only to find yourself ogling wrinkled women with six teats or someone being anally penetrated with a baseball bat. Horror and revulsion rise up inside you, but at who? The artist? The subjects? Yourself? The world? God? Kelli isn't going to provide the answer to the question.

So far I've only discussed the paintings in the show; over half of it is drawings in colored pencil. It's easy to see the connections between her paintings and her drawings; in fact the subjects of each are the same, but the drawings lack the density of the paintings. Also -- unfortunately -- Kelli is not as inviting in this medium. Her tentative, spidery lines and uncertain draftsmanship all harmonize too closely with her subject matter, leaving no reason for the viewer to get involved. They're not bad, they're just direct, showing by this weakness the strength of Kelli's paintings.

Now for the personal blather, which I usually use as introduction, but decided to skip because I wanted to put the art right up front.

Kelli Williams is one of those rare people you meet online who is both passionate and intelligent; always willing to let you know when she thinks you're wrong but never insulting; able to accept different views without condescension. Or maybe we just mostly agree, I'm not sure. Sometimes I think getting along with people is really about finding people who play the same games as you. Well, whether we play the same games or whether Kelli is one of those rare genuinely rational and expressive people on the Internet, I like seeing her name online, usually attached to comments worth reading and responding to.

I'd been waiting for her to have a show and now it's finally here. I met her at the opening at Leo Koenig along with Nancy Baker, another fine upstanding citizen of the Internet. All three of us -- along with more rowdy and unpleasant people -- can be found arguing at Edna's blog (even if Edna seems to have abandoned us for now).

I'm not sure what I expected from Kelli's work. When I'd search for it online I'd find a few scattered bits and pieces which didn't seem to add up to much. But here she is with a solo show at the prestigious Leo Koenig. I know Koenig's gallery is prestigious mainly because it's on the ground floor on 23rd Street, and there are almost no galleries on 23rd, because while 23rd is technically in Chelsea and right in the middle of the gallery district, it's also one of Manhattan's large through streets and therefore certainly much more expensive than the surrounding smaller side streets like 25th or 27th. Also, I saw Nicole Eisenman there.

I'm not sure what I expected from Kelli, either, other than she'd have frizzy blonde hair. I don't know why, but the name Kelli sounds to me like frizzy blonde hair. I think I might have known a Kelli like that once. But Kelli doesn't have frizzy blonde hair at all. Meeting her was good, and meeting Nancy at last was great.

I also met Ashley Hope, whose work I'd seen online and who had a painting in Jack Tilton's "School Days" show. With luck we'll be hearing from her again soon.

After Kelli and Nancy and a couple of other people left in a cab for much more exciting doings I wandered to the gallery next door just to see what was happening. So here's a bit of advice I'd like to give gallerists who are putting something together: Don't title your show so people like me can make an easy joke. For example, if you call your show Quotidian, it's way too easy for me to write, "The works in Quotidian lived up to the show's title." I mean, come on, make me work a little, would you?


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