"I want to know exact details, hard information about everything!" J.G. Ballard told an interviewer, in the pre-Internet year of 1982.
Standing in the Mütter Museum of medical oddities, contemplating a neat row of jars, each containing a malformed fetus with spina bifida, Riva Lehrer realized just how easily she, too, could have ended up a specimen in a bottle, an object of curiosity, pathos, and, yes, revulsion. "Their spinal column failed to fuse all the way around their spinal cord, leaving holes (called lesions) in their spine," she writes, in a New York Times essay so scarifyingly honest it feels like self-anatomization. "Some extrude a bulging sac containing a section of the cord. These balloons make the fetuses appear as if they’re about to explode. This condition is called spina bifida. I stand in front of these tiny humans and try not to pass out. I have never seen what I looked like on the day I was born."
Born with Spina bifida, the survivor of scores of surgeries, Lehrer is "less than five feet tall." She writes, "I have a curved spine. I wear huge, clunky orthopedic boots." Yet as she notes in her Times essay, she no longer winces at her own reflection. Through her stunning, photorealistic portraits of people with disabilities—people like Mat Fraser, a.k.a. Sealo the Seal Boy from American Horror Story; Nomy Lamm, born with one leg smaller than the other; Lynn Manning, a blind actor and 1990 World Champion in Blind Judo shown brandishing his white cane like a katana—she has come to see "disabled bodies as unexpected and charming and exciting. Read the rest
In the flurry of obituaries for Sam Shepard, who died last Thursday, at 73, from complications related to Lou Gehrig’s disease, the playwright and actor appears in close up, as an uncompromisingly honest anatomist of family traumas, and in long shot, as the last mythologist of the American West. He grew up “all over the Southwest, really -- Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico,” yanked from place to place by his Air Force-pilot dad’s postings, but when he moved to New York in ’62, he seemed oddly at home in the bohemia of the Lower East Side, plunging into the experimental theater scene orbiting around La MaMa. His Gary Cooper features, laconic way with words, and cowboy cool seemed right, somehow, for the post-beat, proto-punk underground that produced Andy Warhol’s 1968 movie, Lonesome Cowboys, and Velvet Underground songs like “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” (1970), both ironic, deadpan jabs at the moribund myth of the American Frontier (at the very moment that John Wayne was performing CPR on it in True Grit). In his early play, Cowboy Mouth (1971), binge-written in the Chelsea Hotel with his then-lover, Patti Smith, Shepard reimagines the high-plains drifter of John Ford legend as a wannabe Keith Richards, “a street angel…with a cowboy mouth.”
Coming of age at a moment when the rock guitarslinger was coolness itself, both Shepard and Smith, like many Boomer writers, sublimated their dreams of rock stardom into bravura improvisations on the typewriter. “First off let me tell you that I don’t want to be a playwright,” wrote Shepard, in 1971. Read the rest
Minimalist and modern-sounding, Man Ray is the sort of name that seems as if it should be outlined in buzzing neon. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia on August 27, 1890, the photographer and visual artist shortened his nickname, “Manny,” to Man, and after 1912 went by a less Jewish-sounding version of his surname in response to the anti-Semitism of the times.
It was an inspired choice. Man Ray sounds like a shaft of light in human form—a radiant man. “I have freed myself from the sticky medium of paint and am working directly with light itself,” the frustrated painter exulted, after discovering the technique that enabled him to produce Rayographs, as he called them—spooky, one-of-a-kind images created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to light, producing white silhouettes that glow eerily against a black background, like ectoplasmic manifestations in a Spiritualist photograph. “Everything can be transformed, deformed, and obliterated by light,” he said. “Its flexibility is precisely the same as the suppleness of the brush.”
Ray’s work is collected in a new book, Man Ray (part of Taschen’s Photo Masters series). A fellow traveler of the Dadaists and Surrealists, Ray (1890-1976) pioneered unconventional techniques that, married to his visual wit, evoke hidden realities. “By assembling a vocabulary of seldom-used darkroom techniques, he freed photography from its reputation for recording the observable world and used it to create images drawn from the imagination,” writes Katherine Ware in her essay “Chemist of Mysteries,” included in the book. In his alien still lives, Calla lilies give off a radioactive glow (a special effect produced by solarization, in which a print or a negative is exposed during its development, causing some darks to appear light, some lights to appear dark). Read the rest
Tolkien, perhaps rightly in marketing terms, though with the insistent literalism that makes writers writers (which is to say: not artists), demanded, of Barbara Remington's cover art for Lord of the Rings, "What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a Lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with the pink bulbs?" Read the rest