Everything is glossy but something is very off

Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells have drawn heaps of critical attention in no time flat. What could be the appeal? That, as they told an old colleague of mine, everything is glossy but something is off? I think you can trace it to the collision of sensibilities between Derek Miller, a guitarist from a Florida post-hardcore band, and Alexis Krauss, who’s worked as a schoolteacher, wedding singer, session vocalist, and teen member of a girl group. Miller offers varieties of primitivism: homemade beats plus squeals and squalls of roughly guitarlike noises. Krauss, on the other hand, boasts a diversity of talents that reflects her diversity of experience. This goes for both her voice—an instrument that can switch gears on a dime—and her body—an instrument that, in the fiery tradition of Joan Jett and Karen O, fastens into an ecstatic state that feels at once confronting and inviting. Stirring together ferocity and feminine innocence, this 24-year-old whirlwind of sound and motion launches out bratty roars and lusty moans, graceful hand gestures and dizzying hair whips, keeping stillness and silence at bay, the not-so-calm core within Miller’s maelstrom of brute riffs and booms.

Sleigh Bells

Some are bothered by Sleigh Bells’ use of an iPod in their live show. I wonder if these people are troubled by Beach House’s prerecorded drum tracks. Frankly, I don’t see the issue. A live act need not conform to some eternal template of rock-band roles. Here we can zero in on the two true sources of action. Or in the case of “Ring Ring,” above,  one live center plus one warmly looped center.

Photo credits: Will Deitz, Pitchfork; James Ryang, NYT.

A secret language

What is minimalism? La Monte Young said it’s “that which is created with a minimum of means.” Donald Judd described his own work as more than reduction. “You’re getting rid of the things that people used to think were essential to art.” Michael Fried denounced minimalism as theater, not art: it lies in wait, needing an audience. Sol LeWitt accused the elusive term of being “part of a secret language that art critics use when communicating with each other.”

The hard curves and angles of Albert Exergian‘s posters touch on these questions. For most, you don’t require much beyond the title to relish them. Young’s “minimum of means” is all the artist needs—and all you need. In one, the shape and pattern of lines point to liberty; in the other, color and composition suggest carnal knowledge.



I think Fried’s charge of theatricality illuminates what makes Exergian’s series tick. In the below images, theatricality is not a bad thing: you have to join the TV show’s audience to revel in the cleverness of these images. Belonging to that community, in on its jokes, feeling the jolts of recognition, fluent in the secret language, you share that extra source of delight. Peter Falk’s secret glass eye, Dexter’s microscope slides—they snappily unveil something essential about each show—the treachery of perception, the dark side of science. You get the picture.


The visual deus ex machina


Ed Ruscha on Los Angeles:

Being in Los Angeles has had little or no effect on my work. I could have done it anywhere.


Au contraire! David Lynch on Ed Ruscha on Los Angeles:

Ed has said California hasn’t influenced him one little bit, but I disagree. I like to think the California sun has burnt out all unnecessary elements in his work.



The incomparable Chris Ware delivers a Halloween-themed cover and comic for the New Yorker. (Cover, first page, second page.) All the Ware-isms are in evidence.

  • Not 1mm of wasted space
  • The flatly modernist feel of isometry
  • A wintry desolation that savors of Chicago
  • Pools of Hockney cerulean + a southwestern palette of pink-gray-browns
  • Keen visual wit (viz., the children’s masks = the iPhone-lit faces of the parents)
  • The quick frissons of loneliness, neglect, and distrust
  • Patterns of intergenerational friction and inertia


Levi’s wants you to feel that there’s something American about denim, and something deeply American about theirs in particular. (The Marlboro Man has done his part.) The company makes a poetic case in their recent Go Forth campaign, launched around July 4, with the help of Portland ad legends Wieden + Kennedy, who enlisted rising stars Ryan McGinley and Cary Fukunaga.

The “O Pioneers” spot is exuberant, full of activity. Not only does the camera whip around with Scorsese speed, dropping with the waterfall or sailing over the meadow, but the bodies twirl and careen forward, too, in explosions of motion that do call to mind some kind of pioneer restlessness. Using old Smithsonian wax cylinder recordings of (what we believe, want to believe, is) Whitman’s own voice reciting “Pioneers! O Pioneers,” the union of text and image stirs up an excitement that winningly connects the wild-hearted, hipster Generation O back to the Lincoln-era rhetoric of self-reliance and awe at nature.

The “America” spot draws its text from Whitman’s likewise titled “America.” It is night, again, and we’re out among the trees and lakes. The city doesn’t exist in this world, the daydream nation of country-boy turned metro-artiste Ryan McGinley, it seems, not in the form that we know it. The black and white photography, like the light of the fireworks, is a kind of equalizer: it finds visually common denominators. Against the hanging tension of the Final Fantasy song in the background, the vitality of the subjects—shirtless kids and suited businessmen, backflipping and flexing and chasing through waves of grain—is even more obvious. The snap of the final firecracker silences the violins, breaks the tension, and concentrates our attention on the handwritten go forth at the end. A great ad.

Street savage surrounded by sophisticates

Irving Penn has passed away. He had a knack for turning Chanel’s adage — elegance is refusal — into a style that might be called, paradoxically, lushly minimal. With the fewest possible elements, he could coax out the drama of interior life.

His early work was marked by a curious backdrop. He stuffed his subjects, many of them art-world royalty, into a tight corner. The claustrophobic setting enabled Penn to assert a kind of cruel power that, by showing how people responded to their surroundings, told us about their demeanors. In his words: “This confinement, surprisingly, seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against.” As an exception, you have Georgia O’Keefe, slanting subtly, who felt so reduced by the converging walls that she demanded her photo be destroyed. As confirmation, you have Marcel Duchamp, a dapper picture of composure and self-possession, whose puffing pipe signaled that he relished the enclosure.


Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1948

Gradually he shifted from his corners to a cloudily anonymous backdrop, a sooty swath of medium gray that threw his subjects forward toward the viewer. This was his signature style in the 1950s. Moving his camera much closer, he exalted the face and eyes as matrices of expression. Often casting a sideways light on his sitters, he hinted at the complexity that lay behind the face, orchestrating a clash of light and shadow that reflected some inner twoness. They also read as a truce between revelation and mystery. John Szarkowski compared two famous images:

Penn’s famous portrait of Picasso, with the great cyclopean eye, the bullfighter’s cape, the ethnic hat, the dramatic lighting, etc., seems to this viewer a marvelous triumph of skill, an admirable act of legerdemain, but something less than a true portrait, if one takes as a standard the picture of S. J. Perelman, for example. This is the record of a collaborative disclosure, or discovery, of a self.


Pablo Picasso, Cannes, France, 1957


S.J. Perelman, New York,1962

In the end, many of my favorite Penn photographs weren’t portraits at all. His images of cigarettes stood out to me as alchemical: lead into gold. Szarkowski had a theory about them: “The lipstick on the dead cigarette butt, the beetles, flies, stains, mice, raveled carpets and moldering walls that recur with such frequency in Penn’s work might be explained as a quiet dissent from the general model of perfect elegance that prevailed at Vogue during Penn’s early years there.” His still lives attempted something else. They gave form to his painterly ambitions by not relying on the camera alone, but on principles of art. They sought to arrest time’s movement, to preserve life’s color from decay simply by lending living things, through surprising placements and pairings, the soft touch of eternity.


Still Life with Watermelon, New York, c. 1947



The Diana Mini is a shrunken version of the Diana F+, offering both the vintage square format and the budget-friendly half-frame option, allowing you to pack two photos into one frame. What better way to save in these tight times?

I cursed these legs I walked on

We are fans of Department of Eagles (featuring Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen). We are also both fans of Marcel Dzama, who, with Patrick Daughters (the brain behind the Two Weeks video) directed the video for Department of Eagles’s song “No One Does It Like You.”

The new work, which premiered recently at the Museum of Modern Art, is animated by Dzama’s alternately sweet and dark preoccupations.  A clash between Eastern Front snowman infantry and ninja ballerina terrorists, bearing AK-47s and baring thighs, forms the centerpiece of the video. All the visuals are familiar: the uniforms, the flags, the skirts and stockings, the rifles, the leafless clawlike trees, the bedsheet ghosts, amputations and arterial sprays. Steeped in a palette of blood red and cloudy root-beer neutrals, the frame full of eerie blurs and grainy textures, the whole thing feels pitched halfway between reverie and nightmare. A skewed meditation on death. An apocalyptic fairy-tale that, in weaving a childish innocence with tokens of the past and images of violence, stands up as quintessential Dzama.

Meet the soft-spoken artist. Below, you can catch some behind-the-scenes glances at the choreography and costumes. Blue-screen tricks and handmade props abound.

Deacon Bruno’s 26th


Deacon Bruno (1983-2009) ate in great bites, drank in great gulps, breathed in great breaths. As though he knew that time were a luxury and life demanded grand gestures and swift movements. It made him a bon vivant and a man of action. Relentlessly alive. A centrifugal force. His spirit was electric and colossal and charmed multitudes. He saw a larger wilder brighter version of you that, in the mirror, you may never have seen. And he could bring it out. He felt the pressure to create and that pressure was contagious, made you want to be a part of the same borderless world of color and sound and feeling that he commanded without effort. Gentleman of the gutter, demonic under the mirror ball and saintly everywhere else. Today, what would have been his 26th birthday, we honor that ecstatic will to create and to be: his unwillingness to separate the two. We honor his volcanic inner life.

Love, Chau and B.J.

Another Two Weeks

SFJ describes the Grizzly Bear song (on Veckatimest) rather masterfully:

“Two Weeks” is a big fat ice-cream cone of a song. The piano part sounds a little like “Chopsticks” expanded into something more robust, with Bear merging a shuffle and a straightforward backbeat as the boys sing “Oh-ooh-oh” up into the air—a doo-wop quartet launching into orbit. Droste sings about a “routine malaise” but pledges, “I told you I would stay.”

“Chopsticks” or this? Sasha thinks Ed’s chorus is sweet, but I can easily read it, given the troubled relationship touched on throughout the song, as a sort of backpedaling. A lack of backbone in the face of an imposing lover, perhaps. Anyway, I wanted to take a look at different ways that this song has been translated into the music-video medium.

Very recently, Gabe Askew made a fan video for Grizzly Bear’s lovely “Two Weeks.”  Gabe’s interpretation: “A relationship where one person is uncertain of the others loyalty. You get sucked up into the daily grind and forget to tell the one you love how you feel. They get insecure and worry that you aren’t committed. ” Instead of taking a literal route, Gabe relies on a kind of cardboard diorama aesthetic, to craft a low-tech dreamworld populated by fish and highways and people that flip up from the ground or hang from the proscenium. We enter through a dark hole into what seems like a memory. Two guys make up the cast, mechanically pulling each other heart’s out, sharing sushi, suffering arrow-wounds, in this surreal drama of love in tatters, knitting itself back together.

Before Gabe’s, my favorite fan video trophy belonged to JT Helms, who spliced together chunks of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 La Ballon Rouge. (Digression: while in Providence with Chau, I had the good fortune to view Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film inspired by Lamorisse’s classic. Binoche was brilliant as ever.) In this version, instead of a relationship between lovers, we have a boy and a mysterious balloon. When the song’s harmonies lift off into the sky, in a nice parallelism, so do the balloons. It kind of echoes the rise of the hot air balloons and anti-gravity flowers in Gabe’s video. Caught up in the sighing vocals, one can’t help but feel a sort of vertical motion of the spirit.

And finally the real one. A creepily poetic masterpiece from Patrick Daughters, the mind behind Feist’s videos. There is a tension in the song between beauty and darkness that is reflected indirectly in Daughters’ video. In the song it’s the ethereal voices vs. the subject matter. For the video, shot inside a “defunct boys’ penitentiary chapel outside of L.A,” it’s the serenely colorful interior vs. the pyrotechnics and digitally warped faces. It makes me think of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, uniting the strange and the familiar, as Daughters does here, in one emotionally unsettling vignette.

Which one’s your favorite?