Monday, September 21, 2009


Recently I came across one of the most ridiculous pieces of unintentional art that I've ever seen. I call it "unintentional" because it's not meant to be art. What it is is a memorandum distributed by Clear Channel to it's radio stations shortly after 9/11. The document was a list of songs that were determined to be "lyrically questionable."

Now, really, I don't get my mind blown much these days. I work in the arts. I see a lot of shit, good and bad, and, well, I just don't get surprised by much. But when I stumbled upon this, I have to admit that I was slack jawed with disbelief. It took me a while to digest that this this was for real.

It is that reality that makes it art for me. Unintentional though it may be, this list is a wild, if not at times, miraculously stupid ride into the realm of conceptual art. The thing makes me laugh. Like, I'll be siting on the train and something from the list will pop into my head and I'll just start laughing. I mean, this thing is some mind-bendingly ridiculous stuff. I mean, like, unfathomable, except for the fact that there it is.

From the wikipedia page where I found it: "The list contains 166 songs, including "all songs" by Rage Against the Machine and songs recorded by multiple artists (for example Knockin' on Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan and the same song by Guns N' Roses). In some cases, only certain versions of songs were included on the list—for example, the cover of Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm is on the list despite the fact that the original version, sung by Michael Jackson, is not, while J. Frank Wilson's version of Last Kiss is included but Pearl Jam's cover is not."

Oh-ho my god. Seriously. Seriously. Can you imagine being at the table where these songs were discussed. Oh man I wish I could have a video of the idiots that sat around trying to figure out what constituted "lyrically questionable." And while there's definitely a tone difference between the Alien Ant Farm version and the original, have you heard Pearl Jam's cover? It's pretty faithful. So why would the Wilson version be inappropriate, but not Vedder's?

And clearly there's an unimaginable amount of songs that could be added to this list, but it seems the jokers at Clear Channel were clearly aiming at "popular" (or whatever their concept of popular is) songs rather than all songs that could be deemed questionable. Like, they only banned one Dylan song. Have these guys heard Dylan? Tom Waits, Woody Guthrie and Billie Bragg aren't even on this list but Skeeter Davis is? Really? And they suggest not playing Travelin Band by Creedence, but Bad Moon Rising is ok? You'd seriously rather hear Fogerty sing "I hear the voice of rage and ruin" but you want to avoid him singing "Seven thirty seven comin out of the sky"? What's the difference. Of course there is a staggering major difference in the fact that Travelin Band is about a freaking band that travels from place to place by plane and Bad Moon talks about the end of the freaking world. But Bad Moon is alright indeed.

Speaking of which, why wasn't Bad Moon banned during Katrina for it's "I hear hurricanes ablowing / I know the end is coming soon / I fear rivers over flowing" section? Should we not have been listening to Scorpions Rock You Like a Hurricane? Stormy Weather by the Pixies? (Which btw, is a song that I actually like to put on when a good old midwestern thunderstorm is about to clap.)

The mix of vapidity and irony is fairly staggering and every time I take a look at the list it makes me laugh. There's something new for me every time. Of course, Michael Moore did actually use What a Wonderful World in his doc Fahrenheit 9/11 over the video of the planes crashing. And yes, it is a little sick. But that's the point. And who the hell is Clear Channel to tell us what is questionable in the first place. (Not like this is the first or last thing that Clear Channel will do wrong. Practically everything they do is wrong.) I was likely walking around depressed out of my mind listening to Elliot Smith the whole time right after 9/11.

I could literally write a criticism of every single song on this list and either argue how incredibly dumb it is to call it "questionable" (which was essentially Clear Channel acting as America's Sensitivity Censor,) or argue that of course no one would freaking play it anyway. And if they did, someone would yell "too soon!" and Gilbert Gottfried would swoop down and do so some damage control with some good old American blue comedy, Aristocrats-style.

Also in is-this-really-for-real news, Kerri recently showed me this video for the Art Institute from the 80's. It's one of those so-bad-it's-good things. Check it out for a giggle.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taking my own advice

I'm going to stop apologizing about the fact that I don't blog daily. Maybe I will some day. Maybe I won't. And I'm not going to think about whether the entry is long or short. It will be what it will be. That said, I'm hoping to write about a slew of new things I've seen recently and I'll be gallery hopping soon, so there will be that too.

In the meantime.

I was talking to Helen Maureen Cooper the other day, rather fortuitously and unexpectedly. She was shooting a little event we hosted for SAIC freshmen to get them oriented with the gallery world here in Chicago. So she and I start chatting and she gives me her card and I suddenly recognize the name (which, was fun for her). She had a great shot on the announcement card a couple of years back announcing the grad show for SAIC. I always loved it and I've been quietly looking at her work ever since.

So we were talking and I was telling her that she ought to check out the work of Michael Ratulowski. Which is advice I myself followed and checked in on Michael's work again.

So let's just cut to it. Michael's work kicks ass. I showed MIchael in our Who Gets What political show last year and our gallery 3 has never looked better, in my opinion. I'm still pretty much kicking myself for not purchasing Optional?.

Optional? won't translate here very well because it's pretty large. It's one of those pieces that once you start peeling away layers - don't let the simplicity fool you - there's a ton of layers - it can go for a while. We showed this prior to the election and if you want to start talking about race, well, lets start talking.

But I was really happy to see Michael's new Anniversary Series. I think you can draw a tangent from his earlier April 29, 1992 piece to the Anniversary line of thinking. April 29 is an On Kawara style work (in fact, it's a direct homage) that does something completely different from Kawara. What Kawara does, i.e. paint the date in white on black (usually - sometimes white on blue or brown, etc), on the actual day of the date, becomes a meditative statement on awareness and living in the moment and proof of life and you can travel down a whole buddhist / existential road there. And I have to admit, that I've liked Kawara's work ever since it was introduced to me by Pat Renick (see earlier entry) my freshman year. But I'd never had the opportunity to see a room full of them until I went to Dia:Beacon where they had one from every year that he'd done them. For me, Kawara's project sort of changed a little and became more satisfying. It's one thing to know that he does a lot of them, but I'm used to seeing just one in a museum or just one in print and they take on a life, since that's what they represent, when they are together. But so you allow the randomness of the project (and concept - and individual date) and allow it to be bigger as a whole rather than forcing some sort of false importance on the particular date. But so, I'm getting there, the importance of the date is the point in Michael's work. But that's the thing. We know 9.11. We may know D-Day or or V-Day or birthdays or whatever may be important to us. But really, I feel like the average person, and maybe now I'm talking about the average white person, or the average person outside of LA, or maybe outside of South-Central or possibly the average non-Sublime fan or whatever, but the average person is just not going to know what April 29, 1992 is all about. So this isn't about teasing you. It's the date of the Rodney King riots. And maybe we should know that.

Michael Ratulowski, April 29, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 30x40, 2006

On Kawara, OCT.23,1989, acrylic on canvas, 26x36, 1989

But so, lets talk about the Anniversary Series. Because like I said, there's a line from April 29, 1992 to there. I had not seen these images until today and they are great. In classic Ratulowski style, if there can be such a thing (stylewise) since Michael is young, these works are funny and possibly sad and maybe deadly serious and maybe, just possibly, social commentary and very likely a little (lot) more than that. They are also scary simple. But I usually love that. The simple stuff. Like, for example, simplicity-wise, the most fun piece at the Olafur Eliasson show was the hanging fan on a wire. So damn simple and yet, pretty great because in its simplicity, it's wide open for interpretation. But so, these are essentially (like the way a fan on a wire is essentially just a fan on a wire and can only be more with your mind and observation) images of Michael pouring out beer from a 40. For those not in the know, which in terms of this blog is possibly only my mother, when a homey dies, you will often pour some beer on the ground in remembrance. I think the Irish do this with whiskey. Whatever. So the gesture is there. The pouring of beer on the ground and the works are titled with dates and length of anniversary, i.e. February 7, 2009, 9th Anniversary. So to start, you know that someone died 9 years ago as of February 7, 2009 and you begin to ask yourself what the context is and what the connection is. I know many of us when presented with this might simile and move on or say we get it or just not ask any questions, but hopefully for those of us who don't know, and I'm not saying everyone won't know, just a lot of people won't know, that you whip out an iPhone or find someone with one and start searching. I recommend a healthy combination of google and wikipedia. So you'll find that February 7, 2000 marked the death of rapper Big Pun. Now, for the record, no, I don't know who that is, and yes, I'm hoping to find more out, but I find it fascinating that this is something that, regardless of actual caring on Michael's part, which I'm guessing is genuine, is remembered and marked and cared about. Also, as side note, currently from the Anniversary Series that are posted on Michael's site as of this blog entry, 3 of 5 are shooting deaths, but Big Pun died of a heart attack and at time of death was reportedly 698 pounds.

Michael Ratulowski, February 7, 2009: 9th Anniversary, 2009

I have little understanding of the music involved in these Anniversary's other than March 9, representing the Notorious B.I.G., which arguably I really don't know that much about either. But I found myself wondering what April 8 would look like if I made it. It would have me in it and I would know what it's about, but I wonder who else would know. And no, this isn't a tease either. That's Kurt Cobain's death. And I can tell you where I was and how confused I felt and how most years I really do remember his life and his passing. Which is all confusing anyway, because Cobain's death is actually listed as the 5th, but he wasn't found until the 8th.

Also in the series is February 10, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, representing the passing of J Dilla who died of a rare blood disease; February 15, 2009: 10th Anniversary, representing Big L, who was shot to death; and April 11, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, representing Proof, who was, like Big L and Biggie, shot to death. There is a solemnity involved in all this. These aren't showy, which, for artwork - at least the successful kind - is bold and strong and dangerous (non-showy-wise). And as far as I can tell, they don't lie. Which I love (when not-lying is a concept). They are all in (seemingly very) different places and with a vision unto themselves, visually speaking. My favorite (also visually speaking) is April 11. Really, I don't want to be laughing at the work - really, I want to be laughing with the work, but that would presume that I belong with the work, which I probably don't, (or that there were anything to laugh at in the first place) which also means I shouldn't be laughing and maybe it's exposing the reality that I laugh as a defense mechanism, but I do think there is something (for me) that is funny about this photo. There's a strange over-seriousness about it and also, unlike the others, includes a car, which I (again probably ignorantly), think of as rather hip-hoppy, basically for color and rim reasons. But you really wouldn't want to be caught laughing in the moment. It would be radically rude. But then, that's just how I feel. Or maybe it wouldn't matter. Like, I wouldn't get pissed if someone laughed at me (I think - or hope) mourning Cobain. I guess I'd just assume they either didn't know about it or didn't connect with it the way I did. Which, I guess is how Michael's work is succeeding - making the connection.

Michael Ratulowski, March 9, 2009: 12th Anniversary, 2009

Michael Ratulowski, April 11, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, 2009

Oh. And I also love the Aphorism Series. Take, for example, Untitled (Aphorism Series #4) and Untitled (Aphorism Series #6). Both are attributed to Dante Terrell Smith. #4 goes like this:

If white boys doing it, well, it's success
When I start doing, well, it's suspect

and #6

The po-po stop him and show no respect
"Is there a problem officer?" Damn straight, it's called race

Michael Ratulowski, Untitled (Aphorism Series #6), inkjet print, 36x48, 2009

These "Aphorisms" are culled from popular hip-hop and rap songs, stripped of sound and presented as white text on a black background. The isolation of the words, both visually and from their original context, creates a new dialogue between the viewer and the artist(s). And so again, in the Aphorism Series, Michael expects you either to know or to do the research and find out the Dante Terrell Smith is Mos Def. As an aside, I was once asked if I could have anyones voice to sing with and I answered Neko Case, which would be odd as it would obviously be a woman's voice and would (I think) appear weird coming from me and also bypassed the question and essentially answered the different question of "Who's voice do you most love to hear singing?" Which either way, I later amended my answer (which might also take care of both questions) to Mos Def. All that being said, I didn't know Mos Def's given name.

I find those two particular aphorisms to be interesting because they are essentially the punch-line to the the joke of "driving while black." We see plenty of that activity in our neighborhood to the point where it's an uncomfortable joke/truth. But it also points to why Obama has certain hills to climb and certain critics to attempt to silence. And what's more, is that it's not really answering anything, it's just pointing. And we're gonna get a lot of that this administration - the pointing out of the obvious with (possibly) nothing getting actually answered (about race, at least.)

If you haven't figured it out by now, I really could go on and on about Michael's work. I pretty much unabashedly love it and I'm proud to have shown it. I'll stop now, but please, by all means, get me started again. He's great.