Layover – Charles Bukowski
Making love in the sun, in the morning sun
in a hotel room
above the alley
where poor men poke for bottles;
making love in the sun
making love by a carpet redder than our blood,
making love while the boys sell headlines
making love by a photograph of Paris
and an open pack of Chesterfields,
making love while other men – poor fools –
That moment – to this…
may be years in the way they measure,
but it’s only one sentence back in my mind –
there are so many days
when living stops and pulls up and sits
and waits like a train on the rails.
I pass the hotel at 8
and at 5; there are cats in the alleys
and bottles and bums,
and I look up at the window and think,
I know longer know where you are,
and I walk on and wonder where
the living goes
when it stops.
Doing a quick Wikipedia search on Charles Bukowski – full Westernized name Henry Charles Bukowski, and real name Heinrich Karl Bukowski (August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994) – led me to an article Time Magazine published in 1986 entitled “Celebrities Who Travel Well.” The author Pico Iyer, seemingly incredulous that western celebrities from Madonna to J.R. of Dallas fame had been flung as far and wide to the East as to the rest of the world – and stuck – was equally astonished by Bukowski’s fame “abroad,” referring to him at one point as the “laureate of American lowlife.” It might be fitting then that one day, lowlife would meet up with lowbrow and continue to influence a whole new generation of artists and writers. A good enough reason it seems to have inspired an exhibition of Charles Bukowski-themed works by 30 local artists on view at JETT Gallery in Little Italy.
I’ve read plenty of Bukowski over the years, and he is a writer known primarily for his prose and poetry about “booze and broads” and every imaginable mixture thereof, and even though he was certainly capable of producing works that were emotive, tender, and introspective, his appeal today and perhaps back then still smells of stale beer and cigarettes. His corpse reeks of the ghosts of people like Hemingway, Céline, and Ezra Pound, but seems to get resurrected with every new decade a little less intact and a little less important, like the late drug-addled writer Hunter S. Thompson. We tend to remember the antics of these men and not so much what they contributed, and greatly, to the literary community; we reduce their lives to a couple of good stories and some bad quotes.
And quotes we got with “All great art is horse shit, buy tacos,“ the exhibition curated by NEKO at JETT Gallery. Themed group shows, let’s face it, are a tough sell, not to mention how hard it is to convince some 30 artists to get on board with the idea. There are inevitably hits and misses along the way. Surprisingly enough, though, “All great art is horse shit, buy tacos” is a competent and deft show with some strong works to be found inside.
If you’re an avid fan of Bukowski don’t expect to learn anything new about the man, with a majority of the artists exhibiting pretty much cherry-picked for using a plethora of Bukowski quotes as a basis for their works. Many of the pieces make specific reference to two of Bukowski’s seminal works, the novel Women and the poem “Bluebird” – and there are plenty of both in this exhibit as there were at the show’s opening night. What else might you expect?
Bluebird (excerpt) – Charles Bukowski
There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
Aside from a clichéd handful of works on view, replete with beer bottles and cigarette butts collaged into their surfaces, some of my favorite pieces were by artists unknown to me. I was rewarded generously for my lack of knowledge. Jaclyn Rose, for example, displayed two lovely needlepoint works that sat quietly on the wall, understated and beautiful: a portrait of Bukowski and a woman in stockings looking down at her feet were exquisitely rendered in thread. Then came the shock, the incongruity of such a delicate pastime (society’s version of women at work) against a vitriolic background of tender disgust embroidered up in words: “I got a bad taste in the mouth of my soul” or “… you dirty old ugly misogynist monster, I love you.” I loved Rose’s work.
Jasmine Wright was also a very nice surprise. A local San Diego tattoo artist, Wright came up with a sweet little painting entitled “Upon the Billion Blooded Sea” picturing two little birds, one shot with an arrow and the other bloodied, with this phrase tattooed in the foreground: “To give life you must take life.” It is a delicate and subtle work that carries the same emotional “shock & awe” of Rose’s needlepoint.
Mike Maxwell offered up a surprising non-figurative work, a bit simplistic, but effective nonetheless for its very clear message. Tocayo on the other hand didn’t hold back at all. A stunning and vibrant portrait of Bukowski, eyes closed in a frozen death mask, is heightened by Tocayo’s garish CMYK color palette of aquamarine blues replete with half-naked bare-breasted women outlined in neon yellow and blood red floating in the background, the entire surface of the painting scrawled with excerpts from Women. Tocayo obviously stepped up and took the theme of the show seriously enough to produce a work of art that is far from being facile or flippant. A fine piece.
Neko furnished a large installation which paid homage to Bukowski’s Women as well, complete with a mailbox (a reference to Bukowski’s day job as a mail clerk) and a typewriter, its exaggerated keys forming the word WOMEN. The entire surface of the installation has been painted in large letters in various colors and fonts which spell out Bukowski’s name. It’s a fun and whimsical piece but I prefer others by Neko that are much stronger and dynamic.
Finally, there are a couple of works by Tommy McAdams and EXIST 1981 that undermine, to a certain degree, Bukowski’s philandering lifestyle and often misogynist ways, that are quirky and fun (if you can find amusement in these attributes) and ride the edge between being too literal or candid and just a bit too subversive in their mockery. The subtly of McAdams’ photograph, its originality if you will, gravitates over EXIST’s blatant in-your-face message; as a friend of mine said when talking about similar types of work, “[Eric] Fischl is much more interesting if I was inclined to look at the genre.” This might be a disservice to EXIST and an unfair comparison, but its interest lies in types of work that come off as brash one-liners and those with a deeper psychological meaning. Which of course raises the question, how deep do you need to get with Bukowski?
“All great art is horse shit, buy tacos”
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