THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by G.G.G. Malasherbes
I. A Time of Eccentric Tolerance
During the 20th century, there were times when new cultural movements were formed as artists joined together in real-world geographical centers. Oftentimes, they became very aware of how different they were from everyone else, and that fueled their creativity.
Nonetheless, while some visual artists of the 20th century began to stridently de-emphasize the technical aspects of their work in favor of in-your-face marketing efforts or half-baked conceptualism, some artists continued to devote themselves to the mastery of workmanship, notwithstanding the lack of financial support or cultural recognition. Some of them have continued to create beautiful artwork to this day.
“Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983,” now on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, illustrates this phenomenon. The show, which opened on Halloween and runs until April Fool’s Day, showcases the post-pop artistic community that flourished around Club 57. Some of the most respected artists of our generation, such as Keith Haring, are represented. There is even what passes for a shred of Basquiat. But above all, the impression the show gave me (as a rough contemporary) is: what fun these artists must have had!
Club 57 was a venue in the rented basement of a Catholic church in New York’s East Village. In keeping with its 1978-1983 timeframe, the show features cultural elements of that era: punk, an emerging gay voice, and comedy (Somehow the comedy of the era made me think of Saturday Night Live). Amongst the artifacts are also frequent reminders that there was a brief “Disco Sucks” movement. Even amongst the era’s much-invoked cultural dearth and political apathy, the seeds of modern enlightenment were germinating.
MoMA’s exhibit is about a community which existed at a certain moment in time. As such, it is encyclopedic in nature (the entire first floor of the exhibit is devoted to flyers, posters and photos of that demimonde’s denizens) yet still with much entertaining and moving artwork to look at. Haring was the program director at Club 57, so his work is of course represented. Yet the viewer will also be introduced to the work of a great many lesser-known artists.
II. A Lavish Film Series Continues
What I was most impressed by in the exhibit were the four separate film series at the show: one extensive series of films and videos that is part of the exhibit itself and three separate series in adjacent movie theaters. The separate series’ titles are, “You Are Now One Of Us: Film at Club 57,” “New York Film and Video: No Wave–Transgressive,” and the forthcoming “This Is Now: Film and Video After Punk.”
Among the films are works by Russ Meyer and James Nares from the UK, who was in the vicinity at the time. The “You Are Now One of Us” series includes works by George Kuchar, whose movie “Hold Me While I’m Naked” was ranked the 52nd best film of the 20th century by the Village Voice in 2000.
The series includes two separate sessions of films by Richard Kern. Kern’s work sometimes featured the pioneering “No Wave” artist Lydia Lunch as well as Nick Zedd, a filmmaker himself who coined the phrase “cinema of transgression.” Today, Kern takes “glamour” photographs of topless women for GQ and does similar work for other major magazines. In contrast, Lunch and Zedd are both still active countercultural artists.
One of Kern’s films, “The Manhattan Love Suicides,” is an odd but relatively inoffensive tale of surprise endings. The scene opens on a limping, grimacing fellow who seems to be stalking a couple on a mundane date. He is then greeted with recognition by the gentleman and invited back to his visual art studio when the lady goes home. The strange stalker tries to initiate sex with the painter, who declines the offer. When the strange stalker’s arm falls off and he begins writhing on the floor in agony, the painter laughs hysterically in surprise and places the stinking arm in the kitchen sink.
Still, I could see taking a first date to this movie. Others, like “You Killed Me First,” or even “Thrust in Me,” however, I would be very reluctant to take a first date to. The latter film features Nick Zedd himself in two roles. No spoiler warning is necessary: it’s not called “Cinema of Transgression” for nothing.
Manhattan Love Suicides: I Hate You Now. 1985. USA. Directed by Richard Kern. Pictured: David Wojnarowicz. Still courtesy of Richard Kern
III. A Devotion to Craft Missing Today
Speaking of Zedd, he was reportedly a one-time paramour of Lunch. The work of Zedd (who at one time went by the perhaps-more-colorful name of Nick Zodiac) shows a devotion to artistic craft that is seldom seen among today’s visual artists. Call them offensive, unhealthy or whatever else you want to say about the people of this punk rock movement at the time, but you cannot call Zedd lazy as an artist.
At a time when minimalism was the default style, Zedd’s creative output included full-length feature films such as the relatively sweet “Geek Maggot Bingo,” as well as “They Eat Scum” (where his creative energy and technical diligence are mind-blowing). His absolute devotion to being weird could be compared to Mel Brooks’ absolute devotion to making jokes: at 24 frames per second. The cumulative effect can be irresistible.
Nick Zedd, They Eat Scum, 1978. Poster. Permission by Nick Zedd.
But Zedd also seems to have an innate sense of scope and scale, notwithstanding the overriding relevance of satire to his oeuvre. In a very short film like “Police State,” he can bring a solemn hush over an audience and win your heartfelt friendship. “Geek Maggot Bingo,” on the other hand, is a sweet, eloquently-made film with surprisingly good acting (the elements of the plot mimic “Frankenstein Meets the Bride of Dracula”).
“The special effects in that movie were abysmal,” said Zedd in an email interview. “The lightning was done by drawing a lightning bolt on a piece of paper, then cutting it out and shooting it one frame at a time on top of black paper. Another lightning bolt, hitting the Formaldehyde Man, was scratched with a pin directly onto the 16mm, removing the emulsion frame by frame.”
“The gun shots were done with a Q-tip soaked in bleach, erasing the emulsion from the film,” he explained. “The background music and sound effects were heard from a record player while we filmed live. The makeup effects and background drawings were done by Tyler Smith. In one shot, when Dean Quagmire falls off a cliff, I made ten color drawings of the actor, then cut each one out with scissors and stuck them on the background drawing, shooting frame by frame.”
By contrast, the Electra Elf series, a more recent Zedd project not shown at MoMA, features more professional production values. Still, it’s not that the effects in his older work are the stuff of Industrial Light & Magic. It’s more that the artist dwells on them in a fun, prolonged state of devotion to his art. In contrast to the sweetness of “Geek Maggot Bingo,” “They Eat Scum” would not be considered a casual movie. However, the mood of the film is hysterically satirical enough for the open-minded, and the plot is exciting.
Nick Zedd, Geek Maggot Bingo, 1983. Film still. Courtesy of MoMA.
IV. A Seminal Genre Seem from the Subsequent Century
This seems like an appropriate moment to comment on the tolerance of Zedd’s original late 1970s audience. Zedd felt (and probably still feels) the artistic freedom to make virtually any expression he wanted, and some audiences today still find the effect thrilling.
For example, an oversized swastika flag in an East Village apartment is on the screen for what seems like a good half-hour in “They Eat Scum.” The villain, Donna Death, is a sex-negative, bloodthirsty contrarian who leads a band of Nazi cannibals and plays at a local venue, CBGB, at the birth of the punk era. The heroes are the bugs who inherit the planet after the final conflagration. By contrast, a swastika would not be permitted on stage today at any punk show in the Western Hemisphere for longer than five seconds. If it is, you’re at the wrong kind of punk show.
“Punk really evolved into something else, then split into factions. By the late ‘80s, the most radical thing happening in music was rap. At first, it was played on AM radio. Then it was suppressed by cretins and got no airplay until Mister Magic’s Rap Attack on WBLS Friday nights for a few years. After that, it got co-opted and ruined by big money while punk turned into a reactionary fundamentalist religion,” Zedd opined in a recent interview.
Zedd has been arrested for his films in both Canada and Sweden, and he has been banned from Canada for 30 years (“I must be subversive,” he said). According to some, society has changed today; gay freedom, gun rights, legalized cannabis or the satanic creche in City Hall and, especially, the habeas corpus case for an orangutan in Argentina reflect once-banned topics. As far as new countercultural movements are concerned, Zedd says, “I don´t see them growing anywhere on prison planet Earth.”
MoMA has done all of us a great favor by showing these zesty comedies (and a few dramas). Furthermore, Zedd’s compilation DVD, “Beyond Transgression,” will be released later this year.
I find Zedd’s work important for the same reason I find the other Club 57 artists’ work important: because it’s obvious he had a great time creating it! As someone who has devoted himself to prose (a more solitary medium), I can only wish that I had made enjoyable, sociable artwork like film. By making barrier-shattering comedies with enthusiasm, Zedd gave tremendous gifts to his immediate friends and, ultimately, to society and history. I like Kern’s work too, but I am disappointed that he eventually stopped pushing the limits through his art. I admire Zedd’s long-lasting devotion to workmanship and weirdness.
G. G. G. Malasherbes is the pen name of a novella writer and traveling cultural critic.
The New Art Examiner is pleased to welcome G.G.G. Malasherbes as one of our New York correspondents. He will be keeping us abreast of the alternative and film art scene in New York City.