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Before the internet, writers interested in weird, amateurish or specialized lingos had to scrounge for them in used book stores and porn shops. There was no Google to barf verbiage onto your lap. I used to spend hundreds on magazines with names like Over Fifty and Fabulous, K.O., Soldiers of Fortune, Flying Saucer Digest and Teen. Bad, bumbling English is always a happenin’ planet, stretching your horizon, dude. In the visual arts, one artist in particular, Jim Shaw, alerted us all to the weird, goofy world of amateur creativity. He collected thrift store paintings and arranged them in installations. His 1991 show at Metro Pictures, NYC, was declared by critic Jerry Saltz as “one of the most important shows of the decade […] it brimmed with dementedly entertaining art [and] unlocked the doors to scores of dead, forgotten, or otherwise devalued painting genres. It was a gold mine of overlooked pictorial information, a mother lode of untapped graphic imagination and pictorial possibility.” Sounds like flarf to me. It was flarf, flarf, flarf, before there was flarf.
Also in 1991, Richard Torchia, Eric Heist and I curated a similar show in Philadelphia, “Found Paintings and Drawings,” at Momenta–a gallery now in Brooklyn. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the always clueless Edward J. Sozanski dismissed it as not worth the trouble:
The concept behind “Found Paintings and Drawings” at Momenta is intriguing–that out in the everyday world lies a trove of incidental art, much of it made by non-artists, waiting to be identified and sanctified.
This “discarded or abandoned” art, rescued from the gutter, the trash can or the thrift shop, will reveal its worth when displayed in an appropriate art space–a space that by its very nature validates objects hung within.
The realization of this idea falls flat, however, because Linh Dinh and Eric Heist, who put this exhibition together, seem to have assumed that anything drawn or painted can be transformed into valid art just by pinning it to a wall. And so they have covered the walls at Momenta with incidental doodles and vapid paintings.
Most of the creators of these works–the “artists,” as it were–are anonymous, but the checklist does tell where each object was found or purchased, as if this information somehow added value or conferred legitimacy. The works themselves tend to be not interesting or insightful or well-made, although they score high as curiosities.
The fact that someone considered each of these objects worth saving is supposed to imply that they are. This assumption applies only in a few cases–for example, a felt-tip marker drawing of snakes that comes close to being decent folk art. There’s a lot of strangeness represented here, but not enough substance to justify all the work that went into this show.
Robin Rice, of the lower circulation, free weekly Philadelphia City Paper, was somewhat more sympathetic:
The exhibition of Found Paintings and Drawings at Momenta is small and includes only a few really memorable pieces. But it is provocative in subtle ways, and in its cumulative assessment of things that can become art. As time passes, objects move in and out of the definition of art, and when enough time has passed they are almost automatically grannted the semi-sacred status of art objects–no matter how trivial they once may have been. Found art is just beginning the journey through time. It is enough now that it piques our consciousness.
One work in the show, which was organized and curated by Linh Dinh and Momenta director Eric Heist, consists of four fragments of oil-painted canvas salvaged by Wade Schuman from a dumpster at Freeman’s Auction House. It’s unusual because it is the work of a well-trained artist. The more or less rectangular pieces–each containing a head or heads–were slashed from a large, perhaps 19th-century,genre scene. The group in its dismembered state has been appraised at over $1,000 — so the reason for the mutilation and abandonment is mysterious.
Dick Torchia, who was instrumental in formulating the concept of the show, contributed several items, including a ballpoint doodle on paper bearing the logos of the Whitney Museum. Under a field of scribbles, in fragmented wiry writing, it says,” God HELP us all.”
Many works not surprisingly reflect the art interests of their collectors. Judith Schaecter, whose stained glass often deals with martyrdom and pain, contributed a found sketch of a head with asymmetrical howling mouth and tiny sections of exposed brain.
The truth is that artists have always been collectors of found images, and writers, perusers of junk literature, be it pulp magazines, signs, correspondences, or scraps of paper found on the ground, as was said of Cervantes. Much of writing is framing (or reframing) of found material, or of pointing to what otherwise would escape notice. Googling has allowed our sampling, collecting instinct to go into overdrive, hence something like flarf is inevitable, just as collage had to coincide with the advent of the illustrated magazine.
Google, copy, cut, paste, then add or revise. It’s another set of options, among many. I translate a 2005 poem by Bui Chat, born in 1979 and living in Saigon:
for the spirit. for the body. for living or five reasons why you should choose vietnamese poetry
an advertisement to assist ly doi at the vietnamese poetry booth, at the all-world poetry fair (planned for 2012)
it’s a product that has endured for a thousand years
it has been proven by science to be a food with many nutritional benefits
it has been granted the certifications ISO 9001: 2000, ISO 14001, GMP & HACCP
no cholesterol, no chemical preservatives, no artificial colorings
a necessity for an active life
because vietnamese poetry is a nutritious food:
• provides instant energy for the body
• increases the body’s immunity & spiritual strength
• contributes to a speedy recovery of your health
• improves memory & mental power
• helps to alleviate psychic tension
• improves young mothers’ abilities to breast feed
• is good for your blood thanks to its ability to absorb and use iron
note: this product is not a medicine, and should not be substituted for medicines
Top image: Headless Beat Girl with Text and Paint Brushes in Neck, from Jim Shaw’s book, Thrift Store Paintings (Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications, 1992). Bottom image: Joseph Cornell. Untitled (to James Card). 1951.