I Meant This to Be About Art
Physical, Emotional, Spiritual Things
Before I begin: due to the unexpected generosity of a reader donating the equivalent of a year’s subscription to this thing, I am now accepting donations! In the words of Louisa May Alcott via Zosia Mamet in Dickinson, I’m all about that hustle. I piece together my income through the random opportunities that come from doing witchcraft in the shower, so anything and everything helps. If you enjoy what is happening here and would like to cross my palm with silver, your contribution is deeply appreciated and will only be partially wasted on cigarettes and thrift store clothes that don’t fit. Most of it will go to feed my family! If you do not wish to contribute that is fine, please continue to peruse. Onward.
A series of deep tragedies in the life of a person I will never know led to me fostering a dog this week. The dog’s name is Mabel – Sneaky Mabel, to be precise. I was listening to some friends trying to problem-solve her care, and it slowly occurred to me – hey! I can foster a dog!
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I have always wanted to foster dogs, so that I can enjoy a parade of different breeds and varieties of cuteness trotting through my home. My ex nixed it back in the day, because they were concerned they’d get bonded to an animal who would have to go, but I don’t have that problem. Perhaps I am a sociopath, but I just don’t bond so hard with my animal friends. I don’t think I get dopamine off them - I get it off sex and shopping like a normal person - and philosophically, I just think of animals as little independent beings trying to get by in this crazy mixed-up world. A world that treats animals so bizarrely – eating them and fetishizing them and farming them and abusing them and anthropomorphizing them and loving them and breeding them and designing them and ruining their habitat. It must be a real headfuck to be any sort of non-human animal on this planet. It made me so happy to think I could give this tiny, stressed-out doggie with a big schnozz and even bigger ears a little place to catch her breath during what seems to be a sad and hectic time of her life. I wish she could have stayed longer but it’s also okay.
Mabel fit into my home so neatly. Brody the dog gave a couple precursory growls and that was it. The cat raised his back like a Halloween cartoon, spit a few hisses, and before long was lounging on my lap in close proximity. My child, when having a deep meltdown about a Lego project gone awry, collapsed on the floor in sobs (Libra Stellium / Aries rising) and this was the most agitated I saw Mabel get. Confused and distressed by the drama, she quickly went about policing everyone, yelling at the other dog for playing, snapping at me for being too close, just trying to bring some order to the scene. I respect a high-strung, unrecovered Al Anon.
I will miss the feeling of lifting Mabel by her little papier mache ribcage into my arms, to bring her to the yard for a pee. My husband has been on a roadtrip all week, visiting a friend in Arizona, and never got to lay eyes on her! How strange that the entire house – save the gecko - just had this deep experience of meeting, caring for and bonding with a tiny being, and he will return tonight in the wake of it and wonder at our home’s shifted vibe.
The takeaway, of course: I can now foster doggies. So, send me your not too big / not too energetic / preferably female / more sub than dom / plays well with others / doesn’t chase cats / already potty-trained dogs looking for a chill space to get their lives together, okay?
Anyway, I meant this to be about art. Saturday I went to an art opening with Ali. We walked out of the rain and into the Ochi Gallery, where three tons of lava rock crunched beneath our feet. It is part of the current show there, paintings by Ben Sanders. Paintings, three tins of lava rock to traipse across, and a raw steel bench the artist built with his dad – just a long hunk of cold iron at least one art-goer was afraid to sit upon, for fear of getting hemorrhoids. But the paintings! Giant and radiant – like, glowing – they spread across the wall: visions of planets in the midst of eclipse, or perhaps just vibing an otherworldly, mineral brilliance. Sometimes the planets do not look like planets but like levitating metalline bars hovering over a peaky mountain landscape. A great, black orb transmits an electric power, magnetic. Elsewhere, a stack of bulbous, ridged forms, like butthole pancakes, bloom and float, fleshy and flower-esque.
The one that really got me – like, physically got me, left me a little buzzed, zapped, is an orb with a yellow corona hanging against a Neapolitan sky. The sky, with its stripes of blue, white and orange, encapsulate a day in the airspace – the blue of a clear sky, the white of cloud cover, the radioactive sunset. The ball itself – a planet, right? – seems to be orange but reflecting a white light / white heat. Or maybe white, soaking up the hues of the sky backgrounding it. It also seems, for all its mammothness, to be hovering just atop another surface, a strip of glowing landscape at the bottom of the painting.
This piece hijacked my brain chemistry and made me remember, physically, what it was like to stare at a Rothko at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shortly after getting sober. Deprived of so much – chemicals, sugar, coping mechanisms – it was as if my body and mind were vigilantly scanning my surroundings, looking for something – anything – to get high from. The painting, No. 14, 1960, say on a side wall, also radiating. The wide orange cloud of the top part of the painting was vampiring the life force from the smaller, denser but still dynamic blue rectangle beneath. I remember the feeling it gave me, a psychedelic wobble. I had to sit down. A plaque on a nearby wall said something about the artist trying to give the viewer a spiritual experience, and I felt magical and proud to have felt his intention play out across my body. I was happy that I was susceptible to such things. I was happy that spirituality was real, could be encoded in color, could be sprung by one person onto another. Newly sober, I was thinking about god a lot, had had to make a certain peace with the word in order to find communion with a bunch of recently wasted hooligans now on the same path as me, all of us joining up in drafty rooms and talking about god. Usually it wasn’t what you’d think it was, god, which is why it had come to work for me. God was this painting, or the piece of me that recognized it and rose in salute, leaving me pleasantly shook.
Other things got me a little high when I was newly sober, though none so much as the Rothko. Orange, in general, a color I’d never cared about, it felt too showy, belonged to eras I couldn’t relate to. But sober, something about its frequency shot a good vibe thru my eyeballs into my brain, got the chemicals flowing. At the Salvation Army I found an orange love seat embroidered with black design, velvet and baroque, it shone, it was amazing. We bought it, me and my partner who thought it so creepy that I was going to these rooms where freaks talking about god, though he was happy I wasn’t wasted. To complement the couch, we painted the walls orange, too – orange with yellow accents. How could this have looked okay. I remember, helping us paint was the younger sister of one of my drug frenemies. We had been roommates, which had been great, because she did heroin at the kitchen table which meant I could, too. But also, she didn’t like me. A lot of our time together was me trying to show her I was a likeable person. Rather than wondering why she wanted to hang out with me so much and be her roommate if she didn’t like me. Which she really didn’t. Such paradoxes are acceptable when you’re on a lot of drugs. You’re sort of uncomfortable and vaguely anxious all the time anyway, what’s one more social problem? I don’t know where this girl was or why her younger sister was with me at my new house, but she was, and she painted the wainscoting meticulously and sang Amazing Grace as she worked. Which was incredible, because my boyfriend’s number one pet peeve was people randomly singing Amazing Grace acapella. This felt like a very random thing to hate – like, how often does this happen? But there it was. This girl, maybe 19, long blonde hair, straight I think, very innocent, in an unformed way, just singing Amazing Grace and slapping a hideous, mustard-y paint onto my door jamb. My boyfriend had done a lot of time in the poetry slam scene and I guess it’s totally possible that slam poets could tend towards acapella outbursts of Amazing Grace.
Another moment, during this period, I was riding in a car, and the car was passing beneath some underpasses, and I looked up and watched the architecture of the overpass above sort of shift and swirl, and I felt it again, that sort of psychedelic feeling, not as powerful as the Rothko but it was there. It gave me a new appreciation for Cathy Opie’s Freeways series, which I needed, because I really wanted her to just keep taking pictures of freaky queers for the rest of her life, but who can do that? I myself tried, after writing Valencia, to write it again, just some dumb book about femmes getting fucked in bar bathrooms. It was so, so bad, and it didn;’t help that I was writing it while home with a bad cold, drinking rum, snorting cocaine and smoking cigarettes out my bedroom window. You can’t keep doing the same thing, to your notebook or your body, even and especially if the thing you did worked pretty well for a time.
Anyways, newly sober, Freeways was newly psychedelic. And you could go inside the photos just by driving around, letting the massive, swooping structures blot out the sun, stripe it against your eyeballs, a sudden, chaotic chiaroscuro ping ping pinging desperately needed chemicals into my brain.
Hanging out with artists at the opening, the painters were all talking about this warm white paint, they were so into it. One painter started talking about it, how she’s obsessed with it and can’t work with any other white, and other painters chimed in and totally knew what she was talking about, and they discussed the orange inside the white and how wild it was to realize that, and I thought, this is a psychedelic conversation. We don’t talk about color enough, us non-painters. When do we talk about color? When determining if someone is color-blind, as I did this morning with my son who insisted the zipper on his joggers is neon green when it is plainly neon yellow. We talk about the Pantone Color of the Year, which is 2023 is Viva Magenta, which I don’t totally care for, though maybe I need to do a deeper dive. I did like to die my hair magenta in high school, but, I don’t know, it feels too heavy to me. I’m low-key obsessed with Vantablack, hyped as the blackest black but surpassed in the great race for the blackest black before it was even unveiled. Engineers at MIT have conjured the blackest black yet, said to absorb 99.995% of visible light. I want to see a black like that, don’t you? I want to touch it, get in it, interact with it. The engineers are not satisfied; the quest for the blackest, light-sucking hue of the dark continues. Anyway, I had some great, free pizza at the opening, plus a cookie, then went back to Ali’s and further experimented with my still new-ish California Sobriety by eating a gummy.
I’ve never had a weed gummy, and when I did do all the drugs I would of course occasionally smoke pot because I was a garbage can and would do anything, but I never liked smoking weed. More than any other chemical, it never returned to the glory of my first experience, when I was twelve years old and bought a joint for a dollar off a teenager, and, to paraphrase the art teacher from Strangers with Candy, spent lot of time laughing with my friends. That was a good time, but from then on it just made me sleepy or numb, not what I was looking for in a drug.
But eating weed has, historically, been pretty profound. I wrote this piece for Artforum about one memorable experience, so won’t recount it here. I wondered what effect this gummy would have on me? Well, because Ali only let me have half a gummy lest I think I can fly and jump off her roof or something, I felt nothing, and wasted half a gummy. Though, when I returned home I did mightily enjoy an almond-butter-and-jelly sandwich. I enjoyed it so much that I went and made a second one immediately after, and enjoyed that one mightily as well.
The night after I was at Ochi Gallery having seizures in the face of Ben Sanders’ epic, transcendent paintings I was sitting outside under a tent in the back yard of the Tom of Finland Foundation, watching Carta Monir get electroshocked. Carta – a writer and cartoonist and small publisher and porn actress and performance artist - was artist in residence at the Foundation this fall and winter, and Sunday night was her final performance. I’d been over to the foundation the week earlier, when she offered me a tour, and I couldn’t say no, because I very much want to be her friend and also have always wanted a tour of the Tom of Finland House.
It’s a Los Angeles legend. On a residential street in Los Feliz, behind a high wall of shrubbery is the Craftsman Tom of Finland once lived in with his lover, Durk. After Tom died, Durk turned the whole place into Tom HQ, the center not only of his estate and all its business but a museum of his work, too, and with the artist residency and events, a sort of community center for freaky, perverted queer outcasts. The house is a contrast – old and wooden with antique furnishings and panes of creamy stained glass, and also cocks. Cocks everywhere. If you can put a cock on it, someone has. There are lots of piece of original Tom of Finland art, including pieces I’ve seen reproduced in countless queer settings, which is always a thrill, like being in the presence of a well-hung Mona Lisa.
Carta told me about George Quaintance, another homoerotic painter, one whose work predates and influenced Tom of Finland. How Durk went door to door around Los Angeles seeing if anyone had this man’s paintings in their attics, and many did, and he managed to hand a whole archive over to Taschen, who then made the gorgeous, five-hundred-dollar art book book Quaintance, and gifted Dirk a giant painting that hangs in the stairway. Also upstairs, where the artists stay, is a giant gay Skeletor painting that Carta said a gay skateboarder had made, and I’m Googling around to see if it’s Brian Anderson and all I’m getting are images of the JW Anderson x Tom of Finland collection and its fucking hot. Who doesn’t want a crisp white button up with a print of a reclining leather fag, the bulge in his shiny leather jock strap full to bursting? It’s also available on a useless little purse.
In Carta’s room, on my visit, was a gadget, a piece of vintage tech from the era when take came enclosed in wooden boxes, a nice moment, aesthetically. It looked like it could be anything at all, a Geiger counter or a bit of sound equipment, but what it was was an electroshock machine her friend had re-wired so that she could use it to shock herself at her final performance. From that point on, the coming performance was the electroshock performance in my mind, had had a touch of The Bell Jar to it, never a bad thing. She showed me a video of herself passing out at her last performance - her eyes rolling back in her head, the commotion as her tops lunged to catch her and the anxious, murmuring audience. But she was fine! BDSM bottoms are the most extreme athletes. Think about every jogger who runs til they’re puking themselves with the effort, shitting themselves with gravity; think of ice skaters tornadoing themselves into the air, coming down on the most unforgiving of surfaces. Gymnasts catapulting themselves twirling through the air. Footballers armored as rhinos hurling their bodies together, fucking boxers even get respect, money, rhapsodic verse written about the art of their violence. What about a BDSM performance artist who is similarly compelled to push her physicality to the limit, to enter the buzzy flow of endurance, who seeks to pit her psyche against her flesh and win? And wants an audience for this, cheers when she has her victory? I can show up for this.
Especially when there is literature involved, of course. Just last month I heard performance artist Julie Tolentino do a cover of Bob Flanagan’s Pain Journal, reading an excerpt that appears in Eileen Myles’ epic, abject Pathetic Literature. In it, Bob is adventuring in self-masochism, where he tops himself, forcing himself into grotesque, humiliating scenarios he can’t back out of. He schemes to make himself eat shit by – lemme get this right – locking himself in a cage, with his wrists bound behind his back, and the key to the cage dangling outside, just above his prone palms, and all he has to do is root out a couple of Life Savers buried in a plate of his own excrement, truffle-pig style. The deeply shit-encrusted Life Savers are connected to a string that holds the key, and eating them will release it into his waiting hands, not to mention refresh his breath. He fails at this, repeatedly. That’s what the piece is about, being such a fucking loser he can’t even properly humiliate himself; being willing to do one of the grossest things I’ve ever heard, and messing it up. He’s like the Charlie Brown of onanistic, BDSM scat play.
I just want to read stuff like this right now, as I’m struggling to write a book about sex and desire and the weird athleticism of bottoming. How men can literally do anything, put themselves in harm’s way so intensely, via war or turning violence into a sport, entertaining Jackassery, all of that, and if women do anything that might cause us mental or physical harm, it’s pathologized. I thought about this a lot when I did sex work, and I’m thinking about it again trying to write this meandering, tangential book, half cringed-out at myself as I go, but doggedly trying to make something interesting out of it. Philippa Snow’s Which as You Know Means Violence is a fucking incredible book if you happen to be interested in things like this, in the phenomena of Jackass, in the celebrated, gun-wielding tomfoolery of Hunter S. Thompson, whose quote makes the title. And as it happens, the last chapter is about Bob Flanagan (and Marina Abramovic, and Ron Athey), and now I will have to re-watch Sick. There is obviously something within humans that drives many of us towards things that are punishing, painful, ill-advised. Maybe it’s a death drive, maybe it’s a life drive, seeing how close we can get to an edge without falling off, and all the brain chemicals that get released from such close calls. Surges of athletic triumph, the Piscean, religious feeling of sub-space, there are mental, physical, emotional, spiritual things to be gotten from spending time in these places, places that appear to be culturally closed off to females/femmes/whathaveyou, with the exception of martyred saints.
But Carta! Carta, Carta, Carta! I went to her show with four friends, one of whom, Vera Blossom – who I’m with obsessed with as you can possibly be with a friend without it getting weird – came all the way here from Chicago via Vegas to check it out. It’s Vera who hipped me to Carta’s work while we were traveling together on Sister Spit. Her zine Napkin featured the comment cards she had her lovers fill out after sex, as well as other writings. She began the show that night by reading more of her writing, really good stuff that explored this swampy, liminal zone of incest where, like, nothing worthy of a Dateline episode happens, it’s not the sort of thing you think about when you hear incest, but incest it is. Having myself survived a type of - what do you call it, I know that incest is incest, but this is its own strange category, with its own terrible burdens, such as feeling like maybe you’re a creep who is projecting creepy sex onto something that’s just, like, normal. (It’s not normal.) I really appreciated her thoughtful, beautiful prose, as well as a letter to her submissive about how it’s hard to be a trans woman and want to top, the trauma and vulnerability there. I know the world makes queer people feel like monsters, makes femme feel like monsters, trans people, all of us monsters in various ways and I really relish hearing anyone explore their particular monstrosity – or fear of it – especially femmes, especially when the monstrosity has sexual roots.
The whole time Carta is reading I think she’s naked. The theater is a bunch of tents, double-wrapped to seal us off from the rain which is pounding down throughout it all. We’re sitting on a bunch of patio chairs on level ground, pretty far back, so there is much I can’t see. I can see half of the religious-looking peepshow that is set up on the stage beside her, with a backwards projection of Carta getting done by their collaborator Novaya – every time they smile with their wide, lipsticked mouth, it’s like the definition of this is so fun. So my view is this topless person, with a leather shoulder harness and short, light hair and this beautiful face radiating good times. They could be riding a pony, they could be swinging a hula hoop.
When Carta finishes her reading the electroshock box comes out. And it’s not applied to her temples like in all the movies I’ve seen, not at all. This is not Sylvia Plath’s electroshock. Jumper cables are applied to her tits, and for a viewer as far back as me what I see is her face, scrunched in the effort of sustaining pain. I can’t imagine what she is feeling, having never been electrocuted beyond those little glass wands in a dungeon a couple times, and they are sharp and bright. This is a whole other thing, being jumped as if a car. Eventually Carta taps out. The plan was to do it until she cried, and maybe she did, I am too far back, but the dom shocking her has her repeat I have always wanted this. Or, This is what I’ve always wanted. Parsing it out I can’t tell if there is a difference, like when I try to remember exactly what my grandfather said the week he was dying, a revelation I think of often: I didn’t know I had it so good. Or was it, I didn’t know how good I had it. It feels important to know what exactly he said, but maybe it is the same thing, and it’s only that dying person’s final phrases seem imperative to remember correctly.
This might be when Carta seems to pass out again. I wonder if she is setting herself up for something – will she be expected to faint at all her performances? She recovers quickly, and is gracious and her sense of humor comforts everyone – her sense of humor actually holds all of our hands, lightly, throughout the performance. And the final act is very giggly, when Sheree Rose, the famous dominatrix partner of Bob Flanagan climbs atop the stage to give her one hundred spanks. Now in her 80s, with an iron-gray dom bob, Mya notes that she looks like a dominatrix Joni Mitchell. She mentions frequently the effort the spanking is for her, that she might not be able to get to 100, but she does, and when there is a glitch in the counting of the blows the responsibility shifts to the audience, who chant the numbers gamely.
I can’t really see anything at all at this point, and watching someone get spanked is not nearly as enjoyable as being spanked yourself, so I pull out my phone to try to understand who I’m sitting in front of. I wasn’t eavesdropping on them earlier, it was simply quiet, and they were chatty, and I could hear everything they were saying. One woman is a sex worker, and one man talks about being tied up at The Pleasure Garden in Florida, a sex club, I surmise. He had a blast. But when the woman asks a second man if he is getting a ton of DMs now that he’s famous, I do begin to eavesdrop in earnest, and learn that we are sitting in front of Lyle the Gecko. Which means nothing to me but Vera, who knows everything, gasps, That was Therapy Gecko??? Perhaps you are all hip to Lyle but if not I will tell you that he has nearly half a million followers on Instagram. He dresses up in a plushy lizard costume and green face paint and gives advice. In case you were wondering, he is getting tons of DMs from babes hot for lizard therapist cosplay.
After the spanks, Sheree Rose carved an S into Carta, and I believe there was much blood but I couldn’t see it. Durk emerged to encourage us all to become members of the Foundation and to picnic on their lawn when it’s not pouring. It was actually very sweet, his acknowledgment of the Foundation being a space for freaks and misfits and weirdos and that everyone is welcome and he understands not everyone can afford a membership (it’s but $25 a year and you get a laminated membership card). He was dressed in head-to-toe leather including a blousy leather scarf, if leather can be blousy, and I appreciated his commitment to his look even on this very blustery and drenched day. The show ended, Carta was mobbed and the evening’s chill had sunk into my bones and I needed to get home immediately to check on the dogs and also make a bowl of popcorn and sit in my bed eating it and reading the books I bought earlier that day at Stories (you should follow Stories even if you don’t live in LA because their IG is so good. Verbatim Books in San Diego also gives good meme), Olivia Laing’s Everybody and Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin, which Carta had recommended and also, I will literally buy any book Torrey Peters blurbs. So, I didn’t get to say goodbye to Carta and congratulate her one a triumphant performance that brought great, thoughtful writing and wild sexual spectacle together for a temporary community of weirdos, cozy and dry together in the midst of a downpour.
Re: The popcorn – a few blogs ago I had boldly stated that microwave popcorn was gross and asked readers to fight me and my invitation to violence was accepted! Kevin Clarke, who is an actor and brilliant, hilarious human from San Francisco, informed me that one can pop a quarter cup of popcorn kernels into a paper sandwich bag and microwave it for like 2-3 minutes and it’s perfect. And so, I bought a bag of bags, as well as some spray coconut oil for after the popcorn is popped (you need something for the nutritional yeast to stick to), and I did it, and readers, I was wrong, what Kevin says is true, it is perfectly great popcorn popped in less time and without a messy, oily pan to clean. I do have to perfect the popping time – three minutes burned some, and 2:50 left too many unpopped. This will be an ongoing, delicious experiment.
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