Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"peterson principles - the writing and wisdom of keith peterson"…
jeffery mcnary
Keith Peterson is clearly attracted to books, to the work and business of letters. He is rarely averted from the genre with the exception of his occasional photography, which opens other boulevards, his wife Gail, and his bookstore cat, Hodge. He doesn’t devote much time to purple or yellow pages. His work is way too busy bursting out,…and offering suggestions.
Peterson’s first novel, “The Body in the Bookstore Sink”, a mystery, was driven by memories of a close friend, Steve, and stories about him. Father Stephan, the character based on the friend, is a Russian Orthodox priest. Here we find Seth Pearson, a laid back , used book dealer in Chicago were minding when Seth finds a dead body in the bookstore when closing up. There’s a movie star with a history, killers, and an Ed Wood appreciation society. He even tosses in a drug dealing gang rolling on Chicago’s West Side. Among other things, this unlikely crew’s coming together would help in funding the repair for the roof of Father Stephan’s church. There’s no mythic connection between his characters. They live in real time…in existing situations. Nothing dispiriting about that.
There’s a complexity to the writer, book store owner, author, poet, burlesqued minimalist, as his writing moves comfortably from one genre to another. “With fiction”, says Peterson, “one story at a time is the most I can manage, if that. A poem will occur sometimes now and then, but I can't explain how or why.”

Recently, the writer, proprietor did a read of his work in progress, “Lucky Buck” at SHoP (Southside Hub of Production),“ a community centered project that encouraged local culture making, etc in “Lucky Buck",
Peterson kick in with
the 2003, Steve Bartman sticking out his hand for a foul, and devastating the Cubs run for the World Series. The baseball involved becomes  famous. Unknown to all but an old beer vendor called A-Train, the real ball was captured by Randy Buckly, an old friend of, yep, Father Stephan. A decoy he set loose was the one which was auctioned off for a huge sum. Now, a few years later, Randy is dead, a  thief is plaguing Seth’s bookstore, the 10 year old west side kid named Toy, living secretly in Randy’s apartment is on the run with the actual ball. Or is it the reall? Oh, and Pierre Tessouat Mather, an occultist, a retired mob bookmaker and Cubs collector are all vectoring in on that baseball.  Father Stephan wants justice,Hamid  wants  vengeance.
Peterson’s intimate rapport with the characters, and the static and frenetic coexist, in his work disparities of American culture entertainingly collide with a very subtle and yet sharp wit. They are simple deals, despite points of soaring eclecticism. ”In the Father Stephan/Seth novels, many of the characters are based, to greater or lesser extent, on real people. With some, I may take simply a physical appearance and fill in the blank with what I need. With many others - Father Stephan, Seth, Stan Wilson, Allison, Angel, Charlie Ruggles - these are the fictional versions of people I know”, Peterson shares.  “The only way I can spend time with friends of mine who have passed away is to write them into my books. So, I suppose I'm writing a kind of 'roman a clef'. The trick to keeping them in their lanes is to be able to hear their voices, because the way a person talks is so rooted in their personality.” He continues, “The big danger, always, is to have a character begin to talk like me. With the characters I completely make up, that can be a danger, and I do try to imagine more of their lives than I put in the book - it's the aspect of writing fiction about which I feel most insecure.”

I have to admit I've never considered the question - I think the authors you mention are more serious of purpose than I have been, at least with my bookstore novels. My characters, while often based on real people, would probably strike many as less 'realistic' than those in Algren's romantic naturalism, or Bellow, whom I won't attempt to categorize. I suppose my stuff is simply rooted in my own personal geography - my friends, what I've done for a living in bookselling and the characters I've met that way, my imagination, such as it is. A few characters are not very realistic at all, like PierreTessouat Mather and his weird little acolyte Edwardo.”

Peterson generally writes at the bookstore, (Chicago’s Selected Works) when given the time. “But there's no particular time, other than whenever I get a notion about what's going to happen next, or think of a line of dialogue that is perfect for the beginning of a chapter. Right now, at the stage I'm at with “Lucky Buck”, a strange tangle of plot lines need somehow to be resolved, so I spend my time thinking more about that - the what's going to happen in part.

“Besides Randy and Steve, there were only a couple other ball shaggers outside the ball park, it not having evolved into the trendy and competitive activity that it would twenty or thirty years later”, Peterson writes. “There was Eddie something or other - Old Time Eddie they called him. He must have been retired because every time Randy and Steve were out there, Eddie was there too, sitting on his metal milk crate, listening to the game on one of those transistor radios that were becoming more common lately as the prices dropped. And then there was another big kid leaning against a tree across the street. The big door to the firehouse was open too, but those guys sitting on chairs there didn’t count. They never got up to chase a ball”, it continues.

When asked if and how his work fits into the vernacular of the so-called “Chicago Writers” school, Peterson responds, “I have to admit I've never considered the question - I think the authors you mention are more serious of purpose than I have been, at least with my bookstore novels”. Continuing, “My characters, while often based on real people, would probably strike many as less 'realistic' than those in Algren's romantic naturalism, or Bellow, whom I won't attempt to categorize. I suppose my stuff is simply rooted in my own personal geography - my friends, what I've done for a living in bookselling and the characters I've met that way, my imagination, such as it is. A few characters are not very realistic at all, like PierreTessouat Mather and his weird little acolyte Edwardo”, the story continues, “They had a radio on in the firehouse that you could hear. It was a 1:20 start, one of those famous Wrigley day games, and the stands were partially filled, like usual, though they couldn’t see much from where they were. That old ticket taker who’d been there for a million years at Gate N, the entrance to the bleachers, he usually wandered off by the sixth inning, and that was when they would sneak into the park. Then they could sit where they wanted - nobody really cared.”

It’s difficult to resist going futher without sharing,“ ‘Banks is up’ commented Old Time Eddie from his milk crate. Steve stopped talking and gazed over the outfield wall. The old red brick wall, the dark green of the scoreboard off to the left in the middle of the bleachers, and the blue afternoon sky way up above with one lone cloud, struck him as suddenly beautiful, or even deeper than beautiful, somehow. Inside the park, the fans started cheering, the kind of roar that meant something good was happening for the Cubs. Suddenly there was a flash of white and a thunk up above them, then a rattle and a soft crack, like. A couple leaves and a twig fell from the tree out onto the street. Old Time Eddie was up, and the kid across the street started running over to Randy’s tree. After another couple soft thuds from above, the Ernie Banks home run ball fell down directly into Randy’s mitt, cradled there in his arms as he leaned there against the tree. A couple more little twigs fell down too and one glanced off his head. The older kid skidded to a stop with an amazed and then disgusted look.,’Whooo!’ yelled Steve, jumping around like a maniac. ‘Nice catch, kid,’ said Old Time, with a mixture of sarcasm and awe.”

The author doesn’t introduce abstraction while driving home his encounters. “Randy stared unbelieving at the ball now in his mitt,un-crossed his arms and took it in his throwing hand. He put the mitt on his left, his catching hand. Now he was ready to catch something. His face reflected excitement, confusion, and deep pleasure”, the story continues, “You weren’t even looking and it fell right into your mitt, you lucky dog,” said Steve, calming down a little. “Lucky Randy Buckley. Lucky Buckley. No - Lucky Buck. That’s it. Lucky Buck.” Old Time laughed. “Lucky Buck. Yeah, kid, that’s you all right.”

Following all of those post-modern works attempting to release rein to their fancies, Peterson’s work pulls together some extrodinary approaches, hardly blandly dressed.

Peterson’s soon to be released chap-book of poetry, “At the Point and Other Poems”, offers overlapping, dancing verse which allows a recurring image of the peaceful hovering over a city currently at war with itself. The works are immediately striking. In his, “Imagine the River”, the writer enjoys:
“In the violet darkness,
fireflies on the ditchweed.
Tree crickets scraping music
on blossoming waterpepper.
At the water's edge,
dusk is lush with sweetness.
Farther out, perhaps,
boats are drifting,
trimmed with lights and bells”

Where does the author go next? “What's up next? ”he smiles, “The one somewhat shocking thing I learned when I finished the first draft of “The Body in the Bookstore Sink”, was that I wasn't done at all. Oh no. What was up next was re-write, after my reader/editors went through it and marked it up, pointing out weak passages, self-indulgence, awkwardness, and the like.” Continuing,  “It was a little deflating, but they were right and it took many months of trying to fix all that before it was more or less finished - a book is never finished, is it? So - if I finally finish this first draft, and re-write it so that it is deemed worthy - what then? I really don't know - maybe a more serious novel, but I shouldn't even say. It's like trying to say what meal I'm going to have two years from now.”

I expect we’ll be following Peterson and his character for some time. We need ‘em. They tend to tell us who we are, or at least who those around us are. Some suck, some nourish and enrich. Some rattle and discredit myths of racial or national superiority. Yet when bundelled, as Peterson does, they demonstrate our common humanity in a politic of cultural property the author puts forth.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Billy Tokyo: The Shape of Things to Come/John Dempsey: Urban Nature

 - his amazing light and technicolor flight based on a theme of mysterious and memorable allusions
Currently at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Avenue
Elmhurst, Illinois 60126 thru August 25, 2012
jeffery mcnary
There’s a smart, sophisticated flavour to the sparkling Elmhurst Art Museum, a van der Rohe designed cultural center a short jaunt from the tag team wrestling arangements prevalent in nearby Chicago. And with the current exhibition of John Dempsey (aka Billy Tokyo), the vector of that sophistication has risen even more so. Full of delightful surprises, the show holds no freaky accidents. It steers far from deconsecrating the place.

“The Shape of Things to Come” explodes with color and laughter, inventing its very own reason for being. In case you didn’t know, Billy Tokyo is the alter ego and alias created by Dempsey in 2008. He’d been commissioned to produce illustrations at that time for Chicago’s Cubs baseball team. It’s said many of the pieces on that side of the boulevard are influenced by a form of Japanese Pop Art, with the painter embracing the landscape around him for inspiration.
“I was introduced to Billy’s work through a review by Jeriah Hildwine who was talking about the aftermath of the Art Loop Open show”, shared Aaron Ott, Curator of the Museun. “John’s painting “The Great American Landscape” won the top prize in that show. Hildwine spoke about his feelings about the painting and mentioned in his review the dual personalities of the artist (as Dempsey and Tokyo) and I decided that it was something I should investigate.”
It’s Dempsey’s first museum show, and he handles the tricky terrain with grace and panache, minus the works grasping the reins of the adventure too tightly. Oils of varying sizes dominate the outing. “I've experimented with almost every media imaginable, but I've always come back to oil paint”, he says. “ I want to create the perfect lines in my art, and oil flows off my brush with the consistency and color density I can control. Almost all my paintings are oil on canvas or linen.” He continues, “ Even though my artwork is composed of graffiti-like gestures I don't use any of the media used by the typical outdoor graffiti artist. I'm not a graffiti artist anyway so I guess this makes sense. I'm an oil painter using the visual language of graffiti writing to create my compositions.”
The exhibition is divided, Kantian-esque, with somewhat synthesized applications and structural clarity of Tokyo followed in an adjoining space by the flat yet deep pieces of Dempsey. It’s illuminating, recording scenes from the imagination…some in a more delicate vein…with greys and black exploding in un-predicted spasams of color. The exhibition begs the question how the artist can wrestle with the duality. “I have a large piece in my current show titled "Over the Underpass" that took me, off and on, about a year to complete because I kept changing it. I thought I was finished with it so many times, but when I would come in the studio the next day I would see that it was all wrong and white out whole sections. At one point it had a lot of color in it, which I eventually felt took the element of speed away from it,” adding “You just work on things until they feel right - until it looks like it's how it is suppose to be. There's no real way to define or explain it. But a piece can be overworked which can kill it. I guess that comes with experience - knowing when to say when.”

Dempsey, not at all trapped in a fluid set of influences there are those who have impacted his work. Albert Oehlen plays such a role. “I got a chance to talk to him last year about different ways to lay down lines. He can create lines that seem to change velocities - skillfully creating lines that look fast and slow and mixing bold with real subtle brushwork.” Another, he says is Shinque Smith. “She really introduced graffiti-like gestures into contemporary painting. I'm not talking characters or forms or writing like Basquiat and Keith Haring did, but the loops and swoops of the lines we see in graffiti writing and tagging. She's the only one, besides me, that I've seen that use this approach to create abstract art”. He continued, “She also takes street-found objects and places them in her compositions. She's not afraid to take chances. Her spirit really shows in her work - which looks feminine - which is great. I put one of her lines - a sort of line flair she makes - in my painting "Over the Underpass" to pay homage to her and her work.”

“We’ve been trying to lighten the mood at the Museum”, said Ott.” I mean, you know, sometimes art can get very serious, and there’s just an attitude to Tokyo’s work that makes me happy and makes me laugh. But that’s not to say it’s not serious either. His Las Meninas piece is out of control. That thing is really amazing and you kind of have to know a lot about art history and Foucault to really get all the nuances in that painting. And the nuances are hilarious. He winks at history and theory and painting and himself and childhood and wealth and privilege. It’s really a great work.”
When this writer sat down to describe the artist and his work i wrote ‘electrified’…then I began laughing aloud…it’s so more than that. You don’t peel the onion on this…you zen it…or it zens you…and you travel right through to the core and out the other side screaming, ‘hold it…hold it…damnit…talk to me’, and clearly the Curator experienced the similar. “I liked Tokyo’s style, in that I feel like it manages to retain an edge while still being largely approachable, relatively funny, and has a big heart. So I asked for a studio visit”, says Ott. “Studio visits can make or break shows. And his totally made it. He just had a ton of work and was working furiously on new stuff and had an energy that I found very compelling.” Going further, “… maybe it was the right place at the right time for me. I had just read Foucault’s intro to “The Order of Things”, which dissects “Las Meninas”, and the book was in my bag and then all of the sudden I was standing in front of this ridiculous contemporary cartoony investigation of it. The whole thing just felt right. So that’s when I said – ‘Just do whatever you want.’ You know? Like I felt like he had it all totally under control. So then he started doing the wood work, which is also really strong and which is getting a lot of attention, rightly so. But that is all brand new to his studio practice.”
I’ve remained in a giddy ballet with the artist’s work to date and eager to explore if there’s anything out there yet to leave us breathless. “I'm starting to create my two dimensional compositions into 3 dimensional sculptures. I'm cutting wood to look like my graffiti-style compositions and really want to get big, complex and tight with them. I want the viewer to get their eyes really tangled in them. I have a sculpture tilted "Wicker Park 2005", that is really the start of it. It hangs from the wall, but looks like it's flying out. I want to take that idea but expand it by fifty or so pieces that interconnect and go to the ground and come up at you. I like my work to get in peoples faces - and I want to do that physically with these new sculptures I'm working on.”

Ott holds,“ Tokyo’s pretty much at the top of his game and still ascending right now. It’s fun to watch.” With Dempsey promising, “For the most part my paintings have been very clean and crisp, but the new compositions I'm working on are more dense and textured with rougher graffiti-like lines and a more dangerous visual language. I'm adding flakes of charcoal into the oil paint to add a feeling of grit. I'm starting to make them a bit grungier. I want to get dirtier with them. I want to walk down that the dark alley.”
We have an artist involved with ideas here, and whether ordered or measured we would do well to follow his work and explore them as their central questions evolve.