Sunday, April 12, 2009
Serial Killers and the Artists Who Paint Them
This posting is dedicated to the Harvey Family, murdered in their home in Richmond, Virginia on New Year's Day 2006 and found by my drummer friend Johnny Hott later that day. The murderers were found later in Philadelphia, not serial killers but killers out on a "killing spree." Somehow this bothers me more than the term serial killers - which does at least recognize that this might be mechanical and under some kind of mechanism - its ryhme with shopping spree and "glee" is not something anyone who knows the Harveys finds easy to take.
I am preparing to write something about the Peter Saul retrospective I saw last fall in Philadelphia - I had been preparing to anyway but the linking of Oyvind Fahlstrom and Peter Saul's "refrigerator paintings" in the Hairy Who interviews, and a call to more politics in art, has brought me into something I would like to discuss at length - capital punishment, and two serial killer painters. I prefer Peter Saul because he is depicting capital punishment itself, to Joe Coleman, who I spent far too much time around when first moving here as my closest woman friend had published his Man of Sorrows book and was preparing a monograph with John Yau and Jim Jarmusch writing two of the three essays and some kind of documentary coming out. Coleman did and does have one of the world's most fascinating collections and interior design approach - although antithetical to what I had become interested in I probably would have enjoyed seeing it for the shock novelty value of the whole thing; however months of his monomaniacal approach to any social gathering was to focus on the serial killer stories and scenarios which were only a small portion of what he actually painted, simply because it was the surefire American popular fascination of choice and would draw a group audience around him every time. I knew that due to the burgeoning sales of the mass market paperback editions of serial killer true crime in bookstores I worked in when moving back from five years in France that this was a really amped and stepped up level of what had already been a US obsession; five years in another country makes one have a new set of lenses to view one's own culture with, and working in a general bookstore in a small city is the perfect way to get a handle on the zeitgeists in all the major areas of popular interest, and even current intellectual interpretation of same outside of the specialized academic world. True Crime, popular everywhere since Victorian England and the development of Scotland Yard, Poe's invention of the detective novel and other related genre fiction forms ongoing since the eighteenth century giving sweep, depth and color to the way journalists could "report" on news items in the same serial fashion Dickens and others were using in the serialized fiction in journals that fed into a more epic form of the novel. This in england and the US was eventually matched with what was happening in France, and Paris, and the unbelievable (to Anglophones) proliferation of journals, literary, specialized, academic, scientific, reviews, dailies (newspapers) and everything in between as free for all editorial combinations of possibilities in periodical print, with paying gigs for the well circulated for all writers engravers and illustrators - what a roadmap for all other Europeans to emulate coming from the French and English Empires who had evenly carved up the rest of the world as colonies. The French press was certainly not lacking in coverage of the most lurid and then inventive ways of reporting and describing it, and never even had the nascent goals of objective reporting that were counter to the days of yellow journalism and sensationalist New York newspapers. And conflicts of all kind of course were on the horizon, often the time that specifically lurid murders, crimes and such become obsessional to serve a well known psychological purpose to take the populace's minds off of impending breakouts of total warfare. (Alot of people forget that the World Wars were rooted in the nascent Prussian alliance with Austria and the idea that the 20th Century would be the "German Century" because Europe had been so focussed on itself for so long that it could not see the oncoming giants of the US and Russia as vast continents of unmined resources and populaces that the new idea of the nation state could harness in heretofore unknown things called "ideologies," making notions of inherited land, religion, and shared blood obsolete for that century, at least.)
It is interesting to differentiate, especially for furthering a discussion of the intersection of aesthetics and politics, between the notions of fairness, ethics, and justice, as the three ages of women and men. Especially as childhood is set primarily in the hands of women, as any boy chafing at female authority in the form of his mother reinforced by a phalanx of grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, nurses, nannies, babysitters and schoolteachers will tell you, for centuries,- and the increasing realization that the only fields still left of pure speculation on money that men seem to still have the compulsive obsessive lock on (we will leave out the porn industry as it is a discussion of children) and the other purely masculine domain of creative and scientific "genius" are passing away, - have passed away already for all but the delusional. Childhood itself is changing forever, but traditions of childhood also look like they will stay forever as well. So, childhood will always remain the realm of the notion of fairness, as we all want a beautiful world for our children and so try to instill it in their hearts. (That fathers want a secret rebellious streak and humor to work for a beautiful boy world under all the eagle eyed female supervision is fair, too - why I laughed when my single friend who works in animation told me he went to South Park and the whole theater was full of fathers who had clandestinely and deliciously taken their sons.)
School should then lay the map for the young adult's study of ethics, so that there can be a general understanding of underlying principles of commonly understood ethics and the legal ramifications - perhaps the reason for so many police, law and medical programs on popular television - the narratives of ethical dilemmas generate endlessly compelling underlying plot devices. Even the XFiles taking place in the FBI and has its allegories of trustworthiness and ethics - apparently all of this has an enormous pull on the American consciousness.
The nearly impossible part for a nation state such as ours is the notion of justice, as justice as opposed to ethics and fairness is meant to make absolute decisions of moral and immoral and mete out the absolutely stern and necessarily strict punishment, and this is nearly impossible anyway in a nation state founded on separation of church and state. A State that is based on elections and voting consensus cannot even pretend to have some higher order, and even if the truly secular moral thinkers do agree on an absolute wrong it is nearly impossible to apply the punishment as following somehow logically from the premise. If Americans starting at middle age could do the work of looking forward to their own absolute maturity and experience as elders instead of fearing the appearance of being "unhip" to children and youth and unattractive full stop, it would be easier to deal with the absolutely ad hoc in the most fearful sense nature of a world that actually gets tangled up permanently in ethics, - which is an endless argument between every single willful point of view in print or on television now collapsing from the notion that in the face of the international banking and financial class there was any difference between the Democratic and Republican parties - or European and American governments and their approach to any global problem at all. And I do mean global in both senses of the word.
The financial class had no notion of justice nor ethics because they had left behind the most basic of childhood precepts faced with children's decieving and cheating ways to get more than their share of absolutely everything - they hadn't even gotten some basic notions of fairness meant to be in the heart from childhood, in other words, so how could the young adult's serious and continuous study of ethics moving into the mature and elder adults' dawning wisdom about justice have a ground to take place? Hence the bubble bursting now is the biggest bubble of all, the beautiful world we had hoped for our children - but perhaps as it was culturally playing out it was not a beautiful world at all, and just a surface glamour with corruption underneath and the real beauty can start to come through, not based on enormous debt and consumer expectations.
So if Beauty is still the biggest debate in the Art World today, and I did read some of Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, I would remind everyone of the double meaning of the word fair, that in the archaic world of children, is still used as in a Fair maiden or fair of face. I find Joe Coleman's work repulsive aesthetically, but also plain tedious, in the category of:
You don't need to put your hand in a bucket of tar to know it is black.
This was my response to my sculptor loftmate's question whether I would see the Chapman Brothers show years ago, and I have used it ever sense, If educated culture in this country means endlessly being pulled into discussions where one is supposed to show what side of some massively discussed popular topic whatever the subcategory of American people you find yourself in, I have discovered a tactic called a conversation stopper. I had to use one several nights ago with a jazz musician who wanted to talk about OJ Simpson and Ishmael Reed coming down on his innocence and tell me he knew OJ did it, and I said the same thing I came up with to avoid my father's penchant for bringing up loaded topics everytime he wanted just one person in his life he could redline with political rage - which he has maintained no matter where he has been on the political continuum which has gone from socialism to ibertarianism, if only in his own mind - "I wasn't there." I would like to use the banality of evil with certain topics, but with Coleman's work use the conversation stopper. Certain topics and artists, discussing them at all is doing too much service.
That is Joe Coleman's work.
The Immoral, Amoral and Moral
This Peter Saul painting I find fair in both senses of the word, because of the palette, the absolute novelty of his paintings as inventing with paint from that period, and the amorality of it all. The child's world, as the reformers never seem to know, is largely an amoral one. I just watched the documentary on the history of comics picking up with the invention of the comic book and the chilling speech of the man who brought down EC comics and all of its imitators and slapped the morality code on the comics for children ever after. In the documentary the speech is used to historical effect the first time and then for comic effect to close it, in the Marxian parable of the second time something comes back it is as farce. Humor is terror management for children who know above all else that they are small and defenseless - Peter Saul's work is humorously and comically in the world of the amoral, and don't we love no matter how old we are being back in that version of a catalyzingly safe world no matter what age. Terror management will never lose its use value as no one here gets out alive.
However, I did go down to hear a lecture given on Peter Saul when I had gone to Philadelphia to see the retrospective - and the galleries and the Quilt's of Gee's Bend and James Castle at the Philadelphia Museum - and the lecture framing Peter Saul's work was so demoralizing to me in its method of framing Saul's work as "moral" including a quote from that great liberator the Marquis de Sade (whose girl and boy servants all fled his home in the age that aristocrats could do anything they wanted to peasants and servant class as their was no court system there, and literary figures like Voltaire or famous alchemists like Castiglioni were apt to spend time in gaols as a ticket to world wide celebrity, so he used his tedious mind to come up with pages and pages of torture plotted along a mathematical grid of orifices and applications of torture to them. Any page of the 120 Days of Sodom makes Abu Graib look like the fraternity party antics the Republicans tried to insist it was; but never mind, I have never met anyone that has read his purported novels yet, only the received ideas of Breton Bataille and cie stemming from the ongoing French obsession with its own history with the Catholic Church.) The lecturer went on to describe the highly comic painting of a serial killer as the cold State murdering the passionate killer.
Stop right there! I too have seen Kubrick's Clockwork Orange but found just amorality and entertainment there, and yes art, but no moral lesson society can use. A reified State is what paranoids come up with, and since as a general rule men are from paranoid and women are from depressive, I would like to have a novel approach in the Art World to approaching the moral, as someone who has no problems with paranoia but as an archaic throwback to the woman as designated mourner. (There are more of us depressives around than you would think, its just that paranoids really are sure they are the ones that know the "facts" and therefore crowd the airwaves op/ed pages lecture halls and just about every forum one can imagine - well the way I have found as a depressive is to use my massive reading and different very slow yet unrelenting way of sorting information to confront these purported facts with knowledge.) This lack of paranoia is actually quite novel in an art world that has fed on pure adrenaline of one kind of another since the eighties in a country that has fed itself on adrenaline since the underlying paranoia of the fifties, but passion in its most important interpretation is pure pain and suffering, and that is for everyone who loved the murdered one who is left behind. The state can only mediate between the passions of the families and loved ones and communities permanently injured by murder of any kind. The different ways of mediating through the legal system as it has become is very long indeed now that only a few pockets of vigilante justice actually do occur in our average communities. This is the most armed and violent country on the planet not actually undergoing revolution or civil war, and even the perpetual war for perpetual peace that Noam Chomsky wrote about can redirect that focus outward anymore, so it is strange in a way that the Death Penalty has stayed a kind of nontopic for so long, as progressives and liberals such as myself have known we have been against it since adolescence and never given it another thought. Obviously the death of this family I had know fairly well has changed that forever, and my trips to Richmond show that this is thought about more than ever since the killers were found and have been on trial.
So, with the recession making everyone get more panicky and weird, it may be a time to cut through ethics discussions that can be endlessly bracketed, and discuss capital punishment, something that I have to finally think about rather than comfortably bracket just as everyone else. I am a liberal, I have been solidly against capital punishment since fifteen - although in college I did have a mad dog metaphor for killing serial killers, they had a disease beyond their brain's control and should just be shot. My roommate was the daughter of a college professor and merely got out her arsenal of purported logic, however before I even wrote the phrase "excessive rationality always leads to rationalization" had enough intimation of our country's law schools and their debate to win training that I do what I always did when confronted with debate team types who just want to play verbal tennis and win at all costs rather than hearing a point of view and considering it for learning and experience, and walked away.
I would say that capital punishment is not fair in the ultimate two wrongs do not make a right simple addition / subtraction metaphor used for children. But to make the world fair and honor the passions of those in pain and suffering, we all need to change some our truly childish lurid focus and become collectively designated mourners for the victims and all those interdependently suffering for them. I learned on New Year's Day of 2006 through a phone call of the death of a couple I knew as well as everyone nearly in Richmond, a once famous (-for-Richmond) rock star Brian Harvey whose first band I had covered in 1980 and his wife who ran the toy store that is still the best toy store I have ever been in to date. I called my friend Ainslee de Wolf in Los Angeles who sat in on their recording sessions and worked from her film experience on their video, and also my friend Katharine Gates who now lives in Westchester who did the Joe Coleman books with her imprint Gates of Heck, immediately after the news, as I am sure they called or emailed everyone they knew. I went to a funeral just a year later and someone said it was the Richmond 9/11, but the worst and most painful irony was seeing the oscar winning Capote film of the period in his life where he conceived of In Cold Blood. I don't know when we may grow up as a country and realize the most profound meaning of the banality of evil and become the designated mourners of the victims of murders doubtlessly harder to write but infinitely richer lives. I do hope someone could write a book on the Harvey Family, the stories of the entire Richmond community could fill volumes. I don't want to know anything about the murderers, they are banal and evil as it gets in a society constructed such as ours, but just talked to my closest friend about the ongoing legal system and its way of dealing with it and the continued discussion in Richmond, and neither of us find it in our hearts to have capital punishment and know that they will die.
However Peter Saul's paintings like this, as one gets older, remind me that humor is also anger management and grief management too. Temperamentally I lean to satire and black humor having no terror problems compared to the anger and grief I have as someone approaching the elder status I am looking forward to. I think the idea of hip after forty is absurd and a good way to turn oneself into a cartoon, and immoral as a simple way of never having to think anything through for the rest of one's life. The United States loves cartoons and comics too much to become a self destructive until the end one for the rest of the world to only gape at and go tribal or go down with. Time to make some decisions, if the art world is going to have anything to say to anyone outside of it.
The Harvey Family
The Harvey family
In the early afternoon of January 1, 2006, Kathryn, Bryan, Stella, and Ruby Harvey, a family of four, were found beaten, slashed and bound with electrical cord and tape in the basement of their burning house in the Woodland Heights district of Richmond, Virginia.
Kathryn Harvey, 39, was the co-owner of a popular local toy shop called "World of Mirth" in the Carytown district of Richmond, and the half-sister of actor Steven Culp. Bryan Harvey, 49, was an indie musician of note, a former member of House of Freaks, a two-man band who had recorded, performed and had a following of note in Los Angeles and college radio stations until both members decided to move back to Richmond. Their daughters Stella and Ruby were 9 and 4, respectively. Bryan and Kathryn died of blunt-force trauma to the head, Stella of smoke inhalation and blunt-force trauma to the head, and Ruby of stab wounds to her back, one of which punctured her lung. 
The Drive-by Truckers recorded a song about the Harveys for their album, Brighter Than Creation's Dark. The song , titled "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," is sung from Bryan's point of view.