Exploring Critical Pedagogy via Pablo Friere, bell hooks, and my experience at Artists for Humanity PART I
My experience with learning about education thus far has been one spotted with learning theory, implementation (or not) of that theory, an unfortunate oversimplification of complex concepts that can at times lead to extreme frustration with my peers and professors that leads to my own silence, and, at times, mutual breakthrough in the art education classroom through rapt and illuminating discussion that is ever informative and inspiring. I have found, though, like most educators, that nothing can really prepare someone to actively teach in a classroom but actually physically being there, in the classroom teaching alongside your students.
Many of my frustrations began with simplified discussions about race (not class or gender, which to my dismay, were rarely addressed) that put my peers and I (the teachers) in a position of power over our students where we were there to try to understand and pity their disenfranchised positions, and impose our way of knowing, learning, and seeing onto their minds. Immediately I knew this was not for me. I became incredibly frustrated with the idea that we were entitled to try to understand, or that one could really ever fully understand the complexities of their student’s lives, and furthermore, what would I do with that information once I had it? Would I try to save their lives with a lesson about facial proportion? Would I let them know I am here for support if they need it, but that I can’t really do much beyond the classroom? My greatest fear surrounding this problem was my inclination to help every student without being able to fully understand or get involved with their personal lives, and the disappointment I would feel if I failed them. All of these options seemed ridiculous and impossible.
Discussions in class did not always help. Most of the time I was frustrated with my peers and professors. Rarely did anyone talk about what seemed to me to be the greatest issue with trying to “understand” our students and where they were coming from, the issue of class. In order to understand where our students fit into society without creating limitations or relying on stereotypes, we first needed to address where we were coming from. Most of us white, all college educated, mostly female, mostly grew up in the suburbs in towns with good resources… but of course within all of our personal narratives there were varying degrees of success and failure, our own particular struggles and accomplishments. It is necessary to realize, though, that we are coming from a very different place than most of our urban students. Our place, although rich with opportunity and financial resource, is not necessarily a happier or better place, however, and it is difficult to confront or fully understand the cultural and personal advantages and disadvantages within all categories with generalizations and case study based discussions.
Understanding myself as a white, female, Italian American raised Roman Catholic, college educated artist and teacher who grew up with relative financial comfort and privilege was necessary, but something that I hope would not create tension or limitations when dealing with a diverse class. This is something that I also wish to apply to my students. Being aware of his or her cultural background and celebrating it if it is relevant and invited is an important part of creating a safe, open, and comfortable class environment for everyone. Allowing conversations focused on cultural identity to limit the complex personal narratives of students and what they can or may want to do within the studio, however, has no place in my evolving pedagogical philosophy.
Something that I recognized immediately as I started mentoring at Artists For Humanity was that I am not comfortable with the power dynamic that seems so inherent to the student/teacher relationship. I wish to be a facilitator and a resource for my students. An adult in their life that they can count on, who sometimes instructs technical skill based assignments, gives them access to information outside of the classroom that seems relevant to their interests, and allows them to create their own self guided practice with all of the resources I can provide. The atmosphere at Artists for Humanity really allows me to implement this philosophy, as most projects are mentee guided as opposed to regimented assignments.
Week 4 and 5 PART II
Another interesting conversation took place regarding readymade and found object art while looking at a Felix Gonzales Torres piece with 3 participants. One participant brought me over to the piece and two other participants that had been contemplating it. The piece was an untitled work that consisted of a string of light bulbs installed over a wall as you enter the gallery. “What is the point of this? Is this really considered art? How much is this worth? Do people pay good money for this” were some of the questions that they confronted me with. I validated their questions by explaining that contemporary art can be tough to accept sometimes, and that their opinions are shared by many people, artists or not. It is hard to understand art that is more conceptual than aesthetic, but this piece is more about an idea that the artist was trying to convey indirectly. I recalled a well known Gonzales-Torres piece called Placebo that I had been able to participate in at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last spring. It was one of the pieces wherein Gonzales-Torres had a large pile of candies wrapped in metallic plastic in the corner of the gallery. Gallery visitors were invited to take a piece of candy from the pile, and it was replenished to a specific weight every day. I explained that the presentation and actual objects did not mean much by themselves, but I knew that there was some kind of intentionality with the installation and material choice, and that there was an idea that the artist was trying to convey. The first questions I asked myself when I saw this piece were “What is the significance of this particular kind of candy? What does the amount of candy mean? What does the placement of the candy in the gallery mean? ”. I explained to the participants that upon further inspection I found that the piece was representative of the ideal weight of Gonzales-Torres’ lover Ross Laycock who died from AIDS in 1991. I explained that these pieces that seem simple and like commonplace objects can be transformed by an artist’s intentions and the gallery experience. They were all touched by the story and although still apprehensive to accept this definition of “art”, were very open to trying to understand and apply potential narratives to pieces that seemed difficult to understand.
The second floor of the gallery housed a collection of East Asian and Islamic and Later Indian art. The work in the galleries included Chinese archaic jades, Korean ceramics, Buddhist sculpture, and Japanese woodblock prints, paintings, and calligraphy, and art of Western, Central, and South Asia (particularly Turkey, Iran, India) from the 9th century to the present, including calligraphy, figure studies, paintings, and drawings. There was a lot of interesting Islamic pattern that participants seemed interested in, as well as hindu and Buddhist religious sculptures and figure drawings. Many participants practiced their figure drawing and portraiture skills while observing in the galleries. The fourth floor galleries housed the show “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”. This show presented many interactive pieces related to time telling via sundials and other celestial exploration, anatomical studies of humans and animals, and offered a window into the world of early modern Europe during a time of scientific exploration and observation via printmaking.
The combination of contemporary work that dealt with issues of the readymade and abstraction, the East Asian, Indian, and Islamic work that dealt with religious representations via iconography, pattern, and calligraphy, and the printmaking that dealt with scientific exploration and more utilitarian and educational devices was a great illustration of what art can be and be used for. Participants had a wonderful day of exploration, conversation, and close observation and drawing.
The next step of the project started this past Monday. We asked participants to use their drawings from the gallery as inspiration for their own pieces using their own imagery. We had any participants who were not able to make the museum visit look at book references from the library at AFH and my personal collection that I have brought as a resource. We have participants referencing astrological imagery from the Pursuit of Knowledge show, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Motherwell, Buddhist Sculpture, Max Beckmann style portraiture, Aubrey Beardsley, Frida Kahlo, and more. It is great to see the translation and invention that this project has inspired.
This past week has marked the second week of the project. Because this entails a lot of straight studio time where participants are quietly problem solving and painting at their easels, I have had time to decompress a bit and allow them some room to grow independently without much intervention. It is sometimes difficult to figure out the balance of intervention and unaccompanied exploration. At times I feel like I’m not intervening enough, though sometimes I feel that my interventions are not necessary and I need to allow the participant time to problem solve on her own. It is a delicate balance that takes time to develop and I am learning to be sensitive to the individual needs of those I am teaching.
BEAD week 4: Exposure to the Art World
The past 2 weeks at Artists For Humanity have marked the start of the “Exposure to the Art World” unit. Monday October 24th was the last day for participants to finish their portraits, with wonderful results. The level of care that all students put into concept, craft, color, drawing, and expression was inspiring. I am really able to see the studio habits of mind working their magic with each participant as they grow and learn to solve problems with skills they have learned. I see that they are empowered by the results of their hard work, and enthusiasm for making is growing.
On Friday we started the first phase of the Exposure to the Art World unit. We all met up in Harvard Square and went to the Fogg Museum to view, talk about, and draw from art in the galleries. Unfortunately there were only 3 floors of work on display for participants to view, but there was an interesting, varied combination of work to see. The first floor of the museum housed work from the 1930’s- contemporary art. On display was a great survey of cubism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, and contemporary ideologies, including mostly painting and sculpture. It was interesting to see the reactions from the participants, a lot of close inspection, analysis, laughter, criticism, and inspiration took place in that gallery.
One of the most noteworthy conversations happened with a young woman (I will refer to her as “V”) reflecting upon a Jackson Pollack piece. A small group of us was crowded around a large, vertical composition that displayed Pollack’s method of action painting at its’ finest. V was thoughtfully looking at the piece, and after a minute or two said something to the effect of “It looks like he was just throwing paint at the canvas. How did he make it look like that?” I gave her a brief overview of action painting, explaining that the canvas was on the floor and he was doing exactly that, throwing paint and other materials at the canvas, using harnessed creative energy that was supposedly a reaction to political tensions at the time. She noted that even though the composition was chaotic, a lot of the marks seemed very intentional and carefully designed. “What a great observation,” I answered, “That is really at the heart of all abstraction and especially action painting, keeping your composition in mind while still letting materials speak for themselves and addressing the flatness of the picture plane.”
Another interesting conversation took place regarding readymade and found object art while looking at a Felix Gonzales Torres piece with 3 participants. One participant brought me over to the piece and two other participants that had been contemplating it. The piece was an untitled work that consisted of a string of light bulbs installed over a wall as you enter the gallery. “What is the point of this? Is this really considered art? How much is this worth? Do people pay good money for this” were some of the questions that they confronted me with. I validated their questions by explaining that contemporary art can be tough to accept sometimes, and that their opinions are shared by many people, artists or not. It is hard to understand art that is more conceptual than aesthetic, but this piece is more about an idea that the artist was trying to convey indirectly. I recalled a well known Gonzales-Torres piece called Placebo that I had been able to participate in at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last spring. It was one of the pieces wherein Gonzales-Torres had a large pile of candies wrapped in metallic plastic in the corner of the gallery. Gallery visitors were invited to take a piece of candy from the pile, and it was replenished to a specific weight every day. I explained that the presentation and actual objects did not mean much by themselves, but I knew that there was some kind of intentionality with the installation and material choice, and that there was an idea that the artist was trying to convey. The first questions I asked myself when I saw this piece were “What is the significance of this particular kind of candy? What does the amount of candy mean? What does the placement of the candy in the gallery mean? ”. I explained to the participants that upon further inspection I found that the piece was representative of the ideal weight of Gonzales-Torres’ lover Ross Laycock who died from AIDS in 1991. I explained that these pieces that seem simple and like commonplace objects can be transformed by an artist’s intentions and the gallery experience. They were all touched by the story and although still apprehensive to accept this definition of “art”, were very open to trying to understand and apply these narratives to pieces that seemed difficult to understand.
BEAD program week of 10/21
This week was the final week of the portrait project. On Monday participants continued working on isolating highlight and shadow and figuring out the hierarchy of lights and darks within their images. I brought in a stack of relevant art books from my personal library and chose a few from the Artists for Humanity library for participants to reference throughout the day. Artists books that I chose to showcase included works from Chuck Close, Frida Kahlo, David Hockney, Marlene Dumas, Pieter Brueghel, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, Frances Bacon, John Singer Sargeant, and more. I asked that each student take a break at some point during the class to leaf through some of the books. Additionally, I picked a few particular pieces of relevance to show to specific students in order to inspire and relate their work to the work of other artists. I found it very useful to refer to portrait paintings to help students identify lights and darks within their own portraits and to help them understand the many ways there are of making a mark with paint. One student had voiced his frustration with painting and was insistent that his mark making was ugly and terrible. I told him that his stylized way of mark making reminded me of the work of Egon Schiele and referred him to my book. He agreed and saw that his way of making was acceptable, interesting, and reinforced by the work of other artists.
Some participants finished their first portrait that day, so we decided that they start another that features a portrait of their faces in profile. We taught them how to apply the proportion lesson to their profiles and made sure they were drawing carefully before they started painting. We asked them to bring in an object of personal significance for our “show and tell” on Friday.
On Friday we started the day with our “show and tell” activity. Using their objects as a guide, participants spoke about their relationship to money, family, music, photography, friends, the internet, religion, and past vacations. It is still hard for some participants to open up, but I understand the discomfort that comes with speaking to a large group of people about personal matters and do not find it necessary to push them in this arena. My hope is that bringing these items to work will help create an atmosphere where personal expression is valued in conversation and within their artworks.
We then had them set up for the last full day of work on their portraits. All of the participants have made vast improvements from portrait to portrait, understanding that having the patience to stick with it and practicing at home is necessary for improvement. We listen to music chosen sometimes by the mentors, and sometimes by the participants to set an open, creative atmosphere. I have had one on one conversations with multiple participants about the therapeutic aspect of focusing on their work at home and at AFH.
One participant in particular has been taking her project home and painting on her own time. She is a graduate of Boston Arts Academy and worked at AFH as a teen. She asked me what the outcome of this particular “training” would be. I first explained that we wish and intend that the program teaches participants to feel a sense of empowerment by working hard, being responsible for their work, and really improving at something that is not only challenging but creative and expressive too. We want participants to feel at home in their creativity and use it in positive ways to better their lives. We want to give them the critical artist eye that is always inspired by its surroundings, no matter how desolate they may seem at times. She agreed that this is something she relates to and feels already, but that she doesn’t necessarily need the help of Artists for Humanity to feel those things. As I mentioned previously, this participant (we will call her “N”) does art work at home as well and has found a way to fit it into her busy life as a working single mother of 3 young girls. She then asked how AFH was going to help her really use her creativity to do something a little more financially constructive after the program ends. I have had many questions about this, and unfortunately all I can say is that we are supportive of our participant’s future endeavors (will always write letters of recommendation, etc.), but after they graduate from the ten week program they have to be self motivated. N started to well up and I asked her if she wanted to go talk in the hallway. I could tell she was feeling a sense of urgency and stress. We had a conversation in the hallway about her personal troubles…all of the responsibilities she has to her family that are very difficult to meet, how much she loves her children, how AFH has helped her understand what her strengths are, and how lost she feels when it comes to using her strengths to help her get a job she loves that pays enough money to support her family. She told me she wants to be creative and naturally works well with adults and children and would really love to have a job that combines her creativity and people skills. I invited her to join a portfolio building class that Stephen teaches on Saturdays, and we talked about the possibility of her going to Massachusetts College of Art and Design for education and in the mean time possibly working for AFH as an assistant mentor if the job opens up. I invited her to the Family Day event that I was working that Saturday, and we talked about the importance of exposing children to the arts at a young age. She told me about her daughter’s pride and excitement about their mother’s work. We hugged, thanked each other, and she went back to her painting.
This experience left me feeling touched and connected to N, but also a bit helpless. I understand that it is out of my control whether N will be successful in her endeavors, but hope I can maintain my connection her and support her journey in whatever way possible. I wish to extend this to all of the participants, and want to find ways to open doors for them whenever possible.
Our third BEAD session was moved from Monday to an optional half of a day on Wednesday because of the holiday. Stephen and I took this as an opportunity to teach the students one, two and three point perspective. Most of the participants were able to attend, but for those that weren’t we were able to put together a short tutorial that we handed out on Friday.
These short, interactive lessons employ the Develop Craft habit of mind. Before this class I had never been taught perspective drawing the way Stephen taught it, but was able to catch on quickly and work among the participants to understand each step and how it worked to create a larger picture and concept. As we worked together to develop craft, we employed the Envision habit of mind by reminding the participants that this technique could be applied to the background of their ongoing self-portrait project. After each mini lesson, I found examples of one, two, and three point perspective put to use in other AFH participant paintings, to give some context and employ the Observe habit of mind, and teaching through artworks. I find it helpful to point to the large wonderful library of mentee work on hand to use as examples of different types of imagery, technique, and skill level. Showing our participants that as practitioners we understand and support different skill levels using the same methods to create artwork, and validating all dispositions by using these works as examples gives our participants a good point of reference and allows me to teach through artworks that are relevant to their experience and immediate surroundings. Observation was also put to task when asking students to look outside at the beautiful view of converging perspectives and buildings, asking where they saw one, two, or three point perspective activated in their surroundings.
During each lesson we consider how to design the physical space to allow participants to interact with each other and us. For tutorials we usually have a more didactic classroom set up where they set up their materials and easels in rows making sure that each participant can see the lesson being taught, and that there is enough room for the mentors to walk around and observe, give individual help and encouragement and check on work. It is also important for each individual to have space to step back and move around. I also encourage frustrated participants to take short breaks and either sketch or walk around the classroom and observe their peers at work.
Friday’s lesson was about isolating patterns of lights and darks within portraiture. Each lesson we teach is being applied to an ongoing studio assignment that allows participants to focus their thinking and apply the lesson to their own work. As Stephen painted a large impromptu portrait using the color mixing and facial proportion techniques that we have already taught, I walked around reinforcing the concepts that he was illustrating. We explained that when a face is in direct light, the brightest highlights and darkest shadows create shapes that make features evident. We also explained how to glaze with a mid tone flesh color in order to lessen contrast between lights and darks in their portraits. We had participants refer back to their color wheels to figure out what colors they needed to mix for highlight and shadow, and had them isolate each. This was a frustrating exercise for many inexperienced students, as going from drawing outlines and proportion to figuring out how light and color create form is quite a technical leap. I made sure to visit the participants that were having difficulty regularly, and intervene giving in depth explanations, and sometimes recreating examples in my sketchbook of each step. Some participants found that they needed to refresh themselves and refine their drawings before they felt comfortable taking this step. I encouraged those participants to take their time, sketch in their notebooks, and keep practicing what we have been teaching them. By the end of the class most participants had made a lot of progress and were really beginning to understand and apply the lesson to their portraits. Some participants finished their portraits early and were provided with another surface to create a new portrait with a different image. We encouraged those participants to think of different ways to represent themselves for their next iteration of the assignment.
The first week of BEAD was a wonderful, informative experience for me as a student and as a mentor. Going into the program I felt a bit uncomfortable being part of the power dynamic between teacher and student because most of the participants in the program are my age or older. Also, the atmosphere at Artists for Humanity is different from many classrooms that I have observed or been a part of. The word “student” is exchanged for either “mentee” or “participant”, while the word “teacher” is exchanged for “mentor”. As mentors we are there to instruct and impart technical knowledge of craft, then support and monitor independent painting projects with loose parameters set by us. Ways we support our participant’s growth are by taking them to museums, engaging them with art though art historical and contemporary practice that is connected to the lessons that we teach, and maintaining a open support network of constructive criticism that includes formal and informal critiques within the studio community. We also have a weekly show and tell kind of meet up where we thematically pick our item and include it in the lesson in order to open up communication within the group and maintain relevance to our everyday lives through the practice of expression and art making. Participants are paid hourly and expected to always be working toward creating a piece that uses both learned technical skills and conceptual framework.
The large studio space at AFH allows for each of the 20 participants to have plenty of room for an easel, a palette, and whatever else they may need to make their work. We have provided them each with a surface to work on, 4 tubes of paint, brushes, a sketch book, and drawing materials. There is a sink accessible for them to maintain the space and materials, and we allow them to take time to work at their own pace and interact with their peers while doing their work.
The first session we sat in a circle and gave the participants paperwork to fill out, went over some rules of the studio and attendance, and introduced ourselves. I had the idea for all of the mentors to bring in examples of their artwork and talk a bit about their own studio practice and engagement with the art world in order to introduce ourselves and set the tone for the studio. It went really well and a lot of the participants had engaging questions about our work. I think it was an effective way to give them some context and an example of what a working artist engages with.
Next we went around in a circle and asked them to say their names and one thing that inspires them. Many of our answers were the same… family, friends, life, history, art, color, music, money. Most participants were relatively comfortable talking about their personal lives.
We gave them materials, and had them set up easels where they could watch Stephen, my fellow mentor, give a tutorial about facial proportion. He prepared a step by step guide that was handed out to each student detailing the process that was taught. We have to keep differentiation within the group in mind. Most of our students had limited drawing experience but had never done this particular exercise. Jerome (assistant mentor) and I set up our own easels among the group to make sure that everyone had access to help if they needed it. After completing each step, we walked around to make sure the participants were mastering this skill. Toward the end of the class we allowed them to practice looking in the mirror and observing their own faces and its’ unique proportions in preparation for their first project: a self portrait. At the end of the day we asked participants to bring in an object or piece of print material that they were drawn to because of its’ color.
Class on Friday was dedicated to learning color theory basics and color mixing. First we sat in a circle and shared our objects. Some participants forgot about the assignment but were able to improvise with things that they had with them. It was interesting to see what they brought in and hear why they were drawn to the colors of the objects. Then we set up our painting materials for a color-mixing tutorial. I lead this tutorial, handing them a worksheet with a labeled color wheel and explanations of primary, secondary, tertiary, and complementary colors, and definitions of hue, value, and saturation. We then all worked together making our own color wheels using only the primary colors, with me stopping to read definitions along the way. I then asked them to mix complementary colors to create different shades of brown. During this exorcize Stephen, Jerome, and I walked around the room to assist participants who needed help. After that, Stephen taught the students how to mix composite black using phthalo green and red, and then using white we had them create a gray scale that demonstrated value and how to lighten and darken color.
At this point in the lesson I had planned to show them a powerpoint that I had put together using examples from impressionist, expressionist, fauvist, abstract expressionist, and contemporary painting that employed these color theories in different ways, but due to technical issues with the projector, I was not able to share my presentation. Stephen thought to improvise using past Artist for Humanity participant work that used color and abstraction to guide the next step of the project. We asked the participants to take the object that they brought in for the “show and tell” activity and try to mix the colors that they find on that object. Using this found palette we asked them to make a small abstract composition.
The final step in the lesson was to give participants a 1×1 surface to start implementing the skills we taught them on Monday to create a painted self portrait. This was very difficult for most participants. We encouraged them to use this as an opportunity to explore non traditional portraiture, and explained that they didn’t need to have the composition set up the way that we taught them. Most students did opt to use the methods that we learned in class, but a lot were experimental with cropping the image and choosing alternative palettes. Many were engaged but frustrated. We ensured them that the process of observing, drawing, and painting at the same time is very difficult and you must allow yourself to make mistakes and find ways to work around them, and that we all had a stack of embarrassing paintings at home…this is something that takes dedication and practice. We will be working on this project for the next week and a half, so there is plenty of time for participants to hone their craft and think about ways to express themselves through portraiture.
After spending some time with the staff at ABCD Parker Hill I considered a few new factors that might affect what kind of projects would work best with the community of seniors we are working with. For the first class, a getting to know you kind of project is usually most appropriate and helps set the tone to be one where the students identities are already important and valued within the classroom. Alex, the director of ABCD, emphasized that most of the seniors are very talkative and willing to share their stories, so “ice breaker” activities seem superfluous, but an organized way to share stories together and make a large 2d community art piece that introduces everyone to each other may be the best way to initiate our partnership with the seniors. Depending on attendance, we would split the seniors into groups and have each group work on a different area of interest in their lives. The creating community students would also work on the project alongside the seniors in order to share our stories and give them an example of how to collage a loose narrative while being available for any help they may need( Group 1: Family, Group 2: Community, Group 3: hobbies, interests, etc. Group 4: hopes and dreams, etc). The categories are flexible, and if the senior would like to just share a story and illustrate it in whatever way possible that is also acceptable. The only requirement is that the paper be filled with color. A few large sheets of paper, glue sticks, scissors, a wealth of collage materials, some paint, markers, crayons, and colored paper would be the materials necessary to do the project. Before the project I will pass around a few books I have about contemporary collage as a reference point for the seniors. When each group is done, we will combine all of the large collages into one as an illustration of the group working together to tell our stories.
Initially when confronted with the task of presenting a New Media artist of interest and relevance to my own practice I was intimidated and felt ill informed. As a painter most of my interests lie within the realm of traditional 2d materials. I rely on tactility, tangibility, and the creation of images in my own work. I thought about what other media I interact with and realized that I was ignoring and separating an entire realm of interest from my studio practice that now seems very obviously linked.
I have always had a keen interest in film. The series of images, use of color and light, ability to portray a narrative and illustrate ideas in a concrete (or not) way using the same language as painting within the arena of image making, but adding aspects of sound, time, and narrative development that a static image can sometimes lack gives films the potential to be an incredibly aesthetically and conceptually satisfying experience. The experimental films of Kenneth Anger use these modes of expression in a way that fascinates me.
I had the opportunity on this past friday to see 4 of his films at the Harvard Film Archive, followed by an informal Q&A with the director himself. The first film, Scorpio Rising (1964), was an intimate portrait of what seems to be a biker gang, but what Anger described as a bunch of guys who were passionate about building and riding motorcycles together adding that the bikes came even before the girlfriends of the men in the group. The film is set to 1964 pop music–early rock and roll and doo wop songs that I recognized and could sing along to, making the film seem almost like an iteration of a music video with much more conceptual subtance. Anger commented that he associates film making and music very closely…that his process of combining images to create films is very similar to the process of composing music. The film is beautifully executed, with no dialogue (like in all of Anger’s films) and with an explicitly sexual interest in the bodies of all of the young men involved. Close ups of naked torso’s, intimate scenes inside the bedrooms of the young men wall papered with cut outs of James Dean and biker imagery, and scenes of a party (or what seems to be some sort of initiation ceremony) in a dirty room full of all of the young men getting really silly and really naked make for this strange erotic tension. Anger is seeing these macho men who all identify as straight through the lense of a gay man in the ’60′s, causing an interesting tension between the film maker and his subjects that Anger said went entirely unnoticed during the making of the film. During the Q&A when questioned about this tension Anger simply stated “The boys thought I was making a film about their bikes. They wanted to see their bikes in a movie.” When film student and journalist Tony Rayns screened the film to a class of young men in a film society the reaction of his teachers was less than enthusiastic. ”…my teachers didn’t seem to agree that the world’s first autobiographical ‘coming-out’ film or a blasphemous, homoerotic paean to a death cult featuring a gang of Brooklyn bikers were suitable for an audience of teenage boys. Naive as I was, I dimly intuited that these extraordinary movies had roots in other films I was discovering: in the preciousness of Cocteau’s film poetry; in the macho energy of Eisenstein’s montage; and in the visual opulence of Sternberg’s 1930s films at Paramount. I also liked their humour.”
The next film shown was Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965). A 3 minute film with similar subject matter to Scorpio, Kommandos doesn’t waste time and begins with a close up of the ever fetishized custom car and his proud owner. The film illustrates the sexually charged relationship between the car, a symbol and expression of masculinity, and its’ owner and maker, using vivid color and palpable textures and reinforced by Anger’s specifically and skillfully chosen soundtrack, the Paris Sisters lulling and romantic love song “Dream Lover”. Like in Scorpio the relationship between the subject and his vehicle is over layed by the relationship between the film maker and his subject. The tension between this assertion of hetero-normativity seen through the lens of a homosexual male is a hallmark of Anger’s work from this era. Kommandos was actually intended as a part of a longer film, but due to budget cuts the project was cut short. Rayns comments: “… it is typically cyclic in structure: its ending return to its beginning, inviting replays. By accident or design, this trait echoes both the picture-palace tradition of continuous performances (in the good old days, kids, you could buy a ticket in the afternoon and sit through the programme as many times as you liked) and the notion of magic rituals that have to be performed again and again, rather like keeping a battery charged.”
This focus on ritual and magic is illustrated more exclusively in the other films shown that night. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1973) are eerie video montages that showcase Anger’s honed skill of overlay and video collage. Using Anger’s well known interest in the occult, specifically that of notorious self proclaimed prophet, magician, and religious cult leader Aleister Crowley. Invocation uses a score written by Mick Jagger specifically for the film. Anger disclaimed the film, saying “It’s not Mick’s most well known piece… I showed him the film and he wrote a soundtrack using a Moog synthesizer. I didn’t argue and was thankful for his contribution.” The repetitive score and images layered and repeated heightens the hallucinatory effect of the film, creating a mood of eery discomfort coupled with Anger’s ability to use specific imagery, with a painterly use of light and color to create atmosphere.
The score for Lucifer Rising was composed by then 19 year old room mate Bobby Beausoliel. The score is an incredible orchestration of experimental psychedelic rock, almost operatic when coupled with the images of the film. Anger commented on the strange relationship with Beausoliel who apparently stole money for the film to buy a Kilo of marijuana in southern California, causing Anger to kick him out of their apartment and distance himself. Later Beausoliel was arrested for being involved in the notorious Manson murders, adding another layer of creepy association with the film. Anger said of Lucifer Rising “[Lucifer is] a teenage rebel. Lucifer must be played by a teenage boy. It’s type-casting. I’m a pagan and the film is a real invocation of Lucifer. I’m much realer than von Stroheim. The film contained real black magicians, a real ceremony, real altars, real human blood, and a real magic circle consecrated with blood and cum.” The films take the viewer on a hallucinatory trip through ceremonies involving ritualistic sexual behavior, symbology using frightening and beautiful images of sacred religious sites including Egyptian tombs and ancient pagan sites in Germany, young men and women dressed in elaborate costumes, and dark buildings with candle light revealing rituals and symbols painted on the floor.
Below are all of the films written about in the text above.
Gunning, Tom. “Magick Weapon.” Artforum International 45, no. 7 (March 2007): 99-100. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed October 12, 2010).