Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Coney Island Pavilion

This sketch painting is the result of my morgtage of sideshow performers discussed a few posts ago (Coney Island Interlude.) Schlitzy and Kookoo, perhaps the two most famous performers, stroll or cavort on Coney Island Beach between their shifts.
The Elephant Hotel can still be seen not far from Atlantic City, at Margate. Named Lucie, she is approximately half the size of the hotel that stood on Coney Island, though she is in fact a bit older, a trial run for the larger building.
Though the Cyclone roller-coaster is still standing and working (I had a bit of popping neck bone or gristle that rattled me for about a decade after my last phenomenal ride on it), the pictured coaster is the storied Thunderbolt, razed a decade ago during some dark dealings with the city string-pullers. The parachute tower still stands, a mysterious relic that I think is from an ancient world's fair.
The magazine cover I will paint, for which this is a sketch, will be called Pavilion, speaking of world fairs. I like the word pavilion, just the sound of it. It sounds foreign, in that way, a 100 years ago, when such words had an exotic significance. Pavilions were important; they were architecture that had a point to make, but which didn't have to endure for a long time. They were low budget, yet grand--grander than a regular building with solid foundation and purpose, whose practical reason overrode fancy.
So it was for Coney Island, an island of Pavilions. Very few stand now. But on a certain psychic wavelength, you can see them and hear them; this inspired the painting. Pattern-seeking creature that I am, I am fond of connections. And connections weave densely during the twilight at Coney Island, a web denser than the lattice comprising a rusting roller-coaster.
Coney Island, as architect Rem Koolhaas notes, was the proving ground for Manhattan; the skyscrapers were built there first, being low budget pavilions, to be razed and burnt. This place gave us the idea of the modern city, but few think of the tawdry wasteland as such an important place now.
The island had several different parks, one of which was named Luna Park, eponymous for amusement parks in many languages today. Again, few remember this original park.
Before there was Disneyland and world, there was Coney Island as the park of wonder.
Disney sanitized Coney Island's original, loucher wonder.

The mysterious mascot of Coney Island was the idiotic face, later used as the trademark of Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Newman. The genius behind Mad Magazine was Harvey Kurtzman. He employed John Cleese and Terry Gilliam later on (working on a fumetti spread, cartoons made with photos), and this connection would later result in Monty Python.

When we see freakish things on Youtube, watch satire, or questionable goings-on on reality TV, do we not owe something to the original freaks and visionaries of Coney Island?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Here is my map of New York City showing the New Littles, the neighborhoods that are made of at least a 20 percent population from a specific country. The famous Little Italy of film fame no longer exists where it did in Lower Manhattan, but you will see that there are a great many neighborhoods in greater NY that still are Italian.
This project was a challenge made by the Brian Lehrer show last month, which featured analysis of the modern demographics of the city. I used an interactive map, furnished by the show, to gather the information I needed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wrecked Goods

This new painting is titled Vrakgods, which translates as debris. Less correctly translated, but more interesting, would be wrecked goods.
This would be an example of a personal style of translation, which I coin as etymologocentricism (safe to say this won't become a standard word any time soon!) Such a translator chooses more directly related words, grasping for the cognates or parallels in languages of the same family, sometimes at the expense of clearest meaning, but gaining something else.
Wrecked goods, or debris, has always fascinated me, whether it's found on a lonely beach, forgotten wharf, or high-desert prairie. In the case of this painting old cars lie to rust very slowly in the dry plains outside Laramie, Wyoming. Makes from different decades rest together in a diversity that will slowly become less clear to the viewer, as time removes stylistic distinction.
The background shows the erosion and geology of a basin that once lay under a giant, shallow sea. This is a fossil hunter's paradise—the first excavation of a Tyranosaurus Rex took place there. These cars could be thought of as types of fossils too.
Wrecked goods (debris and fossils) are startling! These objects sit, revealed, before our eyes, feasting with whatever associations we like, independent of the original context wherein these things were created. In a museum, where a fossil skeleton stands, we don't see the surrounding stone, the layering and conditions that took place over millions of years. The sequence or order of history may be wiped away, but the objects like to startle us, resting as they do in the fresh light of our new eyes.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Coney Island Interlude

(morgtage or sketch for forsider painting, which may be titled Coney Island Interlude.)

One of the best midnight movies must be David Lynch's Eraser Head. Just hearing the title will summon up in your mind a special mood. Plot? It certainly has one, but the mood is what the film is about. Mood is what you first recall about great films, as you do with dreams.

Todd Browning's Freaks is the other legendary midnight movie. Eraser Head's mood is a dense fog of night, the deep sound of a boiler room's hum. Freaks' mood is more attenuated, a shrill garbled whistle on a scratchy 78 rpm disc. But it's a film I would sooner see.

I first became acquainted with Freaks from an uncanny still in a book about horror movies, a prized possession I got in the early '70s. This book stated that the film was banned. Browning, director of the iconic Dracula of Bela Lagosi, had not used makeup or special effects in Freaks, you see. He had used nature, actual sideshow performers of the 1930s era. The audiences of the day were disturbed by this—as they are today, 80 years later.

A week or two ago a seed for a painting was planted in my head as I mused about Coney Island, after seeing a good montage movie made from clips housed at, the public domain's modern Alexandria. I recognized some of the performers from Freaks, still in their prime on Coney Island in the 1940s. I was just blown away by the place, marveling at what once was, as compared to what remains in Coney Island today. It is still one of my favorite places, but it's just a husk of what was.

I decided to make a montage, a reference sheet for my painting. I call these morgtages (yes, looks like a nice typo related to the housing crisis, but it's morgue + montage.) I paste together a multitude of references of a subject, gleaned from the net. In the old days illustrators had a file cabinet called a morgue, wherein they kept their references. Now our references are found over the internet.

While gathering these references I was amazed to find that several of the side show performers have incurred a great cult following. In some cases whole websites are devoted to them. Perhaps the most popular is Schlitzy. Masterful underground cartoonist Bill Griffith's flagship character, Zippy the Pinhead, counts Schlitzy as an inspiration.

My forsider painting will be called Interlude. I imagine Coney Island in the evening, an amalgam of what is there today, and what was—including the elephant hotel. In the foreground a trio of sideshow performers stroll on the beach, taking a break. It is a quiet scene, contradicting the riotous, humorous and disturbing associations the characters and place summon up in our minds.