Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why You Should Know about The Virgin Dress

"Good" art affects the beholder. The English literature professor who became my thesis adviser once illustrated this relationship with a triangle, wherein the left base angle was the artist, the right base angle was the audience, and the top vertex angle was the art itself. The triangle's sides were the connection networks made between artist and audience. In his definition, art needed to convey something - be it an emotion, a concept or a technique - in order to be effective.

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the "Sad Girls Club" series, an exhibition by The Virgin Dress (aka, Brooklyn-based Nigerian-American illustrator Chioma Ebinama), in the hallway of a Bed-Stuy brownstone apartment. Only a short while after absorbing the first few "girls" in the series, the little typebars I have for cerebral synapses began banging-out a blog entry about why the exhibition qualifies as "good." Take the following Sad Girl:

Together we're everything

A well-coiffed white woman with large, defiant eyes tearfully clutches her Louis Vuitton purse. It is ambiguous as to whether the caption addresses the audience or the bag; however, the often satirical focus on privilege and consumerism throughout the Sad Girls Club exhibition makes me believe the latter. We rely on our possessions - and on the act of possessing possessions - for our happiness. The absoluteness of the caption dramatizes this in a hilarious manner.

Neither angry nor sassy

In the above Sad Girl, Chioma turns her attention from the privileged to the marginalized, confronting racialist stereotypes about black women with a universal expression of intense, human despair. I attribute the illustration's power to its bluntness: the image of a crying black woman paired with knee-jerk judgements black women frequently face should compel one to re-examine their latent prejudices.

The Sylvia Plath Death Scene

According to the artist, this was drawn following a conversation with a friend about the death scene in Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath. In the film, Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow) closes her eyes after turning on her gas oven. In actuality, Ms. Plath was found with her head in the oven. Chioma’s friend argued that there was no way to depict the suicide as it actually happened without it looking absurd. Chioma disagreed and drew the above drawing.

Regardless of the backstory, the illustration remains an effective critique of stifling, sexist, and thoroughly-American mid-century Modernism. The philosophy that kept the public and personal spheres separate was culpable for the marginalization and oppression of women. For some women of Sylvia's time, such circumscription probably did make some ruminate other uses for ovens besides tv dinners and Thanksgiving turkeys. That said, the dark humor in this illustration is boldly apparent, from the funky wallpaper to the large, baffled cat in the window.

Another member of the Sad Girls' Club fleshes-out this dark humor further:

Food diary

An almost naked Amy Winehouse sits on a scale, head buried in her arms, surrounded by dancing, anthropomorphic food - one of which gleefully advertises the amount of calories it contains. The juxtaposition between a deeply unhappy human life and consumer culture makes the latter look absurd and irrelevant. The food dances around Amy, perhaps imprisoning her, and when complimented by the scale, it is impossible not to consider the rampant body image problems plaguing women in western societies; Amy herself struggled with an eating disorder which likely contributed to her death.

The blithe, dancing food entrapping Amy suggests that she had likewise become part of consumer culture. Unfortunately for her, in this lifetime, there was no escape. Her fame/infamy kept some writers from seeing her as someone who had suffered in the spotlight, and a rash of callous, mean-spirited articles, like this one, filled the tabloids.

"That's exactly what happened," I said to the artist.

For all the Sad Girls:
For other works by The Virgin Dress:

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Heat This Time of Year is Ridiculous": Kale Returns to Glasgow

During a plane’s descent, there comes that splendid moment when the clouds suddenly pull apart, revealing patchwork farmlands, picturesque villages or sprawling cities underneath. I anticipated the familiar stretches of green as I was about to visit Scotland for the third time (I lived there first as an exchange student and second as a Masters student). At first, as the plane drifted lower and lower, the layers of cloud opened only to more layers of cloud. When the ground below was finally visible, we were close enough to see that it had rained recently, suddenly reminding me of the cold, wet realities of Scottish weather.

It had been thirteen months since my incredibly happy year in Glasgow ended, giving-way to the not-so-happy times between summer of last year and last spring. I now refer to this era as my “post-Glasgow bereavement period.” With the expiration of my student visa looming, and with my inability to find work in Scotland, I unwillingly left Glasgow to return to New York City, losing my student lifestyle and academic identity, a city in which I felt comfortable and stimulated, and various circles of friends in the process; I began life in Brooklyn unemployed, isolated and directionless. The transition made me feel more gutted than a wildcat in a taxidermy warehouse.

And yet, although I spent months thinking of nothing else but returning to Glasgow, finally walking down Otago Lane, Sauchiehall Street and Paisley Road West again did not make me feel as though tremendous wrongs had been righted. A lot had changed. For instance, many of my friends had left Glasgow. I had known this, but it nevertheless jarred me to experience their absence firsthand.

Remembering the cynical refrain of a few Glasgow residents, I asked Stuart – my flatmate during my wonderful postgraduate year – if the saying “Glasgow is a place that people leave” actually held water.

“Eh, you’re surprised that your uni friends who graduated aren’t here anymore?” he said, definitely smiling and probably smoking a cigarette.


Sloth Metropolis performing "Wee Fib" at The 13th Note.

Glasgow welcomes myriad music scenes, from "shambling" indie pop to hardcore punk. At a harvest festival in the north of the city, for instance, I watched members of the Glasgow-based band Sloth Metropolis stomp down distortion peddles and launch an electric fiddle freak-out while children played tag, parents sold home-made chutney, a woman gave away clay-oven baked pizza, and a few young men were asking attendees to sample treats made from their proposed, sustainable protein source: mealworms.

By happy happenstance, a Glaswegian band called Close Lobsters – one of the greatest bands to jangle-pop out of the C86 scene – were performing at Stereo during my visit. I discovered them less than a year ago and have recommended their catchy, cerebral masterpiece Foxheads Stalk this Land to just about everyone. Tickets to their gig were a bargain at £10.

Close Lobsters performing "I Kiss the Flower in Bloom" at Stereo last year.

I met a young woman from Hong Kong there. She was a fresher and happened to be staying in the dorm I lived in as an exchange student. When she mentioned that she was vegan, I told her nothing of my temporary devolution into ovo-lacto vegetarianism; egg-and-cress sandwiches, and the yokes of guilt that follow every convenient carton, are part and parcel of my life in Glasgow.

The first song that Close Lobsters played had the refrain “the heat this time of year is ridiculous.” I chanted along, clogged-up by a cold brought on by the chllly dampness this time of year.
From Foxheads, they performed “Prophecy” and “I Kiss the Flower in Bloom,” which received the greatest share of the crowd's enthusiasm. After a second encore, and after the DJ signaled the end of the set with Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up” (the Glaswegians in the room recited the lyrics as we left), I walked outside feeling as though I had just been to one of the greatest gigs I had ever seen. I'll provide two reasons in support of this claim:

  • First, local performances by local bands are always best, and Close Lobsters were playing to an audience that knew their city's musical history. Most of those in the room were old enough to have remembered Close Lobsters when C86 first hit Glasgow, and most probably had fond recollections of how the band affected them in their youth. This leant itself to an emotional intensity to the room.
  • Second, Close Lobsters play a kind of music that I find myself listening to frequently these days: a jangly, cerebral, catchy indie pop with a punk lineage. What could be better than sharing my love of this unusual genre with scores of others?

In addition to Close Lobsters, Glasgow is home to musical legends aplenty, and given the amount of times I have randomly walked past Stuart Murdoch during my previous visits, I'm inclined to write that these musicians are remarkably accessible. I had heard that a certain record shop had some sort of connection with The Pastels: another legendary Glaswegian C86 band, and during this visit, I decided to buy something there. One of the people behind the counter looked familiar. Just to confirm my suspicion, I asked a different person at the cash register about their supposed connection with the band. “That’s the lead singer,” she said, pointing to Stephen McRobbie. He rang me up when I bought his new album and we had a brief conversation about Helen Love.


On my final night in Glasgow, while briefly separating from a subcrawl (wherein revelers must order a drink from a bar at every stop along the city’s circular subway line), Stuart took me to his favorite pub: an unassuming southside joint beneath a bridge. He described it as walking through a timewarp to the city in the 1970’s. The mementoes from Glasgow’s past, nailed to margarine-colored walls, validated his assessment.

A man had randomly brought in a guitar and was belting out Radiohead’s “Creep.” Stuart and I sang along. A plump woman with short gray hair sang folk, country-western and protest songs next, including a recent song about the Bedroom Tax imposed by the current coalition government.

The anti-Bedroom Tax song covered by the woman in the pub.

Stuart got into a conversation with a middle-aged woman who, after making fun of him for hailing from Aberdeen, somehow got the entire pub to sing the Aberdonian anthem “Northern Lights.” Stuart beamed.

She then asked me where I was from. When I answered, the response I usually get from Glaswegians followed: “You’re from New York City?” she said, expressing genuine confusion, “why are ya over here for? Why would anyone from New York come to this place?”

I immediately thought of everything that's wrong with New York City today: about how suburban kids flock to New York in search of the extinct countercultures of yesteryear, pretending to recreate those countercultures by buying things; I thought about my coworker, who rode the Ramones/Patti Smith wave of punk, only to get pushed out of Bedford-Stuyvesant by hipster gentrification thirty-five years later; I thought about the nihilism that pervades New York City at the present time, and how much privilege a person must possess to have the luxury of not caring.

And then I looked around at this Glasgow pub that had not changed its d├ęcor in forty years, at people singing together and buying each other drinks, and how all were welcome to join in – even outsiders like me.

“Because this is real,” I said.

She accepted my answer. I reckon the Englishman who bade us all sing Hamish Imlach’s “Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice” at closing time probably felt similarly.