5cense home

Feral expressionism & primal beings in our own Becoming & in Basquiat

Dearest Internet,

Four posts ago .. before we got distracted by inclement weather, a Cal A. Mari cameo in a Kim Ki-Duk movie & the death of our friend Carlos M. Luis .. we mentioned we made a cover for the book we're working on & we never showed it here. Being that this blog is mostly about what we are working on (all else is only in regards to how it relates to this) & why we are here .. here it is ....

The Becoming

As you, The Internet, can tell (by tags or keywords or even OCR (though we split the title in half to make this difficult for non-humans)), we also came up with a name for this book object. We (Cal A. Mari & «i») were under the gun, we needed the cover for some promotional thing our distributor SPD was making for AWP .. & speaking of AWP, it's fast approaching .. we'll be there (table L18) if we didn't mention that here already.

wolf sausage

Basquiat's Wolf Sausage (1983)
(in an ideal world, if only we could choose a cover rather than have to make one ...)

Spoiler alert: if you (presumably an Internet surfer) are the kind of person that doesn't like things explained to you, then stop reading ....

.... we might mention some things here about why some things are the way they are. Like why we are calling this book The Becoming. We've been calling this thing by other names, like West of Kingdom Come, which we can't use because that is the name of the overall tetralogy .. or The Raft Manifest, which we also can't use because that will probably be the name of the second book .. in this book they never even get around to building the raft so seems silly to call it that.

Actually forget it. We don't want to tell you why it's called The Becoming. Suffice to say that it's a book about becoming .. or actually, it's not really «about» anything. It is just language for the sake of it. Along with the cover & title, we wrote a descriptor to satisfy such metadata requirements .. but this descriptor is not so much what the book is about, but something we like to keep in the back of our mind while writing (or in turn, reading) the book:

THE BECOMING is a steam-punk retelling of the Romulus and Remus myth, set on the Oregon coast. Instead of two brothers, the she-wolf delivers a mixed litter of mongrel children and dogs, fathered by a rogue member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The mixed liter are abandoned, left to their own devices to make sense—through language—of the savage land they inherit in the name of manifest destiny.

This should be all you need to know. The rest you should figure out for yourself. But first we need to make the book .. we are about halfway through it at this point, but it's hard to measure these things. And we are (apparently) still thinking through some shit, like obviously we brought with us from Rome this obsession with people raised by wolves ....

Basquiat wolf

dog according to Basquiat


The other day we saw the Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian. Then we saw the documentary, The Radiant Child. Or maybe it was the other way around, not sure which we did first, but both were well worth it .. the collection Gagosian has put together is  a good retrospective (& it's free & spacious & not crowded) .. more of his work than we've ever seen in any one place. And in case you're wondering timeline-wise, we made the above cover art before this Basquiat binge, so were not directly influenced (in the sense that he was not fresh in our minds .. but Basquiat has been living in our head for some time). Thinking about Basquiat has affirmed recent ruminations about «primitive» art .. or maybe we shouldn't say 'affirm' so much as 'continue to question,' or self-doubt ourselves .. whether such a thing as making primitive art is possible when you are conscious of it .. something we are forever grappling with in the making of The Becoming.

radiant child

There's a scene in The Radiant Child where a journalist, it seemed on live TV, asked Basquiat something about 'primitive' art or primal expressionism & his relation to it & Basquiat got all defensive & bothered & said something like, «what, primal, like primate, an ape?» The interviewer seemed like a douche-bag (granted it was the early 80s, before the likes of Spike Lee had desensitized & prepared us for such awkward situations), but we kind of felt for the guy. He stammered but didn't have much to say in return, to which Basquiat added, «hey, you said it.»

But both are to blame for this awkward racial over-sensitivity. It seems (now, at least to us) a legitimate thing to think & ask, to drop the p-word in questioning one's inclinations .. though we're not sure what kind of answer you'd expect. How does one intellectualize primitive art or primal expressionism?

poison oasis

Poison Oasis (1981)

Elsewhere in the movie .. when Basquiat is asked about process & why he does what he does (by another interviewer, we think the filmmaker Tamra Davis .. who he obviously felt more comfortable with), he effectively deflects the question by saying that he doesn't know why he does what he does. Good answer (or cop out .. you decide). But it's funny, telling, how he let this 'primal' question get under his skin. And elsewhere he is also asked if there are any critics he thinks have accurately written about his work & he mentions one (whose name we don't remember) & how this critic (a white dude) effectively related Basquiat to African art. So Basquiat doesn't, didn't have a problem being characterized or compared with African art, but has a problem being labeled as primal or 'primitive'.

When you look at the etymology of «primitive» though, it actually derives from the latin primitivus, or 'first of its kind,' or from primus .. 'first'. So the word primitive is more about being original, not being derivative. Which seems like the ultimate complement to us. But we are not Basquiat. Basquiat puts his being, his biology, in front of his art. He thinks of the question not as it relates to his work (as the guy asked) but as it related to him, the person.



Tenor (1985)

Basquiat has also famously characterized his art, when asked, as being «80% about anger». When in fact, at least from our humble perspective, his art seems like it's less than 8% about anger. And Basquiat himself, based on the footage & interviews, doesn't seem at all that angry, so much as the sensitive type. Troubled yes, but in more a confused & sad way, internally conflicted (perhaps the anger is all self-inflicted), not seemingly angry, or at least not outwardly expressing it. Jackson Pollock seemed angry, though he would probably characterize himself as sensitive. Then again, Basquiat's true self was masked by drug use. In many ways, Basquiat reminds us of our brother, an artist, that also died of a heroin overdose. And they may have ran in the same circles in LA in the early 80s (we vaguely remember our brother talking about Basquiat at the time with a tinge of jealousy).

kevin white

self-portrait of our brother that hangs above this computer from where we write from

There's a certain quality that we don't even want to attempt to reduce to a word for fear of ruining or diminishing it .. that 'junky artists' seem to have, not just Basquiat & our brother but other people we know, some still surprisingly alive .. not the typical negative stereotypes people have of drug addicts, but a sensitive & vulnerable (yet conflicted) disposition, laced with an uncompromising  broodiness & endearing cynicism. Not sure whether the drugs make them this way, or whether these inherent attributes lead them to addiction. Either way, with this hyper-sensitivity comes pain .. as if their nerves are exposed raw, with no buffer, definitely not thick skinned (melanin or not) .. hence the need to self-medicate. The question is, how do you channel these qualities into art, without killing the artist? Or without exploiting the artist or letting them be victims of themselves? This is perhaps the subject of a whole nother post. Bottom line (for the sake of this primitivist post) is 1. you can't trust artists to characterize themselves. And 2. you can't trust anyone to talk about primitive art (except maybe true primitive people, or children, who can't talk about it yet ....).

basquiat horse

Riding with Death (1988)(which if you ask us shows Basquiat starting to diverge from primal expressionism to a more minimal & 'modern' style that we will sadly never know

But we will continue to embarrass ourself by talking about it, the p-word. Another thing compelling about Basquiat is his use of text & language in paintings, especially when he crosses out words as he very well knows that it's these self-censored things that people's eyes are drawn to. That & the way he juxtaposes the 'primitive' in a contemporary/urban framework. The word 'feral,' on the other hand, does have roots in anger, in 'fierce' & wild. Besides thinking of Basquiat as a 'radiant child' you could think of him as a feral child (though inevitably there are those who will cry 'racist!' for such an allegation). Basquiat was not raised by wolves, but he ran away from home & was raised by the crème de la crop of the NY arts circle, who reared him on sugar-mama milk, then intellectualized & monetized Basquiat. And we don't mean this in a bad way .. Basquiat wouldn't be Basquiat otherwise .. & lets face it, this is the life he chose, he knew exactly what he was getting into, he knew exactly what was going through Warhol's mind & led him on to think it & the milking (if only mental) was mutual .. it is this contradiction, this conflicted juxtaposition, which becomes both the art & hypocrisy of it all (at the expense of Basquiat, the human being, the exploited radiant child). And while many are still lining their pockets from the selling & reselling of his paintings & merchandising him & making movies about him, it is Basquiat (the artist) that is living large, that lives on. Like Carlos Luis (though not famous to the world, the art he created remains with us) or Sugar Man & Henrietta Lacks. And speaking of the likes of those not recognized in their lifetimes (of which we also didn't mention Darger), we are looking forward to the forthcoming documentary about Vivian Maier.

vivian maier black horse

pretty sure this photo was taken near our apartment, 125th & Broadway
.. though maybe the bridge is too low

We have more to say about primitivism & feral expressionism, but as promised we want to keep these posts shorter with not so many tangents. So we'll continue this thread later. For now we leave you with 3 failed & unwanted takes from the making of the cover for The Becoming. If you think one is not a failure & can provide a home for it, then it is yours just for asking.

take 2

failed take 1


take 3

failed take 2


take 4

failed take 3

>> NEXT: The derivative of Traveling with Derrida within the colonization of our own language

5cense home

[  ©om.Posted 2013  derek white  |  calamari press   ]