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Obsessions

Obsessions: A Visit to the Stephen ‘ESPO’ Powers ‘Daymaker’ Installation at SFMOMA

Stephen Powers Daymaker installationOn a Friday afternoon, I visited the Stephen “ESPO” Powers “Daymaker” installation at SFMOMA. “Daymaker” includes two site-specific wall-size murals covered in Powers’ signature ideograms: a simple illustration of an everyday object accompanied by witty, semi-aphoristic text. (Powers began his career as a graffiti artist under the moniker ESPO.)

Of the two murals, the one on the east wall is the more popular one for picture taking. It has more blank spaces between ideograms and better light. The picture-taking comes in two genres: selfies or portraits. You can pose next to the brick wall covered with the words “BACK GOES HERE.” Or you can stand next to the matte yellow Post-it that reads “WHO ASKED YOU?” These shots are perfect for social media; they provide a novel background with a caption already included.

Some of Powers’ texts edge into the territory of Instagram Poetry, a genre defined by pithy sentimentality. I can imagine the phrase “I GET LOST TO GET FOUND” adorning a timeline accompanied by a picture of a beach at sunset. In “Daymaker” Powers pairs the phrase with a cartoonish briefcase that looks like it belongs in a noir comic. It’s the visual equivalent of sarcasm, and it evokes the famous Barbara Krueger work that exhorts “I shop, therefore I am.” It’s not art specifically made for a vapid viewer, but art that is happily misread.

Some of the more ambitious photo-seekers will pose for whole minutes in front of Powers’ east wall. The most determined of the bunch that day were a trio of women with slick hair and thick eyebrows, who took turns posing and taking pictures. Observing them, I learned two important rules of modeling: 1) suck in your stomach and 2) the logo of your handbag should be facing out. It takes a lot of forethought to look this carefree.

The photoshoots blocked the art, and I felt the urge to look away. I didn’t want to interrupt, or worse, ruin the game of pretend in-progress. The relationship a person has with how other people see them is an intimate one; it didn’t feel right to intrude.

If I were to have my picture taken with one of Powers’ works, I would pick one of six canvasses on the under-observed south wall. My favorite of these has two, dark blue painterly fists bumping. I felt I was seeing the artist’s hand both literally and figuratively, with yellow action lines radiating from the point of impact. The fists are framed with the words “NOTHING TO SAY, SOMEONE TO SAY IT TO,” which describes most people on Twitter.

Every trip to the museum ends at the gift shop. Here you can buy toilet paper designed by Powers, packaged with the words “If only opinions were as useful.” It’s the perfect item for those who want a physical souvenir of the exhibit, and not just a digital one.

“Daymaker” will be on exhibit on the Third Floor of SFMOMA through January 1, 2020.

Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award. You can read her short story “The Story of a True Artist” in Issue 115.

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Obsessions: Our Solitary Fancy

The poem "A Supermarket in California" appeared in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

The poem “A Supermarket in California” appeared in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes roll. And, like Ginsberg, I’m queer. One night, I rewrote his poem “A Supermarket in California” as if my life depended on it. I called it a “A Health Food Store in California” and scrawled it with a speed that brings to mind Truman Capote’s vicious comment on Kerouac: “That’s not writing at all—it’s typing.”

I rewrote by substitution. Because I made them so fast, I wasn’t sure how seriously to consider the individual changes. I used to think the fact I rewrote the poem was more significant than the specific alterations. In “A Supermarket,” the speaker, who I’ll call Ginsberg, imagines following Walt Whitman around “the neon fruit supermarket.” I imagine following Ginsberg around “the quiet health food store.” Many of the later substitutions riff off this first deviation. Whitman eyes grocery boys in the supermarket. Ginsberg eyes dreadlocked grocery boys in the health food store. Ginsberg wanders “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans.” I wander “in and out of the brilliant stacks of Kombucha.” These easy jokes reveal little. Things start to get interesting when I exchange the hetero families of the supermarket: “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” But what’s this? A gay surprise among produce: “—and you García Lorca, what were you doing down by / the watermelons?”[i] In the health food store I find “Hoards of / hipsters shopping at night! Aisles full of Doc Martens! Anarcha- / feminists in the avocados, young idealists in the tomatoes!—and you, / O’Hara, what were you doing down by the sprouts?” (At long red lights, I reached for my copy of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency I had stashed underneath the driver’s seat of my car.)

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Obsessions: Authoritarian Kitsch

Charles Bronson in "Death Wish 3" I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.
—Susan Sontag, from her essay “Notes on Camp'” (1964)

Charles Bronson steps away from the dinner table, a Norman Rockwell tableau of elderly friends, gravy boats, and stuffed cabbage. He folds his napkin and politely excuses himself. On the street below, he discovers two gang members removing the stereo from his Cadillac Seville, a vehicle he bought several scenes earlier for the express purpose of enticing criminals.

After a brief exchange with the thieves, one remarks, “We’re stealin’ the fuckin’ car, what’s it to you?” Bronson retorts, in a charmingly incompetent performance, “It’s… my car!” He extends his arms in a stilted (but sincere) manner, enunciating the syllables in a way that no actual human would. The thieves smirk at each other, deciding “Now you’re gonna die,” and one of them cartoonishly flicks open his switchblade. Bronson draws a gun and shoots the both of them before calmly returning to his cabbage.

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Obsessions: Angel Olsen

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.

Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”

I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.

I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.

It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.

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Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.

She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”

I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.

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