Dia de los Muertos at MOCO

Migueltzinta Solis, myself and 4 other artists have installations hanging (now thru the end of November) at the MOCO gallery in downtown Oakland. For those of you unable to catch them live, here are some photographs along with my artist statement:

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Altar for My Ancestors’ Art

When Bea Gould, my father’s mother, met my grandfather in Worcester, MA, she was an understudy on a popular radio drama with dreams of becoming a famous actress. She had the presence to be a star, but neither her violent new husband nor the reality of her era nor perhaps her own courage allowed her to try. As an older woman in the Sixties and Seventies, Bea took tickets at a local theater festival and read the fortunes of folk musicians. I believe she was magical, psychic, possibly brilliant—but she despaired. Her dream—the life unlived—had died within her and she soon followed…

Bea’s mother, Gertrude, though, did fight off the demons and restrictions of her youth to learn to paint at age 54. Gertrude, who’d spent her entire life (a wife at 15, a single mother from 17, possible homo??) in servitude and manipulated by male relatives, did not grow less angry or happier, but she did paint. By the time she passed away in her late seventies, she was working out of a studio near the MOMA in New York, selling her abstract expressionist paintings as fast as she could make them.

I have a great photo of my mother’s mother, Mary Steinberg, sitting in the lap of her beau Lenny Lempert on a wide beach, cityscape faint in the background. “Coney Island, 1934?” written in shaky blue ballpoint on the back. My grandparents would have been in their late twenties—they are small and lanky, both of them, wild black hair shimmery in sunlight, chased by wind. In 1934, the dream—she a writer, he an artist–a cartoonist perhaps–was inchoate, but present. Even in the throes of the Depression some part of both shows a gentle faith, that yes, even for a couple of immigrant kids this could be done. In those days, Lenny was selling jokes to cartoonists on the side (his most famous can be spotted in the newsprint background of his altar) and Mary, an independent young woman in Manhattan, proved that she could do more than what was planned for her. 1934 may have been about as close as either ever got to living for the imagination, but I know that for my grandmother, the critic, and my grandfather, the storyteller, art did not abandon them—it only quieted, tamed by bills, small town New Jersey life, an unhappy marriage, parenting.

These altares are an offering to the spirits of my (no doubt bemused–but possibly also delighted) Jewish grandparents, to feed and recognize their ravenous art. As dreamers beget dreamers, the stories, the plays, the drawings, the jokes, deferred but never abandoned, we—my brother and I—carry for them. Committed.

—L. Dani Blue, 11/1/2012

onions and ancestors

Tonight I made a small piece of chicken in a mound of golden sweet onion and garlic, gleaming with oil, bitten with salt.

I’m not sure how long it took me to learn how to caramelize onions. I learned by doing it over and over, once a month or once a week, throughout the course of what might have been five years. No one in my house growing up cooked; I ate frozen meals, macaroni and cheese and Ramen noodles every night for dinner until I was seventeen. During those years, I snacked constantly–on the hunt for flavors that weren’t there, textures, scents, corporal experience. A frozen dinner is a long ways from being the worst thing in the world, but as a corporal experience, I have to say, it lacks.

I don’t know why I needed to cook, but it was like being queer. Something lurking blankly around the edges until one day it caught a glimpse of its reflection (in the kitchen of my friend Jesa Rae), and then desire was born. A different kind of hunger.

I could chart my adulthood in meals and this would be perhaps a better marker than the ones I habitually use. It would look like a rich life, a centered life–colorful, done with intention, commitment, peace, balance.

There is fight battling against the sails but below deck, where I might begin the measure, all is steady. Life is celebrated.

And yet, I do not measure in food, not really, despite its central location. I measure in feelings and this is not wise; they are many and violent. They wrack the decks. They fill their fists with surf and beat the hewn and lovingly-planed sides until it seems they must give out. They spit brine and they cough and they whistle and then they throw down sun as if it were all the wealth in the world and they were set on spending it this minute. There are quiet seasons too, of course, when all the movement is in the deep down layers of the sea, held pressuredly, filmy with silt. On these days, the fish can be heard talking. I can’t describe their language; it is very strange, a sound you can only hear the moment you have ceased to listen. It squims and burbles and in order to respond you must invent another language to match it (because of course you can’t make the noises fish make), which you do and then afterwards doubt that it truly happened.

Storms are certainty, magic is doubt? plague of western thought.

I would like to divorce from this way of belief-ing. Imagine that tempests are in the language of fish something more like laughter, see a shattered sail as no more tragic than a break in clouds or sudden surge of music.

Yesterday–thinking about my lifelong envy of healthy families (biological or otherwise) and the small, safe enclosures they create–it occurred to me that I might need to find my home in the world before I can make it within a circle of known bodies. That family cannot be a place of hiding, not if it is to remain healthy…

The archetype of exile has ruled my own family on both sides for a very long time. There is something here that needs to be given its rest, a wanderer who must be told that they are home already–to sit, to accept the meal from the stranger, to begin to look around them and see what is here with more riveting clarity than the old world which has passed, which has completed its work and taught its lessons.

We cannot be fugitives anymore; my ancestors are tired. The question is: how do you teach ghosts to dance?

(At least they are laughing ghosts; this is a start.)