Matilda Bernstein Sycamore on Exploiting Basquiat’s Literary Axis
Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Is the goal of art to bring us into ourselves or out of ourselves? I mean, the Parkway Theater is my favorite place to go to escape the heat, and I can even stare at the high-quality purple wallpaper in the bathrooms, and the digital popcorn kernels “fly.” Or notice the bright light outside as it settles over the dilapidated turn-of-the-century buildings across Charles Street, all those gorgeous reds and browns and look at those plants growing through the cracks of the brick.
Usually when I go to an old theater I study the details, but with this theater you walk in and just think: architect. Because the whole place has been destroyed and reimagined. Where do they get all this money?
Tonight I’m watching True Prosperity: The Late Teen Years of Jean-Michel Basquiatwhich reveals nothing about Basquiat who wasn’t already part of the public record—he was flamboyant and brutal, charming and manipulative, seductive and ambitious—he was homeless as a teenager, did a lot of drugs, became the toast of the art world, and died very young.
Everyone already knows the myth that Basquiat was a lone genius subverting tradition to create his own form. Yes, he was driven to remake himself as a lone visionary in order to become a first-rate commodity in the art world, and this actually happened, which is rare for anyone, especially a black artist, but we already know that this killed him, so why Portraying posthumous canonization as a glorious path? Unless the movie is about making more money for the art world ghouls who have already made millions and millions from Basquiat’s overdose death at age 27.
I think of the Basquiat exhibition I saw in Seattle in 1994, six years after his death—as I gazed at those paintings I felt an immediate sensory kinship with the dense layers of self-expression, brutality, raw beauty, and way of language. It intertwined with the visual, became visual, until it overcame it. Movement, free association that becomes a method and system of organization, the confusion that opens the mind.
I think of the Basquiat exhibition I saw in Seattle in 1994, six years after his death – as I stared at those paintings I felt an immediate sensory kinship with the dense layers of self-expression, brutality, and raw beauty…
The way we can create our own language, symbols and strength, bending, and enchantingly nourishing screams. I left that show wanting to create, knowing that I could create, and knowing that. In the lobby of the Parkway Theater there is a flyer for a new building across from the train station that says:
In the photo, it looks to me like your average prefab loft, so I’m not sure where the art is, but I think they mean this neighborhood, which the city has designated as an arts district to change the damage into bright lights. The marketing of Baltimore as a creative hub, and artists as objects of displacement, is a sad story that has obliterated many neighborhoods over the past several decades, but here it is most apparent. Perhaps because these funded institutions are located in an area that has clearly been neglected by the city for a long time.
Across the street from the Parkway, there are black people hunched over in a state of numb immobility caused by decades of structural neglect, and next door is the Motor House, an art gallery/theater/bar complex with a design show called “Undoing a Redline.”
I got off the parkway, and the graffiti on the street looked no different than the graffiti in the movie. Is it on display? It is as if he is saying: We want what happened in New York in the 1980s to happen here now. There’s also an alley behind the Motor House where graffiti is legal, and photo shoots and parties promoting multicultural consumption in a segregated city take place throughout the day.
Back to Charles, where there’s another movie theater, and then half a block of upscale little restaurants, and then it all ends at the bridge over the highway and there’s the train station, all lit up. When I turned the corner, I found a huge new building like a spaceship that had landed to promote gentrification, and so much air conditioning that there was a giant puddle in the asphalt.
Oh, wait, that’s the building in the flyer, the Nelson Cole Apartments, that’s what it’s all about, with a wood-paneled entryway, a white cube gallery in the lobby displaying cute abstract art, and two rectangular fiberglass planters in the front, painted black and textured to look like cement. . Two weeds are planted on one side, and four almost dead weeds are on the other side. The entrance faces the car park above the highway, and the train station is on the other side. I stand outside watching for anyone to enter, but they all have to be inside with air conditioning.
I decided to go to the show at the Motor House, where the bar out front looks like a suburban ad for urban living, but the show in the lobby is actually about red lines. It’s mostly about New York and D.C., though I know a few things about Cross Keys Village, where I went with Gladys as a kid, a sprawling gated housing development in Baltimore — a mix of townhomes, a hotel, and mid-rise buildings in an enclave With trees, complete with a Frank Gehry-designed high-rise and a mall featuring the trendy Betty Cooke gift shop that Gladys loved.
Cross Keys appears to have been marketed to both black and white homeowners when it was built in the 1960s, in contrast to the history of surrounding whites-only neighborhoods, such as working-class Hampden and posh Roland Park.
At the Motor House, they have a sign thanking the city for funding the space — I look for it when I get home. The renovation cost $6 million, funded by an organization called BARCO, or Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, dedicated to “job creation.” Spaces for Baltimore’s growing community of artists, performers, makers and craftsmen. BARCO also recently completed an $11.5 million renovation of another space in the area, Open Works.
I looked at the Parkway Theater, and the renovation cost $18.5 million, including a $5 million grant from a Greek foundation. So there was international funding. For a movie theater in Baltimore. Then there’s the $19 million that another nonprofit developer, Jubilee, spent to renovate the center’s theater to house the Johns Hopkins and MICA film programs nearby. This is a staggering amount of money in a city struggling to obtain basic services.
All this empty, corporate language promotes Baltimore as an arts hub, a creative crossroads, a robust creative sector, and an incubator for the creative economy. Which fits perfectly with the marketing of the Nelson Cole Apartments, which are named after two famous, deceased designers who had nothing to do with it, and claim to be “Baltimore Art,” with studios starting in the $1,500s, “surrounded by art, music, restaurants, bars, and studios.” Cinema and one of the world’s leading art colleges.When you live here, you can paint your own picture – differently every day.
Five hundred dollars for a studio, in a city that’s mostly falling apart. Back at the Charles, there’s a performance space in a former dry cleaners where everyone looks like the people in a Basquiat movie – the same ’80s clothes, but now everyone’s wearing all black, and you can’t even have a good time anymore with your studied indifference. . I was crossing the street back home, past the Crown Hotel, where I was dancing my ass off to terrible 80s music and projections on white sheets, and everyone was staring at me but no one was getting close.
Behind the Eagle Building, another old building was gutted and renovated for a staggering amount of money — a leather bar typically has a cabaret upstairs and a dance floor, a leather shop with an art gallery, and multiple minimalist spaces on the main floor. Not that anyone at the bar was friendly, but at least there were nice bathrooms.
You look for what you can’t find anywhere else, in neighborhoods where people have trouble finding anything, and in the end there is no neighborhood except the neighborhood that replaced the neighborhood.
Then I went to the convenience store where the register was behind bulletproof glass, my usual place to get an unrefrigerated bottle of water. A trans woman, slightly drugged, orders counterfeit perfume, chews gum, and talks on the phone: “I’m going for a walk.” A drug dealer stands in front of me, counting out a huge pile of bills.
I grab my water bottle, then head back out into the street and think about all the contrasts – NPR studio with signs out front that say Warning: Do not sit here, the wall is unstablea members-only jazz club that I previously assumed was a black place, but now when I walk in it’s all white guys outside, between the groups.
All businesses that never opened, but the storefronts still advertise what used to be there. The rehab center is the most luxurious building on the block — across the street is a new art gallery featuring black artists, in an old brick building.
I find myself refreshed by the contrasts, the possibility of something surprising happening – that’s the only way improv works. You look for what you can’t find anywhere else, in neighborhoods where people have trouble finding anything, and in the end there is no neighborhood except the neighborhood that replaced the neighborhood.
Touch art By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is available via Soft Skull.