Author Archives: Leann Davis Alspaugh

Laugh Track: An Interview with William T. Oree

William T. Oree is serving twelve years to life at Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder, writer, and editor of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, a self-published prison comedy magazine; his work has also been published in The Harvard Lampoon. He and his comedy writing partner are shopping a pilot script called PEN * PALS to production companies in Los Angeles. He is the inventor of “jailhouse comedy,” a blend of edgy, often raw humor with a little Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.

The Hedgehog Review: Obviously, your current situation informs much of your work. What do you use about prison in your comedy or theater performances?
William Oree: In the comedy genre I created, jailhouse, I have to be authentic. I have to tell the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of incarceration. I write and perform material that is raw, zany, and politically incorrect. This truth would speak volumes in any forum, but especially so in prison.

Tell us about some of the topics that you want to address in your comedy.
I have had great success cloaking highly charged political, social, racial, and sexual issues in comedy. I have addressed everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to prison rape. I don’t mock the seriousness of these issues. Instead, I expose the racial divide that is at the center of so much of what I treat comically.

For example, I wrote a sketch for the “Disturbed Recesses of My Mind” issue of The Harvard Lampoon (May 2016) in which I relate the travails of a man who was arrested for sucking out the fillings of all the fruit pies in his neighborhood supermarket. He was arrested and prosecuted but neither the judge nor the district attorney recognized that he had a sugar addiction. They saw his actions solely as a crime for which incarceration was the only recourse. Thus, the idea of addiction became neither a medical nor a health issue but a social problem for which the only solution was going to prison. To me, it is comically obvious that what this guy needs is treatment not a jail cell.

In that same issue of the Harvard Lampoon, I had a piece, “Save America: One Crackhead at a Time,” in which I challenged society to address substance abuse through a skit about a family who invites a crackhead into their home and he gradually begins to relieve them of all their creature comforts. The point is dressed in humor, but I wanted to shock the audience into recognizing that they can address society’s ills by being proactive, no matter how silly it might seem.

Are there any subjects that you just won’t touch? Why not?
My sister was murdered under conditions inaccurately described as “domestic violence.” I find no humor in violence against women and children. When it comes to interfering in other people’s relationships, my instinct tells me to get involved—I’ve had heated arguments with many other prisoners who disagree. Many simply turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Sad. At the same time, I have to add that many of my fellow inmates have said that they would interfere to help a woman or child being attacked by a “stranger.”

What was your life like growing up?
I’m not sure if I ever grew up. My childhood was marred by two suicide attempts, the murder of my teenage sister, living with alcoholic parents, being in the foster care system, and the lack of hot running water. Because of my family’s situation, I became a sort of family “hero,” developing certain survival skills and protecting my siblings from starvation, molestation, exploitation, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and the shame associated with being the children of alcoholics. I became an unashamed liar and a thief, stealing to put food on the table. I essentially sacrificed my childhood for the well-being of my family.

How did you end up in Attica?
Two reasons: I escaped from a New York City jail where I was being held for trial. Also, I received a twelve-years-to-life sentence for being a habitual offender—in New York, three or more felony convictions qualifies you for a life sentence.

Did you do theater or stand-up on the outside? If so, in what sorts of circumstances?
My theatrical training started in my youth. As a child of alcoholic parents, I developed the ability to adopt different personas in order to protect my family. For example, when confronted with bill collectors and landlords I’d do all the talking for my parents. From an early age, I seemed to be able to make people trust me and I became a skilled liar. I discovered that adults will usually listen to a child’s pleas when they won’t listen to those of a grown-up. I recall practicing how to sound like a responsible, middle-class, educated adult.

By the time I got to high school, I was active in drama club. If I didn’t get a speaking part in the school play, I worked as a stagehand. I learned how to be a stage manager and lighting designer. After high school, I started a break-dancing troupe, the Max Factors. We later moved to the Boston/Cambridge area to perform. Break-dancing was new, and we made a name for ourselves performing at the many colleges and universities in that area. But break-dancing didn’t last too long and, lucky for me, I knew how to network. Through my connections, I found odd jobs at local college drama departments and I worked as a lighting assistant and stage manager assistant. I eventually received a stage management internship at American Repertory Theater, but I walked off the job after insisting their techniques were inferior. Still, I made friends with a movie actor there who worked as an understudy for the role of stand-up comic. He invited me for drinks at open-mic night at a local comedy club. A few drinks later, I was onstage telling the story of my life and making people laugh. Unfortunately, when I returned to the club the next week, I was unprepared and failed to get even a giggle.

Who were your role models? How were you influenced by these people?
One was a police officer who taught me how to act my age—I was twelve—when I was trying to act like a thirty-something. Also, there was the founder of the Fortune Society who taught me to create an opportunity where there were none. [Since 1967, The Fortune Society has worked to assist ex-offenders as they return to society.] And there was the neighborhood crackhead who taught me that my life should not be defined by how many times I’d be knocked down, but by how many times I get up. Last but not least, a stand-up comedian who taught me to write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You have said “to be an effective comedian, I have to meet the audience where they are.” Can you say a little more about this?
To be effective in comedy, you must know your audience. My audience is literally a tough crowd. Murderers, drug lords, thugs, and lost souls. Because my audience is in a state of psychological, sociological, and physical captivity, I have to craft my sets accordingly. I can’t simply tell jokes.

You can never be sure of what will work with a jailhouse audience. If the day before, the correctional staff assaulted a well-loved and respected inmate, the mood of the population could be restless and belligerent. Part of my craft is knowing how to elucidate the sordidness of daily prison life with humor. Truly, a tough task! I have to mix it up—a sketch here, a narrative there, followed by some Shakespeare, or something polemical. Because my audience is fluid, I have to move like water!

When you specialize in jailhouse comedy, there’s an abundance of material all around. I often say, jokingly, that I perform under duress—you can’t afford to bomb before an Attica audience. These guys have killed for less! But seriously.… In my comedy, I can address many distasteful prison conditions: strip-frisking, cavity searches—I’ve gotten a lot of laughs on that one, believe it or not! The jailhouse brand of humor emerged from just this kind of raw and edgy material.

As a performer, how do you keep people interested in what you are doing?
I have discovered that the average time a prisoner will engage with my routine is between five and fifteen minutes. That’s why I never lead with my best stuff. I often employ a strategy that works up the audience by sprinkling my sets with diatribes about current social or political topics. Polemics are alive and well in prison. This is often the means by which prisoners relieve their aggression in a safe and healthy manner. If all else fails, I pull out a few monologues by Shakespeare—you’d be amazed how much prisoners appreciate iambic pentameter. Plus, peel back the layers on just about any Shakespeare character and you’ll discover a polemical impetus.

In your work in Attica, you depend on collaboration, with fellow inmates and colleagues on the outside. What sort of collaborations have you had with people on the outside?
I collaborate with anyone willing to match my commitment to performance. At present, I am working with another prisoner who has started a performing artist program in another facility. He is awesome! I’m also working with a volunteer community college professor and the artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival [an opera festival in Cooperstown, New York] to make Attica’s theater arts program a success. The Glimmerglass opera company has performed twice for the prisoners in Attica and I think this led to the prison administration’s approval of our performing arts project. My writing partner, Sierra Katow, is a Harvard graduate who appeared on the NBC reality television show Last Comic Standing in 2015. I wrote to her out of the blue and she wrote back, requesting samples of my work. Today, we write sitcom pilots together.

Tell us about your theater arts program at Attica. What was the origin of the program and its goals?
The Glimmerglass opera performances at Attica helped the prison administration recognize the value of a theatrical arts program. But I also campaigned for three years to get the program approved. During that time, I performed Shakespeare at as many inmate events as I could. Finally, I became recognized and acknowledged for my dramatic abilities. I think it helped to be able to show the administration that I had the promise of assistance from a fellow inmate and a drama professor and Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello.

We recently received approval from Attica administrators to move ahead with the program. I have many goals for the program, but my primary objective is to establish an empathetic and caring community through theater arts. In a healthier environment, therapeutic ideas, such as conflict resolution, just work better. I have seen countless instances of how drama can be successful in helping people explore personal issues.

Recently, you performed Shakespeare at an Attica event. What was that like?
That performance took place at the Attica Lifers Organization picnic. I performed Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Julius Caesar, beginning with “But yesterday the word of Caesar might / Have stood against the world. Now lies he there, / And none so poor to do him reverence…. ” and going on to “Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.” I became so caught up that I actually had tears in my eyes. But it was wonderful—the prisoners loved it, the outside guest loved it. Even the corrections officers applauded—that was a first. I was just happy to be able to get through the scene without having the white bedsheets fall from my shoulders!

You are working with a partner on the outside to develop a cable show. Are there any developments on that project that you would like to share?
My comedy writing partner has decided to shop our PEN*PALS sitcom pilot script to a few production companies in Los Angeles. While I do a lot of writing, Sierra does all the heavy lifting. I am honored and blessed to have a professional partnership with her. She also edits my self-published magazine called The Prisoner’s Lampoon which specializes in jailhouse comedy. Before we send out any edition of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, we send out samples to introduce its rather unorthodox content. We do this because my work has been labeled “objurgating”—to which I respond that an objurgating title obfuscates the obstreperous nature of jailhouse comedy.

How have you found that performing changes the discussion when it comes to certain issues? Have there been times when your approach seemed to go nowhere? Why do you think that was?
Some time back, I wrote a dramatic piece about Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. In the piece, I reversed the roles, having George Zimmerman in a hoodie walking through Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood. This went nowhere. Naturally, I knew that in a correctional facility where half the population is black and more than a third Latino a subject like this might be too delicate to address at all. But I wondered: What if I had written this piece as a comedy sketch? Would it have been more successful?

In the final analysis, we are all prisoners in one form or another. Whether in our careers, in personal relationships, or in our ties to the “good life” (home, car, education, family, financial security)—we believe we have freedom of choice, but do we really?

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Mom, Apple Pie—and Lady Gaga

YouTube still of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI performance

What was edgy about Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl show? Was it singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song that as Vanity Fair noted includes verses such as “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?” Or was it, as the New York Times observes, dropping in a line from the Pledge of Allegiance? Not really. What made Gaga’s much-anticipated performance so surprising was its wholesomeness.

Perched on what appeared to be the upper edge of Houston’s NRG Stadium in a two-piece silver body suit and boots, her face adorned by a cat-eye mask of jewels, Lady Gaga gave a show that was unabashed Americana. Her first words were “God bless America” from “America the Beautiful” followed by a few lines from Guthrie’s classic and then this line from the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” That last with a winning smile before plunging to a tower on the stage below.

Amid smoke and blasts of fire, she declared to cheers from the crowd “I wanna hold ’em like they do in Texas” from “Poker Face.”  Next up was the massive hit “Born This Way,” a self-esteem anthem that serves as the unofficial theme song for the gay community. Amid the checklist of identity groups is the line, “I’m beautiful in my way / ’cause God makes no mistakes.” After two more songs, she slowed it down with “Million Reasons,” catching her breath and working the crowd with the assurance that “we’re here to make you feel good.” In this country music-tinged ballad, Gaga calls on the Lord in prayer, asking to be shown the way. At one point, she sent a spontaneous shout-out to her parents—“Hey, Dad! Hi, Mom!” The dancers reappeared, now in modified football gear, and parted for Lady Gaga who had exchanged the silver jacket for a white, shoulder-pad-like top. “The Super Bowl is what champions are made of!” she shouted before launching into the show’s finale “Bad Romance,” every good girl’s dream of love with a bad boy. Climbing up a ramp, she threw down the mic—as close as a singer can come perhaps to smashing a perfectly good guitar—caught a football and jumped out of sight.

Sure, there were the usual girls-just-want-to-have-fun sentiments. There were energetic dancers, outlandish costumes, and some spectacular aerial drone footage (a half time show first). Especially noteworthy were the dancers: not all had athletic physiques nor was everyone wearing the same costume and makeup. Gaga’s songs are jejune at best, but she is a diligent singer with real natural gifts. (Her vocal coach, Don Lawrence, described her in a recent Wall Street Journal article as “the most spot-on singer I think I’ve ever worked with.”)

Clocking in at around thirteen minutes, the Super Bowl show was much shorter than a standard concert, but the intensity of the event, the expectations—will she say something political?, and the pressure from the network, the NFL, and viewers made it a demanding performance. How much was Gaga paid? Nothing. The league pays only for expenses and production costs. Of course, the chance to perform before more than 100 million viewers is enough to turn the head of any superstar.

How refreshing that Lady Gaga simply performed. She didn’t use her time in front of the cameras to be more than what we wanted her to be. (To be clear, Gaga has used her fame to make political statements as when she donned the notorious meat dress in 2010 to protest the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.) Her message of positivity and inclusivity—one about which she has been single-minded since the beginning of her career—tempered the Super Bowl hype with a surprising element of humility. For what must be scores of people—dancers, musicians, production crew, personal staff, accountants, seamstresses—Lady Gaga is the reason they have a paycheck. The fact that she can express gratitude and call on something—or someone—greater than herself is not what we’ve come to expect from celebrities. All of this is not to say that Gaga is without ego or foible. No one becomes an entertainer for reasons less than a towering need for adulation and fame.

But her sense of the occasion was exactly right. Her understanding of the influence of a sports event pop music show on the fate of nations—precisely zero—gave everyone a chance to enjoy the spectacle and to appreciate her formidable self-discipline. If Gaga’s Super Bowl performance was in essence one big commercial for herself (and Pepsi), so be it. What can be more American?

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 21, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the last week (or so):

“Agnes Martin: The Essentials of a Minimalist Master,” Peter Plagens
“Martin achieved an artistic style that fused universal order and symmetry with a profoundly beautiful, subjective, oscillating human touch. Plato wouldn’t have believed his eyes.”

“Romancing the Romanovs,” Gary Saul Morson
“As any student of Russia from Peter to Stalin knows, Russian modernization, for all its embrace of Western technology, somehow missed something essential about being civilized.”

“Six Cups: A Wedding Present, a Family History, and Ukraine’s Dark Twentieth Century, 75 Years After Babi Yar,” Natalia A. Feduschak
“‘And then one day, the Jewish children were all gone,’ [my aunt] said in another phone call many years after she shared the story of the wedding cups.”

“From Attica to Harvard Law Students: A Message from Behind the Wall,” John J. Lennon
“Ignorance is ugly, particularly in prison. It’s loud and obnoxious and violent. It tumbles into my cell right now as I write this. But for some, education can quell that.”

“How John Berger Taught Us to See,” Colin MacCabe
“Berger was always committed to both criticism and creation: to the production of painting and fiction. ”

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Release and Attack, Speed and Drag:
An Interview with Rosamond Casey

Mandelbrodt’s Nights, 1995, acrylic on glass, collage, from “Regions of the Will”

Rosamond Casey’s painting, Tabula Sacra, appeared in our spring issue accompanying the article “Vocation in the Valley.”  A painter, calligrapher, and teacher based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casey recently spoke to THR about this painting and her other work.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): In describing your work, you have said “I excavate recognized systems—a man’s suit, the alphabet, cultural personas—fracturing them under examination so they can be set free, made transparent, or rendered slack.” What do you mean by the idea of “slackness”? Can you describe a project in which this was revealed? Did this elicit any particular response (sadness, disappointment, or dread)?

Initiation, photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Initiation, from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Rosamond Casey (RC): “Slack” is the condition of an object lying spread out to be examined. In order to grasp the meaning of a thing it has to be taken apart visually, and emptied of its regular blood flow, its habit of being, the way it’s used to being seen. As the observer of the thing, I have to come to the project in a similar condition, a little bit empty and dumb. To understand the weight, proportions, and contours of a thing like a man’s suit (an object that held my interest because it was both ordinary and engorged with meaning and has survived centuries of fine-tuning with no fundamental breakdown of its form and function), I have to turn it around in my hands, consider the scope of its cultural reach, recall my own primal sensory reactions to the look, smell, and feel of it, dissect its interior lining, understand its high structure and flaccid motion as it moves down the street in a wind. Many small art projects accompany this stage of getting to know the object and they all inevitably get thrown out. I never doubt that the object will eventually be recharged and give itself up to a deeper interpretation by the time the work is presented in a gallery. The project was ultimately called Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill (above).

THR: Can you describe how you came to focus on kinetics in art, that is, the impulses of fixing/stabilizing and liberating/releasing?

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

RC: I came to art early through an interest in the kinetics of shaping letters and designing text. I continued my commission work as a calligrapher, but in my painting I shed the text and focused just on the kinetic, rhythmic messaging of lines in space. The possibilities of pure expressive line led me to invent new hand tools that would allow those gestures of paint to take on the illusion of three-dimensional form. The speed and pressure under which the wet painted strokes were made created undulating surfaces on glass panels that looked like natural deposits formed by wind, water, and slow growth. The character of the kinetic energy of the stroke determined the form. All this information came from studying calligraphic forms and understanding principles of touch—release and attack, speed and drag.

THR: Your interest in the art and craft of bookmaking—whether in your calligraphy, papermaking, or book art—emphasizes the physical object and the artist’s hand. Your work in acrylics on glass (below) calls for a special kind of engagement with paint and surface. Through your installations, you encourage viewers to take part in the art. You are in effect drawing attention to the “thingness” of art. What role does the material aspect of art and artistic creation represent for you? Continue reading

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Speaking Truth to Power

Roger Boisjoly holds a model of the O-rings, 1991; AP photo.

Roger Boisjoly holds a model of the O-rings, 1991; AP photo.

As we remember the Challenger disaster, let’s not forget the engineers who tried to convince NASA not to send up the Space Shuttle on a cold morning thirty years ago. Armed with data, models, and perseverance, a group of Morton Thiokol engineers implored their managers and NASA officials to cancel the launch. It was too cold, they argued, and there was a very real danger that the O-rings around the joints of the booster rockets would not seal properly. This, sadly, is exactly what happened.

A few weeks after the disaster, two of these engineers were interviewed by NPR under conditions of anonymity. One, Roger Boisjoly, who died in 2012, told NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling in 1986, “I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.”

Although well-respected by his peers before the disaster, Boisjoly became a pariah for his cooperation with the presidential commission investigating the disaster. He testified and provided internal documents, including the memo that he had submitted six months before the explosion in which he warned of the possible seal failure and that “the result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.” Boisjoly was forced out of space work and his colleagues shunned him. He suffered from depression and moody behavior. As a sort of therapy, Boisjoly began lecturing at engineering schools around the world on ethical decision making, corporate ethics, and trusting data. The experience helped him feel that he had made an impact on the students and it restored some of his lost self-esteem.

Another Morton Thiokol engineer has recently come out from under the protection of anonymity to speak about his experiences. The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling told his wife that the shuttle was going to blow up. Ebeling joined Boisjoly in that confidential NPR interview after the launch, both despondent and tearful as they recounted how they argued with their vice presidents and NASA for hours. “NASA ruled the launch,” the eighty-nine-year-old Ebeling told NPR last month. “They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”

Ebeling didn’t experience the kind of atonement that came to Boisjoly. In fact, his faith has been deeply shaken by what he sees as his failure to convince NASA. He believes that “God picked a loser” and that he should have done more to stop the launch.

Without diminishing the impact of the Challenger disaster on the families of those lost, the fate of Boisjoly and Ebeling also merits attention. One man sought restitution by bringing his expertise in science and ethics to a younger generation of engineers. Given the investigating commission’s conclusion that there was a flaw in NASA’s decision-making processes, it would seem that Boisjoly’s efforts were well directed. Ebeling, on the other hand, describes the past thirty years as full of unrelieved guilt with his peace of mind constantly eroded by “what if” scenarios.

Why did the NASA engineers think it was so important for Challenger to launch that morning? They wanted to show that the space program could attain a regular launch schedule and that NASA could demonstrate reliability—they weren’t even willing to postpone the launch. The space program also served, as Ned O’Gorman has argued, an ideological function. As O’Gorman put it in describing Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation on the night of the disaster, “Reagan framed the shocking and manifest character of the Challenger disaster as a normal product of political freedom.”

Further, as O’Gorman notes, the Challenger incident opened up the space program to new possibilities of commercialization. Today, successful entrepreneurs vie with the government in the race to space. The traditional goals of exploration, conquering new frontiers, and advancing science have been overtaken by the ambitions of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, all of whom say they want to make space accessible to private citizens. Even if space travel is privatized and made open to the public, risks remain high and there will be new, unanticipated ethical responsibilities for those who put people in rockets. Part of that responsibility would seem to be the study of the history of the space program and the experience of Roger Boisjoly and Bob Ebeling.

It is fairly certain that neither Boisjoly nor Ebeling were naive enough to believe that Morton Thiokol and NASA operated as democracies. But they probably did believe that the expertise and experience for which they had been hired would be respectfully considered when it came time to assess the conditions of the launch and the viability of the equipment. After all, Morton Thiokol was the manufacturer of the component parts that failed and its engineers might be expected to know how their products would react under a given set of conditions. Yet when Boisjoly and Ebeling spoke truth to power, they found that their representation of objective risk was misconstrued by NASA managers as merely a case of subjective risk. Armed as they were with data and models, Boisjoly and Ebeling probably weren’t quite prepared for being accused of “going with their gut”—and of learning where the pragmatism of science must give way before the exigencies of bureaucracy.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Collage Envy

Still Life No. 1, 1962, by Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004); Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Images; art © estate of Tom Wesselmann/licensed VAGA, New York, NY.

Still Life No. 1, 1962, by Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004); Galerie Nierendorf, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Images; art © estate of Tom Wesselmann/licensed VAGA, New York, NY.

Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004) may not be the best known American Pop artist. His Great American Nude series, begun in 1961, had the dubious distinction of inciting both feminists (objectifying the female body!) and dermatologists (reckless depiction of tan lines!). From the 1970s onward, his affinity for voluptuous, red-lacquered lips wreathed in cigarette smoke, manicured hands holding smoldering cigarettes (see Smoker #9 below, Crystal Bridges Museum), and graphic bedroom scenes opened him up to tart accusations of sexual exploitation and perhaps questionable taste. But his earlier works from the 1960s in mixed media explored an arguably richer imaginative world.

smoker #9 crystalbridges Collage as an artform was popularized by Picasso and Matisse who in the early twentieth century introduced such materials as sand, newsprint, and cut paper into their art. In the 1920s and 30s, Max Ernst reassembled Victorian imagery into disturbing scenes of surrealist mayhem. Kurt Schwitters used the collage in the 1920s–40s as a sort of urban documentary, incorporating tickets, receipts, candy wrappers, and assorted street debris into his pieces. Around this same time, German artists such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch began assembling magazines and newspapers photographs into photo-montages aimed at deflating the pomposities of Hitler and the Nazi party. Whether as frottage, grattage, or other techniques utilizing found objects and chance manipulation, collage has had an enduring appeal for its accessibility and seemingly limitless capacity for creating meaning.

In Wesselmann’s collages, we are treated to a high energy snapshot of modern American life that jumbles together food, drink, tobacco, and alcohol advertising together with Woolworth-grade reproductions of Warhol, Renoir, or Mondrian. Even in the 1960s, the mix of high and low art no longer shocked the way it once did and Wesselmann must have known that. His collages instead dissect American identity through its proclivity for overstimulation—in media and advertising, in our susceptibility to bold colors, in our love of grand scale, and in our thrall to sweeping ideas like patriotism or pursuing the American dream (you can almost hear Wesselmann adding “whatever that is”). Continue reading

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Enchanted Embroidery: An Interview with Hinke Schreuders

Two works by Amsterdam-based artist Hinke Schreuders appear in our fall issue, both using appropriated images affixed to linen and enhanced by embroidery. We asked the artist a few questions about her work.

schreuders view on paper2

view on paper #2, 2014, Hinke Schreuders

Please describe how you choose an image. What do you look for? 

I think I choose images intuitively, but since I have a degree in art, of course, this intuition is based on things I learned at art school and during my practice as an artist. The images of landscapes need to have a certain iconic quality, as well as stillness and some mystery. The use of landscapes is relatively new in my work, but as for the images on which women are depicted, yes, they do have certain characteristics I return to again and again.

The women, for example, almost never look in the camera, but seem to be distracted by something happening that is not in our view. This makes for a kind of suspense or suggestion that adds something new to the existing picture. After I altered them, the women seem to be distracted or seduced by something outside the image; they may look confused or worried where before they were plain, careless mannequins.

 

You must spend a great deal of time looking through old magazines, journals, calendars, and other ephemera. How does the concept of repurposing or recycling enter in to your work? Can you say a little about your experience interacting with mass-produced, printed materials?

The concept of repurposing does not, for me, have a meaning in itself. What is important, however, is that the prints I choose provide a starting point, as opposed to working on a blank canvas. I like it that there is something present that I can react to and make my own by adding or obscuring elements.

The fact that the photos are printed pages from old magazines does make for a vulnerable working surface, since the paper usually is old, yellowed, and somewhat brittle. I like it that this quality emphasizes the human and personal vulnerability that exists as a subject in my work. Continue reading

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Wear It Proudly!

your logo here_FLAT

THR composite

You see them everywhere: polo-style shirts with corporate logos. The electronics superstore clerk, the fast-food cook, the grocery store checker—male or female, they are all sporting one. But it’s not a fashion statement or a product of the Ralph Lauren fashion-industrial complex. What began as one of the most popular forms of menswear has now morphed into the kindler, gentler uniform. First, there was blue collar. Then white collar. Now there’s soft collar.

Blame it on business casual. That hybrid dress code almost destroyed the suit industry even as it freed men from a variety of fashion risks and phobias. Instead of trying to figure out how to dress well in an increasingly informal world, men have only to choose khakis and a polo—a look that works any day of the week and goes from boardroom to work site to after-work drinks.

Throughout history, there have been various outfits, not expressly called uniforms, that signaled the wearer’s rank or status—the Roman general’s purple toga, the Aztec emperor’s quetzal feather cloak, or the pope’s vestments. Certain colors and materials were the exclusive markers of a particular office or group, and to ignore such symbolic propriety (codified or tacit) could lead to ostracism or harsh punishment. This is not simply historical, of course. Witness this spring’s biker shootings in Waco, Texas, an incident sparked by outsider group’s desire to include a certain kind of banner on their gang vests.

As social and economic boundaries have blurred, so have many of the designations that used to clarify those distinctions. The well-known example of blue jeans, once confined to the laboring classes but now a status symbol among the elites, indicates as much about the partial dissolution of traditional class markers as it does about the capriciousness of fashion. Today, clothing is one big mixed signal, a madcap mashup of tradition, trends, and trumpery. What to make of the Silicon Valley executive whose go-to work outfit is a $7000 Brioni blazer, a $20 H&M t-shirt, and $300 Versace jeans?

The corporate uniform presents its own set of mixed signals. In exchange for a paycheck, employees agree to be walking advertisements for their employers. At the same time, the company polo shirt offers a certain measure of security beyond the merely financial. That stranger roaming the office corridors? Not to worry, you can tell by his shirt that he’s the photocopier technician. This sense of security could just as easily make the wearer a target, especially if the shirt carries the logo of a business that deals with moving cash or valuables.

The corporate uniform releases the wearer from the pressures of trendy consumerism or the pitfalls of overconfident self-expression. The individualist however may balk at having to dress like others, especially if the garments involved are some she would never wear otherwise. In this case, the shirt serves as a constant reminder of one’s status as an underling, chipping away at self-esteem or even identity.

Researching this piece, I discovered that business blogs and employee manuals tout the corporate polo shirt as the ideal company uniform: It’s “comfy,” has few buttons to snag on machinery, and is presentable in a variety of environments. These same sources employ a rhetoric of intimacy to ensure that employees appear “clean and neat” and maintain certain levels of hygiene or modesty (fewer buttons show less skin). It is not enough to appeal to employees’ esprit de corps; one must also give the workforce the appearance of being wholesome, germ-free, and chaste. The shirt can also serve a philanthropic function: At the local Department of Motor Vehicles, I noticed employees wearing company polos that were embroidered with the DMV logo as well as that of its organ donation campaign.

In the case of the sports team uniform or the school uniform, the shared sense of solidarity compensates for loss of individuality. The rules governing uniforms (where they may be worn, how they may be worn, on what occasions they may be omitted) clarify a variety of social and professional situations not only for the wearer but also for those out of uniform. In particular, the oft-publicized advantages of school uniforms—improved discipline, reduced costs for clothing, increased confidence and self-esteem—mean that the uniform may be credited, along with teachers, textbooks, and administrators, with improving education and socializing experiences for millions of children. On the other hand, the increasingly militarized uniforms of law enforcement have come under recent scrutiny as commentators examine public perceptions of policing and how we regard those who maintain law and order.

Beyond merely meeting a dress code, the corporate polo shirt presents a unique moment in the history of uniforms. In almost every instance in which uniforms have been worn, the primary impulse is toward conformity for the purpose of separating the wearer from the rest of us. Today’s polo-shirt-wearing employee, however, blends in completely with fellow employees at all levels as well as the population at large. This is further complicated by the fact that most brands of polo shirts bear logos, whether or not they are corporate uniforms. Rather than a uniform of distinction, the polo shirt can actually break down distinctions among different kinds of workers and professions. This is hardly desirable in emergencies when we want to be able to tell the difference between a police officer and an IKEA employee.

Ralph Lauren debuted his Polo shirt in 1972. The shirt has since reached its sartorial apotheosis, going from capital P to lower case p, and becoming a generic term for any short-sleeved knit shirt with a soft collar and three-button placket. (Lauren built on the original piqué pullover introduced in the late 1920s by French tennis star René Lacoste and popularized in America by Izod in the 1950s.) What had once signified the tennis court or the Ivy League campus has since become so pervasive that it has lost its signifying power. In the words of Troy Patterson in The New York Times, the polo shirt has become “the everyman’s everyday everything.”

In one sense, the corporate polo shirt regains what its generic cousin has lost, becoming once again a sign of expertise and discipline. It offers a relatively inexpensive way to dress employees, it is easy to keep clean, and it fits different body shapes. Its unisex appeal ensures that men and women experience a superficial parity that doesn’t occur in, for example, military uniforms.

As was revealed in the 2014 Supreme Court case  Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, it is surprisingly difficult to define clothing. The Supreme Court engaged in some humorous exchanges about clothing versus gear as they determined whether or not steelworkers should be compensated for the time it takes them to change into protective suits before beginning the work day. While the corporate polo hardly fills the same function as fire-retardant clothing, it does afford the wearer certain protection and benefits. But in the end, the corporate polo shirt is an equivocation. As a uniform, it fails to convey rank or status or specialization. It may come in a medley of colors, but these may have no purpose other than variety. Its ease of wear, its asexual tailoring, its very commonness make the corporate polo shirt insidious, a quasi-democratic statement of professionalism and excellence undermined by ubiquity and banality. The corporate polo shirt may fit the needs of the workforce, but as a branding statement, it is falling apart at the seams.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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