Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it's Leviathan's Massive Conspiracy Against All Life. Listen to Leviathan, buy his music and read Schnipper's thoughts on the record after the jump.
Kehinde Wiley’s show “Down” is portraits of young black men lying down. All of the paintings are gigantic and all of them have lush flowery wallpaper-like backgrounds, with the exception of one, “Dead Soldier,” which shows a young man with a purple sweatshirt dead-eyed and abandoned next to skulls and slabs of stone beside a mountain. Though it is depressing, it is not the single biggest bummer of the show. That would be “The Veiled Christ,” the painting of the man with the wet white sheet over his body, head rested on a deep blue loose couch cushion. His face looks like in horror films when people are killed with plastic bags over their heads, clear Ziploc turning moist and taut to the lips before all the air is sucked out and you die. But the painting’s backdrop is regal, columns of alternating floral wreaths painted against a navy background in infinite repeat. Some of the small flowers from the seal have drifted from the background and have rebirthed themselves solo atop the body like tiny offerings. It’s harsh but pretty. It’s also, like most of Wiley portraits, a copy of a really old piece of European artwork, in this case, Giuseppe Sanmartino’s eighteenth century sculpture, The Veiled Christ. Like a liberal versioned cover song, Wiley has replaced sculpture with painting, white with black but mostly kept true to them and undertone, a skewed but clearly mirrored copy of the original.
“So much of what changed American society in the ’60s had to do with a very strong sense of targets—what we can physically do with ourselves and our bodies,” Wiley, in conversation with MIA, said in the November issue of Interview magazine. “Now it’s much more subtle. It’s almost debilitating in a way because we can’t organize either, artistically or politically or socially, against any specific thing, because it’s more like an essence, an ether that floats in the air, poisoning our ability to really have an authentic moment.” But in his own artwork, what possibly could he mean by “authentic”? A reinvention and translation of the classic through the mind of a young black artist and his array of young black models? What does he want to organize? And why can we not use our physical selves to create change and rally against the sedentary apathy he bemoans within the interview. When speaking of finding models in Brooklyn he references a camera crew following him for a documentary, speaks with light disdain of the ease and willing of all the men he approaches to be filmed. “There is almost a feeling of entitlement by the public—this very palpable lack of surprise at being asked to be the subject of a 12-foot monumental painting.” And though he is talking about others here, the knowing self-importance he gives himself—“12-foot painting," that aw shucks specificity—is more snicker-worthy. Because, yes, you are going to turn someone into a gigantic painting that bases itself on a gigantic Italian sculpture from three hundred and fifty years ago. And, ps, you get to be Jesus. Wiley knows how major that is. The simple act of creation of a concept that grandiose is worthy of acknowledgment and at least a glimmer of awe. But it’s the fact that he does it over and over that seems to erode that esteemed gaze, the repeated similarities from piece to piece, show to show. Speaking of his artistic growth in his Studio Museum show in her NY Times review (a show I did not see), Roberta Smith spends much of her review talking about who he has copied and why he is now moving away from his unrisky (if meticulously created) paintings because of the glistening way he is emerging as a hallmark painter of skin. I understand (there is an inherent glory to his subject's sheen), but upon seeing his work in person, it seems funny (inherently critic-al?) to not mention first that the paintings are really big. They're so big! But this was the first of myriad of exhibits I have seen in person, and like a small kid seeing big buildings, it was alone impressive to see such massiveness. Fifteen shows later, would I be bored by cross of young black men with colorful sweatshirts and smooth skin beckoning back to their age-old model predecessors? Kehinde and Da Vinci have the same amount of syllables and don't sound too different when you say them fast.
On Saturday, when I took a trip into the city to see the show, I was listening to Massive Conspiracy Against All Life by Leviathan on my iPod, Leviathian's third album from earlier this year, released amidst three EPs and plethora of demos. Leviathan is a one man black metal band from San Francisco, former skater and current tattoo artist who goes by Wrest (he proclaims to keep the Jef Whitehead part of his life separate and is somewhat press shy). It’s been a few years since I was fervently listening to heavy music but Leviathan has the proper screech and grind I have neglected. What is disappointing to me about much black metal is its lack of severity. The sweeping melodies are too often faux-operatic and corny to find the proper grim delight. I remember the New Jersey hardcore band Deadguy from the mid-1990s who recorded a concept album about hating your job and, subsequently, your life, called Fixation on a Coworker. It was scary because of its potential impending reality on my young adult life, This job runs you/ This day kills you/ This suit owns you/ This man tells you what to do. Around the same time their Victory Records labelmates Integrity released an album with the song “Armenian Persecution,” where the singer Dwid heavy shrilled about his ancestors, Forced in the desert and into sandy graves/ Children were murdered while their mothers were raped/ Babies were thrown in the air and impaled on swords/ Nothing but death from the Turkish hordes, which was a hefty and complex history lesson for a young kid with Turkish heritage of his own. So, conversely, where is the heft—historic, personal or otherwise—in theatrical facepaint? From the shitty Northeast, free healthcare and hugely high standards of living in Scandinavia do not translate into a life of metallic injustice and the corresponding musical rants. It always seemed gaudy and—to borrow an uncomfortable word—inauthentic. Walking around Deitch looking at Kehinde Wiley’s paintings listening to the guttural calls and phenomenally fast drums of Leviathan seemed appropriately monumental and reassuringly close to home in its discomfort. The album is just a touch over an hour, much longer than I spent at the exhibit, and much of the music, when consumed whole, is indistinguishably brutal and incessantly harsh. Song by song the light touches unfurl and individualities flourish, but the grandiose repetition of severity is what is crucial about Leviathan, just as the a room full of enormous and stirring portraits of young black men in various types of repose is collectively overwhelming and thus inspiring. If these are the effects of repetition, let it continue on end.
After I left Wiley's show I walked a few blocks to Team Gallery to see Corey Arcangel’s show. In the basement of the gallery there are two rooms, one containing two computer sending each other “out of office” emails ad infinitum (which is retarded, in equally good and bad ways) and another room with a screen projecting a bowling video game. Each turn, the arrow directing the ball’s direction down the lane was heaved viciously to the left, forever throwing gutterballs. A young gallery worker was explaining the work to an older couple, explicating the frivolousness in feeling sad about a virtual gutterball. “Why is a video game gutterball any different than a video game strike? Neither are the real thing,” she said. But why is one type of bowling more or less authentic than the other? They’re both games. There’s a different visceral feel—heavy ball and tiny controller) though ultimately they're parallel, games of no consequence floating equally close to a nonexistent center. So why should the original be inherently more true?
Sunday I had brunch with friends, one of whom manages metal bands. We’d been discussing music over email that week and I asked him what he thought about Leviathan. He said he’d sent a link to his MySpace to a few friends and colleagues and had received a mixed reaction. One person, he said, wrote a disgusted one-line note that the only real black metal comes from Norway. If that's true I suppose I will have to acclimate to being a poser.