project mayhem
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For some of us, Fight Club is like a dirty bomb going off in the culture. I walk out of David Fincher’s iconic film sometime in the summer of 1999 feeling like I’ve just been touched by mad genius. The film is a hot, filthy, stylish channeling of rage against consumer culture and manufactured masculinity and the failing aspirations of an entire civilization. I love it. All of my male friends love it. We can’t stop talking about the one thing you’re not supposed to talk about.

Six months later, November 30, 1999, thousands of protesters are streaming into Seattle — most of them from student groups, labor organizations, and NGOs — all there to stop a big meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some of these protesters seize control of key intersections by chaining their arms together into “lockdown” formations. Others use newspaper boxes to form barricades. They stage marches and street parties designed to block traffic and prevent the WTO delegates from reaching the convention center. I am watching news footage of someone throwing what looks like a toaster oven out of the smashed window of a Starbucks, and I have an uncanny feeling of recognition. More… “The Project Mayhem Age”

Daniel Vollaro is writer and teacher of writing whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

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When people ask me “Who is one of the best cartoonists working today?”, I always answer “Eleanor Davis.”

OK, nobody ever asks me that question. But if they did, that would be my answer all the same. At the risk of sounding like some back-cover, hyperbole-ridden hack, the intelligence, emotion, and pure, awe-inducing skill she continually exhibits in her comics make her one of the most significant creators to come out of the indie comics scene in the past 15 years. More… “Why Eleanor Davis?”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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Computer code
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Place a horse head from the Paleolithic paintings of Chauvet Cave beside footage from a Netflix show and compare them. Both are art, in the broadest sense, and both are (primarily) visual, but the similarities end there. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin already anticipated most of the differences that you’d be able to find between the two: that the cave paintings were likely made for sacred ceremonial purposes and that the show is an economic product. That each of the cave’s images are fixed in both time and place while the television show’s come to us whenever we want, no pilgrimage required. And most importantly, that while the Netflix show is a counterfeit replicated endlessly in the form of code, the images in the cave are each authentic in their uniqueness. This presence of the singular in art, Benjamin called its “aura,” and the annihilation of aura by technology is the foundation of contemporary art.

It might seem counterintuitive to think so, but the popular dissemination of technology is necessary for the electronic image to function as conceptual art. This isn’t necessarily true with any other medium and has much to do with the value that we as postmodern consumers of images and memes place on a removed and ironic perspective. For example, conceptual video art didn’t reach its proper golden age until the 1960s, with the advent of relatively cheap portable recording equipment. There were, of course, films made before the middle of last century that were art, but it was mostly high art — The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, etc. — which still retained the heavy grandeur of Benjamin’s aura. The films themselves might have been mechanically reproduced and distributed, but they were experienced as singular events which communicated their own significance as too dense, too substantial, to be seriously considered as simply products for consumption. More… “Conspiracy Theory As Art”

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Paris Review Daily. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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There’s a scene in Uzumaki, Junji Ito’s much-lauded horror series, that I think best exemplifies his particular style. The overarching story involves a secluded village in Japan whose residents become obsessed with spirals and usually meet grotesque and destructive ends as a result. In the third chapter, a scar on a teen girl’s forehead turns into a spiral black hole of sorts, eventually consuming her entire body. A horrific reveal shows the spiral hole extending back into her head, her right eye sitting gruesomely on the edge of her face. Then, in a series of smaller panels, the eye starts to roll back towards the vanishing point in the back of her skull.

It is, obviously, pretty horrific. It’s also very, very funny: a rimshot as we literally stare into the abyss, acknowledging the absurdity of the image while underscoring the gore. More… “Death by Balloon”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?

Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”

Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.

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The skeleton of a young girl: This is the first thing to seize my eye as I enter the cemetery of the Capuchin monastery in Rome. Mounted at the vault’s center and framed by four elliptical rings of vertebrae, she holds in her right hand a scythe made of tibias and pelvic fragments; in her left hand, she holds a balance, also made of human bones. The shadowed hollows of her eye sockets, rather than conveying blindness, ceaselessly drink the late-morning sunlight that pours through the windows.

It is some time before I notice the other two child skeletons on the back wall, perched, legs dangling, on a mantle of scapulae. They are bookended by two hourglasses: counterpoised coccyx, their holes giving from a distance the impression of mottled sand. Each hourglass has a pair of scapula wings, as does the disembodied skull floating between the children.

I see these things and I do not see them. To focus on any one object takes considerable effort. My eyes are always being drawn to some new detail — a femur that seems a darker umber than the hundreds of others stacked along the walls, the wooden crosses that mark graves in the crypt’s dirt floor, the distinctive “cappuccino” brown of a monk’s habit, that same monk’s mummified flesh, his collapsed nostrils, his curled parchment lips — and to the overpowering sum of all details, this precise chaos that tempts me to close my eyes, rinse them in darkness. More… “Graffiti These Bones”

Justin Lee teaches in the Composition Department at UC Irvine, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Vice, First Things, the Los Angeles Review of Books, ABC’s Religion and Ethics, Amazon’s Day One, FLAUNT Magazine, Juked, Gargoyle Magazine, Arc Digital, and elsewhere. In 2016, he received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Their generosity enabled him to complete his first novel, Lightless Lands, which is currently seeking a home.

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I arrived at the artists’ residency late in the afternoon with a small suitcase, my computer, and my notebook. Located in the outer reaches of New Delhi, the residency offered space to eight writers and visual artists to work for up to two months. If you’d asked me, I’d have said I had big plans for my three weeks there, but the truth was my timing was off; I’d just completed a novel before coming to India to visit family and begin a new project. I needed to do research, but I wasn’t sure what that research would look like. Books? Interviews? Archival material? Uncertainty reigned. Furthermore, I hadn’t factored into my plans how helpful family members, with their insistence on driving me places or offering up their car and driver, often added time to the process, as I scheduled my outings around their busy schedules. More… “Time Measured in Tea”

Geeta Kothari‘s writing has appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New England Review, Massachusetts Review, Kenyon Review, and Best American Essays. She recently published a collection of short stories, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories.

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In the fall 2017 season, the National Gallery in London mounted a show entitled “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael around 1500.” Here were three of the greatest artists of any period, with several masterpieces on display, and each work breathtaking and all tied nimbly together. The point was to illustrate a moderate argument — namely that Michelangelo learned from Leonardo about capturing the expressive relation between the Madonna and the Infant — but more importantly, the show made clear what genius and skill can achieve.

The seven works included one marble sculpture by Michelangelo, the “Taddei Tondo” (ca. 1504-1505); one drawing by Leonardo, the “Burlington House Cartoon” (ca. 1499-1500); and five paintings in oil or tempera. These latter were depictions of the Madonna and Child, four of which included John the Baptist, and one exception, Raphael’s “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (ca. 1507). Chief among the Madonnas were the drawing, Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” (ca. 1491-1499 and 1506-1508), and Michelangelo’s unfinished “Manchester Madonna” (ca. 1497). The three Raphaels included his “Ansidei Madonna” (1505), the “Madonna of the Pinks” (1507), and “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” the only one without the Madonna. The spirit of the exhibit was captured by the contrast between the three great names and the almost off-handed reference to “around 1500.” This conveys the notion that the works of monumental genius are ratified, as it were, by an approximate point of time. All artists, perhaps the greatest ones most of all, work and exist in time even as they shape and suffer that perfidious and relentless medium. Art history casts the net that helps — or nearly so — bring the issues into a knowable frame. More… “Masters and Madonnas”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).

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It is a union that suggests the essential mystery of the world. Art for me is not an end in itself, but a means of evoking that mystery.
— René Magritte

We choose destinations for random and not-so-random reasons. Brussels interested me, but I probably wouldn’t have journeyed there if not for the art of René Magritte and the chance to see where he lived. It would be shorthand to say that I “love” Magritte’s work. I do, but he occupies a deeper part of my psyche. He’s a sort of uncle who offers artistic advice by example. Magritte never dies; he just goes on smoking the pipe that is not a pipe. More… “Magritte’s 3.5-Room Apartment”

Marian Calabro is the author of The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin) and 20 other nonfiction books, including several business histories. She leads creative writing workshops at the Adult School of Montclair (NJ) and in other adult-education settings. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and her plays have been produced at community theaters in the New York metro area. She lives and works in New Jersey.

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