Studio Case

The Inside Story
Russell Panczenko
(Elvehjem Museum of Art)
Jenna Goldberg has built a large entry cabinet of stylized eye forms --- "windows of the soul" she says [See Fig. 1]. Kimberly Kelzer made a stove that leans to the left then wraps around to the right --- soft yellows and greens, with a bent clock atop it. Silas Kopf has produced a writing desk complete with old Royal typewriter, books, pens --- except it is all marquetry: shaped fragments of wood that look like desk accouterments and take on a 3-D appearance.

Gordon Peteran's "Ark" is a spacious square cabinet that reminds one of a sedan chair. There are windows and a door and a red felt-lined chair, and a big black electrical cable coming out the front that powers a light when one sits in it. Bob Trotman's "White Guy," made of limewood, is a three dimensional figure of a brooding man, complete with wooden tie and wooden jacket, with a filing drawer punched into one arm, another in his belly, another in his chest, and a small one inserted in the upper left side of his forehead.

All of these marvelous life-size pieces go under the sobriquet "Case Furniture" --- objects which may be furniture or may be art --- or, most probably, are both. Thirty-seven of these are pictured here, and some of them are so lovely (or so funny) that you want to ring up the artist and have him or her ship it out to you immediately, to put in the sitting room with the TV and the kids.

As Russell Panczenko points out in the foreword to Studio Case Furniture, there has been, until recently, a distinction between decorative arts and fine arts --- which probably started in the 15th Century when

    patrons ... considered that the new intellectual basis of their art raised them above those who continued to make fine decorative and functional objects for both church and palace.

This distancing was augmented during the Industrial Revolution, which, he contends, further separated "the fine arts from the decorative." This separation was, of course, illusory, and the book offers several photographs of furniture from both the 19th and 20th century --- high chests, cabinets, chiffoniers --- which are both glorious to look at as high art, and functional as a piece of household furniture.

The breakthrough for such works of art came about twenty-five years ago when Peter Joseph, a New York lawyer, not only bought "studio furniture," but organized a gallery to show it. In Glenn Adamson's informative essay he states that Joseph concentrated "not only on liberating his artists, but also on making them solvent." He felt that a great piece of furniture "should cost a great deal of money."

Joseph set up his artists with a retainer which gave them the freedom to create "large-scale pieces or complex, interrelated bodies of work."

    For these products, he charged --- and got --- unprecedented prices. This was not so much to increase his profits as to demonstrate through sheer dollar values that furniture had arrived.

And it has arrived: the last fifteen or so pages of Studio Case Furniture are given over to the thirty-seven artists represented here: their exhibitions, collectors who have bought their works, their professional positions.

The final delight in this book is not necessarily the gloom represented by "White Guy", but the whimsy --- the silly and the fantastic: Andy Buck's elaborate "Broom Closet," [Fig. 3 --- over there to the left], Bradley Engstrom's basswood cabinet, and most compelling of all, John Cederquist's "Tubular" --- a series of boxes out of which seem to be pouring sheets of waves from the famous woodblock print of Katsushika Hokusai's "Great Wave off Kanawaga."

--- Art Brophy, PhD

The Boxer
Jurek Becker
Alessandra Bastagli,

(Arcade Publishing)
Aron Blank left concentration camp in 1945 and returned to Berlin, where he and his family had lived before. His wife had died in camp; and only one of his three children survived. The boy, Mark, now aged seven, needs several months to recover from severe malnutrition. At that point, he moves to the city to live with his father.

The boy had not only been deprived of food and family, he had never before seen the artifacts of modern life:

    For example, he had never seen a closet, never heard a radio; the first rocking chair of his life was the subject of daylong experiments.

The woman who cared for Mark during his months of recuperation was known as "Nurse Irma." He loved her fiercely. Aron suggested a visit with her on Mark's birthday. The boy asked what it is, what is "a birthday." Time and again Aron was struck by such questions.

    "Does everybody have a birthday?"


    "You too?"


The title The Boxer comes from the fact that when Mark gets beat up in school his father insists that he start boxing lessons so that he can defend himself, but as we read on, we realize that Aron is the boxer in the family. He's a fighter --- he needed to be to survive so long --- although he tells the writer that his major fight "is concerned with maintaining the status quo:

    If life is to be at least bearable, people like me have to fight against change.

§     §     §

This books unfolds in an unusual way. It comes as a series of interviews. Because he is bored, Aron has asked the author to write his history. The author thus appears between the story-lines: asking questions of Aron, reacting to what he sees and hears, to what he is told --- or, more seriously, what he is not told. These questions create some tension between them.

The author (or perhaps we should call him "the scribe") sometimes interjects opinions --- to Aron, to himself about Aron (that is to say, to the reader about Aron) --- and, often, finds himself in verbal battles with the old man. Mostly these revolve around his being too inquisitive, or too pushy, or not being satisfied with the answers. Here is a typical give-and-take, when the scribe visits Aron's in the hospital after his heart attack:

    I ask him why he's smiling. He replies, "You must have been really afraid."

    "Of course I was afraid," I say, "You think that's funny?"

    "Yes," he says, "You were afraid that the story would bite the dust before the end."

    I say, "Idiot." Luckily he doesn't insist.

    Once he asks me, "How long have we known each other?"

    "Let me calculate," I say, "It must be over a year and a half."

    "It occurs to me that I know nothing about you," he says.

    "Thank God," I say.

    "Why do we always have to sit in my apartment?" he asks. "Am I a cripple? Why didn't you ever invite me to your place."

What has happened is typical: Aron trumps any sign of love or affection, sees it as something else entirely. The very last lines of the book refer back to this passage when Aron asks,

    "Tell me, how does someone normally react when he realizes that people think he's an idiot?"

    "He gets very angry," I say.

    "Why do you think I'm any different?"

§     §     §

There are several levels of perception here. We (and the writer) may hear the old man's words, but then he tells the scribe that he might be lying, fabricating the whole story. On top of this, Aron says that what the author writes down will, naturally, distort the stories, become another filter to pervert his message. We the reader, thus, will be getting the story third-hand, which may render it a lie (not to mention the fact that, for this reader, it is translated from German to English --- adding yet another level of mist.)

The real question here, the one that goes to the heart of The Boxer, is: how do you fix in a book a man whose emotions have been so fried by horror that he can no longer express much of anything except bitterness or existential fatigue? This is an old man who has taken on a young writer to transcribe his words, but then he often turns the questions away with sarcasm or anger (or even shuts down the interview).

Presumably, this is a story of the reunion of a father and his son, but we learn that Mark's last name is now not the same. Thus, the reunion of Mark and his father may not be a reunion at all, turning their coming together from joy into a mystery. Which (again) plays right into Aron's despairing mental set.

Our hero is thus a man who has been so choked by seven years in the camps that he has lost touch with the tender parts of himself; must, ultimately, as he does, lose even his one remaining child.

He tells us that in the camp he learned to be satisfied with nothing. What he has now --- "a good-looking woman, an apartment, a rediscovered child, enough to eat" --- will always leave him dissatisfied because, as he says, "The camp runs after you."

Or as son Mark says, after he has grown up and run away to Israel, writing in his last letter sent just before the Six-Day War,

    The reason for your loneliness, and I am firmly convinced of this, lies in you. I have never met a person who lives as separated from life as you, and I can't say that my presence changed things much.

He concludes, "It's not my fault if I could only guess what was going on in your head; I never heard it from you."

--- Ignacio Schwartz

The One Who Swears
You Can't Start Over

Ethna McKiernan
(Salmon Poetry/
Dufour Editions)
In "Black Art," LeRoi Jones wrote,

    Poems are bullshit unless they are
    teeth or trees of lemons piled
    on a step...We want live
    words of the hip world live flesh &
    coursing blood.

This reviewer has often tangled with poets who feed off the New York Literary Toxic Dump where perfectly sane (and presumably humane) writers spend their idle time versifying about moonlight through the trees of Vienna, mist over the canals of Venice, sunset reflecting the windows at Versailles. We have often suggested that there are modern agonies --- of soul, heart, and psyche --- that might be subjects worthy of their attention.

Those who make a living structuring such soft wordforms, feeding in the trough of the NEA, teaching in the cozy enclaves of Northeastern universities and publishing in tiny magazines with far too many assets and far too little gumption might well be compared to the effetes who hovered around the Court of Louis XVI just before the fall.

Ms. McKiernan is a good example of one who is willing to till other fields. She's not a showy writer; sometimes her rhythms and endstops are all wrong, sometimes her images are flawed, sometimes her verse lacks the discipline and the pizzazz of an Ashberry or a Pinsky or a Kunitz --- but she is willing to seek out the "lemons piled on a step."

In this edition of almost sixty poems, she has, for example, written ten dedicated to her mother, "Alzheimer's Weather:"

    Cell by cell my mother is leaving us.
    No one can stop the memory leaking
    from her body in such helpless cupfulls...
    My body like a fetus, curled in mute rage
    on the floor near her bed. Selfish
    as an infant, wondering who will know us now,
    when we were children.

This is painful, this is heavy, this is a living wake --- but McKiernan is subtle enough not to ignore the comic in the midst of the tragic:

    as she sees
    the young orderly walking Lizzie by
    and elbows me: "Aren't they cute?
    They're so
    antique!" And I roar with her
    helpless in this comic grief...

The author is not alone: there is her whole family torn by her mother's "flaking" mind:

    It is my father, crying quietly
    as he peels the dinner potatoes.
    He pierces their white hearts with a fork
    and steam rises upward toward his beard.

§     §     §

McKiernan may lack the sophistication of the professional Pulitzer-seekers, but she's willing to tackle what some might think of as lurid, "the newest batch of condoms/by the porno theatre/curls in sweet summer heat..."

There is, too, a willingness to frame the sentimental --- her growing child, who first she knew "as body/of her own body, swimming dark/inside her..." now wanting only escape from her:

    We always want what's leaving us:
    our sons like meteors...

Or, maybe it's a time-worn tale of a love-affair with a married man,

    It's sweeter in the forest
    on that bed of leaves where he makes love
    to you on lunch hours, easier
    somehow to stay than to leave
    for that other world where you must trail
    him ten feet back in a crowd, worrying
    about the fresh smudge of earth on his suitcoat
    that his wife or someone in the office
    might detect, and trying to balance that
    against the child thickening in your belly.

--- A. W. Allworthy

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