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Basement Boys

Considering the Art of Mythologizing One's Hometown
DISCUSSED

Proust’s Cork-Lined Room, Wet Pieces of Meat, The Need for Logical Explanation, Lego Castles, Nutshells, Dollhouses, Isolated Children, Marvelous Melbourne, Delimited Borders, Smallness, Self-Knowledge, Western History, Fluency with the Signifiers of Culture, Brochures for Parisian Hotels, Rusty Screws, Cool-Weird, Weird-Weird, Meaning Alchemized Into Something Far More Precious and Strange

by David Leo Rice
October 31st, 2018

THE UNIVERSE IN YOUR HOMETOWN

For as long as I’ve been drawn to art, I’ve been drawn to artists who set entire universes in their hometowns, literally or symbolically mythologizing the houses they grew up in, the streets they grew up on, and the people they grew up with. I have a special regard for artists such as Joseph Cornell, Bruno Schulz, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Gerald Murnane, and Guy Maddin, who turn the specific wonder and horror of their childhood homes and towns into universal epics, thereby conflating their personal coming-of-age with that of humanity itself. It’s at once a humble and a staggeringly egotistical conceit to use one’s remote hometown as the setting for a novel as universal as The Sound and the Fury or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or a film as aesthetically sophisticated as Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, yet this paradox is precisely what animates the singular works of art discussed here.

Collectively, I call these artists the “basement boys,” because the basement is at once the root of the house—thus the innermost point of the individual’s life within the town, and the deepest site of reclusion—and also an access point into the groundwater below, which flows away from the house, through the town, and out into the wider world. By burrowing into the basements of their houses, these artists likewise burrow into the basements of their minds, where it becomes possible to transcend solitude not by moving away from it, but by diving all the way in, down to the realm of myths and symbols where individuation dissolves and a rarefied form of mass communication becomes possible.

There are female analogues to the basement boys, such as Emily Dickinson, who exerted a profound influence on Cornell, but her work, though written while secluded in her house in Amherst, focused on much vaster concerns, rarely if ever using the town as a container for her poetic vision. I have searched for others, but so far haven’t found examples that quite embody the “basement” aesthetic. Perhaps the extreme egotism of electing oneself to preside over an imaginary version of one’s hometown has been inculcated and encouraged as a primarily male characteristic throughout Western history.

This paradox of size, whereby the town contains the universe, is a model for the general paradox of consciousness, whereby we all grapple with how we can exist as specks within the universe and, at the same time, experience the universe as existing within us, as one thought among many. This is the paradox that enables Alan Moore to write a 1200-page metaphysical extravaganza entitled Jerusalem, set entirely within a single section of his hometown of Northampton, England (namesake of my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts).

YOUR HOMETOWN IN A SHADOW BOX

This process of shrinking the universe to fit inside a personal nutshell, while also expanding that nutshell to contain the universe, extends beyond literature to include actual miniaturists like the Quay Brothers and, my favorite example of this phenomenon, Joseph Cornell. Cornell spent almost his entire life in an unremarkable house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, during which time he was primarily concerned with stuffing his childhood dreams and visions of the world into a series of wooden cigar boxes, which he built and archived in the basement.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Blue Sand Fountain), 1953

Cornell, of course, is a more symbolic kind of basement boy. He didn’t literally transfigure his hometown in the manner of Schulz, Maddin, Faulkner, and García Márquez. Instead, his boxes are towns unto themselves, serving as both metaphors for and containers of his mind: with strictly delimited borders, they contain a micro-realm of infinite density and significance. By the nature of their smallness, towns force their residents to ascribe a grotesque excess of meaning to the few people and places therein; Cornell’s boxes function in exactly this way with regards to the toys and trinkets they contain, making it possible for adults to once again feel the sense of unlimited potential that children feel when playing with dollhouses and Lego castles, sequestered inside houses that limit their physical movement while freeing their imaginations.

Another aspect of Cornell’s practice that brings him in line with the basement boys is the fact that the objects he filled his boxes with came from dime stores around New York City, which he gathered on long walks and bike rides. In this regard, he was literally working with the matter of his hometown, bringing publicly available materials back to the basement in the service of a private calling. And, though he lived in a city rather than a town, the fact that he was born there and never left puts him in a very different category from that of artists who grew up elsewhere and came to New York as adults to seek their fortune. For Cornell, his childhood vision of the world and the adult artworks that eventually earned him a place in that world both developed in the same basement on Utopia Parkway.

THE BROTHERS CRUMB

I consider artists like Cornell, who, though solitary and eccentric, were engaged in the process of translating their personal image-worlds into art meant for public consumption, to be “cool-weird.” They are not the same as true outsider artists like Daniel Paul Schreber and Henry Darger, who viewed their work as divinely inspired or literally true, recording actual rather than imagined events. Artists of this type—or, better put, creators, since the notion of being an artist at all involves aspiring to some degree of public recognition of one’s work as art, not as magic or prophecy—are unwilling or unable to accept that people other than themselves will never see their work this way. Therefore, they cannot participate in the process of moving it from the realm of the private into that of the public. If they ever become incorporated into the art world, as Schreber and Darger have, it is only after their deaths, and only then thanks to the interpretive efforts of academics, critics, and gallerists. I call these creators, for whom the basement is a closed system, “weird-weird.”

On the far other side of the spectrum are artists like Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Jim Jarmusch, who are so cool that they serve as their own best interpreters. I call them “cool-cool.” There is no mystery as to how much or how little they understand of what they’re putting forth, nor any sense that they’re in the grips of a godly or demonic power. The deliberately ambivalent critique of branding and consumer culture in Warhol’s soup cans and Elvis prints, and the self-conscious Gen-X ennui in Jarmusch films like Stranger Than Paradise and Night on Earth, could not be further from the fervent, antisocial obsessions of Schreber and Darger. Cool-cool artists derive their power by attaining fluency with the signifiers of the culture they inhabit, and from their understanding of art as a commodity in a global marketplace, not from their apparent access to private inner worlds. They are also explicitly urban, untethered from their hometowns; compared with Cornell, there is nothing childlike in Andy Warhol’s relation to New York City.

While the cool-cool raises its own intriguing set of questions, I’m primarily interested in the spectrum that runs between the cool-weird and the weird-weird. An especially poignant illustration of the difference between the two can be found in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb. Here, we see the glamorous life of world-famous cartoonist R. Crumb playing out against the heartbreakingly squalid life of his brother, Charles, who eventually committed suicide. What separates them? Both were promising artists as children, both had freaky, febrile imaginations, both were socially alienated in the way that often engenders an anarchic, punk aesthetic, and yet something in their ability to make a case for themselves sharply diverged.

It isn’t that R. Crumb was any less perverse than his brother, nor that his brother lacked the ability to produce high-quality drawings (plenty of them are shown in the film), yet R. Crumb understood, consciously or instinctually, how to position himself in the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, while his brother turned those same gifts and perversions inward against himself. He became an actual shut-in, someone who would be frightening to meet, while R. Crumb turned his deviance into a product that so-called normal people could buy into without putting themselves in danger. He offered just the right amount of reprieve from normalcy, augmenting but never threatening the lives of his fans, whereas to be a fan of Charles Crumb… I’m not sure there is such a thing. In short, one brother made his weirdness count for him, while the other let it count against him. This ability defines the crucial “cool” component of the cool-weird.

R. Crumb in Crumb (1994)

SEALED ON ALL SIX SIDES

Like R. Crumb’s drawings, Cornell’s boxes succeed in containing the weird and offering it up in cool doses because their boundaries are clearly defined. A weird-weird document like Henry Darger’s 15,000-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion is indigestible because it either refuses to draw a line between itself and the world (it has no boundaries), or else it insists that it is the world (its boundaries are sealed).

Unlike Darger, Cornell walked the line between private obsession and public sophistication by forcing his expansive vision into the miniature form of the box, sealed on five sides and open on one. As an artist who eventually took his place in the canon of 20th century surrealists, the unspoken contract that Cornell signed with the public was that he could put whatever he wanted inside his boxes so long as he never let anything out. Because the eggs, cups, and wood in the box below are so carefully arranged, the viewer can appreciate their aesthetic harmony without asking what, logically speaking, they have to do with one another. We know that the artwork exists partly for our sake because the open side tells us so, and yet the place we’re invited into is alien and discomfiting, the product of a mind whose nature is clearly unknowable. The one open side therefore justifies the other five, allowing us, as visitors to Cornell’s work in galleries around the world, to recognize something sub-rational in ourselves as we peer through our own translucent reflections to marvel at the objects in the box, without fearing that that they will get out or pull us all the way in.

At the same time, the box touches on a deeper power by suggesting how easy it would’ve been for Cornell to go farther, to seal the sixth side, thereby becoming truly hermetic, or, like his hero Houdini, to break out entirely by refusing to keep his vision contained. The cool-weird is thus at its most effective when it threatens to lapse into the weird-weird without quite doing so, just as a roller coaster is at its most effective when it seems dangerous but isn’t. Admiring a Cornell box at the MoMA, we perceive the basement in which it were produced without experiencing the terror of being trapped down there.

Joseph Cornell, Celestial Navigation, 1958

ROMANTICIZING WHAT’S ACTUALLY TRUE ABOUT YOU

There are two basic trajectories that bridge the distance between basement and gallery, town and city: the artist can travel from the outside in, like Proust, who began his life as a well-connected socialite and later retreated into his famous cork-lined room, or the artist can travel from the inside out, like Cornell, who began life by playing with toys and dolls in his basement and, slowly but surely, insinuated himself into the international art scene without ever leaving home. Of the two types, basement boys are always the latter. They have the rare gift of being genuinely unusual people with enough self-knowledge to realize that their best shot at earning social and artistic relevance is to play up what’s most unusual about them in an accessible way, rather than trying to sand it down or keep it private.

Therefore, succeeding as a basement boy requires a complex double-awareness: the artist must actually live a very limited, sequestered life, while also romanticizing that life, such that he becomes an actor in an art project about his own peculiarity. Though Cornell really did live at home with his mother and disabled brother, never learned to drive, and, according to his biographer Deborah Solomon, died a virgin, he was also determined to be taken seriously by the surrealists and their in-crowd, and to make a living from his work, which in time he did. He designed the poster for the first New York show of surrealist art in 1932, and there’s a famous story of his meeting Dalí and Buñuel at a party and talking to them about Paris for five hours before letting on that he’d never been there.

When the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, who’s been enjoying a late career resurgence lately, won the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2009, he announced in his acceptance speech that he’d told his publisher to withdraw him from consideration because, believing the prize was meant solely for international travel, “nobody was going to compel me to leave Melbourne for overseas.” Only upon discovering that the prize also permitted local travel did he accept it, deciding that he would “fulfill the wishes of the Trust by filling my car with petrol and driving around the back streets” he grew up on, the names of which he then proceeded to list after the self-deprecating caveat that, “I hope my recitation sounds to you not like some sort of obsessional rant. I hope it sounds like a litany of praise to a city that was once called, and still deserves to be called, ‘Marvelous Melbourne.’” Though I have no doubt that this sentiment about his hometown was genuine, Murnane surely also knew that delivering such a speech at a prestigious awards ceremony would help cement the image he’d promoted throughout his career. Ironically then, his performative refusal to leave home has contributed in no small measure to the international reception his work now enjoys.

6. MOSTLY LEVEL GRASSY LANDSCAPES

Since basement boys are animated by a desire for worldly recognition that is itself forged in the depths of the basement, the image of the ethereal autodidact or solitary tinkerer is both real and illusory. Murnane’s work, which exemplifies this paradox, is almost entirely about the process of imagining inner landscapes and grafting them onto outer ones, and vice versa. At its best, it becomes sublime, as visionary landscapes erupt from the featureless Australian plains that conceal them, just as the most banal aspects of his thought processes yield unexpected revelations when considered obsessively enough. As Murnane writes in his short novel Border Districts, published in the US earlier this year:

“The township [where I now live] is about half-way between the city where I formerly lived, which is the capital city of this state, and the capital city of the adjoining state, where I have still not yet been. I get my news from newspapers. I own no television set or computer, but I brought with me to this house a twenty-five-years-old radio that can be used to play audio cassettes. On several evenings each week, I listen to some or other of the fifty and more tapes, as I call them, that I recorded during the fourth and fifth decades of my life, when I still believed in the power of music to cause me to see what I had never seen with my eyes. The pieces of taped music, so to call it, were only some of many pieces of music that brought to my mind, whenever I heard them, unfolding images of mostly level grassy landscapes. As a young man, I chose to consider the landscapes an actual part of my mind that I might never have discovered had I not heard the pieces of music.”

Throughout Murnane’s body of work, this overlap between thought and place is a constant, such that he never writes pure realism or pure fantasy. Later in Border Districts, he notes that, “I learned early in my life that I am unable to comprehend the language of abstractions; for me a state of mind is incomprehensible without reference to images.” Just as Cornell found real objects in the outside world, which he then brought back to the sanctified privacy of the basement, a particular kind of self-knowledge becomes possible only when Murnane broods over real objects and real places, seeking the unreal or surreal—or simply the personal—within. This insight cannot be achieved through abstract contemplation of his own being, nor through the kind of pure surrealist invention practiced by Dalí and Raymond Roussel.

Again from Border Districts:

“Before I went back to the wedding reception, I recalled a quotation that I had read recently from the writer Franz Kafka to the effect that a person might learn all that was needed for salvation without leaving his or her own room. Keep to your room for long enough, and the world will find its way to you and will writhe on the floor in front of you—this was my remembered version of the quotation, and I got from it on that afternoon the promise that I need only pass in my mind through some or another doorway framed by coloured panes and to wait on some or another shaded veranda in my mind until I should have sight of the finish of race after famous race in the mind of man after man in one after another mostly level district of what I would recognise, late in life, as the setting of the only mythology of value to me.”

Here we see Murnane’s entire approach to fiction, as well as a broader poetics of basement boys, condensed into a single paragraph: the coy usage of modernist literature that he constantly refers to while claiming to barely remember, and that he may indeed be misquoting—all basement boys are voracious readers and art consumers, while often pretending to be neophytes and simpletons—the obsession with viewing his mind as a building or landscape, the conviction that all storytelling is a record of what he calls “mental events,” and the usage of horse-racing—a childhood obsession—as a means of explicating his adult yearning for excitement and grandeur. This is akin to Cornell’s lifelong fantasies of luxury travel, which compelled him to treat brochures for Parisian hotels with a kind of reverence that no one who’d actually been there could ever muster.

This is what all basement boys do, using whatever places and objects are most sacred to them. It’s a kind of solipsism, whereby the artist says that all objects (even those as vast as the Australian plains) are, in essence, me, but it’s also a form of monastic humility, whereby the artist says, I don’t exist as an autonomous or creative individual, but only as a mind that bears witness to what’s already there.

THE BROTHERS QUAY

But what’s already there? No artists probe this question more provocatively than the Quay Brothers, who are also definitive of the cool-weird, though they aren’t precisely basement boys. Like Cornell and Murnane, they romanticize what is actually true about them—they are identical twins who do indeed seem to think with one mind, grown men who have spent most of their lives in a dark studio, playing with highly sexualized dolls, and artists who carefully present themselves as somehow both postmodern intellectuals and quasi-mystical savants—but they moved from Philadelphia to London decades ago, and took up the project of excavating the buried dreams of interwar Poland and Czechoslovakia, rather than those of their hometown.

Their method has primarily been to coax unholy life out of inanimate objects, revealing the movements that seem to exist, latently, within dead forms, just as Cornell cut together trashy footage from preexisting films to create startling new montages like Rose Hobart, giving the impression that he’d brought something dead back to life. Undertaking this process involves recognizing, as the heresiarch father proclaims in Bruno Schulz’s “Treatise on Tailor’s Dummies,” that “matter has been granted infinite fecundity, an inexhaustible vital force, and at the same time, a seductive power of temptation that entices us to create [new] forms.” A writer like Schulz sees his hometown as the source and the site of this temptation—both the container of all that seductive matter, and the stage on which its reconfigured forms will be presented—and gives into it as fully as possible, acting on two seemingly incompatible assumptions: that the town was created for him alone, and that the town conjured him for the express purpose of creating it anew, by revealing all that was latent within its seemingly inert houses, streets, and people. In this way, the matter of the town is conserved, while its meaning is alchemized into something far more precious and strange.

At their best, the Quays apply this principle to dolls and other inanimate objects. The effect can be observed by comparing their classic adaptation of Schulz’s story “The Street of Crocodiles,” released in 1986, with their adaptation of Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten (their film is called Institute Benjamenta, after the school for servants that young Jakob attends in the book), released in 1995.

From Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Brothers Quay

The power of their Street of Crocodiles comes from their obsessive, fetishistic treatment of the objects—dolls with hollow heads, rusty screws, wet pieces of meat, moldering maps of Warsaw—all of which are clearly real, not scale models. The movements of these objects are so unnatural, and yet treated so confidently, that we are helpless to deny the Quays’ authority, since we have no point of comparison. Just as no viewer of a Cornell box would suggest that the objects should be rearranged, there are no grounds on which a viewer of this film can say, “No, a rusty screw doesn’t move like that, it moves like this.” The uncanny power of the film thus comes from how the Quays create a micro-realm in which we are forced to admit that what shouldn’t be happening nevertheless is, and that the objects themselves, though behaving in terrifying new ways, are not fabrications. This gives the viewer the unsettling impression that the old laws of nature have been discarded in favor of new, equally valid ones. That this film is adapted from a Schulz story featuring the “Second Book of Genesis” is no accident.

Institute Benjamenta, on the other hand, is an instructive failure. It’s feature length and it stars living, full-sized people. Both changes diminish the Quays’ authority, which, like Cornell’s, comes from working with small objects in a strictly delimited arena. When we see actual people behaving as Quay objects—actors being directed by the brothers, rather than dolls or toys being animated by them—we can easily say, “No, I’ve seen people move, and they don’t move like that.” This may be effective when watching dancers on a stage, because in that instance the audience shares the same physical space as the spectacle they’re observing, but in an environment as hermetically sealed as a Quay film, it’s simply stifling. In essence, while the animation brings formerly dead objects to life, the live-action film kills formerly living ones.

The result is certainly weird, but it doesn’t transcend that weirdness to redefine reality, just as no novel set in Paris or London, no matter how vividly imagined, can overwhelm the reader’s preexisting notion of what those places are like. This is why artists like Faulkner, García Márquez, Schulz, Murnane, and Maddin transfigure country landscapes, small towns, and remote cities like Winnipeg, which the majority of their readers and viewers have no familiarity with, and thus no resistance to seeing transfigured.

The Brothers Quay, from Institute Benjamenta (1995)

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TOYS AND TOWNS

Furthermore, the feature-length runtime of the Quays’ Institute Benjamenta forces it to contend with plot, which of course it doesn’t want to do. But no matter how compelling the spectacle, we crave plot after an hour and a half, and, since plot follows the dictates of sense and reason, it’s a mental framework learned by adults living in a consensual society with one another. It belongs to the city, not the town. This is a step away from the personal sanctum of the basement, dedicated, as it is, to the myths and dreams of childhood, which are at once private and universal, but never communal.

As objects and narratives grow in size, ballooning out toward the unhinged proportions of Darger’s illustrated epic, our ability to grasp their magnitude goes down, just as it’s impossible to perceive all of New York City from any point within it. A small town, a short story, a short animation, or a Cornell box can suggest much greater scope, and stimulate much more primal impulses and flights of imagination, than a long novel or a narrative feature film can. No one looks at a Cornell box and says “I don’t get it,” but this isn’t because they do get it; it’s because the smallness and self-sufficiency of the artwork precludes the need for logical explanation. Thirty seconds spent examining the box below is enough to perceive that it touches on an order deeper and older than language, whereas thirty seconds spent reading Darger’s or Schreber’s writing is likewise enough to perceive just how aggressively incomprehensible it is.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Blue Sand Box), 1968

Thus, the Quays’ Street of Crocodiles partakes of both the infinitesimal and the infinite, or the town and the universe, while Institute Benjamenta partakes of what’s in between, namely, the city. The decision that any artist must make between staying at home and going to the city is a distinction of this kind. Leaving home for the city, like Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Jim Jarmusch did, requires the artist to draw a hard line between the site of childhood and that of adulthood, thereby trading alchemical power for social cachet, and a sense of the infinite for a sense of the very large, which are not at all the same. This, again, is the essence of the cool-cool. Cool-weird artists such as Cornell, Schulz, Maddin, García Márquez, Faulkner, and Murnane, on the other hand, chose to burrow deeper into their basements, and thus into their heads, only offering their work to the city once they’d come out the other side. At their best, these basement boys succeeded in fusing the communicative powers of the adult with the imaginative powers of the child, reaching down to the sunken Atlantis of pre-rational thought within the minds of their readers and viewers in a way that neither the weird-weird nor the cool-cool can.

The fact that so many people respond to objects as bizarre as Cornell boxes and Schulz stories, or that a town as obscenely strange as Marquez’s Macondo and a county as haunted as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha have become some of the best-known settings in world literature, is proof that the universe can indeed fit within a nutshell. A Bruno Schulz could be born anywhere, and turn any town, assuming he applies the right kind of attention, into a Street of Crocodiles, because the “Second Book of Genesis” promises that if we look closely enough at the matter around us, we can penetrate its apparent banality and gain access to a realm that underlies and animates all people, places, and things.

Browsing dusty shelves of detritus on his lunch break in the Manhattan of the 1930s, Joseph Cornell must have thought exactly this. It’s a terrifying notion, because it estranges everything and everyone we think we know, but it’s also liberating, because it proves that even the most isolated child, in the remotest backwater, can transcend the crushing finitude of selfhood and gain access to the universal, using nothing but dime-store trinkets and the scorecards of imaginary horse races.

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