Thursday, June 07, 2012

Glenn Downing Meets Paik Nam June and Talks about Texas

Glenn Downing

I was drawn to this interview by John Aäsp, "Glenn Downing, Nam June Paik, and Jackelope (an Interview)" (Glasstire, June 4th, 2012), with the artist Glenn Downing because he is a 'hillbilly' artist from Texas who spent time working with a Korean video artist -- the famous Nam June Paik -- and teaches film criticism in Waco, so our lives overlap considerably since I'm a hillbilly who spent time in Waco, Texas and ended up in Korea with an interest in art, among other things. Here's how Downing recalls working for Paik:
Nam June came in one day and we met. At some point he just said "By the way, if you have some time, I need somebody to go buy some TVs . . ." or something to that effect. That's how it started. I ended up going with him to Korea and Japan and Europe, all over . . . . He was a nice guy. A great guy. That's the best compliment you can give to anybody really, that they were a good person. He wasn't somebody who was arrogant or had some kind of ego. That wasn't the way he was. He was an innovator. I really think he changed art. Funny thing was that Nam June wasn't that technical. He had ideas. I think that's why we got along. He would get the right people to help him with the technology. He really had kind of a junky way of putting stuff together, and we related in that respect because that was my way of putting things together. He wasn't a micro manager. The crew would know exactly what to do, no matter where we were. He trusted us . . . . And you know, we wouldn't sit around and philosophize about art. I've eaten more lunches with Nam June . . . than most anyone else in my life, except maybe my parents. That's what we liked to do -- sit and have a big lunch and drink coffee and beer and have dessert -- I mean we went the whole nine yards. That’s where all the planning took place. A lot of people don't know who they are I'm ashamed to say. I think Bill Viola put it best when he spoke at Nam June's funeral. He said when you went to the top of a snowy mountain and saw footprints ahead of you, those were Nam June's footprints. The rest of us just followed. Nam June blazed the path.

Fascinating memories. He also recalls the Texas of an era that I knew, and that era also fit the Ozarks, a wild place in more than the sense intended by Mama Nature, so I know just what he means by this:
Back in the 70s I looked at a movie called Jackelope that really changed my perspective. It profiles James Surls, Bob Wade and George Green. Each one of them is very different, but very Texas. James Surls is one of those artists I've always looked to as a great sculptor, drawer, you know. There's a scene where Bob Wade comes to Waco and goes out with some guys and they blow stuff up, shoot guns at old cars and Wade takes pictures. I saw that as a young artist and was impressed. It showed me that a young kid from China Spring could make art and be serious about it, but you could have a beard, use a chainsaw and drink beer. They were bad-asses. I like that Texas flavor and I don't see as much of that now.

Yeah, that's gone. The only folks blowing things up these days are Islamist blowhards acting like ersatz-redneck militias in the boondocks, but I don't think they're into the arts. I've not seen the film Jackelope, but it was made in 1975 -- the year I moved to Texas -- so it likely captures and encapsulates that era since it's a documentary, though I didn't know much about art back then. A "jackelope" -- usually spelled "jackalope" -- is said to be a horned jackrabbit that resulted from an unatural crossbreeding in the wild between pygmy-deer and jackrabbits, a biological impossibility, but that didn't stop tourist-traps from selling postcards depicting the critters or even selling 'stuffed' jackalopes replete with antlers. I don't know what, precisely, this mythical animal has to do with the film, nor the reason for the variant spelling in the film's title.

Glasstire, by the way, is another one of those unsoliticited magazines that I'm given internet access to. I don't know why . . . though maybe because of the free advertising in blog posts like this one . . .

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