My Art Life 1

By Gregg Williard

In New York in the 1970’s-80’s my day job was as a “psychiatric aide.” On the unit we called straitjackets “camisoles.” Escaping was “eloping.” I wore all white. My night work was “aspiring painter.” In the art world we called it “emerging.” Getting mentioned in Art News (or even better, Art Forum) was called “recognition.” I wore black jeans and black t-shirts. On the weekends I pursued hobbies: Brazilian dance and fighting, Aikido, collecting leather jackets, Santeria and Mexican votive candles, cult discount videos, comic books, old lamps (ceramic Nubian queens, etc.), rubber masks, surplus store gas masks, army helmets, matching sets of black t-shirts and black jeans, or white t-shirts and tan chinos, or olive drab cargo pants and amber t-shirts. I went on jags of junk picking and dumpster diving. It was a kind of folk-art, mad-science trance or crusade to discover unique possibilities in all things industrially produced that others deemed pointless, tasteless, chintzy, worthless, or despised. It was really like a fugue state, a mania (that I sometimes tried to convince myself was a state of “intense creativity” but always seemed to be something much weirder), resulting in work that ranged from table top, still-life scale “arrangements” (like alien table settings) to science fiction weapons, helmets, machines or whole environments that choked every inch of my Brooklyn studio with an infernal, mangy industry. Sometimes these things were rationalized and documented as “art,” like videotaping static “arrangements” under the changing candy colors of a rotating Christmas light (Andy Warhol meets Joseph Cornell meets Ed Wood Jr.) Or mounting exhibits of impossible or inane machines accompanied by aggressively confusing technical diagrams simulating mistranslations from Japanese, Chinese, or Tagalog, displayed with all the pathos of a high school science fair on acid.

Not “the work” that would earn me a regular New York artist career: “It just doesn’t do it for me” one after another gallery owner would tell me, peevish and put out and somehow angry with my “art.” For me, art making was and is always a hair’s breadth away from plain old lying. During my art school days back in Columbus, Ohio, putting on my mom and dad and sister and friends and relatives was a way of life for me, the more elaborate the better, with no particular point except to construct a sort of verbal trompe l’oeil that rose or fell purely on the basis of its believability. What was I to do in art school? It seemed as if I were a simulation of an “art student,” creating drawings and constructions that seemed to be about something a little outside or apart from aesthetics. What followed me through the years was the sense of unreality — the sense of playing a part. The playing of the part being the real point — not the actual “art thing” that we were supposed to be making. One day I was in the basement of the old house my friends and I rented during my second year of art school in Columbus. My room was in the basement, and I was just outside in the larger space that had the water heater and fuse box. I was making some kind of sculpture out of an ironing board and iron. I think the iron was face down on the board and painted some bright color of acrylic — fluorescent blue or yellow — and running behind the iron across the board, like the wake of a ship, was a streak of the same solid color, as if the iron were spraying paint instead of steam. There was an article of clothing being pressed; it had been dipped in polymer medium, and twisted into some damn shape or other. I’d always drawn and used stuff around the house for art making, especially stuff in my mom’s kitchen. So there in the basement, I was taking a break from working on the ironing board sculpture and setting up some additional clip-on lamps to the ceiling for an upcoming party we were about to have featuring my roommate’s band (which practiced in the room directly next to mine, sometimes late into the night). There was pooled water on the floor from a recent rain or perennial leak, and when I plugged in the lamps from atop a tottering ladder, there was a short and I was flung across the length of the basement floor. One moment I was on top of the ladder, next second I was on the floor about fifteen feet away. I remember a flash but I don’t know if my mind added that later, in the remembering and retelling. Maybe I added some feet. Maybe it was only four feet. But I remember being impressed by how far I had gone, and how powerful the current had been.

* “psychiatric aide”: In the parlance of the 1199 Health and Hospital Union we were also called “Mental Health Workers.” My nursing notes were signed “M.H.W.”

* “camisoles”: This legitimization and distancing of physical force and involuntary hospitalization using French harks back to early psychiatry and Charcot.

* “recognition”: Along with “critical reputation,” “recognition” was used to describe success in the art world of the time, serenely free of economic reward. All of that would be taken care of once you and your work were “recognized.” It was a state of grace you hungered for, yet could never be so coarse as to openly covet. What a well of longing and loneliness, as that grace was again and again withheld. “Recognition” in my notebook of the time: “too fleeting, transitory, illusory, and subjective to regard as meaningful or of lasting value … and it’s all I want.”

* cult discount videos included: Orgy of the Dead, Bloodfeast, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory, Creature from the Haunted Cave, and the incredible “Gamma Quadrilogy” of 60’s Italian sci-fi movies directed by Antonio Margheriti, all four films shot in three months: Wild, Wild Planet (released in 1965), War of the Planets (1966), War Between the Planets (1966), and Snow Devils (1967). (Forty years later I would use the soundtrack by Antonio Lavignino for Snow Devils as theme music for my radio show, Fiction Jones, streamed on www.wortfm.org)

* surplus store gas masks and army helmets: These became a special obsession. One aspect of my drawings at the time was a morphological study of how helmet shapes reflected national character and sexual practices.

* despised: From the flea market in Coney Island a full set of fifteen glasses printed with sex cartoons from men’s magazines like Stag, Man to Man, and Battle Cry.

* aggressively confusing technical diagrams: For example, a diagram with shrill, wiggly lettering that proclaims, MCDONALD’S ARCHES ARE TUNING FORKS FOR INVASION FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION (thediagram.com/5_6/williard.html).

* “art thing”: I had been exploring the beautiful old Beaux-Arts train station in downtown Columbus that was being demolished and replaced by another soulless corporate polygon (the railroad robber barons had been superseded by bank and insurance robots). I tried to rescue as much stuff as I could, and my room quickly filled with metal and wooden tools, machine parts, signal lights, mysterious clamps, locks, bolting mechanisms, creosote wands and massive spikes, ventilation chutes and exhaust hoods and fans and bellows and grid parasols and steam bypass corridors and pressure tampers and instrument grabbers and coal cozies and pressure conkers and ball-turret stokers and joint axial parlors and system watch captives and lock-and-squeeze dead-men switch abaters and fuel-pattern mash screens and burnoose calibrators and limit-feed hubs and Renee compro-benders for steam gate counting lines.

* my mom’s kitchen: Many a torture device or time machine was fashioned from her colanders, tenderizing hammers, roast forks, garlic presses, potato peelers, ice cream scoops, whisks, juice makers, and especially those spiral stainless steel vegetable steamers that open and unfold like metal flowers, all in that beautifully tooled cast iron art-deco industrial style that seemed to anticipate Alien and steampunk.

* how far I had gone: During my time in New York, I travelled from Coney Island to Staten Island to Long Island to New Jersey to upstate New York, and even Pennsylvania, in search of new funhouses. At that time funhouses were still pretty low-tech affairs, labors of amateur love with handmade and hand-painted sets, paper mache gargoyles and demons, smoke machines, strobe lights, Halloween-cassette sound effects, and creaky, wobbling mechanical skeletons and skulls rattling pathetically out of the dark, like Hell’s own grocery carts.

Strangely, jobs at funhouses became a magnet for psychiatric patients in the New York area. It was not unusual to run into patients I knew operating rides or costumed as ghouls grabbing out at you from the dark. Funhouses were a source of part time work for area high school students, ex-cons, and psychiatric patients willing to dress up as ghouls or sit up out of caskets for minimum wage. The funhouses were mostly open in the summer and did a good business because they were cheap and cool and pitch-black places to cop a feel. But one funhouse stayed open through the winter, an especially infamous Atlantic City winter, insanely cold. The owner thought he could capitalize on the cold, promised a warm hangout and a toasty, freaky good time to teenagers trying to get away from their parents, but the wiring didn’t pass code and all the space heaters blew the works but good, plunging the Hell Hole into a freezing inferno pit. The poor guys had to lie in the casket all day and all night, they couldn’t relax because they had to sit up and snarl every couple of minutes. It was so cold that one of the Draculas was wearing earmuffs and a huge down coat, so cold there were icicles hanging off the painted flames of Hell, icicles hanging off the bloody maw of the devouring demon at the gates of the Hell Hole. The staff of part time zombies, ghouls, Draculas, Jason knock-offs, teenage Elviras, and headless cannibals (this was the owner’s idea; he wouldn’t listen to the kids’ protests that it didn’t make sense, I mean, how could a headless cannibal eat you, you know?) were sent in day after bone-chilling day, night after hypothermia-inducing night, until the staff of the undead refused to go (the public long gone by now), instead starting a bonfire in the vacant lot across the street that quickly engulfed the place and burned like the Hell Hole it was meant to be. I also heard the version that the night shift ghouls ran their own propane heaters and were either overcome by carbon monoxide fumes or burned to death in an electrical fire. Or maybe the owner, haunted by responsibility for their deaths, torched the place himself, dying in the final char.


Gregg Williard’s fiction, essays and visual art have appeared in Barge, Diagram, Kill Author, DeComp, Artocratic, and Anemone Sidecar, among others. He lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.