Author: Casey McKinney
EMERGE monograph 'Sue de Beer', 2005

Ghost Stories

It was the summer before that date that lingers in everyone's minds now as something far removed from a three digit device for conjuring the cops or paramedics. A decade prior still, Flava Flav had declared 911 a joke, and his "get up and get, get down" response still resonated as an appropriate attitude and worldview. Things were balmy, fresh, a tad wry, but mostly hopeful. Sure Bush was already in office, but he still seemed relatively benign, merely content to mess up things on the domestic front. It was during this calm eye that Sue de Beer had a solo show of photographs at Sandroni Rey in Venice Beach. It was her first California exhibit, and she had asked me to coordinate an accompanying show in the storage area of the gallery, a sort of glorified garage that opened onto a patio - a place better suited for a homemade spooky house or a kegger, which is not far from how the event turned out.

Having collaborated before on a one off zine called Mall Punk, for which Sue did the cover - a pair of trenchcoat killers in gorey clown makeup embraced in a kiss, a homoerotic revision of the Columbine tragedy (a photo that later adorned the cover of Dennis Cooper's My Loose Thread) - it was a no-brainer to work together again. Besides, the show was essentially another magazine, one in a sort of triptych of zines that featured many of the same people in each, a revolving door of friends and likeminded artists. Each issue had a specific theme - animals (Animal Stories), terrorism and disaffected teen consumer culture (Mall Punk), and finally, ghosts (Ghost Stories).

The artists in the latter included an equal mix of young New York and Los Angeles based talent - Jesse Bransford, Matt Greene, Lorenzo De Los Angeles, Joel Westendorf, Greg Einhorn, Naomi Uman, Banks Violette, and Adam Putnam. There were others too, writers lined up as well, that would have been featured in the magazine, if it had ever actually come to print fruition. For whatever reason it did not. In retrospect, this fact seems well suited to the project. A magazine about ghosts that is an apparition itself (though the work that went into the Ghost Stories show has seen its rightful due in other arenas). When Sue first asked me to write something about this long past, off the radar event, I was initially nonplused. But then, thinking about what her work is about - memory and the romantic, ineluctable reconstitution of past events, it all started to make sense. These were salad days, before Germany and the Whitney, before Matt Greene's rapid ascent, before Trinie Dalton (whose band Unicornipcopia played on the patio dressed in white ghost sheets) had written a novel.

I suppose this could be an opportunity to gain some perspective on what has become a popularly phrased genre in modern art - that which has been termed for better or worse neo-gothic. But, in turning an eye on a show such as this, it would seem that much of that kind of contextualization is the result of mere coincidence. Artists like Greene, Bransford and Violette, while certainly in communication while developing their own signature styles, ones that draw from a banquet of eremitic male teenage obsessions, cryptically signified heavy rock and the melancholic far dimensions of H.P. Lovecraft (also central to Putnam’s work of ectoplasmaically charged empty spaces) - were each on singular pursuits of tackling the uncanny. And like Durer's famous etching of a sad cherub, toiling the day away alone with a compass and alchemical tools, the work constructed by each of these artists was also lonely, introspective, with all outward signs dissolving into personal, transcommunicative meaning. There was also Greg Einhorn's minimalist video of a streetlamp silently swaying in the wind, Joel Westendorf's comical ghost puppet transformed digitally into a stylized new wave expressionist portrait, contrasted against a tattered thrift store frame and homespun cobwebs (there was even a live spider, what a pain to get to the gallery in tact!). Naomi Uman's "Removed" video played behind a black curtain in the corner, staged like a carnival peepshow. This movie, which last only a couple of minutes, took years to produce, as she hand painted fingernail polish over the frames of an Italian porn every image except the writhing female star before dousing the whole reel in bleach, leaving the woman's form ghostly white in contrast, as she humped away frantically for an orgasm that seems to never technically come. One of the most striking yet subdued pieces in the show was submitted by Lorenzo De Los Angeles, a detailed draughtsman who prefers the warmth of color for his pencils. His diminutive "Obvious Poltergeist" depicted a Victorian seance table, where orbs of light dance about in a send up of one of Madame Blavatsky's specious parlor games. Meanwhile, across the way, Sue's large photos of mutilated young models smiled upon the event. Unfazed that their torsos were ripped open, or legs bent out of socket, they were instead perfectly ebullient to find themselves transfixed in still moments echoing scenes from childhood horror movie faves - Craven, Hooper and the likes.

As the night went on, white cream and black mascara was procured from somewhere, ghoulish faces were soon donned by everyone involved, and the focus turned outside to the soft sounds of Unicornucopia. Having grown up closely as an artist with most of the contributors, Sue remembers the show as "one of the nicest art things I have ever experienced." And yeah, I remember it that way too. It was a rare snapshot of the work of a group of artists still budding yet well beyond nascence, brought together in this strange space, virtually out of site of a larger critical gaze. So much happened shortly afterwards, beyond the obvious world events, very good things, and very difficult things, moves, separation, divorce, and the rest. Still, not to sound cliched, but what is a ghost if not a memory? And if so, then this ghost is one of the good ones. A veritable Casper if you will.

As one old dead guy who I am not at all that familiar with, George William Curtis once wrote: “Romance like a ghost escapes touching; it is always where you are not, not where you are. The interview or the conversation was prose at the time, but it is poetry in the memory." I'd like to think it was poetry then too, but then of course I'm biased.