David Balzer has written about art and film for The Globe and Mail, The Believer, Artforum.com, and more. He currently works as assistant editor at Canadian Art magazine in Toronto. His first collection of short fiction, an illustrated e-book entitled Contrivances, launches this Friday at The White House Studio Project (277.5 Augusta Avenue). The launch includes an exhibition of work by artists in the book, including Marcel Dzama, Oliver Husain, Janet Werner, Margaux Williamson, Sholem Krishtalka and others. Read more about Contrivances and purchase a copy here.
1. Carly Simon
A verse from Carly Simon’s 1978 song In a Small Moment triggered the story Trixie and Zosh in Contrivances, and, without irony, I put its lyrics next to Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition and Flannery O’Connor’s Writing Short Stories as essential reading in the function and purpose of tale-telling. For years Simon has been dismissed as the ersatz Joni Mitchell—the Joan Collins to her Liz Taylor. Now that Simon’s no longer a cultural contender, we can see her for what she is: among the most astute and entertaining philosophers of adult romance in popular songcraft.
2. Patrick Adams Presents Phreek
Dance-music fans know that Weekend from this album was one of the famed DJ Larry Levan’s favourite songs. But Levan’s mix and eventual remake are not as good as the original. Weekend is indeed a masterpiece—a song with which I am obsessed, about a woman whose boyfriend’s heedless hedonism can only be neutralized by her own attempt at the same. This album, produced by the great Patrick Adams, is every bit as profound and fun as Weekend. Like all classic disco, it’s about the sensitive souls on the dancefloor: those who praise kindness, who feel sex wildly, and who live each one-night stand forever in their overactive imaginations.
3. Art-making contests
When I was writing Contrivances, I had just read Pliny the Elder’s Chapters on the History of Art from his encyclopedia Natural History, and adored his depiction of Apelles—a kind of Greek superhero-artist who, while sufficiently humble, can beat any of his peers at anything and, what’s more, judge them with remarkable, cutting clarity. I’ve come across a lot of fascinating art-making contests lately: the ugly-painting competition in Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be?, and of course reality TV, particularly Work of Art and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Here, art becomes directly associated with the personality of its maker, and thus attains a very powerful (and at times hysterical) moral dimension.
4. The Cloisters
I went to The Cloisters for the first time when I was living in New York last fall, and it has become one of my sacred places, not only because it is literally so, with its trove of medieval art and serene gardens, but also because it represents American ambition, appropriation, and preservationism—and, thus, the transcendence of kitsch. The unicorn tapestries, which inspired sequences in the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn, are incomparably beautiful and mysterious.
5. Gerard Manley Hopkins
Novels are my favourite things on earth, but I haven’t had a lot of time to read them lately, because I’m writing one. So I’ve turned to poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins is, to me, the king of poetry; Emily Dickinson is the queen. There is no way of summarizing Hopkins’ impeccable work here, but I will say that he was a Jesuit priest and also likely gay, and that nobody sublimates through language quite as dazzlingly as he does. This summer, I intend to read his ultra-queer Epithalamion, aloud, on a nude beach, on a hot, cloudless day.
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