Eric Shiner is the man behind Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. He’s also this year’s Armory Focus curator, turning the Armory Show spotlight — now in its 100th year — to US-based artists of the now. As a curator, he has a very strong voice — he’s commissioned an on-site tower of Brillo boxes in tribute to Warhol by Charles Lutz, and light sculpture by Peter Liversidge — and he’s also orchestrating an installation and performance at Ace Hotel New York we’ll tell you about soon… Another distinguishing facet: if you Google Image search him, you find a lot of guys named Eric with black eyes. We recently talked with Mr. Shiner a little bit about the centennial and these last hundred years of art.
Is the centennial of the first Armory Show an inspiration or a long shadow that it’s hard to get out from under? If the lead-up to WWI was the catalyst for the revolutions that were going on then in art, should we just be happy our own malaise are tame by comparison? Does art benefit from adversity and how much adversity is enough/too much?
I can safely say that the first Armory Show is just one of the countless change agents that have occurred in the art world over the past 100 years, although it is certainly an important one. For me, it was simply a point of reference for the Focus Section of The Armory Show, and I am including one installation that makes a direct reference on Marcel Duchamp, whose work at the 1913 Armory certainly ruffled many feathers. War and political upheaval do indeed act as a major influencer on the art being made in that period, but it’s important to note that the Armory was in 1913, with World War I starting a year later in 1914, so there is no connection to that specific war, but more broadly to the cataclysmic social change that was unfolding on a number of fronts in Europe at the time. Art always benefits from adversity, and so too does art present a fair amount of necessary adversity to its audiences. I think that great art should always make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable, challenging them to think in new ways. So, in the end, too much is never enough.
As curator of the Focus section, the country you got handed was the United States of America. That’s a big, rich country. How do you even start to narrow it down?
Yes, indeed. America is a very big thing, both in terms of geography and in more importantly in terms of its psychographic presence in the world, both within and without its borders. It’s true that it is a big, rich country… for some that’s very true, but I think it is critically important to always remember that for many, it is a very poor country with millions of people facing actual need on a daily basis. America is nothing more than a continual series of juxtapositions, from Big to Small, Rich to Poor, Liberal to Conservative. One might even say it is a series of never-ending internal strife and conflict — something that keeps it alive, if nothing else. This being the case, I didn’t narrow anything down at all. I simply addressed some of the juxtapositions that make up this nation, and selected artists who make a career out of always questioning the powers that be, in one form or another.
To many, Linda Gerard needs no introduction. She has a cult following of devoted fans who journey to sunny Ace in Palm Springs to catch a glimpse and an earful of this self-described — Older, Wiser Lesbian. She’s everyone’s femme idol, the apple of our eye and one of our favorite human beings. She’s also a ridiculously talented woman with many an industry notch on her belt. That she’s decided to settle down with us in the desert, hosting Sissy Bingo every week and otherwise wowing those in the know as well as virgin ears and eyes, makes us incredibly blessed. Linda’s voice carries the oceanic vibrations of every great Broadway star before her, and she lets it ricochet ‘gainst the walls of King’s Highway when the mood is right. Her penchant for show-stopping eyewear and envy-inducing collection of let-your-light-shine sweaters and blazers leave us swooning.
We recently released a vinyl-only limited edition of Linda’s greatest hits, Fabulous Selections on our shop, and for our mutual dear friend DJ Day — another Palm Spring legend — we also present his first album, Land of 1000 Chances, on the shop. Day and Linda sat down recently to thumb through a bit of Linda’s life story — the stuff of big dreams, massive love, brave independence and a woman from whom we all have a lot to learn — entrusted to a confidante half her age but who’s definitely dancing to a similar drummer.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1938, to a very orthodox Jewish family. Kept kosher, did the whole bit. I was always a performer. I always got up in front of people and sang. So, when I was old enough to get on the train my parents would let me go by myself to study in New York. I studied singing, dancing, acting, elocution and all that stuff. My parents wanted me to go to private school, but I said, “No, no, no. I don’t want to go to private school.”
I went to Trenton High School and I was in all the plays and the musicals and that was fun. Then when it was time to go to college and my parents wanted me to go I said, “I want to be in show business, but I’ll go to college if I can go to New York City.” There was a college in New York City called Finch, and it was on 78th Street between Park and Madison. I knew that if I got in I could sing on the weekends because that’s what I wanted to do. I got into Finch and on weekends I sang at 1 Fifth Avenue. I was always singing. I didn’t get great grades but I didn’t care. My parents cared, but I didn’t care. So the following year I didn’t want to go back. I said to parents, “Let me audition for the American Theatre Wing,” which was a very good school, for musical comedy.
At 81, Ursula K. Le Guin has published over 80 pieces of literature including books, poetry, essays and one translation from classical Chinese. She is most noted for her groundbreaking work in science fiction and has been awarded the Hugo and Nebula Awards multiple times, and the Locus Award 18 times — more than any other writer in the universe. Her presence in a room could bend steel — she reads, walks and talks with a sly exuberance that seems to set an electric hum in the air.
We’re honored to have had a chance to speak with Ursula in anticipation of her appearance at Wordstock in Portland this weekend. We promised her a couple of thin little questions, and even the much more complex ones we posited to her were a fraction of what we would like to know about her mind. Find her gracious answers below, and see her speak this Sunday.
You’ve been working and living in Portland since 1958. How have you seen the local literary culture and community change over the years? Do you think Wordstock has shifted the literary culture here at all, or that it serves the community in some special way?
Hey, I thought you said this interview would be short and simple. The literary history of Portland since 1958 is short and simple? The literary scene here was never simple. Maybe the biggest change in it is that women count for more than they used to. Due partly to a major societal shift, but also, specifically, to people like Judith Barrington and Ruth Gundle and many, many other activists working to get women writers out of the margins and into the middle of the page.
During the first few years after Brian Booth energized us to get Oregon Literary Arts going, the literary community, writers and readers, came together at the Oregon Book Awards for real celebrations. They were great. But it’s hard to keep that much pizzazz going. The current Literary Arts does a terrific job of outreach to all of Oregon.
The old book fair at ArtQuake in the Park Blocks was a hoot. Talk about keeping Portland weird! Wordstock is ever so much more respectable and outward-looking and success-oriented, bringing best selling authors from the East Coast and all. That’s probably a fair reflection of what people want.
Tell me about how your “source” — internal, creative or otherwordly — for writing finds its expression in such varied iterations as children’s books, poetry, essays and stories. Do you work on one project at a time or many at once, and do they feed each other in any way?
I can’t tell you anything much about my internal, creative, or otherworldly sources, or how they work. I just sit around and wait for them to tell me what I’m supposed to be writing next, and then I write it, if I can. Good work if you can get it.
I’m sure you’ve answered more questions about being gender and writing than you can stand — but, here’s one more. You have been publishing books for over forty years. Tell me about your experience of gender — personally and professionally, as well as how creating science fiction expresses, changes or anticipates social evolution around gender.
I made out better in some ways than most women writers of my generation, because I wasn’t competing for the big time awards and glittering prizes (still reserved for male writers at a fairly standard rate of from ten to one to four to one.) My work got shunted off into the slums of genre, where I won lots of awards, and made friends, too. The poor are always more generous than the rich.
Now that genre seems to be eating mainstream, and men seem to be less afraid of being eaten by women, things could get even better. If only they can figure out how to make writing e-books pay writers, before stupid Amazon and the stupid pirates destroy the system, and all the writers starve, and THEN what’ll you read? Huh? Aspirin labels?
Imaginative fiction is a great place for people who feel society could use a few changes. Science fiction is particularly good at showing what a different society would actually be like to live in, whether it’s the macho utopias of space opera, or the mean streets of cyberpunk, or the stuff writers like me come up with, like re-inventing gender, or giving Portland a subway out to Reed.
Portrait by Benjamin Reed