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"The Front Street Gym in Philadelphia, 2003" by Jim Lommasson.
Critical i

Antlers, Jim Lommasson & Batman

Origins and struggles
by Jeff Jahn

une was a very interesting month because I kept running across a subtext of struggles – both in pop culture and Portland art exhibitions.

Often these struggles were framed as acts of becoming or tales of origin, rather than some vehicle to define a victor ...

Let's see: In movies, we had "Batman Begins," while "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" revealed the origins of Darth Vader. In visual arts, local arts patrons Harold and Arlene Schnitzer collected one particularly interesting object from the Warring States period of China and, last but not least, Jim Lommasson showed us some decent photos of men training to become better boxers.

"Two-headed Earth Spirit," Warring States period.

Two-headed Earth Spirit,
Warring States period
(part of: Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights /
Early Chinese Art from the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Collection)
Portland Art Museum

I'm not qualified to take on the scholarly ramifications of Harold and Arlene Schnitzer's entire exhibit of ancient Chinese artifacts at the Portland Art Museum. But this extraodinary object does have antlers and traffics in dualism in a way that is up my alley.

Beyond history, it has become an art object with moving aesthetic power.

It consists of a carved wooden base and two book-ended, highly stylized wooden deer heads. Each head is topped by antlers so the object definitely has very defensive body language.

It's pretty tough to sneak up on a creature that looks both ways at the same time. This type of stern warning is fairly common in many cultures concerned about the inflence of "evil spirits." I buy the interpretation of a guardian spirit because antlers do have a primal deterrent quality. Although some 300 of these objects have been found, this one is unique in that it has two heads.

Also, this incredibly interesting object sports a matching pair of antlers that are obviously from the same animal (deer shed their antlers every year). The matched pair are nearly identical, with one only slightly larger than the other. Both have been carved and stained to make them visually integrated with the carved heads that support them.

The object comes from the Warring States period of Chinese history, when China was a series of fragmented cantons, each vying to conquer one another. If you saw the movie "Hero" last year, you will recognize that the period has become one massive propaganda topic (used to bolster the one-China policy that includes Taiwan as part of China). I don't have a strong opinion on that political debate, other than force won't accomplish anything. China and Taiwan will either grow closer or apart as a natural consequence of the rapid changes in both places. I suspect it will be settled in the next 50 years.

What I like about this object is how rooted and unsettling it is. The antlers are both radial projections of a warning and, through symmetry, its body language says, "I'm not going anywhere."

Is it to deter graverobbers or to add more reverence and permanence to the transition of death? That this is unknown moves it from the realm of artifact into art. An artifact is a piece of something; art takes a stab at creating its own context.

The Batman with distressed damsel.

'Batman Begins'

On paper, "Batman Begins" is full of hackneyed filmmaking clichés and shouldn't work.

Let's list 'em:

1) Liam Neeson as a super ninja;
2) A plot to poison the water supply of Gotham city;
3) Turning the batmobile into a Hummer on steroids;
4) Silly presentation of corruption amongst city officials and organized crime that makes Dick Tracy comics seem more realistic; and
5) Katie Holmes as a tough-as-nails district attorney when she looks like Gidget.

Why it works: great acting and, surprise, the non-character of Bruce Wayne.

In terms of acting, Neeson plays a very convincing mentor as Ducard. He is great because he's very likable, if stern. Like most great villains he has one fatal flaw – he gives up on humanity's ability to salvage itself.

It's another cliché, but Neeson proves why clichés persist: they house eternal truths. Bad guys don't think they are bad.

The real meat is also found not in Batman's character, but in Bruce Wayne, whom we see as a scared child, a prison inmate with survivor's guilt on a spiritual quest for oblivion, a vigilante and, hilariously, as a vapid playboy acting out the stereotype.

Throughout, Wayne never really exists except as a hollow mask, yet he is the center of the film.

Christian Bale plays Wayne as a man with no soul. The difference between Wayne and the ideologue Ducard is that Wayne regrets his hollowness and chooses to remain lost.

The Wayne character knows he isn't the man his father was and accepts it. Batman/Bruce Wayne isn't trying to save the world, he just wants to make certain what happened to him doesn't happen to others. Sure, I found all sorts of annoying action-movie clichés, like the police commissioner who shouts "Who authorized this!?" as Gotham tears itself apart.

Bruce Wayne and party girls.

Also, the obligatory damsel in distress felt really tired this time. But so what? I can even forgive the bombastic gratuitous vehicular crashes that turned the film from a very personal quest for meaning into an amusement park ride at the end. It made my skin crawl but I'm still forgiving it.

Why? This is a Hollywood blockbuster and it isn't supposed to be that intellectual. Yes, the film is schizophrenic. But, unlike most summer blockbusters, "Batman Begins" doesn't insult the intelligence of viewers. Even in the dumb parts you know something good will overshadow it a minute later.

I like this less patronizing new trend that has been kindled by the Spiderman franchise.

Although this is theater fodder, it manages to become a study of the consequences of decisions. If ever there was a sign that Postmodernism's self-imposed fetish of futility and disassociation has lost its bid for Western civilization's soul, this is it.

The various masks of Bruce Wayne are suddenly cooler than the detachment of the Batman.

On a more philosophical level, let's just say that the hollow men do have an effect despite their limitations – and the center cannot hold. Albert Einstein once asked, "Is the universe friendly?" The better question is: "Are you the type who dares to ask the question knowing there won't be an answer?"

"Handwraps at Grand Avenue Gym, 1998"

Jim Lommasson
Shadow Boxers
Basil Hallward Gallery
Powell's Books

I missed Jim Lommasson's March show at the New American Art Union, so I wasn't going to let this one slip by.

Disciplined activities, be it art, music or sport, are nearly always fascinating. It reminds us of all the time we've spent practicing various things.

And it's a true solipsistic feedback loop: If art makes you reflect on your own life then it has to be successful on some level.

That said, most of the prints on display at Powell's are compelling, but the most striking is "Handwraps at Grand Avenue Gym, 1998."

Reminiscent of Stieglitz's O'Keefe hands, they have a completely different tenor. This is some guy preparing for battle – with himself as much as with an opponent. In many ways it's a very clichéd shot brimming with myth-making sports bravura. But clichés earn that position through a certain nonexpendable vitality.

"Brewster Wheeler Boxing Gym in Detroit, 2003"

I got more out of "Brewster Wheeler Boxing Gym, Detroit, 2003." In it, a lone boxer connects with one of two swinging punching bags. The boxer's left leg is off the ground. Also, he has dropped his guard with his left and is theoretically vulnerable. Of course, if the bag were a human opponent, such a counterstrike would be difficult while absorbing the blow. In the background another bag swings in the opposite direction. I like the Confucian duality of it all.

In this case, the attack leaves one vulnerable and off balance. There is no opponent, just a kind of existential dance between boxer and environment.

Ultimately, the quest for balance is one of the stories in these gyms. They exist often in rough neighborhoods where youths need a place to hone anxious energy into productive discipline. The photo "Outside the Front Street Gym, Philadelphia" highlights the street distractions of booze and worse. Didactic but effective, it might be too illustrative. For example, Hogarth's famous Gin Lane series of etchings show a greater insight and humor into a dire human predicament.

"The Wild Card Boxing Gym in L.A., 2003"

There is also a mentoring process, pictured here as an all-male world. I found the epitaph for Jesse Sandoval to be the powerful thing in the show: "He taught his 'kids' how to knock a man out, and to love and respect humankind at the same time."

That is the thing about competition. When it's fair, viewers are forced to understand both opponents as being fundamentally similar. Struggle is ubiquitous and becomes noble when one recognizes it in others as well as oneself.

This was a good, tender and only slightly brutal show. But I suspect Lommasson is just starting to find his range.

If he leaves the easy didacticism aside, this body of work could become so much more. I don't think he has taken his key picture yet.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

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