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Neke Carson, Iconoclastic Trickster

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 15:44
Neke Carson’s bucolic 18th-century Sag Harbor house gives no clue to the subversive nature of his art. Top right, a drawing of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, both depicted as children, and below that, his portrait of Andy Warhol from his Rectal Realism period.
Mark Segal

In his book “Trickster Makes This World,” Lewis Hyde linked the classic trickster of folklore and mythology to more recent creators such as Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and John Cage. “In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser,” he wrote in the introduction, but added that the trickster can also create, move, or erase boundaries.

The artist Neke Carson is a trickster whose art has always defied convention and shifted its shapes. His first drawing, dating from 1949, when he was 3, shows his mother screaming while spiders crawl up her dress toward her open mouth.

Born and raised on a farm in Dallas, Mr. Carson hit his creative stride at the Rhode Island School of Design. He and a classmate, the actor and comedian Martin Mull, formed an art rock band and opened for Janis Joplin when she performed at the school.

It was at RISD in 1967 that he first met another trickster — Andy Warhol. At a party for Warhol at a professor’s house, “I got the opportunity to go over and introduce myself,” he said at the 18th-century Sag Harbor house where he spends most of his time. “We got to talking, and he said I should look him up if I ever got to New York. The next weekend, I knocked on his door. It was still the Silver Factory then.”

“Most weekends, or whenever I could, I would come to the city and hang there. I ended up in ‘Four Stars,’ the 24-hour movie that nobody saw. And Andy was very nice to me. When I told him I didn’t have a place to put the fountain, he said, ‘Bring it to the Factory.’ ”

“Moon Man Fountain,” his senior project at RISD, was a large sculpture in which two people could sit inside Plexiglas bubbles that were surrounded by water. “You were the statues of the fountain, basically.” The piece was photographed by Philippe Halsman for Horizon magazine and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

It’s impossible to talk about Mr. Carson without broaching the subject of the movement he created: Rectal Realism. Its genesis was an idea for one of his many interventions in SoHo’s galleries in the 1970s. He wanted to secrete his pencils and brushes in a gallery wall so that he would have to punch a hole in it if he ever wanted to paint or draw again.

“I was going around the house with pencils in hand saying over and over, ‘Where can I stick these?’ ” His wife at the time told him to “stick them up your butt and be done with it!” He did several portraits, most famously one of Andy Warhol. Anton Perich and Ronnie Cutrone took pictures of Mr. Carson at work while Glenn O’Brien, the first editor of Interview magazine, and Vincent Fremont, who worked at the Factory for almost 20 years, shot video.

“The thing is, I got him, I captured him,” Mr. Carson said. “It was so hard to do. I could have painted a smiley face that way and everybody would have been happy and gone home. You have to think upside down and backwards. The eye-ass coordination is really hard.”

Mr. Carson’s body of work includes painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, photography, music, writing, and organizing performances and readings. Among his sculpture, in addition to the fountain, was the “Atomic Bicycle” (1970), a functioning bike surrounded a large sculpture of what an atom was supposed to look like. “It was made for people who like to ride around in an obsolete concept of the universe,” he said.

 “Bite Me and Drink What You Love” was a blood-filled plastic cross, placed in a supermarket freezer, that contains what vampires want, but in a shape that will destroy them.

His drawings, like most of his work, are both inventive and witty. The colored pencil drawing “Water Bug Vibrating Life Preserver” depicts an insect-shaped life preserver implanted with vibrators “that saves your life and relaxes you at the same time.”

A panel from the comic “The Assassination of Vaughn Meader, Presidential Mimic and J.F.K. Antimatter” is an uncannily realistic drawing of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald — when Ruby was 5 and Oswald was 3. “Of course I’m from Dallas,” said Mr. Carson.

All of Mr. Carson’s works are linked by his insistence on a conceptual armature leavened by humor. One of his art gallery interventions involved placing red dots beneath artworks on gallery walls at 420 West Broadway in SoHo. “I ended up selling some red dots to people who owned the paintings. Now galleries put the dots on pieces of paper, not on walls.”

For “The Longest Carrot in New York City” he stood a carrot atop a Dan Flavin fluorescent light sculpture at the John Weber Gallery. In 1972 he danced on Vito Acconci’s notorious “Seedbed,” the wooden ramp in Sonnabend Gallery beneath which Acconci was masturbating. For “Time Wasting Event,” he measured, photographed, and recorded the amount of time wasted by showing gallerists his work.

No wonder he has said, “Making art is like telling a joke and 20 years later somebody laughs.”

In 1972 he advertised a course titled “Art Therapy for Conceptual Artists” that promised to teach how to “define yourself once and for all with little or no thought” and “to make a collage from last year’s projects.” When the class didn’t fly, it was published as a one-of-a-kind book that was reprinted in 2013 by Rollo Press.

A more recent project is “Fictitious Fruit,” a series of realistic paintings so titled because some are real, some are plastic, and some are actually vegetables. For “Portraits From the Closet” (2007-9) he placed cameras in people’s closets and set the timer to take a picture after the door was closed. Among the owners of the clothing under surveillance were John Waters, Debbie Harry, Max Blagg, and Billy Name.

When he was 50, Mr. Carson taught himself to play the piano. “I had been a drummer, so I understood rhythm,” he said. “This was just like 88 drums, it’s just more to do, more fun to have. The emotional release you experience when you put your fingers on the keys is extremely powerful.”

He was good enough to perform a six-month engagement at Petrossian restaurant in New York City. When he had a solo exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2008, he gave a piano concert at the opening. Of that show, he said, “The funny thing was that the curator was a young kid, and he was so amazed that I had actually known Andy. None of the people in the building had known him.”

If you think the surface of his output has been scratched, think again. In 1978 he founded the LaRocka modeling agency. “I could go to a club and anybody I thought was really interesting I asked to join my agency. We showed the clothes of Charles James, this incredible designer who hadn’t shown since the 1950s.” The agency also worked with Michael Kors and Betsy Johnson and did runway shows for Kansai Yamamoto before closing in 1982.

For 15 years he created events twice a week at the Gershwin Hotel in Manhattan. “We did the complete works of Kurt Weill in chronological order, Billy Collins read his poetry, Debbie Harry read her poetry, and we did opera. Handel’s ‘Rodrigo’ had its North American debut in the Gershwin’s lobby.”

“Morning Under Light” is his current project. “As the light comes into my room I take pictures of it. Sometimes I make tableaus so when the light travels across the room it hits different spots. They are like Caravaggios without the people.”

The youngest of three boys, Mr. Carson comes from a creative family. His oldest brother, L.M. Kit Carson, was an actor, filmmaker, and writer whose credits include the screenplay for “Paris, Texas.” His other brother, Reverend Goat Carson, was a Grammy-winning songwriter who collaborated with Dr. John and received 100,000 votes when he ran for president in 1992 as the Blues Party candidate.

Mr. Carson first visited Sag Harbor in 1967, when his brother Kit was working with the filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. He has been coming to the village every summer for the past 30 years to the house he shares with Emily Prager, an award-winning writer.


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