I first met Lisa Carver in 2013 when she came through town to do a reading. Perhaps no single event had more of an influence on me as an artist than seeing her indescribably wild performance art “band” Suckdog in the late 1990’s, so I asked her to meet me at a bar for a drink before her reading. She agreed, even though she made it clear that she didn’t drink. Carver arrived at the bar, and despite her claims of being dry, she immediately ordered a round of drinks. By the end of the day (yes, day. It was only about 3pm) she put $65 worth of fireball whiskey shots on my tab. This was an important lesson in reading Lisa Carver: Nothing is what it seems, so just take a deep breath and dive into life’s experiences that words are merely subjugated to decorate and communicate to the best of their rascally ability.
In her newest book, I Love Art, Carver is at her trickster best, mastering the art of the meaningful contradiction as she scours everything –including daytime television, Reader’s Digest, opera houses, and underground music – to pump the lifeblood of art through her veins. For Carver, having art in one’s life is a form of freedom, “Without it, rage…calcifies in your arteries until violence is the only way to try to crack yourself so you can move and breathe again.” I am envious of her ability to extract the vital fluid of art in some unlikely places, like KC and The Sunshine Band, which she describes as “an explosion of joy and cocaine… an indoor sea breeze.” She also finds new ways of appreciating canonical engineers of beauty, like René Magritte, who she says nothing about as a painter, but breathily invokes for his nastiness, “Bragger, I love you! Would you tell me some things you detest, please?” Then there is Carver the artonaut, boldly going where no one in search of art has gone before, like the book section at Walmart, where all she finds is a large-print Bible, James Comey’s book and a murder mystery about old ladies on a cruise ship; she can barely contain her excitement: “The murderer is on the ship! They’re in the middle of the ocean!”
On one hand, I Love Art is a sincere love letter in 105 short meditations to all things art (and I should note that she has quite an expansive definition of what qualifies as art). Perhaps moving to the edges of Death Valley in 2016 has heightened Carver’s appreciation for creativity, for the cultural provocateur living in a place without much culture “art is an underground spring. I don’t criticize. I say, thank you, and drink.” Yet Carver doesn’t do binaries of love and hate quite like we’re supposed to; she explores through a perspective where art experience IS art appreciation, creating a passionate economy where “hating art is almost as enjoyable as loving it”, as she writes in the introduction. I might say she loves art the way she doesn’t drink: she can love what she also hates, hate what she also loves. Her indulgence in the fecundity of art becomes an indulgence in destabilizing the polarities, if not even bringing them closer together, and making mischief with these terms tends to render everything – high art to low – equal status in the book, Days of Our Lives gets the same amount of coverage as The Odyssey (actually, she even gives the soap opera a slightly better review).
The book is smart and extremely fun, while Carver remains transgressive as ever. Her untethered subjective analysis takes on an important form of critical disobedience, one that frustrates contemporary appetites for a fixed cultural guideline of what we’re expected to love or hate (I admit I even felt a little flush of anger when she dared speak sympathetically of Billy Joel). In our culture bent on having to take one side or the other, Carver takes her own. She’s not afraid to add discourse and even notes of sympathy to subjects like Rush Limbaugh and Roman Polanski, finding worth in anything that can move you, no matter the source.
This is best illustrated in her enthusiastic appreciation of the painting of George W. Bush.
I really like George Bush’s paintings! …The work is naive and genuine and ungoverned. It’s not, as some have suggested, simply that GWB lacks skill. That is true, but, too, there is a feeling, an urgency, a half-formed wish, pulsing to express itself; skill or not skill matters nothing to this deep a pulse.
I can just hear the cries of an imagined social media critic: “But George Bush is a war criminal!” Carver may even agree, but that doesn’t mean that his art cannot be experienced, discussed and even enjoyed as art. The two-page section on Bush is a roller-coaster of praise and pillory, where George W. Bush the tragic clown, George W. Bush the artist and George W. Bush the murderer can exist within one complicated human being.
This lush little book paints a reality where art has an independent life, it isn’t there to be liked or disliked, censored or enamored, it just is and the best we can do is encounter it. It’s written from an impulse that asks for more, not one that demands less. What a perfect antidote to overzealous “cancel culture”, which is too often accompanied by a void of analysis and compassion. “Boycotting an ever growing swathe of [art] is terrifying. To boycott is a luxury,” says Carver at the outset of the book.
Make no mistake, I Love Art is not a hollow exercise in contrarianism, it’s as deep as it is beautiful. Carver throws a zen party of prose, and I found myself feeling the same way about I Love Art that its author said she felt in reading Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus: “It’s like drinking cream: so rich you can only take one page at a time.” Some entries are more like poems, some so sad I got a little choked up, while others are just plain hilarious. Sometimes this happens all the at once, like when a valium-influenced Carver confuses the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: “In my gone-dark eyes, I was superimposing real endings. Hushabye Mountain sank in the mist and was never see again.”
I get a sense from reading Lisa Carver that she is like a friend who will look you in the eye and tell you that she believes in bigfoot even though you know damn well she doesn’t, and the more you try to get her to admit that she doesn’t believe in bigfoot the more you are exposing yourself for thinking it makes a difference either way. She makes having an opinion an art in itself, but it’s not just her opinions that make it so, but her invitation to reflect on your own. Whenever her work, and that invitation, comes my way, I say, thank you, and drink.
I Love Art
by Lisa Carver
TigerBee Press; 192 p.