February 1998
s m u g
mystery date
by Michael Sippey

Michael is one of those New Media Hack Wannabes who sold out for dreams of a Pentium laptop, a successful IPO, and home ownership. Currently developing his own personal business model, Michael's favorite color is blue, he enjoys walks on the beach and he has a fetish for shoulder bags and those clackety keyboards with the "right feel." When recently asked to comment on his writing, he could only bark "woof." (See his excellent work at Stating the Obvious

Surfaces

Yesterday afternoon I went out into the raining California winter to get a sandwich, and as I crossed College Avenue I was struck by the simplest thing -- a reflection of a passing vehicle in the richly wet pavement. For a brief moment, the street defied its own nature and created the illusion of depth. It was beautiful.

Then again, I'm a sucker for surfaces.

Walk me through any gallery or museum in the world and I'll gravitate to the 'painterly' canvases, the ones where there's enough eye candy right up front that they defy any attempt at finding "deeper meaning." Regardless of how much I've read or how many classes I've sat in, as soon as I'm confronted with Pollack's "Autumn Rhythm," I forget everything I've learned about how he reinvented the notion of "painting." Instead, I spend twenty minutes trying to follow a single thread of blue paint across the canvas. As an undergrad I wrote a paper that attempted to make a connection between Immanuel Kant and Jasper Johns; now when I see the flag paintings I just get lost in the deep layers of encaustic.

A few years ago I went through a Greil Marcus phase, reading everything of his I could get my hands on. I devoured "Mystery Train" and "Dead Elvis" looking for meaning in the King. I raced through "Lipstick Traces" trying to comprehend the cultural significance of the Sex Pistols. And I swallowed "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers" whole, hoping to finally comprehend the political undertones of Elvis Costello's records.

These days, my car radio is always tuned to either the "modern rock" or the "adult contemporary" station, just so I can occasionally catch a snippet or two of a well-engineered drum-track or catchy backing vocal. I've come to realize that the pop song is the producer's art, who, with a few twists of the dials can turn simple lyrics of lost love into beautiful moments of stereosonic perfection.

I know now that the reason I love Elvis Presley is because he could sing and dance (and do both at the same time until he reached Las Vegas), not because he was culturally significant. I know this the same way that I know that I fell in love with Bob Mould's music not for his devastating lyrics of relationship angst, but for the delicious major-chord "crunch" of his guitar.

While a painter can rely on the physical properties of oil or acrylics or encaustic, and a record producer can fall back on the usual digital tricks, it's harder to create a beautiful surface using nothing but words. I'm not talking about writing about surfaces, but rather, the shellacked sheen that can coat a paragraph and simply make it wonderful to read, regardless of the content underneath. Nabokov was always good at this; I remember not a whit of "Ada," save the memory of lying awake until 2 am devouring his sentences. Kundera, too, despite the fact that his books are transparently political, almost to a fault. In "Unbearable Lightness of Being" he sketches a character in a single, delicious sentence. "Tereza's mother blew her nose noisily, talked to people in public about her sex life, and enjoyed demonstrating her false teeth."

There are obvious reasons why surfaces hold so much appeal. They're quick and easy...I can consume a beautiful surface in just a fraction of the time it may take me to comprehend fully a more complex piece. A rich surface, whether it's on a painting, a pop song or a paragraph, whispers "take me" and speeds the process towards that moment of cultural conquest when I can say to myself "ahhh...I get it."

But that seduction is dangerous, obviously. Seductive in the worst sense of the word, in that surfaces can "lead astray...by flattering appearances." I'm a child of music television, as if that's a surprise to anyone. Like many folks my age, I have a habit of "consuming from the hip." I seek, I find, I consume, I move on. It damn well better taste good, otherwise I won't stick around to find out what's really going on with a painting, a song, a novel. I've trained myself to have little patience for anything beyond surface.

For now, this works for me, believe it or not. "I'm busy, I have no time, I have no patience, I have no capacity for sustained attention," I tell myself. Pollack is just fine as a canvas of entwined strings of paint; who needs Kundera's labyrinthine of structures when you have his raw sentences; and Elvis sure could swing his hips, couldn't he? I can live on a diet of surfaces, because there are just so many out there to enjoy.

But I fear -- natch, know -- that beyond those surfaces is a whole other world inhabited by "serious" thought. Theories, ideas, movements, broad sweeps of history that are most likely the real message behind the seductive medium. I know that someday I'll wake up and all my critical faculties will have been decimated by years of living this way; that I'll wake up and discover that a fašade is no longer just a fašade, it's now the entire architecture.

I know the day will come when I'll feel like Nick Shay, Don DeLillo's anti-hero in "Underworld," confronting a blacked-out New York City in November of 1965... "I was a stranger here. I knew Manhattan at only at street level, fitfully, and felt a little isolated, and the place scared me with its knowingness, its offhand vaunt, a style of mind and guise that can be harder to learn than some dialect of the Transvaal."

In the meantime, pass that Spiritualized record, wouldja?

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