Artists Of The Year

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VIC CHESTNUTT

by Camden Joy

If you could see what I see when I see Vic Chestnutt, what would you see? You'd see a major-label act in a wheelchair, clawing at his instrument, and realize this is one star you can't envy. He is literally trapped up there before you; he could turn himself and slowly wheel away but it would take some time. You'd see him getting lost, he often does when he sings--gets lost, starts over, forgets words, gives up, moves on. You'd see that something is making him do this, not pleasure (not his, not yours), not greed, but something bigger (he has to). You'd see him noun-ifying cute adjectives amidst a flurry of puns and riddlespeak--these awkwardly detailed, squashed snapshots he convinces you are songs, which more resemble cubist renderings of pop music. You'd see him at times unkept, near-death, pallor positively green, yet always singing like a beautiful boy, sneaking breaths into lines, drawling wisecracks in an exaggerated accent. You'd see him over the years slowly but surely adding company, embracing technique; first making his shy wife learn bass, then surrounding himself with regular musicians who might straighten his sometimes meandering sound, until you'd see him roll into a live radio broadcast last year with a virtual orchestra in tow, so many musicians they outnumbered the audience, and their dynamics, their lush, drawn-out arrangements, restored the spirit like some fresh Astral Weeks. You'd see--paradoxically--that the more musicians who back him, the more directly you experience his presence in a song. You'd see there are no other youngsters contracted to big companies who so well risk the poignant and profound.

Camden Joy'sThe Last Rock Star Book, or Liz Phair: A Rant, will be published this Spring by Portland's Verse Chorus Press

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN

by Alexs Pate

Let's face it, most of the novels being published these days barely deserve the title of literature. The popular novel, a rather soulless thing in the first place, is often used by writers who can barely fill in the blanks. There is a whole plethora of what an aunt of mine would call "educated fools" who have studied fiction and memorized the rules. And there are plenty of rules. Things you're supposed to do, like make your characters interesting and quirky, and things you're not supposed to do, like maybe tell your story in a random non-chronological way.

Generally these rules are wise. But when a writer or a reader opens a John Edgar Wideman book, Philadelphia Fire or The Cattle Killing, published this year, for instance, you suddenly realize how much bullshit you've been taught by teachers who were terrified of breaking rules. The thing is, Wideman doesn't break rules as much as he ignores them. A little like Toni Morrison but more so. And in his fierce, arrogant, beautifully confident voice, we make all sorts of discoveries as we skank along with his story. We learn stuff. We swoon at the sparks his words make up against each other. We think about race and identity in brand new ways. Wideman offers us fiction with high minded purpose and he has the courage not to reduce it to the lowest common denominator.

Alexs Pate's new novel isFinding Makeba.

TITIAN

by Greil Marcus

The Chiesa dei Frari in Venice--the Franciscan chapel--is full of treasures and wonders, but one afternoon in November the glow of Titian's altar piece Assumption of the Virgin cast them all into darkness. I tried, but for 40 minutes I couldn't look at anything else--this huge painting, nearly half a millennium old, seemingly vaulting out of the earth and into the sky. It didn't matter from what angle one approached it (or tried to evade it, as if by looking at it sideways its power could be diminished)--this work cast others into darkness because it was capable of casting a spell on whoever looked at it. Oh well, I thought, so much for pop--I now understand that the only art is high art, that the only high art is religious, and that the only religious art is about Christ...

The Virgin is lifting up to heaven, out of a crowd of apostles. God is looking down, a dark and even harrowing expression on his face, as if he isn't sure the figure rising deserves to. The field of the painting is crowded with onlookers, saints, angels, people--you can feel history breaking up, the course of human events revealed as trivial if not altogether false. But what is disturbing, awful, and enrapturing is the expression, or expressions, on Mary's face, which is at once still and unstable. For while this is a rapture, and the viewer can be enraptured, there is no rapture here: In her eyes and mouth and bones is awe, fear, uncertainty, maybe a hint of anticipation, of curiosity. God looks down, she looks up, a force-field is established, and there's no way out; walking out of the place won't do it. I did that, walked back in twice, it was weeks ago, and once a day I think of going back.

Greil Marcus'Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, will be published by Henry Holt in April.

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