Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

And before labeling Smith's second feature a studio sellout or one-time aberration, consider the many seeming contradictions throughout Kevin's 1997. He writes Hollywood screenplays intended to revive the Superman and Fletch franchises while preparing to shoot a scabrous (yet spiritual) religious satire called Dogma. He also personally brings his friends' Good Will Hunting script to Miramax. Time practically puts him on the cover yet he communes with his fans on his Web site every day. He directs a $1 million Coca-Cola commercial for the next Super Bowl while financing four first-time features from his View Askew base in Red Bank, New Jersey!

Don't box Kevin Smith in. This was the year that "Silent Bob" talked a blue streak.

John Pierson is the executive producer of Chasing Amy and the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes.

Matt Adams

by Randall Heath

You won't find Richard Grossman's The Book of Lazarus on the New York Times' list of "Notable Books of the Year." Once again demonstrating their penchant for overlooking anything that wasn't published in their own backyard, those folks in New York have missed out on some of the more daring writing of today. Lazarus is a perfect example of the kind of visionary work being advanced by small-press publishers throughout the country--in this case Fiction Collective Two of Normal, Illinois.

The second installation in his "American Letters Trilogy," The Book of Lazarus is a thorough dissection of the withered psyche of post-'60s America and at the same time a masterfully conceived testament to the possibilities of fiction. Concocting a startling amalgam of genres and narrative voices, Grossman hauls the reader through a contemporary gauntlet of murder and madness as he traces a band of particularly drug-addled radicals to their untimely demise. Poetry, politics, and visual "iconography" all find their way into the mix, creating a kind of hallucinatory landscape in which Jim Thompson meets the Divine Comedy.

In a year dominated by predictable praise for books that reinterpreted the underworld of America, The Book of Lazarus has been unjustly overlooked. Coming on the heels of his earlier novel, The Alphabet Man, Grossman's latest effort proves without a doubt that the avant-garde is alive and well and not necessarily published in New York.

Randall Heath is co-editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books.

by Phil Anderson

Dropping trou' to survive when you're jobless is a pretty symbolic show of emasculation. Who knows what the world will see there and whether they'll give a damn about it? These guys, charming and befuddled in their own right, stood in for a larger crop of men-at-risk in the movies this year, all of whom found solace in the arts (in a loosely defined sense). The Monty guys turned to dancing, such as it was--and, despite their accents and non-beefcake bods, gained an American mallplex audience. The successful-but-glum Japanese accountant in Shall We Dance? was a dancer, too--this time of the ballroom variety--and, though happily married, he even exchanged furtive smiles in the men's room with a fellow aficionado. And the angry, confused ex-miners of 1991 in Brassed Off turned to their colliery band, showing Margaret Thatcher what "economic dislocation" meant in a flourish of trills, blares, and fanfares.

You can throw in those Promise Keepers and their stadium conferences if you want, and maybe Marv Albert fits in this thesis somewhere. But the channeling of aggression and shame into loud, muscular, and/or manly art forms is a novel twist. Matched with the noisy stage-set touring shows of dancers in jeans from Scotland, Australia, and the South Bronx (Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk), this is a significant new mélange of heavy metal and hurt feelings.

Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

by Amanda Ferguson

How can you not marvel at the work of a brilliant young Filipino-Mexican-American artist who mixes images of rats, the KKK, Catholicism, and Alfred E. Neuman most irreverently and then sticks them with solemn German titles? Manuel Ocampo is a young artist with plenty on his mind. His paintings, most of them done in oil or acrylic on canvas (give or take a bit of color Xerox collage), are simply beautiful. In "Die Kruzigung Christi," a pinched and gloomy-looking baby closes his eyes to the red-hooded Klansman who charges forth on a horse while gray cities crumble in on either side. Overhead float a few crossed bones and liquor bottles, the words "Das Leben Der Tod" stuck up in the left-hand corner. I couldn't have put it better myself. Other recent works include the "Junior Masturbator," "The Lord's Supper/The Holy Feast" (complete with grapes and toilet bowls, and scurrying mice), and "The Virgin Destroyer," or "VD."

"VD" is one of my favorites, a most noble looking baby (could it be Jesus?) with red, white, and blue wings holding up a crowned and sceptered cockroach. Look closely and you'll notice all the nice details, like the stream of excrement that the cockroach is letting loose on his champion/savior. The critics say that Ocampo's work updates the tradition of political allegorists like Gericault, Goya, and Leon Golub. But that's neither here nor there. Already well-revered in Europe, Ocampo's work will hopefully be better known next year outside the sheltering walls of L.A. and New York galleries.

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