Michael Stipe, R.E.M., and the Anxiety of Influence
There was a time when art was cool—books, movies, music, paintings, sculptures—and you could love what you loved, proudly and without reservation. For me, as a child and then a teen from a small town, I wanted to pull all of it into me, to make it part of who I was or who I was becoming or who I wanted to be. And this feeling stayed with me right up until I made it to graduate school. Critical theory killed me, or nearly did, because it made it wrong to think anything was cool. Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence was a wrecking ball. “What we used to call ‘imaginative literature’ is indistinguishable from literary influence,” he writes in the preface. Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” was another. “To give an Author to a text,” Barthes writes, “is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.”
There were other such texts, of course, texts that were read (or misread) to deny the very act of imagination itself, as if art were simply a structure built by social and political forces, ultimately designed to be used for some other intellectual purpose—to make a point or to tear down another. I found it difficult to understand why anyone would ever want to discount the author of a work, for it felt—and still feels—like a denial of the best of what art really is: the singular and individual act of a heart, a mind, a soul reaching out to grasp hold of another heart, another mind, another soul.
Which is to say that I still think art’s cool. Books. Movies. Bands. Literary magazines. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there, and cynicism is death.
Earlier this month, I had the good fortune of being on the East Coast during the run of Michael Stipe’s new art show, “Infinity Mirror,” at The Journal Gallery in Brooklyn. Then I had the double good fortune that my friend Julie Panebianco was in town, and since she’s friends with Michael, he made himself available to show us around. Emily Nemens joined us, and I told her I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of meeting Michael that I was afraid I’d burst into tears.
When I said earlier that I still think art’s cool, what I really meant to talk about was Michael.
I discovered R.E.M. with the 1987 release of Document. There were no college radio stations where I grew up, so it took me a little longer than most to discover the great music of my own era, but once I did, there was no going back. Document changed my heart, and I dived backward into R.E.M.’s previous albums (all on cassette): Dead Letter Office, Reckoning, Murmur, Chronic Town, Life’s Rich Pageant, and Fables of the Reconstruction, an album so goddamn miraculous that I felt I’d fallen into a fever dream each time I listened to it. That a band from distant Athens, Georgia—a place I’d never heard of and still haven’t visited—could speak to me so profoundly, and in language I didn’t even know I needed to hear, was itself a kind of unparalleled weirdness, a shock of strange recognition I’d later feel when encountering the work of Joseph Cornell, the blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the poetry of Rilke: a crossing through of time and space to sink directly into the hot, thick muscle of the heart.
Part of my interest in R.E.M. was literary, for I had just discovered William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey’s poetry and all the rest. The American South seemed a strange and wonderful and terrible place to me, and it also felt distinct in ways that my rural Northern California upbringing did not. The South had a culture, and I could not locate the culture of the West. But R.E.M. knew exactly where they were from, and their music seemed to churn out of that swampy mystery. I was overwhelmed by the sound of it, by the feel of those album covers, by the enigma of the lyrics, and especially by the vocalist, Michael Stipe, whose tenor was so fraught with emotion that the very sound of it would bring me to tears. It still does.
Michael Stipe’s work as a photographer and curator begins, at least for me, with the cover of R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, which is graced by a darkly evocative photograph of kudzu overtaking a concrete structure. The image that greets the viewer upon entering The Journal Gallery is a different frame than that now iconic album cover, but taken in the same location. Where the original is stark and devoid of clear subject, the “Infinity Mirror” version—which runs from gallery floor to ceiling—contains a centered figure dressed in a coat, hat, and scarf, looking almost like some bewildered Doctor Who. This was my first introduction to Jeremy Ayers, a name that was repeated often as Michael led Emily and Julie and I through the gallery, through two huge walls of black-and-white photographs, many of men, the frames of which boxed hard upon their naked forms, and to an open series of clear colored shelves containing a great collection of ephemera that, as a whole, are a showcase of Michael’s artistic development and influences.
Patti Smith is present everywhere: a seven-inch single, lyrics, various photographs of her that Michael has taken over the years of their friendship. Other influences are present as well: pyrite cubes mirrored and sculpted in cardboard, a plastic figurine of the hunchback of Notre Dame, books on film and photography, texts by Jean Genet and Joan Didion, a People magazine with David Bowie on the cover, a Blade Runner comic book. Warhol is here, as is Ginsberg, James Dean, Marlon Brando. And here is Jeremy Ayers again, not only as himself but in drag as Silva Thinn, part of Warhol’s Factory. Michael calls Ayers his first love, and the man’s recent passing, in October 2016, transformed this great unpacking of influences into a tribute of mourning. There is more death creeping among the ephemera: Michael’s father, for one, and Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, the photograph of the two accompanied by the lyrics to “Nature Boy,” a song made famous by Nat King Cole.
What is clear is that there is no anxiety of influence here and the author is very much present in the work. This is a physical diary composed of objects of deep and persistent personal meaning—often physical, tangible, specific, but just as often metaphoric, imagistic, referential—like a private apothecary cabinet unlocked, all drawers open. It is as much about awakening—to the artistic, to the physical, to queerness, to love—as it is about the passage of time and how influences, connections, and experiences individually and collectively make an artist. The through lines are myriad, but Ayers is the clearest of them. A multifaceted and multitalented artist working in performance, drag, collage, sound, movement, writing, and drawing, Ayers may well have been an early blueprint for the kind of artist a much younger Michael Stipe longed to be, an artistic father figure, a mentor, perhaps even the mentor, since throughout “Infinity Mirror,” one feels Ayers’s influence in both the variety of objects assembled and in the disconcertingly personal quality of that assemblage, the quality of secrets laid bare for all to see.
My own “Infinity Mirror” would include a stack of cassettes and the book Michael Stipe gave me at the end of our visit: the first volume of his projected series of art books, this one in collaboration with Jonathan Berger. Who knows what the rest of the mirror would contain, but I know that Michael would be there. Emily and Julie would be there. The whole experience would be there, somehow, shimmering like such memories do. Because cynicism is boring. And I still think, God help me, that art is cool.