Chicago Notes, 4. Two Museums

It’s impish of me to compare them, but I think what I’m really doing is comparing my behaviour, my state, in the both. At the queue-a-lot Art Institute of Chicago I’m all creeping, hushed and like I’m back in school. Nobody smiles back. In the Museum of Broadcast Communications (half the price and I spend twice as long), I’m the closest I’ll ever be to Huck Finn walking along the top of a fence. Deep as pockets; that’s me.

That said…

I pull up in awe before John Currin’s Stanford After Brunch (2000); at Alex Katz’s Vincent and Tony (1969); at Monet’s Morning Mists, Seine at Giverny (1897), because of how he lays a path for Rothko; and at Matisse’s Lemons on a Pewter Plate (1926), delighting in the gap he painted in, masterly at the edge, at the left hand side of the table top. And massive hoots, of course, at history’s campest teapot, by James Hadley, Royal Worcester (1882).

Chicago Museums

The following day my reception is a wall of heart-melting radios (1950s mainly, I reckon). From Chicago golden years 1955-76, local children’s heroes, Romberg Rabbit and Cuddly Dudley: I watch a clip of the latter in ad-libbed conversation with Ray Rayner, and it’s the very model of what kids’ TV shows still are today. And I spend a very great deal of time before the handwritten bit from a Seinfeld (1994, Season 6, Episode 9), loving, as I did the gap in the Matisse, how he (himself) has scribbled the order of the joke around: a killer phrase, for me, the moose thinking: ‘this goofball’.

I leave the second museum with a spring in my step. It was not better than the first. But probably I was. It’s fun to see things separately and remember them together.



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Chicago Notes, 3. Records

On North Milwaukee looking for a breakfast without a mile-long queue (the french toast is that good – really?) we stumble upon Reckless Records. We give it a quick reccy, get the layout, and then slip into Filter Cafe next door. This is both queue-less and fabulous. It has the air of a library but without the books and the sexual tension. It’s cavernous and comfortable, and the clientele are quietly tucked inside themselves; shoulder to shoulder on the sofas with the person they will eventually fall in love with, but for the moment happy to be together watching YouTube channels and using their favourite apps.

Filter Cafe

Photo by B. – Filter Cafe, Chicago

I come back here on my own when B.’s at work, and I try to absorb some of the studious vibe – or at least let this nearly-full Moleskine mop it up – but all I do is lose some change from these shorts with shallow pockets, and it’s hard to look hip with your hand down the back of a cushion. A guy studying nearby in a pretence of concentration that makes my pockets seem deep, keeps turning around and sighing. When he goes to the bathroom I notice he’s wearing cuban heels. North Milwaukee is lousy with vintage clothing stores. In one of these places I buy a necklace which, unusually, comes with two Hamsa hands pendants. In the night I wake up in a panic, convinced they’re attempting to strangle me. Yes, I’m going to use that ‘scenario’ elsewhere. Cause of death?, etc…

In the cool of Reckless Records (see what I did?) I find a small haul that’s arguably light, a little frothy, but still loaded with love from my past.


On 12 inch and for a bargain are:

Mick Karn’s Sensitive – it states remix, but I can’t hear it as different from the Titles album. He’s a very sadly missed musician, gone too soon – both the backbone and the enchantment of Japan: his bass percussive, warped, singing and haunting. Really, this track never did him justice as a solo artist. Check out Piper Blue, please – a wonderful genre-defying bass-fest, which comes from and slopes off to nowhere.

Japan’s The Art of Parties – a new version of the title track to me, at 6’41, with an oddly lumpy intro. Oh, Japan… well, let’s get on that little boat another time.

Human League; Hard Times / Love Action extended and instrumentals – actually turn out to be the versions from Love and Dancing, but I love now having the record in this form. The original 7 inch I still treasure – it’s cover deeply embossed with my crude tracing marks – this is the record of my late summer, ’81… first proper snog. Sensing this, the store staff and the customers now bear me aloft and a lavish musical number ensues.

Style Council; Ever-Changing Moods / Mick’s Blessings, UK import to US. I buy this for the super-extensive sleeve-notes. I loved what Paul Weller did with all that. It felt deeply unfashionable, unpredicted – even a little fey, if we’d known the word – but it had a true sense of confident cool for all that. And the songs are still so great.

And then there in the rack marked ‘newly-arrived’ is a March Violets kind of showcase-compilation album, Electric Shades – again, an import for the US market. It’s got Snakedance on it, Slow Drip Lizard and the fabulous Walk Into The Sun… the ironically-titled big number we used to dance to in the ever-dark of the Phono in Leeds, under the Merrion Centre. Of course, I like the (non-strangling) hands-across-the-sea-ness of this find in particular: Chicago – Leeds. And across the decades, naturally.


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Chicago Notes, 2. Blues

A Sunday morning, Bucktown. B. helps kick it all off. She’s become my lookout for the accidental Rothko paintings made on the walls about towns. Here are some of them; here are some of Chicago’s blues.

In order: Bucktown Carwash; CTA station at Division; ditto; Doorway on Division – on our last night in town we ducked by another couple photographing this doorway too. I wanted to stop and say something, but it’s not my …what? Hey, you noticed the doorway too!; Radio exhibit at the Museum of Broadcast Communications (more about which to come); Oldsmobile on North Damen Ave.







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Chicago Notes, 1. Lost

Everybody’s lost – I’m not pretending I’m not…*

Lostness: as the physical manifestation of a state of feeling lost. Just like dropping things in the kitchen, bumping into stuff – B. says this is when I’m not truly grounded, centred. Some days I’m terrible with it.

Navigationally-speaking, I am, admittedly, hopeless. I am thorough in my application to processes, agreements, briefs; to notes, to performance of work, trusting of my creative intuition (in most disciplines), precisely because of how bad I am with maps. It’s not the comedy male thing. I’m the first to ask for directions, for the kindness of locals. I am as inept at folding maps as I am at slicing onions, but that’s not this. Maps and their direction do not sink in or take hold. Drawing a version of my own helps, though there are necessary leaps of faith, occasionally rivers. Planning car journeys fitfully way in advance. I have copings. Maps are instantly unseen, like passcodes.

IMG_2360Chicago – parts of the northern districts – hosts this feeling of lostness – of being defeated despite the effort put in. Lost, that is to say, as the opposite of finding – not being lost, like waifs in fairy tales. It’s easy to give in to this as, to frame it as, something personal – a vindictive world.  Victim, or life’s adventurer – which of the two are you?* Milan Kundera’s ‘Litost’ pops up (look it up!)

An aggressive confrontation (money) is brought in as a devious plot-twist. The downtown encounter has a disproportionate effect on my state, compounding a sense of false preparedness. Fuck-you Fails on my simply getting around. As if (I do make time to find funny) I could sensibly think to switch – at the flick of one – from my muffled routines to the mad hot soup of Chicago – I mean without this lostness, somehow.

And yet there is inspiration everywhere.

*between there and this, Morrissey at Manchester.


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Illustration Friday: Tiny

Look, I genuinely don’t know. And that’s quite fun. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a piece I’ve done quite so much. I caught some of Regular Show today on Cartoon Network (it’s research, ok?, and anyway I was waiting for Bob’s Burgers to download), and Rigby said this great line: maybe it’s time I gave up on my gut and started listening to my brain instead…

But, like I said, I don’t know.


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Illustration Friday: Viking

This week’s submission for the topic. Again, not a subject that immediately had me punching the air, but again… going for it. I eschewed and foreswore (that’s satisfying to say out loud) a horned helmet thing, as I think I read somewhere that Vikings never, etc etc. – I could be wrong and quite frankly, who cares? I went for a Viking in today’s world. The inspiration came when once in Amsterdam, making for a bar in the rain, a bearded, wiry fellow, who’d clearly already made at least one bar, stepped very deliberately into my path and hoarsely, conspiratorially, said into my Viking face, in something like an Irish accent – ‘Don’t let them know we’re here, friend! They’ll be onto us!’

So here – our modern Viking, rather failing to remain under the radar.



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Lines about Carl Larsson

There’s a nice naughtiness in drawing a line between the Swedish artist Carl Larsson and the Sunday Express cartoonist ‘Giles’. (An additional niceness to find his first name, too, was Carl.) I grew up with those newspaper cartoons and the paperback annuals my dad routinely got as Christmas presents across the seventies, and whilst uncaring of their political tittering, I would care deeply that someone was able to, and did, depict everyday ordinariness and its objects so cleverly well. It’s what I wanted to do. The curve of a craning neck, the folds of a curtain, no matter how incidental to the gag, were things of a giddying talent.


Decades later I’m poring over the penned and watercoloured illustrations of Cal Larsson. I’m drawn to them first for the interiors; the interior life. I see through and in what I’ve heard described as ‘twee’, the real romanticism of a family and an age. I know also I’m gurgling (maybe even out loud) with pleasure at a way of life I’ve always held as the alternative to head for. A residential chaos that’s both overgrown and lovingly contained. These are the rooms and outbuildings of the houses of school friends; an Irish aunt who hoards and harvests: the freeing opposite of the unexplained neatness of my own childhood’s environment.

And I see the window with its panes, the row of unity plants; the confident line of an uncertain mouth, a jaw. The stove’s weight and bulk; the woman’s feet upon the chair, the chair upon the floor – their all-consuming blues so beautifully celebrated. The soft shadows of little sun. Big rooms accommodating lives lived expansively, right up to the end of the driveway.





I like this expressive figurativeness, its clever honesty: the skill of the draughtsperson illustrator knowing that framed lives must contain the incidentals of a life being lived.

Carl Larsson, Swedish artist (1853-1919)
Carl Giles OBE (‘Giles’), cartoonist (1916-1995)
See also, lines on John Hassall, Illustrator – here

Painting detail images snapped respectfully from my copy of ‘Carl Larsson’s Home, Family and Farm’, Floris Books, 2014


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