I wouldn't have it any other way.
Populated Area, 2020
A visit with Saundra Fleming and her art, by C. Hudak
On a chilly, rainy Friday, at the Columbia City Gallery in Seattle, the artist and poet, Saundra Fleming, is gently running her nails up and down her giant painting, The 50 Minute Hour.
“I wanted to leave space,” she says, pointing to small moments on the canvas without paint. “The way drawing leaves space.”
I see the space—moments of white floating on a six-foot-square canvas that is, overwhelmingly, flowing aquas highlighted with bright yellow. Sea colors swirl, illuminated, here and there, with the colors of a sunny sky. There is, as well, a bit of earth… but we’ll get to that later.
First, centered, there is a whoopie cushion, outlined in white.
“Did you have whoopie cushions when you were young?” Fleming asks. “Do you remember how hard it was to blow air inside them? Here,” she points to the neck of the whoopie cushion, “is where I attempted to remedy that problem.” I tip my head, to better see the way Fleming’s whoopie cushion has, indeed, left more space for air.
I follow the idealized opening of the whoopie cushion along a curving yellow-tailed form that might be a small hammerhead shark, to the bottom left corner of the painting, where it meets the body of a giant cockroach.
It is the cockroach who brings earth to the painting; she is bricky-black-colored, shot with a narrow spine of aqua. There is little that’s certain (in life, or a Fleming painting) but for sure this cockroach is not Gregor Samsa, not least because Kafka made clear “[t]he insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” This cockroach, who may have been inspired by Samsa (or not), is lying on a red bed, birthing what Fleming describes as “magical eggs.” This cockroach is one iteration of The Patient.
The vermin version of The Patient founds the bottom left corner of the painting. Holding down the bottom right corner, a comic blonde demon stares at the cockroach, scowling and shouting. The demon exists in a small bubble that’s shaped a bit like a hairdresser’s chair. Fleming calls the demon, “the mean mom, or The Bad Therapist.” The Bad Therapist is small, and her placement on the painting suggests she might have emerged and grown from one of the cockroach’s own eggs.
I follow a yellow path from the demon up to the top right corner of the painting, where the yellow path borders and protects another iteration of The Patient. This Patient is a yellow-headed baby, bound on a stripey bed by cockroach-colored strictures. “Did you notice the baby’s flippers?” Fleming wants to know. I see them. They’re yellow, flapping an aqua beat. Above the baby Patient, the antenna of an old television rises.
The baby’s yellow border burgeons into an empty, yellow-trimmed thought bubble rising from her mind, bobbing just above the whoopee cushion. Perhaps it is not a thought, but a crown? I follow that yellow-gold to the top left of the painting, where a Good Therapist does her work. The Good Therapist brings the light—she is yellow-haired and yellow-clothed and there is literal space left around her and in her, white spots of canvas where a simple outline of her hand emerges, drawing and writing in her blank notebook. The Good Therapist faces away from us, toward the baby. Her attention is on the blank page.
The 50 Minute Hour, large, bright, and riveting, is the culminating painting in what Fleming calls the #ohmergerd collection. It is the final, enormous assertion in this relatively small show that is laden with images, assertions, and questions.
Visitors are welcomed to #ohmergerd by a small white pedestal holding Fleming’s chapbook, I Haven’t Been Home Since I Left, paired with about a dozen drawings, slightly larger than business cards. The paper chapbook sitting next to the casually scattered drawings invites visitors to touch the work. In her poem, Crockpot, Fleming writes:
I have no idea what this gold crock pot may be a metaphor for so I'm throwing whatever I feel like into it. Old paintings loathed,
rubber cubes of hair, smiling throw pillows, falling parallelograms of air, old watermelon hearts brownish around the edges, helpful pills, milk-scented prayers (poof!)
and chocolate-scented-wall-to-wall-throw rugs. (jump!)
I am happy to keep tossing this mean matter into the cooker. What might come to be at the end of the alchemical wish is confusing and therefore gold.
Next to the chapbook, the little drawings are among the mean matter thrown into the metaphysical cooker. A drawing of a rosebud-shaped virus knocks up against a picture of an eye and ear shown in profile in a square head, which lays by a drawing of three ice cream cones. Fleming offers me one of the drawings as I head to the gallery wall to read the show’s description.
The show’s description wonders: “Is this intentional? What about necessary?” and the first of Fleming’s pieces hanging along the gallery wall offers a possible answer. Named after Keats’s Negative Capability, the painting provides an(other) opportunity for viewers to be with “uncertainties, Mysteries, [and] doubts,” without what Keats called “any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
It feels funny to write words about this work, to irritably reach after facts, but I know no other way to tell you what I saw. Like The 50 Minute Hour, Negative Capability is largely aqua in color. Aqua is a touchstone in Fleming’s work. Her grandmother, MawMaw, had aqua-colored furniture in her bedroom when Fleming was a girl, as well as an aqua Cadillac. And when she was 5-years-old, Fleming had an epiphany about the unity of the world when she caught sight of a frog illuminated by an aqua landscape light. She says this epiphany, despite life and all its horrors, has never left her.
The main figure in Negative Capability is a dark-haired girl sitting in a hairdresser’s chair, “getting a shampoo at 8 in the morning,” Fleming explains. Her shampooer is a headless hairdresser wearing neon yellow tights and a bright pink tunic. Perhaps the hairdresser’s head is merely obscured by the fat pearls of salmon-colored shampoo bubbles that rise near the top of the painting. The Shampoo Girl stares forward, at a jittery thought bubble with the word “Bam” inside. Fleming, who pushes against the limitations of language, but who has also called words “an endearing tether,” draws my attention to Shampoo Girl’s “significant problem with her legs.” Fleming points out Shampoo Girl’s bottom feet, shaped like Bullwinkle’s and a second set of feet, higher up her legs, shaped like Charlie Brown’s.
That is a significant problem.
Beside Negative Capability, a stacked pair of smaller paintings are the most melancholy works in this show. These two pieces were painted on canvases that Fleming picked up at Ross Dress for Less. Moments of the original images on the canvases emerge, patchily, from beneath Fleming’s paint, which in these works is muted, soft aqua, as if seen beneath a drizzle. The top painting, Son, features an unshaven man in profile, wearing a turtleneck I misperceived as a girl’s hair comb from the 1970s. The Son has a swirl of graying hair and he looks, with some dismay, into a shady, brutalist image of black, muted aqua, and white that might be a nascent figure. (Maybe.) The underlying dull gold and mauve of the Ross Dress for Less canvas provides a murky background. Beneath Son, the titular Angel weeps under water. Her white curls bouf like surf, and her lavender lips suggest the water may be cold. In a narrow, pale gold sky, ornate lettering (Latin? Nonsense?) from the original canvas emerges softly, here and there, palimpsest seen beneath a scrim.
Acting as a bridge between the melancholy paintings and The 50 Minute Hour are about a dozen of what Fleming calls “metaphysical drawings.” When I ask her why they’re called this, Fleming says, “the existence of these things [in the drawings] is questionable. And then the energy that goes on between them? That is what I’m trying to draw.”
Fleming and I look, together, at the metaphysical drawings. She points to one: “One thing I’ve achieved, for sure, is I certainly know how to draw a horseshoe.” And another: “And I feel good about Judas’s outfit. It’s a non-binary outfit.” In that drawing, Christ (who is wearing boxers that Fleming say reminds her of her dad’s underwear) looks at Judas, while Judas looks out at the world.
I am not an artist; I am a poet. Fleming and I may disagree about the specific degree to which words serve as bridges or borders. Looking at her work with her, I keep asking her to say words about it, and she keeps pushing against my questions and assertions. The two of us sometimes find respite in “ol’ Gertie Stein,” as Fleming calls her—Ol’ Gertie uses my favorite medium in Fleming’s favorite ways. Ol’ Gertie was hanging out with Matisse and Picasso in Paris when she began writing her own portraits. In Lectures in America, Stein described her written portraits this way:
Every time I said what they were I said so that they were this thing, and each time I said what they were as they were, as I was, naturally more or less but never the same thing each time that I said what they were I said what they were, not that they were different nor that I was different but as it was not the same moment which I said I said it with a difference. So finally I was emptied of saying this thing, and so no longer said what they were."
In celebration of Fleming’s comic surrealism, I will stop, then, saying what I saw, and what I thought Fleming’s paintings and drawings were. I recommend, though, going to see them if you get the chance.
 Stein, G. (1957). Lectures in America. Beacon Press.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Adventures of Robin Hood, which was originally to be filmed in black-and-white and star James Cagney, was one of the first films shot with the three-strip technicolor process, and it shows, because the color really, really shows. Robin Hood was never so green, Will Scarlett was never so scarlet, and Sherwood Forest never looked like such a merry place to live.
Why is the movie still so good? Because it lives up to its title. These are adventures. They’re fun. Against a backdrop of oppression and tyranny, famine and regicide, everyone takes things about as seriously as little boys on a neighborhood caper. No one bleeds, the best fights are with friends, and you get to swing on rope swings. Grit hasn’t clogged the works yet.
You know the backstory: King Richard’s away at the Crusades, he’s left Longchamps as Regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)—with the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) along as comic relief—plot, scheme, and steal. When Richard is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, John and Guy drink to a bright, evil future, then spill the wine and watch the red liquid drip on the floor with metaphoric delight. In quick order their men take meat from Saxon butchers and torture Saxon landowners. Then Sir Guy is about to kill Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin), for violating Forest law, but Robin of Locksley (Erroll Flynn) and his squire, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), appear on horseback and Robin shoots Guy’s mace from his hand. Now Robin has an enemy (Guy) and a follower (Much).
In every film version of the Robin Hood legend, the outlawed “merry men” are already in Sherwood Forest, either leaderless or led nominally by Little John, when Robin finally appears to offer true leadership. Except here. Here Robin appears first. He has a plan. He’s so sure of this plan he saunters into the palace with the king’s deer over his shoulders, and, after annoying Sir Guy, amusing Prince John, and flirting with a put-off Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), lays out his entire plan—the entire story, really—before his enemies:
Robin: I’ll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death. And I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
John: Have you finished?
Robin: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I’ll use every means in my power to fight you.
Cue swordfight against a multitude, bows and arrows, escape into the night.
The movie was initially directed by William Keighley (“Each Dawn I Die”), but Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. thought the Sherwood scenes, filmed on location in Chico, California, lacked vitality, and they replaced him with Michael Curtiz (“Angels with Dirty Faces”; “Casablanca”), who added just that. He filmed additional scenes of the merry men prepping for and then attacking the caravan, and all of that climbing, running and jumping, sometimes directly at the camera, feel like primers for the masculine energy of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The caravan includes, nonsensically, Maid Marian, which affords Robin the opportunity to woo her. Up to this point she’s believed the Norman lies about Saxons. But when the merry men display loyalty for Richard, and, more, when Robin shows her the Saxon poor and the sick that Prince John’s laws have created—living 10 yards from where his men are feasting and whooping it up—she’s won over. I wasn’t. It’s always dangerous for adults to critique the plot points of children’s stories, but the one thing that never made sense to me watching this movie as a child was this Sherwood Forest segregation. “How come the poor and sick haven’t been invited to the feast?” I thought at age 10. “How come they’re stuck in this cold, dark place, while the merry men are living it up over there? Seems unfair.” Thus are critics born.
Afterwards, the Sheriff, proving he’s not just comic relief, comes up with the plan for the archery contest, Robin Hood splits Philip of Arras’ arrow, and, in winning, is revealed, captured and sentenced to hang. It’s Marian, traveling to Kent Road Tavern, who nonsensically provides the escape plan. Following its success, we get a Romeo-and-Juliet-ish balcony scene between the two. Despite closed-mouth kissing and Hays Code proprieties, Flynn and de Havilland are still able to generate a great deal of heat.
Meanwhile, a disguised King Richard returns to England and allies with Robin even as Prince John tries to coronate himself. Marian is imperiled (though not, for once, her virtue—Hays Code again), and there’s the usual final assault on the castle and a duel between Robin and Sir Guy on the castle steps. Check out the long take, where, with Curtiz’s camera gliding back, the two men duel around a thick column and out of camera range but we continue to see their shadows clashing swords; then they come back on the opposite side of the column, foils still clashing. It’s dynamic and mythic, and surely influenced the light-sabre battles between Luke and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not many directors have used shadows better than Curtiz.
In the end, with Sir Guy skewered and John and the Sheriff banished, King Richard commands Robin to take the hand of the Lady Marian; their friends all gather round to congratulate them but they slip out of the circle. It’s a replay of Robin slipping out from under a hogpile of Prince John’s men earlier in the movie. Here, he and Marian wind up by the door, where Robin, smiling, shouts: “May I obey all of your commands with equal pleasure, Sire!” Then they leave, the door closes, The End.
It’s what you’d call a Hollywood ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You have to put your chicken in a bag. I am partial to thigh or breast. Add lemon juice, lots of paprika, some herbes de provence, balsamic vinegar (just a splash), salt + pepper. Season until your ancestors tell you it’s enough.
Let that relax in the fridge for awhile.
Make whatever grain you like. I like rice cooked with butter, chicken bouillon, and Israeli couscous, a la Ottolenghi, but quinoa with some cucumber and tomato is also excellent. If you like dairy, feta is encouraged.
After your chicken has lounged, sufficiently, in the fridge, fry it in a cast iron skillet until cooked through. Cooking with cast iron is important; it adds years to your life.
In a low bowl, gather your grain and your chicken and take yourself, your bowl, and a fork and napkin outside. It’s been a long winter. Have some sustenance with some sun on your face.
Ice bobs in Lake Ontario, Sodus Point, New York, U.S.A., March, 2021. By S. Skelly.
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