Thursday, March 09, 2006

This post comes with a disclaimer

which is that almost everything to do with my home life as a teenager is a complete blur; things to do with school and reading and writing and music and such are all fairly clear, but I seriously can hardly remember anything (anything publishable...) about family life c. 1984-88.

(Whereas I vividly remember a huge number of reading experiences--for instance, one particularly clear one is me aged thirteen sitting on the bleachers at the playing fields on a very sunny day mesmerized by Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers [which you can get for one cent at Amazon, by the way, go for it] and desperately hoping not to be taken off the bench and put in to play the fourth quarter of the wretched lacrosse game, I consider it very forgiving of the coaches in retrospect to let me sit there reading like that as opposed to doing something more team-supporting. Or the same year reading Elizabeth Bishop for the first time and having it be completely mind-blowing; or Pynchon a few years later; or even things like algebra and geometry and physics which I can't remember the content of now but can easily relive my then-excitement about.)

So I was idly reading the Talk of the Town section in this week's New Yorker and got almost to the end of the Calvin Tomkins piece about painter Barnaby Furnas before having a sort of flashback moment. Here were the paragraphs that cued the memory and made me retroactively recognize the name:

Furnas surveyed the canvas and tried to explain how blood had become his motif. "Basically, I wanted to do history paintings, and battle paintings," he said. "But I was having trouble painting figures. I was particularly frustrated with the faces and the hands, and as a way of getting around that I'd paint someone being shot, and then I didn't have to worry. Like, I'm having trouble with this hand--splat! And that was interesting. It's red paint, and it's also blood. And then I was off and running, because it became like a game to me. When I was a kid, growing up in a kind of ghetto commune in Philadelphia, I would do elaborate battle pictures. I'd lie on the floor with my little pencil and draw all these men and cannons. I could just set it all up and then actually shoot--fire the guns, play it. That's still the basic idea here. You pour red paint and have this incredible formalist experience, and you can also play the picture. You've got a foot in both worlds. It's really happening."

"And he was raised by a Quaker," Boesky observed. "Which adds to the naughtiness." Furnas's naughtiness has deep roots. As a teen-ager in Philadelphia, he was arrested so often for spray-painting graffiti in subway tunnels that he had to do a thousand hours of community service--most of which took the form of scrubbing off graffiti.


It was the words "a kind of ghetto commune in Philadelphia" that first caught my attention, and then "raised by a Quaker" clinched it. I was fortunately not raised in a ghetto commune, but I did grow up in Philadelphia, and was also raised by a Quaker: and Barnaby Furnas was in fact the guy who started the whole graffiti thing in the Davidson household (literally in the house, I mean; I do not imagine that he introduced the house's inhabitants to graffiti). In the end the walls of my brothers' rooms were really almost completely black with tags, at least in the places where you could reach to write. But it started when (with some vague parental consent--I believe our mother who was always a good sport and a supporter of the arts in whatever form they took may have actually paid for the spray-paint) Barnaby painted these huge sort of mural-y things in one (in both?) rooms, I expect the guys were all in seventh grade. Psychedelic toadstools and hookah-smoking things, artful puffs of smoke stenciled (if I am remembering correctly) with the ingenious assistance of a hubcap. And then somehow everybody started coming over to do graffiti all the time, or if you were just kind of lying around in there watching TV you would idly pick up a pen and start scrawling--I don't like the politics of the "broken windows" school of policing but there is no doubt that it's distinctly disinhibiting once there's one tiny little mark. The original mural got almost covered over with tags, and the rooms were painted (and re-tagged) several times over in my admittedly vague memory before they reached their present--more civilized--incarnation. I wonder if there is photographic documentation?

(Barnaby's father was a much harder-core Quaker than our mother was, so I am not surprised about this whole war thing, there is no doubt that war and violence and toy soldiers and that sort of thing was much more taboo than anything on the whole, you know, ah, "let's get multiple piercings, start shooting up and then clean up our act and become known as gay S/M performance artists" type thing, which in other circles would be more obviously transgressive but in these ones really quite respectable, especially if you were an activist.)

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