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Poster Boy

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As those of you know from reading my observations on creativity, I have certainly penned plenty of film and book reviews, which often supplement my standard fare of art essays about talented artists that I admire. After spending nearly fifteen years at Rhode Island School of Design, first as an undergraduate and graduate student and a few years later as the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, occasionally I am asked to use my rather unique perspective and nominate the most multi-talented student overall to graduate during the past few decades from this distinguished institution that was founded in 1877. There is an impressive list of living candidates from around the globe for this award, ranging from David Byrne, Jenny Holzer and Nicole Miller to Dale Chihuly, Seth MacFarlane and Chris Van Allsburg to Shepard Fairey and Roni Horn, to name a few of the hundreds of deserving former students. Pushed for a response, I would have to say that in truth, my bet is on a remarkable artist named Neke Carson (class of 1968). I had the pleasure of knowing Neke at RISD, first as a legendary and scandalously controversial genius and secondly as a member of fellow RISD student Martin Mull's fledging art rock band, then later as a member of my distinguished stable of artists affiliated with the Helander Gallery on West Broadway in Manhattan during the 1990s. His intuitive drawing ability, although often purposely "left-footed," was renowned, and his mischievous academic projects were jaw-droppingly revolutionary.

He left for New York the day after he graduated from RISD and made a beeline to Andy Warhol's Factory, bearing a personal invitation to visit. Not long after he arrived, he created Andy's most favorite, but definitely most infamous portrait, without employing his mouth, hands or feet (see if you can guess which body part he did use). Years later, this portrait session resulted in a proposal for a documentary retrospective at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He continues to be a treasured fixture on the New York downtown scene and remains, like many remarkable talents, unaffected and charmingly sweet. When he isn't scouting locations for television shows shot on the streets of Manhattan, arranging weekly performances at the legendary Gershwin Hotel or exhibiting his artwork, he relaxes by playing self-taught jazzy piano solos at various clubs to an impressive group of music enthusiasts.

While in New York City in the early 1970s, Neke landed in the middle of the conceptual artist movement, for which he didn't care much, as I recall. Perhaps artistic exercises like pulling out your hair (Dennis Oppenheim), shooting yourself (Chris Burden), and literally "jacking off" during a gallery performance (Vito Acconci), were just too self-conscious for a guy who invented distinctive conceptual logic at art school long before it had a respectable label. He had his own hysterically funny commentary on the movement, with projects like "So-Ho Sold Out," where he put an unauthorized red dot under every single work of art on display in most of the leading galleries downtown. He was an ingenious prankster for sure, which landed him a story in Newsweek for his audacity with an aesthetic twist. Soon he started to put up absurd posters around town, which were so riotously insane that they became instant hits and were ripped from the walls as souvenirs, like vintage Keith Haring public scribbles for the taking. One slightly decaying example that I still have in my studio bathroom (circa 1973), illustrates a man with a giant bubble coming out of his nose while managing to hold on to his bizarre, circular 'penis' that would give a fire hose a run for its money. The poster announces that "This Happens Every Day but Not to You!" and the copy continues: "Man and womankind come in contact with diseasonal tissue constantly. What it does to some and not to others depends on diet and sleep control. Facts combined with the way one walks on his feet takes a toll everyone has to pay. ... There is a program. People are on it. Prepare yourself for some blunt answers. ..." It was attributed to "Concerned Doctors Forever" in Washington, D.C. What Neke started through his unidentified messages, preceding by far 'text' artists like Barbara Kruger, made him admired by underground art fans, and would now be considered a modern day, Banksy-like anonymous graffiti statement.

In 1973, Carson pasted up another infamous poster, which asked in bold type: WILL THE FUTURE OF ART BE TOLD ONLY IN WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHS? A subtitle announced a six week therapeutic course offered by "The United Painters and Sculptors of America present: ART THERAPY FOR CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS! Learn to work with your hands not on them!" The poster shows two photographs. One is a picture of an artist burning his hands with a cigarette. The other is the same artist (presumably after taking Neke's course) making a goofy classroom clay bust of a head with his hands and he goes on to pose a question: "Time on your hands? The course of art history can be changed in your lifetime with one easy to follow lesson on how to do it." I can't reveal the rest of the copy, as it would be like revealing "whodunit" at the end of a mystery novel, but the entire original course, Art Therapy for Conceptual Artists, has now been published in book form by Rollo Press (Zürich), and you too can get an inside track on respectable art-making by visiting the Rollo Press booth during the New York Art Book Fair at MoMa/PS1 (September 20-22; 22-25 Jackson Ave at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens; for more information, please call 646-207-0596). On Saturday, September 21, Neke will be at the booth, signing his book from 3-4 p.m. If you cannot attend the Book Fair or signing, you can now order the book directly from the publisher: http://www.rollo-press.com/#art-therapy-for-conceptual-artists; click the "i" for purchasing info. For €24.00 (about $33.00 US), you can enjoy the deadpan, step-by-step illustrated instructions on how to create a variety of art projects, from a papier mâché crocodile to a semi-human figure. Neke's current show, The Strange World of Neke Carson: Early Works 1970-1985, can be viewed online at Gallery 98's website: http://gallery.98bowery.com/exhibition/the-strange-world-of-neke-carsonnearly-works-1970-85/

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