For your summer reading pleasure, BURNAWAY brings you Just Like Suicide, a novel by artist Mery Lynn McCorkle, set in the Los Angeles art world. She writes from experience, having lived for years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when it still was the art frontier, and then LA; she now resides in Rome, Georgia. She describes the book as “a compendium of interlocking tales cataloguing self demolition and success in the Los Angeles art scene, from the point of view of artists, dealers and family members.”
We’ll post sequential chapters from McCorkle’s book every Wednesday and Friday over the summer (and on Monday’s beginning in August!). Or click here to buy the book now.
Lori Milligan died last week. She, Tommy Malinowski, Hondo Hines and Alex Garcia, close friends and collaborators, dominated the hype about young LA artists during the first years of this century. Together the four personified the art world’s need for the wild beast artist, the fucked-up junkie, who produced soul searing honesty which goes over the edge into madness and death. They were the real thing and the deaths of Hines and Malinowski proved it.
Hondo Hines overdosed first and became an instant martyr for honest expression. “He was too sensitive to survive,” one magazine article proclaimed. His photographs, framed on museum walls, printed in a score of trendy magazines, emblazoned on t-shirts, became icons for a generation. It helped that his grandmother hired a public relations firm to keep his name alive and reputation growing. Tommy Malinowski, just as talented and technically more inventive, has fared less auspiciously. Painters can’t produce as much work as a documentary photographer so there was less work to donate to museums. His work also has to stand on its own, without the spin doctors pumping him up. In the art world, as everywhere else, it’s so often whom you know more than what you do.
It isn’t just the art world which likes its celebrities to live hard and die young. All of the creative fields are infested with this blood lust and have been since Romanticism spawned the saga of young Werther who committed suicide over unrequited love in Goethe’s famous novel published in 1787, inspiring a rash of suicides of young men wearing identical yellow waistcoats across Europe. Dying over love has a long history but dying as a copycat of a fictional character was new, at least in the secular world. The first example of “modern” truth-via-intoxication was Alfred Jarry who drank absinthe all day every day and died in 1907 at age 34 in Paris. His success – he wrote the first cyborg sex novel and shocked his audience with the first line in his play Ubu Roi, “Merde” – inspired artists in all fields. But these days seeking heightened aesthetic awareness through drugs has been institutionalized like so much else in our lives. Handlers, dealers, producers, all try to get the “best work” from their artists by keeping the drug supply lines open. I heard a dealer tell a collector that he did whatever was necessary to keep his artists happy. Anyone who’s doing those kind of drugs all the time is not a happy camper. He should have been honest about it and admit he kept them supplied so he could make more money off the drugged out art work they produced. Junkie art has a large following, a voyeuristic following of sedate wannabes sitting comfortably in boardrooms.
Lori Milligan, like Patti Smith and others who saw how destructive living off drugs could be, chose to grow up.
Odessa stopped here and wiped her eyes and nose. Since Tommy died, she hadn’t written an obituary. As she discovered writing it, Dennis’ death made it too hard. She shouldn’t have agreed to write that one: Tommy deserved better than what she wrote. It was like she tiptoed around his life, averting her eyes, focusing on a small set of his accomplishments, not the complex person he was.
Thinking about any death now conjured up all those which preceded it. She would think of one and all of them would flood down upon her, drowning her in memories in that cesspool of loss. Thinking about death, about the suffering of those left behind, made her joints ache and once she started crying, it was near impossible to stop. She joked with friends about it. “I can’t even watch tv anymore. Because of all the crime scene and doctor shows.” Every time they featured someone dying in a hospital, she burst into tears. It didn’t matter how badly written or how badly acted: the body on the hospital bed brought to her knees sobbing as surely as cats made her sneeze.
She didn’t cry at Lori’s funeral. Partly because she felt cried out already. And partly because she simply refused to believe that it had happened. The drawings she had collected from the studio were so alive, so vital. How could Lori just be dead? No one dies in pregnancy any more. Edema is so easily monitored. Lori and her hard headed pride. She wanted to do it all without help, without asking favors. No one is self sufficient all of the time. Rugged individualism is a pernicious myth and Lori died from buying into it whole hog. Her death was such a horrible waste.
To stop any tears, Odessa fell back on her usual strategy of observing the crowd. Quite a few people were there, art world folks mingling with mothers in Lori’s play group and some older friends of Brendan and his family. Maggie pointed out to Odessa that there were no flowers. It was the first funeral either of them had ever attended without any flowers. Pink and yellow cards noting donations for the girls’ college fund were lined up like a long snake across the table by the front door. A group of young mothers stood together by that table mourning the death of the fetus so close to term. The artists nearer to the coffin talked about seeing one of her new drawings in a group show just last month, how strong it was, what a good new direction, and now she was dead. Lori was so versatile, one artist said. Any subject she focused on came alive.
Lori was unusual. Most youthful successes rarely had a long creative life span. Successful artists mostly fell into two groups: revolutionaries in content and technique, almost always young, and evolutionaries whose work grew with wisdom and practice. Not too many achieved both. Most artists didn’t achieve either, actually. Odessa remembered reading an interview in grad school with the line, “Mediocre artists suffer as much as a Picasso without any hope of becoming even a footnote in art history.” Lori was certainly not mediocre. She worked with an honesty few can muster.
She reread what she had written. A false start, too wordy. She’d have to approach it from a different direction. The obit should not be about her and her opinions, but about Lori. Some part of this should be about Lori.
The funeral service was a simple affair. A friend from the play group talked about what a good mother Lori was, how she built a nifty puppet theater and encouraged chalk drawings on the driveway, finger paints on the walls. All the children loved her. Brendan’s mother stood and told everyone what a delight she had been, how she added spirit and mischief to everything she touched. How she decorated a battered beach ball with bright yellow daisies. How she iced the cheesecake into a mock Mondrian. Brendan was last and told the story of how he met Lori, how he fell in love at first sight at the tar pits, every single word slowed and slurred with tears. When he finished, everyone in the room crying with him, the back door screeched open and Lori’s mother descended upon the service, indignant that it had started without her, furious her daughter had this secret life. She stomped down the aisle and snapped at Brendan whom she had never met, loudly threatening to file for custody of the girls as soon as her daughter was buried. How dare Lori have children and not share them with Teddy. How dare Lori die so stupidly and prevent Teddy from having a grandson. A grandson. Watching her grandstand at the funeral home, Odessa could see why Lori had turned to drugs. Escape seemed a sensible response. Not once did Jody offer any comfort or support, nor did she thank Brendan’s mother for calling her with the news. The entire event was about Jody raging for Teddy: Lori became almost inconsequential. As a mother, she could understand Jody’s fury and sense of betrayal. If Jack blocked her from his life as thoroughly as Lori had, she would be tempted to lash out as well. But this was not the place or the time. This behavior was excruciating to watch.
Odessa offered condolences to Brendan who responded by crushing her in a hug. As she was squashed up against him, she patted his shoulder, telling him not to worry about money. The drawings and Lori’s older paintings would sell. Work would go into museums, she promised, so the girls could see their birthright and be proud of their mother. Jody barged in on the conversation and accused her of stealing her daughter’s profits. Brendan lowered his head and walked away, leaving Odessa with the insults. Lori was a selfish, stupid girl. The service looked cheap and shabby. Cremation was completely unacceptable. Odessa quietly told her, “I know it’s hard. I lost my husband recently. I understand grief.” Jody told her to go fuck herself and marched over to the poor man who ran the funeral home, berating him for not putting out flowers and for playing such inappropriate music. Everyone around her cringed and moved away.
Teddy stood tall, watching all this impassively, not saying a word. Brendan’s parents huddled with their son in a corner near the closed casket aghast. Odessa overheard Brendan’s mother quietly telling a friend that Lori had avoided her parents. “I thought she was exaggerating about them. She actually made them sound nicer than this.” The friend whispered back, “No wonder she avoided them.” It was one of those whispers which carry. Everyone in the room could hear it, including Jody and Teddy. Jody stomped out crying with Teddy walking stone faced in her eddy.
The miserable ending to the funeral was why she had agreed to write the obituary. It was important to commemorate Lori’s accomplishments and her courage in life. The question in her mind was if the obituary should be a reminder of the drug use, a cautionary tale? Words have consequences after all. Odessa worried that the story of Lori’s early success would inspire more young artists to emulate it, like the young men copying Werther. Students are always looking for an easy way, for a tried and true formula to follow for instant success. Excess, to be honest, wasn’t exactly a new formula for success. Drugs and insanity and reckless abandon always come back in style. Why is it that artists who are sober and trained in art schools are consistently considered less honest than the untrained or drug addled? As if delusions are more honest than observations. As if faith trumps facts, gut over reason. Dennis used to fume that the dying often preferred the quacks who offered “hope” over the doctors. Sometimes accepting death, he said years ago, allows you to die with grace. And then he died in stupefaction, filled with vile painkillers. She shook her head and then started to sob, turning the wedding ring she wore on the slender chain around her neck round and round as the tears trickled down the wrinkles framing her mouth. Why did she become the survivor? When did she become the one who had to remember, the one to set the record straight?
Lori Milligan died last week from complications in her second pregnancy, leaving behind walls of powerful drawings, a distraught husband and twin daughters who are too young to remember her. After years of drug and alcohol excess which coincided with her early fame from luscious and explicit paintings of sexual indulgence, Milligan changed course. Some would say she became conventional in her life. As she wrote in a draft of her artist statement, “Art is often compared to religion where the artist is a shaman. And a shaman connects with the divine through drugs. That is one aspect of art and it devours the artists who follow it. I’ve come to think of art as an observant form of living in the here and now and the artist simply tries to bears witness to the filth and wonders of life.” Her drawings of babies excreting act as a counterbalance to her earlier pleasure of the flesh, a reminder that we are all animals underneath the concepts and abstractions we concoct. We eat, we shit, we grow, we die. And each phase is both beautiful and revolting.
A graduate of the Cal Arts program, she saw her early paintings purchased by major collections and museums around the world. “My paintings have seen more of the world than I have,” she commented shortly before her death. One of her often repeated stories was about tripping on cobbled stones and cracking her coccyx in London after celebrating the purchase of one her paintings by the Tate Modern. For months she walked around with a donut cushion tied to her waist, happily admitting to being a klutz. Her work at its best embodies that combination of clumsiness, self mockery and determination, fusing them into potent reflections on the human condition.
Full disclosure: Her new drawings will be on display in my gallery next month.
Return on Wednesday for the next chapters of Just Like Suicide.