IT WAS ILLEGAL TO LIVE THERE, AND I LIVED THERE – AN INTERVIEW ABOUT THE WEST WITH BEN MOREA BY NATHAN C. MARTIN

Recently Boo-Hooray and Envoy Enterprises partnered to exhibit a selection of paintings by Ben Morea entitled,  Ben Morea: The Line Between - Paintings of The Early '90's in New York's Lower East Side. Nathan C. Martin spoke with Morea recently about his life since his well documented time with The Motherfuckers to now.

A resurgence of interest in Ben Morea’s life and work in the 1960s has occurred in the past few years with books and exhibitions related to his participation in the anarchist-artists groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. Interviews have appeared about his activism in New York, a solo show of paintings from the 1960’s exhibited at Boo-Hooray, and there was even a characterization based on him in Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers. This interest has taken place since he re-appeared, in a way, from decades of anonymity spent mostly in southern Colorado where he relocated after repeated clashes with police prompted him to leave New York. 

Less has been said about Morea’s time in the West.¹ Upon arrival in northern New Mexico in 1969, he joined forces with a group of Chicano activists embroiled in a struggle over land rights. Afterward, he spent five years in the wilderness on horseback, hunting and gathering sustenance and in the intervening years since, he’s delved more deeply into himself, into nature, and into a non-materialist mindset.

Through it all, he’s remained an artist. Though life forced him to take extended hiatuses from art, he was an accomplished abstract painter in New York in the 1960s and resumed working in the ‘80s, after settling down a bit. He’s continued painting to this day. An exhibition titled, ‘Ben Morea - The Line Between: Paintings of The Early 90’s’ opened September 10th at 33 Orchard as a joint presentation of Envoy Enterprises and Boo-Hooray thru October 4th.

I spoke with Ben Morea recently over the phone from my home in Wyoming:

Nathan C. Martin: You left New York for a variety of reasons and came out West. Why did you stay out West?

Ben Morea: There was something I was interested in prior to my leaving New York. Part of my development, my psyche, was seeking something other than what was available in New York—something beyond the artistic or political, and I could never quite formulate it, even what the question would be. I just felt uneasy. There was something missing. So, when I felt it was time to leave New York—or, I more or less had to leave—it was not only the impetus to leave, but I thought that was my chance to see what this other thing was.

I’d been really drawn toward Native American culture in New York. It was always part of my thought patterns, but I never could really understand it deeply. So, I thought since I was coming out West to get away from one thing, I may also seek out the other thing. Having sought out the other thing and having found what I wanted, there was no reason to ever leave.

NCM: What are some of the things about life out here, the way you can exist, that seemed better?

BM: First of all, it’s not rooted in material. I lived in the wilderness for quite a while. So that was the extreme, and that was the best way to sense that there’s a life not attached to material—that it’s quite the opposite, in fact. I stayed in the wilderness about five years, and after that experience I homesteaded. I left the wilderness but I stayed close to the natural world. Even twenty years later, I moved into town and I’ve re-entered the New York art scene and political scene again at some level but I’ve always remained most comfortable in the natural world, the non-material world.

NCM: People have been coming out West in America since the beginning of European settlement to escape their pasts—debtors or other people ducking authority or people seeking to reinvent themselves or start over. Do you feel like you fit into this tradition?

BM: Absolutely. I totally reinvented myself.

NCM: Were you thinking of the West as a place to escape?

BM: It was a parallel. There was the interest in escape but there was also the interest in finding an alternative. They were actually both extremely important to me. It was not just the escape but it was the chance to find the alternative.

NCM: When you were transitioning, when you first arrived out West, you got involved with Alianza and some of the things they were working on with land rights.

BM: Correct. That was actually—you used the correct word—transitional. Because that was not only the natural world, paralleled with what I was seeking, but it was also connected to my past, the political activist past.

There had been an uprising in northern New Mexico based on the land grants. People had been given the access and use of the land communally without ownership but the Western American judicial system was based on ownership, so they were already in conflict. The folks up there believed in the communal use of the land, not in ownership of the land—they owned their little plots where they lived, but they had open range that they worked and used communally. Nobody felt ownership. But slowly people from Texas and more traditional American or Western environments encroached and they brought with them this strong ownership instinct. So there was an immediate conflict.

NCM: I just moved back to Wyoming, where I grew up after living the past decade or so in cities. It seems as though while real estate development and gentrification are closing up cities, a similar process of closure is taking place in the open land of the West. Do you see this parallel?

BM: Oh yeah, obviously. But in the deep West where all this transpired, the encroachment was not a gentrification or the city encroaching, but it was rather a consciousness of ownership encroaching. These giant ranches were formed by land ownership of people coming from Texas mainly assuming that all land was within their domain was theirs. So rather than an encroachment being a city encroachment, it was a consciousness encroachment. Does that make sense?

NCM: Sure, the land is still there, but now someone owns it instead of everyone owning it.

BM: Correct. The use of it was then restricted so there was an uprising against that. And that northern New Mexico Alianza area was occupied by the National Guard. It was open warfare, back and forth for a ten-year period. Eventually the ownership movement was dominant and won.

NCM: That’s a trend that’s continued in Colorado. I was wondering if there’s even enough wild land left in that state to live in the wilderness for five years.

BM: Probably not. When I did it we’re talking almost forty years ago. Everything was different. You didn’t have the technology you have now. You didn’t have cell phones. So if somebody came across you, there was no way they could call. There was no intrusion into the environment as there is now. Now, you can’t make a move without people either knowing about it or being able to find out about it. There was no GPS then, there was no ability to scan land. Living in the wilderness was illegal then, but not only could they not find you, but they couldn’t even tell if you were there. That’s not the case today. So if a lot of people went into the wilderness to live, they could just tell immediately through GPS. A lot of people followed me into wilderness living at one point there were hundreds of people living in the mountains. There were bands of people. That couldn’t happen today. We didn’t travel in large bands, but just like Native Americans we would assemble occasionally. So there would be several hundred people in the wilderness in one spot. You couldn’t do that today. It was illegal to live there, and I lived there for five years, but they could never keep track of me. I moved across state lines and through territories of different jurisdictions. But that’s gone, that’s over. They could tell immediately. Jurisdictions are completely shattered now into some global visibility.

NCM: Who besides Alizana did you interact with when you arrived out West? I know some of the Motherfuckers spent time at Black Bear Ranch and other communes.

BM: Right. I visited the communes that I was friendly with, like Black Bear, but I didn’t stay there. Being out West on horseback, I would arrive at a commune and I might stay a day or two, a couple days or a couple weeks, it would depend, and just keep going.

NCM: Black Bear is still around. Do you feel like that commune model has some potential to be viable or transformative today?

BM: No. There are elements of it that are useful, but I never really valued or was in favor of the commune, per se. I like the idea of communal land, but I never really got along with the commune idea personally.

NCM: Why’s that?

BM: My personality maybe. I don’t know if it’s within my ideology, but my personality was more individual. I liked sharing and having a communal aspect, but I didn’t like the full communal attachment. I think I’m still that way.

NCM: In interviews about your time in New York, you talk about being influenced by The Living Theater, Dada, the Beats. Have there been any people or groups in the West that have influenced your similarly?

BM: Native people. The whole way of thought: the non-materialist, the non-codified religion, the animist perspective is my whole world, my whole life. I’m totally opposed to all structured religious thinking and I’m clearly an animist. I believe in a spirit basis rather than a material or ideological or codified basis. And that’s all influenced by Native American thought.

NCM: Have there been any individual Native Americans or groups that have been particularly influential?

BM: Lots of them.

NCM: Can you talk about some of those?

BM: That’s something I’ve always avoided. I’m still involved with them. I’ve been involved for 45 years. But that’s something I always shy away from, because I hate to exploit my presence with them. I see, for instance, all over the Internet there’s these people who want to be shamans or this or that. I’m totally opposed to that whole absorption of Native thought to make a living, so to speak, or to enhance one’s ego, or whatever they use it for. So I shy away from being specific other than saying that, to me, the animist way of thinking and the animist belief system is the way to go. All religions based on books and writing are totally false as far as I’m concerned and have to be overthrown, and thought has to return to an experiential connection, to spiritual being rather than a codified attachment. But I don’t talk about the specifics.

NCM: How has being in the West, the experiences you’ve had, the new perspectives you’ve gained, influenced your painting?

BM: My work over the last 50 years has slowly evolved. I’ve added elements and I’ve modified some of the others I’ve used. The environment did have a big effect on my painting. The paintings I’m going to show coming up in New York, they’re from the 80s and 90s, a time when I still had some connection to my past work. I quit painting in New York in the 60s when I became totally involved in activism because you couldn’t paint. Then I continued the non-painting life when I was in the wilderness because you couldn’t paint. As I homesteaded, you couldn’t paint. It was only in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s that I started painting again. So those paintings when I initially returned to painting had a closer affinity to what I had done earlier. But since then my paintings have kept evolving and they are more and more based on a natural, organic element.

The last show Boo Hooray did, for instance, there were five big canvasses. Three of them were more constructivist, but two of them were clearly organic—one was an eclipse almost, and one is like a fireball. So, those two were more organic. Now my work is totally organic but it’s even less structured than it was back then.

NCM: The ‘60’s seem like they were a time of intense optimism, and that’s something that’s almost foreign to me. I know that you’ve come back out of anonymity because the shit has gotten so bad. Do you feel optimistic at all right now?

BM: I remain optimistic all the time, because that’s what motivates me to keep interacting with whatever, the political world now, again since I’ve reemerged, the artistic world since I’m now back in it. It’s optimism that propels me. I’ve been going to Europe a lot to speak about animism and a change in consciousness from material consciousness to an organic consciousness. I have to be optimistic because that’s what is fueling my motion. It’s my gas, so to speak, my fuel to keep moving.

¹ The exception is Marcy Saude’s film Sangre de Cristo, which features five minutes of interview audio with Morea. Unfortunately this film is unavailable to view online.

 

OIL PAINTS AND ILLUSIONS: THE RALPH ALBERT BLAKELOCK STORY

Moonlight (1885-1889) via Wikimedia Commons and the Brooklyn Museum

Ralph Albert Blakelock often shows up in textbooks and survey exhibitions next to his better-known contemporaries like George Inness or Albert Pinkham Ryder, all late nineteenth-century American painters known for their simple, hazy, romanticist landscapes. Although not entirely forgotten, the self-taught Blakelock is usually given short shrift. Perhaps it’s because his life story, which begins in downtown Manhattan and ends in an asylum in Middletown, New York, is riddled with holes and vagaries.

But the details that have been uncovered—about the big top circus, Upper East Side shantytowns, Herman Melville, vaudeville, a sojourn out west, a tragic mental breakdown—are perplexing and intriguing, indeed the stuff of legend. Blakelock was a manic experimenter, an autodidact, a savant, an individualist, a rebel, a failure, a weirdo: an outsider in the American tradition and a paradigmatic, as well as first-rate, Manhattan artist.

The twelfth Ralph but first Ralph Albert in his family, Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in what’s now the West Village, Manhattan in 1847, against the backdrop of an impending immigration boom (due to Ireland’s famine and Germany’s revolution, mainly) as well as an industrial one that would transform Walt Whitman’s desolate, early-1840s Manhattan into a world financial capital by the following decade. Blakelock taught himself to paint and play the piano, and was highly skilled in both areas by the time he was a teenager.

Influenced by the Hudson River School painters of the mid-nineteenth century as well as those from France’s Barbizon School, the young Blakelock developed a subtle style marked by quick brush strokes and fairly precise objectivity. He painted landscapes, farms, and notably, the shantytowns of uptown Manhattan (see below: a warm, bare depiction of Fifth Avenue in the upper Eighties, painted in 1868 when the Upper East Side was populated by self-built houses housing Manhattan’s working class). Blakelock’s painting would take a turn, though, once he left New York City for the American west, which he did, alone, in his early twenties.

Fifth Avenue and 89th Street (1868) via Ephemeral New York

Though not much is known about Blakelock’s experiences out west—not the exact places he visited, nor the exact dates he was there—many of his drawings and paintings from the period remain. During this time, Blakelock began to shift his painting style in terms of technique, color, and content. Where his early work had the more pronounced outlines of, for instance, Winslow Homer, with a bit of the elegant romanticism of Theodore Rousseau, Blakelock’s western and post-western output is defined by its unusual light sources, warmer colors, and non-objective mind’s eye compositions, as well as by its primary subjects: western landscapes, often featuring Native Americans and their encampments. The visionary Blakelock was attracted to the abstruse spirituality he saw emanating from the western desert.

Upon his return to New York, Blakelock married Cora Bailey of Barnum & Bailey fame. The couple would go on to have nine children, including another Ralph: Ralph Melville Blakelock, presumably named for the eminent New York City writer, Herman, whose popular travelogue novels Typee and Omoo came out around the time of Ralph Albert’s birth, and whose overlooked epic poem Clarel (the longest poem in American literature) arrived just before the birth of Ralph Melville. The family lived near the corners of 24th Street and 9th Avenue and 30th Street and 8th Avenue—and, despite Cora’s family wealth, fell into poverty due to Ralph Albert’s poor business skills and unwillingness to market himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the self-reliant Blakelock refused to be represented by a dealer, choosing instead to sell his own paintings (and frequently failing).

The Chase (1879) via the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory

While in New York City—and then East and West Orange, New Jersey, where the family ultimately moved—Blakelock, ever restless with his craft, changed his painting approach yet again, pushing the subjective, mystical landscape style he had developed out west to its breaking point, de-focusing the lens of his mind’s eye. His mid-to-late paintings have limited and disorienting color palettes as well as limited detail, favoring a flat-but-kinetic lyricism that reduces the subjects to buzzing shapes. The landscape canvases, such as Moonlight (at the top of this page), tend to feature moonlit scenes, dead trees, and narrow bodies of water.

The visionary quality of Blakelock’s paintings betrays the fact that, from an early age, Blakelock began having actual visions. Around 1891, shortly after converting to the mystic religion of Swedenborgianism, Blakelock started having frequent psychotic episodes—and after numerous short-term stays in asylums, Blakelock checked in for a more-or-less permanent stay in 1899 at the age of fifty-one, suffering from dementia praecox (what’s now called schizophrenia).

In the final two to three decades of his life, though, Blakelock’s work began to sell comparably well. The vaudeville performer Lew Bloom—famous for creating the so-called “tramp” character—bought dozens of Blakelock’s paintings in the early 1890s, and the painter’s star continued to rise into the progressive era. Legend has it that President Woodrow Wilson was invited to Blakelock’s 1919 funeral and would’ve attended had he had more advanced notice.

After his death, Blakelock fell into relative obscurity. In 1947, Lloyd Goodrich organized Blakelock’s first posthumous solo show, shown at City College, and then later that year the Whitney presented a Blakelock show as well. Since then, he’s had occasional featured exhibitions in New York City and has earned praise, albeit again in passing, from important New York art figures like Donald Judd, Roberta Smith, and Paul Auster, the latter of whom mentions Blakelock in his 1989 novel Moon Palace. In 1996, Abraham Davidson wrote what remains the only definitive book on Blakelock: Ralph Albert Blakelock, which was the fundamental source for this article’s information. But unlike Inness and Ryder, Blakelock, who in many ways prefigured the successive generations of iconoclastic downtown Manhattan artists, is still overlooked and misunderstood: blurry and incomprehensible, like the subjects of his later paintings.

Landscape (date unknown) via the University of Warwick

Written by Joe Bucciero

 

WARMTH ON THE ICE PLANET: AN INQUIRY INTO MONTRÉAL DINING

When winter decides to have done with the lovably “brisk” or “chilly” spirit with which it arrived and turns more to the “hateful,” “oppressive” end of the spectrum, it seems a worthwhile effort to look into some ways that these very gnarly months can be enjoyed, or at least survived. One possible route through the icy hellscape is demonstrated by our friends to the north. Montréal, Québec—where the winters are longer and harsher and the food and beer heavier in equal measure—has a lot to teach. What follows, then, is a brief inquiry into what to eat in that very distinguished city, though, to be clear, we’re not talking gastro-pubs or tasting menus; no, our allegiance is to the hole in the wall, the lunch pail, the real deal.

The primary means by which generations of Québécois have battled the debilitating effects of long northeast winters is by simply ratcheting up the heartiness quotient of a given dish until it attains a thickness and viscosity that, one can only assume, corresponds with some primordial comfort response located deep in the eater’s genetic encoding. “Hot mush,” in other words, is the order of the day— savory, delicious mush, but mush all the same. The honoring of this ancestral impulse is evidenced in countless Québec favorites—more often than not, modified European recipes, adjusted for maximum wintertime satisfaction—like RACLETTE

a fondue-like dish that amounts to a large pile of molten cheese, and some bread with which to gratefully sop it. There’s also the Montréal baked beans equivalent (brazenly called FÈVES AU LARD

, in case you were curious about the fat content), and a wide sampling of meat pies—among them TOURTIÈRE

, a holiday ground pork/beef/veal deal offset with cinnamon and cloves, and a pretty straightforward analogue to shepherd’s pie which, for some reason lost to history, is known in Québec as PÂTÉ CHINOIS

or “chinese pie.”

Wholly distinct from this stew-prone branch of the Canadian culinary realm is the storied and labyrinthine world of smoked meat

and, by extension, the Montréal deli tradition from which it springs. The thickly-sliced brisket sandwiches of Montréal—which developed, over the course of the 20th century, a North American kosher culture parallel to but distinguished from that of New York—is best experienced by a New Yorker as a pleasant alternate universe variant on a familiar recipe (this goes doubly for bagels, on which more momentarily). Of the famous (and thus tourist-swarmed) smoked meat spots, Bens and Schwartz’s, only the latter is still standing—though the former was, in the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen, visited and rhapsodized over by the man himself in reliably elaborate metaphor. Schwartz’s is good, sure, but if long lines aren’t your thing, there’s a real deal deli counter experience of the rapidly-vanishing variety available just a few blocks north at Wilensky’s, a thankfully untouched, no-bullshit lunch zone and jewel of the Mile End neighborhood, where you can grab a “special” for $3.75 (bologna and salami on a roll with cheese and mustard, natch), any number of 50-cent dried sausages from a cup that’s been parked on the bar-top since opening, and a soda made in-house from their inexhaustible inventory of homemade syrups (up to and including chocolate flavor).

But the most celebrated—and most contentious—entry in any Montréal Jewish Cooking lexicon would surely go to the bagel

whose Canadian version is tucked as closely to the Montréaler identity as its American cousin is to that of NYC. There is little use in declaring a preference, and frankly we’d rather avoid the “which bagel is better” controversy, after the arguments and altercations that have broken out, the friend- and relationships torn asunder, the administrations that have been brought down over that selfsame question. But for the unfamiliar reader, a little background on the northern variant may still be in order. Montréal bagels are sweet, with a nutty, unpolished vibe; they come on an unspoken “sesame seeds or nothing” basis, meaning if you don’t want to seem like a psycho, that’s how you’ll order them; they’re simultaneously larger (in diameter), smaller (in actual edible volume) and crunchier than the doughy American version. In the Montréal bagel conversation, the only names that bear mentioning are Fairmount Bagels and St-Viateur Bagels, products of a long-ago acrimonious split that have unsurprisingly remained bitter rivals. There is plenty of scuttlebutt to be seized on in the battle between the two institutions (rumor even has it that Fairmount recently started bleaching their flour, though let me underline that this infraction is merely “alleged” at this point), but the truth of the matter is they both serve superlative bagels, and are necessary destinations, if for no other reason then at least for the spectacle—that unquantifiably emotional experience of hustling through fogged-out glass doors to be greeted by an endlessly-replenishing mountain of steaming bagels being corralled into a giant bagging trough by a dejected Sisyphean employee armed with a massive wooden paddle.

Both stores serve cream cheese as well.

Last on the agenda is the monolithic unspoken presence that lurks behind every discussion of food in Montréal, the dark center of the town’s culinary black hole: poutine,

the french fry / cheese curd / gravy agglomerate that—though it’s now begun to enjoy a bit of international notoriety and even something of a foodie cachet—simply cannot be explained, except maybe as the fundamental product of that venerable school of thought that says “it’s cold; make a hot greasy pile of food and we’ll all feel a bit better;” and be sure to ignore the voices of prattling gourmands who would have you believe that poutine is about anything else. All that being said, it is pretty damn good. As with any cheap staple food, the places not to go for poutine are many: chain joints like La Belle Province, St. Hubert and Frites Alors (whose name, basically “[Let’s get] fries, then,” perfectly sums up the combination of enthusiasm and resignation that is a necessary precursor to a trip to a poutinerie) are to be avoided at all costs. But poutine is not a fancy food, and walking the mid-range line would be the right move: for this there’s La Banquise, a 24-hour poutine mill with 30 varieties of the dish, the latest in Quebecer jams on the radio, and no end to the health concerns generated therein.

So over the next couple of months, as we turn back to our troubled, frostbitten lives, maybe we can take a little comfort from the means by which our Canadian brethren have managed to light an alimentary path through winter’s darkness: namely, by piling on thicker and thicker accumulations of hot, primevally-ordained comfort. They’ve led the way; all we need do is follow.

written by Mark Iosifescu