Larry Wessel’s feature-length documentary called LOVE takes viewers into a fascinating and strange realm of the unreal (or, perhaps, the hyper-real) — the realm of Beth Moore-Love’s art. Both Moore-Love and Wessel know that there’s something spooky and nasty about American history and culture and they have reflected that in their respective mediums. While America’s founder’s Enlightment-based idealism offered a vision of a new and wonderful kind of nation, there’s a dark side to it all, starting with stealing the country from the locals with brutal swindles and military campaigns. For pure creepiness one can consider the Salem witch trials, the cannibalism at Donner Pass, the madness and mayhem reported in the book called Wisconsin Death Trip (one source of inspiration for Moore-Love’s art), and, well, there’s the grandfather of all nutty grave-robbing serial killers and the man who provided a lead character for many films including Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs — that crazy kooky cannibal, fashion freak, and Wisconsin native, Ed Gein. Far more destructive than the above horrors is the fact that the U.S. never hesitates to use military force, even for nothing more than to ensure cheap banana prices at the expense of the local farmers, as in the repeated invasions of Honduras. (Note: the U.S. military attacked Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, 1925 to “protect U.S. interests.”)
One could say that Moore-Love’s art is, in part, an expression of the idea, “Nothing risked, nothing Geined.” Moore-Love takes risks in her art and pushes it deep into creepyland Americana with ease and painterly sophistication. Thanks to her ability to combine innocence (she often depicts female children, drawing on Victorian-era pop-culture images) and gore, she has Geined a following in the U.S. and Europe. Born in 1964 in Des Moines, Iowa, she was strongly influenced by time spent in San Francisco in the 1980s where she met Boyd Rice, Anton Levey, and others; plus she helped run the Force-Nordstrom gallery on Market St. there and showed work by Mark Mothersbaugh and Karen Finley, and more. A meeting with Joel Peter-Witkin was important to her artistic development as well.
Wessel’s film tells the story of her artistic life largely from her point of view in a series of intimate conversations at the kitchen table in her house in Albuquerque. We also see her firing an automatic weapon outdoors (perhaps an homage to William Burroughs), and going for drives in the mysterious, awesome, sometimes spooky landscape of New Mexico.
She offers much engaging and in-depth commentary on each major painting she has created. The film moves chronologically through her career, beginning with her first paintings which were done while she was studying with Albuquerque artist and lifelong artistic mentor and friend, Dale Caudill, aka Bo, who also has a prominent role in the film. He’s a charming hippie rogue of an art teacher and friend and offers much entertaining commentary along with her fascinating descriptions of what went into each painting.
The film is expertly filmed, appreciative, and has enough of its own surreal touches to create the right mood for learning about Love’s work. Periodically the viewer is teased with lingering shots of New Mexico semi-wastelands combined with David Lynchian sounds and music create a slightly menacing, surreal mood. I liked that aspect of the documentary. It became at times like Moore’s paintings.
There are also interviews with artists in Berlin, where Moore-Love lived for a time and participated in an infamous group show that briefly became the talk of the town via front-page tabloid newspaper articles (which boosted sales of the newspapers). The sensationalistic articles accused the artists of making and showing obscene art because some of it depicted nude children as part of works of art, something that, if you believe the reports in the mass media, is one of the great horrors of the 20th century along with WWII, Nazi death camps, and Hiroshima. My take on the late-20th and 21st-century hysteria about the exploitation of children is that it’s a metaphor for widespread exploitation of all people. Pretty much everyone knows on some level (conscious or unconscious) that they are exploited by a heartless system (governmental and economic/corporate), however they are relatively powerless to do anything about it — just as children are relatively powerless. Thus in the media and the culture, children stand in for a widespread exploitation — they are a metaphor for adults who feel basically good and innocent but know they’re exploited. Not that most people know this on a conscious level. But artists know this too. Wounded waifs have been a staple motif of the lowbrow/ pop surrealist art movement that I surveyed in my books WEIRDO DELUXE (2005) and WEIRDO NOIR (2010). San Francisco artist Margaret Keane may have kicked it all off with her big-eyed girl paintings which I feel reflect a kind of wounded innocence following WWII. Certainly Mark Ryden (whose paintings sell for upwards of one million dollars each, but that’s another story) is working in that tradition, as is Moore-Love.
The destruction of human dreams and innocence is a major theme in Moore-Love’s art. Wessel subtly suggests that the Vietnam war and her father’s absence while serving in the military there were an influence on Moore-Love’s sense that there’s an underlying violence and nastiness to American life. Curiously, one of the most striking works of photojournalism to emerge from that war is the photo by Nick Ut of the “napalm girl,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc. She was fleeing the heat of a napalm bombing in a village she lived in. Moore-Love may not have been directly influenced by the image of the terrorized Kim Phuc, but the spirit of that photo and the horror of it suffuse her art.
The bizarre evils and incongruities of our hierarchal, top-down managed society are the kind of things that fine artists like Moore-Love address. As Moore-Love describes the influences on her work, Wessel provides images of paintings and works she refers to. Wessel has put many hours into putting together a documentary that flows along with seeming effortlessness, but which involved a huge amount of research and work.
This documentary may not be for the squeamish, but it’s well worth watching for an in-depth portrait of a significant American artist who has been addressing big issues in her complex, amazing paintings for decades.