Jandek on Corwood: When the Private is Public, and Still Unknown

jandex on corwood coverThank
you for your applause. But I’m an artist—so don’t
touch me.

-Captain Beefheart

“Outsider” has been a buzzword in
art circles for well over a decade now. It refers to those who live
outside the influence of the art world and create their own idiosyncratic
painting, assembledge or music, based not on trends or an eye for
the market, but on a personal vision or story to tell. Since curators
and critics have discovered that there is money to be made by parading
the auto-didacts around, “Outsider” has taken on several
different shades of marketing appeal. Now critics and dealers can
decide who is truly “Outsider,” and who is not, given
hip status. When even radical, non-mainstream art is subject to
classification by those who do not create and merely exploit, the
corpse is starting to crumble.

The art world, then, can live in its own little privileged world
where cans of shit are seen as brilliant and $50,000 for a painting
that consists of one streak of paint is normal. Yet this is also
the arena where personal work, say, about one’s faith, or
an unpopular political view is an abomination, unless the artist
is a hillbilly flake who doesn’t “know better”--in
which case he can be exploited like a bearded woman with a 12-inch
cock. This is the tragic last page of any art that closes itself
off in an elitism that turns even its best work into parody of the
bad. Profit can only be the bottom for taste-makers who decide to
what degree a person is on the outside of taste. In music as well
as in art, the cottage industry of “Fringe” continues
to grow, and seems to imply that those included are somehow mentally
ill, that a singular vision at odds with or hostile to the market
has to be deranged. There are more pockets of resistance to the
status quo in music than in any other art.

This DVD profiles a musician whose personal work has continued
to mystify, scare and inspire, with music written by a recluse who
has truly been an outsider. It was only last year that, after over
30 years of hermetic recordings, Jandek first performed live. His
music testifies to a deliberate vision, not merely the work of an
entertaining savant. His lo-fi approach to recording--often sounding
like it was produced in a basement or living room--rarely has deviated
from his whispered haiku-like lyrics spoken over acoustic guitar.
When he has added the occasional electric guitar, or drums, or,
more jarring, a second vocalist, the results have been similar to
a spell being broken: he does allow other people in his life! He
may have some method! His solitude and eccentricity, then, is no
act, and no joke; he has explored the deepest of human emotions
in his work, in ways that exclude the listener as much as it attempts
to include.

Like the haunting photos on his album covers--usually of a man
who may or may not even be Jandek, but probably is--JANDEK ON CORWOOD is a disturbing, out of focus, yet moving portrait
of an uncompromising artist, one whose vision and intent is often
lost on even his most diehard fans. The film profiles fans and critics,
those who have been touched by both his music and his myth. Those
speaking of what they know or think they know of Jandek either serve
as apologists, or amateur psychoanalysts. One fan consistently pronounces
the name “Yandek,” believing that an artist who has
had such an effect on his life can’t possible be named “Jandek,”
since it sounds too pedestrian. Another seems disappointed that
other people have heard of the music, and connect with it as deeply
as he does. With little to go on beyond the music and the myth,
fans and detractors alike can never definitively say whether or
not Jandek is disturbed or putting us on. That an answer will never
come to that question is what makes this film both uneven and rich.
DVD extras include selections from his four most recent records,
a slide show of album covers with commentary, full-length audio
interviews with some of the talking heads in the film, and excerpts
from printed reviews of his music.

With a soundtrack of his work always a counterpoint to the talking
heads’ observations, or a rebuttal to them, the film explores
the depths to which Jandek’s music has touched those who have
sought it out. The film smartly leaves open-ended the question as
to whether Jandek is a tortured sociopath who releases disturbing
chronicles from his chosen abyss, or an artist satisfied to create
music for himself only, oblivious to any fans picked up along the
way. Jandek on Corwood pays homage to not only the artist,
but also to a sort of abstract intervention: to love his music is
to wonder, but also worry, about him.

Scroll to Top