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.

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