The Power of Image

Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis just published a new piece in Time Magazine about the power of image and staging. I agree that politics are punctuated by theatrics, and it’s important to get the sets and costumes right. I feel vindicated by Ms. Davis. Back in the mid-90’s, fellow poli-sci classmates at University of New Orleans laughed at me for declaring that Jimmy Carter’s image was decimated by that tragic cardigan he wore while discussing America’s energy problems. They thought I was an idiot. But fuck ’em. I still think if he’d delivered a similar speech in a jauntier ensemble, perhaps he (and I) might not be such subjects of derision.

So today I sat down and thought about what my style inspirations are, just in case I ever have to give an important speech…

Gil Elvgren Pinups
They’re always willing to try new things (sliding down a fireman’s pole, hammering a nail, fixing a car, roasting marshmallows.) Sometimes they’re not particularly skilled at these activities. Yet they handle it all with such good natured aplomb. They look out at you as if to say, “Yeah, I fucked up. But I looked damn good doing it.”

Agatha Christie’s Detective Hercule Poirot
Because he isn’t afraid to embrace his own style, no matter what anyone else says. People routinely make fun of him for being a “funny little foreigner”. But he doesn’t let it faze him. He holds his egg-shaped head up high; avoiding mud puddles in his patent leather shoes and twirling his magnificent waxed mustache.

Andre 3000
The way this man takes classic clothes, mixes them up and makes them uniquely his own is incredible. And he never lets his clothes wear him. That’s the true hallmark of style.

Elizabeth Taylor in “Boom!”
One of my favorite style icons. The obvious go to for this list would be her starring role in “Cleopatra”. But I like her better here, the eccentric rich bitch who lives alone on an island and wanders around her mansion wearing ridiculous headpieces like this one. I also like this somewhat debauched era of Elizabeth Taylor’s life. This was the bitter end of the 60s, when Hollywood was shifting away from the dream factory to making more realistic films. It was the dawn of the “everyday looking” actor. As glamorous movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor weren’t in demand, she found a savvy way to handle the shift in popular taste. She made a string of incredibly weird, outside of the mainstream movies in gorgeous locales. Just one of the hundreds of reasons to love Elizabeth Taylor.

Oscar Wilde
He’s probably my #1 style inspiration: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Tamara Dobson in “Cleopatra Jones”
The fact that she was one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen is only part of it. I love that she kicks serious ass in this movie, all while wearing fabulous jumpsuits, fur jackets, stacked heel boots and huge hats. People don’t get much cooler than Cleopatra Jones.

1920s Erotica
The models are so cheeky. You get the sense that everyone on the set is having a laugh together. That’s much sexier than the dead-eyed porn of today. Humor and confidence are very sexy to me.

Auntie Mame
Auntie Mame bounces back from life’s set backs and puts bigots in their place with grace and wit. She epitomizes joie de vivre…Plus she wears plenty of feather trimmed gowns and knows how to glide down a spiral staircase with pizazz.

Truman Capote’s Infamous Book Jacket Photo
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1948 this author photo for “Other Voices, Other Rooms” was scandalous. In a time when men weren’t openly gay, Truman Capote reclines on that sofa, making damn sure you know there’s no fucking way he’s staying in the closet. The way he boldly stares into the camera is as naked as anything in the pages of Playboy magazine. It’s naked ambition, need for attention and confidence in his talent. No author before had used a photo quite like it.

Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia
The power and elegance he radiates in this film never cease to amaze me. Plus, I love people who can travel to other countries and wear the native clothes casually; without that annoying, “Look at me! I’m so multicultural!” attitude.

Dia De Los Muertos Art
Mocking death is the best way to live life.

And finally…Sharon Stone in “The Quick and the Dead”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this scene when she first strides into the saloon. Bottom line: if you ever see me delivering an important speech, you’d better believe I’m channeling this:

Live Arts Hotel of NYC: From A to Z

When Alfredo Elias moved to New York from Miami, he needed a place to stay near The French Culinary Institute, where he planned to study pastry making. But he never pictured himself standing by a lamppost on Broome Street at 2a.m., waiting for Alphabet Artist Arleen Schloss (known in her community as “A”) to escort him to her “Live Arts Hotel”.

A flight of wooden stairs led to her doorway, framed by a series of red letter A’s. The surrounding wall was plastered with multi-Colored flyers touting artistic and political events dating back to the early 1980’s. Once inside, he found that the 2,400 square foot loft was Divided into living quarters not by walls, but by Japanese screens and an in the case of his space, an overturned piano. “I don’t mind,” he told her, “I play a little piano.”

Outside the loft was the sculpture garden; a massive terrace filled with works of art, including a rainbow water sculpture by Ray Kelly and a mosaic horse purchased off the street for a dollar. Pitched amongst the sculptures he saw a couple of tents where two tenants camp out full time: one a Swiss photographer, and the other a struggling poet. Most Everyone at the loft was from another country, and most everyone was pursuing an artistic dream. Other tenants included musicians, performance artists, writers and actors.

So it came as little surprise to discover that the proprietor, Arleen Schloss, has been entrenched in the underground New York art scene for thirty years. Although she was born in Brooklyn, she is a self-described “Mother of the Lower East Side”. Over the years, her Broome Street loft has served as a performance space for Warhol-protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat, actors Eric Bogosian and Steve Buscemi, performance artists Karen Finley and Penny Arcade and singer-songwriter Phoebe Legere. Sonic Youth lead singer Thurston Moore first performed at the loft as part of The Coachmen. Moore later met Sonic Youth’s original drummer Richard Edson at A’s as well.

Art has been incorporated into every aspect of this loft, and even something as mundane as the refrigerator has been turned into a political/artistic canvas, every inch covered with various flyers, photos and slogans. The humble bathroom has been transformed into a colorful Gallery including an eye-popping piece by mail-artist pioneer Ray Johnson.

The thirty years of interdisciplinary experimentation at A’s loft, which she refers to as “loft communication” are the result of her own eclectic artistic sensibilities. Both embracing cutting edge technology and recognizing the right collaborators have shaped her outlook. She often refers to artistic endeavor as “Chance Operations”. It can be described as collaborating with artists from various disciplines, and acknowledging the random situations and tools that inspire art. Consequently, “Chance Operations” can be seen throughout the trajectory of her career.

In the late 1970s, a new color Xerox printer at the Jamie Canvas art supplies store in SoHo made it a meeting point for artists. They were all either Incorporating this new technology into their art, or using it to create flyers to promote their art. Arleen used the Xerox to make copies of copies of the alphabet, experimenting with “the Art of Degeneration”.

The communal use of this Xerox machine also forged communication and collaboration for a new generation of artists. On October 24, 1979, Arleen opened her doors to some of these emerging artists she’d met at Jamie Canvas, and Basquiat kicked off the first night of performances at the loft.

In the early 1980s, Arleen and other artists such as R.L. Seltman developed a performance series called “A-Z at the Storefront of Art and Architecture”. In 1982, this developed into Storefront for Art and Architecture, a non-profit organization housed in a contemporary landmark building on Kenmare Street.

In 1983, Arleen and collaborators including Ray Kelly and E.F. Higgins III created 99 consecutive nights of performances at a spot called No Se No on Rivington. Soon after, a group of sculptors and welders took over an abandoned lot next door and used the space to create art out of random scraps of metal scrounged from all over the Lower East Side. Through this collective experience, they founded The Rivington School of Art. “We were all getting together and helping each other,” she says.

New laser technology in the mid-1980s inspired her to combine linguistics and light shows as she recited poetry with lasers in her mouth. In the 1990s, digital technology spurred her interest in interactive electronic arts. By the early 2000s, the Internet was intrinsic to her art forms, and she displays much of her work in a virtual Museum at

Through the shifts in technology and artistic styles, the one constant has been her loft on Broome Street. It has been a hub, a kinetic center for creativity on the Lower East Side. It’s been a laboratory of sorts, for artists to experiment with technology, mixed media and New music, exchanging ideas and techniques. The loft embodies Arleen’s favorite slogan: “Art is Action, Object is Artifact.”

But while several other artists in her collective used to have lofts in the area that they opened up as Performance spaces, she is now the only one left. When asked the inevitable Question about gentrification, high Rents and out-priced tenants in Manhattan, she is honest:
“All my friends who had lofts here had to leave…and everyone said to me ‘Sell! Sell!’ But where do I go? I love being in the center of the city, opening my doors and communicating with people from all over the world.”

While she misses her fellow artists and collaborators, she realizes the city has changed, and adaptation is the only solution. “We all work on survival,” she says.

She is right, of course. When her generation of artists started out, Technology and geography facilitated their Underground arts scene. And sitting in her sculpture garden, drinking some wine, saying hello to artists living in tents, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era when rents were cheaper, time wasn’t so strictly calculated in dollar Value, and Manhattan had more room for Weird creativity.

But then again, since Arleen Schloss’ originality was born of something as uniform as the Xerox machine, maybe Young artists shouldn’t fear the uniform. Starbucks coffee shops springing up on Lower East Side corners now. The new generation will find another meeting spot, another way to make a connection. Another “chance operation.”

Alfredo Elias no longer lives at A’s loft. But he does stop by on a regular basis. His time at her “Live Arts Hotel” spurred him to create sculptures out of some of the pastry he makes at The French Culinary Institute. And of course some of it he shares with Arleen to eat. Either way, Arleen Schloss savors it with the same Zeal she has for all the artistic expression discovered at her loft.

The Scent of Nostalgia

Scents are time machines. The smell of musty cabinets, Magie Noire perfume, Finesse hairspray, books, Bonnie Bell lipsmackers, leaky air conditioners mixed with ocean breezes…they can all take me back to childhood. The other day I was rushing across St. Mark’s Place and ran into a cloud of clove cigarette smoke. I was transported to my teenage years. Does anyone else out there remember the first time a guy ever lit a clove cigarette, handed it to you and said in a practiced, sexy way, “Here, try this–then lick your lips”?

You did what you were told…and he’d lean in for a kiss.

If you were raised on a rainy island in the Pacific Northwest like me, you’d be in some rusty, smelly old car by the lake, the sound of his leather jacket rubbing up against naugahyde (or perhaps “fine Corinthian leather”) seats mingling with the chirping of crickets and whooping of a strange bird that only seemed to come out at night.

You’d talk about what you were going to do in the future; that you’d never sell out, that you hated Top 40 music, cheerleaders and Hemingway, because he was stupid didn’t know shit about women.

The guy would agree with you, even though he didn’t, because he secretly liked looking at the cheerleaders and Hemingway was better than that boring Fitzgerald guy. At least there were bullfights in his stories.

You’d kiss for a while, then push his head away, take a drag off the clove cigarette, lick your lips again, then pull him back for more. You’d feel like a silver screen vamp.

It would be chilly and the trees would glisten from the rain. The guy might “discover” a bag of wine under his seat, carefully removed from the Franzia box that once housed it, so that the ruse would be more believable. You’d giggle and say it looked like a colostomy bag, even though you’d never seen one.

You’d drink the cheap wine. You’d talk more shit. You’d go skinny dipping. You might do other things.

All of which you might remember years later while running past two college kids who are sitting on a St. Mark’s Place stoop, smoking clove cigarettes.

Just one whiff of that scent and you are no longer in New York, rushing to make an appointment. No, you’re by the moonless lake at age 17, wondering just what the fuck you’re going to do with yourself.