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Form Follows Dysfunction 

They are the human train wrecks among us, the collateral damage of the fame game. The entertainment industry's equivalent of suicide bombers, they elicit at least a modicum of sympathy because their main victims are themselves and their families. In medieval times, religious icon painters depicted saints whose suffering and odd behavior sometimes exposed them to public mortification, whereas today we have dysfunctional celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears whose suffering and odd behavior expose them to public mortification. Now, instead of religious artists, we have Dona Lief, who paints as meticulously and single-mindedly as any medieval monk or hermit. The medieval saint and the modern celebrity represent different notions of grace. The saints of yore were presumed to be acting under divine influence, whereas celebs like Britney Spears are better known for driving under the influence. Such foibles were presaged centuries ago by Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings depicted weird and orgiastic scenes with people morphing into strange birds, beasts and insects. I don't know if Lief was painting under the influence of Bosch, but there are some distinct parallels. Her collages feature newspaper clippings, sordid stories of the latest misdeeds of the pop idols artificially 'aged" in tea and overlaid with precise paintings of insects and babies, symbols of cold-bloodedness and innocence, respectively. Her paintings are, like the collages, small and meticulous and feature a menagerie of pop miscreants who, like creatures in a fairy tale, have morphed into lower life forms, so Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake appear as mating mantises and the like. Britney Spears appears as a bald butterfly imbibing the intoxicating nectar of pink tropical flowers as, throughout it all, innocent babes turn up at the mercy of Hollywood insect life. Despite their sinister forms, Lief's pop stars invariably look better in these paintings than they do on TV, so there's an element of compassion. But her work poses a broader question: In an age defined by the Iraq war, catastrophic storms, droughts and wildfires, why would anyone even care about these goofs? Could it be that, in a world where gated suburbs, satellite radio and cable TV take the place of real communities, these are the official idiots of the global village? Perhaps only Entertainment Tonight knows for sure.

As global capitalism and technology atomize communities into abstract markets, who or what will fill the void? Last spring, British author Will Self stunned New York by walking 20 inhospitable miles from Kennedy airport to his hotel. He and other advocates of psychogeography regard walking as the lost art that can help restore lost communities. In a related gesture, Pittsburgh-based artist Sean Derry recently installed several dozen inflatable Ford Escorts cobbled from old bed sheets in the parking lot of an abandoned supermarket at the intersection of Bienville and North Broad streets. As motor scooter-powered bellows pumped air into their quivering forms, the ghostly Fords of this Interlude to Stillness installation recalled the bustle of a once busy neighborhood while attracting new visitors. Derry is big on symbolism " he once turned the evolution of Indianapolis into a 100 percent-scale flow chart that spanned the length of the original city.

His efforts (see in this city came at the invitation of Elizabeth Underwood, whose Art in Action project aims to restore an element of creative passion, or at least care, to the orphaned neighborhoods among us.

The Art in Action Web log ( features a telling quote by art historian Lucy Lippard: 'We continue to talk about "new forms' because the new has been the fertilizing fetish of the avant-garde. But it may be that these new forms are only to be found buried in social energies not yet recognized as art." It's an intriguing idea, one that seems almost tailor-made for the unfinished canvas that is the city of New Orleans in these early years of the 21st century.

click to enlarge In Dona Lief's paintings such as Speak No Evil, dysfunctional pop stars appear as exotic insect species.
  • In Dona Lief's paintings such as Speak No Evil, dysfunctional pop stars appear as exotic insect species.


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Speaking of Through December, WITHOUT CONTRITION IN THE KINGDOM OF POP: New Work By Dona Lief

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