Beautiful Bummer

By Stacy Davies

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Posted October 11, 2012 in Arts & Culture

“When I’m Sixty-Four” wields a double-edged walker

When Paul McCartney wrote his legendary, rooty-tooty tune, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” he was a mere 16 years old. McCartney was a prodigy, of course, a born music-maker and storyteller, and his teenaged ponderances of what life might be like for someone 50 years his senior seems apropos for one possessing such gifts of creativity and conscience. Few regular teens, or anyone under 40, for that matter, tend to think much about aging or the elderly, of course, unless they’re considering how annoying it is to be stuck behind one of them in a checkout line or on the freeway.

Once you hit 40, however, all bets are off. Your body changes, your options change (they narrow, unlike your body), and the future is no longer some endless horizon but, instead, a relatively set course whose end you can not only see, but also probably estimate in years remaining. This is why men buy classic corvettes and women sleep with the pool guy—or vice versa. Gotta get ’er done before the blackout.

There are pretty much two ways one can age—accept the onset of change and embrace the role of the mature, wise, truthsayer, or wrestle with the little bastard and embrace the novelties of youth both in fashion and behavior. The best course might be one down the middle of that precarious path, since depressed, complain-y croakers are a drag, and tight-pantsed, tush-less ladies and ogling old hot rodders are just sad. I know, I know—you don’t feel old, why must you be old? Well, you are. So am I. And I do feel old, sometimes in a rotten way (my back and ankles) and sometimes in an awesome way—I’m accomplished, smarter, less petty and dammit, I’ve earned the respect I force the young to give me.

In the Wignall Museum’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” eight artists explore the many aspects of aging: the tragic, lonely seniors and the vibrant, never-giving-up the ghost folks; the losses that come with advancing years; the things left behind when souls are relocated (to facilities or to the afterlife); and the reality that, contrary to popular myth, not everyone becomes wiser with age.

That last example is particularly disturbing in Loss Prevention, Jeanne C. Finley’s video piece on her mother, who, at age 79, was picked up for shoplifting at Walmart. Blurred images of the mother edited to voiceovers from her and Finley tell the story of a woman who’s been a sticky fingers since adolescence. Strict parents who denied her trinkets led to pubescent petty theft; the dregs of motherhood were given a thrill by shoving razor blades and non-dairy creamer down her children’s pants; and finally, the aged lady defends her current kleptomania: “I’ve worked hard all my life, and I think I deserve a little something extra.” It’s a moving and tragic tale worthy of a print or NPR essay, filled with powerful exposition—in particular, the response Finley receives when she asks if her mother’s made any friends at “shoplifting school” (one of the government-imposed punishments for being caught): “Who wants to get friendly with people who are thieves?” she says, rather shocked, and then vows to be more careful next time.

Peter Riesett’s series of digital prints of the interiors of an apartment recently vacated by a senior (for reasons unknown) are equally dark. Empty walls stenciled with dusty outlines of extracted pictures and religious icons, a dining room with an untouched oval of bright green carpet where the table once sat and a garment bag in an otherwise empty closet filled with fancy fur coats no longer needed are gorgeously troubling and pretty much make you want to slit your wrists.

Taking us into the solitary worlds of the elderly, Gina Genis and Nacky Macko touch on isolations both external and internal. Genis’ series of digital prints seem as if shot from the vantage point of a nighttime prowler at a senior community: looking in at the glowing little rooms we observe a man barricaded within a lifetime of memorabilia (later to be referred to as “junk,” when he passes) and a lady apartment draped in handmade, flowery garlands in an attempt to warm the static, stucco box. The focal point of Macko’s series of collaged prints is a photograph of her mother back in the 1940s before she was snatched by the cruel hands of Alzheimer’s. Vivacious and beaming, the glamorous gal is at the height of life, and Macko celebrates what once was by adorning the images with dynamic and sensuous flowers, illuminating the soul that was, and that still remains.

Martha Wilson’s photographs make no brittle bones about aging. In her piece from 1973, “Posturing: Age Transformation,” the prolific young artist shot herself as “a 25-year-old trying to look like a 50-year-old trying to look like a 25-year-old” and found the experience at the time both uncomfortable and representative of her society-induced fear of turning 30. In 1978, she photographed her own nude torso, from breasts to upper thigh, and 30 years later in 2008, juxtaposed a similar pose of her 64-year-old body. Stunning and courageous, Wilson’s in-your-face documentation is one gorgeous drag.

Lastly, Troy Aossey’s photographs of peppy Sun City senior cheerleaders spark a laugh, yet also pangs of discomfort. On one hand, it’s quite awesome to see spunky gals in satin and sequence full of vigor and sass, but old women dressed up like young women inevitably turns them into silly novelties, and even the nicest “oh, look at that cute old lady trying to act young!” chirp isn’t the compliment it always intends to be.

The entire exhibit is clearly a double-edged sword. Beyond the artistic aesthetic, however, curator Rebecca Trawick hopes to encourage a political and cultural reconsideration of the elderly, especially since we’ll all be joining them, if we haven’t already. That might be a tall order with present-day worries practically burying each of us, and thinking about a time when we’ll feel, look and just be worse off, is on few people’s agenda. In the end, it’s really just a case of some of us get lucky and some of us don’t. Failing to win that lottery (of money or of awesome care-giving children), the only viable option is to just be kinder to seniors—all the way ’round—and hope that one day, some young stranger feels the same way about you.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, Chaffey College, 5885 Haven Ave. Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 652-6492; www.chaffey.edu/wignall.  Museum hours: Mon-Thurs, 10am-4pm; Sat, noon-4pm. Thru Nov. 21. Free.


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