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Word on (the Sunny Side of) the Street: Mendelson @ Progress Coffee

Around Christmas time of 1988, in the middle of my white, clean and neat senior year at Westlake High School, I discovered the first Fugazi EP at The Sound Exchange on The Drag.  Two points worth making on the early:

One.  Stop doing the math on your hands, ankle biters.  It’s an embarrassment to the public school systems in our dear state of Texas.  I’m thirty-eight.  I have some gray hairs here and there.  And both miraculously and embarrassingly, I still have a direct route to my piercing, teenage emotional angst, so watch the steps you take in those peculiarly unscuffed Vans .  I’ve been sporting them for over twenty years, and yes, my ass has been busted in a half-pipe.

Two.  The Sound Exchange was a record store located in the building whose southern wall along 21st Street still holds Daniel Johnston’s mural, “Hi! How Are You?” (a recreation of the cover art of his 1983 release of the same name), a wonderful historical marker of Austin counterculture briefly threatened five or so years ago by the gasp-inducing insensitivity and art blindness of some jackass Baja Fresh manager who was going to sandblast the image.  I learned about punk rock and hip-hop there, mostly from a gangly dude named Ryan who played bass in Liberty Lunch regulars Bad Mutha Goose & The Brothers Grimm (a funk/punk hybrid that borrowed heavily from the gogo scene of Washington, D.C.).  A perfect Saturday afternoon was started with a cheeseburger and verbal abuse at GM Steakhouse, then looking at vinyl and cassettes at The Sound Exchange.  Adolescent male ritual at its finest…

Born of the dissolution of Washington, D.C. hardcore staples Minor Threat , Embrace and Rites of Spring , first-paragraphers Fugazi embodied – aw hell, what am I saying? Epitomizes!  Present tense! – the DIY aesthetic of musicians operating and henceforth controlling all elements of their careers for creative and financial forward motion, plain and simple.

(Again, an aside to the imaginary youngsters in my head that have been led astray by some high school art teacher nonsense leading them to this blog…please consider, dear infant terrible, that there was once a world prior to the information superhighway upon which you pretend to drive while concentrating on more pressing matters like writing a goddamn novella into your phone.  Preceding the digital age by years and years, the kind of social network that this band and others developed defined remarkable grassroots hustle with a fraction of the inexpensive promotional tools at the disposal of young bands today.)

As I understood it as a relatively intelligent teenager who often experienced an allergic reaction to the oftentimes materially-driven world of my adolescent years, Fugazi presented an art form that was clear and unflinching in its vision while functioning successfully in the marketplace.  It was possible to make music that you wanted and experience progress without filling your dance card with signatures of corporate entities that would dilute its intent in any way.  At the end of the day, its lack of compromise, and its insistence on a lack of flexibility on a lot of levels, are what informed my definition of art at its most pure.

Flash forward twenty-one years, and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect – and in many cases, laugh to the point of a gutbust  – at the angry idealism and naivete of long ago, in conjunction with a world of today’s technology that has blurred my heavily drawn lines of yesteryear so severely.  Which leads me to Vija G. Mendelson’s “Word on the Street” exhibit, currently showing at Progress Coffee through early August.


Self-described as formally trained in linguistics and informally trained in photography, Mendelson combines the two disciplines to create short sentences comprised of photographs of signage throughout the Austin area.  While very infrequently infused with some clever ideas about the politics of money and gender, it’s mostly fare of a light-hearted and inoffensive nature…so much so, that some of her work has been used to grace our city’s public transportation lines.   And let’s face it…to traverse the bureaucratic elements of any city as an artist – and succeed, no less, to be accepted by that bureaucracy – requires your content to be exceptionally palatable to the general public. 

(On an related note converse to Mendelson’s acceptance from our fair city, my first remembrance of understanding a metropolitan area’s puritanical outrage to the point of criminal prosecution was Mapplethorpe’s dust-up with the Cincinnati authorities over some arguably dirty pictures in a museum …not far from the time when I first heard Fugazi, coincidentally.)

My first reaction to viewing these pieces was that it was akin to what would happen in Jenny Holzer ’s Hallmark card nightmare.  Then, I started thinking about my youthful irritation with DJ culture, and how I questioned its validity as art when I viewed it as cheap extrapolation, downright thievery, even (“So, let me get this straight…you get to mix Coltrane and James Brown and AC/DC into one groove and call it your own?  BLASPHEMY, I SAY!”).

Then my brain started wandering to the present tense of my late 30s, tempering my still lingering agitated state of long ago with what I’d like to think, on my best of days, is a smidgen of wisdom.  But why should it be compared to Holzer, dummy, when she’s NOT Holzer?  And DJ culture is just a musical extension of making art out of found objects, which you’ve always appreciated in the visual realm.  Geez, dude…what’s your damage?

Debate about definitions of art and what fits into these clearly defined boxes no longer matter, mostly because I’ve had a handful of years of clarity to figure out what does matter most to me.  Couple this personal transformation with how the digital age has turned the notions of personal expression and commerce downright upside down, and I’ve had some time to redefine all of those old terms in my head.

My conclusion is, because of the oddly personal/public environment that is the web, everything that is created has an intrinsic artistic value, AND it has an intrinsic commercial value, for better or worse.  That’s really what the ‘net has done more than anything else…forced our culture to redefine its own identity and methods, creatively, economically and so on.

As a young kid infused with the aggression and intelligence of punk, I wanted all my art to possess the kind of intensity that I felt for daily life.  Now, sometimes I just want to chuckle at a simple sentence constructed with signage that I recognize from around town, the way I might just read some greeting cards on a shitty day even if know one I know is having a birthday anytime soon, and my imaginary secretary doesn’t need to be consoled over a break-up with the latest fool who couldn’t appreciate her sweet heart.

Progress Coffee is a great café with its heart in so many of the right places, and Mendelson’s work is breezy and fun with an infrequent edge that made me smile.  Check it out.

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