b.O.s. 6.1 / Thumper’s Descent / Lisa Uddin

Details, left to right: Image from Diamonds are Forever, 1971; image from Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, 2017; album cover from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, 2014;  and Odell Beckham Jr. doing the Challenge, 2018. 

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This sixth transmission (8.13.18) features Lisa Uddin on Thumper’s Descent in Diamonds are Forever, Tavia Nyong’o on Tourmaline’s Atlantic is a Sea of Bones, Tiffany E. Barber on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson on the #inmyfeelings challenge. 

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

: :

Elrod House as it appeared in Los Angeles Times’ Home magazine, November 3, 1968, p. 22-23. Copyright, 2018, Los Angeles Times. Used with permission.

Two hours into the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971) dancer and choreographer Trina Parks navigates the living room of John Lautner’s 1968 Elrod House, a lavish sunburst-shaped retreat “built into the rock and desert” of Palm Springs California and laden with bachelor-pad eccentricity.1 Playing the role of a bodyguard named “Thumper,” and paired with her white colleague “Bambi” (Lola Larsen), Parks’ performance in the scene is virtuosic black spatial praxis in the sense proposed by Mario Gooden.2 This micro-operation is worth considering so that we might know (or know how to know) how certain maneuvers can, paraphrasing Huey Copeland, tend a postwar architecture toward blackness. For Copeland, tending-toward-blackness characterizes expressive and analytic practices “aimed at establishing an ethical posture towards black subjects and those related forms of being that have been positioned at the margins of thought and perception yet are necessarily co-constitutive of them.”3 A mode of “leaning into and caring for,” it describes self-consciously black aesthetic production amidst the longue durée of white supremacy while also intervening into new materialist thinking that disregards how black lives are pivotal to understanding nonhuman ontologies and politics in Western culture.4 By collaborating with other material elements of Lautner’s design and warping a naturalized site of white heteromasculine conquest, Parks’ performance enacts this tending, as does my interpretation of it. This is to say that if the Elrod House amounts to another flexing of Lautner’s expressionist strand of California modernism – one that swaggered between terrestrial and celestial realms and displayed strong appetites for curvature – I also read it as a space of black flourishing at an oblique angle.5

Scene from Diamonds are Forever. Directed by Guy Hamilton, 1971.

When Sean Connery as Bond enters the main living area of the circular home, Bambi emerges from a polyurethane foam seat that pulsates with the racialized heteropatriarchy of modernist chair design. The scenario in Lautner’s distended man cave is a sexed-up version of more muted scripts for postwar commercial furnishing.6 Here, we see a Gaetano Pesce-designed UP 5 chair imagined through metaphors of female fertility (in reference to its biomorphic shape) and dependence (in the form a tethered spherical ottoman that evokes a ball and chain).7 The acrobatics of Larson’s body within, on, and eventually out of the chair underscores a nexus of reproductive female sexuality and whiteness. It also sets up viewers for something that can be neither possessed nor liberated: Parks lying atop one of the building site’s rocks that is incorporated along the inside/outside edges of the house.

There is something to be said of Parks’ scene beginning on this edge: how it makes physical contact with a modernist design trope of seamless indoor/outdoor spatiality only to enunciate its impossibility for a blackness historically formulated through spaces of indoor enclosure (like the hold, or the cell) and outdoor spaces of precarious freedom (like the antebellum woods).8 Lautner’s movement between the inside and the outside is not Parks’, whose flow lies elsewhere. Indeed, her edge-work here gestures towards the movement’s concentrations of racial privilege and the ways in which architectural modernism’s “natural” fluidities can be cartoonish.

There is also something to be said of a rock-Parks combination more striking than any Disney zoomorphism. Thumper’s form, as form, rhymes well with the boulder’s; two horizontalities that would seem to meet period expectations of rambling, lateral lines for rambling, lateral living. The bright yellow bikini adds a third compatibility. The color matches the blooms of the California Brittlebush, a rocky desert plant that architect Albert Frey had also referenced in the yellow curtains of his 1963 Palm Springs house, featuring a massive interior/exterior rock element of its own. Lautner understood aspects of the Elrod House in similar terms – namely, the wedge-shaped clerestory skylights that, as the architect put it, radiate “from the center like a desert flower.”9

But Thumper’s choreographed naturalism becomes ever more strange. Over dialogue that accentuates her formality, she points with the briefest of glances toward the view before turning back to Bond and dramatically extending her other arm in his direction, to assist her descent.10

Images from Diamonds are Forever. Directed by Guy Hamilton, 1971.

The extension is stylized, even stiff. Bond complies, ogling Thumper’s descending geometry and asking a question: “And uh…that’s all there is to it?” Referencing a plot point, the query also evinces a libidinal charge to modernist fixations on “truth to materials,” whereby a boulder’s coveted material integrity should become perceptible, and pleasurable, through its proximity to the floral thingitude of Trina Parks; each substances to reveal, integrate, and appreciate.11 Parks’ thingitude, however, is played a little too flat, too surface, and so does not entirely belong to Sean Connery’s gaze, Lautner’s curves, or modernism’s faith in materials.12 What innate properties are exposable and incorporable here? Instead, Parks’ flinty and firm dismount asserts an angular materiality with other itineraries and potentials; a process of creatively extending and further abstracting the compound objectness of her initial position atop the rock – or put differently, her initial abstraction as part rock, part shrub, and part flesh, in Hortense Spillers’ sense of the term.13 What we get is a collaborative enterprise between the substrata of postwar modernism; an elongation of the space that dials the house and its viewers into a longer, lower frequency than Lautner’s extravagant stunts in naturalistic design insofar as it alludes to and stretches the materialities that structure and subsidize his work.14 Parks and her nonhuman associates operate less as discrete things to source for an early 70s whiteness than as a fleeting formation of expansive relations for black becoming. Coming off the rock, Thumper answers Bond’s suggestive question: “Not quite. First, we’re gonna have a ball.” An infamous two-on-one fight scene ensues that begins with the bodyguard kneeing 007 in the groin and ends with all three characters in the pool. But the party has started (and ended) before the first blow. Parks’ initial performance has produced an affirmative architecture that outstrips an architect’s canonized outlandishness and tends toward the blackness that both enables and eludes it.

Decades later, Parks backstoried the event to a local newspaper. Reprising her moment of radiant rock hardness, she shared: “When I was offered $1000 a day for about two months of work, plus per diem when we were travelling, I got very, very excited. I would have worked with Donald Duck.”15

: :

This is one of four essays from the sixth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 6.2/Atlantic is a Sea of Bones/Tavia Nyong’o
b.O.s. 6.3/Black Messiah/Tiffany E. Barber
b.O.s. 6.4/In My Feelings/Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson

: :

About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.

Endnotes

  1. “Elrod Residence – statement by the architect” in John Lautner papers 1929-2002, folder 1, box 11, Special Collections, Getty Research Institute. For the building as bachelor pad, see “A Playboy Pad: Pleasure on the Rocks,” in Playboy, November 1971, 151-157.
  2. That is, the manner in which black people move through space, negotiate spatial relationships, and make spaces for creative expression and daily affirmation in the afterlife of transatlantic slavery. Mario Gooden, Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016), 14. See also chapter four of Craig L. Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). It is worth adding that Parks’ virtuosity was cultivated through an education at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City, the Katherine Dunham Company, and multiple Broadway performances. Xochiti Peña, “Trina Parks on James Bond Part: ‘I like playing evil roles,” Green Bay Press Gazette, Feb. 6, 2016, accessed July 27, 2018, https://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/story/entertainment/arts/2014/02/06/trina-parks-on-james-bond-part-i-like-playing-evil-roles/5267479/.
  3. Huey Copeland, “Tending-toward-Blackness” October 156 (Spring 2016), 143.
  4. Ibid; Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 92, 218 n. 88.
  5. Thomas S. Hines, Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970 (New York: Rizzoli, 2010), 12, 609; Jean-Louis Cohen, “Los Angeles, capital of Lautner’s America,” Keynote address for “Against reason: John Lautner and postwar architecture,” 2008, accession number 2009.1A.23, Special Collections, Getty Research Institute.
  6. Kristina Wilson demonstrates, for example, that George Nelson’s sculptural “Marshallow sofa,” was the formal equivalent of a woman to be looked at, by men, while Eames chairs were visually and functionally pleasing through unusual curves that caress the (Vitruvian) male human body, now located in the postwar suburbs. Kristina Wilson, “Like a ‘Girl in a Bikini Suit’ and Other Stories: The Herman Miller Furniture Company, Gender and Race at Mid-Century,” Journal of Design History 28, no. 2 (May 2015): 161-181.
  7. Pesce designed the chair in 1968, describing it as his expression of solidarity with women since the chair illustrated women’s subjugation. Hannah Martin, “The Story Behind Gaetano Pesce’s Iconic Armchair,” AD, September 13, 2017, accessed July 27, 2018, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/the-story-behind-gaetano-pesces-iconic-armchair.
  8. “The Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures after Property and Possession,” accessed August 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=t_tUZ6dybrc.
  9. Lautner quoted in Hines, 643.
  10. This is not the first time an African American culture maker has declined Lautner’s vistas. A 1966 photograph taken by Harry Drinkwater in Lautner’s Malin (Chemosphere) house pictures the designer John H. Smith sitting in an armchair that faces outward onto a sweeping 270-degree view of Los Angeles. But the designer himself does not, turning his head away from the expanse of plate glass and its production of scopic mastery. Reprints of this photograph also suggest that Drinkwater likewise rejected this mastery by overexposing the exterior in his picture and disrupting the architect’s traffic in glamorized transparency.
  11. Produced in art and architectural writings since the 19th Century and reaching fetishistic heights by the middle of the twentieth, the modernist discourse of “truth to materials” expressed an abiding faith in the autonomous and yet-to-be-revealed nature of building materials and/or artistic media, and the architect’s and artist’s obligation to honor to it, thereby emancipating works from the purported fraudulence of ornamentation and the burdens of representation. The racialized carnality of that faith and obligation requires a longer essay.
  12. For discussions on the modalities of the surface in minoritarian expressive practices, see Uri McMillan “Introduction: skin, surface, sensorium,” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 28, no. 1 (2018): 1-15; and Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economic of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
  13. Here, I follow Diana Leong’s reading of Spillers, which emphasizes how the disavowed substrate in all modern concepts of materiality is the history of black flesh under captivity – a flesh that, as Spillers posits, is non-discursive, non-iconographic, un-gendered, without kin; a scene of negation; “raw material” lying at the zero degree of social life, and upon which it is built and rebuilt. Diana Leong “The Mattering of Black Lives: Octavia Butler’s Hyperempathy and the Promise of the New Materialisms.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2, no. 2 (2016): 1-35; See also Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65–81.
  14. On the sonic frequencies of (photographic) images of the African Diaspora, see Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
  15. Bill Marchese, “Art and History are Forever,” MyDesert, July 5, 2013, p. 3.
Lisa Uddin
Lisa Uddin thanks those who continue to support this research with their skills and generosity: Frank Lopez, Sarah Sherman, Melissa Salrin, Colin Justin, Jonathan Eburne, Jonathan Massey, Greg Castillo, Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, Mabel O. Wilson, Matt Reynolds, Michael B. Gillespie, Banjo, Tess, Marie Slepin, and Joshua Slepin.