If there is a common thread that ties together all the work of Satanic documentarian Larry Wessel (Taurobolium, Ultramegalopolis) aside from his pathological voyeurism and seeming love of the medium of video, it is his obsession with the artist, most specifically the subversive and much maligned artist on the fringes of society. Indeed, from the aberrant carny anecdotes of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth protégé Robert ‘The King of Lowbrow Art’ Williams in Carny Talk (1995) to the life story of noise pioneer and (in)famous ‘occult fascist’ Boyd Rice of NON in the epic three-part documentary Iconoclast (2010), Wessel has demonstrated that he wants to know every detail about an artist and their influences, no matter how random and irrelevant, and in my humble opinion, that is one of his greatest merits as a filmmaker as a sort of satanist Jean Rouch. With his latest debauched doc Love (2014), Wessel takes his most literal approach to documenting an artist and their work, as it is a conspicuously candid doc where a somewhat marginal yet nonetheless semi-successful cult painter describes the origin and influences of all her major paintings while oftentimes in the company of a mentor. Of course, considering the artist, New Mexico-based painter Beth Moore-Love, has done paintings of southern belles masturbating to the sickening sight of naked lynched negroes, daughters ganging up on and raping their elderly fathers, a blonde preteen angel reading ‘outsider artist’ Henry Darger’s 15, 145-page work In the Realms of the Unreal to a pale little Aryan boy corpse that suffered a grotesque gunshot wound to the face in bed, an Elizabeth Taylor-esque little girl holding a platter with a bald bearded fellow’s decapitated head while a naked woman is being tortured by three gringo amigos in the background, a farm mother savagely slaughtering her own infant daughter and subsequently slitting her own throat, and a sadistically cynical work featuring the frozen corpses of the ill-fated British Captain Sir Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition to the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage, Ms. Moore-Love is not exactly a pedantic or even pleasant subject, but no one would dare say she is uninteresting. Despite being a petite and rather thin woman that likes wearing vintage Shirley Temple-esque dresses, Moore-Love is certainly no lady, at least not in any conventional sense, as demonstrated by her glaring seething hatred for modesty and humility, daintiness, old school white patriarchy, pre-Civil Rights era American history, and colonialism in a variety of ‘idiosyncratic’ fashions throughout the documentary. Of course, as a chick with a Vietnam War veteran for a father who likes shooting assault rifles and bow and arrows in dresses and seems to have an innate aversion to political correctness, even if her sentiments are more or less of the ostensibly humanistic left, the painter is not some putridly pompous feminist or art school trust fund dyke and thus her art seems totally genuine and not the product of pathetic pretense and repugnant postmodern artistic trends. Technically, it is not the first time that Moore-Love, who was once not surprisingly associated with Boyd Rice and Brian M. Clark’s avant-garde UNPOP art movement, is collaborating with auteur Wessel, as he used her black-and-white 1995 painting “Starlet” of Elizabeth ‘The Black Dahlia’ Short standing in front of her dismembered corpse as the poster art for his Hollywood Babylon-inspired documentary Sex, Death & The Hollywood Mystique (1999). Shot on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Berlin, Germany, and Los Angeles over an 8-year period spanning from 2005 to 2013, Wessel’s long in the making love letter to Love ultimately more than demonstrates what the eponymous subject meant when she proudly declared that, “My ‘artwork’ has always been very cynical and ANGRY,” as a delightfully debasing doc that does many things but thankfully it does not make any attempts to separate the seemingly aberrant artist from her undeniably aberrant art.
Born in 1964 in Des Moines, Iowa to a Vietnam War army recruiter named Tom Moore who oftentimes saw the young men that he helped to recruit come home in body bags, Beth Moore-Love certainly seems to have death on the brain and I would not be surprised if it is at least partially rooted in the wartime experiences of her father, who she initially did not recognize as a little girl when he came back from the war. Feeling bad that he allowed his little girl to be married away at the mere age of 19, Papa Moore took up an offer from artist Dale Caudill aka ‘Bo’ to properly train his daughter to “hone her skills” and develop an admirable body of work so long as the old man footed the bill for a year. Despite describing her as the “laziest woman I had ever met” (in fact, the painter even states of herself, “I’ve always been lazy”), Bo managed to whip his seemingly plain Jane protege, who previously was commissioned to do banal amateurish paintings of horses and cats, into shape and helped her establish a respectable oeuvre largely revolving around ‘neo-American Gothic’ paintings featuring dead and/or mutilated children and the dismembered corpses of adults that, aesthetically and thematically speaking, seem to fall somewhere in between the work of Midwestern painter Grant Wood, American lowbrow pop surrealist Joe Coleman, controversial American artist Stud Mead (who is a personal friend of the artist), ‘Naïve painter’ and writer Henry Darger, and obscure controversial kraut painter Herbert Smagon. For example, her early painting “Dwarf Toss” features a dark apocalyptic landscape featuring a naked legless girl in the foreground ‘fingering’ the bloody gore around the area where her leg was ripped off while two wolves collectively devour said leg and buildings burn in the background. Using pictures of vintage mannequins as the main influence for the discernibly loony little girl subjects of these paintings, Moore-Love managed to create a foreboding body of work that makes it seem like that she is haunted by a perennial state of lost childhood, as if something horrendous happened to her as a little girl that she just cannot exorcise from her seemingly forsaken soul. For her self-portrait, which was used as the poster art of Love, she painted an image of herself on a rat-infested pirate ship (the artist claims she has pirate ancestry) as a half-topless figurehead with angel wings that is being pointed at by a crazed prepubescent child carrying a decapitated head while her assumed mother’s corpse is being torn to shreds by a vulture in the background.
Unquestionably, Moore-Love’s greatest artistic obsession seems to be figuratively shitting on America and the colonial white world’s past (it should be noted that feces does appear in much of her work), which probably takes its most mean-spirited, nightmarish, and iconoclastic form in her painting “Southern Comfort”, which features a group of southern belles, including one with her dress hiked up and masturbating, standing around the dangling unclad corpse of a lynched negro and which the artist described as follows: “This was the nightmare of Southern manhood that their wives were in to it, you know, in the middle of the night furiously masturbating thinking about black cock. This is one of my favorite paintings that I have ever done,” thus demonstrating the painter’s seeming innate hatred and resentment towards white men. Her painting “The Franklin Expedition”, which was inspired by the doomed 1845 voyage of British Captain Sir John Franklin and 138 officers, depicts the frozen corpse of a British officer who Moore-Love only has the utmost contempt for as demonstrated by her remark, “They were far too arrogant to imagine that maybe there were people already living in that region that could help them […] they were never found again, except by Eskimos, but that didn’t count.” Of course, a little research proves that most of the British officers probably died from other causes like starvation (there is evidence that the men actually resorted to cannibalism), lead poisoning and diseases including scurvy, tuberculosis, and pneumonia than from hypothermia. Unquestionably, one of the artist’s most revealing paintings is from 1996 and entitled “A Closer Walk”, which features an apocalyptic farm landscape showing a mother, who has just butchered her infant, committing suicide by slitting her own throat while the family home burns down in the background. In regard to her influences for “A Closer Walk” and what it means to her, Moore-Love remarks, “…After I read the WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, I just realized there was a lot of that stuff going on at that time and at that place…and it doesn’t surprise me, being, you know, I wouldn’t have liked to be a woman living in that era. Some of the paintings seemed nostalgic but I’m not nostalgic at all for the old days, unless we’re talking about, you know, the stone age when things were probably a little bit simpler.” As one would suspect, Moore-Love has no children.
For “immigration reasons” and the “possibility of living in Europe and America”, Moore-Love, who had already divorced her first husband (though, not unlike Tina Turner, she opted to keep the catchy surname), married Berlin-based experimental musician, artist, and writer Ghazi Barakat of Boy From Brazil in 1997 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Barakat paid tribute to his then-wife in his essay “The Late Great Aesthetic Taboos”, which was featured in the 2000 book Apocalypse Culture 2, which was edited and published by director Wessel’s comrade Adam Parfrey via his publishing company Feral House. In the essay, Barakat wrote, “The work of [UNPOP Artist] Beth Love of New Mexico expands on an “innocent” Victorian aesthetic by integrating sick-minded contemporary horror beneath her primary subjects, and within the background. The stowing away of such dread renders the id-forms all the more astonishing.” Naturally, while living in Berlin, Moore-Love found new influences as demonstrated by her painting “A View of The Hinterhoff”, a rare commissioned work (the artist typically refuses to do commissioned art), which depicts the Teutonic metropolis as a “very insectoid” Kafka-esque post-industrial rat maze where the sun never shines. While in Berlin, Moore-Love also contributed work to an art exhibit called “When Love Turns To Poison” that also included works by artists like Stu Mead, Mathias Seidel, Skip Hunter & Ella Verparajugs, Thomas Hauser, and Frank Gaard that caused a huge scandal in Germany where the artists were “accused of peddling kiddy porn.” Rather humorously, a large and morbidly obese Christian extremist showed up at the exhibit and began destroying the art. Moore-Love also goes on to describe how she was elated that an Aryan woman called a painting she did of a naked prepubescent girl in a forest “rubbish” in a German newspaper, stating that for her, it “was the equivalent of an Academy Award because every artist worth their salt in the history of art has had people call their work rubbish or worse.”
While I find some of her work interesting and even aesthetically pleasing, Beth Moore-Love is certainly not an artist I like, but I suspect that her ultimate goal is not to be liked as indicated by her ‘artist’s statement’: “I read a quote once, I don’t remember who said it, something about the purpose of art being to soothe the spirit after a hard day of ‘reality’. What does that mean? I once saw a two-page advertisement for some stupid car, on one side of the fold-out was a photo of Monument Valley, morphing into the skyline of Manhattan. On the other page, over Monument Valley was written, ‘The Dream’, over Manhattan was written, “The Reality”. And I saw right away that this was completely backwards. So my purpose as an artist is to soothe these people who turn our world upside-down for profit? These people who feel spiritually bereft after a hard day of raping and pillaging? Fuck that. I will NOT. I’m going to sneak it on the wall, and slap the shit out of them with the truth of it. Is there ugliness and horror in my work? Absolutely. Do you think that my work is distasteful? You are correct!” Indeed, Moore-Love is certainly someone who finds a perverse sense of pulchritude in things including her own cat as a dead roast for a feast, infanticide, apocalyptic catastrophe, prepubescent female nudity, white heterosexual male misery, feces and scatological scenarios involving cute little girls, anti-maternal gestures like women breastfeeding poisonous Gila monsters and mothers and daughters savagely butchering one another (it should be no surprise that she has described her paintings as her “children”), so no one could call her a hack, even if they wanted to. One thing that Moore-Love certainly makes clear during the documentary, even if she does not say it outright, is that she uses her art as a sort of therapy, with her work “Cloacina Russula” being made to get out of a long depression and her work “Our Mother of Compassion” created out of anger and rage. Moore-Love once stated, “I paint for a society that’s dysfunctional. I don’t paint to make things better for people; I paint a mirror of this society,” but as I watched Wessel’s doc, I came to the natural conclusion that the art is more of a product of her own dysfunction than a mirror of society, which I think can be said of any decent and authentic artist. Arguably, most importantly, I respect that Moore-Love has a sense of humor regarding her work, even stating in the doc, “I think a lot of these paintings are funny.” I know I certainly had a smirk on my face while seeing a number of them, especially her “self portrait.”
Arguably Big Larry’s most intimate and professional documentary to date and certainly his most polished and evenly paced, Love
reveals Wessel to be a man with a deep respect and almost childlike enthusiasm for the artist, which is quite rare for artist-based documentaries of any sort, which typically resemble insufferably banal virtual tours of art galleries or hokey and/pedantic hagiographies. Indeed, featuring shockingly breathtaking aerial shots of the deserts, mesas, mountains of New Mexico and shot on two different continents, the doc certainly demonstrates that Big Larry has come a long way since the days when he went by the name ‘Laurence Von Wessel’ and shot and assistant directed campy kitsch pieces for ‘outsider auteur’ and aesthetic terrorist extraordinaire John Aes-Nihil like the Tennessee Williams adaptation The Drift
(1989) starring the crippled tranny Goddess Bunny (who would become the central subject of his 1995 L.A. drag queen doc Sugar & Spice
) on consumer grade camcorders. While not Wessel’s longest and most ‘epic’ work to date, Love
is certainly his most immaculate and revealing work, which largely has to with the subject Moore-Love who, unlike say Boyd Rice of Iconoclast
, is fairly self-deprecating, honest to a fault (much like her art), and does not attempt to hide behind a bloated and puffery-plagued persona. For better or worse, Moore-Love’s art does offer a window into the modern world that seems like it might shatter at any moment, but so does the artist who I could imagine would be the next Lorena Bobbitt or Gesche Gottfried were she not a painter and did not have a serious therapeutic outlet for her pain and hatred.
Ty E, Soiled Sinema