The Loofah Method

at Chicago Filmmakers

May 8-9, 14-16, 22-23, and 28-30

The artistic collaborators who are the Loofah Method have been both blessed and cursed by the group’s relative marginality. For several years a fixture on the performance-poetry circuit, it was never quite like the other so-called poetry bands (Algebra Suicide, Bob Shakespeare Band). By comparison the Loofah Method was technically slick, and often more political in its material.

But the Loofah Method didn’t quite fit the performance-art scene either. Its technical brilliance–the integrated use of music, video, and sound effects–was admired, and its occasional forays into sentimentality were tolerated; but its politics seemed obvious and sometimes even silly.

Still, the Loofah Method has always seemed more organic, more genuine than most performance poetry or art. Its distance from performance-art institutions allowed it to try things that might have seemed absurdly literal to those with more formal performance training. Sometimes these worked, sometimes they didn’t. But even when they didn’t, the efforts were always so honest and brave that it was easy to see them as noble experiments.

With Relax . . . You’re Soaking in It!, the group’s latest offering at Chicago Filmmakers, Loofah is now showing signs that it’s making a transition. In fact Relax is a showcase of Loofah’s best and worst, offering a firsthand look at artists grappling with the next step, with managing their maturity. What to keep? What to let go? In other words, Relax is not to be missed.

As in any Loofah show, the two principal ingredients are poet Cindy Salach and musician and composer Mark Messing. At the peak of her powers as a poet, Salach has definitely matured as a performer. Always engaging onstage, she now seems more familiar with performing and more at ease. She owns the space in which she performs, whereas before she seemed intimidated, unaware of how to make the best use of it.

Salach’s writing has also gone beyond some of the more facile themes that used to be a trademark of Loofah shows. She is using experiences from her own life–her grandmother’s death, women’s right to abortion–instead of more romantic, generic notions of love and war. The difference between “You Are Here,” the abortion-rights piece that debuted at this show, and “Vogue With the War Dead,” a carryover from last year about the wars in Central America, is stunning. In “You Are Here” Salach is fully invested and present; because the material in “Vogue With the War Dead” is by comparison so distant, she’s more flippant than those who’ve actually experienced the devastation of war might find sensitive.

Messing, too, has grown onstage. His persona is quirky and fun. Now, when he breaks into a dance routine, he seems less self-conscious, more relaxed. And as usual Messing’s music is riveting. An arranger and sax player, Messing produces jazzy scores that drive Salach’s words. Never overwhelming, never sensational, the music is like a heartbeat for the show. Max Callahan and Douglas Johnson, who make up Messing’s band, are also wonderful.

The third critical ingredient in the Loofah Method is Kurt Heintz, the group’s video artist. His work is consistently challenging and provocative. Unfortunately, Relax doesn’t give him much of a showcase except in “Vogue With the War Dead.” Some of his excellent recent work, such as the “Natural Gas” video (which was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Circa ’92 last weekend), got left out of Relax altogether.

Also involved in Relax is photographer Sue Walsh, whose work is the focal point of “Memory,” arguably the show’s best segment–a breathless piece about the death of Salach’s grandmother. More than a dozen other local artists, many well known, also participate in videos and live performances throughout. In other words, Loofah’s not so marginal anymore. The input from other artists–including Joan Dickinson and Paula Killen–has probably contributed to the group’s greater polish and sophistication. But it may also have been an influence in some of its new self- indulgence.

Dialogue with other artists probably made a positive difference in “You Are Here,” which takes a remarkable position on abortion rights: a middle ground. This position is not put forth naively. Salach knows well how volatile this issue is. But she manages to strike a humanistic chord that’s nearly unheard of in discussions of this topic.

Dialogue with other artists may also have been behind the unexpected and downright weird decision to have Salach sing several verses from Romeo Void’s sexy “Never Say Never” during “I Dream of George,” a clumsy dialogue between Salach and President Bush. It’s not that she can’t sing. It’s just that the song doesn’t fit–it feels like the response to somebody’s flip suggestion to do something different. In fact “I Dream of George” could easily be scratched and no one would miss it. Although it’s a new piece, it has all the signs of the group’s old, obvious politics.

Still, Relax is filled with promise. For all its inconsistency, it clearly reveals the Loofah Method as an amazingly original artistic endeavor. The best evidence, however, that the group’s not content with being merely good is the revised version of “Beautiful Women,” which is several years old. A delicate piece of poetry that Salach has performed solo and with the group, it has never failed to garner applause. Yet in Relax Loofah has chosen to rework all the visuals and movement–and the new imagery finally fits the words. When Salach steps out into the silver spotlight, fills her hands with water from a basin, and washes her face, the moment is wrenching.


Joan Dickinson

at Club Lower Links

May 14 and 15

Imagine the stage wall of Club Lower Links covered with xeroxes of a bottled embryo. Imagine the stage layered with sand, a sprinkling of white and red balloons floating over it. Stage right, there’s a forest of real Christmas trees. Booming from the speakers is Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” Into this surreal scene enters a . . . person. We know it’s a woman because she’s holding her white dress up–way up–and displaying her naked genitalia. But she also looks, eerily enough, like a giant, beautiful flower.

The artist behind this startling image is Joan Dickinson, a painter and designer with a master’s in performance from Columbia College. Mental Beauty/Enduring Affection, the show she premiered last weekend at Lower Links, is a feast for the eyes, a wonderful hallucinogen for the brain, and just plain fun.

Throughout the hour-long piece Dickinson challenges the meaning of images by making them crash against other, equally volatile images. These images–projected, acted out, or described in video or text–juxtapose notions of femininity against those of nature. “I’m concerned with ‘What’s natural?’ Is there such a thing as ‘natural’?” Dickinson said after the show. “I’m interested in the consequences of those projections, particularly how they affect women and girls.”

The text makes up perhaps a quarter of the total running time, but Dickinson’s inflection, delivery, and gesticulation enable her to explore the emotional and psychological consequences of language. Wearing an expression well beyond deadpan, Dickinson undermines–turns inside out–one expectation after another. The effect is absolutely delicious.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debra E. Levie.