Ain’t No One Here But Us Chickens

February 9th, 2016

There is a world parallel to our own whose small inhabitants fret over toxic shock syndrome, swoon over Fabergé eggs, and hoard pet cats. This world is filled with objects of convincing density: a Louis Vuitton shopping bag; a crystal ball; a tutu; a telephone; a dunce cap; an igloo; and a feathered turban. Characters speak with the languorous wit of Tallulah Bankhead; the screechy frustration of the stay-at-home mother; the precociousness of a child studying vocabulary years in advance of her SATs. In many ways, this world is entirely our own with the exception of the size and, well, the chenille and pipe cleaner consistency of its occupants.

by Sloane Tanen

Richly detailed tableaux are filled with sassy chickens, the only actors in Sloane Tanen’s four art books: Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same: The Life and Times of Some Chickens (2003); Going for the Bronze: Still Bitter, More Baggage (2005); Hatched!: The Big Push from Pregnancy to Motherhood (2007); and Appetite for Detention (2008).  (The titles are satisfying in translation: Splendeurs et misérès d’une starlette de poulailler, Poussez for Hatched, and Küken im Goldrausch.) The store-bought chickens pop up as novelty items in craft and toy stores around Easter. Tanen sculpts them to reflect emaciation, obesity and plain old bad hair days. Bits and pieces from dollhouse collections, like baby strollers and polar bears, texture the dioramas. The small fuzzies seem sometimes to stagger under the weight of their emotional baggage. The word ‘tizzy’ comes to mind.


(Tanen laughs at the necessity of the word ‘adult’ in relation to some of her books and its misleading connotations: the phrase “adult chicken book” is especially intriguing. Tanen wrote another chicken-based children’s series featuring naughty Coco the child chick, who learns her letters and numbers and travels the globe, ending up at every child’s utopia: grandma’s house.)


The chickens’ world is pluralist, even multicultural. There are Orthodox Jews with curls who break fasts with hotdogs; a gay couple who fuss over their physiques; and even green Martians.  Prince Charles and Camilla appear on their wedding day, Camilla Chicken wearing her distinctive agrarian-themed bridal tiara, smelling faintly of guacamole.  And there are note-perfect references to popular culture, with the grim menstruation-in-the-showers scene from the horror movie Carrie.  (“It was one of those scenes that was sort of iconic and traumatic to me when I was a kid,” she explains on the phone from Oakland, California.)


There is also pathos and black comedy, as a tiny boy chicken, in the spelling bee’s harsh spotlight, labours over the word “dissapointmint”. Blue Chinese immigrant chickens splash perilously in their rowboat, trying to buck up by singing “New York, New York” in Mandarin.  (The chicks are actually made in China.)


The legendary cartoon editor of the New Yorker, Robert Mankoff, once buzzed around Tanen’s work as a new, avant-garde cartoon, unlike any of the magazine’s past submissions. Her work is original and identifiable at a glance and is ready to appear in any setting in which cartoons are found. Its stagy, intricate settings (“little movie sets” says Tanen), are more obviously artistic than cartoonish, and ultimately maximalist where drawings are minimalist.  Each image, deriving from a 3-D set, is trickily sculptural and takes up to an hour to shoot.  Though Tanen refers to herself as a “3-D cartoonist”, her work seems to bring a little more to the table than cartooning.


In the end, the New Yorker did not put out a special issue of multimedia cartoons, and the project was shelved.  “The editor-in-chief [David Remnick] sees the New Yorker as a traditional magazine using traditional line-drawn cartoons,” explains Tanen. She calls the meeting with Mankoff a high point for the chicken series, saying “I do think that cartooning is an art form: I definitely do”, and names Charles Addams a particular inspiration.  In their ability to form stand-alone universes, the chickens perhaps best resemble Gary Larson’s classic cartoon “The Far Side”.


A commissioned composition (“Subway Chicks”) has appeared on New York City subways and billboards, as part of a series of MTA Arts for Transit subway posters.  Tanen produced a tapestry of metropolitan life in this close depiction of Mayor George B. McLennan Jr.’s inaugural subway ride from City Hall Station in October 1904.  For the Spring 2006 collection, The Sak, a mid-range handbag line, ran a series of chicken ads.


Sloane Tanen’s life is bicoastal and bicultural. Her father, Ned Tanen, was a studio head with a massive Hollywood career (Animal House, Jaws, Fatal Attraction), which kept Sloane in LA until age 18. Her education is diverse, and she began attending a string of exclusive institutions with the private co-ed Brentwood School.  She did her undergrad at Sarah Lawrence, majoring in visual art.  Tanen’s paintings feature black and white “architectural landscapes”, and appear in corporate and private collections.  Her time in Manhattan was prolific.  She did two Master’s degrees, one at Columbia in art history and another at NYU in literature.


She went on to University of Virginia where she began her Ph.D. with the intention of becoming a professor, but she eventually left due to a lifelong fear of public speaking. (A shy, apprehensive theme returns when she talks about reading Amazon reviews: “When you go out in public, you gotta be ready to get your head blown off.”) Her reading schedule remains heavy: a list on Twitter takes in Joyce Carol Oates, Herman Kock, Donna Tartt and Tom Rachman.


She returned to California, to Berkeley for a few years, and now she resides in Oakland. (“I’m having a harder time relating to it because it’s not my kind of crazy.  It’s nice, it’s different, a good place for the kids.”) The captions of Tanen’s chicken images reflect her ability to toggle between two dialects: New York hipster and California flake.


The chicken work was born in New York, at Tanen’s Greenwich Village studio.  Tanen’s artistic career was underway, and she was showing her work in galleries.  Unable to paint large-scale works after an injury, Tanen began making model houses and painting their small rooms.  Tanen had bought a few of the little chenille figurines every Easter, and stuck a few in her miniature rooms, sending the resulting pictures on cards to friends.  They were a hit, and Tanen soon got more inquiries for her chicks than for her serious painting.  Her friends requested personal situations rendered in chickens, and Tanen discovered that any embarrassment depicted in chenille lost its power to offend, but not its power to amuse.


It takes a surgeon’s dexterity and attention to detail to assemble the dioramas and pose the charismatic chenille, and some of the original sets sold at auction raising funds for a cancer charity. At first she made all of the little props used by the chicks, and then Tanen discovered that she could buy many in the strange, obsessive world of dolls and dollhouses.  “I am a better painter than a line drawer and the chickens just came very easily.  They were kind of an accident, as are the best things in life and art.”   Editor Amy Scheibe approached her to produce a book, and she soon had her choice of publishers.  Tanen connected with German photographer Stefan Hagen and a deal was signed with Bloomsbury.  Hagen, who worked in advertising shooting jewelry and shampoo bottles, was the first successful chicken photographer.  He knew exactly how to light the dioramas, and he would collaborate with Tanen throughout the chicken period.


Tanen’s chicks are tucked away in their roost for now.  The publisher and editor have left, and Tanen is now separated by geography from her collaborator-photographer in New York.  Though the first books sold well, the classification of her books in stores created a problem.  “These are gift books, and they end up shelved in the humour section of a bookstore and nobody sees them.  When they are viewed as a novelty item and the booksellers put them out, then they do sell.  Otherwise they can get lost in a bookstore.”   Tanen was frustrated when the most accomplished chicken book, Hatched, suffered such a fate.


An attractive, youthful brunette, Tanen is married to Gary Taubes, an award-winning science writer who has appeared on the cover of New York Times Magazine.  His research into the Nobel Prizes and Cold Fusion has been followed by a predictably best-selling, controversial book called Why We Get Fat.  They have two young boys, Harry and Nick, and Tanen remains close to her older sister, Tracy James.


In 2011, she published a young adult novel, Are You Going to Kiss Me Now? (Sourcebooks Fire).  High School Junior, Francesca Manning, is an aspiring writer who crash lands on a desert island with five celebrities, one an obvious Perez Hilton figure and another a Lindsay Lohan.  She had won the rendezvous with celebs through a Seventeen magazine biography contest, for which she falsely wrote that her father, who had just impregnated his girlfriend, was dead.  This is the essential Sloane Tanen detail: small stakes, huge results.  As she moves onto another literary work, Tanen hasn’t forgotten the chickens what brung her to the dance.


“I’m the chicken lady.  It’s quite a label to carry around.”



Watchdog. 2014.

July 12th, 2014

Watchdog.  2014.  By Erin O'Brien

Man with Poodle Face. 2014.

July 12th, 2014

Man with Poodle Head.  2014.  By Erin O'Brien

The Library of Maria Callas: short fiction

March 22nd, 2014


Some time after her death, it came to me to explore the archive which Miss Callas had assembled over the course of her life.  The library, a room in her apartment at 36 Avenue Georges Mandel, documented Maria’s attempt to internalize the musical world for the sake of her art.  It was required of Callas, she believed, to swallow the world entire in order to emit Norma or Medea.

Her archive was not yet picked over.  It looked mad, crooked, and it contained many of her possessions, her letters and scores, which would later disappear.

Everything stopped abruptly

Over the wide room, a hologram of Aristotle Onassis sprang up here and there, recommending spy fiction and a catalogue from Van Cleef  & Arpels. He addressed the camera, and thus me, in a “get a load of this” tone.  He blew me a kiss.

A glance took in her collection of scores and a stack of 8-track tapes for language acquisition (Introductions to Turkish, Persian, German).  She spoke Greek, French, English and the Italian dialect of Veronese, usually in a blend, multidimensionally, rising and falling like the keys of a typewriter.  I saw copies of Macbeth and a biography of Nicholas and Alexandra, dog-eared, which she had carried around for a while, moving from one carry-on bag to another.

This is disgusting, said Ari, looking around.

This is a disgrace, said Ari.  (In the end, I would find several mummified poodles who were lost in the stacks.) Ha, Ari said suddenly.  He held up a trashy biography of Jackie Kennedy mid-1970s, mincing, and raffishly  kissed Jackie’s paper cheek. His head is the head of the minotaur, and people whisper how can she sleep with him?

Jackie Kennedy is a bag of bones, he once not only told Maria, but told her in front of guests.  An incalculable gift.

My assistant asked if we might come across some special map of Greece to lead us to hidden archeological treasures.  Of course not, you idiot, I said.  He and I congratulated each other on the significant finds, like a purple metal garbage can sporting a silkscreened picture of Jackie at JFK’s funeral. Should I throw out the inevitable junk?   I wondered if the word theft could be applied, as we shuttled away piles of hotel room stationery, covered in notes and lists and letters.

Jackie Kennedy bled into the real Kennedys, Jack and Bobby, JFK and RFK

And everything was confidential

(FBI agents burst through a tear in time)

And life was lived like something snapped off

The other woman was more interesting than Ari himself.  This is for whom he would leave me, wrote Callas on Excelsior Hotel paper.  This is my weight in gold.  This is my value in couture. This is my bag of secrets.

This is our Hisarlik, I tell my assistant.  This is our Hisarlik, this is our Troy, this is our flaming library, Alexandria under our feet, this Knossos, this is our old religion.

Study after Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X

January 4th, 2014

Study after Francis Bacon's Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Evolution. 2013.

January 4th, 2014


Milking Mayfair: Daphne Guinness at SHOWstudio

February 18th, 2013

Daphne Guinness milking video

Nowhere is the possibility of milking as self-annihilation more evident than when it involves a beautiful woman with flawless styling. Daphne Guinness remarks later that ‘self-annihilation is a prerequisite to growth’. The milking of a model is the fashion equivalent to Pete Townshend smashing his guitar. Here, Guinness performs a wipe-out gesture of her own.


Milking began as an in-joke among young male Newcastle University students, a little light relief during exam time. Young people took bottles full of litres of milk and emptied them on their heads, for no discernible purpose other than that, for a time, it seemed like the thing to do. Milking quickly caught on through YouTube, generating tens of thousands of views, and spread to other British cities and towns, including Edinburgh, Oxford and Cirencester. People milked in trees and from a second floor window, soaking the man below and his cereal. Participants competed in choosing the funniest, most unexpected locations for their milkings, just as others had done with the phenomenon of ‘planking’.


Planking involved lying stiff as a board in a surprising spot, and became the quintessential Internet meme. Because of a rush to outdo other ‘plankers’ in choosing an outlandish site, a variety of injuries and one fatality resulted. So far milking has proven harmless, unless you consider the fate of the milk itself.

In fact, milking was displaced by the invention of ‘porting’ at Durham University, in which male students pour a bottle of port over their white dress shirts (which are thus ruined) and dark suit pants. Although port is much more expensive than milk, no one can construct much of an argument regarding the importance of its preservation. It is hard to argue that those who waste milk are improving the world, but some might see a virtue in those who waste alcohol. These competing memes (from competing universities) can be seen on YouTube, which critic Wayne Koestenbaum refers to as a kind of ‘shame-kiln’ in his book Humiliation (2011),[1]


Director Nick Knight’s suggestion began as a joke on the geographic spread of the milking craze, from its origin in Newcastle to Bruton Place, Mayfair, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in London. Multimedia artist and model Daphne Guinness hadn’t heard of milking before, but quickly latched onto the idea and saw that it was the best way to celebrate a pending move. Location was on Knight’s mind.

In fact, on the next day (1 February 2013), SHOWstudio itself moved to a new site on Motcomb Street, Belgravia. Milking Mayfair had the adults paying tribute to a meme developed by youth, and restaging it in a formidably expensive, grown-up context.

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We come to inform Grandad again of our good fortune: short fiction

January 13th, 2013

I try to tell him again, but he is not listening.

They’re coming to get her.

Who, grandad, I ask sadly.

He points with his nose at Catherine/Kate on TV.

Aristocrat, he says decidedly in the TV room. He leans back in the armchair with a palm on one armrest, his legs lavishly crossed. He is grand.

Soon the sentences will stop, so we try to avoid cutting off any in formation. We wait a while.

His name is Jock, a name not really in use anymore. He is a thing without a relevant name. And Kate is no aristocrat.

What we don’t know is that, for his Royal Wedding day, the nurses have given him a secret to chew on like a horse on a bouquet of flowers.

The secret, about which he is right: she should wear an off-white dress.

Ins & Outs for December 2010

November 19th, 2010
Greece Germany
Mount Athos Greece
Kate Middleton’s ghastly mother Camilla Parker-Bowles
decorative political morons the end of Christine O’Donnell
the Burmese military Aung San Suu Kyi
limos Town Cars
less getting to know the royal couple let’s have the wedding already
Tavi: child fashionista Karl Lagerfeld in every capacity
the red carpet Lagerfeld’s private lunch with Princess Caroline in “Lagerfeld Confidential”
robocalls Shepard Fairey’s Suu Kyi poster
Vampire squid and your mortgage Matt Taibbi: an expert on both
In Treatment: new season In Treatment’s “Sunil” character
Spain Italy
Portugal Spain
Animal shelters need $$$ now: give Zenyatta: the magnificent racehorse
freak pets that end up in shelters fish: always room for a bowl
hopping Asian carp The first ever Census of Marine Life
Law and Order: LA Law and Order: SVU
Facebook The Facebook Movie
letting Buck House slowly collapse weak jobless “recovery” throughout Europe & NA
George Michael not making music Nicki Minaj
subway streetcar
The Event: I give up Oprah Abandonment Syndrome
the dying art of hiding schlock embarrassing bits on iPod lists: Tom Jones, anyone?!?
Marc Jacob’s “Bang” campaign Creed: Spice and Wood visuals
Kathy Griffin (just kidding) Cher
Thierry Mugler’s “Angel” Solange Azagury-Partridge lips ring
Blackglama PETA
interviewing MJ’s kids journalistic ethics: get some
judges lawyers
doctors nurses
Mick Jagger Keith Richards
Sarah Palin, forever Hillary is all that remains

“Boy with a Toy Grenade in Central Park” (1962) by Diane Arbus

October 31st, 2010

Summoning up all the wildness he possesses in his tiny frame, the little boy with the crenelated mouth is caught in a nanosecond of indecision, just before he winds up and hurls his grenade.

His empty hand, often referred to as a “claw”, forms the shape of another grenade, as successfully as a mime’s. The tension in this hand is astonishing: he grips a shape so solid and particular through empty air that you think of the circumference of an aluminum can, or a back-up grenade. Indeed, there had been a back-up grenade, lost when the boy attempted to blow up the alley next to his building (1).

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