I'm posting today about "Bipolar Bear," a memoir by my friend Carl Davis--a man whom many of you know from his presence as an artist and architect in Los Angeles. As you'll see, it is not an easy read, but one that I found insightful and rewarding. Because his story is so very personal and revealing, I sought and received his blessing before making my thoughts public:
Friday, August 5, 2022
Wednesday, August 3, 2022
I can vouch for the truth that there is no better way to celebrate a birthday marking the all too swift passage of the remaining years than a jaunt with beloved family to the Getty Villa. We went yesterday, Ellie and I, with our daughter Sarah and her boyfriend from the Netherlands and her rambunctious young 10-year-old, Luka—another constant reminder, if one were needed, of my own declining years.
I noticed, even on the path from the parking garage to the villa, that there are judgments to be set aside on such a visit: judgments about extreme wealth and the means by which it was acquired; judgments—based on nothing but rumor, reputation and news reports---about the character of the man who amassed it; judgments about the use to that extreme wealth to plunder the cultural heritage of distant nations…
All these, and judgments too about the nature of humanity itself which arose, for me, the moment I set foot in the exhibition “Assyria: Palace Art in Ancient Iraq”, testimony to the truth that extreme wealth could buy you whatever extravagance you pleased no less in the ancient world than in today’s; that violence, warfare, plundering were as rife in those early days as they are today; that men—yes, alas, mostly men—were even then capable of acts of unimaginable cruelty, depicted in vivid battle scenes replete with disembowelments, impalements, beheadings. And while not committing acts of terror on their fellow human beings, they were inflicting them, for sport, on beautiful animals in the hunt...
All of which having duly noted, there is art. One wonders—well, I wonder, and I realize this is by no means an original thought—how those two starkly contradictory impulses can coexist in the human mind. But there it is. They do. And to walk through the Getty Villa is to be reminded at every turn of the artist’s obsessive need to get it right. To get every detail exactly right, unsparing of effort or skill. You have only to look at the patterned tiles on the marble floors...
... the paintings on the walls, each leaf, it would seem, on those rows of beautiful plants and trees...
—let alone the “art works” that fill the galleries.
I wander through those galleries, amazed at what those ancient artists achieved. The detail—passionate, sometimes explicitly sexual, sometimes gently humorous—of ordinary human interaction represented on the painted surfaces of those Grecian vases is astounding...
... I can, as they say, relate. The faces on those portraits carved in hard, ungiving stone and in bronze speak with as much human presence, today, as they did centuries ago...
The gestures and postures of those sculptural torsos, even left limbless by the passage of time, still manage to convey their own peculiar body language with profoundly moving power. Extraordinary, for example, that a male torso deprived of his genitals—whether by prurient vandalism or simply the ravages of time itself—can exude the pride, aggressive physical strength and pure spunk of masculinity.
Revisiting all of this, I realize how deeply I love art. Not just the “contemporary” stuff with which I was involved professionally, as a writer, for many years. These days, I have to say, I am more profoundly moved by these expressions of the ancients, testimony to the irrepressibly noble aspects of the human species, and a reminder, always, of my own humanity.
So, much gratitude for this day. Much learned, and re-learned. Much love in the shared experience, of the occasional glimpse of my grandson...
... almost despite himself, lost for a moment in the contemplation of a presence of pure beauty.
Friday, July 29, 2022
I am a reluctant driver these days, in Los Angeles. I’ve had enough of rude and clueless drivers, of endless traffic snarls around road works, of mad speeds on the freeways. The drive west from where we live at the far east end of the Hollywood hills used to be a pleasant, easy, even somewhat romantic drive along Sunset Boulevard. Nowadays, it’s a nightmare.
Enough of that. Overcoming my reluctance, I was persuaded by Ellie—who is nursing a now nearly three-year case of Covid cabin fever—to make the drive across town to the Hammer Museum in Westwood. And as things turned out, I was glad I did. Lunch, first of all, out in the central courtyard, was a pleasant experience, at least (I can’t help but play the grouch from time to time) until the bill came. But food and service were both excellent, rare enough to be worth paying for.
We had driven this far to see the Andrea Bowers show but were side-tracked, on the way, by a sign announcing a show called “Drawing Down the Moon.” Sounded interesting. Stepped inside and stopped to read the introductory wall text, where my biases were immediately alerted by the mention of witches and goddesses and so on. Not for me, I thought. But then a couple of steps further I found myself already fascinated by first images in the show, including a print depicting three nubile, naked young “witches” engaged in erotic preparations for an evening on the town.
I should say here that I had no notebook with me, and am therefore unable to provide the kind of detail that I would have done in the old days, in an “art review.” You’ll just have to go see this utterly delightful show for yourself. Curated by Allegra Pesenti, former associate director and senior curator, Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, it spans a wide range of moon-related themes with works from all parts of the world—an international feast of the human imagination inspired by the “mystery and lure” of our closest celestial body.
You’ll find a treasure on every wall, in every corner, in every display case. For example (and to give you an idea of the spread in time and space): a tiny, stunning painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich...
... a charming, miniature carved rabbit from 18th century Japan...
... a huge “moon bowl” (for its contour, its color and its texture) from Korea; an intricate assemblage by our own (aren’t we lucky?) Betye Saar and an acquatint etching by her daughter Alison (“Eclipse”—a huge Afro blocking out the sun)...
... a construction piece by Los Angeles contemporary Michael McMillen; the small, haunting etching of a woman waiting by a window on a moonlit night by Edvard Munch; a huge painting by Jay de Feo and a display case documenting that artist’s fascination with the moon; a wonderful abstract painting by Kandinsky; and a personal favorite by an artist I had never heard of (one of many!) Zarina, an untitled woodcut collaged with pewter leaf on black paper.
So much to see and think about. A page from William Blake. An excerpt from an edition of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems with the poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (Google it!) with the uncanny lines, “The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,/White as a knuckle and terribly upset.” A sonnet by Shakespeare posted on the curve of a wall, as your turn the corner. Many surprises. Much delight.
If you’re an artist living in the Los Angeles area, you’ll want to see this show. Don’t miss it. And for today, no disrespect, Andrea Bowers will have to wait. Tomorrow, maybe.
Thursday, July 21, 2022
It was February when I last had lunch with my friend Lloyd. We met again yesterday at Greengrass, the same Vietnamese restaurant where we met before. I remembered—he too—that we had ordered too much food the last time we were here, spring rolls for starters and a main course each. Followed by one of Greengrass’s special treats, a banana cream pie that we shared between us.
Have I mentioned this? A couple of weeks ago I made the conscious choice to eat more appropriately to my age. For several years now I have been ten to fifteen pounds heavier than is good for me. My middle-age spread had grown into a full-blown protrusion beneath the ribs, leaving me not only unsightly but uncomfortable. I have been eating—and drinking!—as I was able to do with impunity before the approach of, first, middle and now old age. My body simply does not need and cannot handle that kind of intake any more. I ate when I was hungry, and continued to eat when I was no longer hungry.
So what I decided was simply to be more attentively guided by my hunger. No diet. Just eating more appropriately to where I am in my life right now. It seems that Lloyd had come to a similar decision, because he announced even before myself that he’d be well satisfied with nothing more than an appetizer—something I myself had decided before setting out to meet him. I ordered the restaurant’s special soft summer rolls with shrimp; he ordered the crispy rolls with beef. And the waitress brought us a bowl of those crisp white wafers that look like packing crate chips, but taste pretty good with the brown sauce that comes with them.
All of which was a great deal less important than the conversation, which went deep from the start. Of course, when people as old as we get together there is the “organ recital”—the exchange that covers unavoidable deterioration of the body as age continues to take its toll; and from there moved rapidly to the imminence of death and thoughts of dying. We had both, in different ways, known and worked with the great Pop artist Claes Oldenburg—that word, Pop, diminishes his peculiar genius and his accomplishment—news of whose death had reached us only a couple of days before.
So it was with warm feelings that we shared our memories of him. Which brought us to thoughts about art, and about the fickle art world. Lloyd, too, made a significant contribution with his sculptural environments, starting back in the 1960s. I wrote about his work, admiring their inclusivity, the invitation they extended for participation not just to those who might be aware of their aesthetic value and intentions, but to anybody, young or old, who came across them. Typically, they took the form of circular structures, inheriting, so I thought, from the kiva, Stonehenge, or the simple campfire, and offering a tacit ritual space for silent communion or debate. I liked—and I mentioned this in our conversation—what I saw to be their modesty, not of intention or worth; but in their means. It’s a quality I respond to in an art work, where the artist’s ego remains invisible—unlike the work of so many artists whose ego is out front, imperious, hungry, demanding of attention. (Think, um… Picasso!)
We talked, too, about Lloyd’s current work. Like myself, he needs to do it. Like myself, his means to bring it to the attention of an audience is circumscribed—for Lloyd, by a gallery system that has become increasingly commercialized, increasingly more to do with what it currently fashionable and saleable than with vision thoughtfully pursued over many years and skills honed to mastery; for myself, with a comparable situation in the world of publishing. We do not feel sorry for ourselves. We just get on with what we need to do. In Lloyd’s case, this is (again modest!) work with photographs, a fascination with the always surprising quality of the ordinary, the intimate interplay of light and shadow. His mind is infinitely curious, as is his eye.
Lloyd drove me back home after lunch—Ellie had dropped me off at the restaurant—and I invited him in for a while. Our arrival coincided with Ellie’s return, to the three of us sat around the dining room table, and talked, and talked. About old friends, old loves, old art world associates. And could have gone on talking until the proverbial cows came home, but that time had passed, suspended in our conversation, and reality returned. Time to get on with other things…
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
I was reading an interesting essay in yesterday's new NYT Opinion section (replacing the Sunday Review. Why?) about the recent surge of interest in the use of hallucinogens as an aid in psychotherapy. It reminded me of my own (single) experience with LSD back in the 1960s.
I have never been much interested in drugs of any kind. Back in those days, I did smoke a bit of weed like everyone else--but laughably little when compared to those around me. I even gave that up in the early 1970s after a frightening, seemingly never-ending attack of acute paranoia, and have not taken more than a very occasional toke since then. But I remain convinced that the effects of that one "acid trip" left a lasting and radical change in my consciousness. It literally changed my mind.
It was the summer of Sergeant Pepper and the Surrealistic Pillow, remembered forever as "the summer of love." At the invitation of a poet friend in Iowa City I drove down to visit other friends of his at a farm in the lush green countryside near Hannibal, Missouri. The night we arrived I stood at the window of my bedroom and watched in awe as one of those incredible Midwest thunderstorms rolled past with immense thunderclaps, a spectacular display of lightning against dark, luminous green skies that threatened tornados.
The following morning I found my poet friend and our host in quiet debate by the refrigerator in the kitchen. They eyed me speculatively before evidently coming to a decision--and offered me a tablet of LSD. I accepted nervously, more to avoid being left out, I think, than of eagerness to give it a try. We each swallowed down our dose with a glass of cool, clear water.
We strolled down, the three of us, to the nearby Femme Osage Creek, and separated there, each for our own solitude... and it was then that the universe literally opened up. I was sitting in the shallows of the creek, watching the crawdads go about their business on the stony ground beneath the surface. All about me, leaves and grasses shone with a multitude of gleaming greens. A red-headed woodpecker knocked incessantly at a tree-trunk. Now and then, a cardinal would swoop by, a stunning streak of scarlet against the green. Above, the intensity of the blue sky left me amazed.
I find it impossible to describe that sense--that illusion--of the universe revealing itself to me in all its glory and, particularly, in its oneness. I had the sudden and inarguable perception of the living, essential interdependence of all things--of leaves, and grass, and crawdads, of stones at the bottom of the creek, of each individual tree--and of myself. It was all one. And this perception, this illusion, if you will, was accompanied by an incredible sense of joy, of the rightness of all things.
Fanciful or not--you decide--I know that this experience left an indelible, if indefinable impression on the deepest level of my consciousness. I'm not a religious perspn, as you know, but this is perhaps the closest I have ever been to a "religious experience"--and it stays with me. Again, it is rarely near the surface, and I would find it impossible to convey just how it manifests in my thinking or my life. I just know it's there.
I'd certainly not recommend this kind of uncontrolled experiment to anyone. Indeed, all that lightness of being and all that joy ended up, by the end of the day, in a nightmare little short of terror. That was the downside. The universe came crashing in on me. I was lost, separated from my friends, wandering between hedges in back lanes trying desperately to orient myself, to find my way back home.
I did get back to the farmhouse as the evening fell, and was happy to be reunited with my friends. Here I am, to relive the experience and tell the tale. I hope that you too might have enjoyed the trip. And please be careful with those mind-altering drugs.
Monday, July 18, 2022
Friday, July 15, 2022
If you have been living in the Southern California area for a while, you’ll surely remember the Big Rock. It was a media frenzy in its day. News cameras greedily recorded every hiccup in the perilous journey of this massive, 430-ton granite boulder from somewhere in the desert to its destination at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Like some captured lion, it was tied down and loaded onto the bed of a God-knows-how-many-wheeler truck and trundled inch by inch along the freeways and, finally, the city streets, to be converted from its imposing natural state into a Work of Art by Michael Heizer entitled “Levitated Mass.”
That was in 2012, ten years ago. I remember being disturbed about it at the time. I even commented on it in a blog entry, which I re-read today. Plonked down atop a long, sloping channel of concrete and steel, it did not appear (to me at least) to levitate. It just sat there. It had lost its magic. The Big Rock was more of a monument, I thought, to an artist’s ego—and a museum’s patriarchal ambition—than an inspiring artwork. I tried in vain to see it in the tradition of great monoliths and ritual circles of ancient history, Stonehenge, those giant Olmec heads, monumental Buddhas… It remained stolidly pedestrian.
That was an aesthetic judgment. My view these days is significantly less benign in light of everything that has happened in the intervening decade. I have been reading Aviva Rahmani’s “Divining Chaos”, where the renowned ecoartist and ecofeminist, gives thoughtful, informed, at times carefully argued scientific refinement to my own ill-formed perceptions. I find that I now feel a great depth of sadness for that poor rock, ripped unkindly from the womb of Mother Nature to serve the purposes of what the poet e.e.cummings nicely dubbed manUnkind. Rahmani helps me to see the exploitation of that boulder as an act of rape, a violation that is not excused nor excusable by any claim to the higher purposes of Art.
I’m thankful to “Divining Chaos” for helping to pull together a myriad of thoughts and feelings that have been worrying at my consciousness and my conscience for a good number of years. Rahmani makes it all so clear—the complex interdependence of intellect and emotion, action and reaction, neglect and responsibility in our lives and the life of literally everything in our environment. In view of the now imminent despoliation of our planet, she points to the culpability of the patriarchal heritage of entitlement, domination, ownership and exploitation, not only—but seriously, yes—of natural resources (land, oil, oceans, forests) but also of human beings less powerful than themselves. Especially, of course, women. An activist and ardent feminist, Rahmani seeks to liberate the idea of husbandry from the ownership of the female body and associated chattels to its original meaning of taking responsibility, taking care.
Divining is a way of getting to the source. The divining rod points us to the cache of water hidden underground. Rahmani makes much of what she calls “trigger points” as the cracks through which entry into complex problems becomes possible, even necessary. I think of epiphanies, but those are perhaps more instantaneous perceptions. Trigger points are more like Alice’s rabbit hole, inviting the in-depth exploration of new, surprising and revelatory worlds. In “Divining Chaos” she explores a metaphorical relationship between the chaos we have created—and are continuing to create, despite all evidence--in the natural world and the chaos (body, emotions) she has experienced in her life from childhood. Her narrative details her attempts to come to terms with maternal submissiveness, on the one hand, and paternal rage on the other—and having to confront both within herself. She tells us how she has survived—among other adversities!—rape and physical violence, two bouts of breast cancer and a debilitating case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and uses that life experience and the need to heal herself as the paradigm for the global crisis caused by human abuse: climate change, the exploitation of natural resources of all kinds and the mindless pollution of the environment with human detritus, from discarded, miles-long fishing nets to mountains of accumulated trash.
In all this, Rahmani is unsparing in her expression of outrage and stubborn defiance—and in her book her passionate commitment ensures they are contagious. Her empathy with all suffering beings and a suffering planet demands her reader’s matching empathy, and this is the urgent message of her book: like addicts in a twelve-step program, we must first allow ourselves to fully acknowledge suffering before arriving at the need to heal. Throughout the long history of her art projects dating from the 1960s, Rahmani is constantly refining that purpose and learning to realize it in ever more ambitious scope. The means she deploys to create her projects span an impressive breadth of human knowledge and experience, from indigenous medicine to physical, geographic and biological sciences in a process of restitution, recovery, restoration. Increasingly, she learns the essential value of cooperation—between human beings, yes, but also in the partnership between we humans and our common mother, nature.
I will say this: in her eagerness to say it all and say it right, Rahmani risked losing this one reader’s attention from her major theme in the meticulously detailed descriptions of the intentions and process of specific projects in the latter half of “Divining Chaos.” Having learned so much already from the big picture into which she had drawn me with such profoundly emotional appeal, I found myself getting “into my head”—and finding it hard to maintain interest, there, in all the (distinctly erudite!) intellectual discussion of aesthetic theory and practice. Others will find these passages fascinating. I hasten to add that I do believe that this is an important, urgently needed handbook for any artist seeking a path to work in the context of a social, global conscience and environmental responsibility. I also believe that, artist or not—I happen to be a writer—we must all be shouldering that responsibility in a world where inaction is no longer to be tolerated or excused. The rape of Big Rocks for aesthetic purposes is no longer acceptable.
I'm posting today about "Bipolar Bear," a memoir by my friend Carl Davis--a man whom many of you know from his presence as an ...
I am a reluctant driver these days, in Los Angeles. I’ve had enough of rude and clueless drivers, of endless traffic snarls around road work...
I'm posting today about "Bipolar Bear," a memoir by my friend Carl Davis--a man whom many of you know from his presence as an ...
If you have been living in the Southern California area for a while, you’ll surely remember the Big Rock. It was a media frenzy in its ...