Thursday, September 21, 2017

A LATIN INVASION!

What a wealth of Latin talent currently on display at the Bergamot Station galleries! There were Carlos & Elsa & Gilbert & Dora and Javier & Gustavo and Jaime. I might have missed others—my time in the galleries there was regrettably limited.

Carlos & Elsa & Gilbert & Dora are at CraigKrull Gallery. Carlos is the late Carlos Almaraz, whose work is also prominently exhibited in Playing with Fire, a current retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was married, during his all-too-brief life span, to Elsa Flores. Gilbert is (the also, sadly late) Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, who was working with and alongside Carlos and Elsa back in the 1970s and 80s and who, with them, was a prime mover in the “Chicanismo” movement—which they all managed to transcend with the strength of their individual vision as artists. Magu also has an important current retrospective, Atzlan to Magulandia, at the UC Irvine gallery, which I have not yet seen. Dora is the ceramic artist Dora De Larios, whose longevity happily persists until this day. The gallery’s exhibition is a powerful and moving tribute to these artists, whose work was essential to the long-delayed elevation of Latin art and culture to a rightful place in their California home.

Carlos and Elsa—may I presume to call them by the names with which I am so familiar?—are shown side by side in a gallery dedicated to their work. Of the two, to judge by what is on display, Carlos was the more profoundly engaged in the history of Latin culture, beginning in ancient Mesoamerica and continuing to thrive in the contemporary world...

Carlos Almaraz, Baby Face, 1986, pastel on paper, 24 x 30”
His paintings are frequently playful, fantastic, always infectiously energetic and vivid, working with iconography that ranges from the landscape of dream to fiery freeway crashes. They explore and expose both the artist’s inner consciousness and the social realities of the outside world.

Elsa’s paintings are more purely lyrical, in my view. She works mostly with landscape and figure in thickly, seductively applied layers of paint...

Elsa Almaraz, Maya’s Chair, 1985, oil and encaustic on linen, 12 x 9”
... as much an exploration of her medium as her subjects. Echoes of van Gogh in the above! A pink chair, rather than a yellow one. Am I fantasizing to see a hint of feminist protest here?

Magu has two rooms at the gallery. One is almost entirely devoted to his iconic and often hilariously exaggerated images of lowrider cars...

Gilbert “Magu” Luján, 52 Custom Chevy Fleetline, 1992, acrylic and ink on paper, 18.375 x 23.125”
... some seemingly throwaway items on scraps of paper, but always drawn with masterful ease and fluency. He is well known for the letters he would send to friends (I am fortunate to have a couple myself!), their envelopes wildly decorated with these fantasy cars. But Magu was also obsessively concerned with other icons of Latin culture, and for a long while a leading activist in the promotion of Mexican American ideas and values. The available selection of his work in this show represents much of what he was about in mostly small scale, but leaves a great deal untold about his more expansive work as an artist.

I was delighted to be introduced to Dora De Larios’s work, which I have seen in parks and other public spaces without even knowing they were hers (there is, in particular, one striking, massive wall-sized installation at the Montage hotel in Laguna Beach). Her smaller works include both beautiful ceramic vases and bowls with intricate incised or raised decoration...

Dora De Larios, Untitled, 2017, stoneware, 5.5 x 12 x 12”

... and ritualistic, animalistic objects...

Dora De Larios, Amazon Goddess, 2017, slab built unglazed stoneware with iron oxide, 27 x 11 x 9”
... that hark back to the centuries old traditions of pre-Columbian art—but with an indisputably contemporary flair. All are delightful to the eye. And, whether utilitarian or sculptural in reference, these are the kind of objects that seem to demand the touch of your hands, to get the full “feel” for their magical presence.

There’s a similar quality to the work of Jaime Guerrero at Skidmore Contemporary Art. Guerrero is also inspired by Mesoamerican culture and ritual, and creates figures that are, in some cases, copies of actual relics and, in others, creatures of his own imagination...


The kicker is that he makes them not in clay, but in glass. Having learned the basic craft of glass blowing at the feet of a Murano master, he has adapted it to his own vision and purpose, teaching himself the means to almost perfectly simulate in his glass sculptures the appearance of clay and other stone surfaces. The exhibition, appropriately titled “Contemporary Relics: A Tribute to the Makers,” is stunningly installed (the design work of the artist’s wife), with a variety of figures and masks, ranging from the quite tiny to the quite large. They are a tribute to an aesthetic value that has become rare in the contemporary world: hand-craftsmanship.

William Turner Gallery hosts exhibitions by two painters, Gustavo Ramos Rivera and Javier Pelaez. Ramos Rivera’s large-scale, largely abstract paintings play with expansive fields of brilliant color interspersed with bold line drawings and floating abstract forms that have the feel of a personal, esoteric iconography.

Ramos Rivera, Al Mal Tiempo Buena Cara (A Good Face for Bad Times), 2015, oil on canvas, 84 x 84 inches
They inherit from the tradition of painters like Joan Miro, and at times share something of the ferocious,  impulsive spontaneity of a Jean-Michel Basquiat. We sense in his paintings a sturdy commitment to an individual vision, along with a passion for medium and process.

A newcomer to the Los Angeles art scene, Pelaez comes to the William Turner Gallery from Mexico City, where the artist has an established reputation. Coming from an initially realistic tradition, he experimented at length with images in which natural objects (such as flowers) were distorted into glittering, fluid abstractions of pure color, in which the process of their making became the focus of attention. In this first Los Angeles exhibition, Pelaez shows a remarkable series of paintings in which evocatively painted floating rocks...

Javier Peláez, PRGB4, 2017, oil on canvas, 35 x 42 inches
... reminiscent of those irregular moons of satellites we see in images from outer space, hover in spaces ambiguously defined by severely divided monochrome backgrounds. The Baconesque effect of figure and ground is accentuated in a recent small diptych (the snapshot image below was kindly provided by the gallery, awaiting a more precise one) where the image we see in one panel shatters in its neighbor into smears and fragments of exploding paint...

Javier Peláez, MATERIA I, 2017, oil on mdf board, 15.7 x 11.8 inches
... as the illusion of the rock’s physical presence dissipates (as the flowers, above) into a display of pure color and paint.

With important exhibitions throughout the area (see also, especially, the current show at the Hammer Museum, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985), Latin art is certainly making its presence felt this fall, and with a welcome, passionate embrace of life and social conscience.  Perhaps we are becoming a “sanctuary city” in more ways than one!

(Addendum: See also Martin Ramirez: His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation at ICA LA; Alfredo Ramos Martinez and Latin American Modernism at Louis Stern Gallery; and I’m sure others that have not yet come to my attention).

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

IN MYANMAR... AND ELSEWHERE

Being Buddhist--in name at least--tragically offers no immunity from the kind of atrocity for which we too often blame other religions. I watched a report on the situation in Myanmar on the BBC news last night and was appalled by the savage cruelty and inhumanity with which the Rohingya people are being treated in the country in which they have lived for centuries as a Muslim minority. And it seems that "Buddhist monks" are among the loudest voices in the strident call for oppression. It's not my kind of Buddhism.

It seems that, following a brief insurrection on the part of Rohingya militants, the entire population is now being subject to merciless persecution. Whole villages are being burned. Innocent civilians, fleeing the violence to find refuge in Bangladesh, are being pursued and mowed down with bullets even as they flee. Land mines are being laid along the border to kill and maim the refugees as they attempt to leave. I saw images of young children with legs and arms blown off. Of hospitals ill-equipped to even ease their pain. Of mothers who have lost their families in the chaos, and fathers powerless to protect them. It was a heart-wrenching spectacle.

It was also all too familiar--the dreadful spectacle of the "ethnic cleansing" that seems to infect our human species. America has done its share. Europe, too, over the centuries--and more recently than the Nazis. Africa, India... No matter how often we say "never again," we seem unable to put an end to it. Too often, the prejudice and hatred has religion at its core. Christians have practiced it. Muslims... and sadly, despite the wisdom of their original great teacher, Buddhists, too.

It's not the religions, of course, that are to blame. It's the human beings who embrace them, using religion as the pretext for their hatred--a hatred that originates part in aggressive territoriality and part in fear of otherness and others.  In the brave new world of the 21st century, our planet is no longer big enough to contain our quarreling species. Whole populations are on the move, in desperation, or are engaged in hideous acts of mutual mass slaughter.

Unless we find some way to access the fundamental goodness and compassion in men's hearts (I use the gender here advisedly) rather than the fear and greed that generate our hatred, the future for humanity is bleak indeed. If the terrible wars of the last century were unable to do it, what unimaginable, unbearable atrocity will suffice to make us change out hearts and minds? What great natural disaster, what global upheaval, what planetary shift?

Some days, the small, personal action seems inadequate to the suffering of the world. But the small, personal action is all that I can do.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

BEING ENGLISH

There’s something about being English. Well, let’s qualify that: there’s something about being English of a certain generation, a certain social standing, a certain education... and even then, to blame it all on being English is to play the victim, which I have no desire to do. Even so, there is something about being English.

I noticed again the other night. Ellie and I went with friends to see “A Night with Janis Joplin”...


... at our local theater, the Laguna Playhouse. And I noticed how uncomfortable I am with a couple of things I should perhaps have learned to accept with equanimity by now, if not outright enjoyment. The first is the unvarnished, unabashed and public display of powerful emotions. The second is the bid for audience participation.

The real Janis Joplin...


... sang her heart out, of course, and the singer who played that role in this performance did an excellent job of channeling that spirit of unreserved emotional abandonment. She tore into songs like “Cry, Baby” and “Pieces of my Heart,” calling on powerful reserves of inner pain to capture her audience as Joplin must have done in her day. To root her artistic origins in the black American heritage of the blues, the performance included spot-on impersonations of Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin.

I could not watch these magnificent performances without noticing, somewhere deep inside, along with the genuine lump-in-the-throat emotional engagement, a tiny, unwanted voice that cautioned me, Hold back, Peter, don’t do anything that might embarrass—like sing along, or tap your feet, or rock to the music. And the voice persisted no matter how much I rebuked myself for being self-conscious, silly, stand-offish… in a word, English.

That same voice grew even louder and more importunate when, at the end of the first act, the ensemble cast broke into dance and song and asked me—with the rest of the audience—to participate. Sorry. Couldn’t do it. The rest of the audience were having a great time, rocking and rolling, cheering, singing along in raucous disharmony. But not English Peter. Well, not English Peter of this generation, this social and educational background. This Peter who would have given the proverbial eye tooth to be able to let go, to join in with the general celebration.

Do you remember the scene in “A Fish Called Wanda,” where John Cleese, who plays the archetypal Englishman, caught in the nude...


... in an apartment that not his own, with a woman who is not his wife—but after whom he lusts with undisguised libido. A libido, be it said, released for the very first time by the American sex pot played so beautifully by Jamie Lee Curtis? Where he tries to explain to her the desperate need of people of his kind—well, of my kind—to avoid embarrassment at any cost? It’s a great scene.

But if I remember it so clearly it’s because it told me so clearly something about who I am: upper middle class in origin, public school and Cambridge, with a command of the Queen’s English and an accent beyond reproach. I was taught by my parents and at school, to be unfailingly polite, to never ruffle the surface of social propriety. To never cause, or expose myself to embarrassment. For the longest time, as I have acknowledged on occasion in the past, I was unable to recognize, let alone give expression to the inner life of the emotions. (At boys’ boarding school, it was even dangerous to do so!) Since learning to recognize this in myself, I have worked hard over the years to get the English out of me, but a good part of it stubbornly remains. And there it was again, the other night—a small voice, unwanted but refusing to be silenced. Refusing not to be obeyed.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

TRISH: A DREAM

Ellie and I are returning from some foreign trip, with a stopover in a major European city—perhaps Paris, perhaps not. We decide to stay overnight, but have made no hotel reservation. We recall, however, that we have a friend who owns, amongst other things, a hotel chain, and arrive at the reception desk having decided we could reach to the $200 cost of a room for the night. Discovering that there are no more rooms available at that price.  We tell the clerk that the owner is a friend of ours, and that we’re sure he would be kind enough to find us something, since we have no place else to go.

There is a flurry of activity, perhaps a phone call or two. Our friend appears—a handsome, dark-haired, flamboyant entrepreneur who reminds me of a younger Richard Branson; that kind of energy, combined with a somewhat narcissistic enthusiasm. He is not much personally concerned with us, but has a whispered conversation with the clerk, who now comes up with a solution. We are escorted ceremoniously to another hotel, this one much more exclusive and luxurious. On the way I recall that Trish, my friend and yoga teacher from many years ago is now married to the hotelier and wonder how she is and whether we shall see her.

We arrive at the second hotel and are much impressed by its boutique luxury. We are shown to our impressive suite, which we know must cost a whole lot more than the $200 we had intended to pay. “What if they try to charge us $500?” I ask Ellie. “That’s ridiculous,” says Ellie. “Then we’ll find something else.” With a sense of growing dread, I begin to imagine this suite will likely cost $1000, if not more. I worry about whether our friend will do the right thing and have them charge us no more than what we had explicitly intended to pay.


A short time later, all the guests in the boutique hotel gather in the lavishly decorated lobby. All are well dressed for the evening.  We all stand, listening to a speech—perhaps a speech of welcome—by our handsome hotelier friend. I wonder if I can ask him where Trish is, explaining that she is a very dear old friend and that we’d like to meet with her. I’m still debating how to go about this when I notice that she is already here, standing off to one side, dressed with extraordinary elegance—and at extraordinary expense. Her face is glowing with an inner, private beauty as she listens, along with us, to her husband speak. I wonder what she can be thinking…

Friday, September 1, 2017

UNSETTLED

I don't know about you, but I still can't seem to get settled.

It's easy to find all the superficial, external reasons: a world--particularly an America--gone mad with racial confrontation and other expressions of political and social dissension; nature seemingly taking her revenge on the mistreatment we humans have accorded her, admonishing us with storms like Harvey in Texas and, further afield, dreadful monsoon seasons in India, Bangladesh, and other Asian lands, and deadly mudslides in South America and Africa; unending wars and violent confrontations in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere throughout the world; truculent nuclear bomb and missile tests in North Korea, with the prospect of that small, rogue country's ability to send a warhead to obliterate us in Los Angeles and all along the West Coast of the country; and widespread outbreaks of disease, hunger, and famine. Here in once-temperate Southern California, our heat waves are becoming increasingly unbearable. We have another one right now.

And so on. I have by no means exhausted the list. A century ago, perhaps less, all these events--or most of them--would have seemed remote from our daily lives. Not that there would have been any less human turmoil, but news of it would not have reached us quite so readily. During World War II, for example, when I was growing up in England, the "media" were BBC radio and the daily newspapers. I remember distinctly to this day the sound of Big Ben announcing the nine o'clock news. The family would gather around the radio for the important occasions--a speech by Winston Churchill or His Majesty the King, news of victory in Europe and, eventually, Japan. But the voices of news reporters, familiar though they would become, came from some distant, abstract place, and the news they brought did not directly affect our daily lives.

Perhaps these news reports from the external world unsettled my parents more than they did us children, but we all remained relatively protected in our little village, in our private schools. We viewed the war from, mostly, a safe distance--though a Messerschmidt fighter did crash land in a nearby field, and we nightly watched the searchlights play amongst the silver barrage balloons. And if ever we got to go to the cinema--a rare occasion--there were the newsreels, depicting a more or less sanitized war. But today, it's different. Unless we purposely shut them out--and I choose not to, out of some deep, abiding sense of obligation to remain conscious of what is happening in my world--we have high-definition television images streaming into our living rooms. We have the instantaneity of the Internet, reporting simultaneously from all parts of the world, north and south, east and west, with unceasing, rapid-fire insistence. All of which was unimaginable, no more than a half-century ago.

It seems, then, today, that in addition to the inevitable petty problems of our personal lives, every one of the world's great woes can impinge upon our state of mind. Watching, for example, news about the Texas floods, we bear witness to the constant, overbearing evidence of impermanence: homes gone in an instant, possessions lost, everything that had seemed dependable and real swept mercilessly away by unpredictable raging waters. How is it possible to see such events unfold without the realization that everything around me in this little cottage I inhabit could be snatched away from me in a similar instant of disaster--here in Southern California, more likely wildfire, or the dreaded Big One. The dharma teaches me that nothing that I think I own is truly mine, and my mind is capable of grasping and acknowledging that fundamental truth. And yet it's all philosophy until I witness it in actuality, in real time.

So, too, with life itself. This morning on the television set I watched an interview with a mother who lost every one of her four children, along with two other members of her family, to the Texas floods. Children! Whose whole life lay, seemingly reliably, ahead of them! I myself am still alive--as this blog bears witness--after more than eighty years. We can expect no justice, of course, in the allotted span of our lives; each one of us is as vulnerable as the next. The dharma reminds us of this immutable truth. And yet... the body-mind is less prone to accept it. We prefer to pursue our lives under the delusion that we will live forever, until some forceful reminder comes along to rub our noses in the reality of our very personal, very human, very unappetizing impermanence.

Actually, to tell the truth--and compounding my problem in arriving at a place where I feel as truly settled as I would wish to feel--I am much aware, these days, of the brevity of the time left to me here on earth. If my mind should chance to forget it, my physical body is there to re-mind me. I need only glance at the wrinkled skin and the age blotches on my arms, and there I am: unsettled, by the knowledge of my impermanence. Some not very long time hence, this body will no longer be "mine" to inhabit. A difficult thought. It's personal, it's immediate, it's unavoidable. Oh, I hear a ninety-something year-old boast that he or she feels not a day older than twenty, that age is just a number. And I know what they mean, I am thrilled for them--even as I inwardly fault them for what I judge, in my arrogance, to be a kind of refusal to acknowledge the truth. Deep down, I insist to myself, and beneath the easy denial, they must surely share my sense of physical and emotional insecurity. But, I don't know, perhaps not.

How to get settled, then, in the circumstances I describe? The first step, in my personal view, is the recognition and acceptance of reality. So long as I hide some truth from myself, I am convinced it will lurk somewhere in the inner recesses of the mind and make itself known in inappropriate ways. Perhaps the most common of these is anger, buried deep, and bursting forth in unwelcome and unattractive eruptions. And then, related to the anger, there is fear. And grief, which manifests as fits of uncontrollable depression. But once I manage to expose the truth to the light of day, it becomes more possible to observe it with something more like equanimity: there it is, there's nothing I can do to change it, might as well just keep it in mind and return my attention to that other, more insecure but strangely more enduring truth: the present moment. The breath, I have learned, is the best help I can get.

But listen, it's all very well to know all this, as I think I do, in that part of the brain that is satisfied with nice logical explanations. The hard part is the practice of it. My daily meditation is my refuge, though clearly--since I persist in this feeling of never being quite settled--I have not yet, in more than twenty years, acquired the skills I need to find true equanimity. I'm still working on that...