Monday, October 22, 2007

Ojai: Fun and Fire

Well, it was quite a trip. Here we are, safely back in Los Angeles--thanks, by the way, to those who wished us a safe journey. It actually felt like touch and go at times on the freeway coming home. More of that in a moment. Meanwhile...

We headed up the 5 freeway Saturday morning as far as Magic Mountain (unbelievable queues of vehicles blocking traffic as people lined up to exit the freeway there, to spend a joyful Saturday on the roller coasters and other instruments of torture!) and took the 126 east through Piru and Fillmore to Santa Paula, where we had been urged to stop to see an odd new show opening up in an odd new art space miles from the "art scene" in Los Angeles. The happily-named Kunstbarn--a play, no doubt, on the more august, ubiquitous "Kunsthalle," the venue of much avant-garde art in Germany and elsewhere--turned out to be just that: a barn. But a barn painstakingly converted into a small but pristine gallery space by the owner, Lotar Ziesing, who deals primarily in "Decorative Art and Antiques." His inaugural exhibition was entitled "Dysfunctional American Portraits, 1930-1960."

The dysfunctional portraits in question turned out to be mostly paintings by those anonymous, self-taught painters whose masterpieces you can pick up for a couple of dollars at garage sales and swap meets. If you have a good eye--as Lotar quite evidently does--you can find real gems, of the kind popularized by the artist Jim Shaw in his Thrift Store Paintings. Here's a couple of them, for your delectation: Lotar has graced each one with a title of his own invention. These two are called "Abused Child" and "Illuminated Shopper," respectively. The theme of the dysfunctional family makes an interesting and satrical comment on mostly post-war America and its illusions of domestic bliss.

It's a trek out to Lotar's place, but worth the effort. Lotar himself is a genial man, a generous host, and a source of endless knowledge about all things "mid-century." Parked outside his house when we arrived was a magnificent pillar-box red Lancia from the 1950s--or perhaps the 1960s, I'm no expert--and while we were still there a friend of his drove up with a beautifully restored Airstream-type trailer of the same period (it wasn't Airstream, but I didn't catch the make.) The late 19th century homestead, also restored with a finicky eye for detail, enjoys a spectacular view of the valley below with its wide arroyo and the mountains beyond.

We took the scenic route up over the hill to the outstkirts of Ojai, where our friends Chris and Nancy had generously invited us to spend the night in their guest house. We were greeted by three rowdy dogs, anxious to meet George, the newcomer. George is normally quite nervous around other dogs, and is known to lunge at them in a less than friendly manner. We assume that, being small, he needs to assert his dogulinity. It's a Napoleon thing. However, they all seemed to get along just fine as we settled down to an excellent lunch of home-brewed potato soup and salad. After lunch, the four of us--here are our friends--set out on a marvelous, long walk along a back road that soon led us through avocado and orange orchards, where George for the first time in his life learned the joys of running off-leash in the countryside. His long coat managed to pick up every burr along the way, but it was worth the work of pulling them all out one by one just to watch his doggy spirit run free.

We enjoyed a very pleasant dinner in the town of Ojai, and managed an early night and a good sleep, away from the light and sounds of the metropolitan area. We watched the sunrise on an exquisite morning that was marred only, moments later, by Ellie's accident with a glass tea-caddy--it slipped from her hand and shattered on the tile floor in a million tiny shards. Out with George for his morning poop walk, though, I was at once amazed and thrilled to actually hear the beat of crows' wings as a pair of them flew past. It was that quiet...

Breakfast of coffee and toasted English muffins with our friends on their enclosed back porch, surrounded by whispering trees--the wind had not yet risen to its later gusty strength; and a visit with a next-door neighbor, the artist Michael Dvortcsak, whose paintings we have been familiar with for many years.



Michael loves rough, volumetric shapes like ancient vessels and huge, craggy boulders which occupy his canvases like mythical, paleolithic presences set in dreamscapes of the mind. His studio is a solitary cave, hemmed in on all sides by racks crammed with paintings of all sizes and a single wall on which the works in progress hand are hung, awaiting his attention. It's always great to spend time in an artist's studio, and it was a pleasure to meet the man behind the paintings.

There was another studio visit in store for us. After a brief stop in town at the farmers' market, we headed out into the country in the opposite direction--to the south and west--to find the studios of an old friend, Gary Lang, and his wife, Ruth Pastine. Gary left Los Angeles years ago, in the early 1980s, as I recall, and spent a number of years in the contemporary art mecca of New York. He and Ruth returned to Southern California--and the paradise of the countryside around Ojai--a few years ago, and have built a magnificent his- and hers- studio, with a wing for each of them to work in privacy. In Gary's studio, we found a dozen new paintings in pursuit of his love affair--the word "obsession" came up--with color and movement. At one end, a large painting, similar to this one



(apologies to Gary for having lifted this absurdly too-small image, sans permission, from his gallery's site: it gives no feeling for the scale and grandeur of the actual work!) Where Gary works in wildly colorful, eye-popping abstraction, Ruth works much more subtly with shifting color gradations in canvases where serenity rules. Here's a blue one:



(Apologies to Ruth, too, from pretty much the same reasons!) We spent a good while in the studios, amazed, as always, by the endless inventiveness of artists and their dedication to their work.

We enjoyed a bite to eat at Ruth and Gary's, out on the shaded patio behind their house. It wasn't long, however, before we began to notice smoke in the air and smelled the burning brush--our first inkling of the terrible fires that were breaking out all over Southern California. After leaving their house, we headed into thickening smoke around Ventura, where traffic slowed to a crawl beneath a dirty red, hellish sky. Unsure whether the freeway would lead us, in this murk, to a dead halt between flaming hillsides, we debated leaving the 101 and heading back east on the 126 again. Not knowing which of the two routes was worse, we opted on instinct for the 101. It turned out to have been the better choice, I think, because a call to Lotar gave us notice of a raging fire in the hills above them, near Santa Paula; and later we heard that there were fires on either side of the southbound I-5, which we would have had to take after leaving the 126. Even so, as you can tell from this picture, it was bad enough. We were thankful to find our own area clear when we got home. Today we can look forward to heat--and more brush fires.

3 comments:

robin andrea said...

I thought of you and Ellie up there in the mountains when I heard about the fires. I'm so glad you made it home safely. It's sounding very wild right now. I hope the firefighters can get all of the blazes under control quickly. (Sometime I'll have to tell you about Roger's ex and his middle daughter who have done their time on the frontline on blazes like this.)

Still, it looks like you and Ellie had a beautiful weekend in the mountains before the conflagration. That quiet is the real sound of the world.

khengsiong said...

Nearly mistook the painting for photo, LOL...

For your photo with Ellie, you probably should have fired the flash to 'fill in the shadow'...

PeterAtLarge said...

ks--thanks for the tip. I'm not much of a photographer! But just for the record, that's not me and Ellie--it's our Ojai friends