Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Riverside, yes!

(Be forewarned, this is a long one!)


Before it gets left behind, I need to report on that remarkable and entertaining day, last Saturday, in the company of members of the Contemporary Collectors Council at the Laguna Art Museum. As new members of this Council (we become more rooted, slowly, in the Laguna Beach community), Ellie and I signed up for the day trip to Riverside, to become acquainted with the art life of that city.

I was fortunate to find myself, on the bus, in a little four-seat nook, around a table in the company of the museum’s curator of exhibitions, Grace Kook Anderson (who took many of the photographs included here,) and two well-informed and eloquent fellow passengers. Our engrossing conversation about art, collections, trends, and the museum itself kept us fully occupied for the outward journey, leaving me surprised that we arrived so soon at our first destination, the home and studio of the British painter David Leapman.

This was a great stop. The house, a rather bland-looking tract home from the outside, was crammed with David’s paintings, large and small. (Please check out the "gallery" on his website, above, for better images than I could provide.) He’s a versatile painter who happily combines a remarkable diversity of approaches, from hard-edge minimalism to gestural abstraction, from figurative and narrative line-drawing to surfaces textured with diamond dust and glitter—all in a single canvas. The result is enchanting. David also proved to be an excellent speaker....

He describes his works in the words of the Romantic British poet and artist William Blake, as journeys “from innocence to experience.” The images he evokes—they are never quite explicit—tend to hover in the space of the painting, teasing the eye and mind without ever quite resolving themselves, existing in the realm of dream or fantasy against the solid, intense reality of their painted ground. The viewer is invited into the space in the same spirit as the painter himself, as a voyage of discovery that will never fully reveal its inner secrets. That David manages this in small, even tiny works as well as large canvases is testament to his thoroughly engaging skills.

We left David’s studio reluctantly, boarding our bus for the drive to another house that seemed, from the outside, no more than another tract home in a community of tract homes. The front door opened, however, into a rich fantasy land of art that fairly took your breath away. It seemed that every inch of wall, shelf and floor space was occupied with some object or other to amuse the eye. And I use that word with its old association with the muse… True collectors are an odd species. They don’t know where to stop. Their passion is consuming, and knows literally no bounds. As my late father-in-law, who was one, used to say, it’s an addiction.

To say that Connie Ransom and her husband are addicted to collecting seems a radical understatement. Connie herself...

... seen here, holding forth to the group, is a ceramic artist, so naturally, along with her own work, the shelves, high and low, are crowded with the work of potters, new and old, with stunning examples of the Native American tradition. There are glass objects, too, everywhere, along with an outstanding selection of Oaxacan animals...

... carved in wood with exquisite line detail. And art objects, assemblages, and paintings—hundreds of them, each finding its own space. The taste of these collectors ranges from elegant abstraction to landscape and raw political provocation. Their standard seems to be excellence, no matter what the medium or style. I was personally impressed not only by the diversity of the collection, but also by the evidence it offered that the quality of art objects has nothing to do with an artist’s fame or standing in the mainstream of American art. It's not all about celebrity and money. There are great numbers of wonderful artists at work in all parts of the country, whose names are not bandied about in the national art journals. If you’ll forgive the expression, they “persist.”

The natural vista outside the Ransom’s house is as compelling as the art within. Set at the very edge of the housing development, where civilization meets wilderness, the house is surrounded on two sides by towering boulders and, below, a deep ravine...

... savaged recently in dramatic fashion by a week of heavy rains. Across, on the other side of the ravine, a steep hillside where both flora and fauna flourish. A hawk’s nest adorns a distant telegraph pole, and we learn that coyote are frequent visitors, along with the occasional mountain lion. On a distinctly smaller scale, a hummingbird had built its tiny, immaculate nest in the branches of an evergreen tree outside the kitchen window; I was thrilled with the sight of the nest itself, but unfortunately missed what others saw—the mother bird herself, returning to feed her two recently-hatched young. (I hope to post a good picture in a separate entry.)

The next step of our trip brought us to a downtown plaza where, on the walk from our bus to the restaurant, we were surprised to pass a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi—a statue of the great teacher and leader surrounded by inspirational quotations from both himself and others about his extraordinary contribution to the world. Nice, as one of our number noted, to have a peace memorial. We have too many of the war variety. On, then, to the restaurant, Phood, where Ellie and I were fortunate to enjoy a good lunch in the company of our next guide, Tyler Stallings, who was formerly the curator at the Laguna Art Museum and is now Director of the Sweeney Art Gallery of UC Riverside. It was good to have the opportunity to catch up with him, and to learn from him a good deal about the cultural life of the city and developments at the arts complex that includes the Sweeney, the California Museum of Photography next door, and the renovation of the adjacent old department store as a fine arts creative and research center for multiple media.

Tyler’s introduction prepared us for the next step along the way, a visit to that same complex of buildings. Our first stop was at the photography museum, where we met with the Executive Director of the complex, Jonathan Green, also a professor in the university’s Art Department. He described the ambitious development project, and led us through a back door into the huge and splendid department store space which is currently under renovation...

Once it opens, as I understand it, the building will not only host exhibitions and performances, it will provide studios and working labs for video, photography and film—a truly creative environment that students can look forward to. In these days of severe academic retrenchment in California, it’s an encouraging sign that creativity and imagination will continue to occupy an important place in the system. No doubt it was all planned and funded before things came crashing down…

From there, we were led to the second floor of the photography museum for a visit to a fascinating exhibition documenting the history of the digital camera. That the entire history dates from only 1987 is pretty amazing, given the ubiquity of digital recording devices of all kinds today, from advanced camera systems to the cell phone that virtually everybody owns. I have talked elsewhere about the dizzying multiplication of visual images with which we are bombarded daily. Here, we were treated to the story of the technology that makes them possible, in the form of an exhaustive collection of the devices themselves, loaned to the museum by David Whitmore Hearst Jr. Ellie and I were happy to note that our old Canon Elph was included in a museum show!

Tyler Stallings led us, next, to the Sweeney Art Gallery and offered us a insightful tour of his own exhibition there, Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art—the title itself a witty twist on the junk science of “creationism.”

The show brings together the work of artists working in a diversity of media—from still photography to various forms of documentation, video and more traditional art media—to explore the fascinating possibilities of interspecies communication. There’s space here only for a couple of highlights: Carlee Fernandez, who mocks our casual human use of leather by turning real taxidermied animals into articles of luggage; Hilja Keading’s mural-sized video installation, where she films her fragile human self sharing a small space with an enormous live bear, revealing their tenuous, curiously tender co-existence; and another video by Corinna Schnitt, who places a slowly rotating camera at the center of a large, furnished living room into which alien environment she gradually introduces animals and birds of different species...

It’s in part a comment on the way we live, the way they live, their strangeness, our strangeness…

We could have spent much more time—and I much more space, here—on this show, but, as with all organized tours of this kind, the scheduled called. From the Sweeney, we walked up the street to the Riverside Art Museum to see curator Andi Campognone’s exhibition, Edenistic Diversions, a somewhat irreverent riff on the venerable tradition of landscape painting that includes the work of four artists, three of them working with large-scale installations (There's a nice installation shot at her website, above.) . We met with the curator, who had invited three of the artists to talk about their work: Kimber Berry, who creates massive flows of paint that spread from ceiling to wall and out across the floor, using color, light and movement to create a wrap-around effect (see her website); Rebecca Niederlander, whose floor-to-ceiling waterfall of delicate, white paper construction and vast, drifting clouds of knitted household wire and plastic insulated cable gracefully occupy the center of the exhibition space (see installation shot); and Lisa Adams, the most traditional in the rectangular format of her paintings, whose fascination with birds is the focal point of works that blend fanciful delight with the threat of ecological doom. One of her two paintings in the show is on the home page of her website. An interesting show, especially in conjunction with “Intelligent Design.” Artists are clearly paying attention to the vulnerable natural world, and to the dangerously dominant role we play in it.

Our last stop for the day was at Tio’s Tacos—not for the tacos: we had only recently finished lunch, but for the art. Tio, it turns out, is one of those wonderful obsessives who, like Simon Rodia of Watts Towers fame or Grandma Prisbey whose Bottle Village is unhappily deteriorating, is driven to turn detritus into art.

Tio has turned the back yard of his restaurant into a fantasy land where every imaginable piece of trash has been recycled...

... into objects and structures of hilarious beauty, from towering giants constructed out of bottles and cans to chapels...

... with burning incense, and shrines where fountains play and water runs. Tio has enlisted the help of family to the task, his delightful wife and three young daughters, but he must be up very early in the morning to work on his creation and get the tacos made and sold; he is also the chief chef in his own kitchen.

I was happy to be reminded that art is still not only the privilege of a wealthy elite in this country, but that a man like Tio is inspired by the same creative urge, and that those who come to enjoy his tacos are equally inspired by the results of his efforts. It was an English king—one of the Charleses?—who on first walking into the new, Christopher Wren-designed St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London had destroyed the old one, declared it “awful, artful, and amusing.” The quote is often used to demonstrate how the meaning of words shifts over the centuries, but I like its double meanings. They seem to apply to Tio’s wonderful adventure.

Diversity, it seemed to me, was the theme of the day. All in all, a great day in Riverside. And we didn’t even stop at the famous Mission Inn!

3 comments:

Dennis said...

Peter,
Enjoyed your account of the LAM excursion to Riverside. I look forward to meeting you in person when you visit Laguna College of Art & Design to lecture on February 9. It would be a privilege to talk with you about our mission to produce the next generation of great artists and designers. Best wishes.
--Dennis Power, President, LCAD

Roger said...

Peter,
Someone just told me about your blog entry about the LAM tour to Riverside. Roger and I had a great time sharing our home and collection with the group.

The first of the humminbird babies flew away on Thursday, the second one yesterday. I have some great photos if you would like.

Connie Ransom

PeterAtLarge said...

Connie, good to hear from you. I don't have an email address for you, and can't write back directly. But yes, I'd love to see those hummingbird pictures... You'll find my email address on the blog.