Saturday, May 15, 2010

Oh, No...! (What's Wrong with TAM?)

We set out this morning on an unusually long route to Laguna Beach, in order to make a stop at the Torrance Art Museum (TAM) to see the current exhibition which features our old friend Roland Reiss along with a handful of the extraordinary number of artists who have learned from him--either from the example of his work, or from his many years' teaching at Claremont Graduate University. I had been looking forward to seeing the show and writing about it on The Buddha Diaries... but alas! the museum was closed. Not only that, it seemed that every road to the museum was closed, too. Still, we followed the multiple detours and arrived at the Civic Center where the museum is located, only to find that even the access to the Civic Center was closed off. A friendly cop on duty at the entrance to the parking lot informed us that everything was closed because of the day's "Armed Forces Day Parade," and that the museum was likely no exception. He was kind enough, even so, to allow us through to the parking lot to investigate, but his glum prediction proved right.

I don't make a practice of writing about a show I haven't seen. I had hoped, at least, to find out more details at the TAM website, to be able to share with you--but that is apparently closed, too, though whether due to the Armed Forces Day Parade or to some glitch in their computer system, I can't tell. So I'm writing blind, not even able to find out the names of the participating artists; and the only reason I choose to do so is because I'm pretty sure I won't be able to go back to the museum, and I wanted to write something about Roland. Something, that is, by way of a tribute to an artist whom I greatly admire and who has been, perhaps more than he knows, as much an "influence" in my life as he has been to those artists whose names I might now never be able to find out!

Let me tell your four stories about Roland. He has been around this planet even a little longer than I have, so I have known him for many years. I first came in touch with him when I went to see an exhibition of his miniature dioramas, mystery stories on three-dimensional table tops told in exquisite detail, whose narrative, like one of those French nouveaux romans was always as tantalizing as a roman a clef, but never quite explicable. I was enchanted, and wrote a review of the show which appeared, I believe, in one of the national art magazines. It was not long thereafter that one of these pieces came up at a charity auction, and Ellie and I found ourselves bidding for it in competition with one of the then major Los Angeles collectors. The lady proved too cheap to go up as far as the measly $600 we paid for it, and the piece has occupied a prominent place in each of our homes since then. I have lived with it, have seen that artwork every day of my life for at least twenty-five years, maybe more--if only, often, out of the corner of an eye--and its image and mystery remain imprinted on my brain.

Here's the second story. In the 1980s, I embarked on what turned out to be a relatively short-term a career as a mystery writer. (It was not my genre. This is, the essay.) Because they were set in the contemporary art world, my novels had art terms for their titles. The first was called Chiaroscuro. The second, after a consultation with Roland, was called Dirty-Down. (The dirty-down, for those not in the know, is the term that describes the process of making something new--a forgery, say--look old, and the title came from Roland's own bag of studio tricks.) At the time, the late 1980s, he had moved on from those miniature dioramas to creating huge, rough-made, giant tumbling figures, larger than life-sized and falling somewhere between the tragic and the absurd. He kindly allowed me to use an installation shot of these figures for the cover of the book.

Third story. Ellie and I were to be honored by LA Artcore for quite a large number of combined years' involvement in the Los Angeles contemporary art community, I as a writer and critic, she as a former gallery owner, a consultant to private and corporate collections and, most recently, a mentor and coach to working studio artists. We were asked to suggest a suitable speaker to introduce us and sing our praises, and I could think of no-one better qualified than Roland--not only an artist but an educator and, a one time, a fellow art school dean. I was not misguided. He did a wonderful job, flattering me far beyond my just deserts, but in the nicest possible way!

And story number four. Even after retirement from conventional higher education, Roland could not quite manage to give up teaching. I suppose he never will, in one way or another. He started a series of summer workshops for dedicated studio painters up in the mountains at the Idyllwild art school facility, and the series became a mecca not only for painters of all stripes (forgive the pun), but also for guest speakers, some of them of considerable renown. I felt honored, a few summers ago, to be among them; and it was that experience, speaking to artists about the art world and my expectations of art, that led me to reflect on the numerous essays I had written and published over the years. I re-read some of them, edited some of them here and there, and found myself with the book that turned out to be Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce. I feel strongly that this slim volume of essays is a summation of a good deal of thinking over the years, about what it means to be an artist or a writer, and how to "persist" in what is today a highly commercialized environment. I am grateful to Roland for having set me on this path.

I know that this endlessly productive man continues to work daily in his studio. Ellie and I were over there a while ago, and found him engaged in a new series of large, wildly flowery, ebulliently baroque paintings guaranteed to raise the hackles of any mainstream critic. We also attended a big birthday bash for him--one of those that end in a zero, but whose first numeral can go unmentioned. I was one of the invited speakers, and was pleased to be able to return the favor he had performed for me at that honoring ceremony, years before.

So this is my tribute. I had hoped, as I say, to do it in conjunction with the exhibition that eluded us. Failing that, for all those who live in the Southern California area, please accept this as my injunction to make the pilgrimage to the Torrance Art Museum. Just be sure to call ahead!

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