Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

I have been so incredibly busy these past couple of days, I have hardly had time to think, let alone write my usual entry in The Buddha Diaries. So there's a good deal of catch-up to be done, and it's hard to know where to start. I suppose the best place is the beginning...

Wednesday afternoon, then, I had a great visit with Gilbert Magu Sanchez Lujan, an important pioneer of the Chicano art initiative of the late sixties and early seventies. A nightmare drive, both there and back, on the infamous Highway 60, but it was well worth the aggravation with Los Angeles traffic. Magu lives in a small house surrounded by his art. He lives and breathes it. I suspect he even eats it. He certainly mails it: here are a few of his hand-made envelopes...

I can't wait to get a letter from him! I have known Magu's work for many years, and knew his close friend, Carlos Almaraz, when he was still alive. But somehow Magu and I had never met and talked. We made up for lost time, talking for a couple of hours about art, the art world, aesthetics, Chicanismo and mainstream American art, Plato and Aristotle, Aztec culture, the brutality of the human species, love and war... I was amazed--I should not have been, having seen at least some of his big paintings...

(apologies for the cell phone photo)

... by the range and depth of Magu's interests and delighted in the passion with which he spoke about them all. He thinks of himself primarily as a sculptor, and a glance around the living space in his house will confirm that aspect of his vision:

Not only does he make three dimensional objects, he collects them avidly, and often incorporates them in his work.

It's all exuberant stuff, irreverent, gaudy, provocative, a joyful excess of the imagination arising from a rich and diverse cultural heritage--of which no single aspect is neglected. Magu happily includes it all in his generous embrace.

We had lunch together at a local Mexican restaurant and talked some more before I reluctantly headed back for the freeway--having unashamedly begged the honor of a letter. I'll let you see it when it arrives. Imagine, though, the climate change between this intimate lunch and the dinner to which Ellie and I had been invited with a crowd of the Los Angeles art world elite that same evening. Artists, writers, curators, dealers... we all stood around for a good hour and a half with drinks--survival in this world is made a little easier with alcohol!--before dinner was finally served, talking about, what else? Ourselves. The art world. Agreeing amongst ourselves, of course, what a venal and unprincipled world it is. I had to have Ellie drive us home.

I was a bit hung over, frankly, Thursday morning. I thought about writing up something in the blog, but couldn't summon the necessary motivation. I did, however, spend some time thinking about what I might want to say in the afternoon. I had been invited to speak to a class at the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts,) and wanted to put together some ideas to talk about. Ellie was in two minds about joining me and spent a good deal of the morning switching from mind to mind; but eventually she did decide to make the trip, and it turned out to be a good decision, since she was able to share the responsibility with me.

It had been quite some time since I last visited the CalArts campus. Indeed, the last time was in the mid 1980s, when I was invited out to interview for the job as Provost--a job I was perfectly happy not to be offered because I might well have accepted it. Instead, I followed my instinct to quit academia after twenty-five years, and to become the writer I was always supposed to be. But in the academic world, the art school is certainly my favorite place to be. I have always loved the feel and smell of creativity in this institutions, and CalArts is a very special place in that it embraces and encourages all the arts. On arrival, we found ourselves listening to a concert pianist at work in the great hall with, elsewhere, dancers practicing their moves, actors rehearsing scenes out on the lawns, painters in their studios... A great sense of the boundlessness of the creative spirit.

We had lunch with our host, Karen Atkinson, whose "artist run company for artists," GYST ("Getting Your Shit Together") is a seamless part of her work and action as an artist, and has generated a recently published book of the same title. She and I had met in the context of the TEDx conference at Fullerton College, and had discovered common interests in learning how to "persist" as a creative person in a cultural environment that worships money and celebrity. Karen was delighted to have Ellie's experience to draw on as well as my own, and together we led a three-hour seminar for a small group of students who seemed quite responsive to our ideas. Knowing the CalArts reputation for producing hard-nosed artists very clear about their goals and intentions, we were quite surprised to find this group to be quite reticent about themselves. Perhaps it was us. We do tend to come across pretty strong!

We got back home in time for a brief rest and a quick soup-and-cheese supper before heading out again to Disney Hall for a concert conducted by the irrepressible Gustavo Dudamel...

What a concert! A single piece, no intermission, by the modern French composer Olivier Messaien, with bravura performances by Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano and Cynthia Millar at the ondes martenot--an early electronic instrument of which, in my ignorance, I had never heard. I reach my limits with language when it comes to writing about music, largely because I know so little about the subject. When it comes to twentieth century music, I'm a little like those people who find Matisse and Picasso mystifying: my ear is simply unschooled in the history and unattuned to the sound of it. I have not listened enough to know anything.

But at least I understand the limits of my understanding. So while I immensely enjoyed Messiaen's "Turangalila-symphonie," I find it hard to say anything about it that will not sound ridiculously uniformed. I simply allowed myself to be swept along by the sound of it, sometimes majestic, breathlessly rhythmic, swinging wildly between aggressive atonality and rather romantic harmony, walls of noise and plaintive melody. I loved the conversations that took place between piccolo and and clarinet, oboe and bassoon, between what seemed to me an inner circle "chamber orchestra" and the orchestra at large. I loved watching the drama of the timpany and percussion sections--who got a big round of applause at the end. And I loved watching the conductor's dance on the podium: Dudamel's energy is amazing. He bobs back and forth constantly in a series of little, joyful jumps, and sweeps up the whole, large orchestra in the gestures of his arms.

I'm exhausted thinking about all this it. Exhausted by the past couple of days and wondering where I'll get the energy needed in the days to come. Next week I have two speaking gigs, one on a panel at the Los Angeles Cathedral, the other at the College of the Canyons out in Santa Clarita. Then, a week tomorrow, we leave for two weeks in New York and Washington. But I trust that I'll keep amazing myself: I always seem to be able to find the energy I need, when I need it. For now, I think I'll just go off and take a nap...!

1 comment:

Steven said...

Wow, the guy seems like a real art connoisseur. Very impressive. I like people who just flow with effortless creativity. The whole world is a canvas to them, literally.