Friday, October 22, 2010

Not Just Another Lecture

It was a special pleasure to visit the College of the Canyons yesterday, for a talk to the Art Department there. I arrived late afternoon under dark rainclouds--it did not actually do anything more than drizzle--but the campus still managed to look quite beautiful. It's a relatively new addition to the California state system, and it's fortunate that it got in under the wire, before the deepest of the austerity cuts for education in this state. The buildings, it appears, have gone up over a period of years as the school grew, but the spacious central green gulch has been preserved, giving the campus a generously open feeling. The building where I spoke is a new addition, and to judge from my brief transit to the lecture hall, a very pleasant, asymmetric structure built around a soaring atrium with a water treatment at its center. I was impressed by the quiet unpretentiousness of the atmosphere and--this was my impression--a sense of dedication to the educational intention.

I was greeted in the parking lot my my friendly host, Leslie Bretall, the librarian, who had made all the arrangements for my visit, and warmly welcomed outside the auditorium by two long-time acquaintances in the Los Angeles art world, Robert Walker and Larry Hurst, both of whom now teach at College of the Canyons. Glad to have the business of selling books taken off my hands by two charming students, Katie and Bianca, who did an excellent job manning ("staffing"? Hmmm...) a table at the entry to the theater. Leslie had obviously done a great job preparing for the evening. There are times when I show up and it's clear that there has been no advance PR: the attendance is sparse and the enthusiasm level low. And others when someone has taken the trouble to put out word and get some interest going, which was certainly the case in this instance. It's always a pleasure when that happens. And it was especially pleasing to be given a warm, knowledgeable, and personal introduction, to which Robert had clearly given some careful--and caring--thought.

The talk went well, I think--at least to judge by the response and questions afterwards. These are always a good test of whether I've managed to get some juices working. One intriguing question I'd never had before: can you over-meditate? (I had brought up meditation, as I usually do, as one method of training the mind to work to our advantage rather than against us.) I had to think about that one for a moment. Sounded a bit like over-medication. But no, I don't believe there's a time limit on meditation. I brought up the example of meditation retreats, where sitting can be long and arduous, but where the results never fail to produce a wonderful and (at least temporarily) rewarding serenity.

There followed a reception in the art department's very pleasant gallery space, where Larry, as gallery director, had curated and installed an exhibition of prints by the recently deceased Patrick Merrill. It's a moving show, in part because Merrill died only shortly before its opening. Larry told me how they had been working together toward the installation, and how Merrill had maintained a remarkable equanimity in the face of his approaching death. But it's moving also because of the quality and content of the work itself. The strongest works, in my view, were those that combined woodcut with other print media to create figurative images (the artist used himself as subject matter) of male bodies in situations of stress and constriction...

... which have much to say about the human condition, about the suffering we encounter along the way, and the effort we exert to occupy our narrow space in the world. The shape of the works inescapably suggests the coffin--a reference that might seem ghoulish, especially in view of the real life-and-death story that hovers in the background, but which somehow instead feels simply authentic and compelling.

To be honest, I was not able to give all the work in the exhibit a fair viewing, because I was there primarily for the reception. But it was yet another example, if we needed it, of an artist of truly considerable talent and depth who must have needed in his life to find that inner place of gratification, in order to "persist" against a powerful mainstream whose inevitable effect is to marginalize those who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to swim with it. Which is what I had just spent the evening talking about...

My thanks to all those who made my visit at College of the Canyons such a pleasant and inspiring one. Escorting me to my car, Leslie suggested the possibility of another visit in the future. I'm up for that!


mandt said...

These exquisite figural works can be compared to the short stories of Yiyun Li.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking for art, meditation and persistence at COC. The story of your journey resonated as well. I believe you helped one of the stories in my "compost pile" come to mind late last night as the germ of a longer fictional memoir. Much appreciated!