Foreword by Stan Lerner: part of the mission of downtownster is to bring a level of writing and information to our readers that they simply and unfortunately are not able to get elsewhere. Alec, is a second generation great writer from the Silverman family, whom I can always count on to fulfill this part of our mission. So settle in and enjoy this two part post, I assure you it will teach you some things that you probably did not learn in college.
I had completely forgotten the invite. I was standing on the expanse of Carrara Marble, a stone quarried in Carrara, Italy that is known to have been revered by Michelangelo, which comprises the floor of the 10,000 square-foot Bottega Louie. Between the marble, the highly-polished brass trim, the plate glass and cast-iron café tables there was no surface that didn’t bounce sound and the echo in the busy, twenty-foot high restaurant made it impossible to hear my editor on my cellular.
“Please excuse me; I’m only catching an occasional word. Let me step outside so I can hear you.”, I pleaded.
I made my way to the little marble landing that has brass railing on two sides, separating it from the barbaric-by-comparison, gummed-up sidewalk at the 7th Street entrance.
“There, much better….Now, what were you saying about Art Walk and the [sic] MusicUnion? I read your article about MusicUnion”.
As Stan Lerner was answering my query, it came back to me. At the Monday night wine tasting, where Mike Berger wowed us with a lineup of six merlots, we discussed ideas for articles (I want to know before I write them, if they’re going to be used) and Stan invited me to go on the Art Walk and to the party.
“I don’t know what you’re doing right now but the Art Walk is tonight and MusicUnion is throwing an after-party at The Globe featuring a bunch of bands. I’ve got a ticket for you if you want to go. There’s going to be some of our writers at the party and my friend Ana is going to take the Art Walk with me”.
Though no critic, I am certainly an aficionado of visual art of all kinds since adolescence. Also, the opportunity to meet some of the writers I have been reading in Downtownster, sounded appealing, as well as a music scene I had no clue about.
Yet another charming and intelligent person within his milieu, Ana Markosyan came through the glass doors off the parking garage into the lobby of Stan’s building. She had large, almond-shaped, deep brown eyes and thick, shoulder length, dark brown hair, a pretty mouth and a feminine jawline. She was wearing casual, open-toed, two-inch heels. They were scrutinized by Stan who suggested they might not be comfortable enough for a long walk. She said she had another pair, in her purse “just in case”.
As is my custom, I asked Ana which, if either, of the two pronunciations of her name she preferred.
“Either way is fine,” she said. “My full first name is Anahit.”
“That of course begs the obvious question”, said I.
“It’s after a Persian goddess…the goddess of water”.
By the time we rounded the corner of 7th and Hope, Ana had disclosed that she is writing poetry and fiction. She had been writing promotional materials for years, but since she took a creative writing class from Jack Grapes at UCLA she got the bug. She had unbridled enthusiasm for his poetry and his teaching and recommended his Breaking Down the Surface of the World to us both.
There we were, three literary artists at large, loose on the downtown sidewalks going to survey the work of our brothers and sisters in the visual arts. As we passed Grand Avenue, by the towering plate glass windows of Bottega Louie, Stan spotted Pablo, a fellow screenwriter who is working on a novel, writing on his laptop in the café. Stan tapped lightly on the glass, Pablo turned and they exchanged silent salutations.
Of course, Stan had the dual agenda of promoting Downtownster and, no fool, he enlisted the attractive Ana, providing her a six-inch thick pile of postcard-sized promotional cards. He asked her to place them in her purse. As our Art Walk progressed she garnered many times the attention Stan did in their collaborative endeavor.
The topic turned to The Producers and, as Ana was not familiar with it, I held forth on the merits of Dick Shawn’s legendary performance. He plays a bad actor who decides to play Adolf Hitler as a beatnik. His character makes the dramatic choice to improvise such deathless lines as: (to a melody similar to Blue Suede Shoes) “One and one is two, two and two is four, I feel so bad ’cause I’m losin’ the war… Sig heil, heil! ”, and “Achtung, baby!”. Another great quote comes when, at the auditions, the producer Max Bialystock (perhaps Zero Mostel’s greatest role) ebulliently declares: “That’s our Hitler!”. The premise was to find the world’s most offensive play and the worst actors in New York so as to guarantee it would close on opening night. Then Max and his accountant would reap the greatest success of their lives because they oversold the show to backers many times over. The original 1968 film was a work of supreme comedic genius, especially the play within the play Springtime for Hitler which features the eponymous production number and tall, Arian-looking showgirls in hilarious costumes: enormous, garish headdresses à la Carmen Miranda, only with German and Nazi-themed ornaments in place of faux fruit.
This conversation was generated out of an interrogative on the progress of Stan’s screenplay, based on his novel, Stan Lerner’s Criminal. The parallel: Mel Brooks has made a veritable industry of The Producers in three different incarnations. First, the original movie (1968 Academy Award, Best Screenplay), then he rewrote it as a 2001 Broadway musical (that won twelve Tony Awards), which later played London’s West End for three years, and toured the U.S., it ultimately became a 2005 film. In an ironic real-life twist, Brooks refused to put his own money into backing the Broadway show, which ran for more than 2,500 performances and would have made him a huge success. By the way, the original movie sits atop a mountain looking down derisively at these later efforts.
Continuing down 7th and crossing Olive Street, we came to a large sign (in freeway- sign green and white) that said: “Los Angeles Jewelry District”. The street-level appearance of the next two blocks is a blight on this part of downtown. It has 1960’s-style tasteless signage in the same yellow and red seen on pawnshops, covered in squalid street-grime, that advertise the huge jewelry collectives. These crass, abominations scar otherwise aesthetically fine buildings from the 1920’s. The sidewalks are more filthy here lending the impression of misery wrought by usury. The only exception is the Los Angeles Athletic Club Building, the “crown jewel” of this fallen district. It’s a beauty and is adorned only by a tasteful green awning.
Going across Broadway I noticed another large sign bearing the “City of Los Angeles” seal (in color, as seen on the doors of LAPD cruisers) on a cobalt blue background proclaiming: “Historic Core District”. “Do they have a Chernobyl Disaster museum around here?”, I wondered.
Finally, we arrived at an intersection inside the Downtown LA Art Walk: the corner of 7th and Spring Street. There were two more of the “City Seal”-style signs, one that read “Fashion District” and another that said “Gallery Row”. This corner also has some of the nicest looking architecture, of its period, downtown. On each corner stands a beautiful building, though one of the four is largely obscured by scaffolding and protective wrap being used in its restoration. That building is called the I.N. Van Nuys building, named after Isaac Newton Van Nuys, an American banker and real estate developer who founded the city bearing his name in 1911. It features granite neo-classical columns on huge pedestals and was erected in 1912. Another is called the Merchant’s Trust and Savings Building. It has classic art-deco bas relief panels, circa 1913, over its first floor windows. The bottom floor has been respectfully converted into shops complimented by beige awnings that shade the glass. The most imposing is the 1923 Hellman Bank and Trust Building with its monumental, 32-foot high ground floor, surrounded by columns between huge, arched windows. It has been converted to 13 floors of lofts save for this ground floor of massive proportions which screams for a worthy enterprise. Lastly, the smallest of the four, the Financial Center Building (1923), also featuring an appropriate conversion of its bottom floor into shops, each with uniform signage in a font that looks right at home. Of course all this beauty is in the street-facing façades of these buildings. It can be clearly seen that this is where the money was in Los Angeles before the Great Depression.
“What do you think, should we go to The Hive?”, Stan asked
We were standing on Spring, facing towards 8th. He may as well have asked us to name the capitals of all the countries in Asia. Apparently Stan didn’t realize that, by silent vote, he had been elected tour guide at the beginning of our stroll. This unspoken assent between Ana and me was somehow perfectly clear. But to Stan, I explained: as the veteran, we considered him responsible for the course our peregrinations this night.
Half a block later, after wading through the first heavy pedestrian traffic we had encountered, we were entering the Hive. It is indeed a hive of activity, featuring the work of more artists than I have ever seen in a small gallery. Within minutes I had formulated the theory that Art Walk nights are for discovering new galleries to which one will later return. This is because of the densely-packed crowds within so many of the galleries. (In order to write this article I did in fact return and interview the few gallery owners, directors, curators and artists I could find).
When I caught up with him, Owner/Curator Nathan Cartwright explained that a lot of exhibition at the Hive is dedicated to what he refers to as Pop Surrealism and Illustration. To a certain extent I understood the logic of his terminology but I also saw many paintings that seemed to have Classic Surrealism influence such as that of Ernst, Dali and Tanguy.
One example I pointed to, (that turned out to be an excellent reproduction of a museum piece), was called Ascension by resident artist Amanda Sage. I thought this stunning image, and one by another artist, somewhat echoed famous works by Salvador Dali. The Sage image depicts a superlative female nude, ethereally lit and floating in air above a checkerboard floor. She has transparent wings like a dragonfly and a nearly transparent aura – not a halo – around her head. Though entirely different, it has some of the elements of the 1949 painting Leda Atomic. Nathan pointed out to me Amanda Sage has studied with, and sometimes assists, Ernst Fuchs, a master of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. He said Dali himself had studied Fuchs, an artist 25 years his junior.
In 1951 Dali painted Christ of St. John of the Cross and I thought William Fenholt’s wonderful painting entitled Posthumous, had some distant resemblance. Fenholt shows a naked man in a modified crucifixion pose (the upturned arms with palms facing outwards are about hip level). The figure appears to be floating against a black background and is shown in a perspective as though the viewer is looking up from foot- to-head. The small canvas has only the naked figure and the black background but the figure has an enormous flaccid gland. On Art Walk night a mother was standing in front of the painting so as to hide the genitalia from her five year-old son who was giggling and mesmerized. I like a lot about this painting but – no disrespect intended – some lowbrows might refer to it as “John Holmes Jesus”.
Among the many other impressive works at the Hive I was especially struck by Lance Richlin’s excellent Portrait of Tom, a Found Objects/Assemblage sculpture by an artist known as Shrine (who’s about to do a major installation at LACMA) and the work of resident artist and instructor Alex Schaefer.
Like most of the galleries I spoke to, the show changes on a specific date once a month. Five featured artists get a dedicated space for each show at the Hive; thirteen resident artists have long term dedicated space; most of the rest of the gallery are group spaces (they may have only a single example of as many as twenty different artists’ work on one wall). The current show ends Saturday, May 30th. Gallery hours are 1p.m. to 6p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
One of the resident artists, Debra Haden, is a singer and performance artist who is in a burlesque troupe called Feminine Oddities. Her stage name is Ode et Tease. They appear on the last Friday of the month from 8:30p.m. to midnight. Please do not expect to see a striptease act; do expect to be titillated and entertained by music, humor and neo-burlesque.
Moving along with Anahit and Stan we went next door to the unmarked gallery called g727, named after its address on Spring Street. This nicely spacious, more sparsely-hung gallery featured photographic art germane to our time. It reminded me of “sampling” in hip-hop recording, more specifically the Israeli artist Kutiman who made music videos entirely from other peoples’ You Tube posts. (If you haven’t seen it you really must check it out. Seven complete, original tracks made entirely out of thousands of “samples”. Absolutely brilliant.) The photography at g727 seemed like a visual equivalent of the above described phenomena. What this photography has done is create aerial cityscapes of recurring patterns of man-made structures in geometric forms whose borders resemble a system of rivers but are really freeways and the interiors look like topiary gardens. The effect is at once kaleidoscopic and sci-fi futuristic. A meticulously ordered future Los Angeles completely the opposite of the one imagined in Blade Runner.
Another innovation in photographic art was suspended from the ceiling like a mirror ball five feet above the floor. It had far fewer facets though, making it far less spheroid. The name of the shape is rhombicuboctahedron and an illustration of one was made by Leonardo da Vinci for a book on geometry written by his math teacher. It is a mathematically pure form consisting of eight triangular and eighteen square faces. In this piece, each face is covered by photography of the Los Angeles River and it’s all continuous. That is to say one can walk around it, look underneath it or on top of it and it has the effect of a scene in a clairvoyant’s crystal ball, as in The Wizard of OZ. There is no visible distortion of image as one moves around it.
I was unable to contact anyone at g727 because the Gallery is only open Friday and Saturday from 1p.m. to 6p.m. and for Downtown LA Art Walk.
Coming Friday, Part Two: Stan holds forth at The Nickel Diner, a convergence of “Anna”(s), two more galleries, great downtown architecture, and a perfect place for a (fictional) murder.