Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life as Art

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, Gaston Lachaise’s Standing Woman (1932) was right across the green and I watched her throw her naked shoulders back with her hands on her naked hips and laugh at us everyday. She greeted me as I walked from my car. I smiled back politely. She was imposing, standing a little over six feet tall.

Whatever my emotional state, her demeanor never changed. She presided over the comings and goings of thousands of students everyday and never let us in on her secrets. Day in and day out she stood in the mottled sunlight waiting for the most dour of us to pass by, so she could wink at our seriousness and feign indifference to our moodiness.

In a most fitting placement, if she required further study, there was a bench placed at her backside. She indiscriminately mooned all observers. She gave us her ass to look at, and you could stare at it as long as you needed to. She didn’t care. She saved her expressions for those passing by.

I ate lunch in the sculpture garden almost everyday. It was my favorite place to be, to watch, to observe the world, to contemplate, to reflect, to while away the time. The Alexander Calder (Button Flower 1959) that I sat against provided a perfect curve for my back and made a very comfortable perch from which I could watch the world. That Calder provided the backdrop for many a reading assignment, interrupted by…well, by almost anything.

The world of the sculpture garden was pretty narrowly defined as law students to the south, art students to the north, and a lot of business students in general. The art students were the interesting ones to watch. They had no concept of “fit,” only of style. They dressed oddly, walked oddly, and cared not about this one observer sitting on (no doubt) one of their idols’ sculptures. Sometimes a law professor would move his class from its staid and sterile classroom out under a big shade tree and conduct his teaching there. I audited a lecture or two from my Calder.

Occasionally, a traveling troop would set up shop in the natural amphitheater there in the garden and put on Shakespeare. Although I tried to be diligent, I was late to class on more than one occasion when I fell under the spell of yet another “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When I wanted to actually study some of this sculpture that surrounded me, I looked to the Henry Moore contribution at the entrance to the Macgowan Theater Arts building. The Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3 held my interest not only for its clever name, but it also pestered me for just how and what Henry managed to see inspired in his own work. I looked for clues as to its deeper meaning, and I must confess defeat.

Perhaps this view doesn’t quite do Moore’s work justice. There are certainly other places one can stand to ferret out its most telling secrets. Perhaps, but I think this work is complete from any perspective.

I have since seen many other works by Henry Moore and I see in his work the same whimsy with which I think Alexander Calder approached his art. It was not created for a public statement per se, rather a simple condition of being reflected in the mood of the observer. (And, because I studied business rather than art, I can be absolutely correct in my pondering.)

I played hooky one afternoon and went to see Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” in that theater. The drama students were very good at depressing us all with Williams’ tale of heartbreak and indifference. We surely would have been depressed forever were it not for Henry Moore and Gaston Lachaise to greet us as we left. If only Alma could have seen these works from her park bench, she might not have been so wistful or so broken. Maybe her romance with John Buchanan Jr. would have worked out after all. Maybe, if Tennessee Williams had spent some time here in the sculpture garden, he would have found more joy in his work.

This is what art is meant to do; evoke in us whatever it is that we can feel. It is there to lift us when we’re down, change us for the better, make us appreciate and think about what we see, feel, know, and experience. I am a big fan of public art. I like to see public spaces graced with someone’s creativity. Even if you can’t understand it, or just flat don’t like what you experience, the artist has touched you. That is their very purpose.

For several months I worked in a building with a public plaza that had a signature work by Bruce Beasley (Apolymon, 1967). This was the first large scale casting of Acrylic ever attempted. We, the public, put our faith in Bruce to be able to give us something new and artistic. This was his result: a Lucite pelvis.

The way that this large sculpture captures light and changes its look depending on its ambient surroundings is quite amazing. I am sure that Bruce was pretty serious about this work and probably never once thought about the “pelvis” angle throughout his creative process, but I could never glance at it and not have that expression spring to mind. (It should be noted that this picture itself is a work of another artist, Claudia Smith, who captured this image as she does all her work, with a pinhole camera.)

I came to the realization as a fairly young adult that I would not pursue the dollar to the degree necessary for allowing my discretionary income to be spent in the direction of high minded and expensive art. Though I really appreciate sculpture, I do not possess the wherewithal to produce it, the wealth to buy it, nor the creativity to think of it in the first place. I appreciate the works of others, but not enough to actually own them outright.

Good artists command lots of money for their time and creativity. I thought that if I ever wanted to have fine paintings around the house, I would have to do them myself. At the same time, I do not generally appreciate the paintings one finds hanging on Hotel room walls – my taste leans to the more serious, and expensive, endeavor. I began a course of study in oil painting.

Oil paint is a great and forgiving medium. If one has the patience, the paint can be mushed around the canvas long enough so that almost any disaster can be overcome. My efforts are good enough to passably copy a master, but I am neither creative enough, nor skilled enough to be much of an artist. Never the less, I can live with my own output. This is my copy of John Singer Sargent’s Venetian Wineshop (1902).

As an impressionist, Sargent has managed to perfectly capture the intersection of three lives, each with their own purpose and intent. Just like Lachaise, Calder, Moore, Williams, and Beasley he leaves it up to us to interpret just what that is.

Guests in our home often remark that they would like to have this painting. That is rewarding enough for me, but it is mostly a tribute to Sargent’s mastery of the medium rather than my own, and yet, simply another example of how evocative the arts can be. (See the essay on “The Prettiest Girl I Had Ever Seen.”)

Now that I have a little time to contemplate what I can actually do with my time, the creative spark seems to have been overcome by a diminished enthusiasm. I would love to have a house full of paintings and a backyard full of Sculpture. I would also like the time to contemplate and enjoy them while the sun is still high in the sky. I would like to share them, discuss them, and argue their merits to any degree my guests would like to engage in conversation. Alas, I do not. I was never quite Bohemian enough to strike out on my own, ignore my obligations, and discover my creativity while I was young and I had the time. Nor was I ever passionate enough to collect the work of others.

It could be argued that the conduct of business is an art, but I would offer that while there is creativity in the product, there is no joy. ‘Tis a pity that I cannot have all the private art I would like, and that there is not nearly enough public art for the rest of us to enjoy. I regret only that I couldn’t settle my youthful back into the curve of that Calder once again to experience the life going on around me.

Where there is no art, there is no life.

© 2008 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 3, 2008


In the late 50’s and early 60’s cars were something to take for granted. The prosperity that was abundant after World War II manifest itself in gloriously ostentatious displays of societal wealth and material comforts for the new middle class. There was a proliferation of young men home from the war that demanded new housing in growing suburbs. There were automobiles with longer and longer tail fins driving down every street. While Henry Ford had done a lot to create affordable cars in the decades preceding the war, GM did him one better. Through the application of our new found production prowess and a fresh supply of youthful labor home from the war, GM became the largest car producer in the world in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Cars not only seemed to be a symbol of wealth, but also of a general ebullience in our outlook on the future. Everybody seemed to be in on this new world affluence. Our family had two. We had a sedan for the family and a pickup truck that my dad used to drive himself to work. I never thought much about them except that everybody appeared to have one or more. There were commercials on TV for them all the time. We sang about them: “See the USA, in a Chevrolet” went the catchy commercial ditty. Cars were parked at every curb. They were a part of who we were.

Some of my friends had older brothers or sisters who had their own cars. They used them for transportation, to look cool, and to get themselves into trouble mostly. Little Johnny was modestly famous because his older brother crashed the family car across town from the library where he had told his parents he was going. Burleigh Smith, our local newsman, was there for the event. He broadcast the story on the six o’clock news, complete with black and white film of the wrecked car and the two boys involved. Burleigh’s rich baritone voiceover was dark and ominous as was demanded of any legitimate broadcast journalist of the day. Johnny’s parents were not happy about this. Johnny was famous because his older brother was on TV and that was pretty cool.

I had a toy car that was modeled on a 1955 Porsche that I put batteries in, flipped the on/off switch (cleverly disguised as the air vent on the back) and watched it bump into the legs of the kitchen table, bounce back, turn slightly and try again. However much fun this would appear to be it did not serve as endless hours of enjoyment to me. One set of batteries and it was retired into the toy box. It was still nice to have and it was comforting in some small degree to know it was there. I, however, did not live my youth dreaming of driving around in a Porsche, and I have successfully suppressed any desire to do so as an adult.

I also had a small collection of “match box” cars, small die cast models of cars that were painted smartly and had wheels that allowed them to roll. These were fun to push across the kitchen floor, but only good for rainy days, or when my friends came over and we were tired of looking for other trouble to get into. My favorite was a yellow tractor with an operable scoop bucket in front, but even that had serious limitations in the fun department. There were only so many dust bunnies or debris on the kitchen floor that was actually interesting enough to scoop up. Frankly, after a while, I think everyone gets tired of spitting on themselves or getting dizzy trying to make the requisite tractor noises.

I graduated to building plastic car models when plastic airplane models stopped providing a challenge. Airplanes just didn’t have enough parts to make model building fun. Model cars had the added incentive of more parts and the possibility of real paint instead of the World War II decals that came with the planes. So, for a year or so I tried my hand at building model cars until I realized that none of these model sets seemed to have parts that were very well made. They just didn’t fit quite right regardless of my ability to shave them down, build them up, or tweak them however they needed to be tweaked. It is a sad note that real car building really hasn’t come very far in solving this problem. Given real car builder’s notorious quality problems these days, I would bet most of their design engineers began their careers by building these very same plastic model kits. Their experience has served them well.

My older sister, like most California sixteen year olds in the sixties, was duly trained and practiced in the finer arts of driving. Sometime after she was granted a license, our dad brought home a 1956 Chevy. It was a Bel Air; a green and white two tone with three on the tree and a straight six. The interior was big enough to play croquet in. It was ten years old when we got it and the paint had a dull oxidized finished that a little rubbing compound and a lot of elbow grease was finally able to dispel. It sat at the curb, gleaming in the sun, and waited like a trusty steed – 3400 pounds of steel with 140 horses under the hood.

It wasn’t like Randy’s car. Randy was another older brother type who lived just down the block. He was a few years older and he had a little Corvair. It was about the same age as the Chevy, but much smaller and lighter. Randy was quite the mechanic and he tinkered with his car all the time. Rather than fuss with it out on the street, he would drive it up on his lawn under his shady mulberry tree and, with the help of his younger brother, turn it over on its side so he could work on the undercarriage standing up. In addition to this being a little unorthodox, it was also unwise and perhaps not the best for the car, but it suited Randy just fine. He actually survived to adulthood without a Corvair logo or door handle imprinted on his chest. Clearly, our Chevy just wasn’t a candidate for these kinds of mechanic's tricks. It also was not a convertible.

Janine lived next door to Randy and was about the same age. She was pretty good looking for a neighbor. Her dad was a sign painter and they owned the block’s only convertible. I don’t know what kind of car it was. I don’t remember anything about it except that one day Janine came flying down the street with her hair blowing wild and free. The tunes on the radio died away as she parked in front of her house. She got out of the car and stepped into my dreams – a nice twist on the lyric to “You’re Sixteen.” The back of her dress was tucked neatly into her panty hose. That scene was indelibly etched in my mind and set up rather unreasonable expectations for convertibles in general. For a long time, I thought convertibles were pretty special.

My sister endured her inaugural test drive in the Bel Air with Dad as copilot. She was pronounced safe enough to be entrusted with the daily transport of herself and, reluctantly, me to high school. At first, it was just us two, then, as our parents gained confidence, we were allowed to pick up various friends along the way to school. Thus began the carefree and short lived days of cruisin’ around in the “bomb.”

The Bel Air had one drawback that we discovered only in the winter months. There was some sort of coolant leak in the defroster system. When the defroster was engaged the windshield immediately fogged up and no amount of fan would clean the windshield’s interior. The car became quite impossible to drive without my sister sticking her head out the window. This was not only inconvenient, but something our mother really frowned on. There were several loud discussions regarding possible courses of action, but there really was only one alternative. At Mother’s prompting, my dad sold our Bel Air. The days of “cool” were over.

It has been my regret that our ’56 Bel Air didn’t last long enough for me to get to drive it; to cruise the strip in it; to flirt with the girls in it; to drive it to the bowling alley. I could have been cool. “I coulda been a contender.”

No, a couple of years later, I ended up with a sky blue ’61 Comet, with three on the tree, and as many horses as it’s little six cylinder could push out – which wasn't very many. It wasn’t quite the babe magnet that I envisioned the Bel Air to be. And, it wasn’t a convertible.

© 2008 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved