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

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