Saturday, April 29, 2017
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Photograph by Bill Mohr
(c) Copyright 2017 Bill Mohr
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Mise-en-scene: Bill Mohr
Photograph by Linda Fry
Copyright by Bill Mohr and Linda Fry 2017
At the end of the first week of August, Linda Fry and I drove up to downtown Los Angeles to help Lisa Thackaberry mount a show of Camilo Vergara’s photographs at the Lamp Community (527 Crocker Street). The Lamp is a service organization for the homeless, especially those who are teetering on becoming permanently embedded in bedlessness. In recent years, Vergara has been taking photographs of murals that include or feature Martin Luther King, Jr., almost all of which have been spontaneous creations done without official bureaucratic approval. As the fiftieth anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech approached, Vergara decided to organize simultaneous shows of his photographs of these murals at various places that would have been the major concern of King’s dream: those left on the margins whose sense of powerlessness has proven overwhelming. Linda and I had not know of The Lamp before making this trip, so we are grateful to Camilo and Lisa for offering this opportunity to become more aware of the specific quality (and quantity) of homelessness in Los Angeles.
I especially enjoyed the improvised quality of the show. The reproductions of the photographs were attached to one side of the brick hallway by maximum strength masking tape. The tricky part was trying to keep all the images aligned with each other as we spaced them out in a visually logical sequence. We also had to keep track of time, since street parking near The Lamp is set up so that a car cannot be parked for more than an hour. If it were only a question of feeding a meter, then that would have been no challenge, but there are no meters. The car itself must be moved to another side of the street or much further down the street to avoid a ticket. Thus, anyone who wanted to go to The Lamp to help as a volunteer would be facing the constant problem of interrupting one’s work in order to address the parking obstacle. Thus do the homeless further become isolated from those who might be concerned about their plight.
Vergara also had a show at the Rose Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica that opened just after his exhibition at The Lamp. This show, which ran from mid-August to mid-September, featured the nocturnal work of this master artist. This past spring Vergara was living in Los Angeles and waking up very early in the morning (as in 3:30 a.m.). He would drive out to sections of Los Angeles that are rarely photographed, even in the daytime, and catch the eerie glow of street lighting popping the blister of exterior wall lamps. There was a corner tire shop, for instance, in which the main object of business, elevated up near the painted store sign, seemed to glow in muted recrudescence with the nearby back of a stop sign, itself exuding an hexagonal sheen of turbid grey.
I was immediately reminded of W.C. Williams’s “Pastoral,” in which he speaks of the improvised housing of the “very poor,” in which the construction material for fences and outhouses has been assembled from discarded boxes and dismantled barrels. These objects, as Williams notes, are at least given the dignity of some minimal covering; they are “smeared a blusih green / that properly weathered / pleases me best of all colors.” It is this kind of coloration that Vergara has captured so well in these photographs. Williams mocks himself at end of his brief poem, “No one / will believe this / of vast import to the nation.” Vergara has no need for such ironic modesty. These photographs of Los Angeles at night should be widely exhibited throughout this city to remind us of the work that is done, by both artists and non-artists, to keep the flow of daily life in touch with more than superficial meaning.
In retrospect, the one thing I would now want to see would be photographs of the MLK murals at night. In particular, there is one of MLK on a brick wall which is cut off from a very close look by a padlocked chain fence. That it suggests the time that MLK spent in jail in order to move the freedom train along is part of its artistic rendering by Vergara. Nighttime in jail, though, is even harder time, and it’s the thought of that solitude, recreated by my imagined version of Vergara’s photograph, that I find even more haunting. Indeed, it is an image of import to the nation.
(contents of this blog, copyright Bill Mohr, 2013; photograph, copyright, Linda Fry, 2013)
Saturday, August 16, 2013
In the late 1970s, I worked at a bookstore at 11th Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. It had been launched by three young fiction writers who were eager to join that decade’s lively independent book store scene in Los Angeles (and in this case, I mean the county and not the city). By the time I started working at the front counter and running the reading series, only one of the three fiction writers was still involved with the store, which served as the entry point to Los Angeles for one of its most prominent literary spokespersons, Michael Silverblatt. He had recently moved to Los Angeles and was living in an apartment, slightly north of Wilshire, several blocks west of the store, Michael didn’t drive, but he was in a perfect neighborhood to get around without a car. One afternoon, when business was slow, he happened to walk in and we began talking about poetry. I was putting together my first anthology, The Streets Inside, at the time and ended up inviting him to my apartment for a combination publication party/New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1978. It was there that he met Jim Krusoe, who became one of his enduring friends. Though Michael and I did not remain confident acquaintances, I am happy that he eventually found a niche where his specialized acuity continues to flourish.
Among the people I met at the store who turned into long-time friends was Dinah Berland, a photographer and critic who was beginning to write poetry. (The opposite move was being made by another visitor to the store, Peter Schjeldahl, who went on to write one of the classic poems about Los Angeles, “Pico Boulevard,” but would soon begin to focus on writing about art.) Dinah eventually introduced me to her best friend, Terry Braunstein, with whom she was an undergraduate roommate at the University of Michigan. I reviewed a show of Terry’s at the Long Beach Museum of Art in the late 1980s for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and have continued to admire how she retains her commitment to local activism even as she has exhibited her work on an international scale.
Terry sent out a notice the other day about her most recent project. The first weekend after Labor Day is traditionally a very busy occasion for visual artists, so I want to post her invitation well in advance so that any reader can plan her or his visits to various openings that weekend to include her event, “Who is She?” It will take place at a vacant lot in Long Beach at the corner of Anaheim & Walnut Streets. Terry’s installation/sculpture will be placed into dialogue with a choreographed piece by Cyrus Parker-Jeannette at both 5:45 and 7:45 p.m. The second performance will also feature projected animations by David Familian.
This event is part of a larger project called “A LOT,” in which vacant pieces of property in Long Beach are temporarily appropriated to present free arts experiences. It is sponsored in part by an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
For more information on both Terry and Dinah, please go to their websites: terrybraunstein.com and Dinahberland.com.
TUESDAY, June 18, 2013
The afternoon at the Poetic Research Bureau listed the following on its menu:
Gnomes, aphorisms, propositions, fragments,
maxims, phrases, epigrams, mottoes, curses,
koans, haiku, quips, dry tweets, pensées.
I didn’t hear any curses or haiku. As for dry tweets, I was just as curious as Linda about what they were. On the way north from Long Beach, we talked about various permutations for dry tweet. Was it meant to connote “dry wit,” as in a tweet with a droll sense of humor? Is there anybody out there who plays the straight man in a tweet relay? Perhaps post-modernism was the straight man of the past half-dozen decades, and now finds itself having taken the game a little too seriously. What is youth for, though, if not to be outrageous in an understated way?
Up to this point, I have never tweeted. In fact, I don’t know anybody in my neighborhood who does tweet. I suppose it has its advantages: perhaps it could be thought of as a kind of spontaneous bumper-sticker. (Vinyl might be making a come-back, but bumper-stickers have become an endangered species.) One fear I have is that it might become incessantly demanding, and I would end up like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
If I do give it a try, it will be due to the prompting of Camilo Vergara, who attended a panel I was on at UCLA in mid-April, as a follow-up to the talk I gave at UCLA’s Special Collections in the Bonnie Cashin Lecture series. During the reception after the panel, Camilo invited me over to the residential apartments on Sunset Boulevard that the Getty Research Institute maintains for its visiting scholars. He told me he was going to be there only for a few more days, and since it had been years since we had spent any time together, I didn’t head home right away, but worked my way through the on-going construction on the 405 and slowed down on Sunset just in time to make the turn onto the street adjoining the two-story apartment building.
Both Camilo and I were the “outsiders” there back in the fall of 1996, when we were both part of the Getty’s year-long seminar on Los Angeles. The building had not changed much. We sat out on the patio near the swimming pool with his friend, Lisa, and reflected on how both of us arrived at the Getty with little sense of what we were going to do next. Neither of us had any institutional affiliation whatsoever, other than the cars we were driving. It was the kind of moment Paul Valery says that a biographer should be aware of in writing about her subject. The challenge for a biographer is to dispel the illusion of knowledge about the subject’s life and, instead of writing with foreknowledge, imagine what it was like for that person to move forward with absolutely no reasonable conjectures about potential or reliable outcomes. Camilo’s company was gratifying: there was still an undercurrent of bemused wistfulness about the process that had led us to being back together at this spot. It could have turned out in a far different fashion. I, for one, certainly felt like an interloper back then, and was all too aware that I was regarded as too ambitious for my station in life. At one point in our conversation there was a pause, and I felt a rush of associations. I blurted out: “God is an overachiever.” “You should tweet that,” Camilo said. I replied that I was not yet part of that social economy, and he empathized.
Later on in the evening, we all went into his apartment and he showed me his new work, which was nothing short of absolutely precise in its panoply of imbrued coloration. The time change between the East Coast and Los Angeles was waking him up at 3:00 a.m. and so he was going out to photograph at night. The inhabitants of the buildings in his photographs might not necessarily recognize what they were looking at. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I suspect they would be startled by the obstreperous, tawdry glow of the degraded entrances and exits of their daytime lives, all of which were locked down in a nocturnal prison. If you don’t know Camilo Vergara’s work, go to http://invinciblecities.camden.rutgers.edu/intro.html