Thursday, November 20, 2014

1-16 Painting, The Art of (or How an Artist Grew Up in LA) - Karla Klarin © 2014 & 2015

1  Dust Motes and Art 

Why does one kid become an engineer and another a painter?  I don't know.  I only know what I became.  But I'm not sure why.

                              San Fernando Valley

Because I was born in the Los Angeles of the 1950's, I spent a lot of time "goofing off."  Toys were few, money was limited, television and pre-school were nonexistent.  What I did have, like every other suburban kid my age, was a backyard filled with dirt, plastic shovels and buckets.  I had windows to stare out of.  A floor to stretch out on so I could watch dust motes float in the air.  I spent a lot of time doing that.  And I had crayons and paper and a mind to keep me entertained.

As it turned out, this was excellent preparation for being a painter.

Forty years of painting and a typical day in my studio is this-I ponder unfinished paintings, I stare out the windows, I answer emails and I mix up sticky colored stuff which I then spread on waiting surfaces called canvases.  And I have pencils and paper.

                              Los Angeles 2012, 2012, Karla Klarin

2  Gorky Says  (b. 1904 d.1948)

"Abstraction allows man (or in my case, woman) to see with his mind what he cannot physically see with his eyes.  Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite.  It is the emancipation of the mind.  It is an explosion into unknown areas."

This quote by Arshile Gorky, though specifically referring to "abstraction", is about as beautiful and accurate an explanation of why fine art (in his case painting) is an essential pathway to having a richer, deeper life as I have ever come across.

                              The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944, Arshile Gorky


When I walked into the courtyard of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 to start school I immediately knew I was where I needed to be.  I'd mostly grown up in Los Angeles and had also lived a few years in Italy.  So I'd lived in new environments and ancient ones.  The Art Institute was a combination of old and new.  A massive gray concrete addition had been built next to the old Spanish Revival buildings a few years before I arrived. 

                              Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith in the courtyard, 1948

The red bricks on the floors of the original buildings were rounded with wear.  The benches around the fountain in the courtyard had provided respite to thousands of art students over decades.  In the drawing studios the long wooden tables were chipped and scratched on by the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown and David Park.  Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko had been short term instructors a couple of decades before I arrived.  

I didn't know the history of the school when I first showed up.  I was a 19 year old kid from the San Fernando Valley.  I knew I wanted to be an artist and that was about it.  By sheer luck I had found the right school to begin to learn what I needed to learn.  What is art?  Equally important-what isn't art?  
By the way, I'm still working on it.  SFAI was just the beginning.

                                      KK in the courtyard, 2012

4  War and Art Students

The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975.  For my generation that war was a terrible cauldron where 55,000 American soldiers died and many tens of thousands came home torn physically and mentally.  Some of them found their way to the Art Institute.

Art schools typically collected a varied mix of students.  Some, like me, had grown up in middle class homes, drawing and building things on our own as we went through our no frills public school educations.  Then there was a group of kids who just hated academics and found their way to an art school because they wanted an easy degree (after all, how stupid do you have to be to fail an art class?-answer: pretty stupid).  There were a few older students who wanted to get away from their grown-up lives and jobs (one man I knew was in his 30's and was a part time physician.)  And then there were the veterans.

Jim was a painting student in his late twenties.  He was tall and lanky and very quiet.  He was a Vietnam vet but that was about all I ever heard him say about that pre-SFAI time in his life.  He had a half-dozen round canvases that he kept in his self-defined corner of the group studio.  Each canvas was 36" or 48" in diameter.  For the couple of years I knew him he repainted the same canvases over and over with dark abstract shapes.  I graduated and never saw him again.

SFAI was, and I suppose still is, a very small school of maybe 700 students in all media, undergraduate and graduate.  I saw the same students everyday in the halls and studios.  One guy I saw often wore, like all the photo students, his SLR camera around his neck.  He always wore an army green flak jacket.  His face was horribly scarred with no trace of his pre-war features.  I don't remember his name.

5  "It's Not About Yoouuu"

Sam Tchakalian could make the awkward task of talking about student paintings in a class critique, fluid.  He would take on the physical demeanor of a fortune-teller in a seance.  He would gaze upward at the ceiling as he wandered around the studio, his head tilted to one side.  He was reaching deep inside to find ways to explain why a particular student's painting was "shit."  Or "fucking shit."

A few minutes of a Sam critique from the 1990's is posted online.  The audio is pretty bad, but I can hear Sam telling the class "it's about the painting, it's NOT about yoouuu."  

                                                             Sam Tchakalian (b.1929 d.2004)

Sam understood this essential element of good and certainly great art.  Art is made by a person, but it is not about that person.  Art is not self-indulgent. Indulgence is for art therapy.  Fine art is not therapy.  Good or great art stands on its own.  If it is bad, it falls on its face.  Or is simply, as Sam would say, a piece of "shit."

Good or great art takes no prisoners.

I needed a lot more than just one Sam critique to understand this.  I mean to really get this.  And then to put this understanding into my work year-in and year-out took years.  Even a decade or two.  For me a couple of years of Sam Tchakalian critiques has stretched into a lifetime of Sam critiques that occur only in my head.

Picasso said (and I paraphrase) that when he fell in love with "something" in one of his paintings-he destroyed it (not the painting, the "thing" he'd fallen in love with.)  Falling in love with a beautiful mark, or color, or "passage" prevents the painting from coalescing into a unified whole.  That detail pulls the painting in its direction.  Painting a painting is not to be confused with having a love affair with a painting.  It's something else entirely.  

"It's about the painting.  It's not about yoouuu."

6  From the Valley

                                Keepgoing, 1996

In the early 1980's I was at a party in the elegant Hancock Park home of a couple of art collectors.  I remember quite clearly standing with a small group of people, all older than me, engaging in idle art party chat.  

My experience in the world of private schools/private clubs/blue chip law firms and such was, to say the least, very limited.  I was a kid from the San Fernando Valley, went to public schools and had scraped through graduate school working nights as a bartender.  At the time of this party I had been living in a very rough industrial building (studio) downtown LA for six years.

The conversation in the small group had turned to where each of us was from.  The host, a white-haired judge, said he was from Boston.  A middle-aged woman was proud she was from London.  A couple of others were from New York City.  I hadn't said anything.  Then the white-haired man turned the attention to me and said with evident humor, "and Karla is from the Valley!"  They all started laughing.  I was mortified.  The Valley!  The land of small tract houses!  Ignominious schools and no private clubs!  Hilarious.

Obviously this long ago event has stuck in my mind for a reason.   My background of immigrant grandparents and hardworking parents who put themselves through college and managed to buy a small stucco house and raise 3 children in it, was a source of amusement to these easterners, but why?  I'm still trying to figure it out.

                               Valley View, 1984

7  Leigh and her Mom

A lot of female artists choose not to have children.  But I did have children in my late 30's.  

I was sitting next to a male artist, ten years older than I, at a dinner party when I was several months pregnant with my daughter, Leigh.  He asked "what's up?" so I told him I was pregnant.  He looked at me sternly for a minute without saying anything.  Then he said,  "Oh no, you will never paint again!"  I was speechless, not only had I not expected him to say that, the thought had never even occurred to me.

Not long after this party I was talking on the phone to my beloved mentor and friend, Sam.  I told him the same news and braced myself.  He said with genuine surprise and excitement, "Klaaahrin, that's great!  Imagine that!  A baby!"

Leigh and her Mom, 1994

For the years before she went off to kindergarten, Leigh and I worked together in my studio.  When she was small I held her on my left hip and worked with my right hand and arm.  When she was older I set up a small drawing table next to my large drawing table and stocked it with crayons, play-doh, paper, glue and water colors.  We worked side by side.  She learned how to use my electric glue gun and made little cell phones out of cardboard and colored pencils.  And sometimes she put on her gold lame princess gown and climbed up on one of my plastic crates  and sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina!" with Elaine Paige.

                                Leigh today

We figured it out as we went along.

Time went on and she grew up and finished an economics degree at Berkeley.  And I'm still painting.

8  Pencils

I was standing at my table in a figure drawing class taught by Sam.  The tables were along two walls set on low platforms.  One wall was a whole bank of large windows.  It was a beautiful room.  The model of the day (old men, young men, pretty women, fat older people-all naked, all shapes and sizes and colors) was resting on their own platform in a pose they could hold for a couple of hours.  Somewhere along the way I got restless and turned my attention away from the live model.  I started drawing the pencils I'd tossed on my table.

Sam was touring the room, looking at drawings, typically not saying much.  He walked up behind me to look at my drawing.  

"Pencils!  Keep drawing those fucking pencils!"  He harangued me for the rest of the semester about drawing those fucking pencils.  So I kept drawing them.  Sheets and sheets of them on cheap brown butcher paper.  Then I couldn't draw anything but pencils.  I progressed to making paintings of pencils.  Then I started building pencils.  I was trapped in my pencil world.

                               Pencils, 1974-77

Eventually I broke away from pencils.  But this is what I learned-it doesn't matter what subject you paint-what matters is what you do with it.  

9  More Sam

We have a painting of Sam's hanging in our living room.  It's from 1983, called "Roll the Dice."  

Roll the Dice, 1983, Sam Tchakalian

Sam's buckets of oil paint, around 1990

When my husband Dave and I were visiting Sam in his Duboce Ave. studio in the late 80's we saw this painting and asked him if we could buy it and pay in installments.  We wrapped it carefully and put it in the bed of our Toyota pick up and brought it home where it has been for over 25 years.  A couple of years ago a friend asked if I would sell it.  I said NO.  She asked if I would sell it for a million dollars.  I told her no amount of money could get that painting away from me.  Ten million, twenty million wouldn't do it.

Sam is the person who taught me what art is and what art isn't.  He opened a door for me that I walked through at 19 and I have never wanted to go back.  Out of the fifty or sixty art teachers I have had in my life, he left them all in the dust.  I don't know who or what I would be if I hadn't met Sam.  When I look at "Roll the Dice" every day I am reminded that important art is rare, but it does exist.  

10  David

I am married to an excellent David, but this is about a different David.  My daughter and I were in Florence (Italy) a few months ago.  We went to the Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo's "David" has been since 1873.  After Michelangelo finished David in 1504 (at the age of 29) it sat in the Palazzo Vecchio until being moved inside the Accademia.  

                                           David, 1504

I have seen this sculpture several times in my life.  But this visit was somehow different.  This time I saw not only the sculpture, but I saw the genius that created him.  That this 17 foot high biblical figure was carved by not only a man, but by a 26 year old man 500 years ago, is almost incomprehensible.  Every aspect of David is beautiful- the surface, his features (rather Elvis Presley-like I think), his musculature and that oddly modern casual posture that has watched the centuries and the many stupidities of humankind roll past him.  Every aspect of this sculpture is brilliant.

When I was young I knew intellectually the importance of art history and I'd seen first hand a great deal of the work of the "masters."  But to pun on the Accademia Gallery, it was still all somewhat academic to me.  Not now.  Now I really understand the step ladder of art history and why it matters.   It matters because the rare brilliance of Mr. Buonarroti and all good/great artists of history, bestow upon all of us a grace we humans wouldn't otherwise have, whether we know it or not.  

                                         Michelangelo Buonarroti
                                                        (b. 1475 d. 1564)

11  Two Bronze Men

One of the men stands wrapped in his writing robe, his ugly face conveying an amused arrogance.  He is looking down at us, convinced of his talent and brilliance.  He is daring us to deny him this.  Meet Rodin's Balzac.

                                      Monument to Balzac, 1891-97, Auguste Rodin

The other man is being thrust backwards in perpetuity.  If not dead already, he soon will be.  It hurts to look at this soldier who is in the process of dying.  Though he is assembled from odd bits of metal, he is utterly human.  The man who created him was John Riddle, Jr.

                                          Gradual Troop Withdrawal, 1960's-70's, John Riddle, Jr.

One sculptor's fame is huge, vast, legendary.  The other sculptor is largely unknown.  Both made their sculpted men out of metal.  Both pulled off the most difficult feat in art making, they made something out of nothing that became more essentially human than an actual human.

Neither sculpture is "ironic" or "cynical".  They are not the products of pop culture.  They are not lecturing us.  They don't preen.  They are however the product of great skill, hard work and compassion for our very human shortcomings and misdeeds.  They reach into our gut and demand that we feel something... maybe something painful like the death of a soldier.  Maybe something as annoying and vulnerable as genius.  How wonderful to feel a work of art.

12  Meet Mr. Diebenkorn

I'd been a student at SFAI for a couple of months when I visited the San Francisco Museum of Art for the first time.  Being very young I had no expectations in particular about what I would see.  And those are very often the best kind of expectations to have---none.  For everyone who lives long enough there comes a time when one has simply seen too much and has had too many high expectations disappointed.  

I took the elevator up to the second floor.

I walked into a very large gallery with high ceilings and beautiful natural light.  On all four walls hung paintings from Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series.  Perhaps a dozen in all.
                                                                     Ocean Park #54, 1972

I was shocked.  Although I had never seen an RD painting before, I knew these paintings.  I knew his blues and yellows and his diagonal, vertical and horizontal separations.  I'd grown up driving his black lines on gridded streets and freeways with curved on- and-off ramps.  My eyes had been burned by the relentless purity of the sun on sand and the blue in our SoCal sky.

I knew that painters had made paintings of ancient Rome, New York or Paris.  But LA?

I have now lived in Ocean Park for 29 years.  Down the street from me is Diebenkorn's first OP studio.  A little farther down Main Street is his final built-to-order 2 story OP studio.  And his paintings are everywhere if you know where to look.

13  Mr. Dahl

George Dahl was the best.  

He taught Advertising Design and Photography at my high school.  He'd left the advertising business to teach.  His classes were the only reason I went to school.  I dragged myself though my other classes and then headed to Mr. Dahl's class.

He always had a smile on his somewhat goofy face, a face that looked out at the world with forbearance and amusement as though the best way to deal with life was to not take it seriously.  Unlike most teachers, he actually seemed to like us kids.  He often commented on my 1960's hippie wardrobe of lace, velvet and patched bell bottoms.  One day he told me something I'd never heard before, "Karla, you are a smart cookie!"  Me, smart?

When Mr. Dahl taught us about design and photography he did it in a way that told us we would be okay.  Life didn't have to be only math, science and grammar.  We would not find the world to be a grim or dire place.  We would be okay.  We could laugh as much as we wanted.  Or at least this is what I learned from him.

Mr. Dahl died many years ago.  I would love to see him in the flesh one more time.  I'd like to laugh with him and tell him that his class was an oasis for me.  And I'd tell him that he was also a "smart cookie."  And then we'd laugh a little more.

14  Natalie's House  (a short essay)

I was born in 1953 in a hospital downtown Los Angeles.  My parents had bought a house before my birth in Van Nuys which is where I spent the first 9 years of my life.  I mention this because I now know that a funny thing happens as one ages.  When one is young the present and future are all that matter, because the past is small and too recent to be of interest.  Today, while I have a present and I hope some future left, the past is substantial and of greater richness and variety than when I was young.  I have enough past experiences in my mental storage unit to keep me busy ruminating about, like a farmer tilling the soil, odd and long forgotten but now recaptured memories.  They are surfacing like seeds that got buried in soil many years earlier, but conditions were not ripe for the sprouting of the seeds until now.  And because I'm a painter the memories that are triggered are more often than not, visual.

This brings me to "Natalie's House".

The new neighborhood in 1950's Van Nuys where I lived when I was very young was one of the post-war prototypes which led to what is the current reality of the San Fernando Valley.  Square mile after square mile of gridded streets, backyards backing up to backyards, driveways butting up to the next door driveway.  The stucco house surfaces were individuated only by color, usually earth tones or pastel.  In the 1950's, an era without air conditioning, only one or two houses on a block had a backyard swimming pool.  Those of us without, sweltering through the Southern California months of heat, coveted an invitation to swim in those few pools.  Schools also lacked air conditioning; classroom instruction was pointless in May, June, September and October.  I remember my young brain being numbed by the heat as I struggled to keep my body upright in our cheap bungalow classrooms.

It was a time without much luxury or the indulgence of a personal aesthetic.

And then there was Natalia Almeida's house on Mary Ellen Avenue, about six houses down from ours.  Like every other kid in our neighborhood, for me bike riding was the de facto entertainment.  Up and down the block, day after day, month after month, we rode circling in the cul de sacs and back down to our house, and back up to the cul de sacs where we circled again.  On our route was Natalia's house.

My mother called her Natalie.  She was Portuguese, a ballerina and was married to a Brazilian jazz and classical guitarist, Laurindo Almeida.  They had no children and were very quiet.  Natalie was at home alone a lot and I would see her, small and dark haired like my own mother, now and then in her front yard.  I remember Natalie because of her house.  Her small stucco house was painted carnation pink, had a white rock roof (common at that time) and white facia boards.  Her front yard was sectioned off into geometric shapes filled alternately with white concrete or black volcanic rock.  Her small curved driveway was painted black.  There were no plants.

    Natalie's House 4, 2014, KK

Naturally I didn't know it at the time, I was less than ten years old, but Natalie was a modernist.  In 1950's suburbia she'd created a pink, black and white Mondrian-esque sculpture out of her house and front yard.  Natalie never knew me personally.  I was just one of the dozens of kids who cruised by her house everyday.  But I knew her, and more importantly I knew her house and front yard.  I was fascinated by her crisp minimalist aesthetic that didn't conform to the rest of the neighborhood, or to anything else I'd ever seen.  Her palette of pink and black intoxicated me.

What is of greatest interest to me about Natalie's house is the effect it had upon me, most specifically how it influenced my still evolving little girl definitions of what style and beauty could be.  I've carried her aesthetic inside of me for the fifty years since I last saw her house.  I have loved pink, black and white my whole life because of Natalie.  In 1963 and all the years after, what I still look for in the photographs about the JFK assassination is Jacqueline Kennedy's pink and black Chanel suit!

So, this is my memory of a Portuguese ballerina's little stucco house in Van Nuys.

15  DTLA, part 1

      From Industrial St., 1982

When I was growing up, most of LA, from Venice/Santa Monica to downtown and beyond was kind of beaten up.  Not kind of.  It was beaten up.  Just about every neighborhood, except for Beverly Hills and its ilk, was shabby.  The city was tired.  It was great.

It was great because it was real.  Like an old VW bug vs. a new Beamer.  LA had miles on it.  It had experience and the bruises to show for it.  It was the LA of Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and B-movies. Yeah, it had a certain lack of pride and finesse.  But LA has always had low self esteem and has always been FOR SALE to the highest bidder.  That's our history!  Name your price!  We'll knock it down and you can build whatever dumb thing you want:  a Tudor mansion with palm trees, a French Chateau with snow roofs, the fake castle from Disneyland!  Just bring cold hard cash-ola and Los Angeles, California is yours!

That was my hometown.  And still is.

Today it isn't so shabby and real.  It's more shiny and unreal.

DTLA, part 2

When my older brother and I were small (before our younger brother was born) we spent some weekends with our grandparents in their old 4-plex apartment on the western edge of DT.  Our grandfather was a butcher at Grand Central Market a few blocks away.
                               apartment at 3rd & Bixel, ca. 1955
Grandpa had a basement workshop.  There was so much junk piled up I had to sidle carefully up and down the narrow aisles in the musty darkness while I examined the weird stuff he'd accumulated.  He had a twisted driftwood branch painted like a rattlesnake.  Old blue canning jars, seatless wooden chairs hanging from the ceiling, jars of nuts and bolts, dinged up and bent tools, pieces of metal pipes and plumbing name it.  The sorts of things an older immigrant like him would keep.  Just in case.

I slept in the old Murphy bed in the living room.  I'd watch the reflection of the stoplight right outside the windows turn yellow-red-green, yellow-red-green...on the wall next to the bed.

DTLA, part 3

In the mid-1970s we artists discovered the opportunities of DTLA.  There were dozens of empty industrial buildings scattered all over.  Downtown gave off an odor of having had a neutron bomb detonated right in the middle of it.  In other words, a perfect place for young painters and sculptors looking for studio space.  Cheap.

About a hundred of us found each other through the artist grapevine and we staged a potluck at a different studio each month and an occasional Sunday softball game in an empty lot next to the 110 freeway.  Eventually the city found out about us and we were busted.  We went through a torturous process to get permission to live in our studios.

Today DTLA is hip, happening and expensive.  Inevitably young artists will go somewhere else.  Somewhere shabby, real and cheap.

                             Babylon's Children #1, 1981

16  It's a Man's (Art) World  

If making a place for oneself in the art business is, for men, like climbing Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet) for women it is like climbing Mt. Everest (29,029 feet.)  Which altitude would you prefer to tackle?  The one that makes you breathe hard or the one that could kill you?

I don't like writing about this issue-I don't like thinking about this issue-I don't like acknowledging this issue-but like bacteria, it is always there, lurking under the surface like a bad infection.

                                           Bernini b. 1598  d. 1680

Many years ago I received what I thought at the time was a compliment.  A fellow said that my paintings could have been painted by a man.  (Why thank you, sir, goody!)  In retrospect, that actually wasn't true.  I didn't paint like a man.  But I didn't paint in any way that could have been thought typically "female" either.  I didn't adopt female imagery like Mary Cassatt or a female palette like Georgia O'Keefe.  I just did what I did.  Beyond that I have no idea what he meant.

There were no female painting or photography teachers in my six years of art school (SFAI or Otis).  Even today there are essentially zero women taken seriously in documented art history.  So I've had only male artists as my role models.  How has that affected my work or the work of all the other women artists of my generation?  I don't know how in particular ways but it must have affected us.  And how has this dearth of respect affected the way women are viewed by historians, curators, dealers or collectors?  

                                         Bernini b. 1598  d. 1680

There was an exhibit a couple of years ago at the Getty Museum (Pacific Standard Time, LA Art 1945-1980)-out of 100 artists in the show, about 5 were women meaning 95 were men.  I can't begin to get my mind around why things in the art business are still so lopsided.  I suppose human beings are just very slow to open closed minds-we see that all the time in all areas of life.  Why not art?

Here's a thought---maybe the dudes would like to climb Mt. Everest for a change.

                                  end of post 1,  (1-16)