by Michael Fallon   January 31, 2004

Michael Fallon goes to LA : an artworld formed by P.R. where celebrities paint and painters are ignored, where the sun is warm and hearts are cold. Return with him to the land of the palm tree and the greased palm . . .
Michael Fallon
Michael Fallon
Michael Fallon

IT'S BEEN SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE, but California is a bizarre place. And I don't mean the constant calamities. (Sure, it might seem unnerving that there was an earthquake up near San Simeon just this morning as I write from a coffee shop in Malibu--but that's background noise here.) I'm also not referring to the endless stream of eccentrics who make their home in California. (San Simeon, for example, is the locus of William Randolph Hearst's infamous castle; Hearst was once spoofed by an outlandish and vastly overweight filmmaker in the movie "Citizen Kane;" the filmmaker later in life shilled for cheap California wines before dying of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1985. Strange enough stuff for most places, but rather quotidian for here.) Rather, mostly what makes California strange is its endless taste for make-believe.

If one had time, one could read Boorstin and Borges, Baudrillard and McLuhan and perhaps Sontag, and somehow come to understand the state's Hollywood-borne penchant for fancy. For example, why does the state's electorate continue to elect actors to play the role of the chief executive office? (We all know from our experience with the wrestler that this just doesn't work in the end.) Or, in more mundane life, why do Californians eat "teardrop" tomatoes, rather than what we more prosaic Minnesotans call "grape tomatoes"? (They're the same thing, just different names.) Or, why, at the end of the day at Disneyland, do machines spew out "snow" over Main Street after the fireworks show to conjure up the magic of a winter wonderland to an enraptured audience in 60-degree weather? (This stuff turns out to be some sort of detergent foam that, if you're not careful, can sting the eyes.)

And speaking of winter, the fashion rage in Malibu this December seems to be knee-high mukluks. Since I've been sitting in the open courtyard of the Coffee Bean Café in a strip mall a block from the ocean, I have seen nine women, and one man, wearing this displaced garb--often with short skirts and midriff-revealing tops--as they wander from store to store (Malibu Lifestyles, Indiana Joan's, Planet Blue) looking like extras from a Klondike gold rush movie. I came from the direction of Hollywood this morning via the Ventura Highway and Mulholland Drive, through the Malibu Valley and the scrubby Santa Monica Mountains, but this is definitely the deepest suspension of disbelief I have seen all day. Consider how impossible would be the diametrically opposed phenomenon: bikini-clad lifeguards on the beach at Lake Harriet in late December.

If you think California is so strange, you're probably wondering, why are you even there? Well, I could talk to you about the true reason--preempting the winter blahs that have tended to afflict me every year since moving to Minnesota seven winters ago (yes, I count my time in winters) through contact with sun-warmed Pacific Ocean salt air--but that's not terribly interesting. Instead, let's talk about the reason I'm going to present to my accountant at tax time: I am here to research further the potential of becoming the Hollywood Art Critic that I dreamed of becoming in my column of August 29 of last year (see link below).

LET'S BEGIN AGAIN. On my third day of my recent trip to California, just a week before this past Christmas, I made my way to "The Brewery" just east of downtown Los Angeles. I had been hearing a lot of buzz lately about how this artists warehouse commune was the ground zero of L.A. art activity these days, and while it turned out the complex was not much more than what's going on in Lowertown or in the NE arts corridor, the visit was revealing nonetheless.

At the Brewery I bumped into Mat Gleason, the editor and publisher of a ten-year-old underground arts zine called Coagula (see link below), a low-tech, slash-and-burn gossip rag that art regulars from coast to coast seem to hate even as they can't help but read it. (To give you an idea of Coagula's attitude, a book compilation of its first five years is called Most Art Sucks and is billed as the "only honest book about the world of contemporary art.") Gleason himself was a fast talker who relished keeping tabs on who's been stroking whom in the back rooms of the art world. Indeed, when I came on the scene he was busy complaining about the Coagula compilation book. It turns out Most Art Sucks didn't sell particularly well--despite the fact that David Bowie wrote a glowing book review of the text for barnesandnoble.com, and that a Bowie blurb was included on the book's back cover.

"You would think a publicist might be able to get us some publicity based on this fact," says Gleason. "But what do I know? She couldn't get us a write-up anywhere." This leads to a litany of further invective. For example, as it turns out, the aforementioned publicist now works for Viggo Mortensen's nonprofit "charitable" organization that is charged with funding art. "Really it's a scam," says Gleason, "It exists for Mortensen to take a write-off and to filter money to his artist friends."

Eventually I make my escape (but not before hearing more complaints--about Gleason's landlord, about how cold the studios are, about some art by a dead artist he's been saddled with and that no one wants to take away), intrigued that he brought up the issue of publicists. According to the New York Times, Hollywood these days is all but ruled by publicists. A recent article by entertainment columnist Frank Rich quotes journalist Peter Biskind saying: "The disconnect between appearance, as it is presented in the media, and the reality of what actually occurs behind the scenes is as great in Hollywood as it is in Washington, if not greater." And in fact, as I discovered when I first began researching what kind of art a "Hollywood art critic" might end up covering, the lion's share of the art buzz out here was more of the same-old same-old California penchant for unreality. That is to say, if you look for info on California artists what you get is a lot of guff about Hollywood stars who act the part.

To mention just a short list of Hollywoodians who have gotten press for their artistic pretensions of late--there's Tony Bennett, whose sailboat scenes have been collected by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathi Lee Gifford, and Arsenio Hall. Beyonce Knowles was quoted as saying of her painting habit: "It takes me away, and it's really peaceful." Dwayne Hickman, star of the 1960s TV show "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," says painting "is an expression of art that you can sit down and do anytime you want. I can't go downstairs and act, but I can go downstairs and paint." Couple Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson hang their own work on the walls of their sunny L.A. home. Michelle Pfeiffer wishes she "could paint like Renoir." And Jane Seymour; Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, John Waters, and the aforementioned Viggo Mortensen and David Bowie have been among those cited in the "trades" for their art habits.

I'd let this hoopla pass me by as just so much dabbling by people who have too much time on their hands if in turn the real California artists--the ones worth watching--were getting their due as well. But the simple fact is, the truth beyond the glitzy Hollywood portrait of the pursuit of art is the life of the artist here, as elsewhere, is bleak. Artists in California who do not happen to be Hollywood actors struggle to survive against the terrible ambivalence of society.

I know this first hand, as I spent the rest of my Brewery-excursion in the studio of 70-year-old artist George Herms, a local mainstay since the 1950s. Herms came up with the Beat Generation and has been collected by most of the major museums (including the Walker Art Center). At this point in his career, he should basking in success, coddled by art patrons, happily retired and secure in his finances. But in fact, I discover, Herms is struggling to survive at the Brewery, unable to pay his bills despite all he's accomplished, and recently sued by the Brewery's owners for back rent.

"I'm just an idiot," Herms says, as the afternoon light fades in a studio that is filled with nearly fifty years worth of art and art materials, some of which he's recently had to raffle off just to pay lawyer's fees. "I get up and work everyday. I'm more into what I've just started than in taking what's finished and turning it into the coin of the realm."

If only this were a Hollywood story: The upstart pretender to the throne, looking like a fashion model in his mukluks, would lead a ghost army of nonprofit granters and art patrons from across the sea just as a light foamy snow begins to fall. All would arrive just in time to save the debt-ridden artist from near-certain calamity. Ah, wouldn't that be something?