Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part II, Less Dharma, More Santa Monica Art Galleries

I woke up fairly late on my second day in L.A., feeling a bit ornery. Maybe it was the residue on my gut of the amontillado from the night before.  I ate some of the continental breakfast in the small dining area crammed with vacationers. It looked like an international crowd, spoke like one, but mostly English anyway, if accented. L.A. is an international city, so perhaps they were Americans with origins in other places. I glanced around as I pretended to mostly watch the big screen with the CNN heads talking and the volume muted. Sugary instant oatmeal and an unripe banana was my fare. Hey, it’s included in the price and it somehow calmed my ornery gut. Once I got myself collected and reviewed the L.A. travel guide, I found something interesting close by to which I could walk.  

The business areas of Santa Monica I walked through are full of new buildings with modern architecture, and some repurposed stuff. My destination was a set of train depot warehouses called Bergamot Station, repurposed as an art gallery village. The Metro Expo Line still stops there, with people as its cargo. There was a café and a playhouse in amongst the old wooden and tin roofed ex-warehouses. I got there around 10:30 but few galleries were open. It had all the commotion of a ghost town. ‘Come on!’, I thought. ‘This is just a few days before Christmas. Don’t you want to sell me some art?’ I peeked inside a couple of the open ones and saw mostly contemporary art. I have mixed feelings about contemporary art. I could tell just by looking through the plate glass doors of galleries that the canvases displayed strange shapes and abstractions I would not understand. I’m sure I didn’t look like anyone that would or could spend money on such things. Still I’d feel the clumsy critic by walking in and walking out, after staring at a couple of pieces and scratching my head. Maybe if I wasn’t the only one there I’d have ventured in, saw, and slipped out unnoticed. Where are all the Angelenos at 10:30 AM on a Friday? Working? They’re certainly not working in galleries. Of course, I’m not completely unappreciative of contemporary art. All art was once contemporary art. And these days contemporary art tends to be what an unsophisticated viewer like me calls modern art. Modern pieces or surreal stuff can sometimes intrigue me. I recall a history of photography class I took a couple of years ago. It fired up an interest for me in unconventional images. The machine aesthetics of Paul Strand, the macro grace of a bell pepper by Edwin Westin, or the political commentary of the Dadaists’ collages could not have been conveyed using previously conventional subjects. The disturbing masks of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s family and friends or the animal carcasses and doll parts of Frederick Sommer leave a space of suggestive mystery in the mind, that can be deeply intriguing. I’m not sure I’d hang any of it on my wall, but you never know. The more we learn and are exposed to, the more our tastes can change.  

To that end, I wandered into a place called the Lois Lambert Gallery & Gallery of Functional Art. On the walls hung a series of photos of hand grenades decorated in various motifs by Canadian artist David Krovblit. There was the Faberge egg grenade, a Ming dynasty vase grenade, and a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can grenade. It started to veer into Adbuster-type themes with a decaying Rothmans King Size grenade, the Federal Express logo grenade just read FedUp Express, the Shell Oil grenade omitted the S to read Hell over the scallop shell, McDeath was written over the Golden Arches. I have no idea whether these were objects created and then photographed, or if they were heavily enhanced by Photoshop. Probably the latter.

It seems Mr. Krovblit spent years as a commercial photographer making a comfortable living with the tricks of the advertising trade. And now as an artist he was conveying his true feelings for the indiscriminate marketing mentality to which he had aligned his previous life. You can derive whatever social or political statements strike you from the use of a hand grenade as a canvas, but perhaps the photographer was working out a bit of karma. Enticing people to consume things they don’t need with images designed to generate desire and craving, could be easily defined as the opposite of Right Speech. Art is sometimes created in an attempt to make amends. The song Amazing Grace was written by a repentant one-time slave trader.

I wandered the little gift shop of the gallery. A blend of craft bordering on outsider art and a few items of kitsch. I needed to pick up something for my Mom’s Christmas gift. Something small but worthy that would fit in my suitcase. Balloon dog shaped bookends and ceramic rats holding light bulbs wasn’t going to do it, so I left there empty handed. A sign in the window reminded me another reason why contemporary art can be worthy, if perhaps only functional to one party. It read ‘Buy art by living artists. The dead don’t need the money.’  

I did find an open gallery with art I think of as more traditional. William A. Karges Fine Art gallery had the landscapes, a la the Hudson River School type, that I think of when someone mentions art. Grandiose views of nature in the tradition of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church. Coincidentally, the latter artist’s work I would see later in the week at an exhibit in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Of course, these landscapes at the Karges gallery often depicted contemporary scenes. There was a Santa Monica at twilight viewed from Pacific Palisades, like a torn but sparkling sequined fabric laid over a stretch of vegetable coastline. It wasn’t quite the dramatic glow of Church’s fiery volcano Cotopaxi or his 19th century Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, that I would see later at the DIA exhibit, but the romance was there.

La Niña by Dennis Doheny

I saw an oil painting depicting the lovely town of my current residents, from a view point, where the foothills join the Santa Ynez Mountains, looking down on the town, the Mesa, and the Channel Islands out at sea. It was from a decidedly wetter period in that region’s history, as the grass and chaparral conveyed various lush shades of moss green that you see much less often these days. I gleaned later these two pieces were from an oil painter named Dennis Doheny. La Niña, the painting of the Santa Barbara scene, could have likely been painted a hike up from Mr. Doheny’s place, where he lives in the same such town. They had that romantic view of the world that, whatever else kind of art comes into style, will never lose a certain audience.  

Although I enjoyed the paintings, spying a price reignited a short flare up of the imposter syndrome. ‘Well, I’m just enjoying a walk through your rooms of wonder, gentle art dealer,’ I thought. I smiled at the lady who looked up from her work. She returned the smile and gave me no further attention. My price range is basically what my mom sends me of her work and an occasional scrappy but somehow lovable piece left over in a house or room I once rented. Maybe someday my schemes and plans will come to fruition, my ship will arrive in this bay, then I’ll cash in. Then again, that attitude is not in line with the Intention of Renunciation, this Path of the Eightfold that has descended even into my vacation mode. Instead, I’ll keep watch for Southern California landscapes of Doheny’s kind when they appear live before my eyes. Then I will release them from the desire to cling, as I move on to the next glimpse of grace, even here in L.A., between the freeways in and among the urban sprawl of this unconventionally wondrous city.  

Exhausting the few galleries open, or ones I was brave enough to venture into, I headed back toward the Comfort Inn. I enjoyed the trendy and upscale urban sprawl of Santa Monica with the new buildings shining jet set and old buildings, like the tin roofed galleries, renewed. I passed a sign in front of a long building with modern art dappled landscaping along its sides. The sign read “AWESOMENESS.” I had to investigate. It felt like the campus of some Google-like enterprise. A wooden decked courtyard had several plush padded Adirondack-type chairs with wooden tables. There were glass panels on many sides of the building, so I could see into these spaces where people worked. All I saw was hanging basket pod chairs and kitchen and dining facilities. Only a few people milled about like some Gattaca race of workers enjoying office amenities several notches above my home comforts. The place was called the Pen Factory, which it once was. Now through a renewal it housed what looked to be the ideal of where an elite millennial might want to work. Or even a generation or two beyond that. It turns out Awesomeness is a production company producing television shows for tween and teen girls. We are in L.A., after all. 

I found my way back to the Comfort Inn and suited up to take my proverbial dip. Although it was December the heated pool and the sun’s rays, at least a fair patch of it coming in above the three-story motel and other buildings, made the low 60°F weather tolerable against my naked skin. After a few laps to work up a sweat I floated on my back in the few feet of sunlight. I might have been the only pool guest that day. The lone figure in the pool would have been a good subject for an Edward Hopper painting. I’m not much for hot tubs, and fancy services I do not need, but a pool is worth the indulgence. It was not quite awesome, and awesomeness is not a word of my generation, but I was contented enough.

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