January Days South in California
©Charles Shere 2001
for Richard and Marta

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    1: The Road to  Ojai 4: Pasadena
    2: Bombay to Brentwood 5: Barstow to Death Valley
    3: Downtown Los Angeles 6: Bishop, Mono Lake and Tahoe

3: Downtown Los Angeles

Warning: negative comments by a disgruntled retired art critic

From the Getty we'd seen snow on the San Gabriel Mountains, and the next day was just as clear and brisk when we drove downtown to investigate our next museum -- MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's always an exercise in nostalgia for me to go to this part of town. In 1952, just after turning seventeen, I left the (comparative) innocence and security of adolescence on the farm for the rough and dirty city of Los Angeles, and I still think of Olivera Street, Angel's Flight, and the Public Library as they were nearly fifty years ago. I was eager to show them to our Italians, and eager to revisit them myself.

I knew what to expect, of course: this would be my second or third or fourth trip to MOCA. I was even familiar enough to know where to park, in a subterranean garage a couple of blocks from the library -- parking is still cheap in downtown Los Angeles, which may be why there are so few pedestrians to be seen.

The Library burned quite a few years back, and I hadn't seen it since, and was curious about the new addition, and what renovations might have been done. The first disappointment was the café, franchised fast-food installed in a corner of the ground floor. But was this any sleazier than the downtown cafés I remembered? There was the coffee-and-pie joint near the Greyhound Bus Station, fifty years ago, where I ostentatiously sat sketching a melody on a pocket music-paper pad, and struck up a conversation with an older woman who said she wrote poems and was looking for a songwriter to set them. Same less-than-clean tabletops, same sour coffee. The prices have changed, and the ownership is now controlled through corporate franchising. Don't get me started on the business-financial improvements of the last five decades.

The staircase hadn't changed; the WPA art was intact; the marvelous old reading room seemed much the same -- except that what had been designed as floor lamps are now installed, irrelevantly, on pedestals, so that their proportions are all wrong.

The staircase in the new wing is pretty dreadful, and its own public art looks messy and improvised. The socialist realism of WPA art seems innocent and dated now, full of false promise of social well-being; but at least it's an integrating style drawing post office and library, city hall and public offices together into a kind of visually confirmed community. Postmodern public art, like so much of life these days, seems diffuse and distracted. One knows of all these possibilities -- hundreds of ethnic visual cultures, scores of contemporary materials, dozens of industrial techniques -- but to visit constantly among them, or, worse, to attempt to combine them in one piece or setting, is to contribute to the confusion and noise of contemporary life, rather than to contribute a sense of community.

Let alone to offer a bit of tranquillity, a commodity to be sought in a library. Well, we didn't linger: onward across the street to begin the climb up Bunker Hill.  Los Angeles Access had promised a self-guided walking tour, and it was indeed available and clear and interesting. There was one brochure-guide left at the information counter in the Library, and it led us up steps and past fountains and through small terraces -- the Getty had familiarized us with this newfangled approach to Italian hillside gardens -- and to the top, where Richard was happy to find quite a bit of sculpture decorating the gardened and terraced office towers.

When I was a boy, in the 1940s, Buck Rogers was already in the 25th century, and his urban landscape wasn't so very different from this. True, there are no autogiros speeding overhead. But the pedestrian bridges, the lower-level auto corridors, the sleek glass-sheathed skyscrapers all seem more a tribute to comicbook futurism than to daily-life human use. The Italian gardens are updated, but the sense of piazza, the sense of ease and grace, is mainly lacking. The fountain near MOCA erupts and splashes trickily and, to me, unsettlingly, calling attention to itself and its secret programmed instructions. The cafés are overcrowded with indoor plantings, faux finishes, and passageways whose navigability is not immediately clear. The towering Louise Nevelson sculpture on California Plaza is a strong and handsome piece; but although it invites you to sit, and even to investigate its complex but logical interior organization, hardly anyone does: everyone seems intent on eating quickly, carrying on cell-phone conversations, and getting back to (or away from) the office.

Lunch, then, at the MOCA restaurant, Patinette, an outpost of Joachim Spichal's Melrose Avenue Patina -- but apparently a neglected outpost, for the salad I had there was in fact not very good, not very interesting, and the service was slow and inattentive. Still, the café was more accommodating than the museum, for its great permanent collection was, for the first time ever, not on view; a big temporary exhibition of Bruce Conner was on its way in (or out), and there was virtually nothing to be seen -- an eventuality that didn't become evident, frustratingly, until after our admission had been paid.

Oh well: we were entitled to free shuttlebus transportation to the Temporary Contemporary, down in Japantown, and I recalled that as more fun anyway, so there we next went. Here, though, we were confronted with contemporary visual art at its dumbest -- sculptural installations showing stupid solitary sex acts; perversions of childhood, television shows, and Nature; parodies of already dumbed-down conceptual painting of the 1980s.

Our Italians were pretty well horrified at the banality of the work, but amused to see a number of art students soberly making copies in their sketchbooks, quite as if they were at the Accademia or the Louvre.  We didn't stay long, but walked on down to Olivera Street, which hasn't changed that much, and to the railroad station, at my insistence, to admire the architecture and wonder at a commercial being filmed in the ticket lobby and have a cappuccino; and then caught a cab back to our car.

Dinner that night at Lucques, where we've been two or three times now, and which always turns out well. Lucques is, in fact, with Campanile, our favorite big-ticket restaurant in Los Angeles. In fact they are favorite restaurants just about anywhere, and that's saying a lot, because Los Angeles is not, in my opinion, a very rewarding big-ticket restaurant town. In fact I prefer Healdsburg: just as well.

But Campanile, where this time we had only lunch and breakfast, and Lucques, are first-rate restaurants. You can trust the ingredients, fresh and nourishing and tasty; and the cooking, enterprising and knowledgable and straightforward; and the service, personable and effective. (Though in truth Campanile's breakfast waiter seemed confused and inexpert: this is perhaps their training ground.)
twilight. Of course I'm partly partisan here, for both restaurants are cheffed, excuse the jargon, by "graduates" of Chez Panisse: Mark Peel at Campanile, Suzanne Goins at Lucques. (And Goins had been sous-chef at Campanile, so there's also a sense of family between those two restaurants.)

This time we sat in the back room at Lucques, a garden room with a canvas ceiling and stucco walls, comfortably heated on this cold clear night; and I had -- but what? It's so embarassing: I write this a month later, and find I didn't make any notes. For years I kept such nice journals, copious notes in a minuscule hand in black books. Now I have a computer in my pocket, and I don't use it. Especially when in company, of course: it's somehow embarassing to write in company.

Well, no matter: I recall the effect. It was a very complex dish, with what would seem in any other restaurant far too many ingredients. (Though two nights ago -- I write this nearly a month later, in mid-February -- at New Sammy's, in Oregon, there must have been neary a dozen different vegetables sautéed together to accompany my lamb chops: but that's another story.) At Lucques, though, each of these ingredients contributed to a complex but balanced effect. This is what Postmodernism is supposed to be; and now that I think about it, this is what Indian cuisine at its best accomplishes; and it reminds me of the comment Hans always says he forgets ever having made, about the many different kinds of tree in the royal park at Het Loo: It's right for the government to remind us that all these different kinds of tree can get along together, each contributing its individual effect to a complex but mutually supportive community. (I paraphrase.)

I may as well jump ahead here two days to another restaurant, equally celebrated, but to me not as rewarding: Chadwick, in Beverly Hills -- a promising dining room in an inviting bungalow curiously spared from earlier days. Here I did take notes, and they remind me that an appetizer of smoked cod and pickled onion was delicious, but that braised pork served on a bed of quinoa and wheat-berries seemed more ordinary and an odd balance of textures, and the blood-orange mascarpone was similarly out of balance -- cuisine whose concept may have been imaginative, but which simple taste verification should lead to second thoughts. Every artist must be his own first critic, and unforgivingly so.

(It didn't help the dinner that that day's lunch, at Campanile, had been both classic and fresh: a poached egg on a bed of frisée, with scraps of wonderful applewood-smoked bacon.)

We had strolled Rodeo Drive. I was interested to see how our Italians would respond to it, for she's a shopper, and an elegant woman, and Rodeo Drive is to our country what the Via Napoleone is to Milan. And there were nice shops to be seen. But, as she pointed out, they are all the same everywhere, Benetton, Bang and Olufson, Giorgio Armani, Hermès.

I like more a favorite shop, Algabar, where we always buy a little Mariage Frères tea, and where there are marvelous lamps and tansus and tablecloths and candles and shavingbrushes and tea strainers. You can poke around here for an hour; even I can, who hate to shop. Stopping here has become a Los Angeles ritual for us.

Museum number two: LACMA

Well: we had lunched at Campanile partly because it is convenient to the Los Angles County Museum of Art, whose motley assortment of architecture (now pushed all the way to the corner and even jumped across the street) perches, like an aging ground sloth, on the edge of the La Brea tar pits.

I wanted our Italian guests to see the museum, not for its architecture -- institutionalism at its worst -- but for the current blockbuster show, Made In California. This purported to be a survey of the 20th century through cultural artifacts, which I had a hard time persuading our Veronese was an acceptable substitute, conceptually and verbally, for "art."

Alas the survey reeked of Political Correctness. I suppose this has become curatorially obligatory in the wake of recent objections to museum documentations of World War II and the Ellis Island. It is always a little nervous to make governmental assessments of recent history, and LACMA, like the Smithsonian, is after all a governmental institution. One can't help thinking of Soviet encyclopedias and the like.

But even-handedness, while an admirable attribute of investigation and reflection, is nearly impossible to achieve in any kind of interpretation; and surveys like this, seen and reacted against by partisans of dozens of different persuasions, cannot escape being seen as interpretive. And so the curators find it necessary, when displaying a 1920s painting of, say, a contented Chinese-American family, to post a label pointing out that the mainstream view of such minorities neglected to record their mistreatment at the hands of employers, landlords, and the legal system.

The point was made over and over, at every stage of the exhibition, whose decade-by-decade survey occupied three buildings. I had hoped that our guests would have an introduction to the glorious history of California's cultures over that century, but that introduction was weakened, and their discoveries distracted, by this urge or obligation to criticize past wrong-mindednesses. One effect of this, of course, is an unintended and unfortunate sort of self-congratulation that We Now Know Better (though in fact mistreatment remains rampant in contemporary society). Another effect, more directly distressing, was the curatorial gathering of material that would lead to such editorial comment.

The exhibition did however give me the chance to demonstrate what always seems so striking: California is in fact two countries with two sets of national esthetic qualities. Broadly and simply, the South is attracted to surface; the North to depth. Of course I am a Northerner and I am partisan, but I explain this as rooted in geography, human history, and climate. The North mined by digging and eroding; the South by scraping away. The North is wrinkled and rolling where it is not mountainous; the South is flat and extensive. The North lives among fogs, breezes, and rains; the South seems perpetually bright. The North paints thick-textured Picasso- and German Expressionist-derived figurative and landscape subjects; the South relies on glazes and plays of light. The North writes Poetry, the South writes song lyrics; the North reads books, the South goes to movies.

Our Italians were rightly dubious about this disquisition, but I felt better. We would all agree before long that the real thing was waiting for us in Pasadena.

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