Thursday, June 30, 2011

There is a mirror that has seen us for the last time

St. Louis is home to one of the world's great small museums, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, which hangs a show for a long time, then constantly cycles community programs through its doors. This method has a way of bleeding Pulitzer shows into St. Louis' bloodstream. The current show is Dreamscapes, and today I noticed St. Louis had taken on the quality of a dream.

My friend Ray is being evicted. It happens. I have sympathy for the transient, been there for years, and I'd do anything for Ray. We go back to the rock band road trips of my transient youth. So I borrowed a truck from our friend Michael and helped to evict Ray tonight.

Driving into Ray's Carondolet neighborhood in Michael's hot-wired Sonoma, I was also driving into my dead friend Paul's neighborhood. Paul was shot dead in his backyard on Idaho back in May. Ray lives right around the corner from where Paul lived and died. Ray dropped everything and helped me clean out Paul's garage and basement. He even mowed the dead man's yard before the bank took it back.

So there we were again, Ray and me, cleaning out another South City garage. This time it was Ray's stuff we had to pack up and move out. Not a dead man this time, only bounced a man, homeless between couches until something else works out.

I kept picking up stuff and asking Ray if I should pack it. Ray never had a ready answer. He wasn't really ready to leave this house on Alaska Street. It was as if part of him hadn't accepted that he had to move all of his stuff out of there.

I picked up a nice leather artist's portfolio. "Should I pack this?"

"That's hers," Ray said. A girlfriend had moved out abruptly, and that was one reason why Ray couldn't afford to stay here anymore.

"She was an artist?"

"That's what she said. Then she left and left that behind. So I looked at her portfolio. It's all empty pages."

When I needed something to protect Ray's mirror I was packing in the truckbed, Ray handed me a bedspread that had once been Paul's. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had strong feelings about mirrors and the dead. There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time.

Paul's bedspread protected Ray's mirror as I drove it down Grand to Meramec, up Meramec to Morganford, across Morganford to Juniata, and then around the block to Hartford and the house where Ray would be storing his stuff for awhile.

We were helped by Doug Golden and Andee. Andee was driving one of those minivans that look like every other minivan. We lugged Ray's stuff out of our trucks and Andee's minivan into another man's big, cool, bungalowy house and basement.
"I felt so good in that house," Andee said between trips in and out of the house. "It feels like a big bungalow. I feel at peace in that house."

When I went to back Michael's hotwired truck up into the driveway, it stalled; and once it had stalled, its hotwire was no longer hot. Michael had showed me to start his truck by grasping a knob from the guts of the ignition with a pair of plyers and pulling it toward me. This trick was no longer working. The dead truck was now blocking Hartford. We endeavored to unload it in a hurry while no traffic was coming down the one-way street.

Ray called to me as I was coming back down from the big, cool, comfortable house. We had to move the truck out of the street, he said; he would push, if I would steer. I got behind the wheel. Then the man whose way we had been blocking on the street got out of his minivan, I would have thought to holler at us and complain. Instead, he put a shoulder to the truck and helped Ray push Michael's truck as I steered it to the curb.

"Oh, hi, Riley," Ray said to the guy who left the minivan to help us push Michael's truck out of his way.

Riley looked as if he had stepped out of a comic strip, or a dream. His arms were floridly tattooed. Both ears had rings. He had this cute little hat tilted on his head. He had the cleanest shave I have ever seen and his nostrils appeared to have been tended to, immaculately. He had a hole in the ass pocket of his Levis almost exactly the shape and size of his wallet, yet his wallet was not falling out through it.

Riley was Ray's friend. He lived down the street. He wanted to help. Ray told Riley we were done for the night and he needed a whiskey. Riley said he needed a whiskey too. Riley said he lived a block away and would help tomorrow, so let's go get a whiskey tonight. Riley and Doug Golden disappeared into the night, bound for a tavern named Riley's.

Or, no. They had piled into Andee's minivan, which looks like every other minivan. Riley and Doug Golden sheepishly stepped back out of Andee's minivan, shuffled over to Riley's minivan, and disappeared into the night, bound for Riley's tavern.

The it was just Ray, Andee and me. The streetlights had come on in South City. Ray and I make movies together. The yellow light of the streetlight on Ray made him look like an actor in a movie, or a dreamer in a dream.

He wanted to tell Andee about an ex he had called tonight and who had been nice to him. I really didn't want to hear this right now. It was an evil ex Ray had fallen for again who was responsible for his eviction.

Andee suddenly doubled over as Ray started the story. "I swallowed a gnat!" she gasped.

"You don't want to hear it, I know," Ray said.

"No, I swallowed a gnat!" Andee gasped.

Andee was my ride back to Michael's house, where I had left my car when I had picked up his truck. We talked about transience along the way. We had both been transients. We talked about dislocation, sickness and death. There were a lot of dislocated and sick people in our lives, a lot of death in our lives.

That reminded me. My friend Amy was waiting at a different tavern that was sort of on our way to Michael's house. She had with her at the tavern the work of art she had bought for me as my proxy bidder at the silent art auction benefit for Bunny. Bunny was sick.

We picked up the art from Amy and put it in the minivan. It was a really nice piece. Andee vaguely remembered the benefit, though she didn't know Bunny. "There have been a lot of benefits lately," Andee said.

There really had. The last time I had borrowed Michael's truck, in fact, was to move the art collection of my dead friend, Paul. We auctioned off his art as a benefit and gave the money to his son. I told Andee about that and how Ray had helped with the benefits for Paul.

While helping me with a benefit for a dead man with one 20-year-old son, I told Andee, Ray quietly dropped a reference to a benefit he was doing for a friend of his with three small children who was dying of testicular cancer.

Ray is a funny man. I thought he was trying to be funny. I told Ray that was funny, as if he were joking about how worse it could be. Ray said there was nothing funny about it. He really did have a friend who was dying of testicular cancer and would leave three small children behind.

"When is that benefit?" Andee asked. I said it already had passed, about a month ago. They keep coming and going.

We drove through South City. Andee is this really neat, slim, quiet, sincere, thoughtful, attractive woman. She said, "I grew up right around here." I had never met anyone who grew up around South Grand. I was curious about that. I tried to imagine her childhood on these streets familiar to me only as an adult artist type. I asked about her parents.

She said her mother was a secretary and her second father was a city cop. Just then we saw a city cop we both know, another Michael. I like this guy. He was walking his tough guy little dog. I called his name, and Michael came over.

"What do you have against the Brentwood firemen?" he asked me.

I took a break from work this afternoon to deliver a DVD of our movie Blind Cat Black to Susan Story in Brentwood. I never go to Brentwood. I took the opportunity of being on strange streets to drive local roads back to work. I passed a Sno Cone stand. I saw two Brentwood Fire Department fire trucks parked there. The Brentwood city manager was just busted for embezzling. So I posted in social media a wisecrack about the idle Brentwood firemen and maybe not all the bums being off the Brentwood city payroll.

"They do 24-hour shifts," Michael said. "What are you going to do for 24 hours?"

Maybe you'd go to the Sno Cone stand for a few hours. "I'll delete that," I said.

We got going again and passed a house where Andee had lived as a child. "No wonder," she said. "No wonder I felt so good in that house on Hartford, where we dropped off all of Ray's stuff. It felt like a bungalow. That house I grew up in was a little bungalow."

Andee had said "second father". I asked her about that. She explained it to me. Her reproductive father had not played a parental role in her life. She didn't sound at all bitter about that, though. It sounded like the man her father married next had been good for her.

She told me how her mother had met him. Her mother was a secretary in a business downtown. A disgruntled former employee came in one day with a gun. The person he took hostage while acting out with the gun happened to be her mother. The city cops were called in. One cop shot dead the disgruntled gunman holding Andee's mom hostage. One thing led to another after that, between her mom and the cop.

"How old were you at the time?" I wanted to know.

"I was seven," Andee said, "but I only learned about it much later. My mom is a quiet woman."

By now, we were at Michael's house. I pointed out my car on the street. "Oh, that little car," Andee said, pulling up beside it. She said, "I was born on this street." It was a dead end street.


Image is The Village of the Mermaids by Paul Delvaux (1942), presently hanging at The Pulitzer in St. Louis as part of Dreamscapes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought: New Paintings from Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman is a consistent and consistently brilliant presence on the St. Louis visual art scene. His consistency and brilliance definitely affect the way one relates to his work. In the many shows I have visited or curated that included work by Michael, I knew his pieces instantly and instantly knew what to expect: consummate artistry that is both uncanny (how does he DO that?) and totally pleasing to the senses. As a matter of fact, it would look nice next to your couch, or table, or desk, or executive corridor.

As a result, over the years, I have probably spent less time deeply absorbed in Michael's work than I do with work that is less accomplished but more demanding-of-attention. Michael's art is exactly like the prettiest person in the room: Well, there is THAT. Okay. Now, let's go contend with something more our slower speed. This situation is amped up a little by the fact that Michael himself is personally always one of the most attractive and pleasant people in any room he is in. Last night I looked closely at his one-man show at Hoffman LaChance while Sunyatta Marshall also was in the gallery, and I reflected that there wasn't a small room anywhere in the world that had the bases of male and female physical beauty covered any better.

So I wanted to look at Michael's new one-man show, New Paintings from Michael Hoffman (June 10th - July 2, 2011 at Hoffman LaChance, 2713 Sutton in Maplewood) because I wanted to encounter his paintings when I couldn't take the easy out and spend all my time on work that is less brilliant and pleasing to the senses. As I result, I spent an hour or so circling a small square room, pleased and illuminated.

I think there are 17 numbered pieces, and a few others hanging unnumbered in passage spaces (it is, after all, Michael's gallery). I started by jotting the numbers of the pieces I thought I had the most to think about, and then going back and thinking about them.

The 5th numbered piece uses a motif I have seen Michael use before. It reads like a brilliantly colorful concentric target (or shield, an icon he shares with his buddy Jon Cournoyer). Like so much of Michael's work, this piece has that amazingly composed surface that is the main thing that makes people shake their heads and wonder how he does that: how do you make a highly wrought object that looks like God just smoothed it out by hand?

This highly wrought but seamless circular figure is then engrained with another Michael Hoffman obsession, the 3-D grid of a globe. That's another gift he has: he makes paintings that take on some characteristics of sculpture without breaking the plane. He has taken that work all the way out to a logical extension in paintings that almost become ceramics sculptures without ever ceasing to be a painting.

Next to this new take on old favorites in the show are two pieces (numbered 6 and 7) in a Michael mode I have not seen. This is where I would have been spending my money, if I had any money to spend and wall space for art. They are vertical pieces that look like Jasper Johns flags reimagined as envelopes, though with patriotism to nothing but color, shape and design.

These pieces relate to the design idea that dominates the postcard Hoffman LaChance made for the show: thin, bright lines running tightly parallel with no other ornamentation. When Michael paints (or hangs) pieces in this mode vertically (13), it strikes me as an homage to a certain style of candy-striped shirt or necktie. Painted or presented vertically (11, 17), it suggests a visual pun. The pattern evokes window blinds, so it's as if you are being blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought, which takes us right back to the core phenomenon of Michael Hoffman: being blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought.

Speaking of core Michael, the show concludes (except for the bookend of the second brilliant blinds painting) with a trology of Michael Hoffman horizons. It is really interesting to see three of these horizon paintings on a wall next to each other. It gives you a chance to pay more attention to variation and its tonal effects. He makes small variations in landscape (all drawn, Cournoyer reports, from beloved islands near Seattle) and more sweeping changes in color to tell quite different stories (a rare appearance of the narrative element suggested in his work). Big dark reds in the sky and sea that dominate the landscape (14) tell of a blood red sunset with blood in the water. More blues and greens in the sea (15) whisper of a peaceful harbor at dusk. A stronger emphasis on the landscape elements and more control on the red pedal (16) warn of smoldering island volcanoes.

I picked up the one-sheet for the show, and learned something genuinely new about Michael: he has a gift for titles. Here are the titles for the pieces that caught my eye and notebook:

5) Catalan Spring
7) Playa Cadaques
11) Spanish Candy
13) Confluences
14) Rosario Strait
15) Way Out West
16) December Islands.

That just gave me some more things to think about, so I walked back through the show, then walked out onto the city street still thinking about it.