Blotches of Paint
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Art and The Urban Man, Part I
This is Marc Porter Zasada with The Urban Man for KCRW.
Like most people, the Urban Man often goes looking for beauty. Okay, sometimes in a mountain valley. Sometimes on an ocean cliff. But even when I drive the most aggrieved LA street, my eye seeks out the curve of a woman's thigh as it appears briefly on a digital billboard. I mean, beauty is a basic human need, like water or light.
Last month, I went looking for beauty at a contemporary art exhibit. Yeah, okay, it was a stupid idea, the kind that makes friends laugh out loud.
Sixty cutting-edge galleries had set up in a hanger at Santa Monica Airport. There was so much art that I thought…well…call it wishful thinking. I mean, I'm aware that it's no longer the function of serious art to create beauty. And yes, as I cruised the exhibit in my distressed leather jacket, I found a basket of clown heads, a portrait torn to shreds, and lots of body parts, disarranged.
You know, the usual.
A critic would explain that artists are presently obsessed with things ugly and grotesque out of a principled opposition to lovely thighs shown on digital billboards. Beauty, they say, is an exhausted form.
To which the Urban Man always replies, "Of course. Fine. I get it."
Still, one canvas briefly obsessed me. It was a large work by a fellow named Tom LaDuke. Don't worry, he hadn't violated the code. It wasn't actually a beautiful picture, but it did seem to suggest beauty in some mysterious and indirect way.
In the background were the predictable ironies: an industrial facility and a hokey romantic still in which a clothed man leaned over a half-clothed woman. But right over top of these images, the artist had positioned several big, amazing blotches of paint: A white swoosh here, a black splotch there, a green swirl right in the center. These blotches seemed somehow…not quite random. Something about their placement suggested some undefined harmony, some curious "rightness," as if the concept of unashamed beauty were somehow half-formed or half-recalled.
I got excited, and I was about to ask the price when the gallery owner came over and made the terrible mistake of explaining the picture to me. It seems LaDuke had been watching an old movie, and he'd added the grim industrial reflections of his studio coming off the screen.
"Of course. Fine. I get it." I pressed, "But what about those amazing blotches over the top?"
The gallery owner smiled. "LaDuke is a student of art history, and the movie happened to remind him of Manet's famous painting, Olympia, in which a nude white woman reclines and a black servant hovers over her with a basket of flowers." The owner showed me a print of Olympia, circa 1863, and sure enough, I now saw that LaDuke's splotches of paint, which had so intrigued me, were not mere abstracts, but vague suggestions of this great work. I mean, the black swirl was placed in the same position as the maidservant's head. The green swirl stood in for the basket of flowers. The swoosh of white replaced the recumbent nude Manet had taken such care to paint.
At once I felt strangely…depressed. In fact, right there among all the other hip people dressed in black, my eyes actually teared up -- not just out of an embarrassing nostalgia for a time when a serious artist could unselfconsciously create a lovely thing, but for the easy rightness of a classic composition, which even so sadly reduced and bastardized, could yet subliminally conjure my desire.
I mean, that's all it took: just those few blotches of paint.
I don't know Mr. LaDuke -- but for a moment I was certain we shared some terrible secret. I imagined that he and the Urban Man had gone for a drive, out to a mountain valley or an ocean cliff or more likely along an aggrieved city street, searching for something we'd lost.
For KCRW, I'm Marc Porter Zasada.
Olympia by Eduard Manet, 1863; oil on canvas, 51" x 74"
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