Last week was special indeed. Most of my friends were busy celebrating either Passover or Easter, so I felt compelled to do something for my spirit as well. As my luck would have it, American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre was showing Andrei Rublev, the famous movie by avant-garde Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky telling the story of the 16th century Russian monk and artist whose frescoes and icons are among the most cherished treasures of Russian spiritual culture.
The day after, which happened to be Easter Sunday, my guilty conscience brought me to the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University. It was the last day of the traveling exhibition of paintings by Mercedes Matter (1913-2001), a mid-century American artist whose friends and lovers were the most interesting cultural figures of the time. Michael Zakian, the director of the museum, walked me through the exhibition, telling intriguing stories about the artist. I had promised him that I would see the exhibition before it closed, and that's exactly what I did on Easter Sunday, which made me feel good.
During the last week, Los Angeles artist Dan McCleary sent an email urging me to stop by his studio next to MacArthur Park, where he is working feverishly to meet a deadline on a public commission - a gigantic, 9 x 44' painting for the Federal Court House in Las Cruces, New Mexico. With the help of three young assistants, who also happen to be students of HOLA, the art school where he teaches, Dan is painting portraits of twelve members of a jury. This monumental fresco must be completed by the end of April, then shipped to New Mexico, where it's going to be installed high on a courthouse wall.
Have you ever driven to downtown along 6th Street? Among the usual mishmash of nondescript buildings, just before you reach MacArthur Park, there's a door that you might pass a hundred times without the slightest idea what might be hidden behind it. I knock on the door and enter Dan McCleary's long, narrow, high-ceilinged studio, now even more cramped than usual.
Known for his small and medium-size, carefully rendered, meditative portraits inspired by the Italian Renaissance, Dan usually works very slowly, but now he has no choice but to speed up the process and is relying on the help of his assistants to finish the project on time. I was thrilled to see the half-finished mural, with some of the figures almost complete, others still sketched out in pencil on the canvas. It was like having privileged access to a busy restaurant kitchen, watching preparations for a very special dinner.
I think you'll share my enthusiasm if you take a look at the photographs of his studio on the Art Talk page of the KCRW website. In the background, you will see numerous sketches for this project - portraits of male and female, young and old members of the jury. All of them are looking at you as if watching and making up their minds about who you are and what you have to say.
Going to the artist's studio is one of the privileges of being an art critic, but here I felt especially lucky, because when this monumental painting is finished and installed high above the ground, it's never going to be seen so close and experienced so intimately. Sheepishly I asked Dan, "Don't you think it might be a good idea to invite people to your studio to see the mural before it's shipped to New Mexico?" And you know what? Not only did he agree with that, but he also promised to consider opening his studio just for one day to those of you who might be interested in seeing this mural. So stay tuned.
Banner image: Artist Dan McCleary at work on his mural, American Jury