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Looking is not Seeing – Dissecting my Artist’s Practice

Peruvian weave? drywall to be off-loaded from a flat-bed

ARTISTIC LICENSE allows me to cheat, break rules, make exceptions –whatever works– for each individual picture. every work has to be it’s best, fully independent of any other work, even those in the same series; a typical series has works that all are different sizes, shapes, and palettes, of the identical subject. no series exists until i have two final works that need each other side-by-side. order is intuitive, the one that doesn’t feel wrong. 

LAZY ARTISTS (commerce-driven?) copy others or themselves. for me, imitation always falls short of what i can produce through a fresh independent exploration. there are artists –including outside of religious production– that explore the same subject over a lifetime. humility before creation. my best work may not be able to be improved. with continued effort, i will produce something better than all the rest, every couple years. an artist is no better than his or her best product. Unfamiliar subjects sometimes produce the best results.  B-LIST American painter / illustrator Ralston Crawford’s career lay in the shadow of rival artist, Charles Sheeler. Crawford’s masterworks came later, far outshining Sheeler’s –boring though eye-pleasing– Precisionist paintings (his photographs far superior). Crawford’s impressions of nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll seem without precedent. painting “the bomb” right after the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is a strange assignment, far out of any artist’s comfort zone.  what is mildly strange or off-putting, inspires me. wandering (by car) up a steep No Grand Ave, I hang 2 more rights, first on Alpine St, followed by No Hill Pl, where i found this never-quite-finished, occupied, spec-house.  724 No. Hill St, LA - As weird as it gets

724 N Hill Pl, LA — inspired everyday weirdness

i trash most work i start, usually after a few intense days of work. i don’t regret this pattern. what i gain from failure often finds its way back into future work.  i never studied art. or conversely, i always study art (all visual phenomena). i studied architecture before working as a machinist making military vehicles, followed by TV / motion picture gripping, and some-time carpenter. diverse experiences inform a mix  of the practical “how” with the more theoretical “why not?”  

DON’T KNOW WHY, but i’m obsessed with contours. i’m more than a formalist. It might be pathological, a matrilineal family trait. being shape-obsessed, i enjoy Art Nouveau / Jugendstijl / Catalonia’s genius Antoni Gaudí, Persian art, and objects and narratives from the East. all depiction is phony –even photography from it’s earliest days, 150 years back– so why not enhance the 2-D experience? Negative space writ 3-D knows no better exponent than designer / critic Adolf Loos’ Raumplan architecture of a century ago. 

ART SAVES? whose knuckle-headed idea was it that art requires utility, including rehabilitative affect, to be worthy of our highest nature? supporting “art for art’s sake” gives me another reason to enlist in an active struggle for a more just and sustainable future. ask less of art, but ask more of ourselves, in community! a freer humanity releases art from all demands of utility. no wonder authoritarians love to put art into “service”. irony, doubt, multiple meanings, contradiction, are inimical to rapid consumption, digestion and careless disposal. some of the finest cultural output is satire, like pulp broadsheets (John Heartfield, José Guadalupe Posada ) or gentle hidden meanings (Gilberto Gil’s Tropicália music; James Whale’s filmed version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

PRODUCING IDIOSYNCRATIC work is not my goal, but often the result. i very much share Arshile Gorky’s goal of “making the uncommon from the common”. what’s more American than jerry-rigging, self-invention, and reinvigorating democratic ideals?  hell, America’s Gorky wasn’t a Gorky or even ethnic Russian –a hustler can still be a hero.  some complain that their creative juices dry up. mine don’t. from time to time, successful ideas emerge from the muck. 

I ENJOY THEORY for the mysteries explained. for composition / perspectives, i study Canaletto, de Chirico, Arp, and Lyonel Feininger. for color, i study Matisse’s paper cut-outs, the optics of Seurat, and the layered brush strokes of Richter or Vuillard. theory guides me towards resolving pictorial problems. 

OUTRAGEOUS SOLUTIONS, wildly playful, inharmonious or “destructive” devices, all deserve a chance. digital production allows unlimited risk taking towards pictorial resolution. to learn more, read my (1998) essay: Digital Prints, Unwanted Stepchild, OR How I Learned to Love the New Technology By Steven Dornbusch

MY PRINTS are the size they need to be; i don’t really understand why that is. (just) big enough, no bigger. large format for size’s sake is sad. superficial works look even worse blown up. size can be wrong, but size never saved an inferior work. a sharp eye will hone in on the same defects. 

PRECONCEIVED imagery is fine, but i find myself abandoning what I expected to be creating, within the first 1/2 hour’s work. i usually feel stupid, a lost child, at this early stage; with time, i am working in “service” to the picture. my weird color palettes are sort of “one begats the next”, and so on –not trying to make pretty nor ugly work. when i discover and heighten dialectical relationships, i experience a kind of ecstasy. if I work too many hours, I get a headache –small price to pay!  when you take a look at my art, do make the effort to see. ask questions. enjoy! 

© 2014 by Steven Dornbusch

Sea Ranch at 50! Some Personal Impressions

Sea Ranch is 50!

A couple surprising impressions from my weekend stay in Charles Moore’s own condo in the original multi-unit structure: the amazing quiet and privacy in adjacent units; the perfect balance between sheltering one-skin sheds and glass window benches –the wind really blows here! The complex was just a few years old. Those 2 overnights were a privilege I will never forget. 

Sea Ranch is not about style. It’s about a lot more than shingles all over. It’s a lot better and more inspiring than most domestic architecture, anywhere. Doubtless, many old people no long climb ladders to free-standing sleeping lofts in individual barn-like units, but it’s certainly an exciting way to live while one can. Sea Ranch is entirely “what you see is what you get” architecture. America is so far from that now, the difference becomes more striking over time. From a distance, the entire complex seems to disappear into the terrain, a cross between Medieval village and shingle-clad Russian fortress or church (There were some, scattered up and down the West Coast).

Sea Ranch is memorable, a wonderful collaboration of multi-disciplinary designers. Of course the multi-class, even socialist dimension, has all but disappeared, while community-governed design still rules. Let’s not point fingers at anyone for that (while more than a handful of private property fetishists may celebrate). it’s the “conservative” nature of our social order in play –money talks! Thorston Veblen’s lively analysis of conspicuous consumption comes to mind. “Conservative”, as in “I’ve got mine” insensitivity, the antithesis to Sea Ranch’s conservationist legacy.

Cute is not Almost Alright: Jerde Partners and the American Shopping Experience

It is unfortunate that Jerde’s picturesque, ersatz, façade-driven shopping centers (loosely rooted in Robert Venturi / Denise Scott Brown’s “Main Street is almost alright” theory —Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966) have so successfully altered both suburban and urban commercial American architecture, that the general public fails to note a complete substitution for real place, real time, and actual communal experience. So complete is the influence of this ubiquitous falseness, it barely matters which shopping center is or isn’t a Jerde product. No reason to hate these locations, but an hour of targeted shopping is long enough for me. I’ve worked as a grip at Universal Studios several times; the Studio is amazing (probably not by design) from any number of angles, yet the adjacent Universal CityWalk is nothing more than a pleasant theme park. I was amused –certainly not annoyed– when a open trailer contraption loaded with tourists observed me eating my light lunch on a pile of 2″ X 8″s during one of those work gigs. There are superior alternatives to the Jerde retail commerce model. Genuine vitality flows naturally from real places offering real experience, including the mundane or serene. Give me a “serious” dead mall (with stores where I want to buy goods) over a Jerde-inspired concoction any day.

Letter to the Editor: Bacon’s Staying Power

[Published February 25, 1990, Los Angeles Times]

Regarding William Wilson’s Feb. 11 review of the Francis Bacon exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

I admit to snickering at a recent LACMA exhibition. Not at Francis Bacon’s paintings –I snickered at all the people fawning over Robert Longo’s superficiality.

So Bacon belongs to the era of Existentialists and beatniks. Fine. Kurt Schwitters belongs to the era of Dadaists, revolutionaries and prophets. Cezanne and Goya belong to their times. I do not snicker at art because it belongs to another time.

Francis Bacon has not changed much over the decades. He paints the same images. He chooses to refine, rather than add new techniques. His subjects –death, alienation, violence and sex– remain unchanged. Wilson’s confused opinions will soon be forgotten. Like his MTV and “electronic culture”. 

Why Finish Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church?

© 2014 by Steven Dornbusch

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86 years difference and counting: Antoni Gaudi’s Basilica La Sagrada Familia under construction vs. Rudolf Steiner’s Das Goetheanum (completed: 1928)

Catalan architect-engineer genius Antoni Gaudi has been dead a century. Most of his intricate  models and drawings for Barcelona’s Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia went up in flames generations ago. Despite it’s causal connection to the fire, anarcho-syndicalism awaits meaningful rediscovery. Spanish Fascism’s long run is thankfully finished. Today’s Catalonia is one of the more successful parts of the troubled Kingdom of Spain (Yep, that’s the name).

Design critics have called for a halt in the construction of the Sagrada Familia for decades; it has been misidentified as a massive endeavor in religious kitsch (admittedly, redundant), a failed approximation of Antoni Gaudi’s original vision, or simply an ostentatious white elephant obstructing the true message of the Gospels. Architecture is not frozen, people-less, or the construction of poetic ruins (Vatican City, anyone?). A massive church neither prevents nor promotes genuine Christian ministry. Progressive architecture proves little –look at Brasilia under the 1964-1985 Brazilian dictatorship! Modernism and narcissism need not walk hand in hand.

Religion belongs to the faithful. An appreciation of the vernacular, or the actual synergistic process of constructing and designing, are but two reasons modernists should reject a “one great visionary” approach –as Gaudi did. Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, cousin of Pierre), the 20th Century’s most influential architect, had brilliant collaborators in painting (Ozenfant), architecture (Pierre Jeanneret), and design of furnishings (Perriand). Of the three, only Perriand is getting “her due”, and only now. A mature Gaudi wrote:

“The Expiatory* church of La Sagrada Familia is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people”. Not less than one of the two have valiantly labored on.

Spanish anarchists did their best to destroy this oddly progressive living symbol of deeply regressive and cynical Spanish Catholicism (Franco and legions of murdering priests). A complex building that evolves is often better then one fully planned before the first foundation has been prepared. Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is no exception.

Generations of worker artisans –under wise leadership– remain deeply committed to completing Gaudi’s vision. There are faithful of many sorts who welcome the same.

Carry on!

*Since 1895, fully funded by donation, independently administered

Designing Spring Street Park – A Visit with Architects Michael Lehrer and Erik Alden – August 16, 2012

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“they paved paradise and put up a parking lot?” –  not this time!

A Design Appreciation

Our hosts at Lehrer Architects, Michael Lehrer and Erik Alden, invited Rowan Park Committee members to come view artifacts from the Spring Street Park design process.

Off a winding Hyperion Avenue, in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake area, sits a converted office space, white, light, open and informal. At one end, a lovely bamboo garden patio is accessed by oversized roll-up garage doors. The line separating inside office and outside garden is a dotted one; landscape design experienced inside, as well as out. A prototype Spring Street Park seat sits among existing bamboo. Most likely it will stay there; the seat weighs hundreds of pounds, so the concrete must be cast in place. The sturdy aluminum back is comfortable. An image of bamboo is “etched” through optical illusion –differently sized milled holes.

Most of the design process items are pinned up on office walls. They are shown here in the order in which they were created, anecdotes from an evolutionary design process reflecting various clients and constituencies. Lehrer Architects does not commission presentation models. These are rough conceptual models, encouraging free discussion and easy alterations.

Our hosts were gracious in allowing these iphone snapshots to be taken. This was our second visit to the Silver Lake practice.

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Earliest model; major subsequent changes include shifting “red” walkway angle to open onto Harlem Place; creation of uninterrupted elliptical Grand Lawn; elimination of Southern end fountain; elimination of surface treatments on Spring St and flanking sidewalks; elimination of palm trees plus addition of curved Great Bamboo groves; and straightening of the perimeter security fence, to the North and East.

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Early conceptual sketch (Center) by Michael Lehrer sharing wall space with an early model (top).

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Early model, similar to final approved design.

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Not a model, but a full scale prototype of typical seating, located in Lehrer Architect’s garden. The seat is cast-in-place concrete. Back is aluminum milled with varying size holes to create an optical image of bamboo. Spring Street Park bamboo will have thicker culms than these garden plants. Some real bamboo can be seen through the image in the chair back. No matter what size, all bamboo is in the grass family.

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Two models of a complex curve water feature located near the intersection of South Spring St Sidewalk @ El Dorado Lofts’ driveway.

Note: The lean is intentional. The square pipes are not fencing, but actual pieces of the water feature arranged to form a complex curve releasing a straight sheet of water into the shallow collector pool below. Inasmuch as no one could climb between them, they continue the curvilinear secure fencing line to the right and left. Inexpensive fiber optic lighting (located in a shallow trench in the pool) will illuminate the water “curtain” falling from above. The water feature may be enjoyed from inside or outside equally. It is doubtful the City will ever color-treat the sidewalk surfaces as they are shown in the picture below, of assorted models [Wrong: LA City did color treat entrance areas]. Michael Lehrer envisions the surrounding areas to become “jealous” of the Park, inspiring future improvements to the sidewalk and Harlem Place surfaces. Good design as contagion.

Government can’t produce? The evidence here says otherwise, especially with ongoing community support. Lehrer Architects has produced superior architecture. Landscape design was provided by City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering Architectural Division staff, with Recreation & Parks Department acting as client. Spring Street Park promises to be a special place.

© 2012 / 2014 by Steven Dornbusch

Remembering…[Shared moments with Hollywood innovators who’ve left us]

© 2014 by Steven Dornbusch

Background

It must have been 1992…I was barely a grip when my not-so-well-established studio-and-equipment-for-hire bosses asked me (their sole some-time employee) to join them in a freebie evening. “It should be good for us…” were the words left on my answering machine. I roll my eyes and say “Sure” to shooting talking heads outside a Century City Oscars party hosted jointly by Swifty Lazar and Diane Ladd (and her poetry organization). The only grip / juicer, I handled 2 little key lights plus a halo. That left me lots of free time to roam (and scarf the buffet). I doubted a party hosted in 1992 by Swifty Lazar (d. 1993) would bring in any big fish. I was right. But also very wrong. The typical couple in attendance were caricatures: a guy with a leased red Ferrari dating a whorish gal with unnatural tits. FOBs, up-and-comers, loudmouth show-off nobodies. The other attendees were talented forgotten stars, long left off every other Oscars party guest list.

Oscar has a Party

Inside, I met a very polite but harried Diane Ladd who, sensing I was crew (i was, just not her crew), relayed some instructions to me. I was a big fan of her ex, Bruce Dern, not to mention their lovely young daughter Laura Dern (neither in attendance). I graciously complied, then went to a desolate balcony area (grips love heights) where an elegant young African-American lady, (voice actress) Iona Morris, was standing along side a bent-over somewhat shrunken man, her Father, Greg Morris, the two looking quietly down on attendees. We three enjoyed lightly dishing on the diners below. All the while, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that this  prematurely aged man (brain tumor) next to me was the gorgeous stud from Mission Impossible I watched growing up. As I returned to work at the front door, a short-statured elderly African-American man was readied for interview. His eyes sparkled. My cameraman boss lowered his tripod to the height of a spry, still-handsome half of the outrageously talented Nicholas Brothers. I told Fayard Nicholas it only took a few minutes (no Youtube back then) of Swing Era Nicholas Brothers acrobatics to be “totally blown away.” Turns out the highest dancers ever were also the shortest limbed. Go figure! A grinning Fayard shook my hand long and hard. Before anyone cries “Uncle Tom”, check out how Howard and Fayard Nicholas refused studio boss’s insistence they ditch the tux & tails outfits for Swanee River plantation slave garb (It must have cost the Brothers dearly). My bosses didn’t know either NicholasNobody did (except Swifty). Next break (I had a lot of them), I caught the cool breeze by the side door. A finely dressed white-haired women –complete with light-colored fur wrap– sat in a wheelchair, alone, in near darkness. So as not to scare her, I introduced myself to…Peggy Lee! I had just met the only white woman I knew who could sing Blues (other than Janis Joplin). Ms. Lee’s driver / escort had left to park. When he returned, we three chatted a bit before Peggy Lee entered the hall on cue to the DJ’s announcement. Ignoramuses couldn’t he bothered to lower their utensils long enough to provide so much as polite applause. I did what I could with my own applause. It’s one thing not to know Fayard Nicholas, but Peggy Lee? No shortage of yahoos. Though regal in style, Peggy Lee belonged to everyone. Less than three hours after arrival, we packed our gear and returned to our little slice of Hollywood, in Glendale. Neither my bosses’ nor my career benefited from this evening. But what an evening! 

© 2014 by Steven Dornbusch