Marc Trujillo: North American Purgatory

Los Angeles based artist Marc Trujillo, whose first solo show at Hirshl and Adler opens on November 3rd, paints what he calls the "shared spaces of the everyday." He is attracted to "non-destinations," familiar places where vast expanses of concrete or linoleum numb the senses. "I'm captivated by the middle ground," Trujillo explains, "the purgatory of the world we've made and share as North Americans."


Marc Trujillo, "5901 Douglas Avenue," 2010, 11.5" x 19.5," oil on panel

Trujillo sees what he calls "visual potential" in mundane subject matter: big box stores, and fast food meals. Painting with a moral seriousness reminiscent of Chardin or Vermeer, Trujillo finds poetry in the gap between ubiquity and invisibility. He evokes both shame and awe in what he records, and uses formal intelligence to make the two conflicting emotions balance.


Marc Trujillo

Q and A: John Seed Interviews Marc Trujillo:

JS: Tell me something about fast food as subject matter; what are you seeing and thinking when you paint, for example, a KFC meal?

MT: I believe Auden's statement about poetry being the precise expression of mixed feelings. So what interests me about painting these is how I love them and hate them, just like with the more panoramic paintings I have a mix of awe and shame about them that makes me interested in painting them. I'm from a square state and have had a lot of fast food growing up, so it can be comforting and when I'm in the mood I can enjoy it, but them again it's a little disgusting and low grade. I didn't want to paint a KFC meal as a seen from the side: "still life as landscape." I wanted the viewer looking straight down at it; it's your meal.

Also, I wouldn't normally order the corn on the cob but it comes wrapped in foil which I wanted to paint, so my motives were also visual when I was ordering this meal.


Marc Trujillo, "Meal #2," 2011, 13.5" x 17," oil on panel

JS: Who are some artists that have influenced you? Where can we see their influence in their work?

MT: My main influences are Vermeer, Velasquez, and Rembrandt.

My paintings are fundamentally synthetic in nature, and represent not only the experience of direct observation, but also an appreciation and awareness of paintings and painters of the past. I swipe strategies to see what works for me.

When I see Vermeer's 'View of Delft' for example, my first reaction is emotional, followed by a desire to analyze what makes it a great painting. The scale is perfect, substantial but not imposing, so when I'm not sure what size a painting should be I'll use the 38" height of 'View of Delft' as a starting point and set the width of the painting according to my needs for the composition. Vermeer had to construct his moment and he took liberties -- in the reflections in the water for example -- with physics to get the moment he wanted for the painting.

The light in 'View of Delft' is very convincing; light is how you sell the fiction of the painting as a real moment. The artificial light in the spaces I paint is very different from the light in the old master paintings I admire, but my interest in conveying it clearly is the same.

Also Vermeer uses the vanishing point in 'Milkmaid' over her hand pouring the milk to help imbue a private moment with meaning -- the opposite of the kind of moments I tend to show and I'll invert his compositional strategy -- so in the parking garage painting for example, there's nothing under the vanishing point but concrete.


Marc Trujillo, "5711 Sepulveda Boulevard," 2010, 30" x 62," oil on canvas

JS: Is it fair to call your work documentary? What is your intention when you show us the kinds of generic places and spaces that you favor?

MT: It would be a misreading to call them documentary. They're real places, but I do a lot to them so that they could be anywhere; no palm trees for example. I'm from New Mexico so to me a palm tree says vacation or movie happy ending. Showing people things that can be part of their fantasy lives is a good definition of pornography. I want the painting to have a chance to be more of an experience than the actual place so that's one reason I pick places people don't go to be there. If I painted the Himalayas then the painting would function more like a postcard that reminds the viewer of someplace they would rather be.

The paintings are the acid test for all of the ideas I have going into them. Making the paintings is what defines the area of investigation for me, as opposed to starting with an idea and executing it. So my ritual is a cycle; looking at great paintings to define painting for myself, looking at the world to see what I think might make an interesting painting as I've come to understand and define it, and testing all of this by making the paintings themselves, which starts the process of investigation all over again.

The locations in the paintings are non-destinations, particularly North American kinds of nowhere, at once ubiquitous and yet largely unseen. These places give me the slightly sinking feeling that I know I'm somewhere, but not really there, present in an absent sort of way. In the mix of shame and awe that I feel, I am inspired by the potential for painting what I'm experiencing in the moment.

JS: What else should viewers understand about your work?

MT: I think the big thing that people misunderstand is that they see the paintings as being "Photorealistic." My paintings are built on drawings as opposed to being painted from photographs. In order to sort out how I want to convey what I'm experiencing in these spaces, I need to draw.


Marc Trujillo, 2nd preparatory drawing for 5711 Sepulveda Boulevard

For me making is thinking. This stage is vital as it's where I test the potential for painting a given situation; clearing an isle to keep the deep space open, changing the proportions of the space slightly and leaving in only the elements that convey my interest in the space and the figures that occupy it.

Marc Trujillo

November 3rd - December 3rd 2011

Hirschl and Adler Modern

Opening Reception -Thursday, November 3rd, 5:30 to 7:30 pm

730 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

F. Scott Hess: "In Transit"

Self-Portrait as a Masterpiece of Creation, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
30 × 24 inches

It must be exhilarating to be F. Scott Hess: he seems to have reached a point where his brush can take him just about anywhere he wants to go. The varied subjects, and hybrid realities of Hess’ recent paintings make them appear eclectic when seen together, but that just scratches the surface. His works actually have a tremendous psychological unity. They have sprung from the mind of an artist who is recycling and blending the richness of his actual life and infusing it with cultural memory and imaginative vigor.

Seriously, to be able to wake up in the morning, sip some coffee and think to yourself “Today, I feel like painting five female ballet students in leotards tossing the bloodless, hulking corpse of the French academic artist Bouguereau out a third floor window in La Rochelle.” Then, if you are Scott, you just head to the studio and make this whim explicit, riveting, credible and even slightly funny.

The Death of William Adolphe Bouguereau, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
24 × 36 inches

The painting mentioned above, “The Death of William Adolphe Bouguereau", is, among other things, a sly revenge fantasy. “I don’t care much for the content of Bouguereau’s work,” Hess acknowledges, “but the man can paint soft female flesh better than I ever will.” It is worth pointing out that in talking about a dead artist in the present tense, as if he is still alive, Hess has given us all a clue to the vitality of the forces and images – past, present, real and painted – that he can draw on. Most art historians have already tossed Bouguereau out the metaphorical window decades ago, but Hess clearly enjoyed doing it on his own terms, with humor.

Not only does Hess, project his fantasies onto the canvas with shocking technical aplomb, and a healthy dose of catharsis, he generally manages the complicate things a bit. In the case of “Bouguereau” the blue and white tones of the artist’s corpse play off the red drapery used the carry him to the window, and evoke the red, white and blue of the French flag. “But it was totally subconscious on my part…” says Hess about the apparent coincidence. That may be true, but what a well stocked subconscious Hess has.

In the past year or two Hess has dredged up references – consciously and unconsciously – from the Bible, Velasquez, Persian poetry, Bellini, Watteau, Sigmund Freud, the experiences of child-rearing, and the experience of being a child. Somehow, all of these things have been internalized, even sorted. “I generally just paint what I see when I’m not looking,” Hess comments.

"Art history, popular culture, literature, and the subconscious all simmer together in Scott's skull," observes his friend and fellow artist Peter Zokosky. “Scott's mental salad bar has more choices than anyone's, and he always comes away with something amazing.” The mental salad bar that Zokosky refers to is also well stocked with life experiences and travel.

In the artists own words: “I’ve been caught after sundown on the dangerous Zabol-Zahedan smugglers road where Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet, eaten a small yellow dog in southern China, and lived in an Anarchist-vegetarian-nudist commune in the Midwest. I’ve had coffee with spies and terrorists, lived over the back fence from the Pope, and witnessed the birth of both of my daughters.” Witnessing and experiencing are themes that Hess often strives to balance in his works.

Suzie Q, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
48 × 36 inches

In “Suzie Q,” a 2011 painting, a group of older men avidly stare at a nearly nude woman performing Cirque de Soleil style in a suspended metal hoop. If you stand in front of it for a few minutes you’ll find yourself staring at the woman too, then staring at those who stare. Yes, you are a voyeur. One of the things that Hess does is to let anyone who is strong enough take part in fantasy worlds that he provokes and evokes, and unashamed voyeurism is one of the pleasures he offers. If you aren’t convinced of this, have a look at Scott’s tiny panel painting “Morning Glory” and then get back to me.

The Colonel’s Daughter, 2006
oil on canvas
32 × 40 inches

When you view “The Colonel’s Daughter,” an emotionally complicated painting, you will again want to stare. Depending on your gender, and what you find attractive, you may also want to protect her, cover her up, or have your way with her. Like many of Hess’ best works “The Colonel’s Daughter” will arouse both your imagination and your id: it's the artist’s way of including you.

Mud Riot, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
12 × 16 inches

Hess likes subjects that allegorize violence and chaos. To put it another way, he has a dark romantic side. “Mud Riot” seems to borrow from Antonio Pollaiuolo’s 15th century engraving of ten male nudes slaughtering each other with axes, swords and spears, but Hess slyly bogs his battle down in calf-high mud. Even with their ancient weapons they seem familiar: are they our congressmen?

The Wave, 2010
oil on aluminum panel
36 × 48 inches

In “The Wave” water cascades through a window, but the woman it engulfs seems exhilarated. War and disaster, Hess seems to say, are both, among other things, universal human experiences. They are also transitions. They are also both darkly humorous, if you are a connoisseur of the human comedy. One of the things you have to appreciate about Scott Hess is that he doesn’t just study or comment on the human situation. Without hesitation or condescension he will portray himself in the midst of it.

Hess includes himself and one of his daughters in “Oblation,” a painting in which the pouring of water suggests an offering. Scott stands, shielding his eyes from the sunset, acknowledging his place in this particular cycle. Raising a child to adulthood takes a major portion of your life,” he comments, “or drains it out of you.”

In his “Self-Portrait as a Masterpiece of Creation,” Hess plays fair by posing nude himself behind the verso of a blank canvas. Lucien Freud and Frida Kahlo, present in the form of reproductions of their self-portraits, provide additional fuel for the theme of artist’s using the self-portrait as a vehicle for the insecurities of both the artist and the viewer. Hess is interested in Lacanian Gaze, the idea of a painting being a mirror that reflects back the viewer's own thoughts, and elicits the anxious realization that he or she can also be viewed. “In a way,” he says “I think the blank panel represents that, and also a deliberate lack of guidance on my part.”

Dark Horse, 2011
oil on aluminum panel
36 × 48 inches

“Dark Horse,” a recent oil that Hess is very fond of, depicts a nude woman clutching the reins of a black stallion charging through a snow covered birch forest. Yes, it has a connection to the tale of Lady Godiva, but it also is an essay on opposing forces: a black horse in a white forest, warm human flesh in frigid weather; motion in a still place. The rider is perhaps being chased, but there is a smile on her lips. Hess used some of Eadweard Muybridge’s classic stop action photos of horses to develop the running steed, and perhaps there is a visual pun in its “frozen” pose. It is a painting of extremes, balanced by poetry.

“I get along easily with everyone,” says Hess, “but always seem to unintentionally insult people during raucous intellectual debates.” It is an honest aside, coming from a man whose art can be both engaging and disturbing. Hess has a talent for conjuring up paintings that are challenging hybrids of the mythical, the historical, the allegorical and the universal. His works are imaginative fiction, each one a journey right to the edge of what might actually be true.

F. Scott Hess: In Transit

Koplin Del Rio

6031 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232

Exhibition Dates: October 29 - December 22, 2011

Reception for the Artist: Saturday, October 29, 5-8pm

Picasso and Braque: Cubism Revisited in the Age of the iPad

Pablo Picasso once told art historian Roland Penrose that Cubism was "full of deception" so that it would keep people looking and guessing and looking again. Apparently his tricks worked -- Cubism is more than 100 years old and we are still confounded -- but at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art recent technology is enabling museum-goers look at Cubist works with astonishing acuity.

"Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-12," an intimate exhibition of some 15 paintings and 25 prints, is making rare Analytical Cubist paintings available for both physical and virtual inspection. Visitors to the show can borrow one of forty iPads equipped with a specially developed iCubist application to scrutinize and delve deeply into four key paintings. Inside the app are digitized spectral images that show the works at different light frequencies, including ultraviolet and infrared, to reveal minute details. The app also allows users to take apart and reassemble Cubist compositions, and provides pop ups to help distinguish the individual styles of each artist.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who collaborated to move Cubism forward in its early days, saw themselves as having a kinship with scientists and inventors. In homage to the Wright brothers they used to jokingly call each other "Orville and Wilbur." The Santa Barbara show features works made by the pair between 1910 and 1912, a precious period of innovation and cooperation that was halted by World War I. In the 1920s, when Picasso found that he missed working with Braque, whose artistic career had been slowed by wartime head wounds, he wistfully referred to Braque as his "ex-wife."

One of the works in the Santa Barbara show, Picasso's "Man with a Pipe" of 1911 is an Analytical Cubist riff on the image of a man in a smoky cafe, but as the iCubist app will reveal, it started out as a still life. There are hints of a moustache, hands, clay pipe and a few letters thrown into the jumble, all of them floating on the jagged jigsaw puzzle forms that give the painting its visual rhythm and inscrutability. Are there still bottles and cups lurking beneath the faceted coat of Picasso's Cubist gentleman? You'll have to look it over in person, and on iCubist, and decide for yourself.


Pablo Picasso, Spanish (1881-1973)

Man with a Pipe, 1911, Oil on canvas

35-3/4 x 27-7/8 in. (oval) (90.7 x 71.0 cm)

Collection of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas

© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

SBMA's Chief Curator Eik Kahng comments that "The spectral images we will show of Picasso and Braque's paintings allow you see the trace of the very hairs of the brush in the paint layer. They can be truly mesmerizing." Kahng feels strongly that Ken Boydston, who developed the "MegaVision" technology used in capturing the digital images is "nothing short of a visionary." In essence "The Cubist Experiment" is a show about artistic visionaries, whose work can be better understood using the tools created by the digital visionaries of our own time.

Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912

September 17, 2011 - January 8, 2012

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Joan Brown (1938-1990): Towards Unexpected Joy

In the Fall of 1981 I was an incoming graduate student in Painting at UC Berkeley, anxious to meet my new professors including the respected Bay Area Figurative artists Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. Because I was so intent on getting Brown's opinion of my work I scheduled an individual critique with Joan, and installed a recent 7 by 9 foot canvas in UCB's downstairs gallery especially for her viewing.

Joan arrived promptly, a striking woman with piercing eyes accented by heavy mascara and bright hennaed hair. She immediately made stinging observations about my work, which was titled "Dead Duck." She told me that my painting -- a cartoonish canvas depicting a duck being shot out of the sky -- was incoherent, impossible to respect, and lacking in focus. No teacher had ever spoken to me that way before.

Stunned, I asked Joan if there wasn't anything she liked about the work. I will never forget her response, which she made in a raised voice as she stormed out of the gallery:

"You need your ass kicked."

Although I later took Brown's class and saw her softer side, that first impression has lingered with me for 30 years. Brown, in her words and in her art, was uncompromisingly assertive. Her toughness didn't endear her to everyone, but over the long haul it was the quality that distanced her from a difficult childhood and moved her towards the visionary optimism that characterized her final works.


Joan Brown, "Self-Portrait with a Scarf," 1972, enamel on canvas, 16 x 12 inches

Collection of Wanda Kownacki and John Holton

Jodi Throckmorton, an Associate Curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, and the organizer of "This Kind of Bird Flies Backward: Paintings by Joan Brown," says that Brown was a strong, original individual who avoided ideology. Although often seen as a feminist, Brown's life and art fall into a kind of "grey area of feminism" according to Throckmorton. "Her apolitical approach to the subjects of domesticity, gender, aging, relationships, and motherhood may be the cause of her exclusion," Throckmorton writes, "nonetheless, time has shown that her choices as a woman and as an artist were anything but neutral."

The title of the San Jose exhibition is taken from the title poem of Diane di Prima's "This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards," and was chosen because Brown and di Prima -- a rare female beat poet who used street language -- seem like kindred spirits. Both were women who uncompromisingly made there way into male dominated fields while struggling to maintain their identities as women. Adele Landis Bischoff, whose husband Elmer was an important mentor to Brown in the late 50's recalls that Brown was indeed a tough young "bird."

"Early on, when I met her, she was like a young -- if a rooster can be female -- she was like a rooster," says Landis.

Brown's biographer, Karen Tsujimoto, puts it this way: "In her art she had no one whom she had to answer to or to be responsible for, and she relished and protected this freedom fiercely." Joan was an artist and an individual first. "I can't do without making pictures of my own," she once commented, "And I don't know why this is so. But it's true..."

Brown's toughness was, in fact, the result of a childhood that was emotionally claustrophobic. The only child of an alcoholic father and a mother who often threatened to jump off the Golden Gate bridge and who eventually did take her own life in 1969, Joan later recalled her early years as being "...dark, I mean dark in the psychological way." She was anxious to grow up quickly; "All I wanted to do was grow up and get the hell out of there." Joan Beattie graduated from high school a self-proclaimed "con artist" who knew when she could get away with things, and when to fade into the woodwork.


Bill and Joan Brown, by C.R. Snyder, from the film "San Francisco's Wild History Groove"

Photo courtesy filmmaker Mary Kerr.

Seventeen year old Joan's life pivoted when she noticed an advertisement for the California School of Fine Arts, which she decided to attend instead of the Catholic college her parents had in mind. Entering in 1955, she fell in love with the beatnik atmosphere of the school: bongo drums playing in the halls, guys with long hair, beards and sandals. Bright and charismatic, she immediately attracted male attention. "I have this extraordinary student," Elmer Bischoff told his colleague Wally Hedrick, "She's either a genius or very simple." In her first year at CSFA Joan married her first husband, painter Bill Brown, met important artistic mentors including Bischoff and Frank Lobdell, and also connected with another student, Manuel Neri, who would be her second husband and the father of her son Noel.

Brown's student paintings were "clumsy" and she became something of a school legend because she was always covered with paint from head to toe. Moving back and forth between abstraction and figuration, she gradually developed a representational style that had a kinship with the "Bay Area Figurative Style" championed by several of her male instructors. Brown didn't feel held back by being a woman: in a sense she was one of the guys, and later remembered being "supported like hell" by the men who surrounded her.

In 1959 her paintings caught the attention of visiting lecturer David Park who said "I just love these paintings." Her mentor Elmer Bischoff felt differently -- "I can't stand them" was his comment -- but her thickly painted works had an affinity with Park's late canvases. It was Park's dealer, visiting from New York who dropped by Brown's studio by accident in 1959, paid $300 for 2 of her paintings and launched her career. Brown was so convinced that the check was fake, that she took it to her father, a bank employee, to see if it was real.

By 1962 Brown, now married to Manuel Neri and about to become a mother, had shown in New York and at the Whitney Museum. A 1961 trip to Europe with Neri had opened her eyes to Goya, Velasquez, Rembrandt and other masters, and she had a great studio relationship with her new husband, a sculptor. Unfortunately, she would later recall, the studio was the only place they ever got along.

A 1962 painting on view at San Jose, "Brown Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow," shows the "cacophany of pure color and energy" that Brown could generate. The encrusted, ragged slabs of pigment, achieved with inexpensive "Bay City Paints" poured from one gallon cans have some of the craggy abstract energy of Clyfford Still, but the poetry and tenderness of the image was Brown's alone. She had borrowed her subject matter -- nudes by the water -- from Park and Bischoff, and reconstituted them with a helping of gentle, slapdash parody. Bischoff's nudes of the early 60s have a Wagnerian seriousness about them, while Brown's figures are ice cream sundaes in paint, with a cherry on top.


Joan Brown "Girls in the Surf with Moon Casting a Shadow," 1962, Oil, 72 x 72 1/2 inches
Collection of Suzanne Diamond

Driven by her need to tell stories, Brown's style moved over time towards illustration, and thinly brushed lines of enamel began to supplant and replace the heavy, troweled applications of oil paint. Because her career had been launched by imitating the styles of older artists who had already rebelled, Brown had never mastered traditional rendering, and she was to some degree always a naive painter. Recognizing this she took to heart the example of Henri Rousseau and let stylization, narration and a dose of Egyptian stiffness carry her work. In "The Journey, #1" she appears leading a lover forward in an frieze-like composition; it's clear who is in charge. Like many of her best paintings, the image is crisp, smart and engaging.


Joan Brown, "The Journey #1," Enamel on canvas, 84 x 72 inches
Collection of the San Jose Museum of Art
Gift of Norm Lariviere


Joan Brown, "Self-Portrait," 1977, oil and enamel on canvas, 90 x 72 inches
Collection of Sandra Shannonhouse

Brown was a prolific maker of self-portraits that broadcast her considerable emotional range and also her social observations. Her densely patterned 1977 "Self-Portrait," which has been said to "call into question the stereotypical image of the female artist," demonstrates that Joan's way of exploring the role of women was to start from her personal experience. It also seems like a transitional painting in which an artist seeking clarity and order rises above the mess that covers her floor. Sure enough, within a few short years Brown's art and imagery would enter a distinctive new phase.

A 1980 trip to India with her 4th husband, SFPD officer Michael Hebel, brought her into contact with Sai Sathya Baba, a yogic guru who insisted on the divine nature of all men and women. When Sai Baba briefly made direct eye contact with Brown during a blessing ceremony at his ashram, she later told friends that she had developed a red third eye on her forehead. From that point forward Joan became one of his devotees, and incorporated many of his teachings into her art.

Brown's imagery took on a new turn, and her canvases began to fill with animal images; one was the tiger, her Chinese astrological symbol. Esoteric signs and symbols replaced the domestic situations of the previous decade. The paintings and public artworks that Brown created in the final phase of her life were stocked with a bestiary of birds, cats, dogs and fish as well as hybrid creatures that illustrated Brown's personal belief that the Age of Aquarius was indeed dawning. One assignment she often gave her undergraduate painting students was to paint themselves in the form of animals.

"One of my main interests is archeology and anthropology," she told Zan Dubin in 1986, "and in the last 10 years I've traveled to archeological sites in Egypt, India, South and Central America and the Orient. In the art I saw, the thread running through all the ancient cultures is the symbolism of a golden age -- whether represented by the yin and yang or by men and women shown as the sun and moon." Brown's New Age convictions, and her continuing insistence on doing things her way, gave her images a cryptic quality. "Brown," states journalist Abby Wasserman, "after all is said and done, has written in a code known only to her."

Critics often gave Brown a tough time. In a 1986 review of Brown's exhibition "From the Heart," Colin Gardner of the LA Times called Brown out for her "self-righteous body of work," and didn't stop there. "This art is so absorbed in its own blinkered ego that it makes the need for critical response totally irrelevant," he wrote. Of course, Gardner wrote that just before the similarly self-righteous qualities of Frida Kahlo's paintings began to draw critical attention and public adoration.


Joan Brown, Obelisk at Horton Plaza, San Diego California, 1985,
Ceramic tile, 36' tall, 6' across
Photo by Dominique Guillochon

After her heart-opening introduction to Sai Baba in 1980, Brown tried to create works that expressed her new ideals of service and compassion. In the 80's Brown's public works began to appear in "democratic" spaces including parks, plazas and shopping malls. Her 36 foot tall "Horton Plaza Obelisk," dedicated in 1985, is divided into three sections -- the earth, sea and sky -- and features images of a jaguar, fish, the sun and the moon. In a lecture given to a San Diego Sai Baba group coinciding with the monument's dedication, Brown stated that her art was an expression of "...the superconcious, which is a very spiritual way of being."

In the Fall of 1990 Joan was in India completing the project of a lifetime, an obelisk meant to celebrate Sai Baba's sixty-fifth birthday. In a freak accident, a concrete turret of the new museum where the installation was taking place collapsed, instantly killing Brown and two assistants who had traveled to India with her. By the time of her death at the age of 52, Joan's dark childhood had faded into a distant memory. Six months before, she had written to Sai Baba, who she now considered to be both her spiritual mother and father in one being:

"Words cannot express the great joy and gratitude that I feel within my heart."

It hadn't been an easy journey, but the years of painting the journey her own life as a visual diary had turned Joan Brown inside out, opening her up to unexpected joy.

October 14, 2011 through March 11, 2012
The San Jose Museum of Art

Inside Eric Orr's "Zero Mass" at MCASD La Jolla

To contemplate is to look at shadows. - Victor Hugo

In mid-August I published a blog on Huffington Post titled "When Appreciating Works of Art, Being There Is Always Best." Composing that blog, and coming across the writings of the aesthetic theorist John Dewey, turned out to be great preparation for the visit that I made yesterday to La Jolla, where I took in some of the key works from "Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface."

"Phenomenal," which features works that involve sensory phenomena, is an exhibition that you can't just see; you have to experience it. John Dewey's ringing endorsement of the essential value of experience -- "There is no other foundation upon which aesthetic theory and criticism can build," -- was on my mind as I walked into the late Eric Orr's powerful installation "Zero Mass."

Leah Masterson, a Communications Associate of the museum, walked in with me, and together we found ourselves in total darkness. "Zero Mass," which Eric Orr (1938-1998) first created in 1969, is an oval space, defined by seamless walls of paper. Your eyes will tell you -- at first -- that there isn't a hint of light to be found, and the shock is unsettling. "The apparent emptiness in which we find ourselves," explains Dawna Sculd in the exhibition catalog, "undermines the stable sense of self that carries on unquestioned outside it."

By the time Max Metzler, one of the museum's security staffers, entered the space, my night vision was beginning to work. Thomas McEvilley does a good job of explaining the physiology of this process in his 1982 article "Negative Presences in Secret Spaces: The Art of Eric Orr;"

"The transition from rod to cone vision gradually unfolds; floods of afterimage color wash over the vision and gradually decrease like waves. After about 12 minutes one is ready to see, but in a different way."

Because of the gradual activation of night vision that McEvilley describes, when Max walked in to join us he appeared to me as a flat dark, featureless silhouette, with just the slightest hint of color appearing towards his feet. I also was beginning to make out a thin zone of yellowish light appearing where the paper walls touched the museum's floor. Being joined by another person in this situation -- where most of the visual clues to human identity were masked out -- was intensely dramatic and rivetingly strange.

"One has entered a murky Stygian world without personal identity and history," Mc Evilley explains. If you haven't experienced "Zero Mass," Mc Evilley's comments may sound a bit theoretical and dramatic. Having been there, I find them accurate.

"A lot of people walk in for a few seconds and then just leave," Max the shadowy security representative explained calmly. I have to admit, it makes sense that walking into a room of "nothing" could frustrate impatient museum goers. It takes a few minutes, and some sensitivity, for Orr's installation become anything other than the darkest room you have ever been in.

Metzler went on to mention that he had spent more than 3 hours standing in "Zero Mass" on opening night, and it was clear that he had become completely attuned to the installation's unsettling effect, and quite expert on how it all worked. "If you leave for a few minutes and then come back your night vision still works," he explained. As Metzler and I chatted a bit more I was struck by how bizarre it was to have a friendly conversation with someone who I had never "seen." He was there in the room, and leaned on what appeared to be a cane, but was utterly flat and featureless.

Using a photo I took of Max after leaving the exhibit, I was later able to approximate what I saw when he entered the room. My photoshop simulation is below, followed by the unaltered photo of Max that it was derived from.


Max Metzler, MCASD Security Services Representative, as he appeared standing inside Eric Orr's "Zero Mass;" Image created in Photoshop by the author.


Max Metzler, MCASD Security Services Representative

Leaving "Zero Mass" after about a 10 minute visit, the natural light and ocean vistas that rim the west edge of MCASD were richer than ever before. Still, the strangeness of what I had experienced inside Orr's work lingered. An hour later, after I had already started my car to leave, I had to race back inside and ask Max Metzler if I could take his picture. I needed something to ground my imagination a bit, as if what I had experienced just might have been a dream or hallucination.

The experience of "Zero Mass" had opened up my visual sensitivity and my imagination. "Life itself does not belong to us," proclaimed the artist Yves Klein in 1959, "it is with sensitivity, which does belong to us, that we are able to purchase it." If you want to challenge your sensitivity, forget everything I have just said about "Zero Mass," drive to La Jolla and walk in.

It will provoke your senses, incite your imagination and open you up a bit. And don't worry, if you feel a bit freaked out Max Metzler and other members of MCASD's excellent security staff can talk you through it a bit, if you don't mind chatting with Stygian shadows.

Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface
MCASD La Jolla
Sep 25, 2011 through Jan 22, 2012