October 29, 2003

Notes over Coffee

As my mind congeals toward the next brace of paintings, this morning I took care of a little unfinished business. Joel Mesler and I produced a book from his press, "DianePruessPress". It was a tough and compressed week, a lot of work in a tight time frame. We had already printed the essential components of it before I left ChinaTown: The green fields and the faxing of the images from the note taking capabilities of my cherished Apple Newton MessagePad 2100. Joel had printing blocks made of them and there we left the project until I returned for the week of my show at Chac Mool.
We printed the notes over transparent plastic and xeroxed the other notes and images and assembled them into a binder and jacket that we purchased from a supplier nearby. Joel is into kismet and tend to nix anything that even begins to strain with unecessary effort. We assembled the book and poof!, the time was gone and I was off to the opening at Chac Mool and to Z?rich afterwards. All during this time, I was thinking somewhere in the back of my mind of how to groom the project to a better place, that feeling of kerplunk!, you hit the bullseye.
Today, I have pulled the stewing ideas together. I thought it would be good to add an essay I wrote for one of Joel's other projects. It is entitled "Funny" and it is organized around change in my life and centered on the four years I had lived in ChinaTown, Los Angeles. I leafed the essay into the book and faced them behind the blank pages that punctuate it. My initial idea was to fade the text into grey to fit it into the fabric of the book... but I turned it green instead to echo the green printed rectangles within it. Then, I trimmed the punched margins of the plastic jackets and repunched them so they didn't hang out as they did before. It was tedious, and I doubt Joel will greet this detail with pleasure. I hope he likes the result and see that it is worth the trouble. Hell, he could hire an intern to do the tedium and rack up the cost into the publication price. We'll see.

Meanwhile, you can read the essay below. It's a little raw and confessional. I wanted to make it real. I signed it with my nom de plume (or nom de guerre), the name of the captain of my ship back in the sailor days. To my navy buddies who read this blog, like Gary Barnett, a tip of the hat to you guys:


It?s funny how things change. I guess the funny part is that we continually expect things to stay the same. Change then... in this light, looks strange, and strangeness is funny sometimes... when it?s not scaring you to death. Change is funny because it introduces the unfamiliar, and we can?t be comfortable with the unfamiliar because we don?t have a category constructed for it. Hell, the unfamiliar could be dangerous! Perils aside, funny isn?t always fun.

We left Los Angeles recently. My wife and I have lived in Los Angeles since college. We have both traveled a lot, our work has taken us all over the world, and now we are moving away. My wife has found better work in Texas. California has repelled business so much that her career ladder has led her out of the state. We?ll be back someday, but for many years, we will be away on an adventure.

Every time I return to Los Angeles, the city is a little different, no matter how long I?ve been away. We?ve been in Dallas for six months now, since we had moved from Echo Park. It will be two years shy of twenty since we arrived in LA with the intentions of growing roots. Little did I recognize then that this megalopolis is a desert by the sea. Plants grow shallow roots in the desert. Tumbleweeds abound. Winds shift the desert sands. Every time we come back, the place is different.

On this return, Los Angeles was comfortable, everything fit, everything had a feeling of gloved familiarity. Even the civic infrastructure was an old friend. Hello street lights,! Hello sidewalks! Hello curbs with all the cracks and roadways with all the potholes and blemishes! Hey guys, howyadoin? Whazzup, Santa Monica range! ?Sup 405? Still a parking lot, I see. Coming back from Dallas, flying into LA from 104 degree central Texas heat made SoCal seem like a paradise.

Dallas is best compared to the Los Angeles of Jack Webb?s ?Dragnet? fame. I couldn?t compare it to the LA of today, that would be cruel. If LA has twenty exciting and important social events going on in a week, Dallas has one. But Dallas has the same genetic structure as LA. It?s LA in the 60?s... ?lil LA. It?s got the same urban/suburban layout and spread, same freeway distribution. It has the same bad boy reputation within its? state. Driving is different, though. Texans drive cowboy style: either loping along or fast-right -on -your-ass giddy up, let?s get it on! You?ve got to jockey around alot in mixed company. Recent immigrant fluxes have modulated the traffic pattern a bit in Southern California, but usually, everybody is in a hurry and raging toward their appointments, there?s more flow. Even the traffic signals were welcome after Dallas, they?re timed faster. You can almost take a little cat nap while you?re waiting for the green to turn in Texas. It took a while for my right index finger to stop tapping the steering wheel involuntarily.

We were in Los Angeles, visiting my father in law who?s in the hospital. He has beat cancer twice before and he believed the doctor when he was declared ?cured?. Now that?s where the real problem started. Doctors used to be big shots, all knowing and the go-to experts on longevity. I grew up during the ?Dr. Kildare? years... now, I watch ?E.R.?. Being a professional meant a lot back in the day. But no more. Today, you?ve got to double check all the advice you get, or it?s your ass. He?s the last father I?ve got. My father and step father have both died within the past few years. I?ve always thought these times would come, just not this soon though.

Maybe you can sense change better when you?re older. I remember when I was a kid, the minute hand would take forever to go ?round, the hour hand was as fixed as the numbers on the dial. Christmas was so long away and summer would never end. And I remember thinking that my family would always be there for me. I could always call up my dad and hang out. There would always be time to see the Grand Canyon together, or go fishing. Then there was the day mom and dad took my brother and I into the living room to tell us they were divorcing. Funny... how things change.

The last time I visited our old home in Echo Park and my old studio in ChinaTown, things were different. The traffic was a bitch. ChinaTown had just added a metro rail train line station that linked it to Pasadena and Downtown LA. People were everywhere. The Chinese drive incredibly slow anyway, adding friction to the streets.. Lights would change and nothing would happen, crosswalks were packed with tourists and Asians. Or maybe I was going against the grain? I didn?t live here anymore, and I was moving outside the local urban pattern.

Traffic was like it was when I went to the airport during the last visit, two hours of thick city driving just to get to LAX. Of course, I cut through the most difficult cross section of the city: from the foothills in Tujunga on the 210 across the 105 to the 405 through the Santa Monica Range, crossing the 10 freeway down into the basin where the airport sits flat next to the ocean surf. That wasn?t a bright plan. When you live in this city, you learn the frictionless movement patterns and then life eases up... not for the visitors, though. They get all the friction and the tear of the cross cuts.

When I first rented a studio in ChinaTown, the place was forlorn, bereft of people. The big plazas were empty, save for the few lost and uniformed tourists. The merchants were at their wits end, tourists had abandoned Downtown LA for Universal city and Hollywood/Melrose. Faded newspapers would blow through the streets. They were running on fumes. Merchants would rearrange their goods on their shelves and talk of the good old days, the hey days when actors and actresses would be seen there, weddings and families would congregate in the banquet rooms. Now, touchingly clumsy bands with the guys in white pith helmets would march the funerals down Broadway. Many of the Chinese property owners? progeny had matriculated to other places, other cities. So the elders sat on their properties with no youngsters ready to take over the reigns. ChinaTown had become a ghost town in perfect aged pedestrian scale. Development in Los Angeles went West to the sea?s edge, where the parties were. Downtown Los Angeles tried and tried to rehabilitate to weak effect. Lots of empty restaurants, empty bars, empty storefronts...perfect for artists.

At first there were studios and artists. We rarely bumped into one another at the Chinese bakeries to get the terrible coffee there, or at the $3.75 lunch special restaurants where you don?t ask questions about the funny meat. Or maybe it was because I was a studio rat and had hermetically sealed myself into the studio? After some time, I was surprised to find the scene had composted into a hot little party place. Bars had swelled in Friday and Saturday population and the locals, Chinese and artists made friends. Galleries were places to hang out, more like a clubhouse.

And what fortune, there was an artist?s life in ChinaTown. Artists actually worked there, lived there. We got to know each other, warily at first. Then we soon gloried in the company of fools who would gamble that our curiosity just might be of some value to others soon enough in our life span that we might be able to forestall an early death suitable to those who would flaunt the common sense of simple survival. It was wonderful. Cheers, fellas.

There were musicians and bands and jam sessions and thankfully, nothing too polished ever emerged. What did emerge was a gallery scene after the loose affiliations became business partnerships and party decorations became art objects. By this time the word got out and dealers and gallery owners there started getting telephone calls asking where the next ChinaTown would arise in LA. ChinaTown as an art scene hadn?t yet begun and it was already deemed ?over? by the fashionably paranoid cognoscenti. What idiots.

The idiots came anyway. There are many art worlds and the ones who rely on ?fake-it-to-make-it? strategies slipped into the fabric of little ChinaTown. Arrivistes settled in and promoted synthetic versions of art. Surfer artists galleries attracted handsome and healthy artists. Intrepid art-technology pioneers attracted antisocial geeks. Environmental artist revolutionaries sought out the children to format their minds before the ?capitalist machine? devoured them, all this as they operated a neat little business procuring city grants for their operation. One lifestyle furnishings retail startup revamped its? premises on a collective opening night to simulate an art gallery to make a sale or two.

Art sharks began patrolling the galleries and bars. Dark leather jackets appeared in the smokey bars and the new patrons were the type whose eyes scan the bar population upon entry assessing the who?s who, exercising the not so subtle networking arts. Unlike the bars, galleries are stationary targets, dealers only have their receptionists and assistants to shield them from the predators. The really cunning sharks hunted in the guise as art world impresarios. WIthin the bars, they would buy the drinks and pass out the party invitations, holding court with artists hungry for the mysteries of success.

Then as the scene began to heat up and grow rings of change, the local ChinaTown business chieftains looked for the Asian face in the new ChinaTown. As elderly property owners retired and sold off their property, a few second generation offspring reinvested and reasserted their family businesses. Others opened up art galleries for local talent. Some opened up framing shops. A couple of twenty something clans opened up computer gaming parlors. One young group of law students even established their headquarters as a site for revolutionary change. They were crypto Marxists galvanized by ethnic solidarity, where the young ones would naively and cheerfully shout with little provocation: ?We?re going to change the world!? My skin would crawl. All this was going on, froth and ferment, and then the dot-com retired lawyers moved in. This, the completion of a robust cycle of gentrification. That?s when I left.

And now I look at ChinaTown from afar. Old coordinates fraying and yellowing with time. A snapshot of my past, dog eared with affection. Nothing lasts forever.

I grew up with change. I was a military brat. I lived in eleven locations around the world by the time I was fifteen. My dad had wanderlust, it ran in the family. I remember a story he told once, a picture snapped from a moment in his life. My grandfather met my grandmother as a traveling photographer, she was a daughter of a Texan family. They ran off together and the gleam of better prospects in his eye took them to homesteads all around the Southern end of the Mississippi River. And now, here is the snapshot: My grandfather loading up the wagon high with the family belongings, bound for a better future. The nine kids must have been around, not mentioned. The fields were robust with crops. And my grandmother silent, sitting atop the buckboard, tears streaming down her face.

My dad left that world of Southern depression by joining the Army. In his enlistment papers, his occupation was ?farmer?. He was sixteen when he joined, it?s hard to say that a person has an occupation when one is so young. He did pick cotton though. My uncle has a story of that time... something more than a snapshot and less than a story. They were picking cotton in the hot Missouri sun, hands cut and swollen, backs aching. My uncle founnd a rattlesnake in the row and boldly grabbed it by the angry tail. This would be no surprise if you knew the usual freaky gleam in my uncle Don?s eye. He then swung the snake around his head (and at this point in the telling of the story, the story teller must now simulate the motion bodily, complete with the freaky eye gleaming and all). And he snapped it like a bullwhip, thus tearing his skin off his body, further pissing the snake off in ways we can scarcely imagine. He then tossed the enraged reptile into my father?s cotton sack. Hilarity ensues.

These are stories my father would tell of his youth, tales that were originally intended to illustrate the hardships of a less fortunate time, lessons meant to compel my brother and I to quit whining and savor the good life we had. Too bad for thier intentions that they painted a such a wonderfully colorful world. It was the stories he didn?t tell that would mark me more.

He was not yet eighteen as his company was rushed into the Pusan Perimeter as the North Koreans rushed South to take the peninsula. After the Second World War, the Americans were weary of war. In five years, the military infrastructure had degraded and military readiness was shot. After the second world war... after the war to end all wars, America was reduced to heaving untrained men and sub par equipment to staunch the hemorrhaging last stand in mainland Asia. In the battle that would sear my father?s mind for the coming half century, they were surrounded on three sides and were wiped out. Bugles, tanks, artillery, human waves of screaming zombies. All but fourteen of his company were killed. They escaped, fording a river under fire and disappearing into the countryside, escape and evasion for three weeks.

He had nightmares every night for ten years after that. He built a brick wall in his mind against those days of his eighteenth birthday. This wall would begin to crumble fifty years later. He succumbed to flashbacks. They began as eyes staring at him, eyes he saw in the desert scrub surrounding his Arizona home. Later in telephone calls, he would stop and say: ?Did you hear that?? I would stammer. The desperation in his voice escalating. ?Squeaks! I can hear the squeaks!? Tank treads, the North Koreans didn?t have enough grease for their Chinese tanks. Then he would be in the thick of battle, screaming. And I was screaming: ?Papa! That?s not you! This is the year 2000! That?s not you!? And somehow it would work, and he would come back. Humiliated and fragile, he would try to laugh at the lame jokes I would try to summon up. I found the Captain of his company during this time through the internet, Captain john C. Hughes. Thank G-d for the internet. They were able to get together and savor the solidarity only people who shared war know. Brothers forever.

I was in ChinaTown when he took his own life. Rather, I was at home in Echo Park when the policeman came to the door. I thought the cat had tripped the home alarm one too many times. He said he was sorry but he had bad news. I had barely enough strength in my knees to get away from the front door to sit down on the back porch. It was funny in that unfunny way. Surreal. This isn?t me, is it? This doesn?t happen to me, can it? This couldn?t happen to him, could it? But the months of his illness told me otherwise. It was a few weeks shy of the fiftieth anniversary of that battle. Before, I thought suicide was a crime that one perpetrated against the people you love. Now I thought, how could I ever deny the only exit my dad had to escape his living hell?

I changed.

Things change, and these were the things that changed me in those four short years of living in Los Angeles? ChinaTown. I accept change, I grew up with change, there wouldn?t be life without change. I moved from school to school to school to school. I am change incarnate. I suckled the titty of change. But there?s still a small part of me that doesn?t want it. Maybe life finds this resistance to change, this treasured foolish stasis in our memories. Maybe each moment recedes into our memories, to lodge and to be dog-eared, elaborated, retold and the dust brushed off and rearranged on a shelf of treasures somewhere in our heads. Life becomes a train of adjustments to each new moment where we groom the unfamiliar into an old friend. And then the moment passes and the friend is gone and something new presents itself, this stranger. Maybe it is only in our imagination that we can find comfort . It is in this life, for this comfort, we are denied.

Is this right? No. Is this just? No. But we don?t live with righteous justice. We can only approximate justice in this life. We live in relation to it but we can?t merge with it. That?s the best we can do. The comfort of perfection lives in a far away place, and it is in this life here and now that we have to contend with the discomfort, the strangeness that each new moment brings. Kinda weird, change. That unfunny funny feeling.

-Billy Talley
October 2003
Posted by Dennis at October 29, 2003 11:06 AM


Justice, Billy, is sad for all of us. the process of change is discomfort. Best to you, stranger/changer, Pamela

hey dennis...

i couldn't find your e-mail address on this page, but joel wanted me to tell you that he got the book, but that he lost your number so you should call him. congrats on the review! hope all is going well. i'm on my way to hear bart speak about his work. he's the guest artist in lari pittman's class today.

take care,

Leave a comment