Monday, May 14, 2018

Photo Essay: A Leap of Faith Despite Depression

When I started spending some real quality time in Balboa Park two years ago, it became clear that for all I'd seen, I'd still only scratched the surface.

Because while I learned a lot about the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17, the park actually hosted two expositions in two decades' time—and that meant I'd have to head on down to the southern section of Balboa Park's central mesa, a plateau known as The Palisades, to investigate what remains of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36.

And you can't really talk about either expo independently, without mention of the other, as their histories are inextricably tied to one another.

Let me set the scene a bit: In 1933, Prohibition had been repealed, but the end of the Great Depression wouldn't come until 1939. In 1934, it had been 20 years since the last expo, and the temporary structures that had been built for it were slated to be torn down. But in a stunning about-face, those buildings were not only saved but restored and reused for yet another expo.

Given the economic conditions at the time, mounting such a large-scale ordeal was, perhaps, a foolish endeavor. But after the fact, once it proved successful, exposition president G. Aubrey Davidson called it an "achievement of faith, courage, and enthusiasm unparalleled in the history of similar enterprises."

Thankfully, seven million people attended. And the year this second expo opened coincided with the creation of the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's economic recovery plan under the auspice of the New Deal (1933-1937).

Of course, work didn't really start coming out of the U.S. government's "Work Relief" divisions until the California Pacific International Exposition was wrapping up—which makes the creation of the "Plaza de America" even more of an achievement.

And fortunately, although some of it has been lost or modified beyond recognition, there's still enough left there in the Palisades to give an inkling as to what this team of hopeless optimists managed to accomplish despite all odds, 80 years ago.

The layout of the Plaza de America was to show architectural progression from prehistoric to modern times...

...and so, the Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries became "a modern development of prehistoric American architecture," with a nod to the great civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs.

Richard S. Requa, the master architect for the expo, considered the architecture of Mesoamerica the only style that was truly American.

Of course, that message has been lost as the palace is now used as a municipal gymnasium, interior gutted, exterior mural removed, vines no longer hanging.

The former Federal Building—a structure that had been built to be permanent, with concrete walls and steel roof trusses—is said to be pre-Columbian in design, even if that's not obvious when looking at its facade. The San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum occupied it until last year, when it exited to make way for the forthcoming Comic-Con museum (opening date TBD).

The former California State Building is now the San Diego Automotive Museum, and its former entrance plaza—once adorned by elaborate water features that were lit up at night—is now a parking lot. Perhaps its most distinctive feature, however, were the murals above the front entry that depicted the principal industries of the state (i.e. transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and scenic beauty). Since the structures for this expo were thrown together in such a hurry, the construction crews and designer had to get a little creative when fabricating elements like exterior ornamentation—which was to at least "suggest permanency."

Using principles of set design, Hollywood artist Juan Larrinaga simulated tile using wallboard segments—just one of the many artistic feats he pulled off throughout the expo grounds. Although those original wooden murals have since been removed (and destroyed?), local preservationists have placed temporary placeholders to evoke the original look and are currently raising funds to replace them with permanent replicas in ceramic tile.

From Milton Sessions' scrapbook via Parker H. Jackson (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The Ford Exposition Building never really fit the theme of architecture of the Americas, though its purpose was more to "exemplify the latest ideas in modern industrial architecture."

Certainly, it was representative of a certain modernity that felt downright futuristic, which is probably why it's so fitting that it's now the home of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Since Ford needed a venue where it could showcase its vehicles as part of its sponsorship, the Ford Bowl was built directly adjacent, in a ravine that couldn't really be used for anything else, since it was too deep to fill or build over or across.

And it became not only a hub of automotive excitement but also a cultural center, thanks to Ford-sponsored performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Diego Symphony in 1935, which were heard across the country thanks to live radio broadcasts.

The amphitheater was always meant to be a permanent addition to the park, but when Ford pulled out of its title sponsorship after just one year, expo organizers had to figure out what to do with it.

And that's kind of the situation it's in right now. No show has been produced on its stage since 2010, and its 4273 seats sit empty.

It's a shame since this was Director of Architecture Requa's favorite of his contributions for the expo. He saw it as his attempt to extend the work of Bertram Goodhue from the 1915-1917 event. And the cultural impact of the concerts that were held there—even on a national level—was undeniable.

But, after the expo ended, it wasn't long before the U.S. entered World War II and the Navy seized Balboa Park for military use. (The U.S. Naval Hospital still stands in the southeastern quadrant of the park.) And by the late 1940s when the park was returned to the City of San Diego, Balboa Bowl (as it was known then) was all but forgotten.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, though, the concrete bowl venue hit its stride, mounting productions of Broadway musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma. This was also the time that the stage was being used by the San Diego Civic Light Orchestra, which moved there in 1950, left in 1965, and returned in 1973. And in the 1970s, what had become known as "Balboa Park Bowl" was rechristened Starlight Bowl (no relation to the outdoor venue in Burbank) in reference to its history with the "Light" Orchestra. But unfortunately, when the SDCLO folded in 2012, that spelled doom for the place the ensemble had called home on and off for so many years.

Throughout its history, no matter what the venue was called or which show graced its stage, planes departing from and landing at the nearby airport has always an issue—going all the way back to the days of Lindbergh Field (established 1928), which ultimately became today's San Diego International Airport. And while no amount of restoration will abate that noisy distraction when it occurs during a show, some people actually like the nuisance for its nostalgic value.

A non-profit organization, The Committee of One Hundred, has been working to preserve Balboa Park's architecture and gardens since 1967 and has assembled an incredible list of resources that address the many issues that the park has been and is currently facing. The committee is also leading the charge to get the Palisades area the renaissance it's due, so it can cease to be seen as Balboa Park's "ugly stepsister."

And part of that involves the formation of a splinter group, Save Starlight, whose mission is to bring the bowl back to life, reinvigorated and ready to serve the community once again.

Personally I hope someone figures out how to bring back some of that lost Mayan ornamentation and nighttime lighting schemes. I'd also really like to see the lost Firestone Singing Fountains in action.

Much of the information here came from the book Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego's Exposition: 1935 by Richard S. Requa AIA. To read it and get the story from the horse's mouth yourself, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The View from Above Balboa Park's Former Expo Grounds
Photo Essay: The World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ
Taking the Stairs to a Tower, a Terrace, a Dell and a Bowl in Hollywood

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Motherless Daughters Love Brunch, Too

"Hello... we were wondering on how many people in your party for Sunday?"

I'd bought a ticket for Chef LQ's Mother's Day brunch, which was part of the "Ma Maison" pop-up series at his house in Highland Park that I'd enjoyed last year but for dinner. And when I got the email asking about the size of my party just four days prior to the brunch, I should've known this experience would be different than the last.

But instead of questioning it, I just replied as honestly as I could by writing, "Just one. I don't have a mom and I was looking for something to do and I wanted to try Chef's brunch because breakfast is my favorite meal."

I didn't bother explaining that I do have a mom whom I haven't spoken to in over a decade or that Mother's Day is always a stinging reminder of what other people have that I don't, never did, and never will.

And worse yet, they didn't explain that they were asking because I wouldn't be seated at one long, communal table as I was for dinner last year. Instead, each party would be broken up into individual tables.

But I didn't know that until I got there, uncharacteristically the first to arrive and even three minutes before the gate would be unlocked, and was seated at a "Table for One," front and center, facing LQ's backyard from under the patio overhang, parties of six both to my left and my right.

I'd made a grave error in judgment for my Mother's Day plan of distraction—but by then, it was too late to do anything about it. After all, I'd already paid my fixed price for the meal when I purchased my ticket.

So, I sat down and dove in.

Judging by all the advertisements and promotional announcements leading up to Mother's Day, it's pretty clear that moms must love brunch. It's the thing to do with your mom on Mother's Day (though I don't think my mother has brunched a day in her life).

But brunch can't be just for mothers and daughters to enjoy together, right?

If I can't brunch alone, then I may never brunch. And while I rarely have the luxury of time to actually enjoy a fancy meal that early on a weekend day, I don't want to live in a world where solo brunching isn't allowed.

Thankfully, the LQ folks sold me the one ticket and gave me the one table. And that meant that I got to enjoy the entire pastry basket—filled with croissants and pain au chocolat, baked earlier this morningall by myself (and sneak leftovers home wrapped in a napkin).

Unfortunately, although the food was fab and the service was doting, there isn't a sandwich in the world that could have eased my discomfort and shame at sitting there alone, motherless. At a communal meal, I most certainly would've struck up a conversation with those next to or across from me, as I had when Chef Laurent served us dinner last year. But this morning, I only listened to the birds chirping and the rain falling and tried not to eavesdrop on other families' conversations.

I also tried to busy myself on the internet, but that ended up exacerbating my plight. And I should've known better—because every year, I am absolutely shocked at how much other people love their mothers and how much other people's mothers love them. It's a concept that's completely foreign to me. While many of my friends and contacts express their maternal gratitude and affection throughout the year, it's absolutely deafening on Mother's Day.

So, I put down my phone and bit into my Pan Bagna (sometimes called pain bagnat, and usually made with tuna instead of Main lobster), chewing though my eyes were welling, trying to appreciate the gifts from Mother Earth that I was tasting, like bell peppers from the garden and Picholine black olives.

Chef Laurent gets all his ingredients either from his own garden or from Apricot Lane Farms, which means the poached eggs I had with my bœuf bourguignon (a.k.a. Beef Burgundy) were from the very same chickens I'd met on my farm tour a few weeks ago and were the same type of eggs as in the carton I'd bought and cooked up for myself.

I wanted to tell Chef about my tour there, and joke with him about their snails getting fed to the ducks instead of becoming escargot for us, but he didn't come out to greet us this morning as he had at the last dinner. I could hear him in the kitchen, directing traffic and keeping everything running smoothly, so I could tell how busy he was.

After all, a prix fixe meal like the Mother's Day brunch—where you can choose among multiple options for the three courses—is much more difficult than the chef's tasting menu that's offered at dinner, when you just eat whatever food is placed in front of you.

With the lack of socializing and the swift service, I got through all three courses pretty quickly, despite trying to eat slowly enough to enjoy everything and commit the flavors to memory. The special dessert dish, for example, had so much going on with it—from poached rhubarb to strawberry crémeux and tonka bean ice cream—that it would have been a shame to just gobble the whole thing up without swishing it around a bit to try to distinguish the various textures and taste sensations.

But still, I didn't want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. I had no desire to linger with another cup of coffee or indulge in a glass of wine. I wanted to be alone in my car. I wanted to get home to my cat.

Before I left, though, I needed to settle up my tab with my server, since the ticket I'd bought only covered the three courses of food and the coffee but not the beverage or the gratuity. The Ma Maison policy is to charge its guests a standard 20% gratuity, which would've only been $10 and that just didn't seem like enough for all the effort that everyone had put into giving us a nice Mother's Day. So, I asked, "Can I give more? I don't know if you have moms who you're not spending time with so that we can have brunch..."

The extra $5 I threw in doesn't make up for the time lost with mom, I'm sure. But there's really no other way for me to express my gratitude for the sacrifices that some people make—whether on Mother's Day or Thanksgiving—just to be sure that other people have something nice to do.

And for an orphan like me, that's priceless.

Related Posts:
On Motherhood
A Mother-Not-to-Be

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Considering the Age-Old Question of Artistic Merit and Intent

A new art show called "Beyond the Streets" just opened up in a vacant building in Chinatown, so I went to go check it out.

Now, I've been very public with my mixed feelings about graffiti—which might not actually seem so mixed.

I take issue with vandalism. When I see a historic building or protected natural feature that's been spray painted, I think to myself, This is why we can't have nice things. It broke my heart when Angels Flight got tagged (though, ultimately, that ignited the campaign to get it restored).

I get that there's an art to it. I respect the fact that graffiti artists were able to revolutionize spray paint, a medium that was created to be purely utilitarian.

I appreciate that the few limited edition colors that would come out over the years would give a graffiti artist and their work a certain amount of caché.

But that belies the fact that this is a form of illegal art—and quite often, the more illegal, the better.

The tools of the trade are common and ordinary by necessity.

At least in the early days—before libraries started commissioning artists like Kenny Scharf to intentionally tag their white walls—the materials had to be small, light, portable, and inexpensive. Perhaps most importantly, they had to not rouse suspicion.

Now, of course, bystanders in any major city would probably be thrilled to spot some guy in a hoodie climbing a ladder with a bucket full of wheat paste and a brush. And the property owner might be elated to find out that this involuntary addition to his building just skyrocketed his property value.

But plenty of shopkeepers would prefer their roll-up doors not get defaced—especially since more often than not, it's not the work an artist with a message and/or talent. Sometimes, it's just blight.

Is there a difference? Absolutely.

Of course, it seems to be the natural inclination of man to scrawl his name and other simple messages across whichever surfaces he can find—whether it's the inside of a cave or the top of a school desk or the abandoned structures of a supposed Nazi sympathizer camp.

You kind of expect that that's going to happen—which is why places like Venice Beach have installed "public art walls," sanctioned locales where people can get their ya-yas out without destroying anything. And then their work is painted over in black and the process starts again—which is how,  back in the day, a lot of those so-called street art "murals" both came to be and came not to be.

However, underprivileged urban youth entering a turf war at an abandoned subway tunnel is very different than marking your territory in a national park, as "Mr. A" (who, by the way is an affluent Swede of 46 years in age) did so infamously back in 2015. So, how could the illegality of graffiti be a necessity of circumstance, as some might argue?

And if those with racial and socioeconomic privilege can just pick up their spray paint cans whenever they want and put them down whenever they want so they can go walk a red carpet somewhere, that looks a lot like cultural appropriation.

So, now there's a pretty sprawling gallery show that attempts to take a subculture that's become glorified over the last decade or so and explain it to outsiders. (You even receive a printed glossary upon arrival!)

It contains all the tropes of early era NYC beatboxing and breakdancing, straight out of Wild Style and Style Wars.

And some of the pieces are very cool to look at—but overall, it feels a but tone deaf, despite the street cred of the creative team behind it. It's more like something that might be mounted by a mainstream cultural institution like LACMA or MoMA.

I worry about a corporatized celebration of "Vandalism As Contemporary Art"—the show's own tagline—without explaining what these works are not, or why certain artists or pieces were not included.

Because not every spray-painted set of initials is influential. Sometimes, a person with no talent and nothing to say draws a wiener with a Sharpie somewhere insignificant to them and then moves on.

The curator of the show takes the time to note in its brochure that the representative artists were chosen because they also had strong studio practices in addition to their (legal or illegal) work on the streets.

But when you can buy Keith Haring- and Jean-Michel Basquiat-branded spray paint cans for 40 bucks apiece and everything else from tote bags to stuffed unicorn toys wearing red hoodies that read "I ❤ Graffiti," it just feels like the opposite of the guerrilla art movement that the graffiti pioneers were going for.

Maybe they weren't going for anything, who knows? So many scholars and historians have tried to reverse engineer the graffiti origin story—despite not having been a part of it themselves—that it's all conjecture in the rear-view mirror at this point.

So, I hope that the buzz and excitement over this show helps contemporary art to proliferate... but that it doesn't encourage vandalism.

And I hope that those who visit Beyond the Streets can figure out the difference and act accordingly.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mr. Brainwash Art Show 2011 Closing Night
Keep Street Art on the Street
Photo Essay: The Walls Are Alive in Venice Beach

Friday, May 11, 2018

Farewell, Circus Drive-In

Oh, it's just heartbreaking. The Circus Drive-In in New Jersey's Wall Township has been demolished.

I'd only gone once, but it had made a big impression on me.

It was relatively early in my days of road trips and roadside oddities, back in July 2009. I'd quit my job that January, visited Joshua Tree for the first time in February, and spent a month there starting in mid-June. As soon as I came back to NYC, I hit the road and took a weekend down at the Jersey Shore.

It wasn't quite so "Jersey Shore" back then, several months before the premiere of the MTV reality TV show, but more like just "The Shore." And given my love for seaside attractions like Coney Island, and my burgeoning interest in abandonment, neon signs, and the Doo-Wop architecture of Wildwood, the area had been on my bucket list for a while.

Prior to that trip, I'd encountered one of the A&W Root Beer drive-in restaurants in New Jersey and knew that I'd rather eat at a clown-themed diner from the 1950s than a chain restaurant (even one that tries to replicate that sort of Happy Days / American Graffiti type feel), so I asked Edith if we could go.

I don't remember what I ate, though I remember the menu being somewhat voluminous and offering a lot of specials I hadn't seen anywhere else. Was that because it was New Jersey, or was that just the Circus Drive-In?

What I remember most, though—besides the stunning neon sign out front—was eating under the circus tent and feeling a sense of community with these fellow travelers and locals alike. We all just wanted good food and a sense of fun, a little escape from our daily lives. (At the time, I was looking to escape everything.)

I don't know when I'll ever find myself back in that part of New Jersey again, but I still feel the loss. Circus Drive-In was listed for sale in 2016 and stopped serving in 2017. A petition was launched to save it, but to no avail. That area, like many others, has been gentrifying—and a drive-in, especially a circus-themed one, is supposedly outdated.

But it's frustrating to hear that there are no plans yet to otherwise use that plot of land. It's not like a developer is building condos there. Trader Joe's isn't opening a new location there. The land rights haven't been seized by the U.S. military.

Now that the walls have been clawed away by heavy machinery, all that's left there is an empty space.

Related Posts:
The Oldest Bob's Big Boy, And Its Nearby Adoptive Brother
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Photo Essay: Not Your Typical Jersey Shore

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Photo Essay: A Magical Circle of Snakes, Birds, and Their Queen

Which medium of art is more appropriate for southern California, a melange of varied landscapes, cultural histories, architectural styles, and aesthetic influences?

To me, it's the mosaic.

And who cares if the mosaicist wasn't formally trained?

Such is the case with Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), who left France and relocated to the San Diego area in 1994.

I'd known of her work for a while, though I hadn't known her by name. And it took me some time to encounter her work in person, as it seemed that her seminal Southern California work, Queen Califia's Magical Circle in Escondido's Kit Carson Park, closed for repairs and restoration pretty much as soon as I found out about it.

It wasn't until I took a tour of Waterfront Park in San Diego that I put two and two together—and after that, I was more desperate than ever to get to Escondido.

Fortunately, although her last large-scale work, which is tucked away inside the Iris Sankey Arboretum, is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays and every second Saturday of the month (and for only a few hours at a time), at least it is open.

And boy is it ripe for exploring.

I suppose Niki de Saint Phalle made somewhat of a name for herself (despite being untrained) depicting serpents...

...but in Escondido, the focus is on the Mesoamerican roots of California, and all the iconography associated with that.

That relegates the snakes to the periphery.

At the center of it all is Califia, the Amazonian warrior queen who represents a major (though fictional) figure in the Golden State’s origin story.

She's perched atop an eagle throne...

...and she's surrounded by totems of lizards and birds and other mosaic creations that evoke Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Mexican artistic influences.

Like much of Niki's work elsewhere, these fantastical and even mythical creatures are clad in ceramic tile, mirrored glass, and stones embedded into fiberglass and resin on a steel frame.

The sculpture garden was completed in 2003, a year after the artist’s death, making it her last international project and exemplary of her later-career style.

Within Queen Califia's domain, there's the 17-foot bullhead totem...

...where the eagle returns as a central theme (a bird that Niki kind of considered her "spirit animal" and drew lots of inspiration from).

And these totemic sculptures are where Niki's varied styles really converge—where pebbles meet cut pieces of glass and ceramic to form a cohesive representation of mythology and idolatry.

There's also the 13-foot Birdhead totem...

...adjacent to the 14-foot Kingfisher totem.

The artist designed and financed the entire garden...

...but fabrication and mosaic installation was completed by Art Mosaic, Inc. (of El Cajon at the time, now located in Santee).

Within those undulating walls, beyond a maze of back-and-white mosaic, there also lies a totem topped by a bird on a square...

...which, though "Untitled," is reminiscent of the firebird found in the folklore of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (not just what's now known as the United States of America).

The entire garden has become somewhat of a playground for children and adults alike....

...especially since you're allowed to touch, climb upon, and sit on any of them.

"They feel nice and you won't harm them," the artist said shortly before she died.

And unfortunately, her passing came prematurely. She never got to see her magic garden completed...

...and she never got to witness how her Step, Yelling Man, and Cathead totems would bring the inner child out of the adults who visit.

She never got to hear the squeals of the children who were brought by those adults, but she knew the kind of effect that these sculptures would have on them. In 1972, she'd been commissioned to design a playground for Rabinovich Park in Jerusalem, and her other sculpture gardens (like The Tarot Garden in Tuscany) had already delighted the young and young at heart for decades upon the time of her death.

After having seen her monumental pieces in Balboa Park and Waterfront Park, I knew I would like Niki de Saint Phalle's installation in Escondido. But I wasn't prepared how it would affect me as I crossed over the threshold of the "snake wall" and entered the circle.

It took my breath away.

And I didn't get my breath back until the wings of the bird in Califia's hand were long out of sight.

Related Posts:
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