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“They’re like squiggles with different colors.” Anita, from Nashville Tennessee, is squinting into the middle distance of Horton Plaza trying to summon an image of exactly what was hanging on the wall of her room at the Westin Hotel. Anita and her husband, Tom, have been staying at the hotel for the last five days and Tom says, “I didn’t even notice any art. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, different-colored squiggles and dots, like a little kid’s painting.”

“I don’t know anything about art,” says Tom. “And I know it’s a cliché to say this, but I know what I like.”

I tell him I never found anything wrong with that adage or saw or rule of thumb or cliché; then I ask him what he likes.

“You know, that guy who paints stagecoaches and cowboys.”

“Remington?” I venture.

“I guess so.”

“What,” I ask him, “do you think of this sculpture?” We are standing in front of the Westin (formerly the Doubletree, née the Omni) surrounded by luggage and waiting for a cab. Towering over us is a giant plastic monstrosity of dolphins and swordfishes leaping through frozen (polyvinyl chloride?) waves surrounding an imposing blue erection, a Washington Monument–type fiberglass obelisk rising pointily, if pointlessly, 92-1/2 feet into the air. At night the angular phallus is lit internally with blue neon. During the day, this urethane non sequitur winks smeared sunlight at the synthetic, water-spewing pelicans and clams surrounding its 40-foot-diameter base.

The art, commissioned in 1986 by the Py-Vavra Development Corporation (the Omni Hotel’s developer) and Amfac Hotels and Resorts, Inc., was the brainchild of Luis Jimenez of Hondo, New Mexico, budgeted at $180,000, selected by the Centre City Development Corporation Arts Advisory Board, and completed in 1988.

“I think it’s real San Diego,” Tom from Nashville says approvingly as a cab pulls up.

“I think you’re right.” I nod, thank him, and say good-bye.

A woman from Indiana, just checking out, recalls some art on her wall. “A painting of a room, I think. Uh, modern, abstract. It was green, peach, and brown.” Her husband, like Tom above, never even noticed it. This will be a recurring phenomenon for the next dozen or so interviews: mostly no one notices the artwork in the hotel, but if anyone does, it seems to be a woman.

Behind the front desk at the Westin is a large landscape painting. It takes up a good portion of the length of the wall behind the front-desk area. It is mostly trees and bushes in a handful of verdant shades. A building in the classical Greek style (similar to, say, Monticello) is in the right background. The lawn, sky, and trees are flat areas of color, and the effect is that of a hastily done paint-by-numbers job. It reminds me of my aborted attempts at painting in my teens.

Near the elevators in the registration areas are two paintings facing each other. These seem to be of the unthreatening Dadaist school of “Fast Art Guaranteed to Offend No One.” One is of a rowboat, prow in the foreground, single oar resting on the port side, floating in the middle of a room near a window looking onto a leafless tree done in economical daubs of a sponge dipped in black paint. A featureless planet or globe hangs over the boat. It must, I reflect, have taken the artist a good hour, possibly longer, to achieve the effect of this loving tribute to and complete misunderstanding of the works of Salvador Dalí.

Another painting by the same artist, L. Bruzzese (1992), hangs on the opposite wall. This painting, of a fruit tree implied by the same sponge daubed in black paint as was used for the tree in the first canvas, is thematically interrupted by an L-shaped cutout of a landscape from another painting entirely. This is a technique I employed in art school when I had two or more canvases that sucked but that had odd corners I liked: cut and paste. Not a thing wrong with it if you’re not looking for anything beyond a mixed-media craft project.

Adrianna Hajduk and Matthew Southard are behind the desk and agree to show me one of the rooms and the artwork on its walls. Ms. Hajduk escorts me to the Senator’s Suite. “The same owners [of the Westin] have the Sheraton Harbor Island, the Sheraton Torrey Pines, and the Marriott Suites downtown. Also the Doubletree in Rancho Bernardo. This,” says Hajduk, as she opens the suite door with a punch-card key, “is the second-largest room in the hotel.”

Very nice indeed. One can picture campaign consultants and opposition researchers with loosened neckties and dirty fingernails fixing drinks behind the courtesy bar and advising the senator that his first-trimester abortion stance is losing him the lesbian congresswoman’s endorsement. The senator and presidential hopeful is leaning against the fireplace mantel, gesturing tiredly, and threatening to knock over one of the three Navajo-white ceramic pots that match the blanched stone beneath and around them. The senator is a known klutz, and his aides are poised to catch the pots when they fall. They steer the statesman away from the small sculptures on the end tables: a monolith or pyramid riding on the backs of two lions. The senator runs his hand over the large bone-white ceramic dish on display and speaks of cutting the National Endowment for the Arts back into the Stone Age.

Staring unseeing at the innocuous pastel squiggle and dot paintings over the mantelpiece, the senator is reminded of the school lunch issue and asks where he stands on that. He absently notes that the watercolor prints are signed by a Peter Tracheff (?) or something like that. Damned artistic signature, unlike the manly block lettering of the senator’s own hand.

As the candidate paces the $800-plus-per-night suite, he passes the pen, ink, and wash architectural drawings of classic forms, roofs, and columns while debating with himself the merits of the golf-course-versus-homeless-shelter issue. He squints at the Byzantine architectural drawing fragments, tries to puzzle out the inscrutable signature, sighs, and announces, “The homeless don’t golf.”

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