Attending the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968 was a combination of weed-laced fun (commonly called just “grass” in Chicago then) and maddening constraints, if you had any ideas about being a fine artist. At the time, Andy Warhol was a big influence on the powers-that-be at the institute. Pop Art was the byword. My first-semester project was a mixed media collage with a Chicago bluesman theme; it was all in black and blue. For a grade, I got a C. The guy who got the A-plus was a little suck-up weasel named David Gordon. This kid, inexplicably the teacher’s pet, had a curly halo of red hair fixed to a too-bloated body. His head looked like a cherry you wanted to pick. His project was 26 socks on a clothes line, the socks dyed 26 supposedly different shades of orange. Looked like maybe five shades to me. That was it. One semester. The instructor asked me if I ever considered being a cartoonist.
Most of my weed-laced fun was in physical education class. At that time, the institute offered an alternative to traditional sports: fencing. Of course I went for it. The fencing instructor was also an artists’ model. He was from Java. His hair was down to his buttocks. We’d smoke his grass and play swords, with foils bearing rubber tips. We re-enacted Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone dueling scenes from Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. The two other guys in the class just smoked grass and lay on the lawn by the Steppenwolf Theater, behind the school, far away from busy Michigan Avenue.
My intention here is to address the subject of art during hard economic times. The year 1968 was not, like today, hard economic times. And so many of the French-cigarette-smoking, sandal-footed students at the institute laughed at the populist cliché “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” I never thought there was a thing wrong with that, and I still don’t. Anyway, now, in these cash-strapped days, I’m seeing exuberant art everywhere in San Diego. Among the disenfranchised, in areas one least expects it, murals and acrylic paintings are appearing downtown, canvases in Seventh Avenue art galleries, and murals at 16th and 17th and National, around Commercial Street. And elsewhere, of course.
I was in St. Vincent’s clinic, consulting my primary physician, Dr. Lauzon, a brilliant young woman (hands down, the best MD I have ever dealt with). So, I’m in the waiting room, looking past the receptionist to see a two-panel acrylic painting, each panel maybe five-by-six feet, The work depicts a human face traced with lines as if for a surreal plastic surgery; the face is bisected on the panels. The colors are intense, almost iridescently gaudy. The half-face on the left panel is flat and unanimated, the right half seems to live and breathe and leap off the canvas in the viewer’s direction. A free-spirited expression of artistic talent.
I discovered a branch of Café Virtuoso, an organic-coffee roaster and coffee shop, on National Avenue while wandering around the area. I noticed a profusion of visual art in an otherwise industrial area. At the Gateway Apartments, on the side of the leasing office and other adjoining buildings, are bright, almost day-glow, murals with some precious touches but each done by undeniably talented hands. Across the street from Café V. is an apartment building painted with a huge mural of a palm tree, cactus, sword plants, and earthen ceramics, in more muted and conventional colors. Soaring just under the crown of the palm is a bald eagle. A geographic and naturalistic unlikelihood, it seems to me, but that’s what makes it visually interesting.
Around the corner is a business called Miriello Grafico, and on one side of the building is black-and-white graffiti-style spray-paint art with death’s heads as a theme. A raw talent at work here, and I like it. Across from the Gateway Apartments is more graffiti-style spray-paint art, only in full color with some very fun imagery of cartoonish faces. This too was done, I’m guessing, by untrained but natively talented artists who clearly were indulged and did not have to do the work on the run in the middle of the night.
My unoriginal theory: When there’s no money, creativity breathes.