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Hotel Del Coronado art's gender gap

I wouldn't notice if they nailed babies to the wall

“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.”

On the way back down to the lobby, Hajduk explains that much of the hotel’s art was inherited from the owners of the Doubletree and the Omni. She explains further that with massive renovations in 1999, the look of the place will change. How, specifically, she does not know. She assures me, however, that “it will be better.”

Hajduk describes a woman who “…does not stay at the hotel, but she comes by almost every day just to tell me that the picture behind the front desk is horrible. It began to bother me because every day she would say, ‘You know what? That picture is ugly!’ ” Hajduk is speaking of the blob-o’-greens landscape with the little Monticello structure stuck in the right corner. “She was actually kind of aggressive. I said, ‘I’m sorry. Art is something to be admired. Some people like it and some people don’t. I think it’s amazing that you can be that bothered by a piece of art.’ She was really upset.”

Across Broadway from the Westin is the U.S. Grant Hotel, a dignified, masculine class act of a historical landmark. The lobby reminds one of those old university or gentleman’s clubs where Carruthers would obsequiously serve brandy in large snifters and Lord Gutlurch would reminisce about Crimea as he drew on a long Dunhill.

One painting in the lobby is typical: three horsemen, two of them dismounted, in a sylvan glade. A windmill in the background indicates the setting is Holland, and though throughout most of the hotel the theme is 19th-century, the style of this unmarked painting and the hats on the horsemen are more 17th-century, I’m thinking the Flanders school, but that would have been 200 years earlier. Anyway, I like it.

In the Grant Grill you may lunch or dine beneath portraits of hunting dogs: the game afoot between fox and hounds. All rather appetizing. Sets you up for chops, sausages, and a good claret.

A young nanny outside the gift shop is minding two young children, one in a stroller, the other fascinated by the grand piano near the Broadway entrance. The nanny, Stephanie from San Francisco, is on a business trip with the children and their parents. She makes a game for the kids of examining the artwork in the hotel room. “They are prints of still-life flowers. They are very typical ‘hotel.’ Some of the prints in the hallway are a little nicer. We kind of go through and name the stuff in the pictures, so we pay a little bit more attention to them than the average guest probably would.”

“Ah. And what,” I inquire, “were the flowers?”

“I have no idea. The names were at the bottom in Latin. We made up our own names for them, like the Rudy Buzzudee Flower and the Poison Peanut Plant and the Robosaurus Monster Vine or something.”

“Very creative.”

A woman and some friends are seated at a table in the lobby enjoying drinks, while around the wainscoted corner in the Grant Grill bar patrons watch the Padres kick Atlanta butt. The two men she is with recall no artwork whatsoever. “Art? What art? You should ask my wife, she would know. I noticed the beer menu.”

“I don’t think there was anything hanging in the room,” says the other man.

“Yeah, there was. There was art,” the first man says, presumably just to be contrary. The woman strikes a neutral note.

“I noticed the wallpaper,” she says.

“I wouldn’t notice if they had dead babies nailed to the walls.” The second man is into the garrulous phase of his martini drinking.

“The wallpaper and draperies are very nice,” says the woman. “They are kind of 1880s, 1890s circa. Victorian, but not in a standoffish way. It’s very comfortable. When you first look at it, you get an almost wood-grain type of feeling. It looks like they used wood paneling, but when you look at it you can see they used a kind of silk print. Also, the pottery around the hotel is remarkable.”

“I can’t believe people notice this stuff. I didn’t see any of this stuff.” The martini drinker then adds, “I’m from El Paso.” This is said with finality, as if the announcement implies an entire school of art invisible to those from El Paso.

The first man introduces himself as Bob, then introduces his wife, Denise, but does not introduce Martini Guy. “This is a cigar-smokin’, guys hotel,” Bob says.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Denise says.

“I’m not smoking.” He frowns into his drink.

This sparks a discussion about what to do with the Cuban cigars the men bought in Tijuana, and matters of aesthetics are forgotten.

Across from the registration desk is a painting of a covered bridge straddling a stream that is obscured by shrubbery in the foreground. It is well executed, quietly pleasing, and unobtrusive. It is signed by F.E. Penfold with no date. My guess is that it has not been painted recently.

“The hotel was built in 1910,” says my young, well-groomed guide. The desk clerk is handsome and sensitive-looking, almost delicate. His manner is quiet and deferential. He ushers me to the elevators and will guide me through a room on the fifth floor.

The room is dark, woody, womblike, and clean. On the walls are ink drawings and engravings. The one nearest to hand is credited to W. Faithhorn and J. P. Neil. It is one of a series of three renderings of various castles, Huntingshire, Connington, and Cherbourne castles. A watercolor wash provides an almost subliminal background to the fine, geometric pen strokes. They draw little attention to themselves; businesslike and pleasant, they are the decorative equivalent of a sensible, conservative necktie.

On another wall are what look to be framed pages of an old botanical guide. Again pen-and-ink with the Latin names of the flowers or plants printed in a calligraphic typeface meant to evoke a medieval monk’s mutedly illuminated manuscript; the kind of thing Roger Bacon might have leafed through in the 13th Century, mortar and pestle at his elbow. “Caryophyllus multiplexma, Ximus variegatus, Leucokimflore rubropleno.”

More 19th-century pen-and-ink engravings line the hallway to the next room where more botanical drawings hang over the bed in a Victorian-themed, manly-and-sober setting. These plants have no names and seem to be colored with oils or even, possibly, acrylics. No dates or signatures are legible. Over a desk is an amber-tinted photograph of the Grant Hotel and Horton Plaza. The cars on Broadway and Fourth Avenue date from the 1920s. The art, architecture, furnishings, and design at the U.S. Grant Hotel thematically conspire to ensure that your stay is imbued with a rich, historical quality no matter how pointless your business trip.

The Hyatt Regency La Jolla in “the Aventine,” set in the heart of the Golden Triangle, is the conceptual baby of the now-64-year-old architect Michael Graves. A professor of architecture at Princeton and architect of the Denver public library (he now does picture frames and toasters for Target stores), Graves is also a painter and has designed the San Juan Capistrano public library, as well as “…numerous showrooms for the Sunar Furniture Company.” The Hyatt calls attention to itself from a half mile away.

Stylized and sterile, an almost Disney-like theme park of blocky geometry (“Twelve palm trees in the courtyard are geometrically balanced and create a square,” brags the press kit on Graves and the Aventine), the grounds might host an upscale science-fiction convention with jousting tournaments and toga parties studded with cell phones and laptops, the poolside air fragrant with sunscreen and cappuccino.

This is visually strange territory. It seems inspired by Prozac or amphetamine, a manic, menopausal sensibility informed with a gay but selective, almost brain-damaged grasping at art history from classical to postmodern chaotic: Frank Lloyd Wright meets Julius Caesar, David Hockney, and King Arthur.

“Michael Graves designed the self-contained 11-acre Euro-style complex called Aventine,” reads the spiel sheet employees are given to read when guests ask about the art and architecture at the Hyatt. “This European Village, named after one of the seven hills in Rome, houses two office buildings, a business center, sporting club, recreational facilities, formal gardens, restaurant court and the Hyatt Regency La Jolla. The Aventine complex is located on some of the most expensive real estate in the Golden Triangle. The Hyatt Regency La Jolla marks a milestone for Hyatt hotels in its unique style and concept.”

The strange art-and-architecture project on the hill also marked a flurry of controversy upon its completion in 1989. Critics called it “garish,” and defenders insisted upon its “avant-garde innovation.” Here is the rest of the official line on Graves’s artistic intent:

“Colors — The soft, earthy and muted colors that are used throughout the hotel are typical of the colors that Michael Graves uses to signify natural materials. ochre (pronounced ocra) is the color used on the exterior of the hotel as well as parts of the interior.

“Design — Michael Graves has been influenced by the architecture of Tuscany, Italy, and it is represented in the soft tones, leisurely atmosphere, and European aura of the hotel. Michael Graves’ artistic talents and respect for natural materials are demonstrated through the use of warm stones. Rojoalcante is used on the staircase. Rosaduquesa and Grisaduquesa are the stones that make up the lobby floor and Crememarfilis is used for the columns. Paint is man-made, therefore, in keeping with the design of natural materials, Venetian stucco is used in the foyer of the meeting rooms and the ballroom to represent richness and variety and was done by local artisans.

“Consistency — Another unique feature of Michael Graves’ influence is the consistency throughout the hotel in structure as well as design. You will notice a flower in every carpet and oriental rug used in the lobby. The guest room furniture was also designed by Michael Graves. The armoire is designed very similarly to the exterior of the hotel with squares and the distinctive half moon.

“Theory of origin — Trunks of trees were used as columns originally before man-made materials and stones were used. The entry lobby has 16 columns, twice as many as needed structurally.…”

Now you know. Rojoalcante and Crememarfilis are not, as you might have assumed, some sort of Mediterranean desserts.

The first piece of actual art one notices upon checking in is a headless, armless, footless, and shinless torso from the Second Century a.d. The “Togatus,” as it is titled, stands some six feet tall and is situated on a pedestal.

“Stylistically,” the employee crib sheet reads, “this sculpture resembles a Roman marble relief sculpture, ‘Marcus Aurelius Sacrificing.’ From a relief panel from the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius. This narrative marble panel, which measures 10’6” in height, contains life-size figures resembling the togatus figure. The Marcus Aurelius relief dates a.d. 180. The poses of the figures and their drapery reveal Greek Hellenistic influences.

“The Second Century a.d. in Rome is considered historically the Early Imperial Period.… Emperors such as Trajan (r. 98–117) and Hadrian (r. 117–138) lived during this period. Major Roman works of art during the second century a.d. include the column of Trajan (a.d. 113), The Pantheon (a.d. 118–125), and an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 165).”

The other remarkable sculpture is in the lower lobby, off the piano-bar cocktail lounge and restaurant, just past the check-in area and down the stairs. The life-size statue of Poseidon is a replica of the Fourth Century b.c. (460–450) original, which was recovered “appropriately from the sea in 1928 near Cape Artenmisium.… The replica…is only one of a few commissioned by our beloved Pope.”

The brother of Zeus, god of the sea, “holder of the earth,” stands six foot ten, poised to throw, I suppose, a thunderbolt or an invisible trident. This work is on loan from John L. Smaha and Associates. The bearded, empty-eye-socketed mariner’s god and son of Cronus is starkers and anatomically correct, even down to uncircumcised “shrinkage” from the cold Aegean.

Employee Jim Walters shows me suite 1507, the Biedermeier Suite. Pen-and-ink prints, again with an amber-wash background. (The bedspread repeats this pastel earth tone.) Four of the prints are drawings of pottery, archeological sketches drawn to scale with lines and notations, the dimensions of the crockery in a shorthand, possibly a foreign language. Names at the bottom of the print over the bed are Oefen, Gretchen, J. Spiegl, and architect Pein. One drawing is of a sort of love seat/throne with cloaking or drapery hanging, held by a cherub at an angle above the seat. A woman holds the other end, and a falcon or eagle presides over the top of the configuration. The armoire in the bedroom is indeed in the shape of the building itself.

A headless, armless, and legless torso sculpture is off to one side. Though a replica, it is Greek or Roman in origin — I don’t pretend to know which and it is unlabeled. The statue fragment is artfully stained to look as if it has been recently unearthed; a diminutive penis has been broken off at the tip.

Back on the ground floor are architectural drawings of Egyptian ruins, the pyramids at Giza and other famous spots outside of Cairo and along the Nile. The Hyatt Regency at the Aventine complex in La Jolla has many such offerings to suit your aesthetic needs, unfocused as they may be. It is certainly not a Las Vegas–style theme hotel, but what it is actually is not clear either. Bring your Janson’s History of Art for hours of fun with the whole family.

Across the road you will find the La Jolla Marriott. Less imposing or challenging to the artistic dilettante, the Marriott has some good stuff nonetheless. You’ll have to make a point of looking around the lobby for art, but if you do, in one corner you will find a gilt-framed oil painting, say three by five feet, of a 19th-century woman with a Mona Lisa smile and pale hair worn up and away from her face. Neither the woman nor the artist is identified. You will find no information about the work whatsoever. My guess is that it is pre-Victorian, maybe Regency period, but in case you haven’t caught on yet, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Still, the question of the significance, if any, of the unobtrusive presence of this anonymous portrait remains, if you care to pose it. My theory is that the thing is hung there as a brief, almost subliminal visual byte in order to instill in the guest, however briefly, a sense of history, tradition, an association of one sort or another with some time-honored tradition or another in a building that is less than 15 years old.

Art and design theory is fun and not just for the longhairs with initials after their names. Nosiree. You try it next time you check into an E-Z 8 or a Best Western. Even bullfight posters and velvet paintings of Elvis and John Lennon weeping as they play pool with cigar-smoking dogs can provide many minutes of colorful conversation and impressive pontificating. Art is for everyone; whether it is the Pietà or a frowny-faced clown, a Day-Glo sunset or Monet’s water lilies, art can provide a democratic and populist brief heaven. “Art delivers the goods,” as Anthony Burgess once pointed out, “that religion only promises.”

You will find no religion and very little art in the rooms at the Marriott in La Jolla. In the hallways, by the pay phones and rest rooms and Characters Bar and Grill, are a series of Japanese prints depicting domestic life: figures engaged in silk-screening, women and servants doing laundry, geisha activities, etc. All very elegant and restful to the eye. In the rooms, however, the art is rationed out with unimaginative miserliness.

Jay Ibarolle, director of sales and catering, shows me blown-up, mounted photographs of the rooms, all, it appears at first, the same room. Only one detail distinguishes them: the print, architectural renderings of either of two buildings. The pictures are directly over the beds (all of which have the same floral print) and are of maddeningly familiar-looking buildings designed in the classical style with Doric, Corinthian, or Ionic columns — I’ve long ago forgotten which is which. I cannot identify these structures, but they certainly look famous and I feel vaguely stupid that I can’t place them. I know that neither of them is the Parthenon or the TraveLodge on El Cajon Boulevard, nor are they the British Museum or a certain wedding chapel in Las Vegas. They are puckishly Greco-Roman without being too ponderously ethnic, delightfully Imperial yet with a kind of neo-retro-avant-garde-raja-rock-primitive impertinence. It makes no difference, it turns out, what they are. The hotel designer (and Ibarolle has no idea who that might be, “It was left from the previous room design”) was undoubtedly counting on just the reaction I got from the next half dozen hotel guests I interviewed as they were checking out.

  1. “I didn’t notice the art in the room.”
  2. “There wasn’t any, I’m sure.”
  3. “I think there was modern art.”
  4. “Nude fat women.”
  5. “Flowers and whatever.”
  6. “A picture of, like, a plantation.”

I fully agree with number two, I understand number one, and I am willing to give number six marks for remedial observation.

It is time to focus my informal study on the most famous hotel of all in this part of the world. That structure that is familiar to millions who have seen Some Like It Hot and The Stunt Man, that neo-Victorian red-roofed, white-slatted, proudly lit surfside landmark that has offered shelter to presidents, movie stars, tycoons, high-priced hookers, and — publicity flaks will tell you — even ghosts: the Hotel Del Coronado.

Thinking it best to actually live with whatever room art was proffered by this historical treasure, I take lodging for the night. The room, 3369, is in the old Victorian building (as opposed to the new, modern additions to the south side) and comes with breakfast and not one, not two, but three paintings. Also, cable TV and movie channels including Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson boffing each other in a bathtub — a tangle of suds and tattoos (I glimpse this briefly before averting my eyes and stabbing at the “menu” button).

More later on the plethora of art in the lobby and shops on the ground floor; the prints in my room were atypical hotel art, I suppose, if for no other reason than that they were, all three, very different from each other.

The first one you notice after flopping onto the bed is an abstract watercolor landscape that has a very Baja-shoreline feel to it. A fast and blurred brushstroke of green indicates a palm or fern in the foreground, but the focus is the ocean’s horizon midway up the canvas (or cardboard, whatever). In the middle ground is a red clay–colored, rectangular stucco structure with a single window. This is all presented to the eye as if from a moving car or as if, say, you had your back to it, turned around, glimpsed the scene quickly, then turned away. It could well be a part of La Fonda Hotel, along the old road south of Rosarito, at the breakfast hour in July. Though the picture seems hurriedly done, childlike in its simplicity, on waking in the morning I imagined I could smell Mexican coffee and freshly baked bread, salt air, and rotting seaweed. No signature or title on this one, nor on the other two.

The one above the bed is almost a cartoon rather than a painting. A lighthearted tableau of a bicyclist wearing a derby hat pulling a goofy-looking white dog, a kind of oversized Spuds MacKenzie at the end of a leash. The pair are wheeling and trotting through, I think, a city park with blobby green asymmetrical circles on sticks for trees. It is more an illustration from a children’s book, a cell from some whimsical, foreign, animated feature, or a kind of narrative painting by a happily medicated mental patient — a kind of visual Valium with a smile.

The painting over the courtesy-bar refrigerator disturbs me. This one is so abstract as to be, basically, a Rorschach test. An amorphous wash of blue watercolor against a gray stripe of, I suppose, sky, and a green band of, probably, a body of water. The blue field in the foreground might be a surreal tree with congealed, alien cobalt branches but appears to me as a spreading pool of melancholy eclipsing the sick gray-green backdrop of existential nausea, a Sartre-esque mindscape of despair and inescapable doom. I can imagine reaching into the courtesy bar with a hangover, fumbling for the vodka and tomato juice, when this sadistic rendering of some indigo fleur de mal catches the eye and drives my brain-damaged consciousness over the edge into an unguessed abyss of madness. Basically, I like the work. You might read something cheerier into it, of course.

In the corridor downstairs, across from and on either side of the gift shop, are several paintings of Coronado beach, the hotel, and Tent City, the beach community of Coronadoans in the early part of the century. These latter paintings re-create in detail the features of men, women, and children in period clothes with happy expressions and open, white American faces flushed with sun and optimism. The influence of Norman Rockwell is plain here. I could detect no artist’s signature, and the concierge could not tell me who had done them.

Down the hall is the Coronado Gallery. One arm of the hotel’s ground-floor corridor, the gallery is having a sale on all its displayed inventory. Prices slashed for little girls on the beach in long dresses and sun hats, several versions of this mise-en-scène are presented by artist Robert Williams, with titles like Summer Harmony, Second Summer, Catalina, Shell Seekers, etc. Marked down from $850 to $395 if you act now! An artist named H. Behrens is well represented with landscape paintings: Antibes and Memories of Italy — For a limited time only, was $475, now only $295! Bargains on LeRoy Neiman prints of sailboats! Here’s another Rockwell-type job of little kids taking a leak at a row of urinals and wearing basketball jerseys with the names Rodman, Jordan, Barkley, Ewing! A blowup photo of Bogart, Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe getting stinko in some nightclub: Was $175, now $99.50! Lighthouses! Ansel Adams for a hundred bucks! Humorous golf posters featuring Monroe, Bogart, and John Wayne putting while the Three Stooges peer out at them from behind a nearby tree; this is a limited-edition Clemente Micarelli print that would grace any rumpus room, $89.50, reduced from $125! Come on down! At the Coronado Gallery, we’re out of our minds!!!

Along another arm of the basement maze of clothing, candy, and gift shops (and a small delicatessen where you can purchase a quart of water for $4.50) is the Sue Tushingham McNary Art Gallery. Here you will find numerous paintings, prints, and prints “touched by the artist” herself of, for example, the Hotel Del. McNary is not in the store today, but an attractive employee named Kelly, nestled among canvases of gardenscapes, gazebos, and multiangled views of the hotel, reaches her by phone. She hands me a press sheet on the painter, and I study it as the phone rings.

I see that McNary has lived in San Diego since 1972, has been painting since she was nine, and is the first-place winner of the coveted Lawrence Welk Award, as well as having received “Outstanding Young Women of America” recognition and a “Distinguished Alumni Award” from Columbia College in Missouri. Corporate collectors of her work include the Bank of America, San Diego Gas and Electric, Mercy Hospital, and “U.S. Navy ships and shore commands.” Well-known private collectors of her work are Mike Wallace, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Dawson, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Ron Ziegler, Mike Douglas, and Soviet Minister of Defense General Yazov, among others. McNary opened her gallery in the hotel in 1983.

“I’ve never done anything else for a living,” she tells me. “My whole life I’ve been an artist.” The artist married a naval officer, who shipped out on a carrier leaving McNary “…lonely and with some time on my hands,” in Jacksonville, Florida. “So I pulled out the paints again and started up. Neighbors persuaded me to enter some local shows. Shortly after, we moved to Virginia Beach, an area that is very aware of artists. They have some wonderful exhibits. So I sort of jumped into the art scene in Virginia Beach, Virginia.”

McNary works with “various publishers.” She is currently represented by Bentley House International and Image Conscious Press.

“As far as I know, my work does not hang in the actual rooms at the hotel [Del Coronado]. But I know they do across the street at the Glorietta Bay Inn. I just finished a job for them, two different scenes of the main street of Coronado with all the flowers and the hotel in the background.”

McNary was, however, commissioned by the Del to render the hotel as it looks during the Christmas season. The painting hangs in the lobby, and its likeness is used on the official hotel Christmas cards.

“Do you ever,” I ask her, “get tired of painting the Hotel Del?”

She laughs. “I do. That’s why I have so many prints. People want the image of the Hotel Del; they don’t necessarily want to pay the price of an original. I have etchings of the hotel, inexpensive little prints, larger limited editions, as well as the originals, and that seems to mostly fill the niches for those who want the Hotel Del.

“There is,” she adds, “a new animal in town. It’s been about five years now. It’s called the canvas transfer. It’s a print sent off to a company that knows how to separate the ink from the paper. The ink is then put on stretched canvas. They send me back the canvas with the ink printed on it. It has become very trendy in the art-market world for the — and they have different words for this — artist to ‘touch’ it. The new phrase is ‘artist enhanced,’ meaning the artist has painted on it. It can be anything from a couple of brush strokes to really heavy-duty painting like I do. I want people to be able to see the paint. I’ll put it on with a palette knife or a brush, just really heavy paint strokes. I tell people that about 50 percent of it [the artist-enhanced print] was actually painted. Sometimes I paint onto the frame, actually extend the picture onto the frame. When I first started doing these I thought, ‘I don’t know if I like this,’ because you don’t really have an original, and it’s not just a print either. Some are halfway in between. But people don’t care. They love it.”

McNary pays somewhere “in the neighborhood of $2000 a month” for her space at the hotel, and “I have about ten people working for me. My biggest worry as the owner is whether I can meet the payroll and the rent and the insurance every single month. If there’s anything left over, I can take a bit of a salary, which can be a few hundred dollars but never exceeds a few thousand dollars a month. There are all the people who have their hands out first.” ” The daughter of an advertising manager for two newspapers, McNary considers herself “a fairly good businesswoman,” but she would rather spend her time in the studio. Her award from Columbia was in fact “for mixing art and business so well.”

Among her influences she lists “Renoir and Van Gogh. I spend a lot of time oohing and ahhing over painters I like.” Among living painters whom she admires she mentions John Powell, Neil Boyle, and hotel artist Larry Mansker, who now lives in Arkansas. “He [Mansker] did all of the art for Lawrence Welk [Village] and the Doubletree in Mission Valley.” McNary describes supply houses that contract with hotel designers on one end and artists on the other. So many units of art at so much per unit. “It’s not a very romantic view of how all that gets done, but that’s probably the way it is. Then on the other extreme you have, like, the Bellagio in Las Vegas. That’s their hook to get people in — have the world’s biggest collection of famous artists in a hotel. They have to have guards on duty day and night.

“Lately hotels are going toward fine art and canvas, where it’s always been the decorator will just buy so many splotches on paper of mauve and gray so it matches the carpet. They pay the artist, say, 50 bucks apiece for 25 of these. I’m happy to see that starting to pass. Like the Hyatt downtown, they may not have the greatest art in the world, but they have work that has people’s heart and soul in it. They are originals and not just prints. I’m seeing more of that. Hotels are saying to people that they care now about what is on the walls.

“It [hotel art] is becoming more creative and more beautiful. It’s something to enjoy; it adds to the ambiance of the hotel. Instead of admiring their marble floors and their wall treatments, I think you’ll actually admire the art on the walls for a change. This is really a breath of fresh air for me.”

Back in my room, I admire the print of the threatening blue blob above the courtesy bar. I enjoy the sadistic cunning of what looks ostensibly to be an innocent corn flower shifting in the breeze along the beach but proves on examination to be cleverly disguised genitalia accusing the viewer mercilessly of subconscious sexual panic and performance inadequacy.

I phone a friend, an artist in New York, to see if he has any good quotes on hotel art. He says, “I don’t know much about it. I just know what I like.”

“Me too,” I tell him, while watching the blue area of the painting seem to shift into a silhouette of my mother naked.

He asks me, “What’s your angle on this story? What’s going to be your point of view? What’s your stand on art in general?”

“Oh,” I can’t turn away from the painting, which seems to be pulsating, throbbing with a dark and hideous urgency, “I’m for it, I guess.”

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Property astir on El Cajon Blvd.

Lafayette Hotel, Red Fox Room, Mississippi Apartments

“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.”

On the way back down to the lobby, Hajduk explains that much of the hotel’s art was inherited from the owners of the Doubletree and the Omni. She explains further that with massive renovations in 1999, the look of the place will change. How, specifically, she does not know. She assures me, however, that “it will be better.”

Hajduk describes a woman who “…does not stay at the hotel, but she comes by almost every day just to tell me that the picture behind the front desk is horrible. It began to bother me because every day she would say, ‘You know what? That picture is ugly!’ ” Hajduk is speaking of the blob-o’-greens landscape with the little Monticello structure stuck in the right corner. “She was actually kind of aggressive. I said, ‘I’m sorry. Art is something to be admired. Some people like it and some people don’t. I think it’s amazing that you can be that bothered by a piece of art.’ She was really upset.”

Across Broadway from the Westin is the U.S. Grant Hotel, a dignified, masculine class act of a historical landmark. The lobby reminds one of those old university or gentleman’s clubs where Carruthers would obsequiously serve brandy in large snifters and Lord Gutlurch would reminisce about Crimea as he drew on a long Dunhill.

One painting in the lobby is typical: three horsemen, two of them dismounted, in a sylvan glade. A windmill in the background indicates the setting is Holland, and though throughout most of the hotel the theme is 19th-century, the style of this unmarked painting and the hats on the horsemen are more 17th-century, I’m thinking the Flanders school, but that would have been 200 years earlier. Anyway, I like it.

In the Grant Grill you may lunch or dine beneath portraits of hunting dogs: the game afoot between fox and hounds. All rather appetizing. Sets you up for chops, sausages, and a good claret.

A young nanny outside the gift shop is minding two young children, one in a stroller, the other fascinated by the grand piano near the Broadway entrance. The nanny, Stephanie from San Francisco, is on a business trip with the children and their parents. She makes a game for the kids of examining the artwork in the hotel room. “They are prints of still-life flowers. They are very typical ‘hotel.’ Some of the prints in the hallway are a little nicer. We kind of go through and name the stuff in the pictures, so we pay a little bit more attention to them than the average guest probably would.”

“Ah. And what,” I inquire, “were the flowers?”

“I have no idea. The names were at the bottom in Latin. We made up our own names for them, like the Rudy Buzzudee Flower and the Poison Peanut Plant and the Robosaurus Monster Vine or something.”

“Very creative.”

A woman and some friends are seated at a table in the lobby enjoying drinks, while around the wainscoted corner in the Grant Grill bar patrons watch the Padres kick Atlanta butt. The two men she is with recall no artwork whatsoever. “Art? What art? You should ask my wife, she would know. I noticed the beer menu.”

“I don’t think there was anything hanging in the room,” says the other man.

“Yeah, there was. There was art,” the first man says, presumably just to be contrary. The woman strikes a neutral note.

“I noticed the wallpaper,” she says.

“I wouldn’t notice if they had dead babies nailed to the walls.” The second man is into the garrulous phase of his martini drinking.

“The wallpaper and draperies are very nice,” says the woman. “They are kind of 1880s, 1890s circa. Victorian, but not in a standoffish way. It’s very comfortable. When you first look at it, you get an almost wood-grain type of feeling. It looks like they used wood paneling, but when you look at it you can see they used a kind of silk print. Also, the pottery around the hotel is remarkable.”

“I can’t believe people notice this stuff. I didn’t see any of this stuff.” The martini drinker then adds, “I’m from El Paso.” This is said with finality, as if the announcement implies an entire school of art invisible to those from El Paso.

The first man introduces himself as Bob, then introduces his wife, Denise, but does not introduce Martini Guy. “This is a cigar-smokin’, guys hotel,” Bob says.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Denise says.

“I’m not smoking.” He frowns into his drink.

This sparks a discussion about what to do with the Cuban cigars the men bought in Tijuana, and matters of aesthetics are forgotten.

Across from the registration desk is a painting of a covered bridge straddling a stream that is obscured by shrubbery in the foreground. It is well executed, quietly pleasing, and unobtrusive. It is signed by F.E. Penfold with no date. My guess is that it has not been painted recently.

“The hotel was built in 1910,” says my young, well-groomed guide. The desk clerk is handsome and sensitive-looking, almost delicate. His manner is quiet and deferential. He ushers me to the elevators and will guide me through a room on the fifth floor.

The room is dark, woody, womblike, and clean. On the walls are ink drawings and engravings. The one nearest to hand is credited to W. Faithhorn and J. P. Neil. It is one of a series of three renderings of various castles, Huntingshire, Connington, and Cherbourne castles. A watercolor wash provides an almost subliminal background to the fine, geometric pen strokes. They draw little attention to themselves; businesslike and pleasant, they are the decorative equivalent of a sensible, conservative necktie.

On another wall are what look to be framed pages of an old botanical guide. Again pen-and-ink with the Latin names of the flowers or plants printed in a calligraphic typeface meant to evoke a medieval monk’s mutedly illuminated manuscript; the kind of thing Roger Bacon might have leafed through in the 13th Century, mortar and pestle at his elbow. “Caryophyllus multiplexma, Ximus variegatus, Leucokimflore rubropleno.”

More 19th-century pen-and-ink engravings line the hallway to the next room where more botanical drawings hang over the bed in a Victorian-themed, manly-and-sober setting. These plants have no names and seem to be colored with oils or even, possibly, acrylics. No dates or signatures are legible. Over a desk is an amber-tinted photograph of the Grant Hotel and Horton Plaza. The cars on Broadway and Fourth Avenue date from the 1920s. The art, architecture, furnishings, and design at the U.S. Grant Hotel thematically conspire to ensure that your stay is imbued with a rich, historical quality no matter how pointless your business trip.

The Hyatt Regency La Jolla in “the Aventine,” set in the heart of the Golden Triangle, is the conceptual baby of the now-64-year-old architect Michael Graves. A professor of architecture at Princeton and architect of the Denver public library (he now does picture frames and toasters for Target stores), Graves is also a painter and has designed the San Juan Capistrano public library, as well as “…numerous showrooms for the Sunar Furniture Company.” The Hyatt calls attention to itself from a half mile away.

Stylized and sterile, an almost Disney-like theme park of blocky geometry (“Twelve palm trees in the courtyard are geometrically balanced and create a square,” brags the press kit on Graves and the Aventine), the grounds might host an upscale science-fiction convention with jousting tournaments and toga parties studded with cell phones and laptops, the poolside air fragrant with sunscreen and cappuccino.

This is visually strange territory. It seems inspired by Prozac or amphetamine, a manic, menopausal sensibility informed with a gay but selective, almost brain-damaged grasping at art history from classical to postmodern chaotic: Frank Lloyd Wright meets Julius Caesar, David Hockney, and King Arthur.

“Michael Graves designed the self-contained 11-acre Euro-style complex called Aventine,” reads the spiel sheet employees are given to read when guests ask about the art and architecture at the Hyatt. “This European Village, named after one of the seven hills in Rome, houses two office buildings, a business center, sporting club, recreational facilities, formal gardens, restaurant court and the Hyatt Regency La Jolla. The Aventine complex is located on some of the most expensive real estate in the Golden Triangle. The Hyatt Regency La Jolla marks a milestone for Hyatt hotels in its unique style and concept.”

The strange art-and-architecture project on the hill also marked a flurry of controversy upon its completion in 1989. Critics called it “garish,” and defenders insisted upon its “avant-garde innovation.” Here is the rest of the official line on Graves’s artistic intent:

“Colors — The soft, earthy and muted colors that are used throughout the hotel are typical of the colors that Michael Graves uses to signify natural materials. ochre (pronounced ocra) is the color used on the exterior of the hotel as well as parts of the interior.

“Design — Michael Graves has been influenced by the architecture of Tuscany, Italy, and it is represented in the soft tones, leisurely atmosphere, and European aura of the hotel. Michael Graves’ artistic talents and respect for natural materials are demonstrated through the use of warm stones. Rojoalcante is used on the staircase. Rosaduquesa and Grisaduquesa are the stones that make up the lobby floor and Crememarfilis is used for the columns. Paint is man-made, therefore, in keeping with the design of natural materials, Venetian stucco is used in the foyer of the meeting rooms and the ballroom to represent richness and variety and was done by local artisans.

“Consistency — Another unique feature of Michael Graves’ influence is the consistency throughout the hotel in structure as well as design. You will notice a flower in every carpet and oriental rug used in the lobby. The guest room furniture was also designed by Michael Graves. The armoire is designed very similarly to the exterior of the hotel with squares and the distinctive half moon.

“Theory of origin — Trunks of trees were used as columns originally before man-made materials and stones were used. The entry lobby has 16 columns, twice as many as needed structurally.…”

Now you know. Rojoalcante and Crememarfilis are not, as you might have assumed, some sort of Mediterranean desserts.

The first piece of actual art one notices upon checking in is a headless, armless, footless, and shinless torso from the Second Century a.d. The “Togatus,” as it is titled, stands some six feet tall and is situated on a pedestal.

“Stylistically,” the employee crib sheet reads, “this sculpture resembles a Roman marble relief sculpture, ‘Marcus Aurelius Sacrificing.’ From a relief panel from the Triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius. This narrative marble panel, which measures 10’6” in height, contains life-size figures resembling the togatus figure. The Marcus Aurelius relief dates a.d. 180. The poses of the figures and their drapery reveal Greek Hellenistic influences.

“The Second Century a.d. in Rome is considered historically the Early Imperial Period.… Emperors such as Trajan (r. 98–117) and Hadrian (r. 117–138) lived during this period. Major Roman works of art during the second century a.d. include the column of Trajan (a.d. 113), The Pantheon (a.d. 118–125), and an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 165).”

The other remarkable sculpture is in the lower lobby, off the piano-bar cocktail lounge and restaurant, just past the check-in area and down the stairs. The life-size statue of Poseidon is a replica of the Fourth Century b.c. (460–450) original, which was recovered “appropriately from the sea in 1928 near Cape Artenmisium.… The replica…is only one of a few commissioned by our beloved Pope.”

The brother of Zeus, god of the sea, “holder of the earth,” stands six foot ten, poised to throw, I suppose, a thunderbolt or an invisible trident. This work is on loan from John L. Smaha and Associates. The bearded, empty-eye-socketed mariner’s god and son of Cronus is starkers and anatomically correct, even down to uncircumcised “shrinkage” from the cold Aegean.

Employee Jim Walters shows me suite 1507, the Biedermeier Suite. Pen-and-ink prints, again with an amber-wash background. (The bedspread repeats this pastel earth tone.) Four of the prints are drawings of pottery, archeological sketches drawn to scale with lines and notations, the dimensions of the crockery in a shorthand, possibly a foreign language. Names at the bottom of the print over the bed are Oefen, Gretchen, J. Spiegl, and architect Pein. One drawing is of a sort of love seat/throne with cloaking or drapery hanging, held by a cherub at an angle above the seat. A woman holds the other end, and a falcon or eagle presides over the top of the configuration. The armoire in the bedroom is indeed in the shape of the building itself.

A headless, armless, and legless torso sculpture is off to one side. Though a replica, it is Greek or Roman in origin — I don’t pretend to know which and it is unlabeled. The statue fragment is artfully stained to look as if it has been recently unearthed; a diminutive penis has been broken off at the tip.

Back on the ground floor are architectural drawings of Egyptian ruins, the pyramids at Giza and other famous spots outside of Cairo and along the Nile. The Hyatt Regency at the Aventine complex in La Jolla has many such offerings to suit your aesthetic needs, unfocused as they may be. It is certainly not a Las Vegas–style theme hotel, but what it is actually is not clear either. Bring your Janson’s History of Art for hours of fun with the whole family.

Across the road you will find the La Jolla Marriott. Less imposing or challenging to the artistic dilettante, the Marriott has some good stuff nonetheless. You’ll have to make a point of looking around the lobby for art, but if you do, in one corner you will find a gilt-framed oil painting, say three by five feet, of a 19th-century woman with a Mona Lisa smile and pale hair worn up and away from her face. Neither the woman nor the artist is identified. You will find no information about the work whatsoever. My guess is that it is pre-Victorian, maybe Regency period, but in case you haven’t caught on yet, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Still, the question of the significance, if any, of the unobtrusive presence of this anonymous portrait remains, if you care to pose it. My theory is that the thing is hung there as a brief, almost subliminal visual byte in order to instill in the guest, however briefly, a sense of history, tradition, an association of one sort or another with some time-honored tradition or another in a building that is less than 15 years old.

Art and design theory is fun and not just for the longhairs with initials after their names. Nosiree. You try it next time you check into an E-Z 8 or a Best Western. Even bullfight posters and velvet paintings of Elvis and John Lennon weeping as they play pool with cigar-smoking dogs can provide many minutes of colorful conversation and impressive pontificating. Art is for everyone; whether it is the Pietà or a frowny-faced clown, a Day-Glo sunset or Monet’s water lilies, art can provide a democratic and populist brief heaven. “Art delivers the goods,” as Anthony Burgess once pointed out, “that religion only promises.”

You will find no religion and very little art in the rooms at the Marriott in La Jolla. In the hallways, by the pay phones and rest rooms and Characters Bar and Grill, are a series of Japanese prints depicting domestic life: figures engaged in silk-screening, women and servants doing laundry, geisha activities, etc. All very elegant and restful to the eye. In the rooms, however, the art is rationed out with unimaginative miserliness.

Jay Ibarolle, director of sales and catering, shows me blown-up, mounted photographs of the rooms, all, it appears at first, the same room. Only one detail distinguishes them: the print, architectural renderings of either of two buildings. The pictures are directly over the beds (all of which have the same floral print) and are of maddeningly familiar-looking buildings designed in the classical style with Doric, Corinthian, or Ionic columns — I’ve long ago forgotten which is which. I cannot identify these structures, but they certainly look famous and I feel vaguely stupid that I can’t place them. I know that neither of them is the Parthenon or the TraveLodge on El Cajon Boulevard, nor are they the British Museum or a certain wedding chapel in Las Vegas. They are puckishly Greco-Roman without being too ponderously ethnic, delightfully Imperial yet with a kind of neo-retro-avant-garde-raja-rock-primitive impertinence. It makes no difference, it turns out, what they are. The hotel designer (and Ibarolle has no idea who that might be, “It was left from the previous room design”) was undoubtedly counting on just the reaction I got from the next half dozen hotel guests I interviewed as they were checking out.

  1. “I didn’t notice the art in the room.”
  2. “There wasn’t any, I’m sure.”
  3. “I think there was modern art.”
  4. “Nude fat women.”
  5. “Flowers and whatever.”
  6. “A picture of, like, a plantation.”

I fully agree with number two, I understand number one, and I am willing to give number six marks for remedial observation.

It is time to focus my informal study on the most famous hotel of all in this part of the world. That structure that is familiar to millions who have seen Some Like It Hot and The Stunt Man, that neo-Victorian red-roofed, white-slatted, proudly lit surfside landmark that has offered shelter to presidents, movie stars, tycoons, high-priced hookers, and — publicity flaks will tell you — even ghosts: the Hotel Del Coronado.

Thinking it best to actually live with whatever room art was proffered by this historical treasure, I take lodging for the night. The room, 3369, is in the old Victorian building (as opposed to the new, modern additions to the south side) and comes with breakfast and not one, not two, but three paintings. Also, cable TV and movie channels including Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson boffing each other in a bathtub — a tangle of suds and tattoos (I glimpse this briefly before averting my eyes and stabbing at the “menu” button).

More later on the plethora of art in the lobby and shops on the ground floor; the prints in my room were atypical hotel art, I suppose, if for no other reason than that they were, all three, very different from each other.

The first one you notice after flopping onto the bed is an abstract watercolor landscape that has a very Baja-shoreline feel to it. A fast and blurred brushstroke of green indicates a palm or fern in the foreground, but the focus is the ocean’s horizon midway up the canvas (or cardboard, whatever). In the middle ground is a red clay–colored, rectangular stucco structure with a single window. This is all presented to the eye as if from a moving car or as if, say, you had your back to it, turned around, glimpsed the scene quickly, then turned away. It could well be a part of La Fonda Hotel, along the old road south of Rosarito, at the breakfast hour in July. Though the picture seems hurriedly done, childlike in its simplicity, on waking in the morning I imagined I could smell Mexican coffee and freshly baked bread, salt air, and rotting seaweed. No signature or title on this one, nor on the other two.

The one above the bed is almost a cartoon rather than a painting. A lighthearted tableau of a bicyclist wearing a derby hat pulling a goofy-looking white dog, a kind of oversized Spuds MacKenzie at the end of a leash. The pair are wheeling and trotting through, I think, a city park with blobby green asymmetrical circles on sticks for trees. It is more an illustration from a children’s book, a cell from some whimsical, foreign, animated feature, or a kind of narrative painting by a happily medicated mental patient — a kind of visual Valium with a smile.

The painting over the courtesy-bar refrigerator disturbs me. This one is so abstract as to be, basically, a Rorschach test. An amorphous wash of blue watercolor against a gray stripe of, I suppose, sky, and a green band of, probably, a body of water. The blue field in the foreground might be a surreal tree with congealed, alien cobalt branches but appears to me as a spreading pool of melancholy eclipsing the sick gray-green backdrop of existential nausea, a Sartre-esque mindscape of despair and inescapable doom. I can imagine reaching into the courtesy bar with a hangover, fumbling for the vodka and tomato juice, when this sadistic rendering of some indigo fleur de mal catches the eye and drives my brain-damaged consciousness over the edge into an unguessed abyss of madness. Basically, I like the work. You might read something cheerier into it, of course.

In the corridor downstairs, across from and on either side of the gift shop, are several paintings of Coronado beach, the hotel, and Tent City, the beach community of Coronadoans in the early part of the century. These latter paintings re-create in detail the features of men, women, and children in period clothes with happy expressions and open, white American faces flushed with sun and optimism. The influence of Norman Rockwell is plain here. I could detect no artist’s signature, and the concierge could not tell me who had done them.

Down the hall is the Coronado Gallery. One arm of the hotel’s ground-floor corridor, the gallery is having a sale on all its displayed inventory. Prices slashed for little girls on the beach in long dresses and sun hats, several versions of this mise-en-scène are presented by artist Robert Williams, with titles like Summer Harmony, Second Summer, Catalina, Shell Seekers, etc. Marked down from $850 to $395 if you act now! An artist named H. Behrens is well represented with landscape paintings: Antibes and Memories of Italy — For a limited time only, was $475, now only $295! Bargains on LeRoy Neiman prints of sailboats! Here’s another Rockwell-type job of little kids taking a leak at a row of urinals and wearing basketball jerseys with the names Rodman, Jordan, Barkley, Ewing! A blowup photo of Bogart, Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe getting stinko in some nightclub: Was $175, now $99.50! Lighthouses! Ansel Adams for a hundred bucks! Humorous golf posters featuring Monroe, Bogart, and John Wayne putting while the Three Stooges peer out at them from behind a nearby tree; this is a limited-edition Clemente Micarelli print that would grace any rumpus room, $89.50, reduced from $125! Come on down! At the Coronado Gallery, we’re out of our minds!!!

Along another arm of the basement maze of clothing, candy, and gift shops (and a small delicatessen where you can purchase a quart of water for $4.50) is the Sue Tushingham McNary Art Gallery. Here you will find numerous paintings, prints, and prints “touched by the artist” herself of, for example, the Hotel Del. McNary is not in the store today, but an attractive employee named Kelly, nestled among canvases of gardenscapes, gazebos, and multiangled views of the hotel, reaches her by phone. She hands me a press sheet on the painter, and I study it as the phone rings.

I see that McNary has lived in San Diego since 1972, has been painting since she was nine, and is the first-place winner of the coveted Lawrence Welk Award, as well as having received “Outstanding Young Women of America” recognition and a “Distinguished Alumni Award” from Columbia College in Missouri. Corporate collectors of her work include the Bank of America, San Diego Gas and Electric, Mercy Hospital, and “U.S. Navy ships and shore commands.” Well-known private collectors of her work are Mike Wallace, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Dawson, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Ron Ziegler, Mike Douglas, and Soviet Minister of Defense General Yazov, among others. McNary opened her gallery in the hotel in 1983.

“I’ve never done anything else for a living,” she tells me. “My whole life I’ve been an artist.” The artist married a naval officer, who shipped out on a carrier leaving McNary “…lonely and with some time on my hands,” in Jacksonville, Florida. “So I pulled out the paints again and started up. Neighbors persuaded me to enter some local shows. Shortly after, we moved to Virginia Beach, an area that is very aware of artists. They have some wonderful exhibits. So I sort of jumped into the art scene in Virginia Beach, Virginia.”

McNary works with “various publishers.” She is currently represented by Bentley House International and Image Conscious Press.

“As far as I know, my work does not hang in the actual rooms at the hotel [Del Coronado]. But I know they do across the street at the Glorietta Bay Inn. I just finished a job for them, two different scenes of the main street of Coronado with all the flowers and the hotel in the background.”

McNary was, however, commissioned by the Del to render the hotel as it looks during the Christmas season. The painting hangs in the lobby, and its likeness is used on the official hotel Christmas cards.

“Do you ever,” I ask her, “get tired of painting the Hotel Del?”

She laughs. “I do. That’s why I have so many prints. People want the image of the Hotel Del; they don’t necessarily want to pay the price of an original. I have etchings of the hotel, inexpensive little prints, larger limited editions, as well as the originals, and that seems to mostly fill the niches for those who want the Hotel Del.

“There is,” she adds, “a new animal in town. It’s been about five years now. It’s called the canvas transfer. It’s a print sent off to a company that knows how to separate the ink from the paper. The ink is then put on stretched canvas. They send me back the canvas with the ink printed on it. It has become very trendy in the art-market world for the — and they have different words for this — artist to ‘touch’ it. The new phrase is ‘artist enhanced,’ meaning the artist has painted on it. It can be anything from a couple of brush strokes to really heavy-duty painting like I do. I want people to be able to see the paint. I’ll put it on with a palette knife or a brush, just really heavy paint strokes. I tell people that about 50 percent of it [the artist-enhanced print] was actually painted. Sometimes I paint onto the frame, actually extend the picture onto the frame. When I first started doing these I thought, ‘I don’t know if I like this,’ because you don’t really have an original, and it’s not just a print either. Some are halfway in between. But people don’t care. They love it.”

McNary pays somewhere “in the neighborhood of $2000 a month” for her space at the hotel, and “I have about ten people working for me. My biggest worry as the owner is whether I can meet the payroll and the rent and the insurance every single month. If there’s anything left over, I can take a bit of a salary, which can be a few hundred dollars but never exceeds a few thousand dollars a month. There are all the people who have their hands out first.” ” The daughter of an advertising manager for two newspapers, McNary considers herself “a fairly good businesswoman,” but she would rather spend her time in the studio. Her award from Columbia was in fact “for mixing art and business so well.”

Among her influences she lists “Renoir and Van Gogh. I spend a lot of time oohing and ahhing over painters I like.” Among living painters whom she admires she mentions John Powell, Neil Boyle, and hotel artist Larry Mansker, who now lives in Arkansas. “He [Mansker] did all of the art for Lawrence Welk [Village] and the Doubletree in Mission Valley.” McNary describes supply houses that contract with hotel designers on one end and artists on the other. So many units of art at so much per unit. “It’s not a very romantic view of how all that gets done, but that’s probably the way it is. Then on the other extreme you have, like, the Bellagio in Las Vegas. That’s their hook to get people in — have the world’s biggest collection of famous artists in a hotel. They have to have guards on duty day and night.

“Lately hotels are going toward fine art and canvas, where it’s always been the decorator will just buy so many splotches on paper of mauve and gray so it matches the carpet. They pay the artist, say, 50 bucks apiece for 25 of these. I’m happy to see that starting to pass. Like the Hyatt downtown, they may not have the greatest art in the world, but they have work that has people’s heart and soul in it. They are originals and not just prints. I’m seeing more of that. Hotels are saying to people that they care now about what is on the walls.

“It [hotel art] is becoming more creative and more beautiful. It’s something to enjoy; it adds to the ambiance of the hotel. Instead of admiring their marble floors and their wall treatments, I think you’ll actually admire the art on the walls for a change. This is really a breath of fresh air for me.”

Back in my room, I admire the print of the threatening blue blob above the courtesy bar. I enjoy the sadistic cunning of what looks ostensibly to be an innocent corn flower shifting in the breeze along the beach but proves on examination to be cleverly disguised genitalia accusing the viewer mercilessly of subconscious sexual panic and performance inadequacy.

I phone a friend, an artist in New York, to see if he has any good quotes on hotel art. He says, “I don’t know much about it. I just know what I like.”

“Me too,” I tell him, while watching the blue area of the painting seem to shift into a silhouette of my mother naked.

He asks me, “What’s your angle on this story? What’s going to be your point of view? What’s your stand on art in general?”

“Oh,” I can’t turn away from the painting, which seems to be pulsating, throbbing with a dark and hideous urgency, “I’m for it, I guess.”

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