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BETTY ANN BROWN


Art has brought me so many positive experiences that it is difficult to select the most impressive one, so I have chosen to mention a handful.

Fifteen years ago, when I was start-up editor of Visions, the now defunct Los Angeles art quarterly, I chose to interview David Hockney for the magazine's first issue. I spent days working on the questions and writing them in a notebook of lined paper, careful to leave sufficient space after each to allow room for notes. I tested and re-tested my tape recorder with obsessive intensity. I drove to his home off Mulholland Drive (we used his painting of that name for the magazine cover), making sure to arrive well before the appointed hour. His (young and gorgeous) butler opened the door soon after my knock and I walked into a Hockney kaleidoscope. Surrounded by brilliant colors and cubist patterns, I found my way to the artist, who directed me to a bright, overstuffed sofa that made me think of Matisse (who, you will remember, commented that he wanted his art to be like a comfortable easy chair). The butler served us tea as I began my questions. And within minutes, I was not only captivated by Hockney's brilliant mind and articulate presentation, but also so relaxed that I almost forgot I was speaking to the one of the most famous among living artists. Our conversation spiraled far beyond my timid list of questions. Hockney spoke of fractals. He talked about the artistic heritage of L.A. About poverty and homelessness. About his art. I stayed the afternoon and wish I could have further continued the conversation even today. The AbEx critic who coined the phrase "dumb as an artist," intending the word "dumb" to mean both mute and stupid, had clearly never met anyone like David Hockney.

Six years ago, I had another remarkable experience which was, as it happens, with one of Hockney's close friends: Don Bachardy. On two afternoons in January 1996, I drove from my home in Pasadena out to Santa Monica and posed for Bachardy as he painted my portrait. It is difficult, almost embarrassing, to try to convey in a few words the profound impact of those afternoons, those hours of absolute silence, looking into Bachardy's eyes. His studio has a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the Palisades, but even the spectacle of nature at her most seductive couldn't draw me away from the artist's gaze. His face radiated such an intensity, such an intimacy. Looking at him as he studied and painted me was like making love without touching, making love without possession, without sex. It was a kind of psychic unity that transformed even after being ruptured. I wonder, now, if any of the British aristocrats so lushly portrayed in the Huntington Collection had similar experiences of disinterested familiarity.

Usually my peak experiences with art happen while looking at the art. A couple of years ago I flew to Chicago to see the Remedios Varo exhibition that had originated at the Museum of Women's Art in D.C. and traveled that summer to the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in the Windy City. I was working on my recent book on women of Surrealism, and hadn't seen any Varos in person since traveling to Mexico some time before. Which is to say that I had a knowledge of the work and a vested (professional) interest in seeing it. But I think my experience of the Varo show was greatly enhanced by the fact that I saw it with another woman, my friend Jeri Waxenberg, who is similarly committed to and informed about the work of women artists. We oo'ed and ah'ed over the show, enchanted by the high level of craft in Varo's paintings, engaged by the sophistication of her symbolic autobiography. I remember we were both particularly stunned to see paintings in which the artist had collaged mother of pearl onto the canvas to make certain faces luminous. Then Jeri and I went out to a fancy restaurant and continued to talk about the show, about Varo, about Surrealism, about art. People in the wine business say that the company wine is drunk in largely affects how the wine tastes. I am convinced that is true of art as well. The context in which it is seen greatly determines its impact.

Most recently were two exhibitions that were particularly impressive. As it happens, both were in the gallery at Cal Poly Pomona. Last fall, gallery director Patrick Merrill curated a show titled Representations, which explored identity politics and its manifestation in art. In all the remarkable diversity of the show, I particularly remember being delighted and intrigued by Gilbert “Magu” Lujan’s hanging tee-shirts, each fastidiously covered with drawings of Chicano life. (Isn’t fabric art, particularly autobiographical fabric art, supposed to be a female art form?!) I was also taken by Mark Greenfield’s image and text work based on historic photographs that reveal the underlying--and persistent--continued existence of racism in America.

Later in the fall, Merrill collaborated with artist M.C. Gee to create an exhibition they called "Ephemeral." During the opening reception, Suvan Geer (who also had a compelling video installation inside the gallery) did a performance using the hare image that has been woven through her work for about a decade. Geer drew the hare in gunpowder on the cement of the entryway to the gallery. As the opening crowd surged around, she lit the powder, which had been arranged in a lacy pattern that forced the fire to burn slowly and elegantly over the animal’s shape. There was a ritualistic intensity to the dancing flame that held my attention in its hushed grasp. I wondered if it would work. Was it well planned? Would the whole body burn? What would remain? And then, as the tension of my doubts relaxed into trust, I felt a remarkable catharsis and satisfaction. Good art just does that to you. You come away with so much. And you can evoke those positive sensations every time you see the art, or think about it, again.



Brown's book, Gradiva's Mirror: Reflections on Women, Surrealism & Art History, was released by Midmarch Arts Press in February 2002.