CA Day 2- Pop Art, Pizza Mics, and Podcasts
Today started out by saying good morning and good bye to my friend’s mom who was so kind to take me in for the night.
After heading out, I fueled up getting some coffee at the delightfully named Java Man (the name refers to the fact that their are men there who make java based drinks and is not a reference to the prehistoric man). It was a very cute coffee shop housed in a re-purposed beach house, so it had an extra laid back vibe to it and some really nice coffee.
After caffeinating, I went to a restaurant my friend Eli recommended called Amigos Tacos, which is known for having the #1 ranked Breakfast Burrito in all of Los Angeles. I liked the place right away, and I could tell from the wall art that they were welcoming of people like me:
As much as I loved the surfer decor, I actually took my burrito to go, because I had finally driven far enough to see the Pacific ocean and there was no way I was going to miss out on a beach brunch to celebrate making it coast to coast. It might be as cheesy as the burrito itself, but this felt like a big accomplishment to truly say I made this cross-country road trip literally cross country. It was a whole lot of driving to get here, but god dang the Pacific is so beautiful. I guess it’s in the name, but it feels much more peaceful and weirdly more blue than the ocean I’m more used to on my home coast. The icing on top of the beautiful scenery is that burrito completely lived up to the hype. It was a magnificent, filled with just about every breakfast food you could want including eggs, cheese, sausage, ham, bacon, hashbrowns (!), and salsa all wrapped up in a warm fluffy tortilla. I can say with no reservations it was the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever had, and a perfect way to celebrate a road trip milestone.
After trekking back to metropolitan LA from the beach, I made my way to my main destination for the day: The Broad (apparently pronounced like “road” not like an outdated term for a dame). The Broad might be the finest contemporary art museum in the country (certainly in the top 5) as it has one of the largest and most comprehensive collection of the art world’s hottest stars through the decades. While this does include the occasional Picasso or Matisse, the general focus is on pieces from the 60s and later, with an effort to highlight current artists as well as their big name items. In an attempt to make sure nobody walking by even thinks for one second that this isn’t a contemporary art building, the building features a wildly unusual design called “the vault and the veil” by architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro which consists of a more traditional concrete “vault” wrapped by a fiberglass honey-combed veil that filters and directs light into the building. It’s odd-looking, which might not be to everyone’s aesthetic taste but I really enjoyed looking it and found its weirdness pretty charming.
One very nice thing about the Broad is that it’s founder Eli Broad is already a billionaire so admission is totally free, because he doesn’t need the money and he’s a huge art fan and he wanted everyone to be able to the art he loves so much. I’m sure the charitable tax write offs probably didn’t hurt, but maybe I’m a touch cynical when it comes to capital-B Billionaires. Whatever the motives, the fact that museum is open to the public truly is a special thing, because there really aren’t a whole lot of spaces left where just anyone can go and spend a day surrounded by beautiful and challenging things. Contemporary art certainly has a reputation as being pretentious, snooty, and not for everyone (which to be fair does describe some contemporary art) but there’s simply so much variety that there must be something for everyone there, even if it’s just one painting, and it’s really wonderful that people have the opportunity to find out what appeals to them without spending a bundle to do so.
One slight caveat of the museum being totally free is that there is usually a pretty long line for getting in, with timed entrances every 30 minutes. When you do get in though, the museum’s unusual architecture creates a weirdly magical effect by having all visitors take a single escalator through a softly grey concrete tunnel. The dark narrow tunnel then suddenly lets out into the expansive mostly naturally-lit main gallery space, and it’s a thrilling bit of disorientation as you release all the tension you hadn’t realized you built up in the tunnel. Bonus points to the woman in front of me for wearing electric pink pants and making my photo much more interesting than just a gray tube:
The first thing I saw at the museum were their recent acquisitions. These included some incredible pieces by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. The two pieces Deutschlands Geisteshelden (on the right) and Kopf im Wald, Kopf in den Wolken (on the left) combine traditional oil painting with harsh fabric collages for viscerally textured surfaces with hauntingly lovely surrealist overtones. The blending of the fabrics adds a tactile layer of depth that feels more real than a classic 2-dimensional piece. I had never heard of the artist before, but I really loved his work.
After the new pieces, I started diving into the permanent collection with some big names in the pop-art world. The museum has one of the largest collection of pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, and I think seeing a bunch of pieces by him in one place really showcases just how much talent he actually had. As a big comic book geek, I’ve always liked Lichtenstein for really being one of the first people to elevate that style of commercial art to the status of “high art”, even if it was not so lightly tinged in irony, but I feel like when you develop an iconic style the common criticism becomes that that’s all you can do. While the museum did have some of his classic ben-day dot comic strip paintings, they also had a lot of paintings from later phases in his career where he experimented with different techniques such as replicating mirrors and re-imagining Picasso in pop-art colors. All together these different paintings really show off his range and versatility to be able to work in so many different styles with wildly different palettes and brushstrokes. I’ve always liked him, but I feel like this collection helped me really appreciate him on another level. Also in these photos is a bonus sculpture by Jeff Koons of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, which shows how Lichtenstein’s pop-art torch has been carried on by younger artists. Koons is definitely a favorite of Eli Broad who has paid exorbitant sums for his work, but while I liked his pieces, they never quite get hit me on an emotional level like some of the Lichtenstein’s did. I guess it’s like art is subjective or something.
Up next for famous names was big collection of works by Cy Twombly. Twombly’s someone who I think is up there with Pollock as one of those artists who people either think “oh this is contemporary art” or “my kid could do that” because he’s probably most well known for paintings which look a lot like scribbles. I think those criticisms tend to be a bit unfair, but I can see why his aesthetic might not be for everyone. I was a little skeptical of him myself the first time I saw him, but when I read a bit more about him and what he was doing I was impressed that he does seem to have truly done something totally original. Twombly had worked as a cryptographer for the military in the 50s and that certainly influenced his later decisions to prominently include written words (or in some cases gestures that seem like written words) into his paintings. That blending of symbols from painting and writing might seem simple, but he was the first person to add writing into the Abstract Expressionist’s focus on capturing gestures. It challenged the notion of what art could be as words inherently do have their own meaning but are also visual marks which can have meanings of their own, and he could play with the juxtapositions of those competing stimuli. This does draw on Eastern traditions of Calligraphy, but instead of focusing on the serenity and beauty of carefully made markings, he instead captured the motion and desperation of a violent scrawl, sometimes cutting right into wet paint with pencils and knives to create his unique effect. Like it or hate it, it’s always cool when someone does something that hasn’t been done before. Similarly, the Broad had a lot of his sculptures which I had never seen before. Again, I was not initially impressed by their aesthetic because they just look like lumps of plaster, but in reality they’re solid bronze casts of household objects which he deliberately painted to give the illusion of plaster. The fact that those things are all solid metal is crazy to me, and whether or not it’s pretty I’ve never seen anything else like it.
Up next was a piece that I think would wow anybody no matter how skeptical they are of modern art: Chuck Close’s John. What initially seems like a cool but fairly standard (except for it’s large size) photograph, become a truly jaw dropping work of photo-realist perfectionism when you learn that it is in fact a meticulously done painting made entirely with acrylic and, presumably, obsessive compulsive disorder. The piece was made by sectioning off a photograph into grids and then perfectly capturing each grid until the complete photograph had been captured down to the last detail. The net effect is just incredible.
Down the hallway from John was an abstract expressionist (a genre that is surprisingly and kind of refreshingly under-represented for a contemporary art museum) series by Terry Winters called Set Diagrams. These pieces were made in collaboration with an architect in an attempt to create works that blended biological forms with architectural ones in a way that would seem to extend beyond the canvas. I didn’t quite get how that made sense at first, but the longer you stare at them the more the shapes seem to move in and out of the background and foreground and it’s a cool visual effect.
The next section showcased some different artists working with mixed-media collage. I particularly liked these two pieced by Sigmar Polke (left) and Robert Rauschenberg (right) which combined silk-screened photographs, found materials, and paintings by the artists themselves for vibrantly surrealist effect as your brain tries to incorporate all the disparate imagery into a logical whole. The Rauschenberg, I especially like because the way he’s integrated his found images makes it difficult to decipher where what he’s added and what he’s found begin and end.
Up next was a gallery of some important figures in California’s home-grown modern art movement. My favorites here were two pioneers of the conceptual art movement, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, because they had my favorite blend of legitimate artistic talent and silly senses of humor. Both artists are known for juxtaposing seemingly random imagery with unrelated words and phrases with part of the idea being that the “art” lies more in how the viewer makes connections where they don’t necessarily exist. The Ruscha piece on the left is called No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk and features a symbol of warmth and family, the hearth, dramatically removed of any actual context which drastically changes the nature of the symbol as it seems much more intimidating than comforting. The Baldessari piece on the right is called The Spectator is Compelled… which features a photograph of a man looking down a street with, below it, a painting of text from an art textbook explaining exactly what the effect of the photograph should be cheekily poking fun at artistic pretensions. I think the funniest part is that by adding the explanation in the same frame the analysis no longer becomes true because it references the middle of the picture but the text actually no longer makes the center of the photograph the center of the larger image. I always like when talented artists don’t take themselves too seriously.
For some more pure abstraction, there was a funky piece by Ellsworth Kelly (who designed the art chapel at UT Austin) called Blue Red. The piece might initially look very simple because it’s just two monochromatic paintings, but Kelly’s use of unframed, non-traditionally shaped canvases creates a neat 3-dimensional optical illusion where if you stare at the center, the angle of the canvases can either look like it’s going inward toward the wall or outward toward the viewer. It was kind of hypnotic to stand in front of and just zone out to.
Of course, I don’t think you are legally allowed to call yourself a contemporary art museum without having at least one piece by Andy Warhol, so naturally the Broad had a few. I like Warhol, and his influence is undoubtable, but I do think after seeing all the Pop Art he helped inspire some of his pieces seem slightly underwhelming in comparison. That being said they had giant 13 foot tall acrylic painting of a Rorshach inkblot that was unlike anything else I’d ever seen by him which I thought was amazing. I like his silkscreens and more conceptual stuff, but it’s always cool to be reminded of just how good a painter he really was when he wanted to be.
The next gallery was a real showstopper featuring an 82 foot long (!) painting by Takashi Murakami called In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow which takes up three walls of the square gallery for a truly immersive experience (which I attempted to capture in these first three pictures, the fourth is a separate piece by the same artist). This monumental work draws on traditional Japanese imagery, pop art, references to the 2011 tsunami, and elements of pure artistic imagination in a swirl of colors, shapes, and monstrosities real and fantastic. The blend of mythology, history, and pop culture is just astounding and a fun reminder of how linked cultural imagery and traditions are throughout history even if it might not always seem that way.
Kara Walker, the artist featured in the next gallery, similarly puts older artistic styles into modern contexts to explore painful historical memories. Walker uses the popular 19th century art technique of silhouetting using cut black paper (or in the case of her sculptures, cut steel) to address histories of racial violence from colonial times to today. The cartoony style originally used mostly for portraiture is here employed to depict truly horrid images of sex and violence against black bodies. The lighthearted style used to render such grisly content serves to make it more palatable to actually look at in a way realistic representations wouldn’t without under-cutting the seriousness of the themes. Any silliness in the imagery actually heightens the horror by tonally capturing how little the powerful people who would partake in silhouetting at the time when it was popular actually cared about these crimes against Black Americans while they were being committed (and that’s if they weren’t the ones actually committing them). They’re really powerful, lovely pieces that aren’t soon forgotten.
The next large scale piece also dealt with heavy themes of racial identity with a light and vividly creative touch. Ellen Gallagher’s massive piece eXelento features a 96 x 192 in. grid of vintage magazine covers from predominantly Black magazine ads such as Ebony, Black Digest, and Our World, but with all the hairstyles covered in thick abstract molds of Plasticine and resin. This jarring combination highlights the creativity of the black subjects within the magazine ads while also often highlighting the often stereotypical imagery used within these marketing campaigns. As an African-American woman herself, the artist’s focus on hair specifically showcases the way hair products are often marketed to Black women as a way of de-naturalizing their hair and hiding that element of their racial history. Many ads highlight straight hair as ideal which might seem like a purely aesthetic choice until you consider the heavy racial politics underpinning the messaging that something naturally Black is bad or ugly. It’s a real issue not always taken very seriously, but which must have felt intensely personal to the artist herself as the marketing and messaging used in these vintage ads is still prevalent today. Even without the heavier themes, the sheer size and unusual medium she employs really makes the piece stand out as an impressive piece of work.
I’m not sure what the theme of the next gallery space was, but I really loved a lot of the pieces on display. Some highlights for me were: Richard Longo’s Men in the Cities: Ellen, which features a photo-realist charcoal of a yuppie woman in a strange and ambiguous pose on a starkly empty backdrop as a statement on the emptiness and inner angst of Yuppie culture; the vibrantly strange Red Room by Keith Haring, who was known for his pop-y use of stick-figures in dense and creative ways as well as his important AIDS activism at the height of the crisis; a boldly silly piece by Richard Prince that combines silkscreening and painting to give an urgent yet ironically detached message about politics; and a piece by Jack Goldstein entitled Untitled (#67 Burning City) that is at once mono-chromatic and lush in the way it dreamily seems to capture a timelapsed view of starlight and city lights on the horizon of a idyllic photo-realistically painted farm house. All these pieces in their own very different ways were oddly mesmerizing.
The next gallery was a larger showcase of pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who uses similar techniques to Cy Twombly in his mix of desperate scrawling and urgent brushstrokes but updating them with additional influences in street-art and punk rock. For art that is so intentionally unaesthetic at points, it’s hard to look away because every piece just has so much energy in them. The textures and imagery are at once childlike but also nightmarish like he’s really tapping into some dark subconscious stuff, but whenever it seems like its getting too much there’s some scrawled phrase that pokes fun at any grand pretensions with rich satirical bite. Again a lot of it isn’t necessarily “nice” to look at, but I think his importance in boldly re-asserting Black culture and themes into the pre-dominantly White Dominated art world as well as really being one of the first artists to help legitimize street art and graffiti cannot be overlooked. I’m not sure how I feel about his representation of Joe’s though…
The next gallery space was filled with one hilariously impressive piece entitled Under the Table by Robert Therrien which featured a very standardly crafted wooden table and chairs except they were 18 feet tall! The silly piece sort of recaptures that childlike memory of the first images we ever have of a table and chair, thus making you look at something totally everyday in an entirely different way. It’s a relatively simple idea but executed with such whimsy and craft that it was probably one of the most popular pieces in the whole museum. Similarly to the Chuck Close painting, I think it just had that Wow factor.
The next gallery featured an artist I was previously unfamiliar with named Mark Tansey but it featured some of my favorite pieces. His beautifully vivid oil paintings were like a mix of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-y colors, Chuck Close’s photo-realism, and John Baldessari’s absurd juxtaposition of unrelated imagery. If you looked quickly, you might think each piece was pretty straightforward beyond the colors, but he has a David Lynch-y knack of working in incredibly strange details in seemingly conservative imagery, like the idea of the businessman reaching into a sewer or the fact that all the soldiers in the right-most picture are sitting backwards on their horses. The colors and style alone would have made me like him, but those little oddities really made me love him.
Lastly, back around by the escalator was a stunning 26 foot long mural by Lari Pittman that I almost completely missed entitled Like You. I really like the swirling blend of words, abstractions, realist images, and cartoon-like figures especially when you start to realize that the deceptively sweet painting is totally vulgar, with all manner of genitalia subtly and much less subtly appearing throughout the piece. Some of the cartoon characters are even hermaphroditic, and I really love the unabashedly zany, vibrant, and non-judgemental approach to gender inclusivity especially considering the piece was made in 1995 when ideas of gender fluidity weren’t quite on people’s minds like they are today. I also love the faces on the older couple that I unintentionally capture, because that does pretty accurately capture a lot of the looks people give various pieces throughout the collection.
One big draw of the Broad that I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see is that they have two (2!) of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, which are incredible immersive installations of lights and mirrors that seem to go on forever. They are also free with admission, but they’re so small so they have their owned timed entrances too to keep them from becoming too crowded. Based on the pictures from the museum’s website (which is totally worth a visit since most of the collection is previewable) the rooms look pretty amazing, but I didn’t mind too much not getting to see them because I was lucky enough to see a different Infinity Room in Phoenix so I figured it was better not to take a spot on the wait list away from someone who had never gotten to experience something like this.
Across the street from the Broad was another funky piece of architecture, the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. This amorphous collection of surging stainless steel is the home of LA’s Philharmonic Orchestra, and all those odd shapes are not purely weirdness for weirdness’ sake as they help give the concert hall a unique and supposedly quite pleasing acoustic resonance. Between the concert hall, the Broad, and Museum of Contemporary Art (which wasn’t open today) Grand Avenue makes for some pretty interesting strolling.
After all that arting around, I needed some more coffee to perk myself up. I went to a playfully chic spot on Hollywood Blvd called Rubies + Diamonds, which had some cheekily over the top decorations to go with the faux grandeur of their name. I liked that it was all tongue and cheek but also legitimately neat looking, and it made for a fun place to sit and do some writing while I re-caffeinated. They also had some of the best coffee I’ve ever had. It was a little on the price-y side because they have some fancy high-tech coffee machine, but it was surprisingly worth the little bit extra (normally i kind of resent pricey coffee but here I really could feel the difference). I got coconut sea salt cold brew, which was a blend of flavors I never would have thought to do together but which ended up being super tasty and refreshing.
After fueling up, I went to see my friend Sam again. He co-hosts a monthly comedy showcase called Funny as F*ck with another really funny comic named Veronica Kwiatkowski, and together the two of them were also starting up a podcast called The Cringe, where they get comedians to relieve their most embarrassing moments for your listening pleasure. I happened to be visiting LA while they were recording their first batch of episodes and Sam invited me to sit down and do an episode with them. I had never done a podcast before so I was pretty excited, and I had plenty of embarrassing stories to tell.
I got to Veronica’s apartment just as they were finishing up recording another episode and to my delight it was another comic that went to school with Sam and I, the hilarious Sierra Katow. I hadn’t been expecting to get to see Sierra while I was in LA, because she does shows all over the place so it was a really pleasant surprise to see another funny friendly face and get to catch up a little.
After Sierra left, we all sat down and started podcasting. We all sat around Veronica’s table, cracked open a couple of beers, and just chatted. It was very casual minus the fact that all the stories involved in my deepest shames (which isn’t necessarily off the table of casual conversation for me if we’re being real honest). It’s always fun seeing Sam, and even though it was the first time I’d met Veronica, by the end of the podcast she felt like an old friend. I’m not proud of any of my stories, but I am proud of the episode that came out of it, and I’m proud of my friends for starting a cool thing. Every episode is really fun and they do a heck of a job keeping things fun and silly even amidst some horrifying stories. It might be one of the only podcasts on iTunes where a five star review starts with “With every episode my insides turn.” . Please click below to check out all their very funny handiwork, unless you are my parents in which case please never listen to this:
After casting the pod, the three of us all went out to check out a new open mic that had started at up and was getting some good buzz. Sam had to do some work first so Veronica and I went on ahead. The mic was at a Mod Pizza in North Hollywood, and while that’s a chain this one was special because the manager himself was a comedian so it was far and away the most comic friendly pizza place in the area offering not only a great open mic but also FREE PIZZA to any comedian. (Alas some things are too good for this world and in the time since I was in LA this mic has ended because that manager got a new job which is very sad for hungry comedians). This was a fantastic mic, because naturally if you offer free food tons of comedians are going to show up so there was always a pretty sizable audience. In an added stroke of inspiration, comics couldn’t cash in their free pizza until after they performed so that further incentivized everyone to stick around and watch one another. There were about 90 comics on the list, and Veronica, Sam, and I were in the lower third of that list but the energy and attention levels never really dropped which was pretty incredible and likely due to some combination of a good crowd, good pizza, and a great host named Mike Citera .
Michael Citerra - (regarding brunch at Denny’s) Oh Red Powerade, the thing that goes well with eggs Benedict
Damon Murphy- Beyoncé has gotten so famous that her name doesn't even seem ghetto any more
Brandon Bierstan- it'd be so easy to kill cats with a laser pointer
Chris- everyone's mom used to be in a rotation
Quinton Thomas- Do you think when Ronald Reagan died people poured one out like they did for their other crack dealers?
Morgan- I hope you choke and die on your cereal. That's a threat I deserve
Sam Lopez -I'm cooking for my man because No one can leave you when they're addicted to meth
My personal favorite comic of the night (who I wasn’t already friends with because I’m giving them extra shout outs) was a guy named Chaz Hammond who just had a ton of effortless charisma to go with some very clever jokes. The line that cracked me up the most (especially combined with a very good act out) was “whenever people are trying to pick up women they look like they're putting on lotion”
My own set went over very well which was a pleasant surprise because it was late and I’ll be honest I was a little intimidated to be performing in such a big comedy city. It was nice to know that I could hold my own or at the very least I didn’t embarrass myself and have to tell another story to Sam and Veronica.
After our sets we all got together to cash in on that sweet sweet free pizza. I did a make your own pizza with roasted garlic, asparagus, and mushrooms because I am very health conscious obviously. It was a really good pizza that perfectly hit the spot, and would have felt worth it even if I did have to pay for it. To wash it all down, I tried a Rauchbier from Angel City Brewing because I’d never heard such a term. It ended up being a nice malty medium bodied German -style beer and it was a nice compliment to my tasty pizza. As you can tell from Sam’s photo-bombing it was a pretty great night.
Favorite Random Sightings: AmericanJunkie: All things American (there’s such a thing as TOO patriotic); Baja Sharkeez (no clue); Sex: Breakfast of Champions (an interesting billboard slogan); Fat Sal’s; Billboards saying “Syphilis is Serious” (I just kind of assumed that was a given )
Regional Observations: The rumors about LA traffic are exceedingly true and it can take over an hour to just go 2 miles at the height of rush hour as I learned the hard way.
Albums Listened To: Someday My Prince Will Come by Miles Davis (one of my favorite Miles albums); Somethin’ Else by Cannonball Adderley (featuring an all star line up of Cannonball, Miles, Hank Jones, Art Blakey, and Sam Jones)
People’s Favorite Jokes:
A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel in his pants. The bartender asks him why that’s there and the pirate responds “Argh, it’s driving me nuts!”
Songs of the Day:
Bonus Video of Veronica’s Stand Up: