My new and increasingly good friend Rob (ie RJ Crowther Jr, talented up-and-coming horror writer WHO STILL NEEDS TO ESTABLISH A BLOODY INTERNET PAGE SO INTERESTED READERS CAN FIND AND ENJOY HIM, YOU HEAR ME ROB? THAT GOES FOR YOU TOO, MARK and sorry for the shouting, but I do it with affection) — Rob drove up from San Diego last week so we could go check out Clive Barker’s VISIONS OF HEAVEN AND HELL art opening.
The evening did not go as planned.
The gallery was in downtown LA. For those of you who’ve never been here and/or don’t know the city: downtown LA is not like the downtown of other cities, which tend to be bustling, central, relatively cheery places. I am reminded of that scene in POLTERGUIST when the tiny otherworldly woman comes to restore normalcy to the house. When she asks why the kids’ bedroom is locked, the mother tells her, “We think of it as the heart of the house.”
“This house” — Tiny Woman responds, and gives a dramatic pause — “has many hearts.”
LA is like that.
In recent years there have been serious attempts at downtown gentrification — loft buildings and little parks have appeared — and the area has been advertised as a kind of Soho or Tribeca in the making, but you can’t declare it so and then have it *be* so, even in the land of the Hollywood. There are a few brightly-lit blocks of stores and restaurants and a hipster hotel, which are the blocks I felt familiar with, and when I saw the address of the gallery I was confident I knew how to get there. We’d drive there, find parking, walk around and find a nearby place to eat, and hit the show. Rob thought the same.
Once in the actual area, I realized I’d forgotten about all the signs declaring NO LEFT TURN, which make getting from point A to point B more complicated than expected. Suddenly we had slipped off the bright commercial district and were in a place of dollar stores, discount warehouses, shuttered abandoned storefronts, graffiti, darkness. While the bright places were astonishingly deserted for an early weekday evening, the sidewalks in the darker places overflowed with human traffic. People were milling around and hanging out, pushing shopping carts, lingering on the corners. These were not people who vote Republican, or whom Bush Jr would feel hard-pressed to save in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
We found the gallery with its hip little sign. It was bright, sharp, clean, populated with nicely dressed white people: dramatic contrast to the world against the windows. Barker’s paintings hung everywhere and because I was so familiar with his style, because I had already seen reproductions of these images in his HEAVEN AND HELL monograph, I was surprised to be so unnerved. Let me try that again: these things creeped me out. It wasn’t one single picture that did it, but the sheer accumulative effect, how your gaze takes in image after image — so much more vivid and startling in real life, in the art-flesh — as they built on each other — played off each other — wall after wall of them — until you get this under-the-skin feeling of having sideslipped into an alternate reality where bold color and weird beauty blend with torture, pain, deformation and terror, so that you can’t disentangle each from the others. This was not the milder Barker of, say, GALILEE and SANCTUARY, or the amiable charming Barker of interviews and personal encounters; this was every inch the guy who wrote the BOOKS OF BLOOD, and I was thinking of those stories and looking at that art and nurturing the sense of a reality alien to my own.
We had parked directly outside the gallery; “this is too good to be true,” Rob said, and of course it was. We had to move the car. We were hungry and Rob needed a cigarette so we decided to find a place to eat and come back later, when Barker himself was scheduled to appear and we were hoping to stalk — I mean talk to him.
Didn’t happen like that. Drove around longer than we anticipated, walked around longer than anticipated. We found a Daily Grill, but the wait time was unacceptable, so we crossed the street to the aforementioned hipster hotel. I knew the hotel from past visits with friends, and now found myself reflecting on how absurd — and shockingly naive — I’d been to feel ‘familiar’ with downtown LA based on trips to a place like this, where the escalator in the lobby is marked off with a velvet rope because only the doorman-approved kind of Beautiful may ascend to the rooftop patio.*
But the restaurant was not busy at all, and the adjoining patio was pleasant, and the food was good, and so was the conversation, and so was the glass of white wine. When we thought to ask the waiter the time** we realized we had a half hour left before the show ended and we lost our chance to stal — I mean, talk to Clive. So we hurried away, and were then forced to cope with the disadvantages of being two absent-minded artist types who have, between them, a mediocre sense of direction. We managed to locate the parking garage in which we’d deposited the car, but this did not happen — how you say — ‘very quickly’.
And then, even though we were a three minute drive from the gallery, we could not fucking find it.
To explain, which doesn’t make this any less pathetic but might serve to put in better context, the streets of LA are notorious for winding in strange ways. This is a city that has assembled itself haphazardly during many years of jagged and explosive growth, that laughs in the face of a central organizing principle. When we knew where to go, we couldn’t turn left to go there; and when we finally could turn left and were on the street we thought we were supposed to be on, we were passing through block after block of dark industrial wasteland. We never found the gallery. For all I know, it disappeared into the dimension of Barker’s paintings. We had trouble finding our way back to the freeway. Although we were rational and well-behaved about it, by the time we pulled over to the best-lit gas station to get directions to the entrance ramp there was a tension in the car, and I knew we were both thinking of all those stories where the nice young couple makes a wrong turn and urban predators descend and things do not go well. It’s that primal lost-in-the-woods kind of feeling, and home seems a long way away.
Later, I was thinking of a show I’m addicted to called I SHOULDN’T BE ALIVE, brought to you by the same guys who did the excellent film TOUCHING THE VOID. It’s a series of survival stories set in extreme circumstances, re-enactments interspersed with interviews of the actual survivors. (When someone in the re-enactment does not have a real-life counterpart in the interview clips, it suggests a less-than-rosy future for him.) Guys go for a hike in the Amazon, their guide turns out to be insane, they get hopelessly lost; a yacht sinks and the Coast Guard screws up, five people end up in a raft in the ocean surrounded by sharks; you get the idea. Some people are smart and some people are stupid***; but they tend to be white, middle-class, and the kind of ‘adventurous’ that comes with maps, hired guides and good equipment. So they get comfortable. Perhaps they fail to properly respect the environment. Then in one instant something changes, which changes everything, and they realize their sense of control was an illusion bought and paid for. And home is a long way away.
Note to self:
Respect your environment. Remember you’ve only been in this city a few years, and you live and work inside its golden pocket. Next time, take a fucking map.
*several of the most exclusive clubs in LA turn out to be hotel patios and pool areas. Usually if you’ve paid for a room you’re allowed access (through a separate entrance, of course, since you’re merely being tolerated) but one or two places go so far as to deny everybody except a chosen few, including their actual hotel customers, which pisses off many a midwestern tourist paying big bucks for a room. The tourists complain bitterly, of course, but nobody cares.
**absent-minded artist types tend not to wear watches. You yourself might have noticed.
*** my favorite example of jaw-dropping stupidity: the two guys on the life raft in the middle of the ocean who decided to drink seawater. They went crazy and jumped into shark-infested waters. Guess what happened next.