I drove myself and my friend Joanna to Pasadena, to visit artist Lia Halloran and see her studio. I did this with enjoyment and without incident. Impressive, considering that Joanna and I go off on these wild conversational streaks, which distract my already-restless monkey of a mind. That’s when I’ll turn west instead of east or south instead of north because west and south are habit and north and east are not. We could have ended up in San Diego.
I don’t know much about Pasadena. I live on the westside of LA, and like New Yorkers who live mostly within the subcultures of uptown or downtown, that’s my home and stomping ground. Pasadena is just too far away — too much traffic, too much freeway, and, despite its attractions and advantages, not much reason for me to go there.
Pasadena has the Huntington Library and Vroman’s Bookstore, two places I’ve been meaning to check out for years and have not yet managed to do so. There’s also Old Pasadena, with whatever lingering scraps of aristocracy, the first and old families, this city retains. LA was originally desert-oriented, its mythos playing off Wild West and romantic-native images, stories, fantasies. You don’t find the ‘old money’ houses along coastal Santa Monica, which is still fresh from its own gentrification, or Venice, which is still a bit edgy. They’re in Old Pasadena, against the gentle wooded rise of the mountains, or Hancock Park, a short car ride from the dark and dodgy blocks downtown. The poor filled the void as the money moved west, as movies and beach culture and sporadic explosions of population re-invented the city’s sense of itself. West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air and Brentwood, the Palisades. This is where you’ll find the true aristocrats, famous people living in gated, hidden mansions north of Sunset.
Here, fame is the ultimate status. It trumps wealth, partly because it attracts wealth. Someone like my ex might pay thousands of dollars for a VIP table at an elite velvet-rope club, or tens of thousands for a table at a charity event; the celebs get in free, eagerly courted and shamelessly sucked up to. If old money — having spent most of its money — has a long tradition of trading on social prestige in order to align themselves with the very same nouveau they dismissed and disdained, you see in Los Angeles a similar bargaining with fame. Fame is a drug: there’s a buzz just to being on the edges of it, the heat and shine of it. It’s intoxicating in the moment, hollow at the core and leaves you with nothing, except the nagging, deflated feeling of a promise unfulfilled. People will pony up big prices to get as near to it as they can, and others are quick to facilitate this in order to profit by it. Like love and happiness, you can’t buy fame…you can, however, buy a seat next to it.
Pieces from Lia Halloran’s “Dark Skate” series.
Our artist friend Lia does not live in Old Pasadena. This probably doesn’t surprise you. If her neighborhood more or less matched our expectations — the clean gleaming edges of Beverly Hills worlds away from this pleasantly tumbledown, bohemian, immigrant area — her house did not. Joanna and I really should have known better, and yet we were half-expecting cliches: the inarticulate, starving artist, living in a barren shack or warehouse.
Lia’s place was a sweet little arts-and-crafts home with a separate studio in back (and someone renting the space above). Workers bent over flagstones in the front yard. There were wood-paneled rooms with fireplaces, and couches to slouch on, a dining room table to gather round. Art on the walls, including photographs of surfers and Lia’s “skateboard collection”, the backs of the boards serving as canvas. There were bookshelves filled with history, literature. A fire pit had been newly installed out back, in the little courtyard you pass through to get to the studio.
Nothing pretentious or glamorous about the studio; it looked like the place of an artist who shows up to work everyday. If some creative types need chaos and clutter, Lia isn’t one of them. She’s a working, Yale-educated artist who guards that ability to work through ordered domestic living. Or so far as I can tell.
I liked how she explained the ideas behind her work. Art — good art — hits you on three different levels: aesthetic, emotional, intellectual. An artist’s stated intention doesn’t necessarily define the work — art gets away from its creator, tapping into parts of thought and consciousness the artist isn’t fully aware of. Then the people who serve as audience bring their own inner selves to filter the art through, connecting dots and filling in blanks the way human minds are wired to do.
But there’s also no denying how hearing that intention, the ideas in it, can open a piece of art the way a good lecture opens up a poem. And I’m not talking about the spinning of bullshit, which people — including those who like art and read poems — can recognize as false, stupid, inauthentic. I’m talking about simple, concise sentences that communicate an idea, and not just the impression of an idea through smoke-and-mirrors jargon, or the kind of muddled, half-baked ambiguity that attempt a depth and dimension that aren’t there. An idea should hit you where you live. It should trigger something inside you. It can invoke physical reactions (excitement, disgust) and emotional reactions (joy, fear, anger). Bullshit annoys — sometimes not even that.