Talking About the Homeless

Homeless Encampment in Los Angeles

There are several ways of talking about the homeless. For one thing, I do not think they can be all lumped into one category. Therefore, I rarely speak about “the homeless” as a whole. Some are temporarily without an address and have some reasonable hope of finding one, especially if they are a family. One does not usually encounter these transient homeless on the streets. More likely, one runs into a mostly male population of homeless that fit into one or more of the following categories:

  • The mentally ill, estimated by the City of Los Angeles to comprise some 40% of the total.
  • Veterans of the armed forces who were unable to make the transition to civilian life. As I live within a couple miles of a large Veterans Administration hospital, I see quite a few of these.
  • Hardcore bums who like living on the street and are unwilling to have any of their perceived rights and privileges abridged. Some of these are involved in drug dealing and theft.

There is a tent encampment right across the street from my apartment consisting of some ten hardcore bums. They usually do not bother the street residents unless to steal a bicycle or small grill, or to beg for cash. Since there are a number of charities that provide meals, I almost never give cash to a street person. Cash received by the hardcore homeless usually falls in the category of CBD money: in other words, for cigarettes, booze, and drugs.

I have seen a few hardcore female bums, mostly on the bus, and usually find them to be sad cases, frequently mentally ill and fiercely unapproachable. Martine saw one of them defecate on the sidewalk of our street in the open. Seeing Martine’s facial reaction, she called her a racist.

Given the variety of motives that moves this population, I shake my head in despair when journalists persist in talking about “the homeless” as if there were a single solution for all. There just isn’t.

 

The Fenyes Estate

The Fenyes Estate on Pasadena’s “Millionaires Row” with Back Yard Gardens

Yesterday Martine and I toured the Fenyes (Hungarian for “Bright,” pronounced FEN-yesh) Estate on Pasadena’s Orange Grove Boulevard. We had wanted to go a couple weeks earlier, but there was an intervening event that closed the tours for that day. Fortunately, the docent couple who gave the tour knew their subject cold, so we had a great time. It is always interesting to visit a millionaire’s mansion built over a hundred years ago. One obtains a view of what life was like not only for the family of the owner, but also the servants. The Fenyes Estate is only a few hundred feet of the more famous Gamble House, built by the Gambles of the Procter & Gamble fortune.

The Parlor of the Fenyes Mansion

In the photo of the parlor above, several of the chairs have little footstools. They were an aid to modesty so that the long dresses would cover every inch of bare skin on the women’s legs, er, I mean, limbs. Eve Fenyes, wife of Dr Adalbert Fenyes was a noted painter in her own right, and specialized in plein aire subjects. In addition to the usual portraits, which are of high quality because of Eve’s talents.

Dr Fenyes had his own talents besides medicine. He was the first to use X-Rays in his practice. In addition, he was a noted entomologist (whose collection now sits in a San Francisco museum) and an expert gardener. The grounds on which the house sits are beautifully landscaped.

The Music Room of the Estate

In addition to the piano and early Victrola shown in the above photo, notice the elegant stairway to a mezzanine-level for singers. There is no door to the right on this level. There is also a trap door set in the floor for entrances by actors engaged in various entertainments put on by the family.

Even though there are only two houses of this sort on Orange Grove Boulevard that one can tour, it is clearly worth visiting them to understand how we all got where we are today.

 

The Father of Modern Space Art

View of Saturn Seen from Titan

As I was growing up in Cleveland, I was deeply influenced by what I call space art. And by space, I mean outer space. For instance, the backgrounds in Forbidden Planet (1956) were a major influence on me. I was also influenced by the work of Father of Modern Space Art, Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), who was born before the flight and Kitty Hawk and lived to see American astronauts walk on the surface of the moon. The paintings shown here are all by Bonestell.

According to the article on him in Wikipedia:

His paintings are prized by collectors and institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Collection of Fine Arts. One of his classic paintings, an ethereally beautiful image of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan [see above illustration], has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.” Wernher von Braun wrote that he had “learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist’s obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help in his artwork—only to have them returned to me with…blistering criticism.”

Exploring Mars

In some cases, such as in the above painting, the image is contradicted by actual space photography, in this case from the Mars Rovers. Still, Bonestell’s painting is so gorgeous that maybe there is someplace else in the universe that looks like this.

Image of Chicago With a Dry Lake Michigan

Perhaps the work of Bonestell doesn’t do much for many art critics, but it showed me that there were more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. And in most cases, they were starkly beautiful.

 

If You Say So!

We’ll Take Your Word for It

As I took this picture some twelve years ago, I have no idea what this picture is all about. In those days, I used to take a lot of beach walks as a form of exercise. What really motivated me, however, is that there was usually a book store either on the way or serving as the final destination. Now that most of the bookstores in the area have been shut down to satisfy the itching of palms of greedy landlords. The only two that remain—Sam: Johnson in Mar Vista and Small World Books on the Venice Boardwalk—have survived only because the bookstore either owns the building, or a family member of the owner runs the bookstore.

I need to do more walking, though I feel some apprehension as the hot season begins raise beads of sweat on my forehead. No matter. I could wake up early on Sunday and time my walk to get to Small World Books as it opens at 10 am. The things I have to do! Apparently the walk is not sufficient motivation on its own.

As I continue to stare at the picture above, I realize what the photo is about. I strongly suspect that it refers to some benefit conferred by Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual practice currently outlawed by the Communist Party in Beijing. How did I figure it out? After I wrote the second paragraph above, I looked up Falun Gong on Wikipedia and noticed that the first character in Chinese on the banner is the first character in the name of Falun Gong. Check it out for yourself here.

 

“So You Want To Be a Writer”

Poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

I know he drank a lot and you probably wouldn’t let your sister go out with him, but the man was a real poet and he had something serious going with the muse. This is one of my favorites among his poems. It’s called “So You Want To Be a Writer.” Good stuff.

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

 

V.—That Obscure Object of Desire

Swedish Book Cover for Thomas Pynchon’s V.

I have just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963). This is one of those works which is so disturbing to readers who feel they must understand every reference, every symbol, every character. And what if the novel has hundreds of characters, most of them with highly fanciful names like Herbert Stencil or Benny Profane or Rachel Owlglass or Pig Bodine. For good or ill, something happened in the twentieth century that resulted in a great divorce of art from the common everyday experience of reality.

One can find it in James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable), Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Manual), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!), and Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans). And, in fact, all over the place.

Because my academic training is in film history and criticism, I was able to make a connection to one of my favorite directors, the Spaniard Luis Buñuel. In an interview with André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze that appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma in June 1954, Buñuel wrote:

For me it is natural to tend to see and to think of a situation from a sadistic rather than from, say, a neorealistic or mystical point of view. I ask myself: What must this character reach for? A revolver? A knife? A chair? In the end, I always choose whichever is most disturbing. That’s all…. [Quoted in Ado Kyrou, Luis Buñuel: An Introduction (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963)]

Film Director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

If one looks at Pynchon’s novel V., one finds a search for a feminine entity referred to as V., presumably because that is the first letter of her name. In the course of the novel, there are dozens of characters who could qualify, and Pynchon is in no hurry to identify which one is right. The candidates include Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving, the goddess Venus, Veronica Manganese, a rat named Veronica in the sewers of New York, Madame Viola, Hedwig Vogelsang, the Blessed Virgin, or ??? Then again, V. could be a place, such as Valetta (Malta), Venezuela, the mysterious Vheissu (never explained), Vesuvius, or the V-Note Jazz Club in Manhattan ???

Thomas Pynchon is not terribly interested in providing closure, but he does know how to suck you in and keep turning those pages until you get to the strange death by waterspout of Sydney Stencil in 1919.

 

Outliers: Henry Darger

Henry Darger, “Untitled”

Much of 20th century art, particularly abstract expressionism, has taken painting down a rathole. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman—that whole crew has eschewed images of reality in favor of splotches of color and assorted shapes referring only to themselves.

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Review of Books by Sanford Schwartz entitled “In Their Own Worlds” (June 7, 2018) which described two art exhibitions featuring folk art and other “outsider” art:

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprevcise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators.

I have decided to focus on one of the artists mentioned in the article, Henry Joseph Darger Jr (1892-1973).

He Seems to Like Painting Pictures of Little Girls

Darger’s paintings are frequently of little girls, clothed and unclothed, sometimes with penises. In the picture above, the girls, blonde, beribboned, and, for the most part, wearing identical dresses and red socks, are running from the path of an advancing steam locomotive.

More Little Girls, This Time Including Blondes and Brunettes

Many of the Chicago artists are in horizontal scroll format. I guess what I like about Darger’s paintings is that they are so cryptic and surrealistic. One is repeatedly drawn to the images and finding something new in them. Slightly to the left of center of the above painting, for instance, is a witch riding a broom confronting a little blonde girl riding a tricycle.

I hope to find a few more outlier painters whom I like and present their work to you in future posts.