Sunday, August 29, 2004

Bruce Beasley's Sculpture Garden

Finally made it to Bruce and Laurance's sculpture garden in Oakland. I was so sorry to have missed the wedding on June 21, 2003, of Lise Gulassa and her handsome guy (whose name I forget, and my notes are not here), which occurred at this same site. It's quite a place.

Today, the Beasleys invited sculptors young and old, and the gates were open to a gorgeous sunny day. Bruce's cool geometric sculptures, some echoing the stretching limbs of Tai Chi artists, stood on pedestals like guests at a simultaneous party for the bronzed and ripped. For we of the flesh, a barbeque was going, ice cream was being scooped, and wine was served in real glasses! Plenty of nice garden/café chairs to sit on, plenty of people to chat with.

I had a pleasant little chat with Anne Healy, who did a lot of great things for UC Berkeley when she was a professor of Art there. Tracy Hussong was there, too, looking like she'd been posing for Joe Bahama or whoever the new tropical clothier is who's buying a lot of ad space nowadays. A clean, fresh look. Cool-looking hiking sandals on her peds. She and Randy are talking about going to Mexico at Christmas, because their little boy (who shall go nameless here only to protect his privacy) speaks Spanish like a native. Randy's gotta learn Spanish for, "talk to the kid!" I can see it now, the little guy dealing with hotel front desk staff, souvenir hawkers, corrupt cops, the usual cast of characters one must deal with on vacations.

So Bruce and Laurance have been to Bali... 6 years ago, Laurance thought. They went all over, she said, but she was not sure if they'd visited Tirtagangga... since the volcano figured in, perhaps they went to Kintamani. And they stayed in Ubud, that magnet for Californians.

Since my mom was having ice cream, I had some, too. She's doing great lately, and it's great to see her out socializing. I am getting hefty, filling out my "fat jeans" as I encourage my mom to put away the calories.

Weight loss tip from my dad, who's cutting down and looks good: stay off the booze.

Thought for the day, conclusion to this missive: Maybe we really are all on pedestals. Of our own creation. At the very least, each of us views his or her own body very formally, framed within mirrors, in private spaces. We are sometimes very careless sculptors, but we most often view the results as sharp, overly attentive critics.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Best Little S**thouse in Bali

This photo (below) depicts the fully plumbed outhouse at the Ryoshi Japanese Restaurant in Tirtagangga, Karangasem, Bali.

It overlooks rice terraces near the royal family's swimming hole (a pretty grand affair). Little brown ducks fuss around in the streams, little flocks of finches swoosh by, and it seems there is always the calling of a rooster, somewhere, nearby.

The food is decent at Ryoshi, cheap enough, and the view is lovely. Skip it at night, though, when massive numbers of bugs swarm to all the lights in and around the moist neighborhood of Tirtagangga.

The Most Beautiful "Comfort Room" (that's Filipino English) in the World! Posted by Hello

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2004

This is IT!

Bali asserts herself as an anchor point in the literary world! If you've never been to a literary festival, this would be a great one to cut your chompers on.

Bali is a unique island in the fascinating archepelago of Indonesia, separating Australia from continental southeast Asia. Even the Dutch knew this place was special when they colonised islands in that region. They didn't allow factories and trains to sully the picturesque landscape of rice paddies, volcanos, mountain lakes, and sandy beaches. There was a lot of effort to keep the place preserved as a kind of living museum, but even if you're heart's in the right place, you can't keep a culture under glass. Indonesia gained its independence after WWII, developed tourism (especially to Bali), and the Balinese entered the world economy as a crafts and cultural center.

Ubud is Bali's seat of culture. Wander around by day and pick up carved masks and wooden sculpture, notice the elaborate offerings placed at fine little temples right in front of shops and homes, have a gourmet meal served in a coconut wood platter... for a song! That young foreign couple at the table next to yours is probably from Berkeley, New York, or Paris. Take a late afternoon stroll alongside a rice paddy where ducks are assembling to totter and quack home. After sunset, pay your admission for a front row seat at a music or dance performance, possibly the kecak dance/chant made famous by Margaret Mead in the 1920's and 30's.

Like Santa Fe, Paris, Marrakesh, Guanajuato, or Venice, Ubud is a world class cultural mecca that draws people from all around the world. Wander any of these cities and you will see the architecture, ambience, and flavor of a unique culture. All of these cities have their cultural milieu, their patrons, their reclusive expatriate population (& a flamboyant one as well), their art galleries and marketplaces, their stages and street corner attractions.

Come to Ubud Oct 11 through 17. Hear readings from international writers and dynamic scholars like Amitav Ghosh and Garrett Kam. Attend a rare English narrative shadow puppet performance by a master dalang puppetmaster priest. Rub elbows at a party with Balinese royalty and old China "hands." Join a café round table gathering that mixes Indonesian student poets with published stylists, graceful dancers, and world class photographers. It will be week-long cultural campur (an Indonesian dish of mixed delicacies) you will not want to miss.

Speaking of food, we are fortunate that festival organizer Janet deNeefe is also a renowned chef, restaurateur, cookbook writer, and hotelier. Her sense of style infuses every aspect of the festival, combining the incomparable Balinese sense of presentation to her bon vivant love of cuisine. This may be a first: a festival combining great food and great lit. From the humble cup of Bali coffee (your curative mud bath in a demitasse) at a morning panel discussion on political communications in emerging democracies, to the huge spread at a writers' party, food is a celebrity in Ubud.

Come to Bali and enjoy the festival! Web address above. Are you coming from the States? Check out for some great discount package deals.

Readers and writers, there's no excuse for your absence!

Roger Ballen Photograph

Roger Ballen, Two Figures, 2000 Posted by Hello

Some astonishing figures, but just as important, a composition that is matter of factly beautiful.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Roger Ballen Photographs

Roger Ballen, an American geologist working in South Africa, is also a celebrated photographer.

His exhibition Roger Ballen: Photographs has just closed at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. I was fortunate enough to have the time to see it today, before it is taken down. I don't think the show will travel again soon, but Ballen is represented by the Gagosian Gallery, and he has published books of his work.

This is an artist who perfectly understands the medium of black and white photography and makes his art in a land famous for a history of thinking in terms of black and white. He found most of the human subjects in this show living in poverty in towns full of unemployed whites who have not benefitted from recent reforms. Most of the models are white, but there are some black Africans as well. The show has garnered attention for being horrific and creepy because the models are often shown filthy and shirtless, with bare light bulbs and dirty walls. I disagree with this evaluation of his work.

Too often, people assume that the photograph is the closest thing to reality. Many people have difficulty thinking of ANY photograph as art, because of the medium's long history as a documentary tool. The photograph stands as a yardstick of reality. "That painting is just like a photograph," we say, or "he has a photographic memory."

Photography, however, is not just a tool, but a complex art form in which the artist uses light, timing, and composition, and often painstaking planning. Ballen exploits all of this technique in his crafting of his photographs. He truly understands the flat nature of the photograph, especially the black and white photograph. In each finished work, the identities and lives of his subjects are not as important as his sense of line, composition, and chiaroscura (light and dark).

Ballen's work has been justifiably compared to Diane Arbus', but Ballen's work is far more artful and complex than that of Arbus. Arbus is fully recognized as a documentary photographer. Her subjects were photographed in their environments, and there was very little manipulation of pose. In each photograph, Arbus virtually bowed to the subjects' realm. While Arbus sought out unusual posers, she was very much concerned with flaunters, transvestites, nudists, eccentrics, and congenital abnormality: people who wore their differences on the outside. She had a true admiration for this. The photographer's own demons were trapped within her; Arbus dealt with her anxiety and pain by committing suicide in her forties.

Ballen is not at all a documentary photographer. While his work has brought to light a marginalized population of impoverished white South Africans, his sense of surface is the real subject matter. Like a master craftsman, Ballen works toward his finished product, a composition of lines and shapes on a flat sheet of gloriously glossy paper. There is no escaping the fact that Ballen has befriended his models. In their faces and postures, there is a great sense of trust, relaxation, and, at times, play. In this way, Ballen has developed the traditional artist-and-model relationship that invigorates a long history of works of figurative art. This is an important key to appreciating Ballen's work.

The fact that Ballen is continually and unfortunately discussed in the same breath as Arbus (documentary and portrait work) and Joel-Peter Witkin (primped and ornamented fetish contrivances) shows how the art world has not fully understood the scope of his work. Witkin and Ballen do share a superior inventiveness for the camera, but that's where the similarity ends.

In every work in the current exhibition, Ballen composes by looking toward the flat surface of his paper photographic print, a yet to be realized object at the time of his photographing. He always uses a wall backdrop, a powerful plane that sometimes appears quite massive, a sensation usually determined by a low, dark horizontal plane such as a bed or floor at the bottom of the composition. Never totally smooth, the wall is often distressed by stains and the stresses of time. Corners, when they appear, seem to be nothing more than a vertical line. Often an electrical outlet, with plugged-in cord, sits as frankly upon the wall as any chalk drawing or smudge that Ballen's camera means to capture. In a few photographs, the wall is all: Hand Drawn Hearts on Wall (2000) is one such work, and it is no less powerful than many of the works which include animals or human figures.

Ballen's keen eye for line is seen in his use of stained walls, wire objects, chalk renderings, and shadows. A fine nuance of delicacy is the effect of a deceptively simple-looking work, Man With Back to Viewer (1998), where a hairline shadow made by the camera's flash defines the profile of the model, who is pressing to the wall a white cross, possibly made of two thin sticks, which barely casts a shadow at all. The mottled wall seems written upon by the lines of the cross and the man's black edge of a shadow. Tangles of wire are used in various works to evoke pencil scribbles with a great graphic impact. Often placed near a figure, as in the breathtakingly beautiful Twirling Wires (2001), the photograph melds abstraction with the figure, transcending any sense of the documentary or of realism.

Ballen's excellent use of texture (Puppy Between Feet, 1999), chiaroscura (Elias Coming Out From Under John's Bed, 1999), and form (Dog, Feet and Wires, 2001) all show what a brilliant painter he actually is. While squalor and hardship can be read on the faces of his models, his occasional use of masks (Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003, for one) reminds the viewer that his work is about surface.

Ballen does not ask for sympathy, tears, laughter, or disgust. He does not allow the viewer to learn about the personalities or pathos of his models. Skin (warts and all), drool, wrinkles, or staring eyes are of the body only. This is the realm of the outside, not necessarily of inner suffering or psychology. As an artist, Ballen concentrates on the appearance of things available to the camera's eye. Unaided by computer manipulations, his focus and vision bring an exceptionally abstract type of imagery to contemporary photography.

copyright 2004 Renée Melchert Thorpe

Sunday, August 08, 2004


From the series, Everybody Buddha (detail)
by Renée Melchert Thorpe, acrylic on canvas, 2000 Posted by Hello

Sometimes it's great, just great, to simply sit down.

This has been a hell of a week, but I was buoyed somewhat by the memory of my first date with the man who became my husband. That was August 5, 1977. We went out to lunch at a San Francisco restaurant which no longer exists.

One of the other regular patrons of that restaurant was a woman who, very incongruously, dressed straight out of 1965. She even had a kind of Tippi Hedren hairdo. She was utterly age-less. She could have been 45, she could have been 25. She looked slender while seated, but one time I noticed her standing up and I discovered that she was slightly plump.

She was conservative in that classic San Francisco way. Greige, fingertip-length, loose jacket. Simple black dress. Nylons. Little shoes. The only thing that I ever saw her eat there was a hamburger with cole slaw. She would take off the top bun, lump the slaw over the meat, and eat the whole thing with a knife and fork.

She did not seem lonely, eating by herself. She was pensive, not rushed. She was suspended between frumpy and classy, beautiful and plain. She didn't blend, but she didn't make any waves. I always suspected she was the private secretary of someone rich and low-profile, but I never saw her again, after the restaurant disappeared.

Now I have to go get some rest.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Do NOT mess with me! This is me and my bodyguard.
Just to cover both bases, I'm brandishing a mighty pen
and he's hefting a big sword behind his head. Posted by Hello

Monday, August 02, 2004

Had a wonderful evening...

This might serve as an open letter of thanks to Jeff Kelley and Hung Liu, who hosted a small dinner party at their home tonight. It was delightful to be in the gathering.

It is wonderful when eight people can sit at a table and all take part in one fascinating conversation. Sometimes eight is a risky number... factions break off and the party never stays together as one. Tonight, it worked.

Liu's son Ling Chiu was there, late of Beijing. I so hope he will contact my own son, Evan, whose xanga blog "bauhinia" is his own open book to the world. They actually have a lot in common.

Jeff offered an excellent California Zinfandel to start with. We never got past the second bottle (Cabernet), which was also enjoyable. Liu's cooking (especially a certain fungus dish) was delicious and filling. It was great to see my mom eat so much. She's not in good health and rarely goes out to eat, never mind dinner parties.

Ron Nagle and Cindy Ehrlich were there. Ron is a heroic musician and quite amazing ceramicist. He is the sort of person who seems to be destined for enormous fame at some future date, when I will be long gone. Art history recognises true greatness; I think Ron will have a large place in the art history texts of the future. He is far too much of a renaissance man for his contemporaries to give him his due. America doesn't like a multi-talented person. American fashion champions the expert but not the explorer. So I figure he won't get his due in this life, not yet.

Over time, Ron's cut two albums of his quirky rock ballads. He still writes songs and records them... as he mentioned tonight, his "Don't Touch Me There" is a rock classic and yet our relatively prissy Barbra Streisand sang two of his songs on her Superman album. He is a tough-looking guy but his ceramics are smooth and sensitively glazed... some quite streamlined. He has a way of being a curmudgeon without being at all a party pooper. You gotta love a guy like that. I admire contradiction and imperfect genius.

Cindy, his longtime girlfriend, was there. She is a sensitive journalist and writer with a lot of heart. I haven't seen her since I was about 10 years old, at a party given by Rayer and Leslie Akiko Toki. Cindy is a writer, but we connected easily and chatted the whole time before dinner was on the table. She spoke so easily about her writing, her life. I don't know why, but we found common ground that opened up large, like a soundless earthquake from the panels of a comic book. Woah, is that the zinfandel?

We talked about mainland Chinese artists and their patrons, their mammoth studios, their work, their hangouts.

We talked about popular music. Jeff (who must have been born in 1951), extolled the revolutionary messages of his incomparable Beatles, and could not convince me that our young postmodern music fans are missing out on something big... for he started 3 sentences with, "Kids nowadays..."!! Ach, a bad choice. Ron was in fine form, berating Train and Dave Matthews and Elvis, dismissing The Dead and The Airplane, too. Iconoclast, thy name is Chuckie.

Fashions tonight... for what it's worth: My mom wore blue cashmere under a beautiful Janice Bornt serape. Hung Liu wore a black silk pyjama set and her little silver earrings were adorable. I wore my Shanghai Calico cheongsam and a bulky wool sweater - it's a typical August day in the Bay Area you understand! And Cindy wore a white skirt with cherries embroidered on it. Her haircut was the most chic of the group... a sort of Eddie Haskell - meets Annie Lennox thing. Since she has the figure of a pinup, it is not hard for her to look great. Winner of the menswear award: LC for his blue polyester dragon monstrosity of a shirt.

Did I mention the dessert? Ron and Cindy brought it... some fantastic choco-mocha thing with shavings of white chocolate on top. I loved the way Ron sliced the thing "like Solomon" said my dad, "and the baby" said Ron!