honor, I am eminently qualified for the series of artwork. The most
compelling reason being that I am a Los Angeleno.”
almost had to laugh, calling her ‘your honor.’ It just
slipped out. I was pleading my case before Madine DuPreen, who is an
old friend of mine. She’s a curator and arts writer who still
hates my artwork, even after we slept together.
was chairing the union evaluation panel. It had been eight months
since I had applied for a new Artist’s Statement and
this was the final evaluation for my approval.
since the art world went union, everything moves at a snail’s
pace. It took a friend of mine eleven months to change his medium
from painting to collage.
have spent the last seven years deconstructing the light in burnt
umber. Now I wanted to tackle something larger. My buddies were
laughing at me. “What are you going to do? Move up to cadmium orange?!” We
laughed until the beer shot from our noses.
Everyone in the
AAAW (American Arts and Aesthetic Workers) has to serve twenty hours
annually. We call it ‘art world jury duty.’ Today,
killing their hours, was a distinguished panel. There were a
couple of recent art grads doing their apprenticeship, several mid-career
artists and a few superstars like Madine DuPreen and art writer
“Yes, your honor,” I repeated. “I
live in Los Angeles. I believe that more than qualifies me for my new series.”
What ‘n--What does that have to do with anything?”
Madine sat very upright with her hands anchored on the table before
her. The thirty-two year old wore a black suit with a severe cut.
Her bronze hairdo was almost architectural; a Dallas hair stylist
When she spoke, her syllables were lengthier than usual. It made
“I mean, really.” Madine had rediscovered the blue chip accent
she picked up at Smith College. “Residency alone does
not qualify this field of interest.”
“Your honor,” I replied, “In
this instance, it has everything to do with it. In Los Angeles, we have a long
tradition of newfound religions,
health fads, twisted cults, and evangelical start-ups. My residency qualifies
me to establish this philosophical and spiritual pursuit.”
After seven years
of burnt umber, I wanted to tackle something larger. I decided to
take on the big issues that have been stumping mankind for
years, the big stuff like the ‘Meaning of Life,’ ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What
is my special purpose?’ My new work intends to launch a spiritual
“Continue, then.” Madine
sighed as if her maid were moving back to Guatemala.
history is long and celebrated. For example, take Aimee Semple McPherson, a blonde
bombshell with a foolish case of hot pants. She was a national
evangelical superstar but you probably only know of her famous 1926 kidnapping,
turned out to be a flimsy cover for a secret tryst.”
Dave Hickey lit a cigarette and smiled.
“Charlie Manson loved L.A.,” I continued. “One of the most
famous cult leaders in the world flourished in Los Angeles. I’ve even visited
an attic near USC where some allege that Manson painted an unholy mural. It wasn’t
“Charlie don’t paint,” said
Dave Hickey. The grad students and I laughed.
“Los Angeles has Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard and Korla Pandit and—”
L.A. doesn’t have Utah,” Madine said. I wasn’t sure what she
meant and my expression told her so. “What about the n-Mormons?” she
“Excellent point,” I said. “I’m
sure if Brigham Young had a better map, his pioneers would have ended up in Los
I was on a roll. I hit the gas.
“Southern California has always been a golden magnet. It’s a land
of fruits and nuts, but also cotton, oil and real estate. In his novel Day of
Nathanael West tells us it is a place where people come to die. Like
an elephant lumbering off to the pile of ivory and bone, Southern California
has always promised
hope and salvation. It’s a final destination. Aimee Semple
traveled the country, preaching for years, until she settled in Los
Angeles for the easy pickin’s.
If you consider—”
“Well then!” Madine clapped her hands loudly, startling the other
panelists to attention. No one knew what she was talking about. She leaned close
to Dave Hickey and exclaimed, “Well then!”
Hickey reeled backwards. That’s when I knew Madine must’ve
guzzled a liquid lunch.
“Well then,” said
Dave Hickey with a chuckle.
Well then.” Since everyone else was saying it, I said it too.
I snuck a peek at the notes hidden up my shirt sleeve.
Showmanship! It’s about showmanship. That’s why Cecil B. DeMille
made so many Biblical epics. Religion is larger than life. Dr. Jaggers and Miss
Velma were larger than life and they too settled their itinerant ministry in
Los Angeles, where they preached the love of God and an appreciation for aliens
from space. Their ‘Universal World Church,’ near MacArthur Park,
was a show-stopper. They were big throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In
the late ‘90s, hipsters and rock stars would flock to the annual
Christmas Pageant for its Pee Wee Herman-like appeal.
never saw Dr. Jaggers, but Miss Velma must have been a brickhouse in her day.
The Texas beauty was at least seven feet tall, not including
her helmet of gold
blond hair. The aging Amazon had a massive rack that was well displayed
in her glittery gowns.
At Christmas, she would unveil the Golden Tree, a well-advertised spectacular.
I’m sure Lloyds of London never issued a policy, but the ‘diamond-studded’ ’24
carat’ tree had a promoters value of ‘priceless.’ In their
day, Dr. Jaggers and Miss Velma would present artistic tableaus where she might
fly across the stage dressed as a Vargas-like angel. Or, dolled up like a religious
Annie Oakley, I heard she would sharpshoot for Christ…Now that’s
art!” exclaimed Madine. She threw her hands in the air as if
she were a model in a kicky perfume ad. “Per-FOR-mance art!”
Hickey nodded and patted her hand. This prompted her to repeat, “Performance
Dave Hickey eyed Madine. He casually reached over, grabbed her coffee cup
and smelled it. His eyebrows lifted a mile and he replaced the liquid TNT.
I had to keep the
train on the tracks. “Los Angeles is not that old, but
our evangelical history is rich. In the early part of the twentieth century,
the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists Association was an innovator of a pagan lifestyle
and an early influence on the modern suburban subdivision. In Elysian Park they
created a huge compound. Most information on the Semi-Tropics comes from their
police reports with complaints of midnight dances, séances,
readings and wild parties. They could possibly be the forefathers
of the modern
The grad students exchanged winks.
invention is not limited to a bunch of crazy white people. A century ago, there
was a racy inter-racial religious sect called the Azusa Street Revival
Group. The Los Angeles Times reported, ‘Devotees of the weird
doctrine practice the most fanatical rights, preach the wildest
theories, and work themselves
into a state of mad excitement.’ You can’t get any
better than that!”
I wasn’t sure if Madine was praying. Her eyes were closed
and her head was tilted upwards.
Local Angeleno Willard Huntington Smith reported in 1913, ‘No other city
in the United States possess so large a number of metaphysical charlatans in
proportion to its population. Whole buildings are devoted to occult and outlandish
orders — mazdaznan clubs, yogi sects, homes of truth, cults of cosmic fluidists,
astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians and other boozy transcendentalists.’”
Madine perked up and nodded. The maven took a sip from her coffee cup. She
the Gold Rush, California has forever been in a real estate boom. Real estate
and religion have always been soul brothers. In the
Silverlake area, the 1920s Holyland Exhibit is still open today. It is the prototype
for the evangelical
amusement park, a Disneyland for Jesus. Until they put a freeway
through it. What was once a twenty-acre zoo has now been reduced to a small
can still get the jive of living back in the days of Jesus.”
Dave Hickey had
finished smoking and was searching for an ashtray. Madine’s
coffee cup looked near empty. He tossed the cigarette into the
cup. There was a blue flash and the quiet pop of a small explosion.
touched his eyebrow, fearing it might have been singed.
“Of course, not all focus is on the mind, the spirit and the real estate.
In Los Angeles, the body gets equal play. In the ‘70s, Malibu’s Sandstone
Ranch was a plein aire playground for the sexual free-thinker.
In Topanga Canyon, all the neighborhood boys would google through the fence of
Elysium Fields, the
famous nudist colony. I’m sure that swingers have been
wife-swapping long before Los Angeles became a city, but L.A.
You can argue that
modern porn was invented in Los Angeles. I think the jacuzzi
was too. L.A. has a climate that does not encourage clothing.
honor, I don’t want you to think that Los Angeles is
all about crazies and boobs. There is an intellectual contingent.
like-minded folks eventually find each other. We are not a political
town, but Echo Park
known as Red Hill, home to Bolsheviks, Anarchists and other third-party
Angeles is a modern-day Holy City. Imagine the pioneer pushing his prairie schooner
through the darkness of endless mountains and
deserts, coming through
the wilderness to this city of shining light at the end of the
continent. There is no further west. We are forever slouching towards Bethlehem
and Los Angeles
is that bright star.”
The grad students applauded.
Madine smiled blithely just before her head hit the table.
Hickey took the gavel from Madine’s hand and rapped the table twice. “Artist’s
Statement approved! Next!”
GORDY GRUNDY is a Los Angeles based artist. His visual and literary
works can be found at www.GordyGrundy.com.