Sunday, October 22, 2006

My Old School

I have conclusively decided that fruit-and-vegetable fasts are primarily designed for people who grew up on junk food, and thus need remedial nutritional therapy. This would not be me. On Day Five I broke into the oatmeal, brown rice, and Indian curried lentils, and my body profoundly thanks me.

In my state of relative purity, I managed to go party-hopping last night and only consume half a glass of wine and one chunk of low-sugar cake, despite the bottle of Maker's Mark sitting right there, where I was almost tempted to grab it a number of times. Particularly as this was a Pretentious Art Party where I knew almost no-one, and almost no-one had conventional social skills.

Actually, that's not fair. More than half the people I talked to had average-to-decent social skills, which was why we were able to stay longer than the forty-five minutes allotted. We stayed at Sono Osato's studio in Dumbo until the pizza arrived, then quietly decamped before my willpower and Oriane's energy gave way completely.

Sono's studio

Early on in the evening, I committed the atrocious mistake of trying to engage in serious conversation with an untested stranger. In a moment of rash optimism, when he asked me what my work was about, I told him.

"Transpersonal spirituality," I said.

"Is that like, person to person?" he asked.

Oh, no. I was already in too deep to retreat; I went through a haphazard schpiel about the evolution of moral reasoning, the convergence of spiritual traditions in the esoteric experience, and the nature of mysticism, knowing that I was speaking to a wall. He listened, uncomprehendingly, and fled as soon as he decently could. I should have asked him about his work, first--when he told me he had a studio upstairs, I'd jumped to the conclusion that he was a Serious Artist. Turns out he paints watercolor landscapes.

This is why, as I get older, I socialize less and less, with fewer and fewer expectations. My life feels like a long, hopeless quest to find people who not only understand what I'm talking about, but have the wherewithal to push back. I don't want to be a snob. I really, really don't. But this sort of thing is unutterably draining.

Which is why I never quite manage to completely give up on Sono.

studio wall--nifty little sculptures

It is possible that Sono Osato may be one of the great under-recognized artists of our generation. It is also possible that she is a determined maker of mud-pies with a gift for spouting academic blarney. She is a good teacher, however; or at least, she was the right teacher for the Interdisciplinary Sculpture class I took at the San Francisco Art Institute, sometime back in the dark ages.

That class is looked upon by most of the participants, I think, as one of the major transformative experiences in our lives. It triggered a creative frenzy that, for at least one of us, ended in a mental institution--but I think that girl was headed in that direction, regardless. The basic lesson that Sono hammered home was, "Get in touch with your Real Self. Stop imitating whatever the Establishment has told you that Art should be. Do something authentic."

I remember this one guy, Gunther, a big blond German guy, came to the class making these completely underwhelming, Picasso-esque plywood sculptures. After being subjected to the first of Sono's authenticity rants, he came to the revelation that Gunther was all about crows. He started making whimsically subversive crow sculptures and scattering them around campus, with a puckish glint in his blue German eye. His final exam project was the one I remember best; a giant chair, set up on the roof overlooking the city, with a crow sitting on the back of it. When you sat down in it, the crow started telling you a bedtime story in German. It was vaguely creepy and wholly enjoyable.

Another guy, for the final critique, took us to the studio he'd somehow managed to garner, inside a defunct Chinese factory in the middle of North Beach. The factory was one of those urban buildings that is so strange, your eye doesn't even register that it's there; though it towered over the neighboring Victorian row houses, I would swear to never having seen it before, or since. We entered through a small graffiti-covered door in an alley, and went on an underground journey through myriad unlit rooms, full of enigmatic junk and inscrutable architectural configurations. The 'studio' itself was more of the same; you got the impression, when entering, that a gnome-like man had been engaged in frantically piling up twisted refuse in mad configurations until, hearing our footsteps, he had precipitately fled.

The whole critique was so strange that, even at the time, I was sure that later I'd think I'd dreamed it.

Sono Osato--black paintings, exploded crate

As much as I liked Sono, I came to notice that she seemed to have something of an oppositional personality. Or perhaps it was just me; when I'd run into her around town, at openings or in the library, it seemed that I could not say anything right. At least once, I experimented with paraphrasing the statement that had just come out of her mouth; when the next thing she said was "No, but..." I stopped trying to connect. She's smart, she's interesting, she's talented and disciplined, and we just don't resonate.

And indeed, the hyper-intellectualism and cerebral nature of much of her art and rhetoric brings up some of my core Issues. These ubiquitous tarred canvases, for instance--once she said, "They're about so many ideas and patterns converging at once that they fill up the entire space, and it becomes black." (Or something to that effect.) This seems to me to be both literalistically illustrative and not particularly useful or enlightening; I greatly prefer her sculptures. Strange and conceptually impenetrable as they are, at least they're fun to look at.

So really, I forgot that Sono existed for a number of years. Then, about three years after moving to New York, it occurred to me to Google her, like it occurs to me to Google just about everyone I've ever known, eventually. I discovered that she was living one neighborhood away, and sent her a cheery little email, saying, hi! we're neighbors!

I didn't hear back. I figured that her spam filter had eaten it, or that she's the kind of person who never ever reads email, or that she gets so many emails from former students that she just Can't Deal, or that she didn't remember who I was at all. Ah, well. I went back to forgetting that she existed.

Last summer, I was at Oriane's opening, the person standing next to Oriane looked vaguely familiar. "You look vaguely familiar," I said.

"My name is Sono," she replied.

"Oh, I was in your class," I said. "You look beautiful."

And indeed, she does look beautiful. "My thirties were rough," she confessed. In her forties, she seems a lot more relaxed, open, chatty and giggly. At the opening we got along with little to no oppositionality, after she asked, warily, "Are you still making art?" and I replied, "Absolutely." I can appreciate the fact that having a lot of poseur students clamoring round you must be wearying.

I gave her and Oriane a lift home, and in the car Sono started talking about former students. "And then I got an email from one of them that I haven't replied to, yet. This person was sort of...weird."

Moment On The Horns Of Social Awkwardness.

"That was me," I said, cheerfully.

"Oh! I thought you were someone else..." she replied.

"I'm weird, but I'm harmless," I laughed, and dropped it.

In fact, I always got the feeling that I, my actual being, must press some sort of button for Sono. It is obviously something beyond my control, and possibly beyond her ability to process. Maybe it's my blonde WASPy-ness; maybe I represent the Oppressor Class. Maybe it's my goofy theatricality of manner. Maybe I remind her of her mother, or a grade-school teacher from hell, or her father's mistress, or some other embodiment of Absolute Evil. Or maybe she just thought I was a pretentious, no-talent schmuck, and wanted no association with that at all. I can respect that.

But, after running into her at the opening, I figured that whatever-it-was had gone 'poof,' and that, with some mutual maturity and establishment of good boundaries, we could hang out in the same community. I invited her to my salon; she said she had other plans, but promised to keep in touch.

This week, Oriane asked, "Are you going to Sono's party?"

Ordinarily I am ethically and personally opposed to showing up at the parties of people who definitely have my contact information, and definitely have not included me on the invitation list. But Oriane assured me that it was the 'bring friends' type of party, and I need to get out more, and I'm harmless, right?

Unfortunately the awkwardness, whatever it is, is back. When your hostess makes a point of avoiding any conversation with you at all, beyond less than the bare minimum of platitudes, that's awkward. I wasn't aggressively thrown out, and large numbers of the other guests were perfectly friendly, which is a huge anomaly in the art scene, so it wasn't a wasted evening.

But jeez. I so know how Ed Winkleman feels, about wasting one's time trying to connect with people who just see you as part of the problem. Whatever that problem might happen to be.


danonymous said...

So in the life and travels of Serena, what up next?

serena said...

Good heavens, how should I know the answer to that question? Picking up the laundry. Working on a client. Paying bills. Printing up more postcards. Those are the scintillating items on the schedule; anything else will have to be a surprise.

What up with Dano?

WhatsAPundit said...

The social problem you have/had/have with Sono (if it could be called such) is probably in the same class of problems you have with so much of the art "scene"; your wonderful weirdness is something towards which many artists aspire, but which makes them profoundly uncomfortable when encountered in "free range" form.

That's it; you're a gloriously free-range weirdo.

Never stop, please.

serena said...

Thanks, Pundit; that may be it. It's like the art community has a machette for what acceptable weirdness is supposed to look like, just like what 'art' is supposed to look like, and anything that falls outside of that they don't know how to process.

Or maybe I am a no-talent schmuck. Must consider all possibilities.

WhatsAPundit said...

In an alternate universe there might exist the possibility that there you might be a no-talent schmuck.

Not in this universe.

painterdog said...

its also the pretentiousness of a lot of the "art crowd".

so many of these people are so full of bs.

that description of the "black paintings" is case in point.

you summed it up.

i hate going these things as well, come to think of i don't.

k said...

Perhaps it's just the irritating shock of meeting someone who is simply and honestly themselves. For some reason that tends to strike people as Weird. I get that a lot, anyway.

Some try to be who they are not in order to fit in. Having taken care not to be the nail who sticks out and thus gets pounded in, when they meet someone who - cheerfully and unabashedly - is that nail, they can feel shocked, bewildered, angry, ripped-off. They say, --I didn't get to be myself so why should you? Not Fair!!!

The worst seem to be those who affect a false Weird Persona in order to be fashionable. When they meet someone who is being themselves, yet are also perceived as weird, they can become envious and angry. It's as if they've been bested at a game they were playing - but horror of horrors, bested in a way that makes them see they were playing it unilaterally.

Often, in response, they stick their nose in the air and comfort themselves with the notion that this person is being the wrong kind of Weird.