Sleeping With the Enemy
"Topless Traffic School," announces the billboard above a busy Los Angeles thoroughfare, accompanied by a photo of a woman in a bikini. "A clean record is only a lapdance away. Tipping accepted."
This is the language of L.A. -- a visual medium peculiar to the culture of automobiles, brash rectangles screaming an opportunistic city back at itself, filtered through the porthole of an ever-moving windshield. "Hi-colonics ... in the comfort of your own car," boasts another sign for an organization called the Gleiberman Colonic Treatment Center. "New drive-thru technology! Drive your colon clean." A young man and woman are smiling in an embrace. The effect is simultaneously bizarre and mesmerizing, as if this just confirmed your worst fears.
Such may also be said for the paintings of Eric White, going on display here at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard. You may have seen his work in Time or Premiere. He created the goofy-yet-creepy album cover for the Meices' Tastes Like Chicken, depicting a man in a kitchen slicing up his own brain with a carving knife.
After getting his publishing feet wet via now-defunct Bay Area magazines such as Mondo 2000, The City, and The Nose, White has been asked by La Luz to put together his own show. Which means not only has White made the tedious drive down I-5 with a van full of paintings, so have many of his friends: ambassadors from the Land of Fog who are infiltrating tonight's opening reception, scrupulously avoiding the hors d'oeuvre tray of marshmallow peanuts impaled along with olives.
"The people from San Francisco all stick out," says comedian Karen Kilgariff, a one-time Bay Area resident now based in L.A. who is smoking a butt in the gallery parking lot. When asked about the urban difference, she replies, "San Franciscans have an aura of sincerity that doesn't exist down here."
The opening of White's show does harbor an odd, detached familiarity, like a Mexican beach bar full of gringo draft dodgers. Many S.F. expatriates circulate among L.A.'s hipsters, from painter/animator Tim Brock to lounge act Joey Cheezhee and pianist Gere Fenellie, who is clutching two small yapping dogs. "There are the cool people, and the fuckers," explains former Intersection for the Arts theater director Paul Codiga, now working on a production down here with Danny Glover. "You hang out with the cool people, and avoid the fuckers."
The gallery itself could easily be in San Francisco, a small shop of soaps and toiletries that has grown into a retail focal point for the high art of lowbrow -- Eric Kroll fetish books, bins of plastic insects, circus banners of Wayne's World characters, all infused with a noisy Cinco de Mayo/hot rod aesthetic recognizable to readers of Juxtapoz magazine. But while Juxtapoz is published in San Francisco, L.A. is home to the gallery that captures its spirit.
Eric White eyes the crowd nervously as they trickle in. Apart from a small display in New York last year, this is his very first public show. Will they like him? Are his prices too high? Too low? Will the gallery be pissed because it asked him to create new oil paintings for the exhibit, and he did them in acrylic instead?
On the drive down in photographer Bart Nagel's van, the lanky 29-year-old explained that the permanence of oil is preferred among art world elitists, but if you're doing deadline magazine illustration work, acrylic makes more sense, because it takes only a day to dry, as opposed to oil, which can take up to a year. Oil paintings have a warmer feel than acrylics, like a Fender tube amp as opposed to solid-state electronics, and they generally sell for higher prices. But oils need a separate studio to ventilate the foul-smelling solvents and turpentines, and at the moment White's crowded Castro Street apartment can't spare the space.
Now in the gallery, White muses on his rendering of a long-forgotten Apollo 8 astronaut who stands in a field, helmetless in his spacesuit, his hairy, detailed arms extending to the ground. Above his head runs a series of Chinese characters. White says he doesn't know what they mean; he just stole them from a headline in a sleazy porno rag: "It was the most offensive article I could find."
Equally accessible yet strange is his parody of a Sunday comic strip, a philosophical discussion between Katharine Hepburn and Charles Mingus that ends up with both in a naked 69 position. Another piece, a shadowy noir design interrupted by a bright red, superimposed microscopic bacteria, has just been purchased by Dweezil Zappa's mother, one of several that will sell before the night is over.
As the doors are locked, the crowd swells outside the gallery, roiling with uncertainty as to its next move. Overwhelmed yet relieved, White quietly extricates himself and strolls off, accompanied by a young woman. Plenty of things to ponder; this weekend, he will be a houseguest of the Zappa family.
The San Francisco bunch drifts off to various destinations, while L.A. Free Citizen Editor Scott Sawyer heads for the Smog Cutter, an old Bukowski dive turned Korean karaoke bar. Scott's '66 Chevelle has lost its spark, and as he hustles up AAA on a pay phone the bar's video monitor pops up a familiar sight: the Golden Gate Bridge, serenaded by someone's enthusiastic, off-key rendition of "I Left My Heart ...."
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