Zoom Lens

Films by Les and Harrod Blank
Albany artist Gerald Gaxiola, aka "The Maestro," is a fascinating anomaly -- a wildly imaginative painter, sculptor, performance artist, singer, and self-styled "cowboy" in elaborate jeweled chaps and fringe who refuses to commercialize his style or even sell his work. Les Blank's affectionate documentary The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1995) shows the range of Gaxiola's whimsical, conceptually rich work -- much of it inspired by the western mythology of his youth. The cattle drives he watched in old Roy Rogers movies are reborn as the Great Cadillac Drive to Reno with hundreds of multicolored ceramic Caddys. Best of all are his "shootouts" with the work of Andy Warhol and Christo, whose installation of giant yellow umbrellas he blasts with a pellet gun filled with red paint. The Maestro, who comes off as charming and intelligent and no naif, is an unstoppable force -- expect the marquee of the UC Theater to be obscured by one of his giant blue cowboys, and an elaborate stage created for a performance by his western-swing musical trio inside.

Also on this bill is Blank's tribute to the Afro-Cuban drummer Francisco Aguabella. Sworn to the Drum (1995) is an immersion (in a mere 35 minutes) into a peculiarly emotive kind of percussion with deep roots in African culture. The film features some exhilarating jams and explores Aguabella's devotion to his santeria religion, which provides the most lasting inspiration to the man who's worked with Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, Peggy Lee, and many other greats.

The Blank Family Tribute continues next Tuesday, with son Harrod's Wild Wheels, an endearing tribute to wildly modified "folk art" cars -- including one covered entirely in buttons and another in growing grass! -- that brighten up many a drab suburb and backwater across the country.

-- Gary Morris

The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists and Sworn to the Drum play together Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 3, 5, 7, and 9:15 p.m. Gerry Gaxiola will appear in person at 8:30 p.m. There's a special admission charge of $7.50 for that show. Wild Wheels screens Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 4:50 and 7:30 p.m. (with a program of "eccentric shorts" at 6:10 and 9 p.m.). All shows are at the UC Theater, University and Shattuck in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-6267.

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