Category Archives: Artist Profiles

Artist William Wegman: Of Canine Muses and Scenic Overlooks

In the early 1970s a young Los Angeles-based artist named William Wegman brought home the first of what would be many Weimaraners and named him Man Ray, after the Surrealist artist and filmmaker who was one of his formative influences. Wegman considered his dog a companion, but Man Ray aspired to be more. Wegman, an accomplished photographer, soon discovered that Man Ray loved to work in front of the camera, donning outfits and striking poses like he was to the manor born. The photos that resulted could be viewed as charming and eccentric curios built around Man Ray’s straight-faced presence, or as sardonic commentary on the art world and its preoccupations, fashion, fame, etc. Man Ray was soon joined by the near-legendary Fay Ray and later by assorted puppies. His work with Weimaraner supermodels changed his life: it made him famous, it remains his most popular artworks, and following relocation to New York that work continues with his current canine muses Topper and Flo.

Though inarguably best known to the general public for his dogs’ portraits, Wegman is also an established and widely-exhibited painter, filmmaker, and creator of art installations. The installations began with La Jolla Vista View, commissioned by the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego. The piece is set at the edge of the campus overlooking the bustling I-5 freeway and “greater La Jolla,” and consists of a large etched brass plaque atop a stone base with a telescope close at hand. The etching depicts the scene as it looked in 1984, very different than today’s view, and the telescope is the type often found at scenic overlooks (but free to use). Though not originally intended as a parody of said overlooks, Wegman notes that “it more or less evolved – or de-evolved – into that.” The title La Jolla Vista View is itself a gentle send-up since “vista” and view” mean precisely the same thing. Whatever the satirical intent (or lack thereof) informing the project, it has become a popular meeting spot for students and staff working in the campus Theatre District; Wegman says he’s happy to “settle for that” as a response to the installation. The salient point is that, like most of Wegman’s work, the piece offers layers of meaning if the visitor is open to them.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Bill Wegman in his Chelsea (NYC) studio in 2015 and meeting his family and Weimaraner brood. I’d been a fan of his work for many years and naturally had some trepidation about meeting him, since in my line of work meeting someone you admire can and often does end awkwardly if not badly. Thankfully, not the case in this instance; the Wegman family were warm and gracious, and as expected Bill has a wonderful sense of humor. I mention this because I believe these qualities and his successful integration of family and work infuse his art. Believe it or not, this is not true of every artist.

Watch William Wegman: La Jolla Vista View – A Conversation with Stuart Collection at UC San Diego.

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A Fascination with Trees

When Terry Allen left Lubbock, Texas to pursue his youthful ambitions it’s doubtful he could have foreseen his status nearly six decades later as a legendary painter, conceptual artist, composer, and musician. Terry’s work is unusually diverse but certain themes are common: the mysteries of love, surviving loss, and the consequences of violence are just a few, often expressed with sardonic humor and a heightened sense of irony.

Terry is particularly celebrated as a chronicler of the off-beat, the surreal, and the just plain weird in American life. In his interview with the Stuart Collection’s Mary Beebe and Mathieu Gregoire, Terry notes that his appreciation for the off-kilter arose in part from his childhood in Lubbock, a highly conservative place with its share of colorful and disreputable characters. A burgeoning iconoclast, he fled Lubbock for Los Angeles in the mid-1960s seeking to establish himself as an artist. It was only after disavowing Lubbock and West Texas for many years that Terry came to appreciate the influence of his upbringing on his worldview and his art. This understanding was beautifully expressed in his groundbreaking 1979 release “Lubbock (On Everything)” which contains two of Your Humble Correspondent’s favorites, “Truckload of Art” and “The Collector (and the Art Mob).” “Lubbock…” along with his earlier conceptual album “Juarez” cemented Terry Allen’s reputation as an “outlaw country” artist, a designation he’s not comfortable with as he finds it limiting, if not meaningless.

Terry also discusses his fascination with trees, understandable in someone growing up in a place “so flat that if you stare at the horizon hard enough you can see the back of your head.” This attraction inspired his creation of a commission for Stuart Collection entitled “Trees,” a collection of three metal-clad trees: a singing tree that plays an eclectic mixture of music; a talking (or poetry) tree that plays various spoken word pieces; and a silent tree placed in front of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. The singing and talking trees are blended into a eucalyptus grove, lending an air of both mystery and discovery to the passersby. As with many of the Stuart Collection pieces, the objective is to “bring the inexplicable” to campus, and Terry Allen is well-versed in the enigmatic.

Watch Terry Allen: Trees – A Conversation with Stuart Collection.

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Pivotal Events

In the early hours of April 20, 1989, 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was assaulted and left for dead in Central Park. The ensuing media frenzy instigated a public outcry for swift justice. Within days of the attack five African-American teenagers implicated themselves, after hours of psychological pressure and aggressive interrogation. The teens were tried as adults and convicted despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim. The convictions were vacated in 2002 after incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men subsequently filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers, and the prosecutors involved in their case. A settlement was reached in 2014 for $41 million.

The story of the Central Park Five has remained in the public consciousness, in part due to acclaimed documentaries on the subject and recent reminders of Donald Trump’s role in fanning public hysteria, and is an ideal subject for composer Anthony Davis. Davis has created several operas that address social and political issues in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular focus on events and figures in American history involving issues of race and social justice.

Davis’ first opera, “X,” examined the struggle of Malcolm X to redefine his identity in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Subsequent operas included such diverse topics as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (“Tania”), the 1870s trial of Standing Bear (“Wakonda’s Dream”), a rebellion aboard a slave ship and the trial that followed (“Amistad”), and the story of Adam’s apocryphal first wife as emblematic of the eternal conflict between the sexes (“Lilith”). Given his concern with America’s continuing racial and political struggles, his latest opera, “The Central Park Five,” is of a piece with Davis’ earlier works.

In conversation with UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis recounts the origins of the opera, the challenges of writing for an ensemble, the use of jazz idioms in his work, his preference for smaller-scale intimate dramas, and the responsibilities an artist undertakes when dealing with historical events. He stresses that there will always be a place for socially-aware works that confront controversies head-on, and in this vein mentions his plan to create an opera focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (depicted in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series). As Davis noted in an earlier interview, “These pivotal events in our history offer windows into understanding who we are today and how we arrived at our present situation. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is not only an important political statement but it is also the central focus of my work as an artist and composer.”

Watch — The Central Park Five with Anthony Davis

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The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew

The 2019 edition of UC San Diego Geisel Library’s “Dinner in the Library” series celebrates new acquisitions from the estate of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, most of which have never before been exhibited publicly. The Library’s Special Collections already houses over 20,000 items related to Geisel, including sketches, paintings, cartoons, letters, and manuscripts, and these new arrivals will further enhance its status as the world’s premiere repository of Seuss miscellany.

University Librarian Erik Mitchell welcomes a distinguished panel to discuss their reactions to the unveiling of Geisel’s “private art.” Seth Lerer, moderator and Distinguished Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, traces the development of Geisel’s stylistic vocabulary though doodles and rough sketches not intended for publication, and invites fellow panelists and the audience to consider the proper placement of these works within Geisel’s larger oeuvre. Rob Sidner, Executive Director of the Mingei International Museum, notes that many of the new acquisitions were exhibited in Geisel’s home and speculates on their personal significance to the artist. Mary Beebe, Director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, discusses Geisel’s acrylic paintings on display, noting they are uncharacteristic of Geisel and yet valuable for that reason. Beebe also cites Geisel’s delight in wordplay as a consistent feature of his work.

Other topics featured in this wide-ranging discussion include the challenges of exposure to a hitherto-unknown facet of an artist’s work, influences on Geisel’s development such as theatre and Surrealism (most notably Salvador Dali), the underlying social commentary in many of Geisel’s cartoons and books, his frequent portrayals of “sympathetic monsters,” and the importance of acknowledging that, in Seth Lerer’s words, “not everything in this collection is happy or funny; some of it is in fact quite dark.”

Theodor Geisel famously maintained that he wrote his books for adults, and that their adoption as beloved icons of children’s literature was a fortunate happenstance. The new additions to the Geisel Library’s Special Collections contribute to a fuller portrait of this complex and prolific artist, one possessed of considerable skills whose range of styles and thematic concerns is greater than previously appreciated.

Watch — The Private Art of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – Dinner in the Library 2019

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The Trees are the Instruments

“I’m profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place…I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography–that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination.”
– John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams has been hailed by the New Yorker as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” After studying at the California Institute of the Arts, Adams embarked on a prolific career encompassing a variety of genres and media, including television, film, children’s theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. His Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning orchestral composition, Become Ocean, has become one of the most popular concert pieces in the modern repertoire.

Much of John Luther Adams’ work as a composer and, increasingly, a conceptual artist is rooted in his love of nature combined with what he calls the “resonances” of a particular environment. For the Wind Garden, his installation commissioned by the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, that environment is a eucalyptus grove located in the campus Theater District. Based on a carefully determined site plot, 32 accelerometers were attached to the highest branches, measuring the movements of the trees in the wind. As the velocity of the wind changes so, too, does the amplitude of the sound. Tonal variations and harmonic colors are provided by two virtual “choirs,” a Day Choir tuned to the natural harmonic series, and a Night Choir tuned to the sub-harmonic series. The results are broadcast by 32 small loudspeakers hidden among the trees. Both volume and pitch change in real time throughout the day and with the sun’s movement over the course of the seasons.

Because the composition is driven entirely by wind and the sun’s light, it never repeats itself. The listener is surrounded by sounds that vaguely recall bells, voices, strings, and other acoustic instruments, but it’s impossible to describe them in just those familiar terms or to know their exact source. Like some of Adams’ other recent pieces, the Wind Garden has been described as “indeterminate,” but the composer argues that it’s more accurate to call it “self-determining,” not reliant on musicians or conventional instruments. Rather, Adams notes that “the trees are the instruments” while acknowledging the sophisticated technology employed to “give voice” to the trees.

Adams hopes that each unique encounter with the Wind Garden and its rich, ever-shifting harmonic palette will encourage both “deep listening” and an enhanced appreciation of the natural environment.

Watch The Wind Garden by John Luther Adams – Stuart Collection at UC San Diego

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