Lillian O'Brien Davis
This is my first time in LA, it’s sunny all the time and the sky is always blue. My friend Kate, who travelled with me, remarked that it must be really hard to be depressed here. Something like going through a break-up on vacation, there is no good place to cry.
The city is vast, we haven’t walked anywhere. Instead we hop into Ubers that whisk us past beautiful lemon trees, terracotta roofed mansions and elegant trees with purple flowers, I guess they are wisteria (turns out they are Jacaranda trees). In the morning we lounge by the hotel pool with the scent of Morning Glory vines mixing with the vanilla latte I ordered from the third wave coffee shop in the lobby. During our Uber rides we also see billboards to fix your credit, cure your STIs and direct you to local drug detox centres. In the shade of these billboards there are encampments everywhere—tents, and tarps used to shelter occupants from the blazing sun.
In the morning we listen to Elliott Smith. Something about this town makes me feel so melodramatic. Everyone here is so invested in the mythology of being here.
I’m here to learn about Betye Saar. I am slowly learning that my research practice is a pretty nebulous one so I’ve been feeling self-conscious about going on this, my first research trip. I arrived in LA with a rough list of places that I felt might be useful to visit and a confirmed appointment with Betye Saar’s gallery, Roberts Projects on my last full day here. Our first stop was the Watts Towers, a series of interconnected sculptures built over the course of 33 years by Simon Rodia. In the Uber, Stanley the driver, plays Frank Sinatra, Summer Wind, as we ride on the freeway with the windows down. Kate and I snap our fingers in unison, taking it all in. Stanley remarks that the area we’re heading to is a “bad” one. Kate and I exchange a look, a tightness in our chests, we’ve been warned to be careful, LA is dangerous. The feeling of the car ride shifts as we get closer to our destination, not sure what to expect when we arrive. When we pull up, we gasp audibly as Stanley turns on to the one way street where the towers are located. They’re stunning. Our anxiety lifts and we spend about an hour with the work before calling an uber (a tesla this time, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to open the door to enter the car) to take us to our next destination.
Simon Rhodia started the project in 1921 and finished in 1954. Not a trained architect, the structures are metal covered in grout and found tiles, glass and ceramics. You can identify shards of Canada Dry bottles, broken pots and seashells which are all part of the structure. Saar, born in 1926, witnessed the building of the towers throughout her life, she cites them as a very early influence in how she understood what art could be and why she became interested in working in assemblage. Not sure what to do, I ask Kate to take a picture of me standing outside the gates of the towers (they happen to be closed for restoration when we visit), trying to recreate an image of Saar at the towers I found online.
On our second day in town, we took a car to the Griffith Observatory, where you can see a beautiful vista of the city. You can hike all the way to the Hollywood sign. The sun was baking us as we wandered around, not willing to actually hike. In the blazing heat, we watched as a person wearing a ratty cookie monster costume, also wandered around offering to take pictures with tourists. I cannot express how absolutely terrifying it is to see a lone figure in a dirty costume standing around in the hellish LA heat so far from disneyland. The stuff of nightmares.
Later, as we descend the hill in another Uber, we pass a house with a sign out front that says ‘Spiritualist’. I suggest we stop the car and see if they’ll take walk-ins. The house is white, with dramatic blue awnings and rose bushes lining the front walk. We buzz and a woman agrees to see us one at a time. Palm reading $30, Tarot $40 and Psychic $50. Saar uses hands a lot in her work, I think about hands a lot so in my rickety approach to research so I say I think that I should have my palm read. Also, I have $30 cash in my wallet.
The woman runs her business out of her foyer, with two shrines set up on either side of the front door. As soon as I’m settled in the chair, I realize I am about to embark on something that could really frighten me. To ask someone to tell you about yourself is a very risky business. After the reading, I am really rattled. I sit outside in the designated waiting chair, feeling the breeze and trying to relax. Why did I do this? Is this what I think Saar is interested in? Not really. How does this fit into the ideas I am interested in? I have no idea. Saar’s work which spans something like five decades is interested in the inherent mysticism alive in the universe. This epic scope of working explores Black liberation, spirals between life, death and rebirth, practicing political resistance by making art. I think this is where research becomes a challenging thing for me. I am interested in Saar’s interest in the occult, palmistry and astrology among other things but I cannot just have a cute moment with these subjects, dipping my painted toenail into one experience expecting to understand what is going on. These are complex subjects practiced by experts. My work is not to pretend to understand these practices as deeply as the people I am interested in learning about do but instead to suggest what impact their artwork has had as a result of their work. This is a messy line to tow and I keep slipping off the path of research that I can vaguely see ahead of me. It’s especially hard in a hellscape like LA which is relentless and where I cannot get my bearings.