Friday, July 25, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 50: HOMAGE TO MACHIAVELLI



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE


January 2007, Near Florence, Italy


In the morning, which for us arrives late, a wall of white fog seals the loggia.  None of us have seen anything so surrealistically astonishing in its blankness.  

Visibility:  Not one inch.

Breakfast is a buffet of smoked meat laid out in the kitchen.  Fortunately, Boris’s dog is barking outside.

Boris is still around, evidenced by a brand-new Rolls-Royce with Monaco tags parked outside.  (He had told Natasha, along with members of his dinner party, that Monaco’s sovereign prince had given him the fancy wheels for making it to this meeting, a ridiculous lie.)

When we next look outside, the fog has cleared.  A driver rolls us into Florence, where Van Stein sets an easel along the River Arno, turning his back on the famed Ponte Vecchio for an obscure view. 

In the afternoon we motion to Siena, a Tuscan city on this day half enveloped in fog, bestowing it a mystical quality that exemplifies the thick texture and tapestry of Europe.  Strolling through the 100 percent marble Duomo, it is clear that Italy is the right place to look up angels and devils.  

Or they will find you.

The Villa Mangiacane is quiet on our return.  Boris and Igor and the others have departed.  Natasha dashes to the house computer, spends twenty minutes on the Internet.

“What’s she doing?”  Van Stein hasn’t trusted her for one second since the road trip began.

I shrug.  “Probably email.”

Van Stein shakes his head.  “She’s looking at sites.  Russian sites.”

“How do you know that?”

“I went on after her.  The computer keeps a record of recent sites visited.  She visited a dozen in twenty minutes.”  Like, now do you believe she’s a Russian spy?

“Do you have a record of the sites she surfed?”   

Van Stein nods triumphantly.  “I’ve already e-mailed it to myself.”

(The sites relate to esoteric topics:  magic, witchcraft and astrology.)

“Careful,” I say.  “Boris may have a keyboard logger.”

“A what?”

“Change your password.”

Later, we motion back to Florence, a restaurant called Ana Murate (The Walls) because of its ancient frescoes, uncovered by accident during a paint-stripping renovation.  

Centuries earlier these were judges chambers, and quite likely where Machiavelli was condemned to exile.

We gift Van Stein with a special pen:  a limited edition Van Gogh, produced by Visconti of Florence.  

“Is it bugged?” says Van Stein, looking at Natasha.

“You would like, Chatka?”  This is Natasha’s pet name for the artist, a Russian word that means hat, as Van Stein is rarely without a baseball cap crowning his pate.

“Time to call Boris and report in.”

“Nonsense.”  Natasha points to the implant scar on her left temple.  “He already hears.”

JL, egged on by Van Stein, engages Natasha, looks her directly in the eye.  “Who are you working for?”  

Then he looks at me, befuddled.  “Wait a minute, who am I working for?”

“Be careful, Toy-Boy,” says Natasha, though JL’s nickname should be Muttley for his snickering wheeze of a laugh when he farts.

A chef’s taster menu delights us; much mirth and merriment ensues, while Van Stein sketches frescoes, 

Natasha waxes covert and Toy-Boy turns philosophical.  

“My father, Bernard, who died when I was twelve, gave me two bits of advice,” says Toy-Boy.  “Coincidence is the form God takes to remain incognito.”  He stops.

“And the other?” I ask.

“Trust me, son, condoms don’t work.”

Outside, the word angels, accented with a halo, is reflected from somewhere onto the pavement. 


We return to Villa Mangiacane at midnight.  Erica, who resides in the gatehouse, unlocks the villa, sees us in—and Machiavelli’s old home is ours alone to explore.  

Van Stein takes a number of photographs, until dear Niccolo appears in an orb, with a facial expression that says, “Oops, got me!”  

Other orbs join the party:  Vincent, Dymphna, and Dali…  

“We need candles and matches,” says Van Stein, creating a still life:  ten candles, forming a circle around a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, his new Van Gogh pen and a glass of red wine.  

Twice the artist stops to stand back for perspective.  

Twice, a music stand near the table shudders, not stopping until Van Stein is beckoned back to the easel.  

You’re not finished-–keep painting!

When the picture is finally complete, past four in the morning, Van Stein discovers he has inexplicably painted an extra candle.



Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 49: THE ROCKY & BULLWINKLE SHOW





January 2007


At daylight we motion along the autostrada enchanted by the voice of Joseph McManners, a stand-alone choirboy who sings Music of the Angels, inadvertently in the car’s CD player.

First (or second) angel.

Stoked by frothy cappuccino, we roll onward to our intermediate destination, as plotted by JL:  the town of Petromoli, at Moon Valley’s very heart, surrounded on three sides by unusual mountain ranges, one of which, the Appennines, resembles the edge of a lunar crater.  

The whole valley feels like a moon crater.  

We stretch our legs, greeted by a sign, Pro Loco, while, down the road, a loco moon-faced female yells at a stationary car, the only activity in Petromoli this afternoon.  

We ascend the old fortress, now a museum, situated on Petromoli’s highest ground.  We are the only visitors all day, probably all week, perhaps all month, maybe all year.  

A solitary museum clerk takes our euros, looks at us like we’re out of our minds to be here and permits us free roaming through a desolate fortress that seems based less on moon worship than earth cruelty.  

A jail, a dungeon.  Unspoken horrors have left an aura of fright.  

A plaque discloses that Emperor Barbarossa had designated the local aristocracy Counts of Luni.   

These genuine lunies carved mushroom people out of stone and worshipped them in moonlight, from which  certain etchings and symbols could be seen.  

Lunies claim to be the inspiration (and origin) for Britain’s Stonehenge.

Down the road, an impressive cathedral, quite large for so small a town–-as if Christians behind its creation did their damned best to sway the natives from such pagan ritual as moon worship.  

Yet, above the altar, at the apex of a cross, is a round, glass object that resembles the moon.  

So who was fooling whom?  

Did the cathedral builders use the moon as a lure?  

Or had they been infiltrated by moon worshippers?

Dusk turns to darkness as we roll south.  Road-signs make no sense, but guided by hi-tech navigational equipment JL wheels us to the town of San Casciano, ten miles from Florence, and the Villa Mangiacane, literally, Dog Eaters.

An electronic gate slides open; a long dirt path leads to the three-story villa, looming esoterically in the shadows.

JL has visited this villa only once, two years before, when it played host to the spookiest event of his life:  As he lay in bed, held captive by sleep, he felt a presence, studying him closely.  Mustering all his energy to force his eyes open, he snagged a fleeing phantasm with a high-domed head, tight-skinned face with mischievous smirk and long neck, wearing a strange gown.  

A classic alien profile.  

JL awakened from this experience believing he had been fiddled with by extraterrestrials.

“We have the royal suite ready for you,” says Erica, the villa’s hostess.

“No, not necessary,” says JL, a member of Monaco’s royal family.  “Put me near my friends.”

Lavish duplex suites await us, connected by a communal loggia with twenty-foot high ceiling and a view of Florence eight miles away, its light casting a halo over a city famous for renaissance intrigue-–the Medicis and the Borgias, and the greatly misunderstood Niccolo Machiavelli.

Within a few minutes it becomes clear why we have found this place–-or why it has found us:  This villa is the Machiavelli family seat, to which the father of political science was banished, from Florence, by the autocratic Medicis, and where, for fourteen years, he wrote his discourses, including an enduring master thesis called The Prince.

There is time, however, only to savor, not digest, this piece of information, because a more pressing matter demands our attention.  

“There is somebody staying here who knows that you are related to the Prince and wants to meet you,” Erica tells JL.

“Who?”

“Gotcha Arivadze,” she replies.

Second devil (or third)?

JL exchanges glances with me.  It is a name we both know from our princely work.  Arivadze, an affable crook, amassed a large fortune through various shenanigans and used it to penetrate the Prince of Monaco’s orbit of friends, probably on behalf of the Russian special services.  

“What’s he doing here?” I interject.

“A dinner party.”  Erica motions at the dining room.

Through a doorway we behold about a dozen austere men seated around an oval table.

We are now a cartoon from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  

JL is Rocky; Van Stein is Bullwinkle.  

And Anjelika, our Russian spy, is Natasha.  

With barely a cue from me, she bounces into the dining room, sans invitation, and says, “Good evening!  Nice to hear the Russian language!”  

Natasha is dressed to kill:  Black form-fitting top, short black skirt, black stockings and black leather boots with steel stiletto heels, packaging exotic, expressive beauty.  

Boris immediately bites the bait, eyes launching from his head, like Roger Rabbit.  Boris wants Natasha to remain, but her entrance is just a tease, and she rejoins our party for dinner in the wine cellar, reserved exclusively for us, illuminated by tall freestanding candelabras.

A brass plaque over the door says The Arivadze Cave, clueing us that Boris is a secret partner in this establishment (a notion cemented when we discover his pet dog is kept in a villa kennel).

To be sacrificed and eaten?

 A five-course meal is served with Chianti Classico reserve (produced in this very neighborhood), during which JL recounts the night terror he endured here, while orbs from our surreal bouncing assemble around us in the cellar.

It is midnight when we clink our final toast and tour the basement, ogling erotic art that becomes more wicked the deeper one delves into meandering basement rooms, in contrast to the ground floor, where the eclectic collection is more classic and respectable (though the dining room features visionary paintings akin to Icelandic art).

Combined with the erotic sculpture punctuating the grounds outside (seen next morning) and photo albums on the piano illustrating numerous female models who have passed through this retreat, Machiavelli’s old home has the feel of the mansion in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, where a sexually explicit and ritualistic masquerade party takes place, entry to which is gained only by a secret password, Fidelio.  

Returning upstairs, Natasha positions herself on a loggia, smoking a cigarette, while Rocky, Bullwinkle and I sip red wine, watching Boris get reeled into our honey trap.  

Within minutes, Natasha is sitting in the dining room with table-full of wily conspirators.

Thirty minutes later a waiter arrives with a bottle of house red wine, “Compliments of Mister Arivadze.”

He thinks he can trade us a bottle of wine for our angel (or devil)?

We don’t refuse the wine, but this effrontery precludes us from uncorking it, and we leave it on the table un-drunk, decamping to our communal loggia.

Lurking nearby, a solitary man puffing a cigar.  He lights another, even though it’s past one in the morning.

JL engages.  The stranger accepts chitchat, sticks to banalities.  Turns out he’s French, nothing to do with the Russian dinner party; he and his wife are the only other guests at the villa this evening.  

So he’s probably DST or DGSE–-French special services-–keeping tabs on whatever the Russians are doing, and he’s probably wondering what the hell we, the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, are doing.  

The Russians, he was expecting.  

Us?  Once he concludes CIA crashed the party it will complicate his report writing.

JL decides to check on Natasha by introducing himself to Boris, say thanks for the un-drunk wine.  He returns twenty minutes later with the bottle, now uncorked.  (Alas, we were still thirsty.)  “Natasha’s too close to them, man!” he says.  “They’re slobbering all over her.”

“It’s her job,” I say. “She knows what she’s doing.”

We continue to sip wine, having already consumed too much, as the morning hours tick onward, a dark, moonless Florentine night, the cold creeping into our bones, until, finally, just past three o’clock, we hear our vivacious Angel in the hallway.  

I cut around from the loggia to greet her and find a Russian goon (not Boris, more like an Igor) standing outside her door, insisting her suite is his own.

When he sees me, the stocky, gruff, crew-cut Igor backs off, grunts goodnight to Natasha, and creeps to his room adjacent to the loggia where, unseen, Van Stein and JL are sharing a joke, laughing.  

Believing himself to be its butt (perhaps the norm for him), Igor slams his door.  In case we do not get the point, he opens his door a few inches, glares out and slams it again.  

No subtlety, Russians.  Even when they poison someone, they use ten times the lethal dose, then accuse everyone else of aggressive, obstructive behavior.

Igor, says Anjelika, is supposedly a general who quickly decided that she "works in Division Three for Pavel Pavelovitch.”  

And maybe she does.

“How did you explain us?” I ask.

“Yes, they ask me,” says Angel.  “I tell them you are my three husbands:  a writer, an artist and a baron.”



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 48: MOON VALLEY



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE



January 2007


News reaches us about a region of Tuscany called Valley of the Lunigiana (translation:  Moon Valley), where ancient folk—the Luni—worshipped the moon.   

We hurtle across the Atlantic; in January, as usual, but with a new twist:  No full moon.  In fact, no moon at all but, instead, that in-between phase (the new moon) separating full and crescent moons that translates to very dark nights when angels and devils come out to play.  

A bounce into esoteric realism.

We leave clear skies, sunshine and warmth, and enter full gloom: a London that bursts with people from everywhere, its population swelling each hour despite congestion charges, standing-room-only subway trains, leeching prices and an edginess without discrimination.

First stop:  The Providores, a kiwi hole-in-the-wall on Marylebone High Street, the finest cappuccino this side of Italy.  

A woman goes postal when a young man tries to walk out with her purse, over which he has draped his jacket, but his grip loosens so it falls to the floor.  

“You’re trying to steal my purse!” she shrills.

“No, I’m not,” he spits, surly indignation.

“You are, too!”

He snarls.

Patrons and staff watch, upper lips stiffened, as the beast beats a hasty exit.

The first devil.

London darkens about four o’clock.  

Van Stein, as always, is the decoy, a suspicious-looking character scouting angles while I utilize darkness and shadow to maze my way to Home-House, a private club, for surreptitious meetings, followed by another covert rendezvous in the old Churchill Hotel’s cigar bar, where an attractive pianist sings Carole King and James Taylor.  

Then a re-group with the artist for dinner at Hardy’s, followed by a long whiskey at the Art Bar on Walton Street and a longer walk to lower body temperature for sound sleep.  

Battling lag and constant motion, sleep will be an issue sooner or later.

Come morning, Starbucks on Baker Street at an outdoor table in dank drizzle to evoke a sense of place; watching, like Sherlock Holmes, commuters on foot; engaged by a torpid American traveling salesman, sitting nearby, awaiting a luggage shop to open so he can lug his wares (eye laser surgical equipment) around on wheels.  Or so he says.    

“Another spy,” whispers Van Stein.  “I’ve seen him before.”

We clean our tracks before wheeling to Luton Airport, quiet and deserted, reminding us why we visit Europe in mid-January.

EasyJet plunks us hard onto the tarmac at Nice-Cote-d’Azur, where the Det Collector stands by to motion us into Monaco.  

Enter JL, a new recruit to our commingling of madness.  

He has requisitioned a Mercedes with 007 plates for our imminent road trip to Moon Valley.  He could not understand our need for a violin, but found one anyway, so that Anjelika could pose with it for the artist.

Anjelika?  

A charismatic Russian “half-and-half” (part Chinese extraction) who had answered a classified ad I cannot recall placing.  

The first angel.  Or second devil, posing as an angel?

Indeed, I had placed an ad for interpreters but not in the journal Anjelika claims to have found it.   

A spy, perhaps; if no one else’s—I rationalize—mine to recruit.

On to Le Beefbar, where Van Stein meets Anjelika and approves my choice for violin model.  We also agree she should join us for whatever madness awaits in the Valley of the Lunigiana.

Thus, Angel with Violin is finally—that very night, the early hours—figuratively minimalized in oil on board.



THE ODYSSEY 47: YIN-YANK





October 2006


Seven weeks later, a harvest moon hangs over Butterfly Beach in Montecito.  

Van Stein and I are back where we started (near enough anyway):  Lucky’s, the patio, about a hundred paces from where we first met at Montecito Frame and Gallery sixty-three moons earlier.  

“So what was that all about?” I ask, probing the artist’s take on surreal bouncing. 

“All what?”

“The bounce, from Iceland to Marfa, and everything in betwixt.”

“Two words,” he says.  “Correct conjecture,” says Van Stein.

“Huh?”

“If you seek madness, you’ll find it,” says Van Stein.  “Get right out there on the edge.”

“That’s cute,” I say, “but not what I meant.  We took this journey in search of berserk, madness, creativity.  What did we come back with?”

“Orbs?”

“There’s got to be more.”

“More orbs?”

“No,” I say.  More than orbs.”

“We’ve now got Van Gogh, Dali and Dymphna, and James Dean hanging out with us every day. They’re here right now, waiting to see what happens next," says Van Stein.  "You want more than that?”

"Yup.  Where’s the elixir?  We need an ending.”

Van Stein looks at me like a hurt Chihuahua.  “Did you say ending?  We’ve only scratched the surface, a dry run.  I refuse to acknowledge this is over.”

“Why not?”

“Sambo’s sameness.”

“Who-what?”

“A term my father invented,” says Van Stein.  “Look, I’m back here, in this abundant place, where I still can’t afford to buy any of the abundance, and nobody around here knows anything.  They’re eating the same bland dish cooked the same way day after day.”

Van Stein and I had just come from the annual Santa Barbara Art Walk at the National History Museum, and found it little more than self-aggrandizement and mutual admiration, for and about local artists who don’t stretch themselves, content to enjoy membership in cozy artist associations and produce, at best, mediocre landscapes that stir neither emotion nor imagination, and, at worst, the kind of schlock you find at vanity galleries.

“But that’s what they’re comfortable with,” says Van Stein.  “They live in a box, a comfort zone, and if anyone threatens their security with new ideas, it’s circle-the-wagons time.  I’m sick of that.  But here I am again, smack dab in the middle of it.  Unless you‘re living life on the edge, you‘re taking up too much room.”

“You mean,” I say, “now that you’ve had a taste of madness, sanity is hard to figure?”

Van Stein sips from a glass of garnet-colored pinot noir.  “A lot of what we saw at the Art Walk tonight was sanity at its most rational.  We’ve seen the orbs.  They didn’t show themselves until they thought we were worthy, not until we’d done Iceland and St-Paul-du-Mausole and moved onto Dymphna in Gheel.  From then on, the orbs were along for the ride, egging us on…”

“No, Dali did the egging.”

“…Joining us in ever increasing numbers.  We’re not done.  This is just the beginning, not the end.”

“When we first met,” I say, “you thought this was the most wonderful place in the world.  And now, after the bounce, you sound seriously discombobulated.  That’s a really interesting paradox.  Because I’ve been moving all my life.  And for the first time since I left West Hollywood when I was five years, I’m feeling settled right here in Montecito.  You think this is a yin-yang thing?”

Van Stein weighs this out. “More like yin-yank.”  He dribbles onto fine white linen.  “If you don’t have the yin, you’ve got to yank.  What about moving to Marfa?”

“All I need to do is think about Marfa, just visualize it, and I recognize that the things people get anxious and stressed about in everyday life are totally ridiculous, and I’m immediately empowered by a serenity I‘ve never known until now.  No martini, nothing.  My own brain.  Just knowing I can go there is enough.  I’ve got this wildly incredible feeling that no further move is necessary, anywhere.  That‘s what the bounce did for me.”  I pause.  “But I’m ready to buy a Chihuahua, if that makes you feel any better.”

The artist shakes his head, not wanting to accept my elixir.  “It’s not over,” he says.   “We owe it to the orbs.  We’ve got to stay in motion.”

I sip pinot noir.  “Oh my God, you see that?”  

“An orb?”

“Two.”  I’m looking at the blonde hostess in a black evening dress as she sweeps across the patio into the bar.  “She’s the one!”

Van Stein follows my eyes.  “The yank or the yin?”

“The girl you have you paint playing a violin.”

“I don’t play the violin, and even if I did, I couldn’t play and paint at the same time.”

“No, no, no.  Don’t you remember?  We talked about this.  She’s playing the violin.  With nothing on.”

“A nude?”

“Yup.  Figurative minimalism.  Art stripped down to its most basic elements.  Think Marfa.  Just her, naked, with a violin.  Nothing else.”  I signal the waiter for a check.  “You do that, it’ll either win you the blue ribbon at next year’s Art Walk, or get you expelled from the Walk, the Oak Group, and all the other associations you belong to around here.”  



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 46: NUTS-CUBED



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Hangs at…

BoHenry's


August 2006


A rooster awakens me at sunrise and the dude who just opened Marfa Book & Wine is sitting outside.  “You’re not here to use the Internet are you?” he says.

“Nope.”

“Cos it’s down.”

“Course it is.  Who cares?”  

He whips me a world-class cappuccino as Van Stein trudges in.  “

Catch anything?” I ask.

“Even the fake lights got snuffed.  Just me moon.”

We cruise Marfa’s residential streets, built on a grid.  

The natives are big on trailers and mobile homes, especially shiny vintage Airstreams.  And Godbold mill, a damn sight more interesting than Donald Judd’s crates or boxes or cubes or whatever the hell they’re supposed to be.  Also, it has function:  It once (maybe still does) processed something useful to people.  

Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE
Old Godbold represents the difference between natives and New Marfans.  The natives are naturally minimalist; the new crowd contrive minimalism, desperate to install themselves, install being the hip keyword.  

Design an art installation, around which to de-install themselves from New York (substitute any big city) and install themselves (at least for posturing purposes) in a small west Texas town.  

“Ya, see, anyone who’s paying attention-–I really am a minimalist!  I’m installed!”

Who cares?  The locals don’t.  They’re just grateful to unload decrepit houses for a hundred grand—houses they used to board up and abandon. 

We pass Marfa Ballroom, which, like most of the other fifteen galleries/installations in town, are painted off-white with little or no markings; one strains to see only a minimal amount of artwork inside.  They seem closed off from the public, as if secret cults are breeding communal children inside.  The doors are locked.  When you knock, nobody answers.  

Why not?  The minimalist owners are here only a minimal amount of time; they are really in New York (substitute any big city).  

Or maybe it’s just a tax dodge:  Build an installation to yourself and write it off as a business expense.   

Or:  Is insurance cheaper for expensive art if you house it in Marfa?  (One gallery, behind minimal lock and key, houses a pricey collection of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper series.)

Donald Judd actually lived in Marfa, in a house now called The Block.  His emulators only pretend a presence.

We weave through the Big Bend Mountains, to Alpine, where Marfans go for supplies:  A True Value with a Radio Shack.  Alpine isn’t good for much else, so we don’t even stay for lunch.  Back to Marfa instead, a deli called Squeeze, and a Lions meeting for company (middle-age Marfan males in blue jeans and large shiny belt buckles).

The proprietor of a rock and gem shop is so passionate about gems, they sparkle in his wild eyes.  I focus on the opals, especially a red one.  

“What’s this?” I ask.

“That’s a fire opal.”

This rock is on fire.  “Can you mount it on something?”

He can, he does, it’s mine.  My own Marfa Light.  Didn’t just see them, nailed one!

We must vacate the apartment; I move to The James Dean Room.  

Van Stein heads out to paint in daylight.  

I amble to Marfa Wine & Book and spend an hour perusing bookshelves.  The Crowleys must spend more on electricity to light their large shop than the gross income from books and coffee and wine.  

So what is this really about:  a big-fish-in-a-small-pond deal?  

Or having everything in place when the hordes arrive?  

Build a bookstore, with espresso and wine, and they will come.  

A coffee table book on Airstreams catches my eye, and my imagination.  Maybe that’s the answer.  A mobile home.  Not just any mobile home, a shiny silver rounded classic.  About as Who-charismatic as it gets, given one has in-take and out-put and the need for a safe place to sleep.

Van Stein and I re-group at five-thirty, the horseshoe bar at Jett’s, a dirty dry martini apiece.  

“You know,” I say, “these folks, the locals, are the real minimalists.  It’s a Texan thing.  They like it straight, do it straight.  Straight roads, straight talk.  Did you see the police station?  The stencilling on their window says Police.  Simple words, as few as possible.  Isn’t that the essence of minimalism?  Stripping everything down until it lacks expression?”

Van Stein studies me with one eye closed.  “How’d you suddenly smarten up on minimalism?”

“The bookstore this afternoon.  This town, on the surface, is being re-invented by big city minimalists, but the genuine minimalists have always been here.  Marfa isn’t inspired by Judd.  This is where Judd found inspiration to be a minimalist.  His cubes come from these buildings around us.  You know, even James Dean was a minimalist.”

“Yeah?”

“Only three movies.  That’s what happens when you’re touched by Marfa.”

“There’s nothing minimal about all these orbs,” says Van Stein, studying his camera.  “I’ve never seen so frigging many–- they’re everywhere!  Where do we go from here?  Are we going to deepen our relationship?  I mean, can you show me a little bit more?  I don’t know what to make of you, you’re always appearing in these little circles.  Give me something else to go with here, okay?  Give me a little more to go by.  What message are you giving me?  When are we going to get closer?”  Van Stein is addressing the orbs, but to the bar-staff nearby, it sounds very gay.

“Keep it down, would you?”  I say.

“Huh-what?”

I motion across the bar.  “They think you’re talking to me, not your damn orbs.”

“Ha!  You think that’s worrying, wait till you fall asleep tonight in James Dean’s bed.  Anyway, I know you don’t think much of Judd’s boxes.  But the point is, we don’t know what’s inside his boxes.”

“There’s nothing inside his boxes.”

“You don’t know that.  That’s the mystery.   It’s all about what’s inside.  With minimalists, it’s about what you don’t see.”

“Okay, I don’t see the point.  They’ve already got minimalism down to an art and a science here in Marfa.  Why do they need a bunch of big city minimalists?”

“Easy,” says Van Stein. “Money.”

“So that’s what’s in Judd’s boxes?” 

“Maybe.  He sure as hell couldn’t spend it around here.  He was happily boxed in.  Anything outside Marfa is outside the box.  All we see is the outer form.  It’s the mystery.  His bare cubes are an infinite abstraction, like a blank canvas.  I got it.  Judd comes along to Marfa and sees three kinds of nuts:  Obsessive Giant-slash-James Dean fans, mystery light seekers and the locals.  Nuts-cubed.  So he creates three-dimensional squares.  Right?”

“All I know is,” I say, “not only does my cell phone and Internet not work, but my wristwatch has stopped ticking, too, and when I tried to make a call on the courtesy phone my credit card didn’t work either.”

We drain our martinis, saunter up the road to Maiya’s.  

“Reservation?” asks the maitre d’.

In a half-horse town?  Give us a break.

He gives us the best table, near a picture window looking onto a Hopperesque Highland Avenue upon which shadows from the setting sun crawl up brownstone buildings.

And he wasn't kidding about reservations:  By the time a bottle of Fess Parker chardonnay arrives, Maiya’s is almost full.

The menu could have been devised in Napa Valley:  Chicken satay with peanut sauce to start, roast Atlantic salmon, and for dessert, free form flaky tart served hot, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to cool it down.

A highly inspired Van Stein dashes for his paints: I ease myself to the bar for a chat with a Mexican barmaid who says she’s from Chihuahua, and I love the way she says Chihuahua.  She’s a nippy thing, even looks like a Chihuahua.

It is dark now.  I take a walk through quiet Marfa streets, ending up, about 9:40, at bar called Beer.  

“You’re my first customer all night,” says the barmaid.

Now that’s minimal.

True to their minimalist name, they serve only beer.  I order a bottle of Bud, no glass, my contribution to the minimalist experience.  

“So what’ the deal with this place?” I ask the barmaid.

“Rick’s?”  (Beer belongs to Rick.)

“No, Marfa.”

She explains that Marfa was dying in the early 1980s; was going the same way as nearby Valentine.  “Donald Judd and the artists saved Marfa.”

“But they just install themselves here and boast about it back in the big city.” I say.

“No.”  She shakes her head. “They really live here, they participate.  They buy houses, change a few little things, pretty them up, but they don’t rebuild or enlarge or change the character.”  

She tells me that Rick, her boss, was getting ready to shut his place down… until Marfa Ballroom (an installation) brought a rock band to town, and loaned it to Rick.  “This place filled up so full, you couldn’t move.  We got another band coming in next week.  Rick is expanding.  He’s taking the back wall out to create more space.”

Another example of Marfa minimalism:  You need to expand?  Push the wall out.  No bureaucrats around to inspect, consider, disapprove, order changes, re-inspect… 

I sit, sucking beer from a bottle, thinking it through:  I had perceived the artists as snobby interlopers, taking over a town, making it their own cult of minimalism without regard for the locals or their heritage.  Now I’m learning that without the artists the town would by now be termite food. The artists are the true saviors, bringing commerce, absent of commercialism, to Marfa.

We thought we were coming to Marfa to see a) nuts attracted to a metaphysical phenomenon (or maybe the metaphysical phenomenon itself) and b) nuts obsessed with dead celebrities.  

What we found was something much different and more exciting:  The power of art.

Next morning, the grapefruit moon sees us off while a just-rising sun casts its pink glow over desert and mountains.  

Mystery lights or no, there is something metaphysical about Marfa.   The lights are just the lure.  They reel you in, as if you’re a fish swimming toward shimmering light and, once snagged, you’re hooked by Who-carism.

Now just the thought of Marfa relaxes me more than five milligrams of Xanax washed down with a dirty dry martini.
Back home, I contact the spooky people in Washington DC and learn that Marfa Prada is actually a snare, code-named Tract 33, a four-dimensional portal engineered by aliens from a distant solar system to collect human specimens for their zoo and lab experiments, part of a secret accord with the US government (hatched by the CIA, NSA, and NASA) to stave off an all-out invasion and enslavement of everyone.

“So why didn’t they nab us?” demands Van Stein, when I try to explain.

I roll my eyes.  “They’re looking for normal specimens.”



THE ODYSSEY 45: WHO-CARISM



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE


August 2006

Thirteens moons later Van Stein and I agree the time has come to visit Marfa, Texas, renowned for its mystery lights—The Marfa Lights-- first seen by Native American Indians and debated, ever since, by witnesses of this phenomenon.  

The lights appear out of nowhere in the Chihuahua desert, balls of luminosity that multiply, merge, dance around, and extinguish themselves as abruptly as they appear.  

In other words, an ideal setting for a nocturnal plein air artist who believes he has cultivated a collection of orb-shaped mystery lights that follow him, or us, around everywhere we travel.  

Getting to Marfa means two flights:  Phoenix, then El Paso, the nearest commercial airport to Texas at its most west.  

We roll east on I-10 in a rented Saturn Vue, because even after taking off and landing, twice, Marfa is still two hundred miles away; a lonely two-lane highway offering sand, brush and distant mountains.  

We ride with a pre-conceived notion that Marfa would be a half-horse town.  The back half.   

Aside from mystery lights, Marfa is known-–by those who know it–-as the location where Giant, a movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, was shot in 1954.  

It was James Dean’s third and final movie, still in post-production when he smashed his Spyder sports car to pieces, killing himself (unintentionally), and making Marfa (where he’d spent his final summer) a minor-Mecca for obsessive fans.

Just west of Valentine, a town that has seen better days, all four gas stations closed, its few restaurants boarded up, a shop stands completely alone, surrounded by nothingness.  We slow down.

“Prada?”  To our right, a Prada boutique, with window display of expensive leather handbags and shoes.  “Is this some kind of mirage?” I say.

“The desert is very powerful,” says Van Stein.  “It’s been known to play tricks on people.”

We roll into a new place and like to figure it out-–but this is un-figurable; definitely not expected from a half-horse town.  

You know you’ve entered Marfa (population 2,121) when you see a Dairy Queen.  Larry McMurtry, a famous author of cowboy novels, once said that Dairy Queens were the social centers of west Texas.

We cut onto Highland Avenue, Marfa’s main drag.  At the far end sits a large, austere building that looks like a historic insane asylum.  Ironically, it’s the county courthouse.

Up on the left is Hotel Paisano, where cast and crew of Giant billeted for six weeks, and on the right, Marfa Book & Wine Company. 

We park, stretch our legs, wander into one of finest independent bookstores in the country.  A shi-shi coffee bar offering espresso, cappuccino and latte; or wine by the glass or bottle, fine wine, amid an eclectic collection of books, if heavy on art and interior design.  

For a half-horse town (the back half), Marfans are not short on erudite reading matter.  Too bad we are the only customers.

“What portal have we entered?” I whisper to Van Stein.

He doesn’t have an answer.  We roll onto Hotel Paisano, retro architecture built around a courtyard.  

The manager, a Marfan for over twenty-five years, checks us into a two-bedroom apartment.  

“What’s with cell phone service,” I ask, noting my cell phone displays No Service.

“It’s touch and go around here,” he says.  “Most people don’t get any.”

I discern a smirk.  

“We don’t have phones in the rooms,” he adds.  “If you need to make a call, we have a courtesy phone over there.”  He points to a closet.  “But you’ll need a credit card.”

Forget Internet service.

It is disconcerting to be out of contact with the world—a new phenomenon known as nomophobia (as in no mobile—the British term for cell phone).  So more than anything, I want a dry martini, Grey Goose, up, olives, dirty.

The hotel restaurant, Jett’s–-after Jett Rink, James Dean’s character in Giant–-has a horseshoe-shaped bar and, behind it, a smiley Marfa born-and-bred barkeep named Lorinda who stirs a world-class martini.

Van Stein and I clink martini glasses.  

“To who-carism,” I say.

“What?”

“No, who, not what.  I just made it up, based on this place.  Maybe it’s a religion, maybe a cult, certainly a lifestyle.  If it’s a religion, its believers strive to Who-charismatic status.”

“What is it based on?”

“You come here and go from You-carism to Who-carism.  It starts with giving up your cell phone, at first because there’s no service anyway, then by choice.  From nomophobia to nomo’nomophobia.  Akin to reaching the age of fifty.”

“How does that figure?”

“Like this:  When I turned 50, my brother took me out for lunch and told me a friend of his had turned 50 a few months earlier, and the friend said to him, It’s great being fifty because nothing matters any more.  When you finally realize that, and it takes half a century, and you travel through a portal into Marfa, you automatically qualify for Who-charismatic status.  On top of that, nobody can find me out here.”

“But what if they’re not even looking?” asks Van Stein.

I look him in the eye, another of our marathon stare-downs.  “That would be most tragic.”

“So what brings you guys to Marfa?” asks Lorinda, trying to coax us out of our manic dialog—or hone in on it.

“We’re investigating something,” says Van Stein.

Lorinda’s boss, also a native Marfan, asks with pronounced nonchalance,  “You from the government or something?” 

Should we be?

“Nah.  We’re here to investigate The Lights,” says Van Stein like a big eager-to-please dog.  

I don’t like to announce my business to anyone.  If more than superficial conversation evolves, we’ll get there, maybe, give it time.  Plus, in this case, I suspect the locals are contemptuous of Marfa Light-seekers and I don’t want to get pegged a new-age truth quester.  Keep ‘em guessing.  But not with Van Stein around.  He lays it all out at the get-go.  

The perfect decoy.

“You ever see them?”  Van Stein puts the other foot in his mouth.

“I think I did once,” says Lorinda, indulging us.

“Say,” says Van Stein.  “What’s with that Prada shop down the road near Valentine?”

She shrugs.  “It’s not a real shop.”

“No?”

“No, uh-uh, it’s some kind of art thing.  They call it an installation.”

“Installation?”

“Weird, isn’t it.”

I’m not sure whether Lorinda thinks Prada and all its fancy wares are weird, in the land of Who-carism, or that Marfa Prada never opens for business.    

“A lot of artists are moving here,” she adds.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I ask.

“Some of the locals aren’t so happy, but it’s good for business.  Real estate prices have gone nuts.”

“Really?”

“My mother’s house is worth about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars now,” says Lorinda.  “I keep telling her to sell.”

“Where are they coming from?”

“New York, Chicago, San Francisco.  They say this place feels like Santa Fe forty years ago, when artists moved there to get away.  There are about fifteen art galleries here now.”

In a town that has no pharmacy.

Epiphany strikes as pure Grey Goose vodka pumps through my heart:  Marfa is not about mystery lights.  And it’s not about James Dean and Giant.  It’s about art.  And not just any old art.  Minimalism.  Because life doesn’t get more minimal (in the USA anyway) than in Marfa, starting with the loss of cell phone service.

“Donald Judd was first to arrive,” Lorinda continues.  “He came to Marfa in the eighties, really lived here.”  

My knowledge of minimalists is, well, minimal, so Donald Judd does not register.  

She shakes her head.  “I don’t get his work.”

(Judd, I learn later, is famous for minimalist cube sculpture, mostly square and rectangular boxes in wood, stainless steel or concrete.)

A butch woman approaches the bar from a courtyard table to amend an order.  

“I bet she’s not local,” I whisper to Lorinda.

“It’s a he,” she replies.  “We’re getting a lot of that, too.”

Aha.  Artist in Marfa is partly code for gay.  This is less about pilgrims from New York and Chicago and more about the interior design crowd from West Hollywood.  Small west Texas town meets aesthetics.  But unlike wealthy Persian refugees, this breed does not raze original structures and build mini-mansions, as they do in Beverly Hills.  They lovingly restore simple adobe houses, maximizing every square inch into light and airy quaintness, using books from Marfa Book & Wine.  

“The people who own that bookstore have a theater here, too,” continues Lorinda.  “A few months ago, an actor named Vance danced naked.”

“Vance who?”

Lorinda shakes her head, doesn’t know.

There’s a new cult in town.  Everybody’s talking.  A new cult in town…

“What people own that bookstore?”

“Their name is Crowley,” says Lorinda.  (Related to Aleister Crowley the Satanist?)  “They’re buying up Marfa.  They live out of town, on a ranch, and don’t mix with the locals.”

“What should we eat?” I ask Lorinda, glancing at the menu.

“Everything’s good.  But I recommend flank steak.”

Van Stein wanders through the courtyard, into the street, returns to beckon me out, just like in that dream at Cabro D’or.  “You’ve got to see the light,” he says.

The sun is setting and the pre-dusk glow upon Marfa is more magical than any mystery lights.  

A Full Sturgeon Moon, big and fat and pink, like an overripe grapefruit, hangs above the rooftops and draws us up with its gravity as if we were ocean.

May the pull be with you.

It’s tough to pull away, but we re-stool and feast on spicy tender flank and a good pinot noir.  

When we’re done, it’s dark out.  We roll out of Marfa, past an old mill called Godbold, so ugly, it’s beautiful.  

“I’ve been through this drill,” I say to Van Stein.

“I know, I’ll paint it.”

Nine miles down Highway 90 we find the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center.  It is fairly new, Adobe Modern, a panorama of the Chinati Mountains.  

A  white light appears.  It moves slowly, flickers, disappears, re-appears a few seconds later, brighter, and disappears—then another flickering white light, same route, east to west.  

As odd as these lights seem, they emanate from cars cruising Route 67:  Headlights are transformed by desert distance into something that seems metaphysical, but isn’t even as interesting as a mirage, or Marfa Prada.  

The experts know about these headlights.  (Whole books about the mystery lights are available at Marfa Book & Wine).  The experts say that the headlights give the real Marfa Lights a bad rap.  

Nothing more in the forty-five minutes we’re watching.  

Based on ideas of reference, if the lights truly exist, I’ll see them in the very short time I’m willing to look, and if I don’t, who-carism.

Following Lorinda’s tip, we drive old dirt road several miles toward Paisano Pass.  The only things out are jackrabbits, scurrying across the road, illuminated by our headlamps.  

To them, we are the mystery lights.