This past Sunday I attended UCLA Fowler Museum’s tour of the Watts Towers, an item that’s been on my bucket list for decades. It’s the local component of their “Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments” photo exhibition.
Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant who suffered personal losses, the hardship of being a scorned minority and the demon of drink, was a mason who single-handedly and obsessively built these eccentric structures out of detritus, wrapping scrap steel, rebar and wire mesh into shapes, packing them with concrete mortar and embedding broken bottles, crockery, tiles, shells and anything he found and collected until he’d assembled spires to inspire. He never used a ladder and he continued climbing up to work on the structures well into his 70s; one of the towers is more than 99 feet tall.
The story of Rodia is told in a short film at the Noah Purifoy Gallery in the Watts Towers Arts Center on site. On view in the gallery, there’s a fine exhibition of artworks commemorating the Watts Riots that erupted 50 years ago in August 1965, one of the worst civil uprisings in American history. It reflects the still-ongoing issues today.
The tour begins at the Fowler, which is filled with cultural art items in various galleries that will intrigue you, many made from discarded and/or unusual materials.
On view on the interior walls surrounding the Fowler’s beautiful central courtyard are photographs by Jo Farb Hernandez, director of the Thompson Art Gallery at San Jose State University. She spent 14 years crisscrossing Spain photographing and documenting monumental environmental artworks created by artisans who used materials from their surroundings to create fanciful, bizarre, unique structures representing some compulsions of their own.
We’ve all heard of Antoni Gaudi, the famous Spanish architect who became part of the neo-Gothic modernista movement and his famous Barcelona towers. But these artists were all self-taught and created indescribable works that are considered outsider art, some of which have since been destroyed.
There’s a unique story behind each of these creations and their creators. Often roughly hewn and coming from a place of passion rather than a trained design sense, they’re quirky and unusual.
Jose Maria Garrido had been a fisherman, but his best friend was washed overboard and he vowed never go to sea again. Instead he honored his friend’s memory by creating a ship-shaped museum, covering the walls with 80,000 sea snail shells, photographs of old ships, signs bearing maritime proverbs, and objects gathered from beaches. This is one of the places that has since been destroyed, its parts scattered, their fates unknown. All that remains are these photos.
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing work is by Francisco del Rio Cuenca, Casa de las Conchas or House of the Shells, in which every conceivable space is covered in seashells of all kinds. It began with a truck that spilled a large load of shells nearby; gathering them up, he continued to work throughout his lifetime until he had decorated nearly every single surface of his home, inside and out.
Hernandez documented 45 Spanish environmental artists, of which eight are featured on the walls of The Fowler. The catalog is enormous and filled with historical and cultural context along with photos and interviews. It’s available at the Fowler gift store, which if you have not visited is the ideal place for one-of-a-kind artisanal gifts.
Find out more at www.fowler.ucla.edu.
THE FALSE SERVANT
Please know that I don’t like to write reviews of things I don’t like. That’s why this is hard for me to share.
A revival of 18th century French playwright Mariveaux’s cross-dressing, farcical morality tale “The False Servant” takes place at The Odyssey Theatre. I attended the opening night performance but I don’t think the production was ready for prime time.
While I applaud the effort, I cannot fully endorse the execution. This is a complex plot, involving cross-dressing, double-crossing, double-dealing and opportunism.
A wealthy young woman betrothed to a fianc√©e (Lelio) she has not met conspires to find out whether he is true to her. Lelio is in debt to the Countess whom he is also courting. The young woman, dressed in men’s clothing and pretending to be a Chevalier, is recruited by Lelio, who’s trying to get out of his commitment to the Countess because the Chevalier is far wealthier.
The Chevalier conspires with Lelio to seduce the Countess to break his financial contract that if he does not marry the Countess he will have to pay her back the money he owes her. But if she breaks it off, the money’s his and so is the fianc√©e.
The dramatic “stairway to heaven” set is both impressive and metaphoric, as Lelio, the opportunist, is trying to move up in the world while the Chevalier’s new servant Trevelin, is a down-on-his-luck aristocrat now consigned to the steps below.
Unfortunately, the performances are uneven, stiff, slow and confusing in both their classic formality and their attempt to make the play feel more contemporary. If you want to play it as farce, play it big and over the top. If you want to play it as a morality tale, find the right tone. This production didn’t manage either on opening night.
Ultimately there’s no one to like in these characters, except for Mathew Bazulka as Arlequin, who goofs it up but in a fun way, and who gives the kind of performance you need for a good farce.
This production has an identity crisis and I wonder why the producers thought the play itself was worth reviving. Maybe you’ll think otherwise. Visit www.odysseytheatre.com.
Photo (above) by Jo Farb Hern√°ndez: Francisco del R√≠o Cuenca (1926-2010) Eastern wall of third patio, with staircase to terrace over fourth patio, Casa de las Conchas.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.