Finding poetry in everyday life

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Artist Ed Moses, in a film still from the documentary “In the Lines of My Hand.”

Malibu filmmaker/photographer Geoffrey Barish and producer Jim Evans capture ‘60s-era artists expressing what it means to be an artist.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

In his new documentary, “In the Lines of My Hand,” Malibu filmmaker Geoffrey Barish doesn’t just showcase noteworthy artists who emerged from the 1960s Venice art community, he paints his own black and white tableau of just what it means to be an artist, in all their shades of gray.

Premiering earlier this month as part of the 72andSunny gallery’s (a gallery/design company that promotes progressive artistic and charitable ventures) ongoing program, the film was screened in conjunction with an exhibit of works from the artists featured in the movie, including Malibu’s Lita Albuquerque, Charles Arnoldi and Laddie John Dill, and other esteemed local artists like Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Ed Moses, Tony Berlant and Ed Ruscha.

Forty-five years ago, when these artists showed up in the hard-scrabble, beat-generation culture of Venice, they were upstarts in their 20s, with no money, no plan and little concern with what the rest of the world thought of their vision.

As abstract painter Moses said, “It’s not like I was inspired or anything. I just couldn’t wait to attack those canvases everyday.”

Pop artist Joe Goode said, “I never thought about making a living.”

Barish trains his camera on the artists in their studios today as they talk, somewhat elliptically, about their work, interspersing the acquired wisdom of their years with photos of the artists in their energetic youth. The result is a compelling snapshot of artists who cannot adequately articulate why they do what they do, they just know they have to do it. And they count more on the recognition of their fellow artists than they do the world at large.

As Moses pointed out, painting goes back to primitive man and his “scratchings” on cave walls. When Pablo Picasso first saw the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France, he said everyone might as well give up, because these ancient symbols were the finest paintings ever created.

But art did prevail, breeding generations of artists who are sometimes stumped as to why they continue in a world that many times ignores them. Mixed-media artist Ron Cooper pointed out that in the ’60s, Los Angeles was a cultural outback, where only a couple of galleries would show their kind of work.

“Back then, there was no hope of selling any of our art,” Cooper said.

So a certain camaraderie existed amongst the cash-poor artists who showed up in Venice, living above Chinese restaurants, pooling their resources, staying one step ahead of the landlord, and validating each other’s work.

“We became friends out of desperation,” Moses said, “No one else was interested in us.”

Some of the funniest, and most profound, moments of the film are when the artists are asked why and how they create.

Laddie John Dill (who once delivered copies of The Malibu Times as a young boy), whose brushed aluminum pieces look like tumbling waves, offers the idea that it was because he was raised near the ocean and was affected by the movement. “But,” Dill said, “I wouldn’t know how to do anything else.”

Margaret Nielsen said, “Why do I draw 5,000 feathers? I don’t know, but I can’t stop because I have to see how it will turn out.”

“I don’t believe in ‘expressing’ myself,” Moses said. “That’s the last f***ing thing I want to do!”

And one artist’s statement said it all: “I’m just giving you an answer. It doesn’t have to relate to a question.”

Producer Jim Evans, who “used to run Beach Boy Liquor store, back in the day,” became attached to the project when Dill asked him last year to put together a short piece on the artists that showed in his group exhibition at the LA Contemporary, “Nepotism.”

“I asked Laddie when he needed the film and he said one week,” Evans said. “Well, that’s insane, of course. But Geoffrey took his camera [a Panasonic HD] and we went from studio to studio, house to house and got everyone in. It turned into a story about the 18 most remarkable people in the art scene in L.A. today.”

Evans said he was struck by the genuine camaraderie and connection between these artists and that what started as a simple shoot “opened up into conversations and celebrations of their achievements. It became very intimate because of their passion.”

Many of the artists were present for the screening two weeks ago and to describe their work hanging on display. Jim Ganzer cheerfully pointed out that the clay bits in his mixed-media piece, which also includes a quarter painted blue and a scuffed baseball, are from a funerary urn he found after a storm in Costa Rica.

“You know, they stuff them all curled up in a ball in those,” Ganzer said.

Dill said the documentary was “great.”

“I loved all the parts I wasn’t in,” Dill said. “Seeing yourself 30 years ago is a shock. But [Barish] totally got the thing that was going on with these guys in Venice.”

That brother/sister hood was palpable during the premiere screening as the artists bear-hugged and traded jokes. But it was art that bound them. As Hopper says toward the end of the film, “You have to create art from your everyday life and find the poetry in that. And if you can’t find the poetry… blame yourself.”

“In the Lines of My Hand” can be viewed online at www.geoffreybarish.com