PRINT October 1996


Guy Trebay’s Real Life Rock

Guy Trebay writes for the Village Voice.

Greil Marcus is on sabbatical from his regular Artforum page. During his absence, different writers will count down their own Top Tens.


    This top ten is the brief diary of a trip. The trip had no specific purpose other than to keep me moving and out of New York. I flew to Mexico City and met Francisco Goldman in a bar. The bar, the Teatron, was designed by Phillippe Starck. It was set on the grounds of a huge sports stadium on the Avenida de la Reforma. “It’s a very Mexican joke, right?” said Goldman. He meant the way the place functions as a grotesque metaphor for the theatricalized and fatalistic decadence particular to a great filthy metropolis with an active volcano at its backdoor. Skewed ramps, multistory draperies, a dining platform reached by a colossal stair, all serve as scenery against which are played out the antics of yuppie infantas and their fair-haired dates, boys who hail from that one percent of the population that clutches almost all of Mexico’s wealth. There are elaborate mirrored halls going nowhere. There are video monitors reflecting you back to yourself. There is an enfolding emptiness that makes you feel you’ve been apotheosized, but into what? Of course there are goons at the door to keep out peons, not that the $5 beers don’t do that.


    There’s a famous photo of this chapel, Luis Barragán’s neglected masterpiece; in it a capuchin kneels at worship, her habit arranged in heavy folds and lit by an oblique shaft of the same afternoon sunshine that suffuses the gold-orange space. After an hour zigzagging through the slums in a taxi, our befuddled driver at last finds the convent’s number on a pair of ancient doors. Insistent knocking brings the face of the abbess to a peephole. She instructs us in Spanish to wait. We stand on the street for a long time before we’re summoned inside. Then we pass through a fountained patio smelling of jasmine, and through the chaste oratory, and past the cloister, and finally into one of the most serenely devotional spaces imaginable, a miracle of art and faith. Bent at prayer is another capuchin, her robes precisely arranged. It’s immediately clear why we were kept so long on the street: someone inside was frantically styling the nun.

  3. GALLUP, N.M.:

    On a whim, I headed from Mexico City to Gallup, where I’d first come a decade ago on a bus filled with convicts just sprung from the federal penitentiary. Rioters there had recently beheaded a guard and stuffed his severed genitals in the hole. Gallup looked like purgatory then and it still does, with its abandoned motels and tumbling sage and stewbums curled in doorways. I well understand why Richard Avedon sent his scouts here to scare up drifter geeks for In the American West. Still, I’ve come to love Gallup, whatever that says for my eternal soul. I get a $35 room at the Rodeway Inn and float in the parking lot pool. From there I can watch the freight trains snaking by Route 66; I can watch sheet lightning flare at the mesa edge marking the border to Navajo land.


    Dennis worked the asbestos mines so long he got brown lung. Ofelia tended house in their double-wide trailer in a nothing town near Ojo Caliente. When Dennis retired, the couple began making bean pots from the glittering clay he dug in a nearby creekbed. Everybody knows about the incomparable kitsch produced by New Mexico potters, yet for reasons that mystify me the severely plain micaceous vessels produced by this unassuming couple are still largely a secret.


    I always end up in L.A., and in L.A. I inevitably think of Maria Wyeth with her bare foot on the pedal of a Corvette as she attempts to negotiate the interchange where freeway becomes metaphor and you’re nowhere and everywhere and you’re also two seconds away from death. Minus the acedia and the Corvette, that Didion buzz is still available to just about anyone.

  6. ROUTE 1:

    I drove up the coast. I could have flown but there was a place at midpoint you can’t reach by plane. I stayed in what Ian Fleming called room-shaped rooms filled with furniture-shaped furniture. There were the stirring ocean views, of course, but what I mostly noticed was what I always notice in California, the sun-scorched wanderers on the highways, the crazy young ones who look like a demon from a picture Bible I had when I was young.


    It’s an anxious and Jamesian and very American house, crammed with European antiquities and afflicted with Europe, the idea.


    Tucked into Lincoln Park in San Francisco, the Palace of the Legion of Honor has just opened again after a four-year retrofit. Here, secreted amid the corny Rodins and overrestored “master” pictures and terrible genre scenes (Springtime in the Alps——whee!) is Canova’s masterful bust of a Hungarian queen, certain of her power but not entirely of her effect. Leopoldina E. looks jittery. From an angle she even looks a lot like Exene Cervenkova, late of X.


    A retired professor from U.C. Davis, he’s appearing as the Thriller Bee at the California State Fair in flat and scorching August Sacramento. Entering a glass booth, Gary shakes out several boxes containing thousands of honeybees. He uses a metal dustpan to “paint” the bees onto his blue jumpsuit, which has been dabbed with queen-bee pheromone. “What do you think?” Gary says through the mike, his body blanketed with drones. “Is this peformance art or what?”


    For someone who spent a great deal of time as a child reading the WANTED flyers at the post office, there’s a special delight in visiting the dummy heads Frank Morris and John and Clarin Anglin made to conceal their 1962 escape from the guards. Crude and eerie and only partly dimensional, they’re also B-movie thrilling. What’s more, these primitive effigies may have bought three men their freedom, which—let’s face it—is rare enough in art.