I have been hitting the bars and restaurants in San Francisco for quite awhile now, and hitting them hard. I have been circling Nob Hill, plunging down into the Tenderloin, getting ploughed there, slouching over to Union Square, then marching like a soldier up Grant Avenue into Chinatown; and I have gotten to know North Beach maybe a little too wellEnrico's, the Hungry i, Amante, North Beach Restaurant, and Washington Square. I'm not writing home to mom about North Beach; she wouldn't want to know. But in all my wondering around, I have walked right by a part of the City as if it did not exist. I shoot pictures of cocktails, beautiful plates of pasta, and the lovely people who create all this stuff. But then I walk right by one of the treasures of the City. San Francisco is, after all, an artsy place. How could such a lovely city be otherwise? I speak of the art galleries, les musee. I have treated them as if ils n'ont aucune importance, they were of no account. Shame, shame on me. To remedy the situation I decided to go out and "hit the galleries." They may not be as interesting as some of the Asian bars in the Tenderloin, but I will give them a try. Ganbei!
Now I can be pretty oblivious to some things, but apparently my subconscious was at work all the time, because I knew right off where most of the galleries were. While I had walked by many times ignoring them, something had registered. The brain was not totally asleep.
But now I always find things to be a little different than the way I picture them. For instance, when I started hitting the strip joints around the Cityanother one of my tough editorial assignmentsI found they were not at all the way I had pictured them. Most of the "girls" I found to be college students acting out a fantasy that I think every little girl may have: to expose herself. It's the quickest way in the world to get attention if you are female. And the quickest way to go to jail if you are male. The bartenders at the strip joins, however, were of another sort. They were actually the interesting ones. And often times the best looking. Take a look at my friend Sunday who worked at the Hungry i last year. She was truly lovely. I really found myself going to the Hungry i to visit with her. We talked about music, food, drink, and her family (she has a sister named Beautiful and a brother named Casanova and the most wonderful, strangely-romantic parents, I am sure). We talked about anything and everything and it was a lot of fun. And sometimes when we were talking and the music was going and there was a girl on stage, Sunday would start to move her hips and shoulders a little like she were dancing.
"You know, you would be good at that?" I would say to her, and she would smile.
"Yeah," she'd say, "people have told me that."
But you'd never find her up there. She didn't have the need to publicly expose herself. But she understood the impulse.
And take Nina, another bartender at the Hungry i. She's one of the best looking young ladies I have every seen. She is part African and part Puerto Rican and beautifully built, but get up on stage and take off her clothes? You got to be kidding. She told me one day that most of the dancers are insecure. "They try to get you to do things for themyou know, favors." They wanted to be treated like movie stars. But the other half of the Hungry i staff, the half that wears clothes, only goes along with this fantasy so far.
So, as I was saying, I always find things to be a little bit different than I imagine them to be. Like even this story. It does not seem to be going quite where I had intended.
One of the first places I hit was the Weinstein Gallery on Grant just out of Chinatown. There you will find the work of Odd Nerdrum. Or it will find you. Located on the ground floor, it is hard to pass it by, but harder to stand and look at it for long. His style and technique are "Old World." If you did not know, you would think you were viewing 400-year-old paintings by some master painter with a low opinion of mankind and perhaps manic-depressive illness before that illness was identified and given a name. These works are "impressive" but I will let you be the judge. Each painting, as one of the gallery reps said, does seem to have a narrative behind it. Some dark narrative, I might add. None is pleasant to look at, but I'll be the first to admit that "pleasantness" is no way to judge a work of art. If Nerdrum is your cup of tea, then he is your cup of tea; drink him down to the dregs and enjoy the bitter aftertaste.
At the same gallery on Grant, I got my first taste of Jean-Claude Gaugy. Wham, kabam, huo! He is my cup.
I first saw his smaller works while ascending the narrow staircase to escape Nerdrum and see some other artist. Later I discover that his big works are up on Geary at another Weinstein gallery. Winstein, you will find, has galleries all over this part of town. Gaugy typically paints on carved wood. The sense of line and form derive from the carving of the wood. The vibrancy of each work comes from paint and color. If you are into comparisons, you will probably be thinking Picasso. But then forget about comparisons and view each piece individually. Words mostly fail when describing art, but the one word that comes to mind is "aliveness" with the works of Gaugy. Viewing his work, you feel like you are in the presence of something alive and glowing. (Image top page and right: Dans L'Illusion, © Jean-Claude Gaugy, with permission of artist.)
Robert Kipniss is another artist who will grab you but in a very different way. The first time I saw him I was not much impressed. I thought, well, okay, one or two of these is okay. Then I got sucked in. That occurred while I was walking up Geary and came across a small gallery devoted to his work. It was closed but a note said go two doors down if interested. Two doors down at another gallery, Douglas Philips grabbed the keys and we walked back to the Kipniss gallery.
Philips is not dumb. He figures out quickly that I'm not there to buy. But it does not seem to matter a bit. He is passionate about Kipniss. Kipniss is a print maker and Douglas explains the process of drawing on limestone used by Kipniss. It is an intense, time-consuming process with the artist's forearm resting on a plank of wood above the stone and working with razor-sharpened pencils.
Then Douglas dims the gallery lights and we see how some of the shapes in the lithographs suddenly emerge, becoming almost three dimensional.
While Kipniss' work is not dazzling as Gaugy's usually is, it has a subtle, haunting quality. The subject matter is mostly countryside portraits of trees, houses,and paths. Yet a tree is not just a tree, a house not just a house, and a path not just a path in a Kipniss lithograph. Each, in different contexts, can become an unsettling question. What's it all about? Why is the light so bright on the trees, so dim on the house? Why that shadow?
Art consultant Russell Manning, who knows Kipniss, says Kipniss is droll. He says Kipniss is also a "frustrated" writer. Manning, who grew up in Arkansas where there are tornados, says he has a special understanding of the haunting element in Kipniss' landscapes. Tornados, he says, often take a path along a river, and when he, Manning, was young he had a school friend who lived down by the river. It was lovely down by the river, the grass rich and thick and green. One day his friend's house was hit by a tornado, and "every bone in her body was broken." You look at a landscape one moment and it is beautiful, but it can all change the nextthat is what he seems to be saying. Manning is a tall thin man with magically playful eyes that squint smilingly at you while he is looking at you and talking, and unsquint when he looks awaythe eyes of one aware of fragility and mortality. He has the faint odor of cigarettes about him. He is probably in his seventies.
Anyway, it is a good place to sit and think in the late afternoon when no one is there. It is a dinernot one of those contrived, polished-chrome new one's like Lorrie'sand the food, is well, not much. However, the relationship between the waiter and the cook is a most careful one now, full of respect and courtesy. It is nice to see that in a city that, according to some, has lost its good manners.
On a recent visit to the Pinecrest following an art binge at the galleries, I see that the cook is on break. He is sitting at the end of the counter drinking coffee and visiting with a friend. I ordered a BLT, and the waiter cooks it himself, so as, presumably, not to disturb the cook. How thoughtful.... Up front near the entrance there is a TV goingbut not too loud, mind youand on the wall there is a peaceful, leafy-green landscapeno, not a Kipniss with a dark shadow across an otherwise idyllic meadowthat makes you feel as peaceful as if you were living in the country. Since there are no bullet holes in it, I presume it is new.
It is not exactly Le Central but it does put things in perspectivequestions of art, personal problems, whatever. If you are having an art crisis, order a burger and beer and relax. If you are having a personal problem, for heaven's sake put that gun down and go see a therapist.
The Pinecrest is the perfect place to write and a home away from home. It is aunt Maggie's kitchen right here in the City where a slice of apple pie and a cup of hot coffee bring warmth and peace of mind. "Aunt Maggie, tell me again how it was when uncle Bill pulled out the gun ..." "Kid, eat your pie ..."
The materials for the Imperial Tea Court were all brought over from China. The floor is make of squares of marble, the walls of varnished pine, with the colors ranging from dark brown to yellow. There are two square pillars in the middle and bird cages hang from the ceiling. The bird cages are part of the tea house tradition in China. Old men take their birds on a walk to the tea house and hang them there. Both old men and birds get some fresh air. The old men, however, get to drink tea.
Today, Saturday, three dark-brown tables have been pushed together making one long table, and Fong sits at the head of it. There are six of us there for a tea seminar. I have been buying tea for friends who know tea and like the "good stuff" but I am not a tea expert myself. In fact a friend came over the other day, a nice Chinese girl who had nevertheless been drinking all afternoon, and started to collect my various stashes of tea to "help you put in trash."
I gathered that she did not think much of my tea or my tea knowledge. That was part of the reason that I was at the seminar. While I talked her out of putting my tea in the trashI'm still even drinking it when she is not aroundI realized that we were on a collision course if I didn't improve the situation. "Waste time fight Chinese woman, they very strong," advises a male Chinese friend of mine.
Now the nice thing I discovered about tea, and this came from Fong, is that a strong comparison can be made to wine, one of my favorite beverages. The comparison holds both in the manufacturing process and in tasting. The big difference, according to Fong, is that wine is "suspended in the bottle," whereas tea is only complete when it is prepared for drinking. Moreover, while you may have very fine tea, it can be ruined in the preparation.
Fong in fact demonstrated how you could take good tea and ruin it by steeping it in water that is too hot. First he steeped a high-quality green tea in water at a temperature below the boiling point. The result was a smooth and favorful cup, like good bourbon whiskey. Then he steeped the same tea in boiling water. The result was drinkable, like cheap table wine, but bitter.
Bitterness is not necessarily a bad thing, however.
"Some people like some bitterness," says Fong.
But like all things in life, it is a matter of balance. A truly bitter cup is a bad cup.
One heartening thing to hear is that with tea drinking, slurping is okay; it is not a faux pas, a shitai. In fact, slurping is good, as it puts a little air into the tea, which increases the olfactory experience. It is much like the wine-tasting technique of my French grandmother, who believed in percolating a mouthful of wine by inhaling air thorough it. The bouquet went full bore into your nasal passages. Mamie loved that.
One thing I will have to learn before I invite my Chinese friend over for tea is how to properly drink from a cup. You see, the way Fong prepared the tea was right in the cup. And that requires a cup with a lid so that the tea does not go straight into your mouth when you drink it. You use the lid to push the tea back, then leave a tiny slit open between cup and lid to allow the tea to go into your mouth. In my case the opening was bigger than a tiny slit and I ended up with a mouthful of tea leaves.
"Tea is thin," said Fong, seeing my difficulty and indicating that I was leaving much too big an opening between cup and lid.
Tea drinking is an art. I will learn it, I'm sure. And I will have my friend over and she will be very impressed. Or I will end up back at the Pinecrest for stale coffee and a fresh perspective.