Retratos Pintados

The Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea is showing Retratos Pintados, a fabulous collection of hand-painted photo images from rural Brazil. These portraits remind me of icons, with these faces of total sincerity and purity unfazed by the vulgarity that surrounds them. And they have the best of both world, the truth of photography and the fantasy of art.

(from the Yossi Milo press release) ...

Since the late 19th century through the 1990s, hand-painted photographic portraits were a common feature in homes in the rural areas of the northeastern Brazilian states. At a time when black-and-white photographs were not considered dramatic enough, the retratos pintados (“painted portraits”) glamorized and idealized their subjects. Black-and-white family photos were enlarged and painted, conferring status on members of the family and portraying them as icons or saints. Using oil washes and other techniques specific to the region, local artisans embellished clothing with pattern and color, smoothed wrinkles, added jewelry or resurrected deceased relatives, illustrating the fantasies and desires of their customers.

Due to advances in technology over the past 25 years, hand-painted photographs have become a rarity in the region, and the tradition of analogue portrait-making is being lost. Most portraits are now computer-generated, eliminating the charm and distinctiveness of each artist’s individual style. The exhibition will include approximately 150 unique, vintage painted portraits ranging in size from 8” x 10” to 16” x 20”. The photographs were selected from those collected by Titus Riedl, a European who has lived in the region for 15 years. Fit into simple frames and hung together in clusters, the exhibition reflects the way family photos might be displayed in the home.

(Thanks to Milky Blacks)


Attack of the Mom Purse!

This morning, as I approached my office door, I began rifling around my purse for my keys. As I dug, going totally by feel as I kept my eyes ahead of me, I poked myself with a water gun, got stuck in a baggie of water balloons, mushed against a open box of Goobers, crumpled up a paper airplane, drew blood off the six rusty bottle caps (for the collection), and unwittingly opened a bag of totally crushed Shredded Wheat squares. I finally found my keys in the farthest corner, almost cowering, along with my wallet, cell phone and lipstick (a little rough for the wear, having been recently usurped for war paint), the sole vestiges of a purse that was once mine.

I have fallen victim of the Mom Purse. I am loathe to feel encumbered by extra bags and packs and gear, so I cram everything—everything—into my purse. The day I arrived at work with Eliot’s wet swimming trunks and a bottle of sunscreen still in my bag, I vowed to downsize, hoping that it would curb my cramming. Which it has. It has not, however, proven the least helpful in finding my keys. What are some of the craziest things you have had in your Mom Purse? Do I dare ask what lurks there now?


Capitalist Tool: Vosges Barcelona Exotic Candy Bar

It was a perfect summer late afternoon. Sitting on the stoop with a girlfriend watching our kids play; drinking wine from juice glasses, eating chocolate. Is there any more sensual taste explosion than dark chocolate and big fat red wine? Letting the two come together and make magnificent magic in your mouth. I think I found the perfect red wine chocolate: the Vosges Barcelona bar. omg. smoked almonds, Fleur de Sel sea salt, and chocolate. That and a big late-pick Zin? Mmm.


Los Tigres del Norte Me Hacen Feliz!

Norteño music reminds me of home. Of music blaring from car windows and cowboy hats and big belt buckles. Of being a kid and driving down through Baja with my mom, buying food and shoes and tamales from the old man and his big pot on the sidewalk. Of jicama and lime and panaderias and the little girls selling “chiclets chiclets chiclets” at the border.

My mom and I would go down to Tijuana often, and down to Rosarita Beach and Ensenada. All just a few hours drive from my home (Tijuana a mere 20 minutes). I remember grocery shopping at the Calmex and hiding our loot under blankets while my mom flirted with the border patrol, distracting him as we crossed the border. I remember the glass jar of bread sticks at Jorge’s, the fresh churros being cranked out and sizzling in the hot oil, and the Basque restaurant near the jai alai courts (Caliente! the radio spots promised).

The Rosarita Beach Hotel was often our destination—a grand old beachfront hotel with tall ceilings and cool tile. There was a kiddie pool in the middle of the outdoor restaurant, which now, as a parent, I can appreciate the lure of. We would rent these poor horses that had wooden saddles and ride down the beach.

The other night, I was flipping through the channels and came across a nortena music video countdown. I was hooked. Los Tigres del Norte are los hefes. A Czech polka? meh. But give me a Mexican polka and I am smiling and happy and dancing. Suppose context is everything.

I haven’t been back to Baja in decades, and these are all memories from my childhood. Today, I wouldn’t set foot in Tijuana let alone anywhere farther south. Too bloody and wrought with narcoterror. It makes me sad that I won’t be able to share those places with my family, those spots that glow for me with happy memories. But I suppose that is true with most of our childhood memories, that they really live inside of us. Isn’t that what growing up is? The realization that the magic is gone and glow has faded? That what was once enchanted no longer sparks? Still, what I wouldn't give for cold horchata and a warm bolillo with salty butter. And a swim in that kiddie pool.


The Ice Man Cometh

Summer to me is icies. Italian icies from the push cart with the little bell and the dixie cups. Not the fancy all natural green tea and goji berry but the sticky bright striped ones oozing with sugar. A white tart lemon or a red white and blue rainbow, dripping down your hand as you slurp it from the cup, the cup that you fold all up to suck out all the icy juice, the red juice that is all over your face, your shirt, your hands. Oh yeah. Summertime.


My Life in Libraries

Last night I learned that our local library has had to cut its hours, again. Such are the times, people might think; belts are tightening everywhere. It made me feel desperate, and profoundly sad. Libraries have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

That I feel centered and at home in a library stems from my childhood in San Diego Public Library System, specifically the Central Library, downtown. The Central Library was a big, beige four-story city block of a public-service building. To this day I remember the layout of each floor: the newspapers, reference desk, rare book room, microfiche. The second floor public restrooms were always a dicey venture, as they served as the primary toilette to the area homeless, and this was the 1970s. But it is from this library that my familiarity with, and comfort from, libraries grew, from the the dark green binding tape to the solidly built, beige laminate tables and the slight grooves in the flecked marble stairs. It was a monument to order and protocol, and I loved it.

Although I have years’ worth of memories in this building, the room that plays the biggest part is the Children’s Room. As my mother worked downtown, I logged a lot of hours in the Children’s Room, killing time until she was done. It was a huge room, and I was usually the only one there. There were a lot of activity stations—record players and headsets, a puppet show area, a story time mat—although none of them ever in service when I was there, save for the record players, where I listened to many recorded stories. I also got flashed  a few times in there, most memorably by some fellow who dropped his pants and started dancing in the aisle where I was reading. And some other fellow shook his fist at me from the doorway. He was big.

The Pacific Beach branch, the local near my house, was connected to the junior high school and surrounded by giant, ant-infested Hibiscus plants. By lending me Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the PB branch is responsible for my future aloofness and fascination with fey English gentry. Much like exposure to violence at young age can have a negative affect on a youth, exposure to too much 1930’s British literature ruined me for this world. The reading of Waugh and Forester, as well as my mother’s devotion to Noel Coward and fans of Judy Holiday musicals made me realize that I was actually Sebastian Flyte reincarnated into the unfortunate body of a 14-year-old girl with braces and a bad haircut. My true destiny was to wear white linen, nurse a small drinking problem, and study at Magdalen. And I blame the PB Library for this life of frustrated identity.

Another pivotal library for me growing up was the main library at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I don’t quite know why, but I would drive the half-hour it took me to get there to study for the smallest thing. It was like the huge mound of dirt in Close Encounters (it kind of looked like that too). In hindsight I realize that the trance that fell over me when I studied there was due to the white noise of what must have been a monstrous air conditioning unit. There were also a lot of college boys at that library, and I found that awfully interesting as well.

College. What better place for a girl to get her library on than in college? I went to Columbia University in New York City, and it has a lot of libraries and reading rooms and nooks and stacks and carrels. I studied, a lot, and became expert at finding the perfect place for my mood: serious studying? the balcony in Butler Library’s reference room. People watching? The Butler main reading room. Cute architecture students? Art History library. Needed a nap? The nook behind the periodical room. Need a cry? Deep in the bowels of the stacks. Plus, I was doing research for the Columbia Encyclopedia at the time, and my queries took me to parts of libraries my studies normally wouldn’t.  In fact, I met my college boyfriend over the Catholic Encyclopedia. Literally. I think we were both reaching for the volume with St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

My favorite Columbia library though was the C.V. Starr East Asian library. It was always freezing, which made me focus, and the vibe was always very serious. Lots of polished wood, stained glass, green glass lamp shades. Starr library had no pretense; it was as if it knew you had come to college to study, and had been waiting patiently for you to realize that as well. It was a grown-up library that made you respect that you were, in fact, a grown up too.

After college, I continued with the Columbia Encyclopedia, but had difficulty synching with the public library system in New York. As is the case with many things, the New York libraries were tougher and less embracing than the California libraries, and certainly more so than those of a cloistered private university. This could have been a projection, though, of my general feelings of being a new citizen of the city with no one but me watching my back.  In no time, though, I found my stride, moved to Brooklyn, and carried on into the glamorous, jet-set world of reference book publishing. It is a cliché, I realize, that every young girl dreams of working in dictionaries; she giggles with her friends and fantasizes about what she could do with that etymology if they’d just give her a chance! Well, Reader, I was no different. All those years in libraries made me miss the smell of old bindings and the skitter of silverfish.  Poor man’s grad school, reference book publishing.  But back to libraries.

In the late 1990s, I found myself in England; Oxford, to be exact. There is probably no other place in the world as exciting for a library-loving medievalist with British public school homosexual ideation issues. I vowed to visit the library and chapel of every college I could manage to get in to, and I pretty much did. I even snuck into some random building at Magdalen College to see what it might have felt like to be a student there, perhaps bumping into the ghost of Wilde and Bosie in the hallway. Despite my considerable cunning, I couldn't penetrate the Bodleian, but I did pick up a nifty poster in the gift shop. 

It was the Merton College library (right) that completely transfixed me. It has been a functioning library since 1373! (The Hundred Years' War! The Black Prince!) I asked the porter if I could take a look at the library and he unlocked it for me and I got to wander around by all by myself, surrounded by centuries worth of manuscripts and Latin and study nooks. I still remember the strong smell of wood. Nerd heaven.

Today, libraries still play a vital part in my life, through my son. Our local library—the Windsor Terrace branch—is the beating heart in the neighborhood. Not only are there books, of course, but classes, games, tutoring, a RIF program.  It is a community center, a place for kids to come after school and feel safe, and feel safe around books, and find safety in books. For my son, it is a place of joy and of wonder that will always be there for him, I hope, in the way that libraries have always been there for me. If I had all the money in the world, I would pour it into libraries and to make sure their doors would remain always open. That would be my small part in saving the world.