California Sojourn | California

Posted by on March 26, 2007

I’ve heard a lot about the California highway system.  Some people think that ALL of California is an eight to twelve lane freeway.  We checked that out a couple of weeks ago, traveling several hundred miles of those superhighways, every bit of which was entertaining.

We entered California on Interstate 15, which (at least for us) went from the Nevada state line to San Diego.  It was a bit lonely for a while, with the expansive Mojave Desert along the south side, and lots of scrub and dust blowing around.  Roadside attractions, and I use the word loosely, were few and far between. These places use all sorts of come-ons to get the drivers to stop.  Several brand new, but isolated Casinos looked very lonely, though there were always a few cars in the parking lots. Every now and again, a tall neon sign would promise a great restaurant – but they never looked really enticing from the road.

We finally stopped near Barstow at “Peggy’s Famous Diner” for lunch.  It was billed as a 1950’s diner – and it was complete with 50’s waitress outfits,  fake cowboys, Elvis figures and a myriad of other time and space warped critters, lots of ketchup on the tables, and a huge gift shop.  One passable tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat toast later, we were on our way.

Soon the exurbs of Los Angeles slowed us down a bit around San Bernardino, but after that it was smooth sailing through San Diego to Coronado and the wide Pacific.  Though not the most exciting 6 hours of my life, it was amazing how the landscape changes in one day.

Our other trips on the California Highway system were on the North/South Route 5, and several of its offspring.  We drove up to the Los Angeles area for a bit of culture.

No one should go to that area without seeing the Getty Museum, which stands like our acropolis on a hill near Santa Monica, with staggering views to the sea on the west and to the hills on the east.  This was our second visit there, but I was at least as fascinated this time.  We went in particular to see the Icons from St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert.  I don’t expect ever to get to the Sinai to see them in situ, so I really looked forward to this special exhibition.  We were not disappointed to see these holy images from the world’s oldest continuously operating Christian monastery, which is said to have been operating since the third century, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have encountered God and received the Ten Commandments.  Because of its geographic and political isolation, this monastery has escaped the destruction of its religious images, and the monastery is now the world’s largest repository of Byzantine icons. They even escaped the period of violent debates in Orthodox religious practice (726-843) when icons were attacked by those who believed that the painted image could not contain the essence of God. During that period many religious images were destroyed, the period that gave birth to the wonderful word, “Iconoclasm.” If this reminds you of what has happened in recent years, (e.g. the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas) it does look like history repeats itself, doesn’t it? I for one am very happy that these religious images have survived.  Their pure magic was explained in the brochure:

“These icons are said to provide access to the divine for the worshiper. They bring the saint into the space of the pious viewer. Therefore the saint is most often seen against a brilliant gold background.  This establishes the heavenly realm the saint inhabits and visually projects the saint forward into the viewer’s space.”

This is what makes these icons so powerful for the viewer, since they are immediate, and very detailed.  I like the quote from John of Damascus, a Byzantine theologian: “By using bodily sight we reach spiritual contemplation.”

This very professionally mounted exhibit was certainly worth the journey up the Freeway.

There was much more at the Getty, a lot of which we scrambled around to see. Once again we lunched at the restaurant there and suffice it to say, we decided we could skip dinner – lunch was enough of a feast for the eye and the stomach to last ‘til morrow.

We had driven up the day before to Pasadena, where we were lucky enough to stay with friends.  Pasadena is one of the oldest settlements in this part of California, and continues to be elegant with its century old trees, and broad boulevards.  It’s the home of the Rose Bowl and the annual Rose Bowl Parade, which I’ve only seen on TV.  However, it is also the home of two very special museum/gardens.

On this visit, we concentrated on the Norton Simon Museum, an eclectic collection amassed by one of the greatest art collectors of the twentieth century. Norton Simon was a successful businessman who put together consumer companies like Hunt Foods, McCall’s Publishing, Canada Dry Corp., Max Factor and Avis.

It is a contemporary building of warm brown/gray stone tile, with a glass walled atrium spreading through to the back where a sculpture garden and pools soften the simplicity of the building.

This was our second trip to the Norton Simon, but there is always more to see – this time including all those bronze Degas dancers and Degas horses set out in the 20th century room surrounded by lovely Degas pastels.  Yes, Norton Simon had acquired a complete set of the 70 Degas bronzes, which were said to be the “modele” set, taken from the wax originals.  After they were authenticated, the LA Times art critic William Wilson reported: “it’s the kind of news that should cause us to crumple in an ecstatic faint. It is too good to be true, except, of course, it is true.”

As we set out for the Getty the next morning, we used up another several miles of California freeway, along with several hundred other drivers.  We passed by the new Disney Auditorium, by Frank Gehry, looking like a copy of the Fisher Center at Bard.

On route, we found our way to the galleries set in a group of former railroad station buildings now called “Bergamot Station Arts Center” on Michigan Avenue , in Santa Monica. (Yes, you guessed it, my cultural attachee was with me.)  For anyone who wants to know what is going on in the art and photography scene in Southern California, this place is a FIND.

A few hours later, we were back on the 405 and then the 5 and then “home” to San Diego – all in all a varied art experience on the freeways of California.

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