Author: O'Kane, John
Date published: April 1, 2011
As we await the upgrade of filter-down economics to spread around town and touch someone, what better moment to fill in the furlough days or forlorn nights than with trips to that museum or cultural event there was little time for when the times were good. Culture can make life worth living when we question the value of it all and just need a spiritual boost to cope with the lack of answers.
Sponto Gallery in Venice is the perfect answer. It isn't your usual art hustle haunt with valeted openings that cater to an in-crowd. There are usually plenty of pics on the walls to view most any time, even in the wee hours if Mark Sponto, the gallery's owner, is available. But the whole experience is the attraction. It sheds new light on what culture means.
The gallery has become a scene over the years, mostly because of its fascinating history. It sits on the site of the Venice West Café, one of the most popular gathering spots for Beat/Bohemian Venice from the late 50s through the mid-60s. Sponto actually fashioned the space to resemble this café when he founded it in 1986. Many of the customers have some sense of this history, as well as the values that made it. These are loosely linked to the idea of living a lifestyle counter to the "rat race" of mainstream life that stresses a material and self-centered existence. Their grasp of what this all means can be more in the gut than in the mind, but they're pumped by the experience of the openings and the desire to be part of a special slice of the past. It's real!...
Just ask Viva, who happened upon Sponto 's one day on her way to visit a friend at Sexetera next to The Shul on the Beach down the Boardwalk.
"They make me feel like something important is happening... my expectations are high from the mix of people and the conversation. . .and often it's like I was here before but sometimes like I'm visiting from the past... then there's the moments that are just too much!"
A fair rendering of what grabs many about a Sponto opening. Sponto 's thrives on these moments. The notion that life can and should be experienced as a series of moments is central to alternative thinking, and seminal to the lifestyle of the extended and continuing Venice West generation. A lofty goal for sure, but we have to wonder where these moments come from and what they're all about. Do they lay scattered on the surface of society ready to be snapped up by interested parties? Are they disguised, accessible only to the well-trained and keenly-aware? Are they only in the minds of their creators, and the eyes of their beholders, relative fancies that erupt despite what's in, or on the surface of, reality? If so then it probably helps if you sampled Coleridge in college, or had a better connection than most.
But the idea is that with practice and a good attitude you could make the opiates to expand your awareness of space and time, and their relation, to face off with dreary reality. A shared venture between mind and world, these moments were about changing your mindset toward what is; learning to discover and create, produce an aura around the world and events. Proficiency brought a rush of moments and new guidelines for experiencing the world.
These moments were driven by the belief that society could use lots of improvement. It's no accident that the backdrop for their eruption is Eisenhower's zombied 50s, times felt to be extremely sterile and conformist, excessively deadbeat, when many had to see how much better things could be. Sensitive souls could spy the gap and even act out remedies in the faces of the clueless.
Everything was out there for the initiated to see. It was just happening! The sterile black-andwhite world was aglow with every color on the spectrum. It was like society's structural plates were rubbing against each other at such conflicting angles and with such force that clear and relevant pictures of reality accidently surfaced. Imagine a weather-stained, sun-warped image on your aging water heater that one day, through some assemblage of forces, becomes the Madonna against which all known replicas pale.
This movement of forces created seers from those who were eager believers and whose hearts and heads were reasonably privy to what this was all about. And while there was no clear consensus, this insight wasn't convertible to a common currency anyway. Experiencing moments wasn't something you could rap about before coming to consensus. Even if you could explain them you didn't because that could mean you missed it all. When you were in one you were enveloped in a haze of high and on top of the world; all worries fell by the wayside. Your vision was cool and clear about how hopeless the zombied world was.
These moments are not all that common these days because, for one, the contrast between the upbeat ideal and the deadbeat reality doesn't appear to be as great. Advertisers can synthesize virtually any fact or fantasy into a shorthand newspeak of varied and glowing colors for personal use. Many may still have the power to spy the persisting gap between the way it is and the way it should be, but they're overwhelmed by appearances.
And many of these seekers have been there and done that. They can get anything they want at Alice's Restaurant or other venues, and nothing will likely surprise them very much. So they settle for a quickie nirvana.
But no matter how murky the signs may be, or how sated the seers and seekers appear, they feel like they can still grasp what's meaningful. And in California life flows so well that moments can already be in your peripheral vision. Our uncontrollable natural substances make sure you don't miss a beat. Sponto 's site is where various chemicals conspire to create the highest possible concentration of energy at any given moment.
Viva's right, something definitely happens at a Sponto opening, though early on it can seem like you've wandered into a reunion for a 60s Happening that's being rehearsed in slomo. The voices even distort, like when that overspliced copy of your favorite 16mm classic reverts to celluloid spaghetti. It can get so slow that your field of vision becomes a mess of freeze frames that only start to get fluid as the night wears on and talk amplifies the vibes into good vibrations.
So you may not know you're in one until the next morning when those vibes are like an erotic dream you waited too long to write down. The Sponto scene simply lacks a core of catalysts like those from that original one in the 50s to make it happen. A few candidates may lurk in the shadows ready to redirect their energy into alternative frequencies, but there's a shortage of comrades to work up some synergy with. So they come to the gatherings and let it happen; ready to prep their personas but mostly settle for the facsimile.
Viva's onto something. The past has a palpable presence here and it's tempting to believe that Sponto's is haunted by these predecessors. Yet what kind of spirits would want to spend time in this scene? If the original one was all that it's been cracked up to be, then we can imagine how jaded they're likely to be toward this one.
But then why do spirits linger in certain places, and how? As some classic hauntings reveal, a sense of violation is at the core. The subjects not only didn't want to exit this world. They were forced out through unnatural means; violently taken from it.
For example, when a house is built on top of an Indian burial mound the sleeping spirits, already restless and perhaps not all that enthused about the reception they got from missionaries about their religious practices, are likely to lash out at the invaders and treat them as aliens, finding any way they can to get their goad through the most annoying otherworldly means.
Or, given the incidence of domestic violence these days, there's bound to be a fair number of family members who exited before their time that would love to be born again and take an eye for an eye. Though their desire for justice is likely so strong they'll spook any residents living at the scene of the crime until the end of time, and these could be many with the number of property transfers set in motion by foreclosures (not unrelated to family friction!).
Gentrification is closely connected to property transfers in Venice, as well as evictions of those wanting to own real estate themselves, since the way must be cleared for rehabbed structures and new condos. Violence against the evictees rarely results in death, but can leave some awfully angry victims whose lives become deadened. Their passionate resentment at being displaced can remain in the rehabbed house, or in the dozered void that will cohabit with the new structure, separate from their bodies when they move and spiritualize in nightly vendettas against the new residents. We could say they're ghosts created by an improvement and transfer machine that critics of gentrification say can't bring quality renewal.
The "ghost in the machine" is something irrational and unpredictable in a process that's driven by the momentum of rational perfection, and ignores what matters.
Those earlier residents' spirits must linger in Sponto's since they didn't want to stop hanging at the Venice West Café. They were constantly threatened with expulsion, and eventually forced out in 1966. But they surely bear no grudges against their current-day counterparts. If they're upset for being displaced they're probably also pretty clear about who the real enemy is, and quite glad their story continues. And so their sense of violation is probably tempered with respect for all victims of maddening improvement schemes. While bound therefore to be somewhat unpredictable, they're certainly not your usual ghoulish vigilantes without a cause, spooking anyone at will.
You can't then count on them always making the scene, and when they do come you can easily miss them. The intense moments can be few and far between, habituating residents to some pretty bland substitutes. Though there is something to be said for unpredictability. When these spirits do arrive it seems they can circulate through the crowd and possess the unlikeliest of suspects. And on any given evening this possession might have unintended consequences, even reverse die tension between haunter and hauntee and make you feel like you're repossessing the past and its spirits.
The creative craft of flipping out, familiar from those early days, is actually what's replaced the vintage attitudes. If moments are not appearing on cue, the idea is to try and anticipate how circumstances might ideally converge and act accordingly. Since you can't just hang back and wait on fate to do your bidding, conjure them from whatever you got. The flipped usually feel society sucks so bad they stop trying to make sense of it. Yet they're ethically one-up on most because they believe in and want something better, and feel that a credible script will return with a vengeance and interrupt the flow when they least expect it. Therefore they can fudge it a while until the randomness approximates a message. Before then the power must default to the messenger who slips ever so carefully into self-fulfilling prophecy, lusting after the moment catch-as-catch-can.
A Sponto event can get you to flip in formation. It depends on the convergences within a pretty diverse playing field. There's the community gathering potlucked with good conversation, culinary delights and pictures renowned artists would proudly add to their oeuvre, though they do just fine on these authors' walls; even validate their distaste for the art hustle.
The events are especially lively during the summer and winter Solstices, all day affairs for nuclear, extended, communal and emergent families to celebrate in seasonal rhythm. They invite us to participate in something greater.
Openings for loved local artists are usually pretty similar but will vary depending on the crowd ambiance, always influenced by seasonal moon alignments, the hors d'oeuvres, day of the week, if the weather means another trip with the downcoat, or whether Murphy's Law finds the event especially worthy. The LA Louver Gallery, located in a valeted artery south of the Circle near the beach, can be a synergy killer if a famous import opens on the same night, a scene scoring so many amenities that community can wait.
All other things being equal, an opening for an artist like Bruce Meade draws droves of passionate fans, making us feel like we've been transported to another time and place until the LAPD 's finest drops in to remind us otherwise. Bruce deserves a show at the LA Louver but he will probably have to export himself out of town first.
Sponto has his imports too, filler between events, quantities known to someone in the media that matters and who usually have some link to the entertainment industry and are slumming it for a few months awaiting the bump to Bergamot. Since we're used to getting bypassed by the ad-rich press anyway, most miss the advance notice of these openings. Word of mouth brings in a few, but many stumble on them by accident. A good number give it a few gawks and head around the corner to the Bistro once they realize they're actually no longer in Venice. The vets of gallery gazing hang and juggle the chitchat while trying not to be too obvious about flashing on the cleaving celebs between double-takes of the fleshy price tags. It's flipping turned inside out. The moments deflate and the rap slips into il-sequitured lip-razz.
Then there's the opening with no publicity for someone you never heard of whose resume is conspicuous by its absence. The price list, you overhear, is still being printed. And to deepen the mystery the celeb rumored to drop in, who few have heard of either, got lost on the 405 and won't make it until later in the evening. So you bypass the pics and hit the jug wine in the rear, scoping out the scene. With the burden of studying the figures and forms lifted, all that head work to connect the smudges and dots, the surplus energy gets the conversations flowing. And then the Who's Who of Venice's shadow Cabinet might roll in, moments when Sponto himself usually makes the scene.
There's Sponto now getting up his finest opening mantra to deal an aspiring mannequin. I weave my way from the entry toward the back, trying to get his attention when Celsa, a performance artist from Oakwood, palms her card.
"Come to Abbot's Habit next weekend and you won't be sorry. . .doin my usual."
Before I can ask what mat is, Harley appears with some Lyndon Larouche flyers. He graces us with a welter of information about the Bush family's ties to die Nazis as Rick, carrying the current Beachhead, approaches the fringe sending Harley into a tizzy about all the trashy language in our free monthly. This has a calming influence on the small group. Activity ceases and conversations mute, until Ralphy dances těirough it, dispersing die members in a buzz of chatter that's followed by what seems to be an interest in the art. A few here and there peek at me pics on the wall while others slip into the back room. After about ten minutes of barely audible murmurs, overlapping bits of clarity erupt.
"David somebody., .from over on Brooks."
".. .kind of like he. . .at the edge of..."
"Look at mat belly-flopped bird bathing in..."
". . .came from Hong Kong, friend of Astrid's who hangs over at the Circle.. .was on me street for a while."
Since by this time Sponto 's out to the garden for some herbal refreshment, I look for flare-ups in me hottest talkspots. The best bet is an animated sign language session near the piano presided over by Will, one of our ablest orators on the fate of anything about civilization. His charisma thrives mostly in body movements and power-pulsing tics so astutely orchestrated that words are beside the point. As I close in he's giving lyrical accompaniment to his pantomime. But it's very difficult to decipher at first through his mesmerizing gestures.
". . just the other day. . .nobody gives a damn anymore!. ..why aren't people doing something about that atrocity over at Lincoln Place?.. .dead people!. ..who said it can't happen here?.. .there's no hope for the republic... voting just leads to more apathy. . .we need to secede from LA, take charge of development and. . ."
"...what about die Peace and Freedom Party?" Esther manages to blurt, deflating Will's momentum, sufficiently so mat she can grab me stage. And once she gets into it Will's gyrations become sprays of apology.
"Our only hope. . . .tiiey run whom we need to keep mis place from becoming Santa Monica... one of me few organizations left these days that's practicing real democracy."
Wyatt, who's taking it in from the fringe, leaps into die fray with feverish confidence, barely able to look at Will. "They're leftistsL.only thing they'll do for us is bring more government and more intellectuals who think they're better than the rest of us!". . .
Excerpted from Venice, CA: A City-State of Mind (2011).