Whale Ship / Gold Ship

Airport update at home in Bellevue, Kentucky, Wednesday, September 10, 11:30 am

After writing the above entry, I wanted to learn more, if I could, about the artist Tony Berlant.  A search on the web led me to the site of the LA Louver Gallery in Los Angeles, where he had recently exhibited brightly colored paintings on metallic surfaces, still anchored with brads.  Further research led me to his home page and to a gallery I hoped might forward to him an email message from me about my experience at the airport.  They did.  And Tony Berlant sent me an email a day later inviting me to give him a call in his Santa Monica studio.  How different from trying to do original, cross-country research in the 1980s.

I called at 11:30 the next morning, Eastern time, figuring if it was too early at 8:30 California time I could leave a message on his studio phone, inviting him to call me at a time convenient to him.  I was a little surprised that he answered at that early hour in his studio.  It was early, he said.  This was “my first call today,” but I did not wake him up and he was happy to chat.  How interesting that chat was.

Detail of the "gold" in Berlant's Gold Ship

Detail of the “gold” in Berlant’s Gold Ship

No, it was not a whale ship.  He had been thinking of the “gold” ships sailing in and out of San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush.  No, that was not necessarily a whale in the water whose whiteness had immediately made me think of Moby Dick.  Berlant had actually been thinking of prehistoric creatures in the sea, of the mystery of the sea as perceived and imagined by humans, the color white therefore being accidental and not intended as symbolic of Melville’s whale.  No, he had not even seen the harpoons I saw pointing at Moby in the water as harpoons.  They were just dark lines in the water for him.

Detail of what I saw as a harpoon pointing at a white whale

Detail of what I saw as harpoons pointing at a white whale

Tony was happy that a visitor to the airport such as I had seen so much, even though it was not intended, in the collage he had completed so long ago.  He was glad it was still at the airport, though he could not remember at which gate.  My interpretations were actually very compatible with his intentions, for his goal as a semi-abstract artist is to create images that will inspire a variety of associations in viewers.  He had created this work at the time of the initial AIDS crisis, and he had been surprised when some members of gay community had seen the gold flames of candle-like shapes he had painted inside the vertical cables of the Golden Gate bridge as memorial candles for those who had died, even though that was not his intention.

What some saw as memorial candles to AIDS with in the vertical cables of the Gold Gate Bridge

What some saw as memorial candles to AIDS victims within the vertical cables of the Gold Gate Bridge

Ah, yes, Berlant had read Moby-Dick in high school.  He had enjoyed it as a story then, but not nearly as much when he read it long after creating Dancing on the Brink of the World for the San Francisco Airport.  He could see why I saw what I did in his imagery.  He is even now surprised, in retrospect, that he did not make any of those associations at the time.  “You can say,” he told me near the end of our highly enjoyable conversation, “that I now find it quite remarkable that I was not aware of any of those associations at the time.”  He seems to work free of specific associations so as to make viewers free to make associations of their own, therefore occasionally surprising even himself in what he sees in what he has done.  I am very grateful he invited me to give him a call.


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