El Cuevo’s Mark Waldman Bares All
Dark Carnival of the Soul
Mark Waldman’s “Flea Circus” opens Saturday at El Cuervo Gallery
by Bondo Wyszpolski
A few years ago, when things were looking really good for him, Fate stepped in and threw Mark Waldman three straight strikes. Prior to that, he’d been a family man with a supercool gallery in El Segundo called Gasoline. Based on a genre known as “kustom kulture,” it was the hubcapital of the South Bay, a paean to hot rods, pinup girls, and the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
“I had Gasoline for almost a decade,” Waldman says. “It started to pick up and I found out that it had become a big thing in Japan.” He went to have a look for himself and sure enough, it was true: He was (like Tom Waits) big in Japan.
“So my wife at the time and I rolled the dice and we opened a Gasoline Gallery in Japan. And it was the biggest opening of my life. I had never seen anything like that before.”
Flying high from that success, Waldman returned home. But you know how it is, things can change in a heartbeat.
“My phone had been ringing, and it was my friends telling me that Japan was gone. It had been hit by the tsunami. So, we basically lost the whole thing.” He pauses. “Count to ten, and my wife left. About ten seconds after that my oldest son got sick.” Not just sick, but dangerously, life-threateningly ill.
Waldman then decided it was time to close the El Segundo Gasoline as well, and to focus on raising his children as a single father while returning to his own art, which he’d set aside for a very long time.
When he’d opened Gasoline 15 years ago, in 2002, Waldman designed and built all the furniture and displays, and his own work, his art, not only took a back seat, it pretty much walked away and took the key. The bright side of that equation, however, was that 15 years ago Waldman also quit drinking.
Now, considering that his artmaking and his drinking were once co-partners in his life, it doesn’t seem out of place to inquire if Waldman’s return to art, which he did five years ago, didn’t also include a return to drinking. He laughs, partly at the way the question is phrased, and says no. Well, 15 years on, having the sole responsibility of raising kids and so forth, certain youthful habits or attitudes needed to be shed. A new slate, and all that. Even Gasoline Gallery, closed since 2002, had run its course.
“As much as I really loved that decade of my life,” he says, “the collectors [and the clientele that had supported him] had started to change. They were now married and had families, and so those collectors were coming to me, saying, ‘I have 50 Rat Fink paintings I bought from you,’ or ‘I have this and I have that; would you want to buy them back?’”
That, too, seemed to presage the end of an era.
New start, new vibe
El Cuervo Gallery, a couple of doors removed from where Gasoline was formerly located, has been open for just over a year and has featured shows by Scott Aicher and Damian Fulton, among others, and just recently it closed “Made in Kalifornia: The Photography of Travis Hight and Memo Ortega.”
Although Waldman had not been planning to start another gallery after Gasoline, illustrator Ralph Villalobos proposed a partnership. Evidently, Waldman was receptive to the idea, but he didn’t want a repeat or replica (for reason stated above) of the gallery he’d had before:
“So when Ralph talked to me about reopening, I said, ‘We can do something very similar but let’s start fresh. A brand new vibe.’”
And they proceeded to do just that. As Villalobos recently told VoyageLA, “El Cuervo Gallery is a reflection of outlaw Southern California. Our art shows focus on all the things that make living in SoCal great and wild. Our art and vibe is from the skateboarding world, the hotrodders, lowriders, punk rockers, surfers, comics, mixed media, lucha libre, essentially all things lowbrow.”
In short, quite a 180 from ESMoA just two-three blocks down the street, whose current show “Noema” (through August 27) is the result of a project on the history of diagrams that Matthew Ritchie conceived and carried out while an artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute.
During these past five years of again making art, or what he refers to as mixed-media sculpture, Waldman has exhibited in other galleries but apparently it’s been a full-on 15 years since his last comprehensive public show. That he’s having one now is largely due to Villalobos before the ink was signed: “That was one of the conditions from Ralph,” Waldman explains. “Ralph had said, ‘Well, if we open again, I really want you to show your work here.’”
Soup for the soul
El Cuervo is not a spacious gallery, but nonetheless Waldman has 40 pieces he’s intending to squeeze in.
“There’s going to be wall pieces and freestanding pieces. We’re hoping to add some gizmos from the ceiling and really, really do this up.”
However, despite limited space, “There’s one (work) that’s basically the entire back wall,” he notes, referring to “Step Right Up,” which took four months to construct. As stated in a press release sent out by the gallery, “The challenge of building a piece that size, with its five-feet by six-and-a-half-feet of emotion, was an exercise in self-inventory.”
The emotion just referred to has many sources, the prominent one being the death this past January of his father.
The title of the show, “Flea Circus,” could easily have been subtitled “Remnants of a Lost Penny Arcade.” Villalobos says of Waldman’s work that it’s “like a dark carnival ride through the depths of his soul.” And, as the artist himself points out, “I grew up around antiques and see the soul and stories in older items, so when art entered my life it seemed a natural progression to give them the same worn appearance.”
I’m under the impression that many of the pieces have moving parts and are wired not only for motion but have sound and flashing lights. In this sense, “Flea Circus” is reminiscent of Bill Sandel’s work featured in “Very Cinematic Narrative,” the two-person show (with Cynda Valle) that was held last January in the Manhattan Beach Art Center (my Jan. 5 article was titled “Toys in the Attic”).
“Flea Circus” conjures up that same wistful vibe of midways and seedy amusement parks.
“That’s kind of the running theme of the show,” Waldman says. “There’s a lot of old, kind of vending machines that you could imagine located right outside the freak show. I had a little fascination for all the old carnivals and all the old circus kind of imagery. So that’s really kind of a constant throughout.”
Some artists, of course, make assemblage pieces out of whatever’s at hand, regardless of how old or how new. But that’s clearly not Waldman’s style.
“I always think that when people make a contemporary version of it out of contemporary objects that it lacks warmth. It’s kind of a plastic, sterile feeling. I mentioned about the antiques. I had been raised by folks who were extreme antique collectors. Every weekend we were at the antique malls and the flea markets. As much as I hated it as a kid it definitely got its hooks in me. Now the look of something that’s brand new just leaves me kind of uneasy.”
Because it seems unfinished, and is a job best left to the passage of time, during which these objects can mature, and acquire a kind of grace or patina and resonance.
Waldman agrees. “There’s stories; there’s a soul about them. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about for me. I’m just the narrator.”
But perhaps something else can be glimpsed coming up through the work itself, and one may recall what Villalobos described as a “dark carnival ride.”
Years ago, Waldman’s drinking “brought up a lot of dark, heavy things. Once I got married, once I got sober, those dark heavy things disappeared. But you’d be surprised, when you almost lose your boy and you do lose your wife, and you have to relearn everything and those dark, kind of scared nervous feelings come back.” He pauses. “So, yeah, it goes into these vintage objects.
“And if you can find that balance,” Waldman says, implying it’s from this place inside of him that his art finds its strength and reason for being, “then that’s pretty much where I’ve been for the last five years.”
Flea Circus: The Art of Mark Waldman, opens with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday at El Cuervo Gallery, 417 Main St., El Segundo. Through August 12. And mark your calendar for Thursday, July 20, when El Cuervo and other galleries will be open from 5 to 9 p.m. for the second of this summer’s El Segundo Art Walks. (310) 335-9928 or go to elcuervogallery.com. ER