“Los Angeles beckons teenagers to come to her on buses,” sings the band Soul Coughing in a song called “Screenwriter’s Blues.” Besides being literally true, the same lack of imagination applies to anyone who looks for the reactions of others before rendering an opinion: the copycats and the skittish; the birdbrains and the sheep; the neophytes and the misfits, all of whom seem to be drawn to my otherwise great city. It’s partly why the gallery circuit in L.A. is both easy to make fun of and highly entertaining. The New York scene, despite its pseudo-blasé exclusivity, demands slightly more preparation from its patrons, peddlers, and poseurs, but in the end the two just aren’t that different. Like anything else these days, if you want substance, you gotta hunt for it.
Arriving at the Merry Karnowsky gallery last Saturday night for “Vivian Maier: A Life Discovered,” we found event host Tim Roth walking the line of people waiting out on the sidewalk. “It’s amazing,” he marveled at the turnout, recording us with his iPhone. The crowd was surprisingly large, and reminding myself not to be annoyed by that was critical as I watched Maier’s legacy collide with the Circus Circus buffet crowd. This is a good thing, I told myself, knowing we’d be spending more than an hour inching toward the gallery door for even less freedom of movement and breathable air once we got in: these people are here to pay tribute. It’s even okay that the young woman behind us is explaining this fortuitous find to her friends with an uninformed, “she didn’t get too famous while she was alive, but she died recently and now everyone wants to see her work.” And it’s a really good thing I fought off the urge to whip around and unleash the fury of my long-perfected “Psh!” ‘Cause what’s my excuse? How many openings have I attended for the sole purpose of getting drunk for free?
Exactly. Inside the gallery, garish self-promoters mingled with trophy creatures of every stripe, and there was enough beard hair to signify an end to the facial fur holocaust. And still none of this surprised or especially disappointed until my own iPhone pics confirmed something I found truly cringe-worthy: that precious few of these “art-lovers”– even those I’d pegged as true Maier fans outside – were actually looking at the woman’s work. Almost everyone in attendance had his or her back to the walls, and the chatter that filled the gallery was stupefyingly inane.
Admittedly, to have expected otherwise was kinda naïve on my part, and for the moment it was nice to let the presence of Vivian Maier’s intimate passion rob me of at least a little of my cynicism. But having watched this become a lesser phenomenon than it deserves to be over the past year, I know I have to hand Maier off to the world of Axe Body Spray and $1000 baby strollers. So I’ll bid the now commercial version of her work farewell and walk away smugly satisfied that I’ve never referred to Maier by only her first name as though we were old friends – something I heard so frequently amid the me-me-me clamor it was what finally drove me out of the gallery.
And what of John Maloof, discoverer of Maier’s work and the reason we have it to celebrate in the first place? I couldn’t identify him, and I know what he looks like. The gallery made no mention of how he found the photos, nary a word on the work that went into bringing this as-yet-unknown gem into the public sphere was said. To that girl behind me in line – and to countless others who understood what they were there to see even less than she did – Maloof was simply another byline, one more “from the collection of…” asshole. You wanna know the details? Shell out $40 for a book.
Me, I’ll take my love of Vivian Maier’s story and photos to someone it can benefit most: a receptive young person capable of truly valuing a fascinating and rare example of self-determining womanhood. For now, though, the hunt for such substance goes on.